We have been up since 5am — to search the 320km² Dakatcha Woodland for Clarke’s weaver in its nest. It is claimed that nobody has ever seen this rare bird’s nest so if we do find it, it will be an extremely lucky day for us.
We are on our way to Arba Mukenge, the wetland where Fleur Ng’weno, a naturalist, and the team from Dakatcha Woodland Conservation Group spotted nesting Clarke’s weavers in March. At that time there were beacon shards scattered on the ground.
The beacon had been erected by developers who wanted to turn the woodland into an exotic jatropha plantation that would have driven the bird to extinction.
However, the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) rejected the project. We arrive to find a dried up wetland. The nests in the sedges in the swamp are empty.
We have missed the fledglings by a whisker and the disappointment is audible — again this would have been one of the first sightings of young Clarke’s weavers in their nest.
According to Fleur’s calculations, if the Clarke’s weavers laid eggs in this wetland on March 24 and 25, they must have hatched in the first week of April and flown off mid-month — a few days before we get there.
However, two members of our group — Julius Mwambire and Peter Wario — were fortunate to have seen adult birds feeding the nestlings the previous week. To console us, Samson Barisa, a member of one of the woodland conservation groups narrates the legend of the wetland. “One day, about 50 years ago, a Watha hunter was waiting for elephants to come to the wetland.
“The Watha, once also called the Waliangulu, were famed elephant hunters who used poison tip arrows to hunt elephants. In another part of the woodland, another hunter called Mukenge had shot an elephant with his arrow. The elephant and his herd dropped dead on reaching the wetland.
“The hunters came to the dead elephant, and cutting the animal open, saw the shaft with Mukenge’s sign on it. So they knew that the elephant’s ivory belonged to Mukenge. The hunters went on to feast on the elephant meat and when Mukenge arrived two days later, he found the meat gone but the tusks still intact. Hence the place became known as Arba Mukenge or Mukenge’s elephant.
My grandfather was one of those who ate the elephant meat,” Samson says.
We continue searching for wetlands in the woodland and cover groves of forest on foot for up to three hours. Walking the narrow path to another wetland dubbed Soso Ijara (place to build a hide) Samson suddenly stops, bends, and pushes grass aside to reveal a cleverly hidden trap.
It is a piece of rope with a loose noose secured under twigs in a little depression. The rope is then tied to a wire that is secured to a twig. “Now watch,” he says, placing his finger in the noose that tightens around it and in a split second yanks his arm in the air, “That’s how the dikdik gets caught,” he says.
We follow trails of golden-rumped Sengi (elephant- shrews), dikdik, and bush duikers, and watch out for the safari ants. I am amazed at the lichen hanging like old men’s beards on the trees. A beautiful monitor lizard lies dead on the road.
The birds in question prove elusive but on the forest floor we watch hunting ants out on a raid, carrying the termites in their mouths to their nests. “It is said that seeing hunting ants carrying their termite quarry brings good luck,” Fleur tells me.
And they do. Driving out of Dakatcha Woodland after a few days, the first text message Fleur receives on her mobile phone is that David Ngala saw flocks of Clarke’s weavers coming to a seasonal wetland on the edge of Arabuko-Sokoke forest the previous day.
Nearly 100 kilometres away from Arba Mukenge we see flocks of 200 fly in from the nearby forest after a two-hour wait. “It’s poetic justice,” quips Fleur, “for David has been searching for the Clarke’s weavers’ nesting site longer than I have.”