A night in the Mara

Birding on Global Big Day at Mara Serena on May 13 2023. Photo | Rupi Mangat

What you need to know:

This is what it takes to celebrate Global Big Day in the Mara Triangle

It’s pitch dark on the vast savannah grasslands of the Mara save for the Milky Way blazing a path across the sky. We’re on a night game drive with Emmanuel the driver-guide from Mara Serena Safari Lodge who is also a bird guide. Our mission in the Mara Triangle is to log as many species of birds on the eBird app in a period of 24 hours for the Global Big Day. 

GBD is a citizen science project where anybody – even an amateur birder - can sign in on the eBird app and Log in the birds they see. Mara Serena is our chosen venue because it offers night game drives and is perfect to search for nocturnal birds.

The Mara night skies

Suddenly the plains are lit with the spotter light and what was invisible under the blanket of darkness is alive with hefty barrels chomping on the grass for their nightly feast. We’re surrounded by hippos from the Mara River!

We scan the plains and the skies for the owls and the nightjars, but they are elusive – and of all the days, on the Big Day! However, the night game drive is proving to be really exciting akin to being in a theatre with the spotlight.

A serval crosses the road and slinks into the grass, now lush with the recent rains. Soon the grass will be the magnet for the million-plus wildebeest to arrive from the Serengeti with their foals to mow it down.

The serval looks deceptively like a cheetah cub – easy to fool someone who has never seen a cheetah. Smaller than the cheetah, these wild cats only found in sub-Saharan Africa have the longest legs of any cat relative to their body size. 

The owls are really keeping a low profile – not even a hoot from them. Scanning the ground for the nightjars, the spotlight falls on a puff adder warming itself on the murram road. It’s not happy with the light, uncurls itself and slithers into the grass, coiling itself again. Again native to Africa, it’s a very venomous snake. We see two that night.

Hippo pod at Mara River on Global Big Day in Mara Traiangle on May 13 2023. Photo | Rupi Mangat

It’s an amazing show of light and darkness. The spotlight reveals the creatures of the night, especially the hippos. But the moment it’s turned away, everything is like an empty darkness. A swamp nightjar flies away in a split second.

Finally, we call it a night to return for a well-deserved feast at the lodge on the hill built like a Masai manyatta but with all creature comforts. It’s been an exciting stay mixing birding with the big game. During the day, the female leopard has her cub by the river bank gorging on a kill. A cheetah relaxes on the grass; the elephants relish the rain-fed grass after months of drought. 

We tick the Lappet-faced vulture which is the largest vulture near the leopard and the White-backed vulture roosting on the same tree for the night. The lions stay close to the river and the biggest crocodile that I’ve ever seen snoozes the day away.

Elephant mom and calf on Global Big Day in Mara Triangle on May 13 2023. Photo | Rupi Mangat

Back at the lodge, it’s tempting to spoil ourselves in the spa with the Healing Earth African brand that’s organic, cruelty-free and environmentally friendly. The cosmetic industry is one of the most polluting in the world. So to source brands that care for the planet and the people is a definite plus.

Savour Mara Serena

With the road tarmacked from Nairobi to Mara Sekenani Gate, you can arrive for lunch at Mara Serena if you leave Nairobi early morning. Or fly in an hour. The Mara Triangle has better roads and less traffic. From there you can drive up the Oloololo escarpment through Kilgoris, Lolgories to either Kisii or Kisumu. Discover new routes on a map.

You must have a high 4-wheel drive for better game viewing and binoculars so that you do not stress the wildlife by getting too close.

Log on to Global Big Day. It takes place in May and October every year.

You can be part of Global Big Day from home with the free eBird Mobile app. Your observations help better understand global bird populations with eBird Science.

On 13th May 2023, Kenya topped the charts in Africa and is 8th globally with 726 species of birds, an improvement from its 10th position during the previous GBD on 8th October 2022 with 703 species. 

Kenya is definitely high for bird tourism.