The last stronghold of the crane

Thomson’s Falls, Nyahururu. Below: A flock of Grey-crowned cranes at Lake Ol Bolossat. PHOTO| RUPI MANGAT

What you need to know:

  • A bird of the wetlands, Morrison reveals that the Grey-crowned crane population has crashed by 80 per cent in the last two decades as wetlands are drained to pave way for buildings, farms and roads – yet our very existence depends on wetlands functioning as sponges to soak in the rain and release it gradually into the rivers and lakes.
  • “From January to June the cranes raise their young,” Ndung’u continues. “From July to December they are breeding, laying their nests deep in the swamps.”
  • A beautiful greyish bird with dark black tips on the wing flies close to the ground. It is a Pallid harrier – a bird of the open plains and marshes. It flies low to surprise its prey – things like lizards, mice and even small birds.

It’s busy, busy, busy. 500 Grey-crowned cranes are pecking for grains in front of us in the recently harvested wheat field by the shores of Lake Ol Bolossat, stretched in the shadows of the Aberdares.

“The cranes are here all the time,” says George Ndung’u, founder of the Nyahururu Bird Club, Olbolossat Biodiversity Conservation Group and recently, the Crane Conservation Volunteers. “It is the largest flock we have,” says Ndung’u, who has been monitoring the bird for almost 20 years.

I can hear Kerryn Morrison from South Africa gasp. She is the Africa partnership manager for the International Crane Foundation and Endangered Wildlife Trust. It’s the largest flock she has seen in her two decades of research work on the crane. It goes to say something about the site.

The birds are a medley of colours, bursting into a jig every so often with the unmistakable reverberating call that at one time was heard all over the continent. The Grey-crowned crane is now listed endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) yet it features prominently on the crest of Nairobi county council and the emblem of Uganda.

A bird of the wetlands, Morrison reveals that the Grey-crowned crane population has crashed by 80 per cent in the last two decades as wetlands are drained to pave way for buildings, farms and roads – yet our very existence depends on wetlands functioning as sponges to soak in the rain and release it gradually into the rivers and lakes.

“From January to June the cranes raise their young,” Ndung’u continues. “From July to December they are breeding, laying their nests deep in the swamps.”

A beautiful greyish bird with dark black tips on the wing flies close to the ground. It is a Pallid harrier – a bird of the open plains and marshes. It flies low to surprise its prey – things like lizards, mice and even small birds.

Our next spot is further down the main road to the southern side of the lake. With no rain it is shallow and shrunken in size. In 2008, the lake was listed as the 61st Important Bird Area in Kenya giving it global status as a habitat for birds of global conservation concern. The other IBAs in central Kenya are the Aberdare Mountains, Kianyaga Valleys, Kikuyu Escarpment Forest, Kinangop Grasslands, Mt Kenya and the Mukurweini Valleys. The honk of a hippo tells us that the river horse is about to emerge from the lake to feed on the grasses around the lake.

By the time we’re back in Nyahururu, the streetlights are on and there’s traffic. When Joseph Thomson walked this way in 1883 on his epic journey inland, he met two warring Maasai clans. When he asked what the place was called - they replied ‘naiurru-ur’ – for waterfalls. Thomson heard it as ‘ururu’ from which Nyahururu gets its name. He named the falls here  Thomson’s Falls, after himself.

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