Kenya, Garissa-Madogashi Road, 15th - 17th October 2011

Published by Charles Davies (daviesc1973 AT

Participants: Charles Davies, Charles Gitau


Garissa is the capital of Kenya’s wild North-East Province, a huge dryland area fronting Somalia. Although most of the province is difficult and unwise to visit, Garissa town itself is only a 5-hour drive from Nairobi along a good, paved road starting in Thika. I travelled this weekend with Charles Gitau, who is interning with the Kenya National Museums—thanks, Charles, for keeping me company on this lonely stretch of road!

After leaving Nairobi before dawn on the 15th (to avoid the traffic), we stopped at the Blue Posts River Lodge—supposedly home to Grey-Olive Greenbul and Purple-crested Turaco (both of which I’ve failed to see there on several visits). After eating breakfast during a heavy downpour, the rain subsided to a drizzle and we walked around the hotel grounds. The highlights were a single White-headed Barbet, and flocks of African Citril and African Golden-Weaver, as well as a couple of Spot-flanked Barbet (Blue Posts seems to be a good spot for this) in a fruiting tree.

The Garissa road east from Thika winds through the lower foothills of the Kenyan highlands, becoming gradually drier. About 50km after the town of Mwingi, you’re in the dry, flat lowlands—low thornbush, mostly Commiphora—and the road just goes straight, with only a few Somali settlements (some relatively new judging by their absence from the map) to break the long stretch to the Tana River. Interestingly, we counted about 12 police checkpoints between Thika and Mwingi, but only 3 afterwards. We were visiting just after the Spanish aid workers were abducted in the Dadaab Refugee Camp (over 100km east of Garissa) and many army jeeps and several tanks on flatbed trucks were also driving along the road, heading towards Somalia.

The Tana River is the “oasis” in the eastern semi-deserts of Kenya, Garissa is a bustling market town, probably swelled by refugees since the drought earlier this year. After crossing the concrete bridge over the Tana River, our first stop was the police station to pick up an armed escort, which is strongly recommended further along the road. We were surprised to find a group of White-headed Mousebird (together with Blue-naped) in a fruiting bush in the police station itself; we could approach to about a foot away, but being the police station, we weren’t allowed to take photos.

The police escorts were good value, especially one called Stephen, who even asked his colleagues about Collared Lark spots the first night and came back with some information.

Garissa is blessed with two good hotel options—Nomad Palace Hotel (, note they have branches both in Nairobi and Garissa) and a newer place—one of the policemen informed me it is even more upscale—called Almond Resort ( We stayed at Nomad Palace—a 4 or 5 storey arrangement in a courtyard. No alcohol, but good Kenyan and Western food—many aid workers seem to stop here on their way east to Dadaab—air con rooms (which is a huge relief in this area) and even football on TV.

After lunch, we journeyed east about 10-15km to the point where the tarmac ends, and dirt roads fork east to Dadaab and north to Madogashi. It’s all red sand country up here, and Acacia turnbulliana, supposedly the haunt of the Collared Lark, starts only 20km from the fork. We ended up chasing after a lot of Red-backed Scrub-Robins that sounded like how we imagined the lark would sound. Otherwise, many of the birds of the less accessible northern desert regions of Kenya are common in this area, like Fischer’s and Golden-breasted Starlings, Vulturine Guineafowl and Pygmy Batis.

The area had obviously got some rain, and a lot of the roads were flooded. Flooded sand… not a good combination. At one point, I’d passed through a particularly deep flooded section on the way out, and took an alternative route… as I entered the water, one of the policemen said “This might be dangerous”… stupid me, thinking he was talking about the village we were nearby, I entered and promptly got stuck…4:30pm. I was starting to panic mildly until a Japanese NGO vehicle turned up. The driver didn’t want to stick around, but was persuaded to return 1km down the road for a rope, and pulled me out. Good to avoid a night on the road in this area—thanks to my rescuers!

The next morning, Stephen (who had consulted with his police colleagues) recommended driving a bit further. I think one of them must have escorted Brian Finch—whose report on the Collared Lark in this area inspired me to give it a try myself (,1236,1252).

The first interesting sighting of the day was a female Heuglin’s Bustard, flushed off the road in a very open, desert area about 50km from Garissa. We found another—maybe the same individual—a few km away on the way back. After about 75km, the road forks in the middle of a village, the left fork travels north-west to Garba Tula and the right fork (which we took) north to Madogashi. After the fork followed an atrocious, flooded stretch of the road, involving numerous, slow detours through the bush. The soil was even redder than before, but we couldn’t find any more Acacia turnbulliana country like we’d driven through close to Garissa. But after 90km, in pure Commiphora bush, a rising whistle on the top of a bush stopped us—a Collared Lark. Eventually, we found 4 in this area. They were performing their flappet display then landing on a bushtop to sing. And sometimes they stopped displaying and became completely invisible for half an hour or so… good luck that one was calling right by the road as we drove past. A few other interesting birds in the same area, like a group of Scaly Chatterer, Spotted Thick-knee and a few of the white-bellied northern race of Variable Sunbird.

The pools on the road were attractive ecosystems in their own right—hundreds of Ring-necked Dove (the commonest bird in this area) and Black-bellied Sandgrouse, and some waders like Three-banded Plover and a couple of Green Sandpipers. After turning round at a village after about 100km, the pools on the way back to the Garba Tula fork were heaving with whydahs—mostly Eastern Paradise-Whydah, but we also found a breeding male Steel-blue Whydah, seemingly well outside the range shown in the book. A couple of Cream-colored Courser accompanied a herd of goats.

The final stop on the way out today was a more extensive flooded area by the side of the road, about 40km from Garissa. We didn’t see much in the swamp itself, but a couple of Somali (Long-billed) Crombec were working the grove of flat-topped Acacia surrounding it, and a single Gabar Goshawk also entered and perched briefly. Instead of travelling back to the Dadaab fork, we instead took a right turn that travelled on a slightly better road down to the Tana River. Plenty of Acacia turnbulliana along this road, also, but no Collared Lark; our best sighting was a single Mouse-colored Penduline-Tit. Driving south along the east bank of the Tana River into Garissa, it was settlements all the way (with little in the way of wildlife apart from camels) and more deep flooded areas of the road on the outskirts of the town itself; as we drove through the “water”, I let pure, clean images fill my mind—flowers, fields of grass and pure mountain streams.

Just a short trip out the next morning before the long drive back to Nairobi. We concentrated on the red sands area of Acacia turnbulliana only 20-30km from Garissa (10-20km past the Dadaab fork) and again failed to find Collared Lark in this area, but were rewarded with a fast-moving Pringle’s Puffback in an area of degraded Commiphora (the locals had cut some of the thorn branches—to make corrals for goats? After dropping the police off, we set off back to Nairobi feeling slightly relieved after a successful trip to one of the remoter parts of Kenya.

One of the photos of singing Collared Lark is posted on the African Bird Club image database ( and the calls are available on Xeno-Canto Africa.

I can also provide photos of the following species on request: Collared Lark (displaying), Heuglin's Bustard, Scaly Chatterer, Variable (White-bellied) Sunbird, Somali Courser, Steel-blue Whydah, Martial Eagle (juv), Fischer's Starling, Pink-breasted Lark (singing), Rosy-patched Bushshrike (singing), Pringle's Puffback, Green-winged Pytilia pair (eating termites), Somali Crombec.

Species Lists

Garissa-Madogashi Road

• Ostrich (Somali)—1
• Vulturine Guineafowl—about 80
• Crested Francolin—2 (by the Tana River)
• Sacred Ibis—about 50 (in Garissa)
• Marabou Stork—about 100 (mostly in Garissa)
• Black-breasted Snake-Eagle—1
• Eastern Chanting-Goshawk—about 12
• Gabar Goshawk—1
• Shikra—2
• Martial Eagle—1 juvenile
• Pygmy Falcon—1
• Peregrine Falcon—2
• Heuglin’s Bustard—2 females
• White-bellied Bustard—1 male
• Buff-crested Bustard—2
• Spotted Thick-knee—2 (Collared Lark area)
• Spur-winged Plover—about 15
• Three-banded Plover—2 (pools on the road)
• Green Sandpiper—2 (pools on the road)
• Cream-colored (Somali) Courser—2
• Black-faced Sandgrouse—about 70 (mostly pools on the road)
• African Mourning Dove—about 30 (especially in Garissa)
• Ring-necked Dove—about 1,000? lots and lots
• Laughing Dove—about 25
• Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove—2
• Namaqua Dove—2
• White-bellied Go-away-bird—about 25
• Klaas’s Cuckoo—1 heard
• Little Swift—about 100
• African Palm-Swift—about 25
• White-headed Mousebird—5 (Garissa Police Station)
• Blue-naped Mousebird—about 25
• Little Bee-eater—3
• European Roller—2
• Abyssinian Scimitar-bill—1
• Red-billed Hornbill—6
• Eastern Yellow-billed Hornbill—8
• Von der Decken’s Hornbill—about 20
• African Gray Hornbill—1
• D’Arnaud’s Barbet—2
• Black-throated Barbet—2
• Nubian Woodpecker—1
• Cardinal Woodpecker—2
• Pygmy Batis—about 10 seen, many heard
• White Helmetshrike—6
• Brubru—6 and many heard
• Pringle’s Puffback—1 male
• Rosy-patched Bushshrike—about 20
• Taita Fiscal—1 (only!)
• White-rumped Shrike—8
• Fork-tailed Drongo—about 12
• African Paradise-Flycatcher—1 male (white phase)
• Pied Crow—2
• Collared Lark—4
• Pink-breasted Lark—about 75
• Chestnut-headed Sparrow-Lark—3
• Barn Swallow—2
• Mouse-colored Penduline-Tit—1
• Common Bulbul (dodsoni)—about 60
• Yellow-breasted Apalis—6
• Red-fronted Warbler—3
• Pale Prinia—6
• Yellow-vented Eremomela—1
• Northern Crombec—4
• Somali Crombec—2
• Pale Flycatcher—6
• African Gray Flycatcher—12
• Red-backed Scrub-Robin—about 30
• Northern Wheatear—3
• African Bare-eyed Thrush—3
• Scaly Chatterer—4
• Rueppell’s Glossy-Starling—4
• Golden-breasted Starling—about 20
• Superb Starling—about 12
• Fischer’s Starling—about 80
• Kenya Violet-backed Sunbird—5
• Hunter’s Sunbird—3
• Variable Sunbird (albiventris)—7
• Western Yellow Wagtail—3
• Somali Bunting—4
• House Sparrow—about 10 (towns)
• Parrot-billed Sparrow—1
• Yellow-spotted Petronia—12
• Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver—about 30
• White-headed Buffalo-Weaver—about 20
• White-browed Sparrow-Weaver—6 (Garissa)
• Black-capped Social-Weaver—5 (1 group)
• Green-winged Pytilia—3 (2 feeding on termites)
• Eastern Paradise-Whydah—about 20
• Steel-blue Whydah—1 male
• Giraffe (Reticulated)—3
• Gerenuk—about 15
• Kirk’s Dik-Dik—about 50
• Honey Badger—2 (1 adult and 1 juvenile)
• Unstriped Ground-Squirrel—about 15

Blue Posts River Lodge (short visit)

• Sacred Ibis—1
• Hadada Ibis—2
• Red-eyed Dove—about 5
• African Green Pigeon—2
• Klaas’s Cuckoo—1
• Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater—3
• Spot-flanked Barbet—2
• White-headed Barbet—1
• Pied Crow—10
• Common Bulbul—15
• African Yellow White-eye—2
• Amethyst Sunbird—1
• Bronze Sunbird—3
• Variable Sunbird—about 8
• African Pied Wagtail—4
• African Citril—6
• Baglafecht Weaver—2
• African Golden-Weaver—10
• Red-cheeked Cordonbleu—4
• Bronze Mannikin—4