Working for birds in Africa

Kenya: A Natural History

Sat, 24/08/2013 - 15:09 -- abc_admin
Stephen Spawls & Glen Mathews, 2012. London, UK: T. & A. D. Poyser. 448 pp, 200 illustrations. Hardback. ISBN 978-1-4081-3471-9.

A great addition to East African literature, Kenya: A Natural History provides an engaging account of the nation’s history, fauna and flora, and acts as a counterblast to an increasing array of specialist field guides. Although they are clearly critical for species identification, and support growing networks of citizen scientists, there is still room for generous natural history writing. So this is a welcome surprise, and Stephen Spawls and Glen Mathews are to be congratulated on into such an elegant publication.

Thirteen chapters cover the country’s geology, fossils and hominins (not hominids), its peoples, landscape, climate and weather, vegetation and habitats, followed by the fauna: mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fish, the arthropods, and, I was pleased to see, the marine environment (too often overlooked in the land of the ‘big five’), with a final chapter on conservation, coincidentally and perhaps a little wryly, numbered thirteen.

Each stands alone, so the book can be dipped into easily, but usefully they also follow a broadly similar pattern with an introductory section, and a history of the research, both historic and contemporary, citing a comprehensive range of references, including online. Italicised quotes open each chapter too, often in Swahili, including the advice, Dudu liumalo silipe kidole, urging us not to extend our fingers to insects that bite, or indeed, to evil people. 

ABC members will find that a little under 10% - 41 pages - is dedicated to the birds, with a general background, including origins and spread; a detailed review of the species numbers, migrations and zoogeography, and then their ecology, communities and populations, concluding with a history of Kenya’s ornithology, the cultural value of birds, an account of Kenya’s avifauna, its history, and finally a section on the literature.

As elsewhere, the majority of the excellent photographs in the bird chapter are taken by Stephen Spawls. Looking at them, it is easy to recall one’s delight at first encounters with species like Lilac-breasted Roller Coracias caudatus, White-fronted Bee-eater Merops bullockoides and Black-headed Gonolek Laniarius erythrogaster. With more than 1,100 species in Kenya, its birding is almost unparalleled. Indeed, the World Big Day record of 342 still stands from 1996 (two years later than the authors’ state, and including all of Kenya, not just Lake Baringo) and the country continues to attract large numbers of birder tourists.

Martin Woodcock’s fine cover painting of zebras surrounded by foraging swallows provides a simple reminder that Kenya’s habitats play a critical role in the lives of seasonal visitors, from the hirundines to the numerous other species that form the core of dawn choruses across much of Eurasia.

For me, the chapter on amphibians bought back happy memories of frog-hunting in Sokoke Forest with the leading Africa herpetologist, Bob Drewes, and particularly watching Foam-nest Tree Frogs Chiromantis xerampelina, whose eggs sacs first shelter their eggs and then release tadpoles into the water below. They are also host to a remarkable robber frog, the Spiny Leaf-folding Frog Afrixalus fornasinii, which eagerly eats the eggs of its arboreal neighbour. Just the names of these amphibians are a pleasure, and include another coastal species, Bunty’s Dwarf Toad Mertensophryne micranotis, which lays its eggs in old coconut and snail shells. Such details fill the pages, and are a source of constant revelation. It would be great to see similar books for other African countries emerge from this publisher.

All in all, Spawls and Mathews provide a strong sense of authors deeply in tune with Kenya’s natural history, and clearly draw on their long friendship, and their well-honed teaching and safari-guiding skills. Throughout they sustain a strong, often amusing, narrative voice. It is easy to imagine copies strewn throughout the lodges, camps, colleges and schools of Kenya, and wider East Africa, bringing insight, and setting off a storm of independent enquiries. At the end of their preface, the authors urge us to ‘Get out there, and get to know Kenya,’ and ‘Experience the thrill of Kenya’s wild open spaces’. It is a lifetime’s work, and surely Kenya: A Natural History could (and should) inspire a new generation of dedicated naturalists. 

John Fanshawe

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