Encountering Sharpe’s Longclaw on the Kinangop Plateau
NAIROBI, KENYA — There’s a raw edge to the chilly, damp air high on the Kinangop Plateau. It has rained today, for the first time in two months or more, but the sun glows through a passing thin patch in the clouds. “You have brought the rain,” joke my new Kenyan friends, and we laugh.
A small bird flutters low over the richly colored grassland, alighting on a perch. It’s a black-and-white Common Fiscal, an abundant African shrike, not the bird we’re searching for but a welcome sight all the same.
Practiced eyes soon spot a movement among the grasses, and then I see it too, a small brownish bird running on the ground. I raise my binoculars as it pauses. It is facing left, standing still, and I quickly take in its bright yellow throat and underparts and the fine black streaks across its breast. It’s a chunky, pipit-like bird with a slender bill and a short tail.
It preens and then appears to consume a small insect, all with the casual air of a bird enjoying an interruption in the rain. Then it flies a short distance, stopping again but remaining beyond the reach of my camera lens.
As raindrops start to fall again, and evening nears, I realize that this is one of the rarest birds I have ever seen.
The Kikuyu people, who live on the plains with this bird, call it gathonjo ka werũ-ini, which means a weaver-like bird that lives only in the grasslands. (And no, unfortunately I couldn’t pronounce that properly without a little more practice.)
The bird’s English name is Sharpe’s Longclaw, which commemorates Richard Bowdler Sharpe, a 19th century British ornithologist.
Sharpe’s Longclaw is most often placed in the genus Macronyx with other African longclaws (named for the elongated claws on their hind toes). Some authors, however, place it and the southern African Yellow-breasted Pipit (another declining resident of high-altitude grasslands) together in the genus Hemimacronyx. This is the approach taken by the Internet Bird Collection, which follows the Handbook of the Birds of the World (see the Sharpe’s Longclaw account).
Sharpe’s Longclaw is a resident of high-altitude grasslands in western Kenya. It is not known to occur anywhere else on the planet. If you read 10,000 Birds, you’ll have heard quite a lot about Sharpe’s Longclaw and the Kinangop Plateau, and it’s a topic I’ve written about before too, though I hadn’t seen the bird myself until last week.
I wasn’t able to get any photos, but Charlie Moores has some great ones.
The birds depend on high-altitude tussock grasslands for feeding and nesting grounds. Their habitat is dwindling fast, and the species is endangered as a result. The global population may now be as low as 2,000 birds, according to Dominic Kimani, a Kenyan scientist studying the species.
If habitat loss and degradation are not halted and reversed, this species will disappear.
The Kinangop Plateau covers about 300 square miles (770 km sq) between the forested Aberdare Mountains in the east and the Rift Valley in the west. You can see it in the map below. Try switching between “terrain” and “satellite” views to get a feel for the topography.
This is high country, lying more than 2,400 meters (7,874 feet) above sea level. Historically, it was a cool, often misty montane grassland. The human population consisted of small Kikuyu settlements, and the Maasai sometimes brought their cattle to graze the plains (the name Kinangop, in fact, is of Maasai origin and refers to a cold, flat, wet place).
The grasslands of the Kinangop Plateau are one of the last remaining strongholds for Sharpe’s Longclaw and provide important habitat for other species as well. BirdLife International designates the Kinangop grasslands as one of about 60 Important Bird Areas in Kenya.
The Kinangop grasslands were largely uninhabited before the 1960s, but today, they are threatened by a growing human population that depends on the land for food and income. The grasslands are disappearing fast, and with them, the Sharpe’s Longclaw.
But there is hope, and that’s what we’ll be looking at in my next post on this topic.