Home » The Birdman of Lake Baringo

The Birdman of Lake Baringo

by Douglas Anthony Cooper

(The first piece I ever published: a profile of the world’s champion birdwatcher. This appeared in The Idler in 1988.)


Terry Stevenson lives in the Kenyan Rift Valley.  It is low land, near the equator and well into the interior, a formula for dry, choking heat.  The soil parches into red dust, and the air, bewildered by sunstroke, wheels it up into dust devils and storms; much of the land ends up in the lake.  

Lake Baringo is a subtle shade of brown.  The walls of the Great Rift Valley are ever-present, as they are in much of East Africa:  it is the longest valley in the world, one big volcanic crack in the continent, a sign that a piece of Africa is crossing the Indian Ocean.  Around Lake Baringo the walls are mostly cliffs of basalt, which is to say brown.  On a good day, the sky is brownish.  It sounds like the kind of place one avoids in this life and is banished to in the next.  But it is a magical place:  a lake that thinks it’s a desert.

Fourteen years ago, when Terry was twenty-one, he walked from Maralal to the lake on whose shores he now lives.  Rumours about a road are greatly exaggerated, but there was certainly nothing of the kind before — some hundred miles of dust, with several species of thorn trees, mostly carnivorous:  and seven drops of water, each more poisonous than the last.  The Pokot tribe, who have rejected much of civilization, wander the landscape amid herds of thirsty humped cattle.  If you point binoculars in a warrior’s direction, he may heave a spear through your spleen.  To walk from Maralal to Lake Baringo is lunacy.  Terry did it to see a few birds.

But Terry likes the Pokot; and they are likeable, if they like you. They like Terry.  He is compact, having spurned the flab of civilization.  His binoculars are perpetually trained upon birds, not warriors, and he has the uncanny ability to walk among the thorns without looking, without even thinking, and without leaving bits of himself behind:  a rare skill outside the indigenous tribes.


Terry Stevenson is the world’s champion birdwatcher.

Everybody knows that birdwatching is no longer the domain of somnolent fuds, of ancient, creaking myopics. Everybody knows this.

People often ask, “Is birdwatching anything like the ’Nam?”

Terry recalls the second time they ran the Kenyan birdwatching competition.  Reputations were at stake; there was a chance at a world’s record.  Every team had three members: one to spot and identify the bird, one to verify the sighting, and one to record the species.  Terry was the leader, John Fanshawe was verifying, and Andy Roberts (who races cars when he’s not birding) was recording and simultaneously driving.

Terry and John were standing upon the back of the car with their heads out the roof hatch.  Andy was driving quickly, much more so than the law permits in a game park, but they had a special permit for the tournament.  Without warning, the rubber toggles that held the steel hatch in place broke loose, and the thing sailed up at some fifty knots.  John and Terry were standing side by side, but John’s head was an inch forward.  He caught the hatch full on the supra-orbital ridge and went down.

Just then, Terry spotted a Long-tailed Fiscal Shrike. Lanius cabinisi! They did not have one yet.

Terry reached down and grabbed his wounded companion by the lapels. Pressing the delirious head against the window, he screamed, “Long-tailed Fiscal Shrike!”

Andy hit the brakes. John groaned.

“Long-tailed Fiscal Shrike,” Terry urged, pressing the bruised forehead into the glass.

“Long-tailed Fiscal Shrike,” John murmured.

Andy recorded it. Birding is something like the ’Nam.

It had begun as a game.  In February, 1984, Terry and two fellow birders decided to have an informal go at the world’s record.  Competitive birding is a major sport in America.  Kenya, however, ranks with Peru as the finest birdwatching territory in the world, and Lake Baringo has one of the most varied, and certainly the most accessible of bird populations in Kenya. A birding event in Lake Baringo might challenge the record.

How does one evaluate birding?  Generally, a record is based on the number of species spotted in twenty-four hours.  Verification consists of having a second person see the bird identified, an enjoyable task if you are not clipped by a slab of metal.  A third must be present to prevent collusion.  This person often writes down the names of birds as they are announced.  Do birders cheat?  Terry frowns.  People always ask that question.

“There’s just not point in doing it. I mean, if anybody ever found out, you’d be finished forever birdwise.”

Their first attempt was unofficial, just three men and a Mazda.  The record they were gunning for had been set in Zambia: a daunting two hundred and eight-eight species.  But this bid would be leisurely, with no other teams competing, and very little of the complex paraphernalia that would characterize their more serious efforts.  Terry and team spent the morning gathering species at Lake Baringo, then drove to Nakuru, another miraculous lake.


If you catch them before they depart for the surreal geysers of Lake Bogoria, you see a flock of Lesser Flamingos, sometimes a million strong, turning the surface of Lake Nakuru into a rosy froth.  It ought to be pointed out that the flamingo is not profoundly pink. It turns that colour in zoos. So would you, if somebody put that much keratin in your food.  Perhaps zookeepers commit this fraud in extenuation of lawn ornaments.  In any case, the mature Lesser Flamingo is almost white, with a tangerine patch on the outer wing. The effect of Nakuru, then, is pointillistic.

The birders no doubt made the flamingos nervous, but then these birds are ridden with anxiety. They step gingerly through the shallows, their legs bending backward at the knee, filtering algae through their bottom-heavy beaks. Near them on the bank lies a scattering of skulls and ribcages, mostly the remains of pinkish friends.  It seems they are always in the eye of their predator, the African Fish Eagle, a bird much like the American Bald Eagle.  The Fish Eagles, not in the least endangered, sit in the branches of broken acacias and watch the tense flamingos. When an eagle takes to the air, the entire pink mass breaks into a skittish frenzy. It is a tragic fact of the flamingo’s anatomy that it must run across the surface of the water before it can be airborne.  The eagle takes its time, circling, skimming low — shopping, essentially — then drops into the flock like a hammer.  The flock disperses in a foolish water-walk, and the enemy wings casually back to its roost with a flamingo in its talons.

It ought further to be noted that all birds bend backwards at the knee.  Or, rather, none do. What we think is the knee is really the ankle. The knee is generally invisible, within the torso of the bird. We have a few bones diverging from each ankle — call them feet — the bird has but one.  This is what looks like the bird’s calf.  The bird’s foot is really its toes.  Terry is surprised how few people know this.


When they had added the varied populace of Nakuru to their count at Naivasha, Terry and his friends drove to Nairobi to finish off the day.  It was all very informal, but by midnight, the team had a count of two hundred and ninety, two more species than the record set in Zambia.

Hearing of the trio’s exploits, Gertrude’s Gardens, a children’s hospital in Nairobi, asked the men if they would consider a larger, more structured event with the aim of raising money for charity. This appealing notion had its precedent in America, where large birding competitions often receive corporate sponsorship, towards charitable fund-raising. Within four months the team was ready to compete again. This time, however, they were up against one another: each original team member had found two others and formed a new team, with separate sponsorship. 

“Since we were doing it for this children’s hospital, we started using aeroplanes. I was sponsored by Toyota, so I had some quite speedy cars.”


“Well, I won it. With three hundred and eight.” Terry is curiously unmoved by this fact. Had he not beaten the official world’s record?  The problem, it seems, was an American team who had been competing at much the same time in Peru.  They had established a new record of three hundred and thirty-one. Their standards, however, were distressingly lax. Some species had been seen but not verified; well over a hundred species, it was rumoured, had not even been seen, merely heard. Terry’s record was on British rules, which are accepted almost worldwide, notably by the Guinness people. The only ornithologists who do not recognize these rules are the Americans, who have their own set of international birding guidelines. The American rules favoured the Peruvian record.

Though he was not bitter, Terry was unsatisfied with an achievement unrecognized by the United States of America. It is a significant birdwatching country: the Massachusetts society alone has thirty-seven thousand members. He was at least pleased by the financial success of the competition. It raised well over thirty thousand dollars for the hospital. Terry smiles. It covered the cost of a new wing.


They let the competition rest for two years. Terry continued with his work. Among other things, he is one of the resident ornithologists at the Lake Baringo Club, a resort hotel at what was once the edge of the lake. Baringo is capricious, as are many bodies of water in the semi-arid interior. It once rose voraciously until it seemed certain to swallow the hotel, and the owners, rather than resign their beautiful property to the great pigs of the deep, sold it for a song to the present owners. The water went down immediately. It is now a long swampy walk from the hotel to the temporary docks.

The hippopotamos, euphemistically designated “river horse,” is in fact the largest member of the pig family. It abounds in Lake Baringo, rising romantically in the evening to graze the lawns around the Club. More dangerous than the Man-eating Lions of Tsavo, who ate many of the crew putting through the first East African Railway; more dangerous than the Green Mamba, an indolent snake the colour of Snow White’s apple, who, it is suggested, can bring down an elephant with a bite on the trunk; and although clumsy on land, the hippo moves through the water like a crack Marine, and brings hundreds of unsuspecting boaters to grief. The only animal more feared is the African Buffalo, a massive, horned thing with an evil face and temper.


In the afternoons, Terry takes groups on birdwalks by the lake, dodging hippo prints. They start with a visit to the hotel dump, to stare with disgust at the Marabou Stork. Over five feet tall, the Marabou appalls the senses in ingenious ways. The head, shaved like that of a vulture or a British fascist, seems an uninterrupted dome of scar tissue. Yet this is not enough. The scar tissue continues: it stretches into a bloated bag of flesh that wobbles beneath the neck of the elders, a symbol of maturity and wisdom.

“Most people,” says Terry, “think the Marabou has white legs. In fact the legs are a greyish brown colour, but this is difficult to distinguish beneath the droppings which it dribbles down its legs to remain cool.” Some people underestimate the Marabou Stork. They think it is a cowardly scavenger, tearing at second-hand flesh after the great cats or garbage men have retreated. This is unfair. The Marabou has been known to kill flamingos, for example, sneaking up behind, arching its knife-like bill, and stabbing them in the back. As the walk continues, Terry becomes philosophical about Nature’s ugly stepsisters. It is easy enough to be entranced by the Lilac-breasted Roller, a symphony of turquoise feathers which can single-handedly prove the Argument by Design, but if you are serious about birding, sooner or later you must develop an obsession with “the dull little brown ones,” and the Marabou Stork.

Similarly, a good teacher must devote himself to his most ignorant students. It is obvious as we walk that Terry loves to show birds to people, even if they have never seen one before. And though he has squired about many stellar ornithologists, though he has delivered lectures to the most pedigreed societies in America, Terry happily entertains unenlightened questions from the thickest of tourists. The laziest queries are dealt with abruptly, but this is a legitimate pedagogical technique.

Terry has a detached air, as do most who walk through their territory without fear of serious challenge. It is the bemused not-quite-boredom that the lion evinces when faced with anything short of an exploding missile. Terry is not, however, overwhelmingly arrogant. He laments the British birders who come to Kenya too proud to be guided around. They leave with three hundred species after three expensive weeks, when Terry could have shown them six hundred. When Terry goes abroad, he is comfortable as the ignorant pupil. No, he is not unduly arrogant, though he carries himself with the unstudied poise of an Australian film star. Nor is he Australian.


Lacking the spotted chest and the formidable wingspan, Terry nevertheless has a dark brown crest on his head and might be confused with the Martial Eagle. In common with the Martial, he has eyes that can spot a bush-baby while circling a thousand feet above the ground.  These eyes are the greenish colour found on the Blue-eared Glossy Starling, but the latter is easily distinguishable by its size (nine inches). The birdwatcher has a smallish mouth, and his call is remarkable for a heavy Yorkshire accent. Terry is easy to spot after a birdwalk, at the Baringo bar, wearing khaki shirt and shorts, unlike most East African species.

Hilary Garland, his colleague at the Club, insists cheerfully that she is a fake ornithologist. What defines the real thing? “You have to be born to it. Terry, for instance — he lives and breathes birds. He knows everything there is to know about them.” As a ten-year-old in leaden, industrial Yorkshire, Terry found himself cycling out to the Ilkley Moor simply to get away. Mere cycling bored him, so Terry started looking at lapwings and crows and magpies. By the time he was fifteen, he was obsessed. Instead of studying for his “A” levels, he watched birds. He did achieve a few prerequisites, and went to London. For six years, he was an art student, specializing in sculpture and photography. Talking about his art work, Terry reveals what one suspected: at the centre of the fruitful obsession is that tiny core of madness.


His art merged with his birdwatching. One might expect Terry’s art to be like Audubon’s or Bateman’s (Bateman once hired Terry to help him find the Greater Kudu, a rare mammal required for a commissioned painting), but it is not. Once, Terry built a giant portable nest out of twigs, and tiptoed about in it, watching birds. Audubon would not have called this art. Terry loses all detachment to become the keen boy inventor when he describes his art work. In common with many British sculptors of the early seventies, he became interested in performance.

This was when conceptual art had reached the height of absurdity in California. The Californian theorists, ever serious, eschewed documentation of their performance art. One merely heard about it, by word of mouth. A typical description might be: 

“Dwayne had a friend tie him to a large kite, and the audience was invited to fly him in a thunderstorm. The crucial thing — the truly interesting thing about this was, not only was Dwayne at risk, but the audience — well, they didn’t know it, but they were at risk, too!” 

Terry’s work was more innocent, and more thoughtful. There were the nests, most of them capable of being worn; and piles of powder paint, which he invited the wind to erode and mix. His student projects were tremendously popular, if unsaleable. In his final year in London, Terry had five exhibitions, two in very good galleries. He cheerfully recalls that he sold nothing. After completing his first degree at the Chelsea School of Art, he won a travelling scholarship from the Slade. This took him to Kenya.


During his art education, he had never left birding far behind. Terry was amazed to find all these winged creatures in Kenya with hardly an ornithologist to explain them. There was the Williams and Arlett Field Guide, still the standard text on East African birds, but rife with embarrassing errors. There is a little warbler with a yellow breast which the guide lists as a Black-breasted Apalis. Terry laughs.

“If you go south, to Southern Kenya and southward, they have a yellow breast still, but some of them get a small blackish smudge in the centre of the breast — it’s just a little black spot — but they have the yellow breast band. Up here, they don’t have any black spot at all. ‘Black breasted Apalis’ is not really a good name for it.”

Terry has never had the good fortune to name a bird. He is often bewildered by the decisions made by those who do.

“Sometimes it makes sense. When they find a family that is a bit sparrow-like and a bit weaver like, but isn’t either, they create a new family. In Africa there is a large family of birds called sparrow weavers, But I heard recently of a bird discovered in China which they’re going to call the Yangtze Tit-Crow. Now, a tit’s about three or four inches long. It’s a tiny little thing that eats insects. And you know what a crow is. I’m dying to see this Yangtze Tit-Crow.”

Among namers of birds, the French ornithologist Verreaux inspires the greatest envy. Verreaux’s Eagle Owl is a fierce hunter, the largest owl in the world, and Verreaux’s Eagle is a black giant with yellow talons that sails on thermals and feeds on Rock Hyrax, the ubiquitous cliff dweller that looks like an oversized guinea-pig but whose closest relative is the elephant.

“Verreaux,” Terry muses, “was here a few centuries ago. He must have had some pretty good days.” And so Terry stayed on in Kenya, hoping for a few good days, and to become a guide himself, since the written guide was faulty. He began to learn the different species, their populations, ranges, seasons; to learn their mating habits and psychology.


Birds can be psychologically complex. There is the Greater Honeyguide, Odysseus among birds. “You may have heard of it. It actually comes up to you and does a song and dance in front of you and leads you to a beehive, and the idea is that, if you’re superstitious, you feel it’s very bad luck not to open it up — I can’t believe anyone actually does this, mind you — but you open up the beehive for the honey, and the Honeyguide benefits by eating all the larvae. It’s one of the few living things that can digest beeswax, so it eats all the little larvae in the honeycomb.

“Also, it has a very special relationship with an animal called the Honey Badger, or Ratel. Again, it goes and finds a Honey Badger — though God knows where: I’ve only ever seen two in ten years of safaris — and leads it up to a beehive and the Honey Badger digs in there and gets its meal.”

Terry has unusual skill at entering the psyche of the ibis and the dove. He is at first eager to deny a link between the faculties of an ornithologist, and of an artist, one discipline requiring memory, and the other the ability to generate ideas. But Terry has an empathetic imagination, hence, perhaps, the leaps in logic that characterize his art work, as much as his insight into the minds of birds.

“I spend a lot of time thinking, What’s it like to be a Marabou Stork? I do. Or when I’m walking down the shore I think, I wonder what it’s like to be sort of dabbling about in the mud like that Spoonbill. (“Mud” rhymes with “hood.”) 

“And then you imagine you’re that boat out there. Or a chair in your bathroom. You have a cold wet bum on you every once in a while, and a coat thrown over you. You can’t move anywhere.”

I suggest, politely, that such an idea might be visited upon anyone who spends too much time alone in the studio or in the bush. Terry agrees. “That’s why I paint myself blue and dance around.”


He is laughing but not joking. One of Terry’s most recent pieces involved painting himself, a goat, a chicken, and a girlfriend, with bright splashes of powder paint. He describes this work in detail. It is a series of photographs which narrate the stages of an unusual day. In the morning, all four set out unpainted in a motorboat; the pictures are black and white. When they arrive for their picnic on a black lava flow, a miracle happens. Terry, goat, chicken, and girl have been dotted with paint, the boat has become a canoe, and the pictures are in colour. Then a series of wondrous events: the chair imagines it is a goat, the chicken becomes an artist, and a refrigerator indigenous to the lava flow makes a cameo appearance. They return in black and white, but the final picture, a photograph of the girlfriend’s home where she lives with another man, has a ghostly spray of colour on the reverse.

Terry has also set about documenting his experience among birds. Already he has produced a small guide to the species around Lake Baringo. It lists the four hundred and sixty-three known species, giving their English, German, and scientific names; it tells whether they are resident or migrant, if they breed, and the best place to spot them at the lake. It includes daunting statistical entries in the tradition of Gilbert White, compiled mostly by Terry. One reads, “Eurasian Nightjar. One found dead on road October, 1977. One at Club 7th November, 1979.” His new book, yet unfinished, will be an expert’s guide to every species in Kenya. There are a thousand and seventy species to be covered. Terry has seen nine hundred himself, and knows where to find the rest. His book will tell the reader with precision the three or four best places to see each species. For example, “Walk four kilometres down the riverbed, turn right at the broken Candelabra tree…” 


Terry is thirty-four and has been in Kenya eleven years, dividing his time between Lake Baringo and birding safaris in the bush. His safaris are unadvertised but popular: people come from all over the world to spend three weeks, enjoying a pampered version of his wide-eyed walk from Maralal to Lake Baringo. 

I asked him point-blank if he enjoys his life.

“It’s better than being unemployed in Bradford, like most people there these days. You know, it went from being the centre of the woollen industry to one of the major unemployment centres in Britain.”

Instead of queueing for the dole, Terry can go in a day’s travelling from the desert to the snow-filled crater of Kilimanjaro, from the Masai savannah to the Kakamega rain forest, from Lake Bogoria to the Indian Ocean, and everywhere birds, birds, birds of every hue and cry, birds of every calling.


Perhaps the greatest joy is knowing. Field naturalists are among the last of the generalists, of the scientists whose most powerful tools are their eyes, whose perpetual stance is wonder. Terry approaches an uncharted field, and maps it, personally and empirically, with the patience of Tycho Brahe. 

Terry’s subject matter is a world. To comprehend it he must live within it and remain aware that it is alive. Terry’s books do not attempt to pin down the essence of their subject; they point the reader towards the best place to continue the living examination. 

Hegel scorned mere taxonomists: those who push pins through butterflies, stare at their colourful mortuary, and then purport to offer something penetrating about the life of the creature. These people are “unknowing.” Terry has similar feelings for those who spend their lives staring at glass slides smeared with blood. 

In the best sense, the sense which puts professional to shame, Terry is an amateur. He has the amateur’s healthy but ambivalent sense of competition. 

“The first time we did it, that was the best, you know. It was just the three of us in this crummy little car; we drove down the Rift Valley, and it was great fun. And now it’s still really good fun, but, you know, all of these aeroplanes and cars.” 

And now that he has set the record, all anybody wants to do is beat him. Sometimes he wishes he had never bothered. But he tells the story of the famous competition, and his eyes glow a rivalrous green. 


In November, 1986, Terry and his colleagues wrote to the American Birdwatching Association, proposing a set of rigorous rules for competition, which included the American rules as a mere subset. They were officially approved: if a new record were set according to these new rules, it would be recognized. They began preparations. Teams were coming from around the world, and it seemed pointless to restrict the competition to twenty-four hours. A weekend tournament was suggested, with the best twenty-four hours put forward to challenge the record. Another prize would be given for the most species sighted in forty-eight hours. (Terry, the purist, held out to the last: a binding competition should be twenty-four hours long. The gods favoured him; he was voted down.) The competition would end Sunday at midnight at Kenya’s oldest hotel, the Norfolk, in Nairobi. Blackboards would be set up in the Norfolk, to display the species count of every team as they radioed in. Radio contact changed the tenor of the meet. As they played out the tournament, the teams would know whether they were winning or losing, and by how much.

The equipment was dazzling. Terry’s team had nine different cars placed at landing strips across Kenya. They had two aeroplanes: a single engine for the short legs and for landing in the bush, and a faster twin engine for distance. They flew in Cessnas and Barons, they drove in Range Rovers, and their binoculars (Terry carried Leitz 10×40’s, though infidels prefer Zeiss) cost close to a thousand dollars a pair. They had lamps; much of the competition would take place in the dark: five rechargeable torches, Maglights and Streamlights, and rally car spotlights mounted on handles and wired into car batteries. They could light up a whole lake if they had to. An “exotic driver” was needed, so Andy Roberts was again behind the wheel. 


The morning of the first day was spectacular. By nine o’clock, Terry’s team had achieved one hundred and eighty-seven species, without leaving Lake Baringo. They were far ahead, and feeling smug. They mounted the single engine and flew over the Tugen hills to the west.

It never rains in the morning. Immediately they were up against a wall of dangerous cloud. They tried to go around it, but could not; they tried to go under it, but it was tight against the ridge. At last they found a tiny hole in the darkening mass and flew through it into the valley beyond. The valley was thick with the stuff. They were boxed in. They flew up and down seeking an opening. They gave up, landing on a small farm near Nakuru — where they did not even have a car. They could not drive, and they could not fly, and then the storm set in and they could barely see.

Having resolved to forget the first day, they spent the evening readying themselves for midnight. Preparations were incomplete: they could not contact all of the cars which were supposed to meet them the first day, to tell them to be at the same place. The second day would be ruled by the fear that vehicles might not be there when they landed.

Nevertheless, at five minutes to twelve, they stood in darkness on the shores of Lake Naivasha, a freshwater lake at six thousand, two hundred feet. They were waiting. It was black except for the stars, millions of which are visible in the absence of air pollution and artificial light. Wires had been hooked up to batteries; torches and lamps were aimed.


At twelve o’clock the signal was given, and a vast piece of shore found itself in daylight. The plovers and stilts awoke as if for sunrise. The woodpeckers and barbets returned to their mind-numbing vandalism of the Yellow Fever Acacias. (A woodpecker’s brain floats in thick viscous oil to prevent permanent damage.) The team spent exactly one hour and five minutes at Lake Naivasha in the midnight sun.

Terry had worked out the timing with precision. They never deviated from schedule. The dark was reserved for the shores and the water birds, who are there all night long. They drove to Lake Baringo. First they attended to species by the water, then as it became light, they attacked the surrounding bush and the great cliffs, composed of basalt columns, reddish-brown and almost geometrical, full of eagles’ nests. By the time they were through with Lake Baringo, they had one hundred and eighty-nine species, two more than the day before.

Next stop was the glorious Kakamega Forest, the only piece of dense African rain forest in Kenya. It contains species to be found nowhere else in the country, as if a plot of West Africa had been tossed into the East. Here is the Joyful Greenbul, so much more fun than the Sombre Greenbul (although even the latter gets points in the Guide for its “cheerful warbling song”). They combed the forest for two hours.

They flew to Lake Victoria, and spent a fruitful twenty-five minutes in a papyrus swamp, driving at ninety miles an hour to procure some forty species — almost two a minute.

They gathered some birds from the air as they buzzed a rice scheme en route to Nakuru. At that time, Nakuru was a vast lake, home not only to the flamingos, but to a host of others on the shores and in the rich acacia woodlands surrounding. Now Nakuru has dried to a puddle. All that is left is a kind of mirage: a flat of glittering white salt which from a distance looks more like water than water.

From there, to a forest in Nairobi, then down through the grasslands of Nairobi National Park, and then it was dark and time to see the four most expensive birds of Terry’s career.

Night was the time for water birds, and they had chartered the twin engine to take them to the coast, where the species on the beach differ vastly from those on the lakes. The jaunt cost about a thousand Canadian dollars. They stayed for forty minutes. They sighted four species. 

Then back to Nairobi. Cameras were waiting. More than two hundred people had sat through the entire competition before the scoreboards, drinking and watching the numbers. And betting. Bookies were taking odds, and Terry was favoured. The travesty on the Indian Ocean hardly mattered. They left the coast with three hundred and forty-one species, and they knew from the radio that they were well ahead of their nearest competitor. Terry, however, has a flair for the well-constructed finale.


Two weeks before, he had been preparing a group for one of his birdwatching safaris. His clients were staying at the New Stanley Hotel, a few blocks from the Norfolk. One of them had mentioned a rare bird he had seen from his twelfth storey hotel room. Terry investigated. Remarkable: there across the street, in the heart of Nairobi, was a pair of nesting Peregrine Falcons.

Now how would it be if the last bird, the bird to seal the world’s record, were to be sighted blocks away from the Norfolk hotel? If this last bird were of a species generally sighted only in remote areas, turning gyres over desolate cliffs? 

And so, the winning team sauntered into the capital, and minutes before greeting the international press, floodlit a downtown building, pulled two Peregrine Falcons out of a hat, and conquered the world.

Three hundred and forty-two species in twenty-four hours: the record remains unchallenged. Terry is free to lead a quiet life on the shores of Lake Baringo, amid the painted girlfriends, the starlings and the weavers, and the occasional Nubian Vulture from the West.


Published in The Idler, May-June 1988

(Illustration: Paul Barker)