At nightfall on December 12, 2006 our blue Land Rover 90 with her five human occupants might have been seen by satellites of Google Earth scurrying west toward the little town of Same (pronounced Saamay) which is midway on the main road that joins Dar es Salaam, at the Indian Ocean, with Nairobi high on Africa’s ancient plateau.
To her left a deep red sun had just set, sinking beyond the horizon of the Maasai steppe into the centre of Tanzania. Drowned in a saturated collage of cloud of the most soft and fragrant hue. Whilst on the opposite side of the road mighty galleons of cumulus lay moored above us, at gaunt piers vaulting out of the savanna plain, mountain outliers of the Eastern Arc and ultra endemic-rich. The lofty billowing thunderheads, a gorgeous exuberance of warm and gentle colour, retained far above the quickly deepening dusk, all the blessings of waning daylight’s fruits and flowers – of peach, saffron and tangerine.
A tingling animal apprehension quickly dispelled such reverie. For quite suddenly a tube-wave of cloud, silent and ominously white, started surging eerily through the serrated crest of indigo mountains all along our night-side flank. The ghoul cloud seemed sure to engulf us in a hammering torrent of rain before we could make landfall in the still distant fluorescence on the eastern edge of Same town.
In fact we reached the lights of the Elephant Motel under inky darkness just as the heavens cracked open. A mighty roar in fact, the first thunderous salvo of a bombardment which pounded town and mountain at intervals throughout the night. The modest town of Same has grown up at a smuggler’s gate, a defile through the mountain wall. A wall by which, until a century ago, Britain’s “Keenya” from Germany’s “Tanganyika” territories were, for their colonial convenience, divided. Today Same boasts one acceptable motel, a couple of hydrocarbon filling stations, some basic hostelries and several scruffy guesties.
For the naturalist however this location is of great strategic importance. From Same one can easily pass between the broken-teeth of the South Pare (Paaray) mountains; whose jagged ridge-line scrapes the clouds 700 metres above the red earth savannas of the Maasai steppe; and explore the western corner of Mkomazi. A former game reserve (now National Park) which is contiguous with the great Tsavo bush-land ecosystem of Kenya. And one can do so from a quiet and peaceful road, that skirts the backside of the mountains, southwards in a place where four distinct habitats converge. So this is always an exciting location for me. Especially so during the wonderfully protracted Afro-Palearctic bird migration seasons. Southbound from early October through to late January and northbound from early January through late May! Thus for a full eight months Palearctic insectivores pass through this portal.
Some mornings the migrant birds appear to be rushing through here in a volume and variety unimaginable nowadays for Europe’s birding youth. Poor young folk, inhabitants of an increasingly cynically-sterilized environment, yet one that is perforce acceptable as home, in these duplicitous days. A full degree-wide avian flight stream passes through the Pare mountains between the atmospheric turbulence above Mount Kilimanjaro, at longitude 37 degrees 30′ E, and the still forested East Usambaras at 38 degrees 30′ E. A route by which hundreds of millions of Russian and Central Asian birds travel from northern African recuperation zones in Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and South Sudan (where they spend the months between August and December) to an equally vast area of Acacia-Miombo woodland and varied savanna, where they spend the second phase of their journey, south of the Equator. They then reverse the movement (with various lateral permutations) on their return north to breed in the renaissance of a Boreal spring.
We came here to Same on this dreadful night as a humble pilgrimage, to experience this marvellous migration phenomenon. And we were not to be denied absolution. By dawn on December 13 the rain had more or less ceased. Under a canopy of soft grey mist leaking intermittent drizzle we were able to negotiate the fifteen kilometres or so of slippery track, up through the Same gap, around the South Pare mountains and down into a muddy wallow that leads to Mkomazi. We turned-off this route and descended a further two kilometres to the Zangay gate. Even in such wet conditions this is a lovely little road, for it is, even by African standards, seldom driven.
Arriving early at the super sleepy park gate one typically has to wait until nine, for the reserve’s officials to turn up for work. So there is plenty of time for some morning birding on foot. Zangay is tiny. A resident population of maybe twelve souls, some six old trucks and as many simple red earth dwellings – mostly dilapidated little offices and mouldering workshops or storerooms of one kind or another. The hamlet stands at the head of a shallow valley opening northeastwards between two knuckles of the South Pare. Reliably red, dusty and dry. Not so in these El Nino rains. Any previous soil moisture deficit had been dramatically reversed. Zangay on this day felt overwhelmed by vegetation, vascular chlorophyll surging skywards, rank and lush and amazingly green. Just two narrow corridors of red compacted mud survived. Kept open by battered, skidding Land Cruisers who, in their daily search for fuel, painstakingly maintain some grumbling greasy contact with the few other vehicle-owning villages of the district.
Zangay gate is an ecological buffer zone. And for this pilgrim at least, it includes a sacred grove. A four hectare thicket of mature acacia and baobab on the valley floor. Tall trees surviving un-chopped by virtue of their closeness to the gate. The grove stands between the last maize and bean fields of Same and Mkomazi park itself. Southwards rank and swampy ground fills the valley bottom, above it the grassy airstrip that delineates Zangay’s eastern margin, in turn surmounted by low scrubby hills. The red earth hamlet and green-painted entrance gate lies eastward and beyond that a disconcertingly ungulate-free grassland extends into the Mkomazi Game Reserve (now the newest of TANAPA’s National Parks). Maasai pastoralists were controversially evicted when the sanctuary was created in the1980s. Freed from any browsing, by a multitude of piebald cattle, a species-poor even-aged commiphora woodland quickly sprang up and this now dominates much of the park’s western third.
At seven we parked the Land Rover at the great leafy baobab who stands guard at the entrance to the sacred grove. It was immediately apparent that today would be no ordinary safari stroll. The cold mists of the previous night were at last withdrawing skywards and by so doing encouraged, in the drenched and dripping verdure, an incredible chorus of bird sound that filled the soaking air. Apart from some trilling reed frogs and a few hardy crickets the only sound was that of the birds. Hundreds and hundreds of calling birds – of thirty kinds at least. Donning pack-lite water-proofs, and forsaking a redundant telescope and tripod, we stepped out on the muddy track and entered a river of birds. The action started as soon we closed those doors. And it eased only with the rains’ return, coincident with a missed call from the modern world, at exactly nine o’clock!
With 360 degrees of constant bird action it feels as though one’s brain, like an ascending periscope, has pierced the invisible membrane of a new planet’s surface. One has to move so slow and carefully, deliberately scanning with naked eye, then stop and hold, select, relegate and frequently to postpone – as unfamiliar calls and unknown movements tease and tug on each slight turn of one’s head. In the bright or muted vegetative greens and atmospheric greys, shadows adjacent and above, in the clodding terracotta and slippery dark puddles of the earth below and out along the straight and narrow, immediately in front, are wildness movements, ignorant of man. Of countless living beings; restless bird activity, far faster metabolisms -appearing and receding on every side, and overhead as well, away in the bushes and up into the sky. At its best, in an ongoing bird wave or, as in a grove by Mkomazi gate, when one is birding through a fall of many passerine migrants in a diverse, largely enclosed habitat, I think it is the conscious discipline required to process all these energetic entities, birds seen and, with luck and skill combined, identified against a consciously-created mural, a near-uniform background-field, an experience dependent upon an heightened awareness of colour, form and sound that, for me, keeps birding in a league of its own,putting all other sports and games to shame.
On this day there were three of us, three pairs of eyes; grown men, armed with the latest bins; and yet we were so easily overrun. Two hours of one of the fastest birding onslaughts Africa can muster – utter dissolution and total enchantment.
After two hours I was desperately in need of a pause, if only to catch my mental breath. Having been transported back, through forty years, to live again the best birding forays of my youth, when time so easily stood still and the child’s mind of wonder, unperturbed by worry, walked unspeaking and danced unchecked.
So, as they say, let’s move now to the avian highlights of this truly exceptional Day in the Field.
The easiest to deal with, easiest to see, and hence easiest to identify were the “resident birds“; and among these especial mention must be made of the Bishops and the Weavers. The conspicuous clash of blocks of colour, vermillion, scarlet, crimson or white set sharply against shades of black and almost-black, combined with their dancing displays in the swampy area, opposite the sentinel baobab, rendered the male bishops first to be seen and among the easiest to identify. Consequently our looks at Zanzibar Red and Black-winged Red Bishop together with White-winged Widow Birds were soon abandoned; as we dealt with small flocks of Eastern Paradise Whydah 65 birds in all – none of whom were, as yet, in full plumage arriving and landing on the road, in their search for seeds and grit. Amongst all the migrant birds some very sedentary pairs of Parrot-billed Sparrows were feeding their fledglings on the road, the parents jumping vertically to pull down seed heads from overhanging grass tussocks. Five species of weaver were present along the track sides, including three handsome Black-necked, six Black-headed and ten Lesser Masked Weavers. Mkomazi was, somewhat surprisingly, the only site where we recorded this species during our week long bird safari. It seems preferentially to be a rains visitor to fairly dry country.
Among the long distance migrants it was interesting, in such a very wet El Niño year, to note a continuing scarcity of Red-tailed Shrikes; we only saw two this morning. In the previous year’s ‘drought’ we found them here in good number. Typically they like to winter in dry conditions and are now presumably somewhere further north. Numbers of Spotted Flycatcher (like most migrants they seemed to be arriving late and in poor numbers) were at last slowly accumulating and we saw five in and around the grove. Another dry-land acacia-country species, that was understandably scarce that year, was the Pied Wheatear and only one, a male, was seen at Zangay. And only one other, also an adult male, was seen later in the week, at a very favoured site, the An’gyata Osugat – plains of the Maasai Lark (aka beesleyi).
Since migratory warblers occupy a broad cross section of the habitat niches available in the northern Palearctic summer one would expect to see a few species of warbler during any fall of migrants here in Tanzania. And certainly we were not disappointed by the warblers. In December 2006 the commonest, or at least the most widespread Sylvia warbler in northern Tanzania, was clearly the Common Whitethroat and there were two or three individuals, of one or both of the Asian races that ‘winter’ here, in the acacias around the margins of the wood. Occasionally Eastern Olivaceous Warblers may locally outnumber Whitethroats and we saw four, and heard several others, in the two hours spent here. We found and saw three Great Reed Warblers, very easily beside the track, as they were calling constantly and even singing in that monstrous frog-like voice, clearly reveling, or fighting one another, in these super wet conditions. As we reached the edge of the camp compound I was beginning to wonder whether a repetitive “dzre-dzre-dzre-dzre-dzre” noise, reminiscent of a sewing machine or the nylon line on a heavy fishing reel winding-out, a sound we could hear all around us, was Orthopteran stridulation or distant wheezy ‘bishop and weaver’ song. Suddenly a small and sleek brown bird with graduated tail threaded-up through the lower branches of a partially-leaved acacia and then turned to face us. It began to sing, and in full view, at a little over two metres above the ground. The ‘penny dropped’ as we looked at the open orange gape and diffusely streaked pale breast of the first River Warbler that I had seen since Lake Balaton, in mid-May 1979, whilst assisting an RSPB-Churchill Scholarship project to investigate the ecology of the Great Bittern in “Eastern Europe”. We saw two other River Warblers, less well, nearby and yet many more were singing in the vicinity.
Half an hour later whilst my colleagues were catching up with some resident birds near the reserve gate – a softly singing Bare-eyed Thrush, two splendid male black-and-red Hunter’s Sunbirds and a pair of “Dodson-type” Common Bulbuls – I walked up the sloping track toward the reserve’s rarely-used airstrip. River Warblers seemed to be singing all around me. And in one small bush three brown birds were slinking about and eyeing me cautiously through the intricate mesh of twigs. There was a yellowish-breasted River Warbler, so potentially a first year bird, together with a ‘soft-faced’ Marsh Warbler with exquisite yellow soles to its feet, and one of several unusually confiding Thrush Nightingales. On the ground two rufous-tailed Eastern Nightingales, of the old race africana or hafizi (now golzii), two of several that we glimpsed in the course of our great morning. We later calculated that we had heard, and/or seen, not less than 26 River Warblers during a two hour bird-walk.
Not for my first time in Africa the most difficult birds ‘to deal with’ on this grey and soggy morning were not, as is so often the case, the cryptic skulkers like those mentioned above, but the swifts, often skimming back and fore overhead. There they were, out in full view, but flying so fast and in such poor light. In addition to those wheeling there was a constant procession of mostly very dark swifts flying, perforce, fairly low and chiefly eastwards into the vast savanna-ness of Mkomazi and Tsavo East. African Black Swifts nest in the great cliff faces of both the Pare and U-shambaa (the Usambaras mountains) and in considerable numbers. However given the very wet conditions during the night of December 12/13, it seems likely that a large percentage of the birds we saw could have been Common Swifts from, much more distant breeding areas, way-out in the Palearctic. Among all these all-dark birds were some smaller, paler, milky coffee-coloured Nyanza Swifts and about ten pointy-tailed White-rumped Swifts as well as a fairly typical smattering of chunky Little Swifts that we recorded in huge numbers later in the day.
Incidentally my friend Alastair Kilpin phoned me on December 20, 2006 to tell me that on the night of 18 December many swifts had perished, in very heavy overnight rainfall, around Klein’s Camp on the north-eastern boundary of the Serengeti National Park. Most of the victims were Common Swifts and a large proportion of those were first year birds downed by the cold and rain and unable to struggle out of the long wet grass.
We also recorded a probable hirundine movement involving some fifteen House Martins and over four hundred and fifty Barn Swallows heading chiefly in the opposite direction to the swifts i.e. westward. Palearctic hirundines had been conspicuous by their relative absence over most of northern Tanzania ‘that autumn’. During our week’s safari we noticed that along the east-west highway Barn Swallows became very much commoner east of 38 degrees East longitude, in the lower more verdant, more typically tropical, reaches of the Pangani river valley. Many of these eastern birds doubtless hail from the more healthier traditional farming landscapes of Russia, and the former USSR. And one cannot help speculating that the paucity of swallows further west in Africa was partly reflecting an eastward moving ‘wave of decline’ setting-in among breeding populations of Barn Swallow; and of other formerly common “wayside and woodland” birds. A decline that has become truly shocking across the brutally denatured, industrialized farmland of the brave new Europe, Asia’s ‘Neoliberal’ peninsula.
Finally, mention must be made of the Cuckoos. Although no strictly Palearctic species was observed this day, three species of cuckoo were calling in the wood. Red-chested with its prophetic and currently extremely accurate cry of “it will rain” (or to my ears and brain “give me milk“!) and two smaller ‘woodland cuckoos’ the onomatopoeic Dideric and the African Emerald (“hello judy” but to my ears more like “chop it! you bet!“) together with another bigger bird the smartly black and white Jacobin Cuckoo two of which we found flopping about, woefully wet and very bedraggled, searching for caterpillars in acacias near the parkgate. This last cuckoo is a particularly interesting one, for a substantial proportion of the population of the race Clamator jacobinus pica that occurs in East Africa is probably derived from birds which breed on the Asian continent. They arrive in northern Tanzania, among the multitude of Palearctic south-bound migrants, in November-December and return through the Pare-Tsavo region in March-April. They are scarcely recorded at any other time.
I thank Dismas Aloyce for driving the Land Rover, Anabel Harries for the two lovely photos, of the icterops Whitethroat and the first year Jacobin Cuckoo (I think both were taken here in Arusha), Martin Goodey (as always for his crisp bird portraits) and Charles Davies for bird’s-eye-view photo of Mkomazi, taken from Mambo View Eco-Lodge, and especially Tommy Ek and his family for making the December 2006 trip possible. 2014 is once again an El Niño year, so I hope to be right back there birding throughout early December.