Nearly 650 bird species have been recorded in an area only slightly wider than that covered by this green satellite photograph of Mount Meru in Northern Tanzania. The long axis of the photograph amounts to barely 30 km. And since June 2005 this area, within a radius of about 20 km from the summit ridge of Mount Meru, has become the core of my home range. Not bad for a “birder’s local patch”. Although I do miss the ocean badly!
BIRDING MOUNT MERU – A FIVE DAY BIRDING ITINERARY
Night One: An evening arrival from Europe into Tanzania is highly recommended, ideally on board KLM’s direct flight from Amsterdam Schiphol to Kilimanjaro International Airport.
There will follow an hour’s transfer by 4WD safari vehicle, with that all-important pop-up roof, either into Arusha town (economy options), or to Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge or Hatari Lodge (the high convenience options – hco), to arrive in time for some ‘owling’ or a perhaps little ‘jarring’ over a delicious evening snack under the stars of Africa.
If you choose the higher convenience option, your accommodation will be at either Hatari Lodge or Ngare Sero Lodge – both of which are family-run and extremely well situated by being on the edge of the national park.
Nights Two & Three: Two full days exploring Arusha National Park
After a breakfast, inevitably interrupted by birds, we’ll drive to the undisturbed evergreen forest surrounding Ngurdoto crater (see green photo above – rhs), an outlier of Mount Meru which is such a majestic feature of this landscape. The outer walls of Ngurdoto, a small and secluded basin in the jungle, are clothed with luxuriant submontane forest. On the drive we will enter dense and beautiful stands of African olive Olea africana and O. hochstetteri and a variety of strangling figs Ficus thonningii that form a canopy over the narrow road up to the crater rim. The cliff girt sides of the crater itself are clad with sprawling ferns and Mikindu date palms which support nesting pairs of both African Hobby and the resident race minor of Peregrine. We should be able to walk along broad footpaths near the crater rim that provide excellent vantage points and a superlative view over the forest canopy. Looking out across the swampy floor of the crater one can admire a forested mountain ridge that leads the eye to the shimmering snows of Mount Kilimanjaro, only forty kilometres distant. From our elevated position Cape Buffalo, Bushbuck and family parties of Common Warthog can be observed foraging on the improbably green crater floor. These ungulates often share their Typha and Cyperus papyrus swamps with an array of wetland birds.
We may see both Black and Yellow-billed Storks, perhaps even Saddle-billed (has bred) together with various herons and egrets. Periodically the trees around the viewpoints bustle with bird activity as a mixed species foraging-wave ripples through. We should be able to enjoy much of the varied bird community here which includes both widespread and local elements. For example we might find regionally scarce species such as African Cuckoo Hawk and Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon; and will almost certainly see Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, Silvery-cheeked Hornbill, White-eared Barbet, Black Rough-wing Swallow, African Hill Babbler, Placid Greenbul, White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher, Kenrick’s and Waller’s Starlings, Montane White-eye, Black-fronted Bush-shrike, Collared Sunbird and several equally attractive migrant bird species.
After a picnic lunch at Mikindu vantage point we shall continue our exploration of Arusha National Park. Likely our next stop will be at “Serengeti Ndogo’” a spacious glade where iconic large mammals, such as Maasai Giraffe and Plains Zebra are usually accompanied by various water birds around the shallow pools and wallows. Then we will travel through forest at a lower altitude, entering a distinctly different environment. The tiny Sunni Antelope is often seen here as is the near-endemic duiker of the form harveyi a potential split from Natal Red Duiker. We shall scan the treetops for Mitis Monkey and troupes of ornate Guereza Black and White Colobus. Birds here might include African Emerald Cuckoo, perhaps a roosting African Wood-Owl, the lowland Narina Trogon, Moustached Green Tinkerbird, Black-backed Puffback, Forest Batis, Black-headed Apalis and Black-headed Oriole. A stop at a small marsh in the forest might yield brief views of a Buff-spotted Flufftail or the slightly less skulking African Waterail particularly if the weather conditions are conducive. After our first day’s birding (back) in the Afrotropics, our minds will have been exposed to many sensations from the great forests and marshes of Africa’s past. So we shall return to our lodge in the late afternoon in plenty of time for a relaxing dinner. Night at Ngare Sero or Hatari Lodge or in accommodation of a similar standard nearer to Arusha.
Arusha National Park – the forested slopes and alti-montane shrublands of Mount Meru
Today we will explore vegetation zones on the eastern slopes of Mount Meru both by vehicle and on foot with an emphasis on the montane evergreen forest. Our 4WD vehicle will enable us to ascend with relative ease through the different floral zones of the mountain. We will pass through areas characterised by African olives and groves of gnarled Wild Mango Tabernaemontana usambarensis climbing into areas dominated by stately pencil cedars (Juniperus procera) and towering African Yellow-beam Podocarpus gracilior. The trunks and branches of the forest trees are festooned with a great variety of epiphytes whilst the pendulous garlands of old man’s beard (Usnea) contribute to a feeling of other-worldly enchantment. Accompanied by an armed forest ranger (for there are misanthropic old buffalo in these mountain woods!) we shall enter secret forest glades and walk the banks of mountain streams lined with flowering red hot pokers Kniphofia thompsoni and scarlet fireball lilies Scadoxus multiflorus. The tropical montane forests of Africa are excellent places in which to observe a variety of impressive butterflies. Mount Meru is particularly well-endowed with richly colourful and charismatic species such as the Gold-Banded Forester, Gaudy Commodore, Green-veined Charaxes, Green-banded and Mocker Swallowtail and the Forest Mother of Pearl.
We will walk through the shrubby heather belt Erica arborea at Kitoto on the Miriakamba trail above the taller forest, into the exploded crater of Meru itself and toward the foot of the dramatic ash cone within it. Here one may find the scat of Leopard and see droppings of forest-dwelling Elephant, whilst the grubbing and rooting disturbance of Bush pigs can be found almost everywhere. Sometimes smaller animals such as the endemic Three-horned Chameleon can be seen beside the trails. Amongst many new bird species which should be seen today African Black Duck, Mountain Buzzard, African Crowned Eagle, Red-fronted Parrot, Hartlaub’s Turaco, Bar-tailed Trogon, Rüppell’s Robin-Chat, White-starred Robin, Brown Woodland Warbler, both Striped-faced Greenbul and Black-headed Mountain Greenbul, Sharpe’s Starling and Red-faced Crimsonwing are some of my particular favourites! In the Meru crater flocks of Alpine and Nyanza Swift wheel above you and if lucky a Lammergeier might be picked-out soaring along the truly spectacular rust-coloured cliff face.
Once again, if on “hco“, our evening meal and accommodation will be at one or other of the equally charming Hatari Lodge or Ngare Sero Lodge; both of which are family-run and strategically located at the edge of the national park.
Arusha National Park – the Momella Lakes
During our days in Arusha National Park we will also focus attention at the foot of Mount Meru, around the Momella lakes. This area of gently rounded hills, open grassland, scrubby Dodonaea sand-bush and small highland lakes offers a marvellous variety of habitats that support a great variety of animals and birds. Some of the Momella lakes are fed by underwater springs and nurture large population of aquatic wildlife throughout the year. Others are more seasonal and their fluctuating water levels attract a quite different selection of species. Touring this lake-studded landscape we will be keeping an eye-out specifically for big mammals such as Common Waterbuck, Bohor Reedbuck, Cape Buffalo and Hippopotamus. After periods of rain Helmeted Terrapins disperse from the lakes to seasonal pools whilst amphibians such as Platana frogs can be found in many of the puddles and pools. Large concentrations of water birds may include scarce species such as Southern Pochard and occasionally Maccoa Duck. Cape Teal are usually common at the more brackish lakes and large flocks of Lesser Flamingo and a few Greater Flamingos often can be studied at very close range. A variety of beautiful bee-eaters and hundreds of Hirundines skim for dragonflies, stoneflies and chironomid midges across the open water. White-backed Ducks frequent the well-vegetated fringes of freshwater Lake Longil as do Common and Lesser Moorhens, Black Crakes and African Jacanas. There are cormorants, occasionally African Darters, and sometimes one can see both species of ‘afro-tropical’ pelican here. Spur-winged Geese and Hottentot Teal are resident, whilst migrant plovers and sandpipers (e.g. Blacksmith Lapwing and Three-banded Plover as against Marsh Sandpiper and Ruff respectively) abound and of course there are many active passerines in the surrounding vegetation to ponder (Cisticolas) or to savour (shrikes).
The grassland and bush near to the lakes supports interesting and local species such as the attractive Pangani Longclaw, the contentious Nairobi Pipit and many voluble cisticolas together with the African Moustached Warbler. Flocks of Helmeted Guineafowl, Hildebrandt’s and Scaly Francolin and occasionally other galliformes can be found along the tracks. In the evening we will return once again to the home comforts of either Ngare Sero or Hatari Lodge.
Night Four: Into the evergreen woodlands of Kilimanjaro and the acacia-commiphora country of the “West Kilimanjaro ranches”
After breakfast we shall load our Toyotas with soft-bags and provisions and drive across the Maasai plains to the ranches of Kilimanjaro where we will encounter for the first time dry zone birds that occur in the rain shadow west of Mount Kilimanjaro. Our route passes through one area where some lower elevation forests of Mount Kilimanjaro remain in good condition. Here we will search for various East African specialties including some species more typical of the coastal zone, birds such as Northern Brownbul, the ultra-skulking Kretschmer’s Longbill, Red-capped Robin-chat, the ‘gorgeous’ Four-coloured Bush-shrike, and some australo-papuan representatives such as Blue-mantled Trochocercus. We will take our picnic lunch in the vicinity of the National Park gate at Londorossi and then explore some highland forest before driving onward to the plateau for some enchanting scenery and yet more new birds. Notable ‘wish-list’ species here might include the Near-Threatened piebald Abbott’s Starling, parties of the crepuscular, and often sought after, Olive Ibis and commoner species such as the noisily duetting Hunter’s Cisticola. As we gain altitude we should find Malachite Sunbird as well as the extraordinarily burnished Golden-winged Sunbird, while on the open-land of the Shira plateau itself one can occasionally find some of the really high altitude species, birds such as Alpine Chat and the wispy-tailed, scintillatingly green, truly ‘afro-alpine’ Scarlet-tufted Sunbird.
We will descend from the forests of Kilimanjaro in the late afternoon. Today’s experiences culminate in the beautiful acacia woodland of Sinya and Olmolog. Lying in the rain shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro these privately managed areas remain in good condition by virtue of “easement agreements” with the local Maasai. Here we shall stay at either Hatari Lodge’s tented camp, known as Shu’mata Camp or at Ndarakwai Ranch, both are accessible, well managed parcels of the once so vast East African wilderness. After our evening meal a nocturnal game drive should be very rewarding. Night drives usually provide participants with excellent views of some of the more secretive nocturnal representatives of the area’s unique fauna, birds like Bronze-winged and Three-banded Courser, a few owl species and undoubtedly we will hear the manic whip-lash-ing of many Slender-tailed Nightjars. Animals here include the rare Maasai Clawed Gecko, both Striped and Spotted Hyaena, Northern Lesser Galago, SpringHare and both the local lagomorphs African Savanna Hare and Cape Hare. Common Genet, African Civet, African Wild Cat, Bat-eared Fox, five Mongoose species, Black-backed and Golden Jackal provide the essential carnivores and if we are blessed, we will find not just an Aardvark but also a Zorilla. So there we have it, on a short bird tour, very much the A to Z of African Mammals!
Night Five: A day in the desertic steppe of the “Volcano’s Rain Shadow”
We will drive westwards to further explore the complex habitat mosaics typical of East Africa’s grazed Acacia-Commiphora woodlands. Principal tree species include the umbrella thorns Acacia abyssinica and A. nilotica, the Yellow-barked Acacia Acacia xanthophloea and also Acacia mellifera. They combine to support an astonishingly rich assemblage of birds and animals. Extensive grassy glades, seasonally-inundated areas, narrow wadis and boulder outcrops further diversify the landscape. This area is very important for numerous Palearctic migrants amongst which we might want to concentrate upon finding Caspian Plover, Irania, Rufous Scrub-Robin and Upcher’s and Barred Warblers. During migration many northern raptors pass through this wide funnel between the huge mountains of Meru and Kilimanjaro. They include substantial numbers of Steppe Eagle, Steppe Buzzard, Pallid and Montagu’s Harrier and falcons; Eurasian Hobby and Lesser Kestrel being especially numerous during passage periods. This dry zone always strikes the visitor from temperate lands as being unusually rich in bird species and those characteristic of the Somali-Maasai zone are of course well represented. Priorities for us should include Black-faced and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, the in essentially endemic Fischer’s Lovebird, African Grey and Von der Decken’s Hornbill, White-bellied Go-away-bird, both Blue-naped and the sought-after White-headed Mousebird, Pink-breasted Lark, Scaly and Rufous Chatterer, Mouse-coloured Penduline Tit, Spotted Morning Thrush, Northern and Red-faced Crombec, Hildebrandt’s and Fischer’s Starling, Red-fronted Warbler, Pygmy Batis, Rosy-patched Shrike and Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrikes, Beautiful and Eastern Violet-backed Sunbird, Steel-blue, Eastern Paradise, Pin-tailed and Straw-tailed Whydahs, White-headed Buffalo-weaver, Purple Grenadier, Black-faced Waxbill, Blue-capped Cordon-bleu and Somali Golden-breasted Bunting.
This area used to provide a rare opportunity to observe a healthy and balanced elephant community. Nowadays one never knows what to expect! Nevertheless the long-necked Gerenuk, an acacia-browsing gazelle, is locally common and family herds of Lesser Kudu may still be found in this bushland.
Day Six: “Lark Plains”
After breakfast we will descend farther to the Ang’yata Osugat plains, the grazing lands of the Engikaret Maasai. This near-circular expanse of semi-arid steppe is the number one site in Tanzania for the Alaudidae – for finding larks. Likely we will begin by searching for the localised, long-billed and very distinctive Short-tailed Lark together with our local speciality Calandrella the Athi Short-toed Lark. Relict riparian woodland along the Ngare Nanyuki water course should provide yet more classic afrotropical birds, species from groups as diverse as wood–hoopoes and scimitarbills, set against bush-shrikes, batises and helmet-shrikes. There should also be Cardinal and Nubian Woodpeckers, endearing Red-fronted Tinkerbirds, smart Long-tailed and the super-smart Taita Fiscals to the tiny in the shape of Yellow-bellied Eremomela and Buff-bellied Warbler amongst an array of others gems.
The plains continue to support populations of both Kori Bustard and Secretarybird though Thomson’s and Grant’s Gazelles and other savanna mammals should be more plentiful here. We will pass through stunted acacia-commiphora woodland where we should add yet more birds to our list, including restricted-range species such as Tiny and Ashy Cisticola and the near endemic Red-throated Tit. However today’s birding highlight for most undoubtedly will be “lark plains”, where up to nine species of lark can be seen in a morning! The plains are full of other grassland species such as resident and migrant wheatears and up to four species of pipit. This heavily-grazed plain supports the world’s last few score Beesley’s Larks. This Critically Endangered endemic can be found only here in the rain shadow of the two great volcanos and is likely the rarest bird on mainland Africa. Being highly terrestrial, relatively confiding with a slightly curved bill, (for digging), a scaly mantle, a buffy-rufous breast and characteristic rodent-like scurrying gait it is a very endearing rarity indeed.
Leaving the plains we will climb slightly onto the partially cultivated western slopes of Mount Meru. Here we will pause to examine the bird-life of a rocky korongo (ravine or wadi) where yet more species can be added to our by-now lengthy list, birds such as Horus Swift, that notoriously clown-like Red-and-Yellow Barbet (after all “you’ve got to get the cover bird”), Schalow’s Wheatear, Kenya Rufous Sparrow and Southern Grosbeak Canary. Lanner Falcons and White-eyed Kestrels are usually soaring somewhere overhead and on some days Lammergeiers, from their mountain fastness, deign to join the Tawny Eagles, Pied Crows and White-necked Ravens in the jostle for discarded bones at the edge of Oldonyo Sambu a small traditional Maasai market alongside the Nairobi highway.
After fifty minutes, stopping only to admire a breeding pair of rufescens Mountain Kestrels (until recently ‘lost’ within Falco tinnunculus) we will reach the western outskirts of the bustling ‘new city’ of Arusha. A late afternoon visit to a tiny area of tall riparian woodland and shady pools, ‘ground-water forest’, secreted within a quiet coffee estate, near to where I’m writing this piece, could add yet more scarce and local species. Eventually though, we must come to the end of this five day birding-extravaganza. Although Madagascar (Malagasy) Pond-Heron, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Pallid Honeyguide, Wahlberg’s Honeybird, Grey-olive Greenbul, Retz’s Helmetshrike, Brown-throated Wattle-eye and Peters’s Twinspot may remain to be found … in here.
Eventually we must tear ourselves away from our delightful birding, either to return to the mercifully relaxed international airport at JRO (in order to catch our return KLM flight to Amsterdam), or to join an onward safari with the rest of our group or family (for likely as not they’re yet to be birders!) onward to Tarangire, Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater or even the overly-fabled Serengeti National Park.
A five day Nature Tour similar to the one described briefly here, a circumnavigation of mighty Mount Meru, especially if it takes place between early November and late April, i.e. during the Boreal Winter, and includes at least two full days within the 542 sq. km. of Arusha National Park should produce a bird list of nearly 500 species.
If you are interested in such a short, but highly productive tour, which we can schedule at any-time of the year, and which certainly provides the perfect orientation for any birder prior to your longer wildlife safari, with family and friends, please let us know, as early as possible, whether you would want the economy option, or the higher convenience option (HCO), as mentioned above, because these two small lodges get booked-up very quickly.
As always I would like to thank my birding friends, who have very kindly provided some really lovely photos to grace this post :
Charles Davies (Abbott’s Starling), Martin Goodey (as indicated), Anabel Harries (Maasai Giraffe, Lammergeier and some of the ‘scenics’) and especially Martin Hale for the charming Beesley’s Lark pair and the ‘dapper’ Taita Fiscal; some of the photos are even my own! Thanks also to Hagai Zvulun for pushing the original innovation.