Birding Safaris for Modern Naturalists across Northern Tanzania in December
If you google “Birding Tanzania” into the glistening grid you’ll call-up a screed of high-order gen. Typically the first twenty hits will be paid-for placements that promise encounters with a panoply of ornithological riches. Riches for which East Africa is, or was, rightly famous. Upon more careful reading however, you’ll find that there’s little detail. And not a devil to be seen, by which I mean, there’s scant explanation of how in 2014, so many birds can in fact be seen!
After ten years living here in Tanzania, searching-out the ornithological treasures; designing a wide cross-section of birding tours, from the gentle and relaxed to those for hard-core blokes, whose world lists already bulge with the not-so-latest splits from Clements Six and the IOC; we know it’s a lot harder than one might think to ‘deliver’ all those promised difficult birds. Why? Because, like it or not and obviously I don’t, things on the ground here are changing or rather, are being changed, so very, very fast. Even in such a safari-paradise corner as this is, on our still beautiful living planet. Yes indeed, the detrimental changes are nowhere faster, than here in the former Third World Countries of our dark mother Africa.
The great old land of Africa, as a result of her rich resources, both in and under the soil, not to mention her phenomenally youthful and restive population, is being hurled by mamunkind into a very uncertain future. Wayfaring here, watching the investors, as they push their turbo-developments everywhere across both land and sea, the eyes of an old naturalist become dim at such mind-boggling degradation, driven at such stunning speed. And here we do mean ‘stunning’!
And Africa cooks on wood! Let’s consider for a moment the daily depredations of the charcoal-izer upon her ancient forests and savanna woodlands. Last week’s miombo woodland, growing say beside Mikumi, may have been cooked by now, into a multitude of bowls of maize ugali, either inland or at the coast and likely as not in teeming Dar es Salaam. Forest reduced into a stiff white porridge, a staple that somehow sustains the nations of eastern and southern Africa. Forest degradation for fuel wood, especially along the highways and byways, in the waysides and the woodlands, is making hot-shot birding, dependent upon stake-outs following a tight itinerary, demoralising at best. The fuel-bite of Dar es Salaam now chomps away each evening, down the Tan-Zam highway, deep into DRC.
So folks, without more ado, here’s another bird-based tour of Tanzania. But this one is for birders with a difference. A safari where the gloves and the blinkers are off!
Let’s begin our Nature Tour of a Saturday evening in mid-December at, the remarkably peaceful, Kilimanjaro International Airport. This is where the daily KLM direct flights from Amsterdam arrive in Tanzania (not Dar). You will be met here by your birding eco-tutor and a ‘safe, reliable and courteous’ driver. You will be taken, in a Toyota safari vehicle with “pop-up roof”, a short distance to a clean and spacious hotel in Moshi town. This is a quiet, clean, old-fashioned place, nestled at the foot of snow-capped Kilimanjaro famed as the world’s highest free-standing mountain. Here you will spend your first night in-country.
After a reasonably early breakfast you will head off south eastwards, making birding stops en route, to a delightfully old-fashioned hill station lodge where you will spend the second night. Today you’ll be travelling through dry red-earth land, acacia country in the main, alongside jagged and precipitous peaks, of the ancient Pare (spoken ‘Paraye’) and West Usambara mountains, which seemingly vault straight out of the savanna. These ancient beautiful mountains are home to very many endemic taxa of plant, arthropod and animal.
During the first morning there will brief sorties into the bush, searching for specialities of the acacia-commiphora Maasailand habitats through which you pass. Above them magnificent black and white Verreaux’s Eagles may be soaring. We’ll search for the highly localized White-headed Mousebird, anomalous and pipit-like Pink-breasted Lark, secretive shrike-like Pringle’s Puffback, and the simply spectacular, scintillating Golden-breasted Starling. We might have time to visit Nyumba ya Mungu reservoir, where if water levels are right, we’ll get an early taste of wetland avian delicacies for which East Africa is renowned.
In the late afternoon-early evening we hope to be able to explore the cool Ndelemai forest, quite close to our mountain lodge, where some speciality birds of the West Usambaras are to be found including the almost endemic Usambara Nightjar, Usambara Double-collared Sunbird and with some luck both the African Tailorbird at its only ‘easy’ location and the Usambara Weaver.
Next morning we will travel early to nearby forest patches to search for other birds of these mountains including the monkey-eating Crowned Eagle, Hartlaub’s Turaco, Usambara and Stripe-faced Greenbul, Sharpe’s Starling, the cryptic, near-invisible Spot-throat, the lovely White-starred Robin, the secretive and endemic Usambara Akalat (Ground Robin), bell-sounding Usambara Black Boubou and the, as yet, undescribed Usambara Drongo hawking insects along the forest edge. After an early lunch we will descend to the plains and drive for three hours to our simple jungle lodge in the lush evergreen setting of Amani nature reserve, deep in the East Usambaras, where we will stay for the next two nights. Delightful mammals encountered today should include the Angola Pied Colobus monkey and Lushoto Mountain Squirrel.
At Amani there are so many important bird species to search for that we may be stuck for choice. Our primary aim will be getting good views of some of the more elusive species of this unique forest. Birds such as the spectacular Fischer’s Turaco, Green-headed Oriole, gorgeous Red-tailed Ant-Thrush, modest-looking Usambara Thrush, secretive but noisy White-chested Alethe, Kretschmer’s Longbill, the enigmatic and near-endemic Long-billed Tailorbird, here at its only accessible location, pretty Yellow-throated Woodland Warblers, the delightful black and white Vanga Flycatcher and the tiny Banded Green Sunbirds. In addition to birds there are, of course, several endemic reptiles – especially chameleons, several amphibians, and an unknown number of endemic invertebrates.
Travelling north westwards, this time via the eastern margins of the South Pare mountains, we will visit Mkomazi reserve, a dry country environment where several species of the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem can be found. Here we will stay at a special camp at the edge of the reserve where the habitat is most diverse. Mkomazi should be our Tanzanian introduction to many ‘essential African’ bird groups: the Hamerkop, Secretary Bird, the Gymnogene, two Guineafowl, two Thicknees, three Coursers, three members of the Musophagidae – the Turacos and Go-away Birds, three species of Mousebird, African Hoopoe, two Wood Hoopoes, three honeyguides, three savanna hornbills, four thorn-wood barbets, three bush-shrikes and at least one helmet-shrike.
These semi-arid bushland habitats are also home to some rare mammals such as the giraffe-necked gazelle or Gerenuk and the shy and beautiful Lesser Kudu browsing inconspicuously among the acacias. Among the beautiful birds found here some have very restricted ranges e.g. Friedmann’s Lark, Scaly Chatterer and Tsavo Sunbird. Migration southwards across the equator will be in full flow just prior to Christmas, so we should be able find many Palearctic ‘winter visitors’ who come to Africa from Scandinavia, Asia Minor, Central Asia, the farthest corners of Russia and even Arctic Canada. Some unusual, or rarely seen, ones that we will be watching-out for include: the amazing insectivorous and social Amur Falcon and the scythe-winged Sooty Falcon that preys upon the migrating flocks of passerines, Iranias (White-throated Robin) skulking in the undergrowth, River and Basra Reed Warblers in the damper spots together with several other species of warbler. There are many wonderful resident birds here too; ranging in size from the antelope-killing Martial Eagle and trumpeting Buff-crested Bustards to the tiny tail-less Yellow-bellied Eremomela and dapper Mouse-coloured Penduline-Tit.
From the lowlands of Mkomazi in the early afternoon we’ll drive up to highland Arusha where we will stay for two nights in a quiet lodge set in naturally wooded grounds, on the outskirts of this world-famous ‘safari city’, its bustling often scruffy streets almost overshadowed by the extinct volcanic cone of mighty Mount Meru. Around the lodge itself we may see interesting and unusual birds such as the Brown-breasted Barbet, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Black-backed Puffback and Bronze Sunbird. We will rise extra early (0500hrs) next day to make the hour long pilgrimage out to Lark Plains, in the arid rain-shadow of Meru, to see the rarest bird in all of East Africa – the critically endangered and especially hard-to-find Beesley’s Lark which has a tiny population of perhaps fifty individuals. James Wolstencroft knows this bird better than anyone, and, so far has never failed to show them to visiting birders – a 100% record! These amazingly scenic plains, which form an arena surrounded by great mountains, should be green and grassy at the time of our visit; and we might find nine or even ten species of lark (including two other scarce ones – Athi Short-toed and Short-tailed), four species of pipit and five species of wheatear during our day down here.
Highly graceful Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, Eastern Chanting-Goshawk, Steppe Buzzards, Lanner Falcons and four kinds of kestrel quarter the plain in search of rodents (and baby larks!). Ostriches and Kori Bustards and three species of Sandgrouse (Yellow-throated, Chestnut-bellied and Black-faced) may make their first appearance on our birding journey, Lammergeiers (from their eyries on Mount Meru), Bateleurs and other less-noble looking scavengers, such as Marabou storks, and six vultures that include Lappet-faced and White-headed Vulture, are possible overhead. Among a hundred other regular species we may find: acrobatic Abyssinian Scimitarbills investigating the acacia twigs in search of caterpillars and spiders, White-fronted Bee-eaters, smartly pied Northern White-crowned Shrikes and Taita Fiscals, migrant Red-tailed Shrikes, Long-tailed and gorgeous Rosy-patched Shrikes hunting bees and beetles in the dry and scrubby ravines, here they are called ‘korongos’. Around the periphery of this birding arena Long-billed Pipits and Cinnamon-breasted Rock Buntings sing from the buff-coloured boulders, the graceful Red-fronted Warbler tail-wags in groups in the thickets, and somewhat comical and nuthatch-like Red-faced Crombecs, ash-coloured Fischer’s Starlings, Grey-capped Social Weavers and Southern Grosbeak Canaries perch-up obligingly on the thorn bushes.
After the semi-arid steppe we will continue our safari westward into the moister Zambezian ecological zone where we will stay at a wonderful lodge in Tarangire National Park on the eastern slope of the Rift Valley. Giant baobab trees and hundreds of African Elephants and other ‘big game’ species are major attractions of this large protected area. Birdlife is diverse and, depending upon the scale of the recent rains, we will be looking, in particular areas, for yet more special migrant and localized resident birds.
Species of special interest here might be Black Storks and Steppe Eagles from Central Asia, Rufous-bellied Heron, two species of Snake-Eagle, Red-necked Spurfowl, Yellow-collared Lovebird, family parties of the incredible-looking grasshopper and beetle eating Southern Ground Hornbill, sleepy, pink eye-lidded Verreaux’s Eagle-Owls, Mottled Spinetail (a small swift), the localized Rufous-crowned Roller, highly social Magpie Shrikes, Ashy Starling – the brown and dowdy, yet highly range-restricted, endemic cousin of the Golden-breasted Starling, Swahili Sparrow, the endemic Rufous-tailed Weaver and the Southern Black Bishop (friederichseni).
On the next day en route for the Crater Highlands we will stop off at the wetlands at the north end of Lake Manyara NP. In addition to the unforgettable antics of the hippos we will doubtless enjoy the thousands upon thousands of Lesser Flamingoes who create an intense broad pink margin to the lake that it is visible for miles. At the hippo pools there is a pair of Saddle-billed Storks, there are two species of Pelican, many species of herons, ducks, terns and migrant shorebirds and Red-throated Pipits from the high Arctic tundra; all will be sorted-out and their identification explained by our specialist guide who has worked with such birds for over forty years. After our fill of new species of palearctic shorebird and their ilk we will leave Lake Manyara and climb the switch back road out of the Rift Valley. Tonight will be spent, listening to the evocative whistles of Montane Nightjars, at a homely and very comfortable lodge, where once again we are sleeping under a blanket, in the refreshingly cool highlands.
Gibbs Farm is a functioning coffee estate on the very edge of the mountain forests of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. We will walk on a gentle trail, through the hill forest above this property, this morning looking for several forest bird species such as the rather scarce Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle, the shy and retiring Crested Guineafowl, the more widespread Hildebrandt’s Francolin, unobtrusive ground-haunting Lemon Doves, beautiful Purple-throated Cuckoo-shrikes, noisy Grey-capped Warblers and the marvellous Oriole Finch. In the late afternoon we will enter the ‘NCA’ by vehicle and climb to the rim of “the Crown” – and for the first time we will view the greatest jewel in all of Africa – the unsurpassable Ngorongoro Crater. Tonight will be spent at a lodge, or at a luxury tented camp nearby where, among the numerous montane forest species which we will be searching for, Schalow’s Turacos lurk, several sunbirds flit and glitter including the very special Tacazze and Golden-winged Sunbirds, as well as some far more sombre seedeaters and canaries.
Next day we must rise early in order to make the most of our time in what is truly one of the greatest wonders of the world. Words cannot describe the uniqueness and value of this place for any naturalist. By entering the park early we should be able to admire the stupendous wildlife without feeling in any way pressured. Apart from some twenty species of large mammal, in healthy numbers, we will certainly encounter an abundance and diversity of bird life that is almost as rare in this modern world. Flocks of White and Abdim’s Storks, statuesque Grey Crowned Cranes, numerous herons, five species of egret, close views of the two flamingo species on Lake Magadi, many more shorebirds including the rare and delicate-looking Chestnut-banded Plover, Pied Avocets, Black-bellied Bustards, brilliant Rosy-breasted Longclaws, tiny Pectoral-patch Cisticolas, the bouncing ‘lekking’ groups of spectacular male Jackson’s Widowbird and doubtless many more besides. Reluctantly, in the mid-afternoon, we will have to tear ourselves away from the marvels of the crater and drive to Ndutu which lies on the border between the NCA and “the Crown” itself – the mighty, world-renowned Serengeti. It’s from a Maasai word meaning endless plain of grasses. We will spend the night at Ndutu, in either the lodge or a luxury tented camp, marvelling at the inky infinitude of a star-studded African sky.
For the next two days we will explore the eastern perimeter of the world famous Serengeti ecosystem making the most of local knowledge and climatic conditions to see as much as is possible in such a relatively short time. Everyone with an interest in wild animals has heard of the Wildebeest migrations of the Serengeti that move with the rains around this unique and almost unbelievably rich region. By late December the Wildebeest and Zebra should be massing in the south east toward Ndutu Lake; and the famous feline predators will be following them. In addition to seeking out our own families of Lion, gazelle-hunting Cheetah brothers and stealthy solo kopje-living (a kopje is an isolated rocky outcrop) Leopards, we will marvel at the circling storks, the packs of vultures (and hyaenas and jackals), the harriers, various eagles, five kinds of falcon and the kites that at times so fill the skies, with so many varied forms of flight, that one does not know where to look. A further two endemic birds are to be found here in the Acacia tortilis woodland around Lake Ndutu – the Grey-breasted Spurfowl and Fischer’s Lovebird. The area is also especially good for migrants and itinerant cuckoos in particular come here for caterpillars in the acacias; they include two crested cuckoos, the clattering Great Spotted and handsome Jacobin. These two nights will probably be spent at the same camp in order to make the best use of our time in the Serengeti.
At about midday on our final safari day, likely having visited the little anthropological museum at Oldupai Gorge (around which, of course, there is some very good birding!) we will regretfully have to make our way to the nearby airstrip in order to catch our chartered plane to Arusha and thereby transfer to Kilimanjaro airport where the principle safari will conclude. A three night birding extension (with some optional afternoon snorkeling) to the beautiful and unspoilt northern tip of Pemba Island (for Crab Plover, four endemic Pemba birds – a Green Pigeon, a Scops Owl, a White-eye and a Sunbird and numerous shorebirds, terns and seabirds along the coastline) is available on request from your trustworthy Gonolek-guide.
Thanks to my friends Anabel Harries, Debbie Hilaire and Martin Goodey for some lovely shots as always. Thanks to Angelo Caruso for the Three-Storks, to Adam Riley and David Bygott for the Cape Vidal eagles and the Ndutu Safari Lodge poster respectively.