Try to arrive in Day Time and please bring a pair of binoculars with you – a pair for each participant!
When (not if) you come on safari to safe, secure and often courteous Tanzania try to make sure that your chosen airline will, with well-planned foresight, deposit you at Kilimanjaro International Airport – JRO. And choose one that deposits you in daylight! If that happens then your introduction to the delights of African birding shall begin at once. Even before you’ve stepped down from the plane, heading toward the reassuringly relaxed airport buildings, there will be Long-tailed Fiscal shrikes, so smartly dressed in black white and grey, together with incredibly iridescent Superb Starlings waiting there to greet you in the tiny, tidy garden. Here as if they live simply to delight you, and to lift your weary step, as you walk the mercifully short distance from aeroplane to arrivals hall.
The grand old shade trees that mark the grounds of the better lodges in Arusha often include great Cordia trees and majestic Sycamore figs; both of whom produce globular orange fruits that provide vital succour to a host of bird species. So here you will make your first acquaintance with three near-ubiquitous denizens of the Tanzanian bush, the Yellow-vented Bulbul, the wren-like Grey-backed Camaroptera and your first gang of the somewhat unruly ‘Colie punks’, better known as Speckled Mousebird. Yet there are rare birds here as well as common. For instance a Wahlberg’s Honeybird might be spied gleaning insects, high in the canopy. Or Brown-breasted Barbets, who frequently fly-in here for the fruit, feed together with Silvery-cheeked Hornbills and two lovely species of African pigeon – the delicate and retiring Olive, which comes down from the great mount Meru (that looms above the northern suburbs), and the portly African Green winging it from hillside forests closer to the lodge.
Beneath the tall trees family groups of rather ancient-looking Hadada Ibises strut purposefully across the verdant lawns of the lodge. Whilst on the floor in the shrubbery Arrow-marked Babblers and migrant Nightingales fossick among the dry leaves.
If we take a late afternoon guided walk with James, our bird expert, we should soon encounter representatives of other purely African bird families. With luck there will be family parties of two species of the somewhat clown-like Helmet-shrikes, the Retz’s and the White, members of a group of remarkable birds found only in Africa. Toward evening the glorious bell-like duetting of Tropical Boubous, and the snarls of the closely related Black-backed Puffback, may be heard as these pied shrike-like birds pass through the grounds and join a mixed feeding flock. Often together with the splendidly iridescent Green Wood-Hoopoes, which are also in an endemic family, who sidle up and down the gnarled and fissured trunks of the lofty shade trees in search of caterpillars.
Around dawn, from the shade of the shrubberies, and in the early evening that magnificent songster the Ruppell’s Robin-chat should be singing sweetly. During the day Brown-hooded Kingfishers and portly retiring Lizard Buzzards may be tracked down as they utter their plaintive piping calls from the quiet corners of the property.
After dark the African Wood-Owls and mighty Verreaux’s Eagle-Owls (see Paul Reed’s photo at top) call to one another, with mellow hoots and grumbly mutterings, from their perches among leafy boughs high above your rooms.
Here in the herbaceous borders you will also see your first sunbirds of the tour. Sunbirds are the old world counterpart of the dazzling hummingbirds of the Americas. There should be five sunbird species in the better lodge’s gardens, every day of the year. Namely the tiny emerald and gold Collared Sunbird, the exquisite green, yellow and turquoise Variable, the shining black and ruby Amethyst, the long-tailed Bronze and the decidedly dapper Scarlet-chested.
Please help Arusha National Park – demand a full day visit!
If you have a day with nothing pressing to do, why not come go with James for a full day’s birding “on safari” in Arusha National Park where he will properly introduce you to the joys of African birding?
Typically he finds over one hundred and forty species here in a single day, at any time of the year, something that would be impossible in such a small area were you in Europe or North America. Arusha’s very own park protects a diverse array of habitats from vaulting cliffs that tower above cool montane heathland, surveyed by the magnificent Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier), to humid tropical evergreen forest that shelters two species of resplendent scarlet and green Trogons.
There are several secret spots in the park that range from lush, reed-fringed freshwater pools, where chestnut African Jacanas (Lillytrotters) pick their way daintily between snoozing hippos; to crusty soda lakes whose alkaline waters are liberally sprinkled with Cape Teal, Pied Avocets, Ruff and huge flocks of two kinds of elegant flamingo – the rich pink Lesser and the lanky rose-red Greater.
Here you can be introduced, if you so wish, to your first of Africa’s many confusing ‘lbjs’, the brown passerines or “little brown jobs”, that are difficult for the beginner to name with certainty– birds such as several kinds of lark and pipit, and a bewildering selection of warblers. The warblers might include your first representatives of three delightful African songbird genera, which could become known as the ABC, the Apalises, the Batises and the Crombecs. You will also see your first of many types of aerial insectivores which are to be found in Tanzania—Africa’s swifts, swallows and martins—in fact we may see as many as six species of each today. Not to forget the truly fantastic Bee-eaters, of which we may find over five species in our single day’s safari.
In the cool of the forest you will soon hear the guttural monkey-like calls of the gorgeous Hartlaub’s Turaco, watch dazzling African Paradise-Flycatchers, unobtrusive African Dusky and endearing White-eyed Slaty Flycatchers. You can search for White-starred Robins and both Cape and Ruppell’s Robin-chats all of whom should be singing from deep within the undergrowth. Whilst watching splendid black and white Colobus Monkeys, cavorting in the tree tops, we’ll be keeping a watchful eye for their nemesis, that arch predator the majestic and very powerful Crowned Eagle who is armed with two three-inch hind claws.
At a secluded pool in a forest glade we may study families of Comb Ducks and Spur-winged Geese whilst stately Black and Saddle-billed Storks stand tall among the sedges, and dainty Common, Wood and Green Sandpipers, migrants from as far away as Finland, paddle delicately around the muddy margins. With luck there will even be a harlequin-patterned Painted Snipe lurking in the rushes close by. There’s so much to find in Arusha National Park it’s a shame, if not a crime, that more of us cannot go there to savour the avian riches almost literally on the safari city’s doorstep.
James Wolstencroft – “the Birdman of Arusha” – has been a bird watcher for over 57 years. He says that from a very early age he was indeed fortunate, being able to travel far and wide, to meet as many of our 10,000 feathered friends as possible. Since 2005 James has been resident in Tanzania. Here he guides what he calls “Birding Insight” safaris ( = BINS !!) for a variety of regional and international safari operators. He is only too willing to comment, often at length, about our imperilled “Natural Earth” to any interested group, be it big or small, whether here in Africa or far afield. Thank You!
To contact James – just email him – gonolekATgmail.com
JW would like to thank three of his fine friends – Zul Bhatia, Martin Goodey and Paul Reed for granting him permission to use their excellent photos in this article.