Safari Birding out of Arusha in Tanzania

Hundreds of thousands of nature tourists pass through Arusha every year. The busiest periods are around the northern school holidays in July-August and again from mid-December through January. The Christmas holidays typically coincide with the calving extravaganza of a ‘mobile feast’ of wildebeest in the short grass plains of the Serengeti. The former coincides with the southward surge of those wildebeest across the ‘crocodile infested’ turbulence of the Mara river six months later.

In the less expensive “low seasons” from November until December 15, and again in March and April-May, incalculable numbers of migrants birds stream through the territories of Tanzania. At Low Season the numer of tourists these days is almost insignificant and so accommodation costs are much lower. You should plan to visit at these times if that is at all possible.

The migrant birds are both boreal and austral in origin, yet inevitably there are many more of the former, from the vastness of Eurasia, than there are of the latter, from the southern cone of Africa. Fantastic numbers of insects, particularly dragonflies, moths and butterflies are also a conspicuous feature of this biannual pulsation. A fantastic movement of life, following the apparent poleward movement of the sun and the towering thunder clouds of the Inter Tropical Front, flowing outward and around the perpetual heat and humidity of the vast Congo forests.

I have been designing and guiding safaris for 11 years so that more of us may witness this extraordinarily beautiful biannual wing-filled phenomenon. And if you are fortunate enough to be able to come here, hopefully you too will be thrilled to encounter major bird movements and to savour a great number and diversity of mammals too.

The areas I concentrate upon usually begin with Mount Meru. This ragged shark’s fin of a volcano is what remains, after cataclysmic explosions half-destroyed this regal mountain, a neglected princess to Mount Kilimanjaro’s majesty. Meru’s cloud-veiled forests hide many sought-after afro-montane birds, including Hartlaub’s Turaco, Olive Woodpecker, “Nairobi” Pipit, Lynes’s Cisticoa and the very rare and attractive Abbott’s Starling; plus two near-endemic  greenbuls and the recently ‘elevated’ Kilimanjaro (or Volcano) White-eye, that is Zosterops eurycricotus.

Secondly we almost always visit the Maasai Lark Plains. If only to make sure that the critically endangered, utterly endemic, Maasai aka Beesley’s Lark (at long last split from the Spike-heeled Lark ‘complex’) is still alive, if not especially well! There are always up to eight other Alaudidae species (including Pink-breasted, Athi and Short-tailed) around this highly scenic “Arena of the Larks”. Nine larks to tick therefore, together with a host of other dry and steppe-country, restricted range species.

Then typically we would make a full day visit to a large wetland area, south of Arusha, to see more of the Somali- Maasai specialities, concentrating upon those that we may have missed during the previous day at the lark plains. Birds such as the ‘cosmic’ Golden-breasted Starling, the endearing White-headed Mousebird, furtive Scaly Chatterer, delictely hued Fischer’s Starlings and the highly endearing Mouse-coloured Penduline-Tit.

Continuing on a westerly course, finds us heading out toward the Great Rift Valley. Here we normally spend a couple of nights in either Tarangire NP with its majestic, yet sadly senile, savanna of “granny baobabs”, or two nights at the brackish Lake Manyara with its wonderful waterbirds, lush ground water forests and secluded ‘green bush camps’. These days always produce many, many birds, including an endemic cousin of the aforementioned Golden-breasted Starling, the dapper Ashy Starling and whirring flocks of the comical-looking Yellow-collared Lovebird.

Climbing the western wall of the rift valley we traverse rich red soils of the Karatu terrace before entering the mixed forests of the Ngorongoro Crater Highlands. Here there are forest bird communities similar to, yet genetically distinct from, those on the two great volcanoes that we left behind us to the east. No visit to these highlands should miss Tanzania’s number one, (or is it number two?), tourist destination: the definitively awe-inspiring Ngorongoro Crater. I’ve trundled down there so many, many times, yet upon each evening’s ascent, whilst we wend our way back up toward the lodge upon the rim, I feel a profound sense of honour. I feel that we’ve been blessed, to have been able to savour the magic of this animal-packed caldera. And of course a low season visit, when there are fewer tourists, as suggested above, knocks years off this fabulous experience – I feel it’s as close to being a time traveller as one can be, in these jumbled days of ours!

Westward again, down to and across the short grass plains of the Eastern Serengeti where we may witness great concentrations of vultures. Prehistoric assemblies that are almost impossible to find elsewhere, nowadays, on our increasingly toxified planet. And mighty soaring eagles too, eagles from Mongolia, harriers from Russia and exceptional concentrations of other large steppe-living birds from Central Asia. There are of course many African savanna species too. Birds as different as our three species of sandgrouse, the unique Secretary Bird and that flying colossus the Kori Bustard. Plus many that arguably are not “African”: Lesser Kestrels and Caspian Plovers from breeding sites in Kazakhstan, Gull-billed Terns and Rollers from the shores of the Black Sea and Amur Falcons from disused rookeries at Lake Khanka in Ussuriland close to the Pacific rim. Real phoenix birds these, a million wing beats far from where they chipped their egg, in a rook’s nest in an elm tree, beside “the ring of fire”.

Around both Ndutu and Seronera there are notable bird endemics too.  We may watch, with ease, coveys of Grey-breasted Spurfowl and swirling flocks of Fischer’s Lovebirds among the old, sparsely vegetated, acacia woodlands around Lake Masek. The Usambiro Barbet is common here and if we are lucky, a little farther to the west, we will find three, five-star birds, the Tanzanian (or Ruaha) Hornbill, the fantastic  Grey-crested Helmet-shrike and the unobtrusive Karamoja Apalis foraging in the canopy of the drepanolobium whistling thorns. All three are denizens of these western valley thickets, often around little safari airstrips, seemingly cut an age ago, into the heart of the African bush.

From “the corridor” we may travel yet farther west, to the mighty Lake Victoria (perhaps it would be better named Nyanza) or else catch a flight with Coastal Aviation all the way east to Tanga, on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

Here we can begin another quest for hard to match endemic birds. Birds of the ever-moist Usambara forests. These green jewels of the Eastern Arc mountains. And after that, an expenditure of considerable effort along slippert tracks in these montane rain forests, we may well feel we’ve earned a day or two (at least) of rest. Time to “tick-back” beside the surf, with all those sea and shore birds of the coast for company.

However, for the really gung-ho birders among us, there’s the opportunity to fly with Coastal the short hop to a low granite island called Pemba. Here at least four more fully endemic birds await our interest – a green pigeon, an owl, a white-eye and a sunbird – and they are frequently to be found immediately after arrival upon this idyllic tropical isle.

So, if you want to see the best of our lovely Tanzanian birds, and savour many not-to-be-missed amazing mammal encounters (at a price that’s not as crippling as it would otherwise be) then feel free to contact me. For I can put you in touch with the appropriate ground agent for such a job: to make sure that you have that “nature experience of a lifetime”. Here in peaceful Tanzania among the trees where women (and men) were born – or so we’re told.

Write to me soon. For even though this natural life is a wee bit better protected here, we doubt that it will remain this way for very much longer!