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The Eastern Arc – Forested Mountain Jewels of Tanzania

As one brown patch on a blue globe Africa is a rather dry island where white vapours off the surrounding seas shed their rain rather sparingly.”

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So wrote that incomparable African naturalist Jonathan Kingdon in Island Africa in 1990. Climatic stability in Africa has always been a great rarity; preserved chiefly in broken necklaces of ancient mountain gems scattered around the middle of the continent. One such necklace lies in a crescent form across East Africa. This is the Eastern Arc.

These days the forested mountains of the eastern arc, arranged from the Taita hills in Kenya to the Udzungwas of southern Tanzania, certainly look as if they are themselves islands. Island arks upon a great island; floating above the dusty plains of East Africa. A flotilla of emerald sailing ships adrift in a soft brown haze. These mountain ‘ships’ are ancient indeed. Crystalline remnants of old Gondwanaland they have survived intact the last 30 million years of separations and upheavals. Events that have shaped and reshaped the ancient living face of Africa. And amazingly their climates have remained quite stable so that on each, their endowment of life their nature, has developed separately, each block of life evolving in isolation from the ancestral forest stock.

Consequently each ‘island’ is now unique. They are known as ‘centres of endemism‘, or ‘biodiversity hot spots‘, two dreary modern catch phrases that do almost nothing to convey the wonderful living beauty of these treasure-trove forests. Forests which are home to an astonishing variety of plant and animal species, all of them unique beings which can be found nowhere else on Earth. And all of which owe their survival to the climatic stability and amazing complexity of environments which the mountains have preserved during the past 30 million years and more.

One of the richest areas of all is the Usambara mountains. For it is in and around this deeply dissected massif that the greatest variety of species may be found. The plateau of the East Usambaras in particular provides a variety of mini-climates, different soils and a wider spectrum of plants and animals than would seem possible in such a small area, certainly in any more homogeneous setting. The Usambaras attract a disproportionate share of the ocean rains, as do the Ulugurus and the eastern slopes of the Udzungwas farther inland.

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Yet there are the other mountains and other forests within this eastern arc. Each one differing slightly in size, in altitude and in age, in bedrock and in soils. And each of these dimensions of difference has had a profound influence upon the fauna and flora living there. Each forest sustains a treasury of rare plants and animals, preserving living luxuries which until recently have been woefully neglected by the commercial world of contemporary man. Each nurtures a mosaic of communities, creating a diversity and individuality that makes the forests of the islands, coastal hills and mountains of Tanzania some of the most exciting and important places in all of Africa.

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Neglect of these forests is a sad legacy of an alien, colonial mentality. Of an obsession with exotic plantations which excluded the development of community forestry which might have promoted indigenous trees, their use and values. Over the past twenty years great efforts have been made and rewards received. Certainly in this century of climate change Tanzania, and the world, cannot afford not to be actively trying to conserve these forests. For once destroyed or severely damaged there is no hope that they will ever be resurrected or replaced, and this poor country will have become incalculably poorer. Hope for their preservation resides in a wider recognition that the most precious bounty  conferred on this land by the blue ocean beyond is not simply fresh water and baskets of vegetables, not the bright red soils of the mountains, nor the white sands of the coast, but it is the ancient forest communities of nature itself, communities that now depend for their survival upon us; being as they are; scattered, isolated and vulnerable along East Africa’s seaboard and on a few old mountains inland.

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I  thank Martin Goodey for the top three pictures, which were taken at Mazumbai Forest Reserve, and Charles Davies for the photographs of both the Angola Colobus troupe and Martin Joho birding on the forest track at Magamba, all of which are located in the West Usambaras of Tanzania.

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Arusha National Park – a safari in itself

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A day in Arusha National Park will cost you, and your best friend, one hundred dollars. At least that’s the entrance fee for two “non-citizens”, i.e. for a couple of foreign non-resident adults plus car and driver, assuming that’s what you are. Yet assuming that you’re traveling in a local hire car with a local driver. And it’s for twelve daylight hours (0700 – 1900). To my mind a day in Arusha National Park is evidently worth that amount of money. So I go as often as possible, each visit yields at least one fabulous surprise. Every visit becomes a safari in itself.

Despite being a small protected area, by Tanzania’s giant standards, the 542 square kilometres of Arusha National Park provide a very varied ‘park’ indeed.

Firstly, there’s an incredible cliff, the red crescent. One of the highest cliffs in the world, created 8,000 years ago, when a massive explosion blew away half the giant cone of mighty Meru; although she’s been compensated since then with a breeding pair of Lammergeiers! The cliffs vault above an immense grey crater where an ash cone looms and hot springs bubble. Secondly, only eight kilometres to the east, there’s the ancient double caldera of Ngurdoto filled with untouched swamp and forest, three kilometres wide, and overlooked by seven perfect viewpoints. Thirdly, there’s forest. Magnificent highland, that’s afro-montane, forest of at least three types. Elsewhere there’s mature yellow-barked acacia woodland along rushing mountain rivers; several types of thicket, of bush-land and of grassland. And finally there’s a chain of crater lakes; each a different blend of freshness or of alkalinity.

Best of all perhaps, the park’s main gate is only 32 kilometres from the centre of Arusha. So our bustling little safari city provides the perfect base to sample some marvellous wonders, natural pleasures, in an increasingly overcrowded world. Wonders that start right here at the tourist hub of northern Tanzania.

The entire exploded cone of Mount Meru, at 4,566 metres, the eighth highest mountain in Africa, has only recently been incorporated within the park.  Yet ‘she’ utterly dominates the scene. Forty kilometres to the east the ice-capped fist of her brother, ‘Kibo’ of Kilimanjaro the world’s highest free-standing and truly independent mountain, bursts the horizon. And at 5,895 metres Kibo provides the summit of all Africa.

Mount Meru was first described to Europeans by Karl Klaus Von der Decken in 1862 after he glimpsed her during his second survey on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. In 1876 Count Teleki (a Hungarian) arrived in the region and enthused about the great abundance of hippos and black rhinos in that area of our park that surrounds the glorious, pristine, yes I mean ‘pristine’, Ngurdoto Crater. This crater forms a sanctum sanctorum within Arusha National Park. Well of course the rhinos were completely shot-out by the 1980s but that is another story.

In 1907 the Trappe family settled as ranchers at Momella and herded their cattle, chiefly across the lands of the Wameru people, all along the northern periphery of the present park. Mrs Trappe the elder became a legendary big game hunter and decided to turn a large proportion of the land which they controlled into a private hunting reserve.

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One hundred years is a long time in Africa. After the Second World War the winds of change blowing right across the continent gathered pace. In 1960 Ngurdoto Crater became a National Park. In 1967 with a foresight, that’s now been well and truly blinded, Mount Meru’s eastern cliff-face and forested slopes were included within the protected area. And the name was changed to Arusha National Park. This acknowledged the Warusha people, who live below what is now the western half of the national park. Despite developments outside, the park was again extended in 2006 to its present 542 sq km. (only 137 sq.km previously) in an audacious attempt by TANAPA to protect the upper forests (and their water), of the western and northern slopes of Mount Meru. Save them further degradation by the clamour for fuel and farm-land, among a massively increased human population, which for now has the mountain completely surrounded.

With such a great variety of habitats within a small compass this ‘forested oasis-island’ of Arusha National Park is obviously going to be excellent both for bird-watching and for padding that big safari list. It’s also a great place to find certain species of ‘difficult’ mammal, rare or hard to see elsewhere in Tanzania; as well as many kinds of ‘lesser wildlife’, reptiles and amphibians, and some remarkable invertebrates. Consequently a day or two birding, or accompanying birders, in Arusha National Park can provide the perfect add-on, both for the visiting birders themselves and for their non-birding colleagues! A very rewarding extension for all those undertaking a mainstream big game or wildlife safari around Tanzania’s northern circuit.

So we would highly recommend that visitors should stay in Tanzania for at least a couple of extra nights; preferably at one of the tranquil lodges nearest to Arusha park: Hatari Lodge by Momella Gate or Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge or Meru Simba nearer to the Main, that is the southern, Gate. Or else that they should stay at one of two less expensive, yet quite peaceful and green, lodges hidden-away in Arusha city itself; either at Karama Lodge or at Ilboru Safari Lodge, since even in Arusha you are only 40 minutes from the main gate.

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Once you have entered the park; and no doubt spent some minutes watching the first of many Maasai Giraffes – for Arusha National Park has the highest density, tamest and most epicurean giraffes anywhere – it is probably best to go straight to Serengeti Ndogo, a soft green marshy glade only two kilometres from the main gate. If you are a birder as you approach the glade keep a sharp look out for, the rare and as yet imperfectly described, Nairobi Pipit Anthus (similis) chyuluensis which feeds in the early morning along the roadside; here at its southernmost location. When flushed these Nairobi Pipits invariably fly up into the open leafy crown of one of the nearby heart-leaved Croton trees Croton macrostachyus. Once at the glade, park-up on the right hand side of the track, to enjoy close views of the herds of larger mammals, some of whom will be found grazing in this perennially lush meadow at any time of day. Typically there’s four of Arusha’s big five: Maasai Giraffe, African Buffalo, Common Zebra (Equus burchelli) and Common Waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus) together with that minister of magic the Warthog. Such large animals are invariably closely accompanied by small yet noisy flocks of slim brown birds – beady-eyed Red-billed Oxpeckers. Listen meanwhile for the simple yet evocative song of the Trilling Cisticola, which sounds as if an eighties trim-phone was ringing somewhere close, up atop the surrounding sage-bush (Ocimum suave). This big glade is a good place for,  scarce and exciting Palearctic wetland migrants, birds such as Black Stork or Corncrake in season; and for getting great views of, fabulously archaic and utterly exotic, Saddle-billed Stork searching for fish and amphibians such as Puddle Frogs and Bubbling Kassinas. A pair of these immense birds breed somewhere in the park in most years. Here you will find Spur-winged Goose and Egyptian Goose, large flocks of Sacred Ibis (because they were revered for delivering that vital Nile flood water to the Pharoahs) and Hadada Ibis; Black-headed Herons, three species of egret (Cattle, Great and Intermediate – often side by side) Three-banded Plover and numerous Wood and Green Sandpipers.

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There are often several hirundine species hawking amongst the larger ungulates; these frequently include fifty or more spatula-tailed Black Saw-wings as well as at least three species of martin. Last Sunday morning an adult male Martial Eagle (clearly the definitive eagle of war), all chocolate spotted and crisply white,  came hunting to the glade. First we knew there was a mighty dread among the regular fowl. Then he appeared. At the climax of two long leisurely sweeps, through circling skeins of terrified waterfowl, he took two Egyptian Goose goslings in the space of just five minutes. Like an airborne outcast gymnast, swinging-in to the olympic stadium to snatch both gold and silver from a stuttering official; accompanied by the hysterical honking grief of onlookers; especially the parents, both goose and gander, with all those gawky watching waterbirds. However he dropped his first fist-full of silver gosling as he landed in an isolated croton; and so retired to a tree in the farthest forest edge. He allowed the commotion to settle, prior to a second sweep and successful strike. It was fifteen minutes before we left him, still diligently preening in different Croton tree; since he’d eaten that hapless gosling, a mere morsel for him, gulped in two rips.

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From Serengeti Ndogo one should turn and retrace one’s steps slightly before branching east toward Ngurdoto Crater. For two kilometres you will pass wayside pools; where cryptic Malagasy Pond-Herons (aka Madagascar Squacco Heron) lurk away the austral winter; through slow growing dry forest before you reach the stream and former gate of the Ngurdoto Crater reserve. Here you enter a wall of tall evergreen forest which guards the lower slopes of this fairy-tale location. Among the many species of tree growing here are three species of slender graceful African Olive. Yet for me pride of place in this forest must go to the wild mango, otherwise known as Eastern Toad Tree (Tabernaemontana usambarensis). Named after the fruit, bufotine mangos that appear as warty green, peach-sized, doublers (paired mericarps) at the end of the twigs, peeking-out beneath straps of shiny crinkle-edged leaves. These mango and the wild figs of Ficus thonningi are beloved by that fast and agile, yet highly photogenic primate, the Blue Monkey Cercopithecus (nictitans) albogularis, whose ‘easy-going’ habituated troupes are frequently encountered within this shady forest. And by exciting Nymphalid butterflies. These include at least five species of my all-time favourites; large, robust and very fast-flying, the Emperors (Charaxes); and four species of Swallowtail which sometimes crowd together along with the Gold-banded Forester Euphaedra neophron on damp and pungent earth, beneath a branch where the lives of tree and monkey met. Or at some smelly scat, which marks that special place, where the coolest spotted jungle cat must have passed the night before.

WHITE-BARRED EMPEROR, charaxes brutus natalensis

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From the viewpoints along the Ngurdoto crater rim, furnished with a decent telescope, one can carefully scan the pristine marshy floor below. Hippos can be heard, haughtily snorting and guffawing, from the cool seclusion of great stands of papyrus; whilst large herds of buffalo graze or loaf, just chewing the cud, in the lush encircling pasture. In the tree tops all around you black and white robed Guereza Colobus (Colobus guereza caudatus) munch, seemingly interminably, on the poor nutrition of countless forest leaves; their guttural roaring chorus of audio-segregation is often joined by the tinny braying of ‘forest burros’, the cacophony which accompanies the effusive and distinctly clown-like antics of Silvery-cheeked Hornbills as they fly between the tree tops or bound through the crown of some forest noble.

In any one day many birds of prey traverse the skies above Ngurdoto crater. Augur Buzzards are seen frequently throughout the day. Last Sunday from our carefully chosen vantage point we watched three African White-backed Vultures sail past. Sadly finding these once abundant scavengers can no longer to be taken for granted. Even here in the safari-land of Tanzania. One pair of African Crowned Eagles, that “ogre of the monkey population”, armed with two four centimetre hind talons, breeds in the Ngurdoto forest. And there’s a further three pairs in the forests of Mount Meru. So the tremulous whistling call of this mighty bird may frequently be heard rising and falling somewhere above the surrounding leafy canopy. There are pairs of two falcon species breeding here. Little African Hobbys, alternately flashing slate grey above and rusty rufous below, dash after Mottled Swifts, Nyanza and Black Swifts, all three of which breed somewhere in the many cliffs and bluffs within Arusha National Park. The hobbys also capture dragonflies and butterflies; chasing them past the cliff-top guard rail often at, or even below, eye-level; and the heavily barred resident african race of Peregrine (Falco peregrinus minor), whose wickering calls reverberate around the crater during the breeding season, has a nest on a ledge just below one of the viewpoints in the cliff-face of Ngurdoto crater. The rather delicate looking, slightly crested, African Baza or African Cuckoo-Hawk is also occasionally to be seen at Ngurdoto, typically hunting arboreal Jackson’s Forest Lizards, two-horned chameleons or cicadas, in the upper storey of the forest.

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After an hour or so at one or two of these viewpoints our schedule must drive us on, so we descend back through the cool submontane forest to where the road branches to Momella. Along this track we come to the freshwater of Lake Longil. In some seasons there is a good variety of waterfowl here. Whilst Little Grebe, chunky Southern Pochard, Yellow-billed Duck, Hottentot Teal, the secretive White-backed Duck, Red-knobbed Coot, African Jacana and those two geese and ibises mentioned earlier (at Serengeti Ndogo) are often present whatever the time of year. A pair of African Fish Eagles hunt the fish in Lake Longil and often they may be seen perched on the snags of dead trees near the lake. A very local and near-endemic weaver the brilliantly-hued, chestnut-collared Taveta Golden Weaver breeds here in the tall emergent vegetation, not far from the road.

Further from Longil the road provides outstanding views westward to Mount Meru’s gaping eastern aspect and in the opposite direction to the dusty plains below the mighty bulk of Kilimanjaro. This area provides an excellent funnel for migrating birds, especially raptors in the appropriate season, and by taking an extended picnic here we have watched as many as twelve species passing in a single day – all from just one perfect spot. Best for me are the large flocks of insectivorous Central Asian Lesser Kestrel and especially the Amur Falcons (from easternmost Siberia), together with the occasional Sooty Falcon (from Arabia), that pass southward in November and early December.

After an early lunch, especially if you have only one day to spend here in Arusha National Park, it is best to press on to Momella gate; pick up an armed ranger ($20) and, by fording the turbulent Jekukumia or Engare Nanyuki river, ascend the steep mountain track toward Kitoto viewpoint which, on the lower edge of the heath zone at 2,500 metres, is a full one thousand metres higher, up on the eastern flank of Mount Meru.

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Whilst crossing the rushing waters of this boulder strewn river you should notice chunky White-fronted Bee-eaters, and possibly white-rumped Horus Swifts, circling overhead. These two species share the same clay tunnel breeding sites in the banks of the Engare Nanyuki by ‘hot-holing’; that is as the bee-eaters business ends the swifts move in. Also along the river bank, especially if it’s warm and sunny, Rock Agamas will be basking quite conspicuously; each adult male, perched-up on a favoured grey boulder, will be bobbing his orange-red head, in that typical agamid press-ups display.

Driving on you will enter evergreen forest once again. Especially in the moister months the forest interior is a magnificent exuberance of greens; there are enough shades to make an Irishman blush; this is because the trees are draped and festooned with epiphytic plants of many kinds. By mosses, orchids, many varied fern species and several beard lichens; all of which draw their sustenance from the often misty air, and are using the trees solely for support.

The large herds of buffalo now effectively isolated, by increasing human settlement and peripheral hunting or poaching, within Arusha National Park ensure that many of the forest areas are so heavily grazed and browsed that tree regeneration is anything but natural. Consequently in many areas the forest floor is remarkably open. However this makes it relatively easy, in certain places, to watch small groups of very handsome Bushbuck foraging in the open; the females smaller and light rufous, the males spiral-horned and greyish; and even to spot the two smaller forest antelope of this park, the plump and rather nervous-looking, deep bay-coloured Harvey’s Duiker and with luck, especially if it is even a bit misty, the diminutive, light eschewing, grey-olive Suni.

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The track climbs up toward Miriakamba, the lower of two climber’s hut on Mount Meru, passing through a variety of subtly different forest zones, out of which former clearings and more open hill tops protrude, and from which forest-living African Elephant can be seen. Along this road the beautiful Narina Trogon gives way with increasing altitude to the even more beautiful Bar-tailed Trogon, whilst the noisy Singing Cisticola of lower elevations is replaced by the even noisier Hunter’s Cisticola; clearly audible from Itikon campsite upwards. Similarly the Collared, Variable, Scarlet-chested, Amethyst, Olive and Bronze Sunbirds of lower elevations are replaced by Eastern Double-collared, Golden-winged, Malachite and Tacazze Sunbirds as you climb toward Miriakamba. The latter are especially evident if the Kniphofia thomsoni (red hot poker) are flowering.

You will notice that the forest changed profoundly at about 2000 metres; in the vicinity of Maio waterfall. True mountain forms dominate the scene. The indigenous Pencil Junipers (Juniperus procera), which began appearing along the wayside just before Momella gate, attain a far greater stature up here in the cool mountain air, and it seems very likely that these are amongst the tallest of their family anywhere in the world. They are joined by other Coniferophyta, the Podocarpus trees, known colloquially as East African Yellow Wood (Podocarpus falcatus) whose hard rounded fruit provide a major component of the diet of the large green, truly montane Red-fronted Parrot. In the undergrowth at this elevation, especially if there are knee-high grasses and red-flowered nettles (Urtica masaicus) flowering in partial shade, one should listen attentively for the high pitched ‘siip’ notes of Abyssinian Crimsonwings. With care very good views can be obtained.

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The higher forest zone resounds to the monkey-like guttural calls of another large, deep green bird the Hartlaub’s Turaco. This is the only turaco on Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru; in Tanzania each major mountain group supports a different species. Even if you have not hired an armed ranger it is permissible to get out of the 4×4 at Kitoto viewpoint and walk around a very short distance. Kitoto provides superb views across the northern half of the park. Birds of course are all around. One can watch pairs of African Crowned Eagles engaged in their roller-coaster display far above and frequently they are mobbed by mewing Mountain Buzzards. Look for Black-headed Mountain Greenbuls (Andropadus n. nigriceps) whose nasal laughing whinny is such a feature of these forests, the gorgeous Starred Robin, confiding Dusky Flycatchers and our delightful and vociferous resident leaf warbler – Phylloscopus umbrovirens – the unimaginatively named Brown Woodland Warbler. Special attention should be paid to finding the orange-billed, dark-coloured and regionally-endemic (Northern) Mountain Thrush (Turdus abyssinicus oldeani) and study those Montane White-eyes, they are of the regionally endemic form Zosterops (poliogaster) eurycricotus. Noisy groups sip nectar with their brush-tipped tongues at many of the flowers in bushes near to a rusty old trailer, itself an ancient relict, seemingly it’s been parked here as long as anyone can remember.

Stay here until after five, to enjoy the sun setting behind the great palisade of Meru and to savour the deliciously cool late afternoon air. Then sadly you must tear yourselves away from this tranquil scene; re-in-vehiculate (as the old shotguns at Birdquest used to say); and descend whence you came; presumably (yet with luck) to the rather dubious electrified pleasures of twenty-first century civilized life.

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Thanks to all the hard-pressed staff at Arusha National Park and thanks, as always, to Anabel Harries and Martin Goodey, thanks also to Rob Tizard for three images of rare and beautiful brown things, to Charles Davies for the Bar-tailed Trogon, and to Debbie Hilaire for allowing me to use her two photos – of  those Lesser Flamingos at Momella Lakes and for the pair of Cape Teal. All the photos were taken here near Arusha in Northern Tanzania.

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Birding Around Arusha

Anyone with the slightest interest in bird life whether they be living here or just visiting Tanzania is indeed fortunate. For in Tanzania there are birds literally everywhere.”

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From the icy barrens around Kilimanjaro’s snowy summit to the sun-baked soda flats of Lake Natron. From coral reefs and islets in the incredibly blue Indian Ocean, to the hippo pools at Manyara National Park or inside the fabled Ngorongoro Crater; from cool riparian forests of the Selous or in the Usambara Mountains to a little back garden in Arusha – everywhere in Tanzania there are beautiful birds to watch. You don’t need to be fabulously wealthy, or even to spend a small fortune in the National Parks, to enrich your life with a seemingly inexhaustible array of unique and intimate bird experiences.

Many, many bird species have been recorded within the territory of Tanzania; now approaching 1190 – pending ever more DNA analyses of the ‘difficult ones’ by the geneticists. That is half as many again as the number of birds being found, by all the ornithologists and birders who have ever lived, in Europe west of Moscow, or in America north of Mexico. Each of those regions having about 750 bird species regularly recorded within it.

Many tourists, most of whom have more than a passing interest in birds, come through the portal of Kilimanjaro International Airport and the booming city of Arusha as they head either for “Kili” or for those unique mammal experiences to be garnered  ‘out west’ in the spacious Serengeti.  Most have at least a little time to spare here and there along the way; so I thought it would be helpful to draw attention to some of the enviable birding situations in which they could find themselves around Arusha.

Kilimanjaro International Airport – KIA lodge: the airport environs, and adjacent small hotel, are often the first (and/or last) truly sensual experience of Tanzania for many a safari-goer. Carved out of what was once dry bush-land they are very good places to watch certain birds of prey – such as ‘wintering’ Pallid and Montagu´s Harrier, resident Black-shouldered Kite and Gabar Goshawk. The lodge gardens are always enlivened by the very tropical iridescence of Superb Starlings, Scarlet-chested and Variable Sunbirds. Comical yet very cute Blue-naped Mousebirds bound through the trees, ancient-looking Grey Hornbills pipe-whistle from the crowns of the acacias and tiny seed eating Red-cheeked Cordon Bleus peck about under the colourful flowering shrubs. Here you can get breathtaking face-to-face views of Little, Horus and White-rumped Swifts, Long-tailed Fiscal Shrikes, African Pied Wagtails and the ubiquitous Yellow-vented Bulbul as they come to drink – literally at eye level – from the delightful swimming pool in its ‘elevated mini-kopje’.

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Lake Duluti: the scenic crater lake of Duluti is surrounded by a footpath through tall indigenous forest trees that also passes a miniature papyrus swamp. Duluti is the perfect place for a brief morning, or late afternoon, bird walk. The fish-rich margins usually support White-breasted and Long-tailed Cormorants, several species of heron and egret, and often the odd Knob-billed Duck and Yellow-billed Stork. A pair of glorious African Fish Eagles and numerous piebald Augur Buzzards are often to be seen circling overhead. In the woods dapper White-cheeked and Brown-breasted Barbets scold noisily from the fruiting fig trees, dwarfed by ungainly Silvery-cheeked Hornbills who gather with swishing wing beats to cackle cacophonously from the higher branches. In the leafy shade of the forest floor, or in some dense vine tangle, some ‘skulkers’ lurk, as if too embarrassed by their own beauty to show themselves clearly:  African Pygmy Kingfisher, Red-capped Robin Chat, Collared Sunbirds and one of those pretty African domino finches – a neat study in black, white and red – the Twinspots (at this locality they’re Peter’s). There are also somewhat duller, but quite localised species such as Grey-Olive Greenbul and Black-throated Wattle-eye.

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Mount Meru: the upper zones and remaining forest of this giant sentinel, that dominates the bourgeoning safari city of Arusha, now lies within Arusha National Park. There are many excellent birds to be found around the shambas, ravines and woodlots of the lower slopes accessible from the city without too much difficulty (or expense) provided that you can find a suitable vehicle (getting ever easier) and a sufficiently knowledgeable local guide (more difficult – try 0683-510-929 – you just might be lucky!). The upper slopes, high above Ilboru Safari Lodge and Sakina district, are particularly interesting. However you must get beyond the Mexican pines and potato fields to get to the “really good birds”. Typical Afromontane species can still be found here especially, in the damper indigenous gulleys and in any accessible residual forest fragments. They include many really impressive birds, some of which are quite local or even rare, such as Crowned Eagle, Ayres’s Hawk Eagle, Hartlaub’s Turaco, Bar-tailed Trogon, Olive Woodpecker, Abbott´s Starling and Malachite Sunbird. There are also many small and cryptic species, that are far more modest in appearance, often damned hard to see well, yet likely to appeal at least to the birding connoisseur: Hunter’s Cisticola, Brown Woodland, Cinnamon Bracken and Evergreen Forest Warblers, Black-headed Mountain, Placid and Stripe-faced Greenbuls and Abyssinian Crimsonwing.

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Arusha Airport: outside the perimeter of the airport, just west of town, are some low scrubby hills that shelter pockets of moister broad-leaved bushland, small wetlands fed by seasonally dry korongos (seasonal watercourse or wadi) and groves of those moisture-loving acacias, the Yellow-barked Fever-tree. These areas support a very varied bird community. To do justice to this environment in words would, in itself, require a small book. However suffice to say here that even a brief exploration of any of the tracks that crisscross the area can turn up a selection of unusual and attractive bird species. Especially so during the peak migration months of November-December and March-April, and some of these species are quite difficult to find elsewhere. Some special favourites of mine live in the Burkha-Kisongo area: African Hobby, Greater Painted Snipe, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, African Firefinch, both Yellow and Southern Black Bishops (friederichseni), Jackson’s Golden-backed and Taveta Golden Weavers being among them.

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Oldoinyo Sambu and Lark Plains: on the recently ‘upgraded’ Nairobo road, about an hour out of Arusha, one comes to the scene of the weekly Maasai livestock market of Oldoinyo Sambu. At this ramshackle village, in addition to those ever present commensal scavengers – Yellow-billed Kites, Pied Crows and Red-winged Starlings one can occasionally meet with a great bird that is a true master of the skies. For one of the most magnificent of all flying beings, the Lammergeier, also known as Bearded Vulture or Bone-breaker, sometimes descends from eyries on the cliff-girt fastness of Mount Meru to the korongo at the back of the village. It comes in search of bones, thrown there by the decidedly earth-bound butchers, on Maasai market day. During the northern winter huge Steppe Eagles soaring on flat, broad wings join the smaller local Tawny Eagles who circle the village removing smaller scraps of offal from the vicinity of the market.

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Six kilometres downhill beyond the village you reach, on the right hand side, an open plain devoid of trees. This flat and inhospitable-looking area has recently become known within the international bird watching community as ‘Lark Plains’. Here there are no less than nine species of these somewhat nondescript yet, to my mind, highly attractive birds whose beautiful songs certainly more than compensate for what some see as their excessively dull, brown-biased plumage. Preeminent among the Alaudidae here is Beesley’s Lark, discovered in the early sixties by John Beesley and, according to prevailing cold-war fashion lumped, or dumped, by Con Benson in the Spike-heeled Lark complex. Recently split by the modern authorities; it has elevated to the rank of a full species with the most unenviable IUCN threat status of Critically Endangered. Only some 50-60 individuals remain – all of them confined to this circumscribed barren sub-desert plain that is called Ang’yata Osugat by Maasai graziers with whom the larks share the scant pasture.

Motorable tracks cross the plain and one must to stick to them, not only for fear of getting stuck, but also in order to avoid crushing eggs and nestlings of rare ground-nesting birds or scarring the fragile environment with yet more vehicle tracks. The area is now a local reserve, of sorts, and a daily fee, per person, is payable to the Engikaret villagers for “using their resource”. A signboard gives all the contact details and it is only right to comply. Moreover the consequences of not doing so might be rather unpleasant.

White-eyed.K

The other larks, of which my two favourites have been lumbered with the even more uninspiring names of Athi Short-toed and Short-tailed Lark, are not the only interesting birds out on the plain. There are many raptors here including resident White-eyed Kestrels, Lanner Falcons, Black-breasted and Brown Snake-Eagles as well as a host of migrant birds of prey, such as the delightful Amur Falcon, that come from as far as the Pacific seaboard of Siberia. There are huge Ostriches, and sedate Kori Bustards stalking among the red-robed Maasai across the grassy ‘wastes’, birds who either cannot or who seldom seem to feel the need to fly. Crowned Lapwings are common, exotic-looking Temminck´s and Two-banded Coursers remarkably inconspicuous, smartly black and white Capped Wheatears, brown and streaky Grassland Pipits and, as you approach the eastern margin of the plain, a whole host of species associated primarily with the acacia-commiphora thicket-woodland of what is known to ecologists as the Somali-Maasai biome.

Short-tailed Lark

To begin to describe this dry land avifauna that stretches away from here across Amboseli and Tsavo into the desertic strife-torn Horn is beyond the scope of this brief introductory birding article and, besides, we are now getting toward the limits of what can be done at a comfortable and leisurely pace, within two hour’s drive of the Clocktower in Arusha. The very much alive, not dead, centre of Africa; half way, or so they say, between Cape and Cairo !

CM&Beesley's.Sign

I would like to thank Hugh Chittenden, Martin Goodey, Anabel Harries and Elsie MacRae for their fine companionship as well as excellent photographic contributions. I also thank Daudi Peterson, Chris Magin of the RSPB, and everyone at BirdLife International in the Nairobi office for their efforts on behalf of the “Pixie of the Plain.”

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After a night of Rain, it’s Streaming Birds!

 Mambo-morning

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.

Red-tailed-Shrike2

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.

Lesser-Masked-Weaver

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.

spotted-flycatcher-babs

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).

syl c icterops anabel wolsencroft tanz 3-06

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-typeCommon 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.

Dideric-Cuckoo

juv.jacobin

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.

more from Mambo viewpoint

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.

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“Small and Brown Is Beautiful” said Admiral Hubert Lynes

Singing_longipennis

Looking back from today, at the ripe old age of 58, clearly I see that two interwoven themes have dominated and directed my birding life. Firstly a loathing of being indoors during daylight hours and secondly the overwhelming desire to live as free as a bird. In particular fulfilling the wish to travel south and north as do the migrating birds, making the most of our daylight, reveling in both the sunshine and the rain.

However in our world of compromise I cannot be outdoors whenever I wish, and I am not free to drop everything and everyone to fly along with my beloved birds, so I seek solace at every opportunity by retreating into my imagination.  Into tales about the secret lives of birds and birders – then and now. I find that reading the words of others often serves to rekindle that spark of wonder, even whilst stuck indoors; rekindle the flame which being-outside-in-Nature so easily ignites. And this is despite Mach’s principle that the element of wonder never lies in the phenomenon, but always in the person observing.

For example: after living in East Africa for nine years I can admit, at last, that I find the african grass warblers, nowadays called Cisticolas, truly wonderful. Admit that I am ready to take-them-on and, no longer in secret, to admit my love for this, the most difficult of avian genera (difficult in the sense of being hard to identify) to have issued from this grand old continent. Yes indeed. Praise be to the Cisticoline Grass Warblers! This is a very african group of birds; only three species of Cisticola have been able to maintain themselves beyond our shores. So in my opinion Cisticolas are as african as they are ‘great’!

I suppose it’s taken a while for me to ‘come-out’ on this one because these brown african grass warblers are certainly not many visiting birders’ favourite tipple. Typically it is seldom long after meeting me at Kilimanjaro International Airport, or at some isolated savanna airstrip in northern Tanzania, that one of my birding guests is apt to comment something along the following lines, yet rarely so polite!

Well, I’m not sure how to pronounce ‘Cisticola’, let alone how to identify them“.

Coastal

Also one finds, especially on more mammal-oriented safaris, that many guests will pointedly refuse to allow the vehicle’s driver to stop for such dreadful “LBJs”. Again, on walking safaris, it’s amazing how often guests, or those khaki-clad “big white hunters with guns” and even our local guides, fail to notice the cisticolas calling next to them, wing-snapping in aerial song-flight right over their heads, or ignore a whole family of cisticolas ‘duetting’ from a grass tussock almost under our noses.

According to Dale Zimmerman, Don Turner and David Pearson in their invaluable Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania one pronounces the c-word as follows:

sis-TIC-olas (the accent being on the second syllable) and these authors contend that the cisticolas “are small grass- or bush-dwelling warblers with a reputation for defying field determination. Species distinctions can be subtle, and complicated by racial, seasonal and individual variation…

It is perhaps unfortunate that the generic name Cisticola was first penned, for one dare say it might be a misnomer, by the German naturalist Johann Jakob Kaup. Certainly not by the young, yet widely travelled and, at 25 years of age, already retired, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, who was born in Constantinople, and quite accurately described, the marshy haunts of the Fan-tailed Warbler when he named it Sylvia juncidis during his stay in Sicily at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

It was later, in the middle years of that century, that Kaup appears to have coined the name Cisticola. Yet not one member of the entire family Cisticolidae is a “haunter of the cistus”. The Fan-tailed Juncidis is the only cisticola species to have braved that peninsula of Asia, which is called Europe, at least in historical times; and this is usually known nowadays as the Zitting Cisticola, although it was still called Fan-tailed Warbler Cisticola juncidis when I was a lad. It seems quite likely that this species was wrongly believed by Kaup to inhabit either maquis or garrigue (both are anthropogenic forms of Mediterranean woody scrubland – scrublands where the rock rose family, or Cistus, is particularly well-represented) rather than the marshy grasslands containing juncus beds that Rafinesque clearly knew it prefers.

However of late a theory has emerged that by giving them their generic name, Cisticola, Kaup could have meant that they are inhabitants (-cola) of a basket of woven twigs (Latin: cista-), referring to the finely meshed bottle-shaped nest of the Zitting Cisticola, where the entrance spout faces upwards, which happens to be that used by the most widespread species. Unfortunately no other Cisticola species builds a nest of the soda-bottle shape quite like this, so it is still not a name representative of the genus as a whole.

Zitting-Cisticola

If you’ve read this far it should be clear that active enjoyment of the African grass warblers, of the genus Cisticola, is an acquired taste. In fact nearly all of my birding customers, especially those first venturing onto sub-Saharan soil, and even some experienced safari guides here in Tanzania, will soon admit to either fearing or despising these brown birds, or both in roughly equal measure.

Consequently it remains true that sadly there seems to have been relatively little advance in our study and understanding of the genus since about 1955 when C.W. Mackworth-Praed and Captain C.H. B. Grant wrote in their ground-breaking African Handbook of Birds:

“We regret that it appears to us impossible to give any definition useful to the man in the field of what is a Cisticola and what is not.  Luckily their habits are mostly distinctive.”

However they continue:

Through the researches of the late Admiral Hubert Lynes more is known about the Grass Warblers than about any comparable group of African birds.

Whatever their general habitat whether downland, marshland, or woodland, grass of some sort is essential to their existence. They are insectivorous, and of generally inconspicuous habits, except in the case of breeding males. The tail is always of twelve feathers, and , unless very short, well graduated. In most species there is a subterminal black spot on the tail feathers, while the colouration is almost entirely made up of brown tints and shades in a variety of colour patterns with grey, buff and tawny. “

It so happens that Hubert Lynes was born on the very same date I first wrote this piece – November 27 – but a while back – in 1874. Hubert Lynes became interested in birds, their eggs and  and of course in ‘bird’s nesting’ at an early age and was only thirteen when he joined the Royal Navy. He devoted 32 years to that service during which time he rose to the rank of Rear Admiral. He made twelve expeditions to Africa and became possibly the most experience birding field man in Africa of his times. He made an expedition to Darfur between 1920 and 1922 and thereafter “became very interested in the fan-tailed warblers of the genus Cisticola”. Consequently in 1930 a special volume of The Ibis (the Journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union) was produced, entirely dedicated to these birds:

Cisticola-Long-tailed3

It was entitled A Review of the Genus Cisticola and earned Lynes the Goldman-Salvin award for its contribution to African ornithology.

After the publication of this seminal work Hubert Lynes made a further four expeditions to Africa primarily in order to clarify various points for a planned Appendix to that work. However on what became his last expedition, to Darfur in 1938, Lynes contracted shingles which badly affected the sight of one eye so that he returned to Britain in poor health. His health never fully recovered. He died in a military hospital in north Wales on November 10 1942.

He was described as an “outstanding character who had ideas of his own and carried them through, devoted to duty, a man of great generosity and the best of companions. He was handicapped by gun deafness but this was offset by an extremely quick eye. He was often impetuous but prepared for action, or an expedition, in a most methodical way.”

It is perhaps pertinent to note here that “Admiral Lynes never married and when not on sea duty was under the watchful care of his devoted sister, Miss Lynes.”

Although the constituents of such an unglamorous and widely distributed genus, often occurring as they do in derived and semi-open habitats, rather than in the depths of some “awesome forest”, have yet to be subjected to rigorous and widespread DNA analysis there are, almost certainly, at least 40 ‘good species’ of Cisticola here in East Africa. That is forty species within the boundaries of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania.

And in some terrific ‘LBJ’ places, within an area of say only 20 square kilometres, there could be as many as fifteen different kinds of Cisticola. What joys await!?

Yep! These are not soft brown sodas, sickly super-sugar bottle Colas, that we’re talking about here – they’re the Cisticolas; the original and best – the Grass Warblers of Africa. Nature’s crowning glory when you are “Birding between the Lynes!”

Africa’s Cisticola species certainly have some remarkable, perhaps unforgettable, names:

In the late eighties two truly exceptional British birders – we’ll acknowledge them, but by their first names only, Iain and Richard, once  guided an eighteen day ‘Quicklist‘ hard-core birders group across the habitats of Kenya.

Early one Sunday morning the birders stood attentively, in a quiet and respectful line, facing some big brown boulders at the base of a steep cliff, a ‘stake-out’ for what was then, and will again, be known as the Rock-loving Cisticola. Imagine the consternation within the group when, instead of a lispy chittering call, a bird’s vocalisation, Iain loudly plays the title track from Bruce Springstein’s “Born in the USA”.

Some of the, dare we say it, slower-witted customers grumbled audibly yet, no doubt they thought, under their breath about Iain’s er … morning condition:

My Gawd Mildred, he’s got the wrong tape again!

To whit Iain replied quite curtly:

No, No! They LOVE this, they REALLY do!”

Cisticola-Croaking-Q

Here are the names of some Cisticolas. Surely they’re birds and names for us to conjure with?

   * Red-faced Cisticola, Cisticola erythrops

   * Singing Cisticola, Cisticola cantans

   * Whistling Cisticola, Cisticola lateralis

   * Chattering Cisticola, Cisticola anonymus

   * Trilling Cisticola, Cisticola woosnami

   * Bubbling Cisticola, Cisticola bulliens

   * Chubb’s (Brown-backed) Cisticola, Cisticola chubbi

   * Hunter’s Cisticola, Cisticola hunteri

   * Black-lored Cisticola, Cisticola nigriloris

    *Kilombero (Melodious) Cisticola, Cisticola sp.nov.

   * Rock-loving Cisticola, Cisticola emini

   * Lazy Cisticola Cisticola aberrans

   * Boran Cisticola, Cisticola bodessa

   * Rattling Cisticola, Cisticola chiniana

   * Ashy Cisticola, Cisticola cinereolus

   * Red-pate Cisticola, Cisticola ruficeps

   * Dorst’s Cisticola, Cisticola guinea

   * Grey Cisticola, Cisticola rufilatus

   * Grey-backed Cisticola, Cisticola subruficapillus

   * Wailing Cisticola, Cisticola lais

   * Lynes’s Cisticola Cisticola distinctus

   * Tana River Cisticola, Cisticola restrictus (this one doesn’t really exist!)

   * Churring Cisticola, Cisticola njombe

   * Winding Cisticola, Cisticola marginatus

   * White-tailed Cisticola, Cisticola sp. nov. (nobody’s been bothered even to ‘officially’ name this one)

   * Chirping Cisticola, Cisticola pipiens

   * Carruthers’ Cisticola, Cisticola carruthersi

   * Levaillant’s Cisticola, Cisticola tinniens

   * Coastal Cisticola, Cisticola heamatocephalus

   * Luapula Cisticola, Citicola luapula

   * Rufous-winged Cisticola, Cisticola galactotes

   * Ethiopian Cisticola, Cisticola lugubris

   * Stout Cisticola, Cisticola robustus

   * Croaking Cisticola, Cisticola natalensis

   * Piping Cisticola, Cisticola fulvicapillus

   * Aberdare Cisticola, Cisticola aberdare

   * Tabora Cisticola, Cisticola angusticaudus

   * Slender-tailed (Black-tailed) Cisticola, Cisticola melanurus

   * Siffling (Short-winged) Cisticola, Cisticola brachypterus

   * Rufous Cisticola, Cisticola rufus

   * Foxy Cisticola, Cisticola troglodytes

   * Tiny Cisticola, Cisticola nanus

   * Zitting Cisticola, Cisticola juncidis

   * Socotra Cisticola, Cisticola haesitatus

   * Madagascar Cisticola, Cisticola cherinus

   * Desert Cisticola, Cisticola aridulus

   * Cloud Cisticola, Cisticola textrix

   * Black-backed Cisticola, Cisticola eximius

   * Cloud-scraping (Dambo) Cisticola, Cisticola dambo

   * Pectoral-patch Cisticola, Cisticola brunnescens

   * Pale-crowned Cisticola, Cisticola cinnamomeus

   * Wing-snapping Cisticola, Cisticola ayresii

   * Golden-headed Cisticola, Cisticola exilis (an Asian and Australasian representative – not found in Africa)

Cisticola-CroakingQ

The bird genera which have been placed in the new family Cisticolidae or, one might say, the African warblers:

Neomixis

Apalis

Camaroptera

Urorhipis

Calamonastes

Euryptila

Schistolais

Artisornis

Malcorus

Drymocichla

Urolais

Spiloptila

Cisticola

Incana

Scotocerca

Hypergerus

Eminia

Bathmocercus

Phyllolais

Orthotomus

Prinia

Eremomela

Recent DNA revelations here:

Nguembock B.; Fjeldsa J.; Tillier A.; Pasquet E. (2007): A phylogeny for the Cisticolidae (Aves: Passeriformes) based on nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequence data, and a re-interpretation of a unique nest-building specialization. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 42: 272-286.

Cisticola-Ashy

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Amur Falcons above East Africa during their migration: November 2006

 

This essay was originally a “Birdman” post entitled “Mes Amis Amur” IMG_5228

A thunderous tropical rain storm arriving, most unusually out of the north, broke against the great black massifs of Meru and Manjaro in the early hours of November 23, 2006. Shortly after daybreak Dismus and I once again escaped Arusha via the northbound Nairobi road; for a while yet this African highway is both dangerously and delightfully narrow – all too soon it will be upgraded by engineers of the next dynasty to a far more murderous, three-lane “Chinese modern standard”. Maybe. Because today raging torrents of coffee-coloured water frequently impede our progress as they rush the great slopes down. And, once we have descended to the desert plain of larks, it is clear, very few cars are making it through from Kenya.

By eight thirty we were watching the adult Maasai (Beesley’s) Larks behaving as if their young were alive and near, if not at, the nest site found on Tuesday. The grasses are already a centimetre higher, which makes observation in the percussive rainfall very difficult, and once we stop a couple of bedraggled shepherd boys in khaki rags inevitably start to make a bee-line for us across the sodden prairie. So we are forced (in order to spare the nest site from any disturbance) to move the Land Rover farther down what I’ve called ‘Longido lane’. Longido is a mountain and a stone, upon which the Maasai still sharpen the blades of their iconic spears.

We drive a couple of hundred metres in the grey persistent rain until abruptly we are stopped by no less than five bright apricot-chested beesleyi who are foraging right here beside this vehicle track. We watch them stumbling around between the low-lying grass tussocks, darkly drenched on crown and tail, for five minutes whilst the rain eases. And then abruptly it stops. I make notes on their foraging behaviour. Their feeding behaviour alters immediately the rains fall silent.

The plain is blanketed by a low-flying mist of ants emerging from bunker hollows in many a twisted Acacia mellifera that skirt the plain. Close-up their abdomens shine juicy and black like tiny succulent grapes. Queens and their male consorts – or perhaps two different species are involved, one small, one large – thousands of them are being consumed by scores of territory-holding Red-capped Larks and Grassland Pipits who can be seen rising vertically from the ground, to a height of a couple of metres, before abruptly dropping back. This is happening away into the distance as far as sight with bins can reach. A couple of the Maasai Larks make clumsy, yet effective, near-vertical sallies in pursuit of the feast from above.

Then, faint at first, awareness of a much-loved voice, thin and reedy yet simultaneously rich and deliciously liquid, a bugle call of comrades from afar – ringing ever louder in an otherwise slightly ominous pin-drop calm, a far-seeing yet sombre sharpness, seemingly unique to cyclonic conditions. The hanging eye of a slow, low pressure cell.

I scan and strain forward, peering into the gloomy north for some sight of those trilling voices; they’re somewhere near the fringing green acacia crowns that dominate the rising ground between us and the tin roofs of two churches in Engikaret village. Somewhere on a low hill, maybe three thousand metres from our position. However, the flying specks I see, instead of darting in the manner of the Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, are rapidly assembling into a cloud of wheeling raptors – aerodynamic insect-eating falcons no less.

“But they’re not Lesser Kestrels; happily to be expected here.

Oh no! Of course – my God! Amur Falcons, and at least a thousand, circling there!”

The cloud of agile, angular anchor-like silhouettes rise, and their numbers grow and grow. Some, like stocky swifts, are diving, others abruptly stall or bank to left and right, this way and that to capture the ants as together they swirl en masse beneath the pewter sky. We watch, by now with mouths agape, as the uppermost birds begin to peel-off from the flock and stream directly overhead, passing over us at between two and three hundred feet, above earth’s bound slaves, two bipeds, one black, one white. The pale face, by now more than slightly shaky, on the steaming sodden soil, beside a gun-metal crustacean – our Land Rover carapace.

Although the sky is watery, and vision dulled and grey, one can tell that the streaming flock is composed mostly of immatures and females. Their streaked breasts and contrasting clean white throats very neatly set-off by the black moustachials and dark hoods. Nevertheless many softly grey-blue tiercels are up there, flashing white wing linings, as they too winnow south within this magnificent procession of falcons old and young. Many birds almost pause above us, fluttering and wet-dog shuddering, as each in turn shakes, to jettison excessive water from those amazing feathers of flight. The entire column, estimated to have contained at least two thousand three hundred birds, advances steadily south, seemingly insane, straight toward the charcoal base of Mount Meru, glowering beneath a colossal heap of stacked, black cloud. Incredulous I watch them going, tiny midge like specks, against that fearful wall of cloud.

Layers of distracting thought now rise scrabbling within my brain, and for whose attention?

“Disciples of animal migration upon considering the movements of Falco amurensis; birds traveling each autumn at the height of the jet, across the greatest breadth of the Indian Ocean, night after day, after night, for perhaps a week, a journey whose beginnings are east of Vladivostok and end south of the Free State, birds who come February, March and April fuelled by the fat of African orthopterans, fly all the way back; might be well advised to prostrate themselves in reverence and awe.

Long have I yearned to enter the Amur migration movement.

In fact since late May of 1994, when I first met the species. I was co-leader with a Bird Quest tour group on maneuvers through Ussuriland. I clearly recall admiring their fluttering display flights, high above the floppy, black Rooks, whose vacated nests they were about to use. That was among the fruit blossom, of a perfect spring-time village, on the eastern shore of Lake Khanka (south of the Chinese border) in Russia’s Farthest East. Since those now dream-like days I remember scattered and precious few; most inspiring no doubt, that hazy eastbound gang of seven crossing the wide, brown Irrawaddy, within the lung-blasting furnace that is May in central Burma. In Africa until now I’ve met with only straggling southbound singletons, stumbled on here and there, in the sheeting rain near Moshi or out at Mkomazi, and right here at Angyata Osugat; a very tired individual clinging to a bush in a soft drizzle (the immature photographed by Steve Bird in 2005 – on tour with Bird Seekers).

But now, watching this flock of over two thousand strong, very recently ‘in-off’ the great ocean that keeps Asia to our east, I wonder:

“Could we have met before? In Russia, thirteen years ago, at the business end of this, easily the most epic of all raptor migrations?”

Suddenly my discursive reverie is thrust aside, by a calling here in the steaming heat, as if entering a sauna.

Treeep-atreeep, treep-treep-treep“!

Utterly brilliant and now so very noisy, the Blue-cheeks slalom round us – rushing skyward; calling forth the sun as only a Merops may. The vanguard is already weaving and darting amongst the last few, slightly struggling, Amur Falcons. And in this moment, above all these living beings, a celestial whiteness thins to star’s egg blue, and the sun’s energy pierces the cloying murk of this perfect desert storm. Up into that swirling spire of blue; all around us taking heart, tapping-into the power-source of Earth’s equatorial energy; these exquisite feathered insectivores, our all too momentary companions; sharp, emerald and bronze; hooked, slaty and blue .. vanish.

They’ve gone; more abruptly than they arrived.

Invisible. Dancing with the angels, returned to sunlight, on the coolest cushion of air, so far from sleep-walking pedestrians, in ground-down human lives.

And my heart is touched by sadness and regret, for time has scarce stood still.

Amurs_Yuri_Pator

My sincere thanks to one Yuri Pator via Wiki for the AF footer photo and to WTI, and the people at the lake in Nagaland, India. Thank You for your great efforts in helping to save this lovely bird species.

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Come Bird with us, among the Beasts!

Elephant_family_TRNG

It could be said some Eco-tourists come to ‘Tanganyika’ as pilgrims in the hope of finding answers when they bird among the beasts. Others come to snap-up memories, smuggled home in boxes, to rerun across these flickering screens until that last of days.

Whichever, we bear witness to what is arguably the greatest wildlife experience that’s left upon our Earth. An ungulate mecca driven across, what Maasai warriors once christened, the “Siringet” or endless plain. During this safari a breath-taking vista of the Serengeti savanna frequently seemed to fall away from the observer on all sides, stretching out over the horizon. It’s truly a vast wilderness, and seemingly untouched by human hand. Our safari began in earnest when we climbed into our Toyota Land Cruiser at Kilimanjaro International Airport, only twenty miles from “Kili” itself, fabled snow-crowned volcano, extinct yet free-standing and proud, beside the equator.

Our first two nights were spent at Hatari Lodge nestled in the forested foothills of Mount Meru, Kilimanjaro’s sister peak. Within an hour of our leaving the plane Daniel had safely piloted us into Arusha National Park where already we were delighting in what would be our first of many close encounters with Africa’s mega-fauna: in this case Common Zebra, African Buffalo and Maasai Giraffe. In the distance a monkey-eating African Crowned Eagle soared against the dark green backdrop of the mountain, whilst dapper African Stonechats and a variety of somewhat duller cisticolas popped-up among the roadside scrub.

We were to see a vast array of animal behaviour during this safari, as a bewildering variety of bird and mammal species revealed some of their most intimate moments to the highly privileged passengers in our vehicle. The first afternoon we made a visit to nearby Momella lakes, passing through grassland where mother buffalos and giraffes suckled tottering babies whilst White-browed Coucals, antiphonally-duetting Tropical Boubous, Grey-backed Camaropteras, Rattling Cisticolas and Pangani Lonclaws in the thorny acacias, ensured an undeniably authentic acoustic background to this essential African scene.

Next morning on the slopes of Ngurdoto Crater we were lucky to intercept, on foot, a tropical forest bird wave, which sent us sneaking to catch them behind the convenience block! Here a pair of Black-throated Wattle-eyes, three Placid Greenbuls, two Kenrick’s Starling, an African Paradise-Flycatcher and numerous Olive Sunbirds quickly added themselves to our bourgeoning list. Meanwhile, up above, stately Guereza Colobus monkeys hollered from the foliage in the canopy. Not far from here the lucky few glimpsed a pair of exotic Narina Trogons fly-catching beneath a foraging group of equally colourful Hartlaub’s Turacos.

At Momella Lakes both species of flamingo provided a superb spectacle, as they filtered the shallows in a leopard light of evening, seemingly just below our vehicle. Meanwhile various hirundines and swifts hawked for the lake’s Chironomid midges only feet above our heads. Around Hatari Lodge itself the White-fronted Bee-eaters were perhaps the most appreciated birds although a nearby pair of boisterous Egyptian Geese, cackling-away on top of a disused Hammerkop nest, vied for our attention.

From Mount Meru we made our way westwards via the dusty semi-desert of Lark Plains to Tarangire National Park.  Despite suffering a shattered side window, just as we reached the plain, we succeeded in finding a family of the gravely endangered Beesley’s Lark. The species for whom these plains are named, they were hopping about with a supporting cast of many much commoner bird species.

Inside Tarangire National Park ancient bottle-shaped ‘granny baobab’ trees dot a faunal reserve to create a kind of parkland, nowadays a unique living museum, that reveals how large parts of East Africa must have looked as the first Arab slavers trudged inland in search of the great interior. Here we encountered a trio of special birds endemic to these central plains of Tanzania: the Yellow-collared Lovebird, Ashy Starling and Rufous-tailed Weaver.

From the baobabs of Tarangire, some of which sheltered herds of Elephant and munching lions, from the searing sun, we left the Great Rift Valley, along its precipitous western wall, up onto Africa’s “Nubian Plate”.  Soon, after passing through the rich red soils of Karatu, at over 1,500 metres above sea level, we entered what seems like another world: the land of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority. Apart from our fellow travellers boxed, as we were, in safari vehicles trundling along dusty roads, and the staff of the very occasional administrative building, or in a handful of eccentric tourist camps and lodges, the only folk we saw from now on would be lanky Maasai herders. Men and women in robes of dazzling scarlet or brightest indigo blue, accompanying their piebald flocks; herds of ragged goats and fat-tailed sheep nibbling as they walked, amongst amiable one-humped cows.

For many visitors to Tanzania Ngorongoro Crater is the undoubted emotional highpoint of their safari.  This was surely true for us. Displaying Kori Bustards, mating lions, a pageant of water birds at the hippo pools, a pair of Bearded Woodpeckers, the sheer multitude of life, down in that most photogenic of natural environments; such sights will live long in our memories.

Leaving the crater rim we descended through an ancient-feeling Maasailand to Naabi Hill and the official entrance to the Serengeti National Park. Here we watched our first of several flocks of migrant Lesser Kestrels resting-up in the acacias, whilst brilliantly coloured Flat-headed Agamas scampered about, bobbing at our feet. Soon after leaving Naabi, and an old Marabou stork who was guarding the picnic site, we were very lucky indeed to draw-up alongside a Cheetah, lying right beside the road, enjoying the shade of a spiky Balanites tree. After admiring him for twenty minutes we were obliged to drive on toward our luxurious camp at Mbuzi Mawe, passing our first herds of Topi and increasing numbers of Wildebeest, whilst all-the-while listening-out for any tell-tale ‘Leopard traffic’ coming over the truck radio.

Despite the manifest wonders of the central Serengeti we had to push-on quite early next day, through the Western Corridor, necessary to deepen our understanding of the diversity of habitats that make up this nation-sized national park. The next two nights were spent beside Lake Victoria-Nyanza at the breezy Speke Bay Lodge where a whole new community of birds was waiting to greet and entertain us. Raucous African Fish Eagles, duetting Black-headed Gonoleks, ultra-confiding Swamp Flycatchers, Grey-capped Warblers and Angola Swallows, scintillating Red-chested Sunbirds, a broad selection of weaver species each with a different shape of bill, two species of gaudy bishop, fearless Thicknees (sometimes known as Dikkops) and a pair of Square-tailed Nightjars, snoozing by the parking spot.

Speke Bay was our terminus, from which we retraced our steps across the huge expanses of the Serengeti. After intervals watching hippos in the slow-flowing Grumeti river, and enjoying the wing-flapping display of the recently described Tanzanian Hornbill, we stopped for lunch at Seronera Visitor Centre. Soon after leaving we were treated to exceptional views of both tree-sprawling lions and a lovely female Leopard sitting in the crotch of a Yellow-barked Fever tree. After this we re-entered the short grass plains, which lie in the rain shadow of the Crater Highlands. Here countless thousands of Thompson’s and Grant’s Gazelles enlivened our journey to Ndutu, where would spend two nights in the perfectly situated Lake Masek Tented Lodge.  Sadly our driver Daniel was taken sick next day at Masek and so that morning we were driven by Ole a locally-born Maasai guide working with Tanganyika Wilderness Camps. He knew the back tracks, and all the rules, and was thereby able to get us up close to dumpy Chestnut-banded Plovers and elegant Greater Flamingos at the brackish Lake Ndutu, and to several raptor species perched in the umbrella acacias.

On the penultimate day of our safari we drove along the short cut toward Olduvai and, whilst stopping to admire some Black-winged Lapwings, Debbie spotted a distant clump of vultures on the plain. Bouncing overland, off-road, is still permitted in much of the NCAA and soon we were perched beside the jostling, snarling throng, composed largely of Lappet-faced and Ruppell’s, with just a couple of African White-backed Vultures, as they finished-off the last of what appeared to be a yearling wildebeest kill.

That day we ate our individually prepared packed lunches at over 2,500 metres, on the rolling temperate grasslands, not far from the Maasai settlement of Endulen, high above Lake Eyasi. Here Common Quails were calling, and lyre-tailed Jackson’s Widowbirds bounced among the tussocks of moor grass, to the evocative background sounds of cowbells and tinkling Yellow-crowned Canaries. Nevertheless well before nightfall we found ourselves back into the future, driving through a cloudburst, above Karatu town. And just as the heavens closed we pulled into the grounds of the extremely comfortable Tloma lodge for our last night in country.

On our final morning we walked up into the Croton forests of the NCAA that hug the outer western wall of the mighty crater. On the way to the forest, among the neatly-tended coffee plantations and organic vegetable plots, we passed a Peregrine Falcon watching African Green Pigeons who were gorging unconcernedly on Cordia berries in a tree top down below. Moments later a female chameleon tottered across our path, on delicate mitten feet. Once in the forest several bird species queued to join our list, including some that typically are “hard to get”, birds like Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle, Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Grey-Olive Greenbul, Green-backed Honeybird, Red-capped Robin-chat, White-tailed Crested Flycatcher and last but by no means least the highly appropriately named Thick-billed Seed-eater.

 We returned to the lodge for an early lunch then, with understandable reluctance, boarded our vehicle for the last time. After passing through the little town of Mto wa Mbu, down in the valley below, in the midst of the Manyara ranch game corridor, a pair of Giraffes emerged from the bush and crossing the road, book-ended us, as if to salute us on our way. All in all it was a fitting finale to a truly wonderful safari, one where the wildlife of Tanzania certainly did us proud.

sunbird_crater

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