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Bird Safari Advisory for Northern Tanzania

Birding Safaris for Modern Naturalists across Northern Tanzania in December

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If you google “Birding Tanzania” into the glistening grid you’ll call-up a screed of high-order gen. Typically the first twenty hits will be paid-for placements that promise encounters with a panoply of ornithological riches. Riches for which East Africa is, or was, rightly famous. Upon more careful reading however, you’ll find that there’s little detail. And not a devil to be seen, by which I mean, there’s scant explanation of how in 2014, so many birds can in fact be seen!

After ten years living here in Tanzania, searching-out the ornithological treasures; designing a wide cross-section of birding tours, from the gentle and relaxed to those for hard-core blokes, whose world lists already bulge with the not-so-latest splits from Clements Six and the IOC; we know it’s a lot harder than one might think to ‘deliver’ all those promised difficult birds. Why? Because, like it or not and obviously I don’t, things on the ground here are changing or rather, are being changed, so very, very fast. Even in such a safari-paradise corner as this is, on our still beautiful living planet. Yes indeed, the detrimental changes are nowhere faster, than here in the former Third World Countries of our dark mother Africa.

The great old land of Africa, as a result of her rich resources, both in and under the soil, not to mention her phenomenally youthful and restive population, is being hurled by mamunkind into a very uncertain future. Wayfaring here, watching the investors, as they push their turbo-developments everywhere across both land and sea, the eyes of an old naturalist become dim at such mind-boggling degradation, driven at such stunning speed. And here we do mean ‘stunning’!

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And Africa cooks on wood! Let’s consider for a moment the daily depredations of the charcoal-izer upon her ancient forests and savanna woodlands. Last week’s miombo woodland, growing say beside Mikumi, may have been cooked by now, into a multitude of bowls of maize ugali, either inland or at the coast and likely as not in teeming Dar es Salaam. Forest reduced into a stiff white porridge, a staple that somehow sustains the nations of eastern and southern Africa. Forest degradation for fuel wood, especially along the highways and byways, in the waysides and the woodlands, is making hot-shot birding, dependent upon stake-outs following a tight itinerary, demoralising at best. The fuel-bite of Dar es Salaam now chomps away each evening, down the Tan-Zam highway, deep into DRC.

So folks, without more ado, here’s another bird-based tour of Tanzania. But this one is for birders with a difference. A safari where the gloves and the blinkers are off!

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Let’s begin our Nature Tour of a Saturday evening in mid-December at, the remarkably peaceful, Kilimanjaro International Airport. This is where the daily KLM direct flights from Amsterdam arrive in Tanzania (not Dar). You will be met here by your birding eco-tutor and a ‘safe, reliable and courteous’ driver. You will be taken, in a Toyota safari vehicle with “pop-up roof”, a short distance to a clean and spacious hotel in Moshi town. This is a quiet, clean, old-fashioned place, nestled at the foot of snow-capped Kilimanjaro famed as the world’s highest free-standing mountain. Here you will spend your first night in-country.

Eagle, Crowned Cape Vidal SA AR-140

After a reasonably early breakfast you will head off south eastwards, making birding stops en route, to a delightfully old-fashioned hill station lodge where you will spend the second night. Today you’ll be travelling through dry red-earth land, acacia country in the main, alongside jagged and precipitous peaks, of the ancient Pare (spoken ‘Paraye’) and West Usambara mountains, which seemingly vault straight out of the savanna. These ancient beautiful mountains are home to very many endemic taxa of plant, arthropod and animal.

During the first morning there will brief sorties into the bush, searching for specialities of the acacia-commiphora Maasailand habitats through which you pass. Above them magnificent black and white Verreaux’s Eagles may be soaring. We’ll search for the highly localized White-headed Mousebird, anomalous and pipit-like Pink-breasted Lark, secretive shrike-like Pringle’s Puffback, and the simply spectacular, scintillating Golden-breasted Starling. We might have time to visit Nyumba ya Mungu reservoir, where if water levels are right, we’ll get an early taste of wetland avian delicacies for which East Africa is renowned.

In the late afternoon-early evening we hope to be able to explore the cool Ndelemai forest, quite close to our mountain lodge, where some speciality birds of the West Usambaras are to be found including the almost endemic Usambara NightjarUsambara Double-collared Sunbird and with some luck both the  African Tailorbird at its only ‘easy’ location and the Usambara Weaver.

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Next morning we will travel early to nearby forest patches to search for other birds of these mountains including the monkey-eating Crowned Eagle, Hartlaub’s Turaco, Usambara and Stripe-faced Greenbul, Sharpe’s Starling, the cryptic, near-invisible Spot-throat, the lovely White-starred Robin, the secretive and endemic Usambara Akalat (Ground Robin), bell-sounding Usambara Black Boubou and the, as yet, undescribed Usambara Drongo hawking insects along the forest edge. After an early lunch we will descend to the plains and drive for three hours to our simple jungle lodge in the lush evergreen setting of Amani nature reserve, deep in the East Usambaras, where we will stay for the next two nights. Delightful mammals encountered today should include the Angola Pied Colobus monkey and Lushoto Mountain Squirrel.

At Amani there are so many important bird species to search for that we may be stuck for choice. Our primary aim will be getting good views of some of the more elusive species of this unique forest. Birds such as the spectacular Fischer’s Turaco, Green-headed Oriole, gorgeous Red-tailed Ant-Thrush, modest-looking Usambara Thrush, secretive but noisy White-chested Alethe, Kretschmer’s Longbill, the enigmatic and near-endemic Long-billed Tailorbird, here at its only accessible location, pretty Yellow-throated Woodland Warblers, the delightful black and white Vanga Flycatcher and the tiny Banded Green Sunbirds. In addition to birds there are, of course, several endemic reptiles – especially chameleons, several amphibians, and an unknown number of endemic invertebrates.

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Travelling north westwards, this time via the eastern margins of the South Pare mountains, we will visit Mkomazi reserve, a dry country environment where several species of the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem can be found.  Here we will stay at a special camp at the edge of the reserve where the habitat is most diverse. Mkomazi should be our Tanzanian introduction to many ‘essential African’ bird groups: the Hamerkop, Secretary Bird, the Gymnogene, two Guineafowl, two Thicknees, three Coursers, three members of the Musophagidae – the Turacos and Go-away Birds, three species of Mousebird, African Hoopoe, two Wood Hoopoes, three honeyguides, three savanna hornbills, four thorn-wood barbets, three bush-shrikes and at least one helmet-shrike.

These semi-arid bushland habitats are also home to some rare mammals such as the giraffe-necked gazelle or Gerenuk and the shy and beautiful Lesser Kudu browsing inconspicuously among the acacias. Among the beautiful birds found here some have very restricted ranges e.g. Friedmann’s Lark, Scaly Chatterer and Tsavo Sunbird. Migration southwards across the equator will be in full flow just prior to Christmas, so we should be able find many Palearctic ‘winter visitors’ who come to Africa from Scandinavia, Asia Minor, Central Asia, the farthest corners of Russia and even Arctic Canada. Some unusual, or rarely seen, ones that we will be watching-out for include: the amazing insectivorous and social Amur Falcon and the scythe-winged Sooty Falcon that preys upon the migrating flocks of passerines, Iranias (White-throated Robin) skulking in the undergrowth, River and Basra Reed Warblers in the damper spots together with several other species of warbler. There are many wonderful resident birds here too; ranging in size from the antelope-killing Martial Eagle and trumpeting Buff-crested Bustards to the tiny tail-less Yellow-bellied Eremomela and dapper Mouse-coloured Penduline-Tit.

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From the lowlands of Mkomazi in the early afternoon we’ll drive up to highland Arusha where we will stay for two nights in a quiet lodge set in naturally wooded grounds, on the outskirts of this world-famous ‘safari city’, its bustling often scruffy streets almost overshadowed by the extinct volcanic cone of mighty Mount Meru. Around the lodge itself we may see interesting and unusual birds such as the Brown-breasted Barbet, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Black-backed Puffback and Bronze Sunbird. We will rise extra early (0500hrs) next day to make the hour long pilgrimage out to Lark Plains, in the arid rain-shadow of Meru, to see the rarest bird in all of East Africa – the critically endangered and especially hard-to-find Beesley’s Lark which has a tiny population of perhaps fifty individuals. James Wolstencroft knows this bird better than anyone, and, so far has never failed to show them to visiting birders – a 100% record! These amazingly scenic plains, which form an arena surrounded by great mountains, should be green and grassy at the time of our visit; and we might find nine or even ten species of lark (including two other scarce ones – Athi Short-toed and Short-tailed), four species of pipit and five species of wheatear during our day down here.

Highly graceful Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, Eastern Chanting-Goshawk, Steppe Buzzards, Lanner Falcons and four kinds of kestrel quarter the plain in search of rodents (and baby larks!). Ostriches and Kori Bustards and three species of Sandgrouse (Yellow-throated, Chestnut-bellied and Black-faced) may make their first appearance on our birding journey, Lammergeiers (from their eyries on Mount Meru), Bateleurs and other less-noble looking scavengers, such as Marabou storks, and six vultures that include Lappet-faced and White-headed Vulture, are possible overhead. Among a hundred other regular species we may find: acrobatic Abyssinian Scimitarbills investigating the acacia twigs in search of caterpillars and spiders, White-fronted Bee-eaters, smartly pied Northern White-crowned Shrikes and Taita Fiscals, migrant Red-tailed Shrikes, Long-tailed and gorgeous Rosy-patched Shrikes hunting bees and beetles in the dry and scrubby ravines, here they are called ‘korongos’. Around the periphery of this birding arena Long-billed Pipits and Cinnamon-breasted Rock Buntings sing from the buff-coloured boulders, the graceful Red-fronted Warbler tail-wags in groups in the thickets, and somewhat comical and nuthatch-like Red-faced Crombecs, ash-coloured Fischer’s Starlings, Grey-capped Social Weavers and Southern Grosbeak Canaries perch-up obligingly on the thorn bushes.

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After the semi-arid steppe we will continue our safari westward into the moister Zambezian ecological zone where we will stay at a wonderful lodge in Tarangire National Park on the eastern slope of the Rift Valley. Giant baobab trees and hundreds of African Elephants and other ‘big game’ species are major attractions of this large protected area. Birdlife is diverse and, depending upon the scale of the recent rains, we will be looking, in particular areas, for yet more special migrant and localized resident birds.

Species of special interest here might be Black Storks and Steppe Eagles from Central Asia, Rufous-bellied Heron, two species of Snake-Eagle, Red-necked Spurfowl, Yellow-collared Lovebird, family parties of the incredible-looking grasshopper and beetle eating Southern Ground Hornbill, sleepy, pink eye-lidded Verreaux’s Eagle-Owls, Mottled Spinetail (a small swift), the localized Rufous-crowned Roller, highly social Magpie Shrikes, Ashy Starling – the brown and dowdy, yet highly range-restricted, endemic cousin of the Golden-breasted Starling, Swahili Sparrow, the endemic Rufous-tailed Weaver and the Southern Black Bishop (friederichseni).

On the next day en route for the Crater Highlands we will stop off at the wetlands at the north end of Lake Manyara NP. In addition to the unforgettable antics of the hippos we will doubtless enjoy the thousands upon thousands of Lesser Flamingoes who create an intense broad pink margin to the lake that it is visible for miles. At the hippo pools there is a pair of Saddle-billed Storks, there are two species of Pelican, many species of herons, ducks, terns and migrant shorebirds and Red-throated Pipits from the high Arctic tundra; all will be sorted-out and their identification explained by our specialist guide who has worked with such birds for over forty years. After our fill of new species of palearctic shorebird and their ilk we will leave Lake Manyara and climb the switch back road out of the Rift Valley. Tonight will be spent, listening to the evocative whistles of Montane Nightjars, at a homely and very comfortable lodge, where once again we are sleeping under a blanket, in the refreshingly cool highlands.

Gibbs Farm is a functioning coffee estate on the very edge of the mountain forests of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. We will walk on a gentle trail, through the hill forest above this property, this morning looking for several forest bird species such as the rather scarce Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle, the shy and retiring Crested Guineafowl, the more widespread Hildebrandt’s Francolin, unobtrusive ground-haunting Lemon Doves, beautiful Purple-throated Cuckoo-shrikes, noisy Grey-capped Warblers and the marvellous Oriole Finch. In the late afternoon we will enter the ‘NCA’ by vehicle and climb to the rim of “the Crown” – and for the first time we will view the greatest jewel in all of Africa – the unsurpassable Ngorongoro Crater. Tonight will be spent at a lodge, or at a luxury tented camp nearby where, among the numerous montane forest species which we will be searching for, Schalow’s Turacos lurk, several sunbirds flit and glitter including the very special Tacazze and Golden-winged Sunbirds, as well as some far more sombre seedeaters and canaries.

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Next day we must rise early in order to make the most of our time in what is truly one of the greatest wonders of the world. Words cannot describe the uniqueness and value of this place for any naturalist. By entering the park early we should be able to admire the stupendous wildlife without feeling in any way pressured. Apart from some twenty species of large mammal, in healthy numbers, we will certainly encounter an abundance and diversity of bird life that is almost as rare in this modern world. Flocks of White and Abdim’s Storks, statuesque Grey Crowned Cranes, numerous herons, five species of egret, close views of the two flamingo species on Lake Magadi, many more shorebirds including the rare and delicate-looking Chestnut-banded Plover, Pied Avocets, Black-bellied Bustards, brilliant Rosy-breasted Longclaws, tiny Pectoral-patch Cisticolas, the bouncing ‘lekking’ groups of spectacular male Jackson’s Widowbird and doubtless many more besides. Reluctantly, in the mid-afternoon, we will have to tear ourselves away from the marvels of the crater and drive to Ndutu which lies on the border between the NCA and “the Crown” itself – the mighty, world-renowned Serengeti. It’s from a Maasai word meaning endless plain of grasses. We will spend the night at Ndutu, in either the lodge or a luxury tented camp, marvelling at the inky infinitude of a star-studded African sky.

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For the next two days we will explore the eastern perimeter of the world famous Serengeti ecosystem making the most of local knowledge and climatic conditions to see as much as is possible in such a relatively short time. Everyone with an interest in wild animals has heard of the Wildebeest migrations of the Serengeti that move with the rains around this unique and almost unbelievably rich region. By late December the Wildebeest and Zebra should be massing in the south east toward Ndutu Lake; and the famous feline predators will be following them. In addition to seeking out our own families of Lion, gazelle-hunting Cheetah brothers and stealthy solo kopje-living (a kopje is an isolated rocky outcrop) Leopards, we will marvel at the circling storks, the packs of vultures (and hyaenas and jackals), the harriers, various eagles, five kinds of falcon and the kites that at times so fill the skies, with so many varied forms of flight, that one does not know where to look. A further two endemic birds are to be found here in the Acacia tortilis woodland around Lake Ndutu – the Grey-breasted Spurfowl and Fischer’s Lovebird. The area is also especially good for migrants and itinerant cuckoos in particular come here for caterpillars in the acacias; they include two crested cuckoos, the clattering Great Spotted and handsome Jacobin. These two nights will probably be spent at the same camp in order to make the best use of our time in the Serengeti.

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At about midday on our final safari day, likely having visited the little anthropological museum at Oldupai Gorge (around which, of course, there is some very good birding!) we will regretfully have to make our way to the nearby airstrip in order to catch our chartered plane to Arusha and thereby transfer to Kilimanjaro airport where the principle safari will conclude. A three night birding extension (with some optional afternoon snorkeling) to the beautiful and unspoilt northern tip of Pemba Island (for Crab Plover, four endemic Pemba birds – a Green Pigeon, a Scops Owl, a White-eye and a Sunbird and numerous shorebirds, terns and seabirds along the coastline) is available on request from your trustworthy Gonolek-guide.

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Thanks to my friends Anabel Harries, Debbie Hilaire and Martin Goodey for some lovely shots as always. Thanks to Angelo Caruso for the Three-Storks, to Adam Riley and David Bygott for the Cape Vidal eagles and the Ndutu Safari Lodge poster respectively.

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Russet Rapture – Foxy Falcon Birding – Finding a First

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Or whatever you want to call that near perfect euphoria?

You know the score, the “M.M.MEGA” drill : a carefully nonchalant sms msg such as this one, from JW, Anabel Harries and young Frank Christopher on ‘Lark Plains’ to Neil Baker sent at 10.15 on Wednesday morning, March 8, 2006.

Fox Kestrel catching giant dung beetles in flight, magic!

And those immediately subsequent cell phone exchanges regarding the risk of causing another birder cardio-vascular irregularity – herewith please find Annabel’s excellent hand-held record shot of the bird and a brief tale of a russet tail.

We found the bird entirely by chance, how else? Mid cloudy morning on the outermost outwash fan of Mount Meru. I had decided that we should undertake what I felt sure would be a ‘negative registration transect’ for Beesley’s Lark in the northeast sector of the Osugat plain. So we set off from the northern track that crosses the plain walking southwards three abreast, Breton spaniel at heel, in the general direction of Momella and Mount Meru.  As anticipated there were very few larks of any species on the eroded and close-cropped tussock sward of this sector.  A couple of, post-cyclone rains, ubiquitous dun-coloured Athi Short-toed Larks fluttered-up ahead of us, one even rose heavenwards to provide some faltering song, a very small number of itinerant Fischer’s Sparrow-larks (ca 10) were tracking westward across our path into the open plain. Nothing at all to compare with the symphony of five larks enjoyed only an hour earlier in the western sector.

After a few minutes trudge yields one male Montagu’s Harrier, two Temminck’s Coursers and two Common Kestrels I notice a falcon shape rise from the ground 200 metres or so directly ahead of us, fly fast and low to the right then body-twist to neatly catch something small in mid-air. Up go the bins, and awareness goes into that million year old, adrenalin-fueled ‘wild image playback mode’ that some of us just know and love: flash memory comparison. “Wing pattern like a Grasshopper Buzzard , White-eyed Kestrel body shape maybe, but that colour? Overall richer than a Brahminy Kite and that full paddle of a tail, it glows richly redder than on any Red Kite.”

After a conscious inhalation I knew that such a slim, red and acrobatic falcon here in Africa must surely be Fox Kestrel, distant memories hazily recollected from the Sudanese border of Ethiopia on Christmas Day 1993.

However, we must completely eliminate the possibility of White-eyed which, there being an arguably resident pair on the plain, is just a tad more likely at this spot.

We walked on toward the bird’s position, it had dropped into a broad ‘furrow of dead ground’. Gradually we got closer and Anabel started taking some long range record shots. The bird would not allow a close approach but by mingling into a large and fairly fast moving mass of mammals; two hundred piebald sheep, two Somali donkeys and two little shepherd boys, who were all closing from our right; heading in the same direction straight toward the kestrel – we were able to get a good bit closer and Anabel secured a few essential images.

Over a period of perhaps one hour the bird mostly perched on the sparsely grassed ground, scanning attentively this way and that, yet revealing little more than head and shoulders. Intermittently it would rise to fly on ‘beautifully elasticized wings’ low over the sward before executing a neat sideways flick to grab and dispatch a cruising dung beetle. It would then alight delicately on the ground and consume whatever was required of the beetle.

Its incredibly rich colouration was a sight to behold. In particular the slightly graduated tail, the rump and mantle were a glowing russet red in the neutral light of that cloudy morning. At rest the blackish primaries contrasted very markedly with the rest of the bird. We tried hard to establish iris colour but could say only that they appeared warmish, definitely not white, maybe yellowish-brown. The feet were yellow. In flight the bird was more than a joy to watch; the pale, almost translucent, lightly barred panel in the spread primaries was conspicuous, especially pale when seen from below or when the bird executed a sharp turn to snatch a beetle.

After being chivvied along ahead of the grazing sheep for some fifteen minutes the bird began back-tracking, moving little by little northwards toward the main track.  Eventually it took off, rose higher on deep downward strokes the fifth or sixth of which was somehow interrupted to give the accelerating flight a very distinctive manner. After achieving the desired altitude or thermal position it circled buoyantly into the now clearing sky.

It was then in company with two out of a group of seven or so soaring Common Kestrels who had been, somewhat clumsily, diving earthwards to catch dung beetles. When last seen it was drifting slowly westwards at a height of maybe 200 metres.

All in all: one of those absolutely superb breaks that just make it all worthwhile.

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Meru’s montane forests and the desert steppe of Lark Plains – Tanzania’s Nature

Arusha’s Biggest Day in Nature

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We will collect you at your hotel in Arusha, preferably by 0600, and drive to the southern gate of Arusha National Park to arrive by 0715.

Bird fairly slowly from the vehicle through the forested central area of Arusha National Park to arrive at Momella gate by about 0900, where we will collect a ranger and ascend to the Kilimanjaro viewpoint (2200 m) on Mount Meru, again birding from vehicle en route.

A leisurely walk in the high altitude lichen-festooned forest around the viewpoint on Mount Meru from 1000 for one hour: African Crowned Eagle, Mountain Buzzard, Dusky Turtle Dove, Lemon Dove, Bar-tailed Trogon, Mottled and Nyanza Swift, Black-capped Mountain Greenbul, White-starred Robin, Mountain Thrush, Dusky and White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher, Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Brown Woodland Warbler, Hunter’s Cisticola, Eastern Double-collared, Taccaze and Golden-winged Sunbirds, Abyssinian Crimsonwing. Also Mitis (Sykes’s) Monkey, Guereza Colobus and Harvey’s Red Duiker.

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Walk down the trails from low stature cloud forest at 2000m through lofty juniper and podocarpus forest down to Maio waterfall at 1600m for lunch; all on the Miriakamba trail (three hours): Scaly Francolin, Red-fronted Parrot, Hartlaub’s Turaco, Bar-tailed Trogon, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, Moustached Green Tinker-Bird, Abbott’s, Waller’s and Kenrick’s Starling, Stripe-faced and Placid Greenbul, Evergreen Forest Warbler, Grey-capped Nigrita, Abyssinian Crimsonwing.

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Afternoon (1330): slow drive from Momella gate down to the arid steppe in a rain shadow of Mount Meru (one hour) and along the Osugat track in Longido’s Maasailand searching for the Critically Endangered Beesley’s Lark, Athi Short-toed, Short-tailed and Foxy Lark with up to five other lark species possible; resident, wintering and passage raptors, some acacia-commiphora specialities such as Black-faced Sandgrouse, White-headed Mousebird, Taita Fiscal, Fischer’s Starling, Red-fronted Warbler, Tiny and Ashy Cisticola, Mouse-coloured Penduline Tit, Southern Grosbeak Canary, Somali Golden-breasted Bunting (1600 to 1800). Possible mammals – Golden Jackal, Gerenuk and Lesser Kudu. Return to Arusha (about one hour) and drop off at hotel by 1930.

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The financial cost of this Natural Big Day, which is “tba” will be based on two persons sharing, includes:

  • Hire of Toyota Landcruiser 4WD, with pop-up roof, and the service of a mature and responsible driver
  • Entrance fees for Arusha National Park (TANAPA) and the Engikaret Maasai Lark Plains visitor permit
  • Services of a global-standard nature guide, plus an armed TANAPA forest ranger whilst on Mount Meru
  • Refreshment in the form of flasked coffee (instant!) or tea (bags!)

Please note that at least $85 would be required for any additional person, simply to cover the entrance fees, up to a maximum of six customers in the vehicle.

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Scintillating Starlings at the hub of Tanzania’s safari land

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August in East Africa. Mid-winter in Arusha National Park, three degrees South and more than a mile above our warming oceans. So cool, at times it’s almost cold. We’re experiencing mornings that are chilly enough. Nippy, so that tough locals, and less-tough expats, would feel much better in a windproof fleece. If they had one.

This past week I’ve been busy in the cool; birding early with overseas visitors, and bird-guide training. Spending the chilly mornings in lofty, misty, evergreen forest in Arusha National Park on Meru’s mountain side. And the warmer afternoons out in the dry and dusty Meru-Maasai country, on the plains that buffer Arusha National Park’s northern perimeter.

Some dawns the battle-ship grey, four and a half thousand metre, summit of Mount Meru is razor-clear. So it remains, jagged as if etched, against the softly blue mid-winter sky, and she stays that way from dawn until dusk. On many days however; even on those that begin sharp, bright and clear; a swirling woolly mass of cloud rises with the morning sun; drawn from humid montane forests who clothe Meru’s eastern shoulder. Cloud quickly hides the lofty volcano from view. By eight o’clock a huge cream-coloured turban of cloud has settled upon the mountain. Slowly it slips down the heathy upper slopes (Erica arborea), slapping a ceiling at about 2000m, right where we commence our birding, in the upper storey of a moss-bearded juniper forest.

On a typical day we leave Arusha at six thirty to be in the National Park, through the southern gate by opening time (about 0715 – although it’s supposed to open at seven). And we leave the park by 1400 via the northern exit, at Momella gate. Through the afternoon we’ll drive down past Ngare Nanyuki village (River of Bees) then turn west and descend yet further, wrapping up our day-list at the ornithologically famous Lark Plains at 1,300m. Finally we leave this Beesley-land just about sunset, via the Nairobi road, and be back in jostling Arusha by seven p.m.

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Aside from the pleasure of circumnavigating the great cloud-girt cone of Mount Meru in a day, each trip is remarkable for the variety of different habitats we pass through and, of course, for the wealth of bird species one can find therein. We’ll bird-watch either from an upper level, at about 2500 metres, in the lower heath zone among swirling mists at Kitoto View on Meru’s eastern flank; or we’ll start in somehow thicker cloud, on the forested rim of nearby Ngurdoto Crater, despite this being only 1800 metres asl. From Kitoto viewpoint one can walk down the mountain within the park, escorted by an armed park ranger of course, through lofty juniper and podocarpus forest. Outside the park, one can walk freely in yellow-barked acacia groves, near to Momella gate (at 1500m), and walk anywhere, so long as you are mindful and pay attention, in the stunted acacia-commiphora woodlands (about 1400m), down the wadi of the Osugat, north east of Lark Plains.

Do you find, as I do, that after a great day’s birding, when finally you lie in bed and doze, a kaleidoscope of images, like some internal slide show, revolves through your mind? And, that days afterwards, these recorded highlights shall return to brighten and enrich your other days? Foremost in my mind, today, are action replays of the shining afro-tropical starlings that we’ve seen of late – this austral winter.

So in mid-July, at about eight thirty a.m., we’re on the track through the lowest evergreen woodland in Arusha National Park. We are in a clearing around the dilapidated ‘park museum and rest rooms’, at 1600m, where crickets and tree-frogs hum and trill from the dense luxuriant undergrowth. Typically-tropical, broad-leaved trees reach up into the grey overcast sky of the morning. Here if one waits patiently for a few minutes, a hungry bird party should come through on its morning circuit. These Arusha park bird parties are frequently separated into two different groups seemingly by size. The feeding flocks of larger-sized birds should include especially if there is a fruiting tree nearby, among an exotica of insect-hunters like manic-faced Retz’s Helmet-shrikes and so placid-by-comparison Black Cuckoo-shrikes plus several snappy Black-headed Orioles our first frugivorous starKenrick’s Starling.

 Kenrick's Starling.feeding.juv

Poeoptera kenricki is an atypical starling, apparently the shortest-bodied of all the world’s starlings, at less than 15 cm or 6″. It is not necessarily immediately recognizable as a starling even. Do not bother looking for chestnut primary patches on these birds. Only the females have any red in the wing; and this is hard to see, even in flight and especially in the morning gloom. The pigmented area is so slight that it’s often invisible when these tree-top birds are perched, out on dead branch, silhouetted against the sky. The best way to get onto Kenrick’s is by their structure – by shape. These are clearly short-bodied, slim-looking birds with quite long, narrow, parallel-sided tails and small heads with delicate-looking bills, such that they might suggest, at a first glance, one of the african Black Flycatchers (Melaenornis). Kenrick’s in Tanzania is easiest to find in the mountain forests of the Usambaras, around the Crater Highlands at Ngorongoro, or here at little Ngurdoto in Arusha National Park.

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Waller’s Starling Onychognathus walleri (no photograph available) is a far more widespread, more abundant, and more easily seen frugivorous forest starling, both here in Arusha National Park, on Kilimanjaro and in the Usambara mountains. Although like Kenrick’s it’s a tree top dweller, both sexes have red eyes and prominent reddish primary patches. When that is not visible then you should be seeing a chunkier, broad-tailed starling, much glossier than Kenrick’s and far noisier. Indeed Waller’s just can’t keep quiet for long, their rich fluty ‘oriolus’ wolf-whistles are a constant and uplifting feature of the podocarpus-juniperus woodland of Meru and other protected montane forests, especially in the early months of June through December.

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Red-winged Starling Onychognathus morio is often the first starling species seen by visitors to Tanzania. Being a lover of cliffs, an obligate petrophile (as they might say in some Handbook to the Birds of Africa), it has taken to the cement cliffs of our alien towns, which have sprawled across East Africa during the past hundred years. Fittingly these days, the proliferating petrol stations are an easy place to watch this rock-loving bird right up close!

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The dusty Maasai plains north of Arusha appear to be filled at this time of year with loose mixed flocks of chunky, short-tailed ‘typical starling-shaped’ Spreo starlings that are nowadays placed in the genus Lamprotornis along with all the other amazing african glossy starlings. The two commonest glossy starlings here are not just glossy, they’re amizingly iridescent, jeweled in an exotic play of shifting blues and purples, set-off perfectly by their brick or ginger red ‘carotinoid’ underparts. One cannot fail to meet our safari-icon-bird the Superb Starling, (Lamprotornis – formerly Spreo superbus), it lives all around the park’s perimeter, in fact throughout the dry, well-grazed parts of safariland. In a few places, as at Lark Plains,  it occurs in mixed flocks together with the less well-known, yet equally gorgeous, purple haze of the red-eyed Hildebrandt’s (L. hildebrandti).

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In the lowest driest, yellow-earth areas of Tanzania’s eastern Maasailand, seemingly especially around the three metre earthenware spires of termite mounds, and lime green fruiting salvadora bushes, small numbers of the similarly-sized, yet by contrast almost puritanical, or maybe refreshingly modest, all white-shock-eyed, grey-brown and fawn Fischer’s Starling (L. fischeri) makes an appearance.

Fischer's_Starling

Also in the dry zone, yet rather scarce at this cool time of year, is another starling of somewhat sombre hue, for which the far rarer Fischer’s might be mistaken at a considerable distance. This is the Wattled Starling, Creatophora cinerea, a very Sturnus starling -like bird, that follows the great ungulate herds on their seasonal migrations and frequently descends onto Maasailand in hundreds of thousands. In wetter years like last, they breed in great number near the northern border of Arusha National Park when grasshoppers, upon which they more or less depend, are abundant. In January 2007, immersed in those greening, grasshoppering, El Nino rains, hundreds of pairs nested around the wonderful Hemingway’s Camp (established by Hoopoe Safaris) on the abnormally verdant plains of West Kilimanjaro ranch. Groups of garrulous, jostling males made for a truly fantastic sight as they displayed upon the stunted green whistling thorn acacias, wings flapping, floppy flat black wattles all-aquiver. As they sing surely those wattles must tickle their bald but golden pates?

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Despite the taxonomic revolutions that have recently swept-clean the genus Spreo, the bird I now call Violet-backed Starling has succeeded in holding-fast within its genus – Cinnyricinclus – for some considerable time. Nevertheless the english name of C. leucogaster has suffered several changes – through both time and space, as if in keeping with the erratic socio-economic winds that have been blowing across Africa these past hundred years. This is another small starling, a berry-eater and long-distance migrant, and with some seemingly separate populations in Africa, a northern and a southern. It is certainly rare around Arusha at this time of year, but is due back in force very soon.

Last but by no means least are the two small frugivorous starlings in the genus Pholia: named Abbott’s and Sharpe’s. These are strictly forest birds. The lightweights of the starling family; an Abbott’s weighing only 34 grams (1.2 oz); and typically they’re the hardest to find, at least here around Arusha. Both are East African endemics, being confined to Kenya and Tanzania, both are certainly quite rare, nobody really knows, and since they require cavities in old trees for nesting in medium elevation montane forest, they’ve both been at the ‘sharp-end’ of humanity’s incredible population expansion across this Africa this past century.

 Abbots-male

Nowadays I know of only two reliable sites for Abbott’s Starling on Mount Meru, at both of which in late July breeding seemed imminent, just yesterday we watched a singing male, outside the park, high in a fig tree on the very edge of shamba land, far above the haze of this, the Safari City. It may just be that they are afforded some protection by the fact that the Maasai and Warusha peoples, who live around Mount Meru, continue to hold sacred many of the Ficus trees, upon whose fruit these starlings like to feed. These venerable fig tees continue, even to this day, to line the narrow watercourses which funnel down mighty Meru’s flank. These great fig trees, whose ‘strangling’ aerial roots and stems, are seen by the Warusha folk as an essential connection between heaven and earth, are consequently the only arboreal giants left unmolested among these densely-populated hills.

The dumpy Sharpe’s Starling Pholia sharpei, although a bit more widespread is, in my experience, more capricious in its appearances, more difficult to find than Abbott’s. The tallest trees, as at Mikindu, along the rim of the Ngurdoto Crater in Arusha National Park, and the ridges to the east of the Magamba sawmill track, in the West Usambaras, these remain the best places in Tanzania in which to find this piebald little sprite!

Forest at Mikindu Observation point

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Find 500 Birds around Mount Meru in Tanzania

Sat_MeruNearly 650 bird species have been recorded in an area only slightly wider than that covered by this green satellite photograph of Mount Meru in Northern Tanzania. The long axis of the photograph amounts to barely 30 km. And since June 2005 this area, within a radius of about 20 km from the summit ridge of Mount Meru, has become the core of my home range. Not bad for a “birder’s local patch”. Although I do miss the ocean badly!

BIRDING MOUNT MERU – A FIVE DAY BIRDING ITINERARY

Night One: An evening arrival from Europe into Tanzania is highly recommended, ideally on board KLM’s direct flight from Amsterdam Schiphol to Kilimanjaro International Airport.

There will follow an hour’s transfer by 4WD safari vehicle, with that all-important pop-up roof, either into Arusha town (economy options), or to Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge or Hatari Lodge (the high convenience options – hco), to arrive in time for some ‘owling’ or a perhaps little ‘jarring’ over a delicious evening snack under the stars of Africa.

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If you choose the higher convenience option, your accommodation will be at either Hatari Lodge or Ngare Sero Lodge – both of which are family-run and extremely well situated by being on the edge of the national park.

African Hobby

Nights Two & Three: Two full days exploring Arusha National Park

After a breakfast, inevitably interrupted by birds, we’ll drive to the undisturbed evergreen forest surrounding Ngurdoto crater (see green photo above – rhs), an outlier of Mount Meru which is such a majestic feature of this landscape. The outer walls of Ngurdoto, a small and secluded basin in the jungle, are clothed with luxuriant submontane forest. On the drive we will enter dense and beautiful stands of African olive Olea africana and O. hochstetteri and a variety of strangling figs Ficus thonningii that form a canopy over the narrow road up to the crater rim. The cliff girt sides of the crater itself are clad with sprawling ferns and Mikindu date palms which support nesting pairs of both African Hobby and the resident race minor of Peregrine. We should be able to walk along broad footpaths near the crater rim that provide excellent vantage points and a superlative view over the forest canopy. Looking out across the swampy floor of the crater one can admire a forested mountain ridge that leads the eye to the shimmering snows of Mount Kilimanjaro, only forty kilometres distant. From our elevated position Cape BuffaloBushbuck and family parties of Common Warthog can be observed foraging on the improbably green crater floor. These ungulates often share their Typha and Cyperus papyrus swamps with an array of wetland birds.

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We may see both Black and Yellow-billed Storks, perhaps even Saddle-billed (has bred) together with various herons and egrets. Periodically the trees around the viewpoints bustle with bird activity as a mixed species foraging-wave ripples through. We should be able to enjoy much of the varied bird community here which includes both widespread and local elements. For example we might find regionally scarce species such as African Cuckoo Hawk and Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon; and will almost certainly see Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaterSilvery-cheeked HornbillWhite-eared Barbet, Black Rough-wing SwallowAfrican Hill Babbler, Placid GreenbulWhite-eyed Slaty FlycatcherKenrick’s and Waller’s StarlingsMontane White-eyeBlack-fronted Bush-shrike, Collared Sunbird and several equally attractive migrant bird species.

 Buffs.Ngurdoto(AH)

After a picnic lunch at Mikindu vantage point we shall continue our exploration of Arusha National Park. Likely our next stop will be at “Serengeti Ndogo’” a spacious glade where iconic large mammals, such as Maasai Giraffe and Plains Zebra are usually accompanied by various water birds around the shallow pools and wallows. Then we will travel through forest at a lower altitude, entering a distinctly different environment.  The tiny Sunni Antelope is often seen here as is the near-endemic duiker of the form harveyi a potential split from Natal Red Duiker. We shall scan the treetops for Mitis Monkey and troupes of ornate Guereza Black and White Colobus. Birds here might include African Emerald Cuckoo, perhaps a roosting African Wood-Owl, the lowland Narina TrogonMoustached Green TinkerbirdBlack-backed Puffback, Forest BatisBlack-headed Apalis and Black-headed Oriole. A stop at a small marsh in the forest might yield brief views of a Buff-spotted Flufftail or the slightly less skulking African Waterail particularly if the weather conditions are conducive. After our first day’s birding (back) in the Afrotropics, our minds will have been exposed to many sensations from the great forests and marshes of Africa’s past. So we shall return to our lodge in the late afternoon in plenty of time for a relaxing dinner. Night at Ngare Sero or Hatari Lodge or in accommodation of a similar standard nearer to Arusha.

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Arusha National Park – the forested slopes and alti-montane shrublands of Mount Meru 

Today we will explore vegetation zones on the eastern slopes of Mount Meru both by vehicle and on foot with an emphasis on the montane evergreen forest. Our 4WD vehicle will enable us to ascend with relative ease through the different floral zones of the mountain. We will pass through areas characterised by African olives and groves of gnarled Wild Mango Tabernaemontana usambarensis climbing into areas dominated by stately pencil cedars (Juniperus procera) and towering African Yellow-beam Podocarpus gracilior. The trunks and branches of the forest trees are festooned with a great variety of epiphytes whilst the pendulous garlands of old man’s beard (Usnea) contribute to a feeling of other-worldly enchantment. Accompanied by an armed forest ranger (for there are misanthropic old buffalo in these mountain woods!) we shall enter secret forest glades and walk the banks of mountain streams lined with flowering red hot pokers Kniphofia thompsoni and scarlet fireball lilies Scadoxus multiflorus. The tropical montane forests of Africa are excellent places in which to observe a variety of impressive butterflies.  Mount Meru is particularly well-endowed with richly colourful and charismatic species such as the Gold-Banded ForesterGaudy CommodoreGreen-veined CharaxesGreen-banded and Mocker Swallowtail and the Forest Mother of Pearl.

 Hartlaub's Turaco

We will walk through the shrubby heather belt Erica arborea at Kitoto on the Miriakamba trail above the taller forest, into the exploded crater of Meru itself and toward the foot of the dramatic ash cone within it. Here one may find the scat of Leopard and see droppings of forest-dwelling Elephant, whilst the grubbing and rooting disturbance of Bush pigs can be found almost everywhere. Sometimes smaller animals such as the endemic Three-horned Chameleon can be seen beside the trails. Amongst many new bird species which should be seen today  African Black DuckMountain BuzzardAfrican Crowned EagleRed-fronted ParrotHartlaub’s TuracoBar-tailed TrogonRüppell’s Robin-ChatWhite-starred RobinBrown Woodland Warbler, both Striped-faced Greenbul and Black-headed Mountain GreenbulSharpe’s Starling and Red-faced Crimsonwing are some of my particular favourites! In the Meru crater flocks of Alpine and Nyanza Swift wheel above you and if lucky a Lammergeier might be picked-out soaring along the truly spectacular rust-coloured cliff face.

Once again, if on “hco“, our evening meal and accommodation will be at one or other of the equally charming Hatari Lodge or Ngare Sero Lodge; both of which are family-run and strategically located at the edge of the national park.

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Arusha National Park – the Momella Lakes

During our days in Arusha National Park we will also focus attention at the foot of Mount Meru, around the Momella lakes. This area of gently rounded hills, open grassland, scrubby Dodonaea sand-bush and small highland lakes offers a marvellous variety of habitats that support a great variety of animals and birds. Some of the Momella lakes are fed by underwater springs and nurture large population of aquatic wildlife throughout the year. Others are more seasonal and their fluctuating water levels attract a quite different selection of species. Touring this lake-studded landscape we will be keeping an eye-out specifically for big mammals such as  Common Waterbuck, Bohor ReedbuckCape Buffalo and Hippopotamus. After periods of rain Helmeted Terrapins disperse from the lakes to seasonal pools whilst amphibians such as Platana frogs can be found in many of the puddles and pools.  Large concentrations of water birds may include scarce species such as Southern Pochard and occasionally Maccoa DuckCape Teal are usually common at the more brackish lakes and large flocks of Lesser Flamingo and a few Greater Flamingos often can be studied at very close range. A variety of beautiful bee-eaters and hundreds of Hirundines skim for dragonflies, stoneflies and chironomid midges across the open water. White-backed Ducks frequent the well-vegetated fringes of freshwater Lake Longil as do Common and Lesser MoorhensBlack Crakes and African Jacanas. There are cormorants, occasionally African Darters, and sometimes one can see both species of ‘afro-tropical’ pelican here. Spur-winged Geese and Hottentot Teal are resident, whilst migrant plovers and sandpipers (e.g. Blacksmith Lapwing and Three-banded Plover as against Marsh Sandpiper and Ruff respectively) abound and of course there are many active passerines in the surrounding vegetation to ponder (Cisticolas) or to savour (shrikes).

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The grassland and bush near to the lakes supports interesting and local species such as the attractive Pangani Longclaw, the contentious Nairobi Pipit and many voluble cisticolas together with the African Moustached Warbler. Flocks of Helmeted Guineafowl, Hildebrandt’s and Scaly Francolin and occasionally other galliformes can be found along the tracks. In the evening we will return once again to the home comforts of either Ngare Sero or Hatari Lodge.

Abbott's Starling

Night Four: Into the evergreen woodlands of Kilimanjaro and the acacia-commiphora country of the “West Kilimanjaro ranches”

After breakfast we shall load our Toyotas with soft-bags and provisions and drive across the Maasai plains to the ranches of Kilimanjaro where we will encounter for the first time dry zone birds that occur in the rain shadow west of Mount Kilimanjaro. Our route passes through one area where some lower elevation forests of Mount Kilimanjaro remain in good condition. Here we will search for various East African specialties including some species more typical of the coastal zone, birds such as Northern Brownbul, the ultra-skulking Kretschmer’s Longbill, Red-capped Robin-chat, the ‘gorgeous’ Four-coloured Bush-shrike, and some australo-papuan representatives such as Blue-mantled Trochocercus.  We will take our picnic lunch in the vicinity of the National Park gate at Londorossi and then explore some highland forest before driving onward to the plateau for some enchanting scenery and yet more new birds. Notable ‘wish-list’ species here might include the Near-Threatened piebald Abbott’s Starling, parties of the crepuscular, and often sought after, Olive Ibis and commoner species such as the noisily duetting Hunter’s Cisticola.  As we gain altitude we should find Malachite Sunbird as well as the extraordinarily burnished Golden-winged Sunbird, while on the open-land of the Shira plateau itself one can occasionally find some of the really high altitude species, birds such as Alpine Chat and the wispy-tailed, scintillatingly green, truly ‘afro-alpine’ Scarlet-tufted Sunbird.

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We will descend from the forests of Kilimanjaro in the late afternoon.  Today’s experiences culminate in the beautiful acacia woodland of Sinya and Olmolog. Lying in the rain shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro these privately managed areas remain in good condition by virtue of “easement agreements” with the local Maasai. Here we shall stay at either Hatari Lodge’s tented camp, known as Shu’mata Camp or at Ndarakwai Ranch, both are accessible, well managed parcels of the once so vast East African wilderness. After our evening meal a nocturnal game drive should be very rewarding. Night drives usually provide participants with excellent views of some of the more secretive nocturnal representatives of the area’s unique fauna, birds like Bronze-winged and Three-banded Courser, a few owl species and undoubtedly we will hear the manic whip-lash-ing of many Slender-tailed Nightjars.  Animals here include the rare Maasai Clawed Gecko, both Striped and Spotted Hyaena, Northern Lesser GalagoSpringHare and both the local lagomorphs African Savanna Hare and Cape Hare. Common Genet, African CivetAfrican Wild CatBat-eared Fox, five Mongoose species, Black-backed and Golden Jackal provide the essential carnivores and if we are blessed, we will find not just an Aardvark but also a Zorilla. So there we have it, on a short bird tour, very much the A to Z of African Mammals!

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Night Five: A day in the desertic steppe of the “Volcano’s Rain Shadow”

We will drive westwards to further explore the complex habitat mosaics typical of East Africa’s grazed Acacia-Commiphora woodlands. Principal tree species include the umbrella thorns Acacia abyssinica and A. nilotica, the Yellow-barked Acacia Acacia xanthophloea and also Acacia mellifera. They combine to support an astonishingly rich assemblage of birds and animals. Extensive grassy glades, seasonally-inundated areas, narrow wadis and boulder outcrops further diversify the landscape. This area is very important for numerous Palearctic migrants amongst which we might want to concentrate upon finding Caspian PloverIrania, Rufous Scrub-Robin and Upcher’s and Barred Warblers. During migration many northern raptors pass through this wide funnel between the huge mountains of Meru and Kilimanjaro. They include substantial numbers of Steppe EagleSteppe BuzzardPallid and Montagu’s Harrier and falcons; Eurasian Hobby and Lesser Kestrel being especially numerous during passage periods. This dry zone always strikes the visitor from temperate lands as being unusually rich in bird species and those characteristic of the Somali-Maasai zone are of course well represented. Priorities for us should include Black-faced and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, the in essentially endemic Fischer’s LovebirdAfrican Grey and Von der Decken’s HornbillWhite-bellied Go-away-bird, both Blue-naped and the sought-after White-headed MousebirdPink-breasted LarkScaly and Rufous ChattererMouse-coloured Penduline TitSpotted Morning ThrushNorthern and Red-faced CrombecHildebrandt’s and Fischer’s StarlingRed-fronted WarblerPygmy BatisRosy-patched Shrike and Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrikesBeautiful and Eastern Violet-backed SunbirdSteel-blueEastern ParadisePin-tailed and Straw-tailed WhydahsWhite-headed Buffalo-weaverPurple GrenadierBlack-faced WaxbillBlue-capped Cordon-bleu and Somali Golden-breasted Bunting.

This area used to provide a rare opportunity to observe a healthy and balanced elephant community. Nowadays one never knows what to expect! Nevertheless the long-necked Gerenuk, an acacia-browsing gazelle, is locally common and family herds of  Lesser Kudu may still be found in this bushland.

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Day Six: “Lark Plains”

After breakfast we will descend farther to the Ang’yata Osugat plains, the grazing lands of the Engikaret Maasai. This near-circular expanse of semi-arid steppe is the number one site in Tanzania for the Alaudidae – for finding larks. Likely we will begin by searching for the localised, long-billed and very distinctive Short-tailed Lark together with our local speciality Calandrella the Athi Short-toed Lark. Relict riparian woodland along the Ngare Nanyuki water course should provide yet more classic afrotropical birds, species from groups as diverse as wood–hoopoes and scimitarbills, set against bush-shrikes, batises and helmet-shrikes.  There should also be Cardinal and Nubian Woodpeckers, endearing Red-fronted Tinkerbirds, smart Long-tailed and the super-smart Taita Fiscals to the tiny in the shape of Yellow-bellied Eremomela and Buff-bellied Warbler amongst an array of others gems.

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The plains continue to support populations of both Kori Bustard and Secretarybird though Thomson’s and Grant’s Gazelles and other savanna mammals should be more plentiful here. We will pass through stunted acacia-commiphora woodland where we should add yet more birds to our list, including restricted-range species such as Tiny and Ashy Cisticola and the near endemic Red-throated Tit. However today’s birding highlight for most undoubtedly will be “lark plains”, where up to nine species of lark can be seen in a morning! The plains are full of other grassland species such as resident and migrant wheatears and up to four species of pipit. This heavily-grazed plain supports the world’s last few score Beesley’s Larks. This Critically Endangered endemic can be found only here in the rain shadow of the two great volcanos and is likely the rarest bird on mainland Africa. Being highly terrestrial, relatively confiding with a slightly curved bill, (for digging), a scaly mantle, a buffy-rufous breast and characteristic rodent-like scurrying gait it is a very endearing rarity indeed.

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Leaving the plains we will climb slightly onto the partially cultivated western slopes of Mount Meru. Here we will pause to examine the bird-life of a rocky korongo (ravine or wadi) where yet more species can be added to our by-now lengthy list, birds such as Horus Swift, that notoriously clown-like Red-and-Yellow Barbet (after all “you’ve got to get the cover bird”), Schalow’s WheatearKenya Rufous Sparrow and Southern Grosbeak CanaryLanner Falcons and White-eyed Kestrels are usually soaring somewhere overhead and on some days Lammergeiers, from their mountain fastness, deign to join the Tawny Eagles, Pied Crows and White-necked Ravens in the jostle for discarded bones at the edge of Oldonyo Sambu a small traditional Maasai market alongside the Nairobi highway.

After fifty minutes, stopping only to admire a breeding pair of rufescens Mountain Kestrels (until recently ‘lost’ within Falco tinnunculus) we will reach the western outskirts of the bustling ‘new city’ of Arusha. A late afternoon visit to a tiny area of tall riparian woodland and shady pools, ‘ground-water forest’, secreted within a quiet coffee estate, near to where I’m writing this piece, could add yet more scarce and local species. Eventually though, we must come to the end of this five day birding-extravaganza. Although Madagascar (Malagasy) Pond-HeronGolden-tailed Woodpecker, Pallid HoneyguideWahlberg’s HoneybirdGrey-olive GreenbulRetz’s HelmetshrikeBrown-throated Wattle-eye and Peters’s Twinspot may remain to be found … in here.

Eventually we must tear ourselves away from our delightful birding, either to return to the mercifully relaxed international airport at JRO (in order to catch our return KLM flight to Amsterdam), or to join an onward safari with the rest of our group or family (for likely as not they’re yet to be birders!) onward to Tarangire, Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater or even the overly-fabled Serengeti National Park.

A five day Nature Tour similar to the one described briefly here, a circumnavigation of mighty Mount Meru, especially if it takes place between early November and late April, i.e. during the Boreal Winter, and includes at least two full days within the 542 sq. km. of Arusha National Park should produce a bird list of nearly 500 species.

If you are interested in such a short, but highly productive tour, which we can schedule at any-time of the year, and which certainly provides the perfect orientation for any birder prior to your longer wildlife safari, with family and friends, please let us know, as early as possible, whether you would want the economy option, or the higher convenience option (HCO), as mentioned above, because these two small lodges get booked-up very quickly.

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As always I would like to thank my birding friends, who have very kindly provided some really lovely photos to grace this post :

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Charles Davies (Abbott’s Starling), Martin Goodey (as indicated), Anabel Harries (Maasai Giraffe, Lammergeier and some of the ‘scenics’) and especially Martin Hale for the charming Beesley’s Lark pair and the ‘dapper’ Taita Fiscal; some of the photos are even my own! Thanks also to Hagai Zvulun for pushing the original innovation.

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By Tringa! They’re back.

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Astute observers might notice that photos one, three and four were taken in the Western Palearctic, in ‘Scilly’ in fact, whilst two and five were taken ‘down here’ in the brighter light of Africa!

They’re back – from the tundra and the taiga and unknown places between ya!

Pity the survival chances of the first wave of long-distance bird migrants heading ‘home’. I’m thinking of the migrant shanks and sandpipers. Especially those of the genus Tringa, who are winging-it south, night and day, through July and August, in this, our era. In the late Anthropocene, as we burn-out the incarcerated vapours of fossilised sunshine from pre-mammalian times. Burning-up the carboniferous, disrupting the circulation of the atmosphere and fomenting terrible social chaos for our own species, across a great arc of instability, the “bang-bang” on their route, these waders, a huge swathe of anthropogenic crises, between the Palearctic northlands and Equatorial Africa.

Almost everyday I consider these migrant birds flying over the great mid-latitude deserts, and other arid lands many of our own making. Monotheistic lands where squads of not-so-casual hobby hunters have yet to become the armed factions in yet another raging “civil war” over the ownership of that black gold beneath the soil.

Moreover imagine their journeys only forty thousand years ago and less, consider for example the Younger Dryas, only twelve thousand years ago, when tundra and taiga temporarily swept ‘down’ from the northlands. In those paleolithic (ice age) and mesolithic days (younger dryas) their journeys to and from the tropic realm would have been far shorter.

And when we humans reach that carbon tipping point, as soon we might, who knows? All bets will then be off. Boreal slush-down, flooding, quickly followed by a circumpolar ice-up? A rerun of the Younger Dryas? For them and and for us! Same as it’s ever been : Migrate and Survive!

Just two weeks ago I was guiding UK school groups around Mikumi National Park in Central Tanzania. One afternoon I saw a short thread, on the iPhone, at VisMig (vismig@yahoogroups.com) mentioning the on-going migration of Common Sandpipers through, and their departure from, the British Isles.  That same afternoon, had you been a bellicose Martial Eagle droning around in the blue, blue, Morogoro sky, you might have seen us, bumping about like a scarab, in a grey-blue long wheelbase Land Rover, on the dusty track to Mikumi Hippo pools.

Soon after arriving at the pools, above the snorting, grunting and aqueous farting of those chubby four-footed leviathans, I heard a long-time familiar tremulous teetering, the flight calls of a Common Sandpiper. Sure enough, within seconds, one flew into view, low over the pool, on stiff staccato wing beats. It alighted near us, and almost immediately commenced feeding, pecking delicately in the fragrant ooze of the muddy shoreline. Watching it in the wallows I was both delighted and relieved.

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Only three days later, again in the late afternoon, there were three ‘Common Sands’ feeding along the margin of the Hippo pool. From out of the blue a Wood Sandpiper darted in, landing next to a very static Yellow-billed Stork at a tiny fresh pool, on the other side of the road, alighting, as if purposely, to join a mighty Lion lapping there. And the next day – whilst answering questions on the private life of the, by-now somewhat sportif, Common Hippopotamuses, frolicking in malodorous vapours of their own making, in an otherwise delicious African sunrise – I was delighted to hear, to spin my brain and savour, the arrival of five natty Greenshanks wiffling-down from the north. “All the way from Russia” I confidently announced to those at the even-toed ungulate audience who cared to give a damn. 

Wood_Sand

Today, August 15, by a brand new “mini-wetland” at Sable Square, Arusha’s first out-of-town, out-of-doors, mini-mall – all silver and grey, set among rolling well-watered lawns, and in a Dutch-colonial style – I was again raised, to a cost-free, brand-less joy, by the flight calls of a Green Sandpiper, my first of the return, towering away into the hazy blue sky of our austral Spring. Surely it was flushed by those five kids standing there, children who might have been a-newting, at the wee pool. But then again, in this the ubiquitous screening of our late oil age, somehow I doubt it!

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Anyway I just wanted you to know. They’re back ‘safe’ with us. Some of them. Thank Trek (Trektellen)! Thank Tringa!

Now, I can relax … well, a little. And listen-out for more, whilst watching Slender-tailed Nightjars in the gloaming garden of this waning moon of August. Let’s hark the birds, in the highland Arusha night! For far above the roar of a thousand pariah dogs, and the rumbling of Scanias on the resources-and-friendship highway, there’ll be more migrants dropping back home. Dropping, just as I have, with evident relief into the dark bosom of Mother Africa.

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Afrotropical ‘book-ends’ await an Afro-Palearctic arrival at Mikumi Hippo Pools. A Yellow-billed Stork and a Malagasy Pond-Heron seemingly prepare a guard of honour for the arrival of those Tringas from the north.

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“Birding the Udzungwas on a Bin-strap”

Udzungwa_peak

The Udzungwa forests viewed from Hondo-Hondo, Udzungwa Forest Lodge, probably the best place from which to commence your birding treks. Last week I was here watching endearing Lesser Seedcrackers ‘chacking’ in the rank grass of the foreground, whilst Red-necked Falcons circled overhead

A few years ago the Arusha Birdman (JW) was asked to assist several Canadian birders planning their birding trips through Tanzania. One individual’s mission was simply outstanding, both in scope and budget, he has come the closest to cleaning-up, so much so that he might, or might not, wish to remain anonymous! Nevertheless here’s an edited version of a brief trip report he sent me. Some few gleanings from five wonderful days so well spent, in the Udzungwa mountains, during October 2009. I have decided to post this gem of gen up on the Bird-Grid because this type of useful birding gen is, for Tanzania, to say the least, damned hard to find.

So here it is again, for the benefit of all humankind well, whomsoever it might concern!

Thanks for the gen Mr. W!”

Birding the Udzungwas on a Binstrap

.. The next morning we took the bus to Ilula and hired motorcycles for 30,000 Tsh per person (ca $20) to take us to Udekwa, this is not to be recommended as it is a very scary sixty five kilometre drive with maniac drivers, very dangerous.  We went first to the gate of the Udzungwa National Park where of course nobody spoke any English. Then we returned to Udekwa village and tried to track down a local hunter-poacher, someone who might be a good guide. If one of our boda (motorbike) drivers had not spoken some English we would have been ruined.  Eventually, that is after a few hours, a man was contacted by telephone, but he was far away, so he told us to go to the new forestry department office, responsible for Kilombero Nature Reserve within which the forests are located. Although he was far away he said definitely that he would be at our village by evening.  The ranger in charge at KNR was not around and the workers told us that we must get our (forestry) permits from the offices in Iringa. But then surprisingly they changed their minds and said okay they would help us out. Anyway they charged us $30 US per person per day for entry, plus a tent charge of $30 US per night for camping.

Note that anyone contemplating visiting here should definitely get the permit beforehand in Iringa.  They were also supposed to provide us with a forestry guide; and the national park staff were adamant that we take an armed guard; but after tortuous negotiations they relented and we were allowed to go with just a guide.  After two wasted days things were at last looking-up!

So we walked the six kilometres back to the National Park gate, seeing Black-lored Cisticola and some non breeding bishops that looked good for Mountain Marsh Widowbird.  The guys at the Udekwa gate let us sleep there (such amazing generosity from TANAPA staff!) and we were thrilled to discover thatUsambara Nightjar was common  thereabouts, including one sitting in the road.  the guide arrived as promised at 0600hrs and off we set, passing Chui Camp (which btw is as far as a vehicle can be driven).

We had been told to go to Ndumduru forest, but our guide told us that  “the partridge” did not occur there.

Therefore, on a whim, we went instead to Matumbo forest and spent the next five days camping there .

The walk in to Matumbo from Chui camp took us less than three hours, but would take most people over five hours.  The birding was brilliant on the way-in highlighted by two Kipengere Seedeaters, along with numerous Yellow-browed Seedeaters, Black-lored Cisticola, Eastern Saw-wing and Olive-flanked Robin Chat.  We arrived at the pleasant Matumbo camp which is situated on the edge of a pathetically small patch of steep hill/riparian forest.  Our guide had to go back to the village to find some food and didn’t return for over 24 hours, so we had the place all to ourselves – just brilliant!  The trail up to the camp is good, yet inside the forest there is no trail, just poachers trails and buffalo trails.  The first thing I did was familiarise myself with a network of trails that I could walk along quietly and then spent much of the next five days doing just that – creeping quietly along the trails. The guide was great for taking us deeper into the forest; but it was so thick and so dry that we were very noisy, and I saw far more alone than with him.  So the birding was very tough but brilliant!

Udzungwa Forest Partridge – for most global birders this will be the prime target of a trip to the Udzungwas. We got just a glimpse of one bird running through the undergrowth. Hence untickable!  This is a seriously tough bird one that is mostly trapped-out from the area immediately around camp, although the one I saw was only some 500 metres from the where we stayed.  Note that feeding scrapes became far more obvious about an hour and a half’s walk from camp. According to Barnabas they also occur in Moofa forest and Ruala forest; the latter is allegedly the best place to see them. I don’t know why he waited until the end to tell us that… or maybe I do … it’s a five hour walk beyond Matumbo so he probably did not want to go over there.  In his trapping days he used to cut a narrow trail and bait that with rice in order to snare the partridges; so this could be a strategy one could use when trying to see them.

Rufous-winged Sunbird – rarely seen in this forest; good views, a pair in a large marshy clearing adjacent to camp; another male higher, when we walked toward Moofa forest.

Usambara Eagle Owl – decent day light views of a roosting bird that we flushed

Iringa Akalat – seen three times, good views

Swynnerton’s Robin – seen twice, really great views

Dapplethroat – two sightings, both brief

Yellow-throated Greenbul – only one pair

Again there was no sign of White-winged Apalis; I think the forest is too low in elevation for Moreau’s Sunbird and for Mrs Moreau’s Warbler — I wish we had had time to check out the Ndumduru trail.

Other birds included lots of Sharpe’s Akalats and White-chested Alethes, Usambara Nightjar, African Cuckoo Hawk, many Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo  and the mammals were great – Iringa Red Colobus is easy to see here and I saw Abbott’s Duiker three times, plus a refreshingly large number of the large mammals – Harvey’s DuikerSuniBuffaloBushbuckBushpigElephant ShrewAngola Pied ColobusTree Hyrax*, heard Elephant and Spotted Hyaena and even saw fresh Leopard scat!

Regretfully we had to say goodbye to this forest, the one place in East Africa which I really didn’t want to leave.

We saw Anchieta’s Tchagra on the way out and our motorcycles met us at the Udekwa gate (they had been involved in an accident on the way up) and we pulled-out one last mega on the ride down – Uhehe Fiscal on the edge of Udekwa village – probably the best bird I’ve ever seen from a motorcycle!  We made it down from the mountain without incident.

In 2011 the Arusha Birdman (JW) was asked to assist several Canadian birders planning their birding trips through Tanzania. One individual was simply outstanding, so much so that he might, or might not, wish to remain anonymous! Nevertheless here’s an edited version of a brief trip report he sent me. Some few gleanings from five wonderful days so well spent, in the Udzungwa mountains, during October 2009. I have decided to post this gem of gen up on the Bird-Grid because this type of useful birding gen is, for Tanzania, to say the least, damned hard to find.

So here it is again for the benefit of all humankind!

Thanks for the gen Mr. WA!”

Birding the Udzungwas on a Binstrap

.. The next morning we took the bus to Ilula and hired motorcycles for 30,000 Tsh per person (ca $20) to take us to Udekwa, this is not to be recommended as it is a very scary sixty five kilometre drive with maniac drivers, very dangerous.  We went first to the gate of the Udzungwa National Parkwhere of course nobody spoke any English. Then we returned to Udekwa village and tried to track down a local hunter-poacher, someone who might be a good guide. If one of our boda drivers had not spoken some English we would have been ruined.  Eventually, that is after a few hours, a man was contacted by telephone, but he was far away, so he told us to go to the new forestry department office, responsible for Kilombero Nature Reserve within which the forests are located. Although he was far away he said definitely that he would be at our village by evening.  The ranger in charge at KNR was not around and the workers told us that we must get our (forestry) permits from the offices in Iringa. But then surprisingly they changed their minds and said okay they would help us out. Anyway they charged us $30 US per person per day for entry, plus a tent charge of $30 US per night for camping.

Note that anyone contemplating visiting here should definitely get the permit beforehand in Iringa.  They were also supposed to provide us with a forestry guide; and the national park staff were adamant that we take an armed guard; but after tortuous negotiations they relented and we were allowed to go with only a guide.  After two wasted days things were at last looking-up!

So we walked the six kilometres back to the National Park gate, seeing Black-lored Cisticola and some non-breeding bishops that looked good for Mountain Marsh Widowbird.  The guys at the Udekwa gate let us sleep there (such amazing generosity from TANAPA staff!) and we were thrilled to discover that Usambara Nightjar was common thereabouts, including one sitting in the road.  the guide arrived as promised at 0600hrs and off we set, passing Chui Camp (which, btw, is as far as a vehicle can be driven).

We had been told to go to Ndumduru forest, but our guide told us that “the partridge” did not occur there.

Therefore, on a whim, we went instead to Matumbo forest and spent the next five days camping there .

The walk in to Matumbo from Chui camp took us less than three hours, but would take most people over five hours.  The birding was brilliant on the way-in highlighted by two Kipengere Seedeaters, along with numerous Yellow-browed Seedeaters, Black-lored Cisticola, Eastern Saw-wing and Olive-flanked Robin Chat.  We arrived at the pleasant Matumbo camp which is situated on the edge of a pathetically small patch of steep hill/riparian forest.  Our guide had to go back to the village to find some food and didn’t return for over 24 hours, so we had the place all to ourselves – just brilliant!  The trail up to the camp is good, yet inside the forest there is no trail, just poachers trails and buffalo trails.  The first thing I did was familiarise myself with a network of trails that I could walk along quietly and then spent much of the next five days doing just that – creeping quietly along the trails. The guide was great for taking us deeper into the forest; but it was so thick and so dry that we were very noisy, and I saw far more alone than with him.  So the birding was very tough but brilliant!

Udzungwa Forest Partridge – for most global birders this will be the prime target of a trip to the Udzungwas. We got just a glimpse of one bird running through the undergrowth. Hence untickable!  This is a seriously tough bird one that is mostly trapped-out from the area immediately around the camp, although the one I saw was only some 500 metres from where we stayed.  One should note that feeding scrapes became far more obvious about an hour and a half’s walk from camp. According to Barnabas they also occur in Moofa forest and Ruala forest; the latter is allegedly the best place to see them. (So Ruala clearly is the place we need to access Ed.) I don’t know why Barnabas waited until the end to tell us that… or maybe I do … it’s a five hour walk beyond Matumbo so he probably did not want to go over there.  In his trapping days he used to cut a narrow trail and bait that with rice in order to snare the partridges; so this could be one strategy you could use when trying to see them.

Rufous-winged Sunbird – rarely seen in this forest; good views of a pair in a large marshy clearing adjacent to camp; another male higher up, when we walked toward the Moofa forest.

Usambara Eagle Owl – decent day light views of a roosting bird that we flushed

Iringa Akalat – seen three times, good views

Swynnerton’s Robin – seen twice, really great views

Dapplethroat – two sightings, both all too brief

Yellow-throated Greenbul – only one pair was seen

Again no sign of White-winged Apalis; I think the forest is too low in elevation for Moreau’s Sunbird and Mrs Moreau’s Warbler — wish we had had time to check out Ndumduru.

Other birds seen included lots of Sharpe’s Akalat and White-chested Alethe, Usambara Nightjar, African Cuckoo Hawk, many Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo and the mammals were great – Udzungwa Red Colobus is easy to see here and I saw Abbott’s Duiker three times, plus a refreshingly large number of the large mammals – Harvey’s Red DuikerSuni, African BuffaloBushbuckBushpigElephant Shrew (sp.), Angola Pied Colobus, Eastern Tree Hyrax, we heard Savanna Elephant and Spotted Hyaena and even saw fresh Leopard scat!

Regretfully we had to say goodbye to this forest, the one place in East Africa which I really didn’t want to leave.

We saw Anchieta’s Tchagra on the way out and our motorcycles met us at the Udekwa gate (they had been involved in an accident on the way up) and we pulled-out one last mega on the ride down – Uhehe Fiscal on the edge of Udekwa village – probably the best bird I’ve ever seen from a motorcycle!  We made it down from the mountain without incident.

Udzungwa_fence

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