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.
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 star – Kenrick’s Starling.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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?
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.
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!