Silent Running in the Land of Larks


This is the September Equinox. Here on the upland plateau of East Africa we’re pulling-away in dusty conditions (that this year are perfectly tolerable) from the long cool and dry of “our winter” which reduced soil moisture and constrained plant growth in the three months just passed.

Meanwhile from the North Pole the sea ice begins a glacial creep. Perhaps it will spread rapidly southwards, throughout the boreal winter, and seal the Arctic Ocean. Even if it doesn’t the gathering darkness of “General Winter” will slip daily farther across the Northern Hemisphere. Longer nights up until the solstice will envelop the many mega-cities, let’s call them “metastasising petro-conurbations”. Interconnected cities, that have sprouted in the past three decades like some hell’s forest of acrid mushrooms spewing toxic spores, in a mesh of mycelial highways, across great swathes of land well north of Earth’s Equator. If only the lengthening nights could induce some introspection in “the North”? Deeper reflection on the magnitude of our common problem. Spiritual contemplation, by a few at least, among the billions whose lives have become subsumed within one or other permutation of the “madness of monotheism”. A planet-poisoning condition which includes our greatest ogre – corporate fundamentalism – surely the grim reaper, who defines our epoch of extinctions. By the name of Kali Yuga as exhibited in the ever more alienated ego-driven consumer.

That said, “down here” in the last-to-boom continent (also home to that ebola-man of bogeys!) it’s wonderful spring alright! Most days of late I’ve been restricted to my window on the world – my view from the “Wilding Wedge”; a Silent Running garden. My satellite of love.

Every day Madagascar Bee-eaters race south. They zip through the tree-tops, with delicious trilling cries, evidently hurrying on their way to the big red earth island, or clayey river banks in Mozambique. Their Eurasian cousins, bound for places in the southern cone, travel more slowly and tend to dally hereabouts, especially around the orange flowering, nectar dripping, Australian Silky Oaks (Grevillea), snatching honey-bees – from neighbour’s hives – who were far too busy for their own good, in delightful swoops and loop-the-loops.

At ten minutes after sunset, when various bats come out to forage, just a few European Barn Swallows temporarily congregate, fluttering, almost stationary, faces into the breeze, high above the garden; here to sample our daily delivery to heaven of a nutritious aerial invertebrate plankton. Soon they will be joined in our brief Equatorial gloaming by even fewer House Martins.

Butterflies are relatively few at this season; mostly savanna whites and grass yellows now, although there have been many more butterflies this September than there were in any of the six years past. And it seems poor rains at Easter, as a result of a stubborn sequence of Pacific La Niña, was a large part of the reason for that dearth.

Moths too are fading out, with just a few dull brown Noctuids and rather more Geometrids, who fall prey to our Tropical House Geckos, with scarcely any Sphingids at all.

I am scatter-feeding lots of yellow millet just now, so each day my flock of foraging Chestnut Weavers grows by ten or so. After a true frenzy of somewhat bad-tempered feeding they spend the remainder of the day, in amiable swizzling song, bathing, or building “cock-nests” under the wild and creepery tangles which festoon the ornamental trees at the back of the house.

Scarcity of water brings many bird species to the shaded surroundings of the house and several enter on occasion. This morning there was a group of “friends” from the community, all around the water tub, at our open front door: a Red-eyed Dove, two Purple Grenadiers, five Red-billed Firefinches, two Baggy Weavers (for Baglafecht’s sake!), three Streaky Seed-eaters and a gang of Arrow-marked Babblers. They took their turn without much fuss.

In a sense all life here awaits the rains, of the sun-chasing Inter-Tropical Front, that this year might arrive a wee bit early, in only a month from now!


Last Sunday I went out, with good friends Geoff and Anabel from Asturias, to the desert of “Lark Plains”, and thence to another local fragment of former birdy patches. Anabel managed to get some shots of a few intriguing birds. Examples that might most excite the imagination of the twitcher, and/or our global lister, who’s doubtless bored by all my guff above. So these are included here below.

The pipit might be of the taxon being called Nairobi Pipit which is currently subsumed within Long-billed Pipit as Anthus similis hararensis or chyuluensis


The beautiful little cisticola, albeit a bit hazy, is of the scarce taxon now being called Lynes’s Cisticola which was formerly subsumed within Wailing Cisticola as Cisticola lais distinctus


And of course there’s these two pixies of the plain, taken under the glaring sun of midday, and reproduced with gratitude. The Critically Endangered Beesley’s Lark was formerly subsumed within the southern Spike-heeled Lark Chersomanes albofasciata complex. And beesleyi might well be relegated yet, in that “Go To The Wall” death row division, if certain conservation-incorporated individuals at BDU had had their way!


Thanks to Martin Goodey for the Barn Swallow and thanks to Anabel and Geoff Harries we’ve yet another lovely image of the sprite of John Beesley’s Maasailand. It’s destined for the section, in a cyber-stuffed spaceship, earmarked “Just for Larks“! BDU? It’s not an acronym directed at those in the genus Corvus, it’s BirdDeath Universal!

africa, biodiversity, birding, local-patch

Our Strange Little Garden – Earth


Falteringly I have become a gardener. Although not in any sense a typical gardener. I’ve become a Gardener for Nature. It started, at what was then our family home in Cumbria in northern England, in January 1983. But I now see it as every sensible person’s duty, in this Age of Extinctions, to welcome Nature back into our garden, our immediate outdoor living space. If you are any kind of naturalist, surely it makes sense, because almost certainly that’s where you will be spending most of your time, that is when you are not sitting beside a shining screen.

This short piece is a call to arms, or rather a call to tools. A plea for folk to get ecologically active in their garden wherever they live. For example, I myself am an alien where I live, having existed here in Africa only since 2005. So this is a request that people dig-in, wherever and whenever possible, get with an Ark-ival Rewilding Programme, right there “on your own plot”, no matter where or how small that parcel of ground might be. So please just try it and see!

This is a brief summary of one man’s very limited activities, during seven years in an area of almost one hectare, at an elevation of 1,400 metres on the southern slopes of a dormant volcano in Equatorial East Africa, to create what already has succeeded in becoming a very Strange Little Garden indeed.


It might seem perverse, someone lives within fifty miles of the fabled Ngorongoro, and the star-studded Serengeti, yet feels absolutely compelled to engage in what some might call “extreme wildlife gardening”. Or “adventure gardening” as I now prefer to think of it. Yet that is precisely what I am doing. A more mundane description of the aims of this endeavor might be: Maximising biodiversity per unit area. Yet I prefer above all: Gardening for Nature and for those with courage to feel it, it’s Gaia Gardening. Even here, in East Africa, the original home of the Big Game Safari, urban development is progressing so fast that the need to do something for nature is arguably even greater than it is in the declining nations of the North. As a peep through that hole in the hedge above will attest.

Gardening. Wilfully and manually disturbing an otherwise undisturbed, or unneeded, small piece of ground, in this case of one hectare – is to recreate a plot, a fragment, a shard, sliver, wedge or scrap of undeniably contrived wildness. It’s a small area, yet one where one hundred years ago there stood lofty semi-deciduous afro-montane forest, and where less than two hundred years ago black rhino, african buffalo and savanna elephants roamed, in numbers, browsing, bending and moulding the living landscape as if to their will.

IMG_4717A Wildness Garden does not mean that there should be no people actively participating in it! On these slopes of Mount Meru, for example, for as far back as we need to go, there have always been people, ‘hunter-gathering’, all around the mountain. After all this is a miniscule piece of land, but one in the middle of a continent where we humans first began to evolve, evolving In Nature. And to this day, especially in large parts of this huge continent of Africa, people remain a fundamental constituent of the wildness, “scratching a living” with a panga (aka machete, ‘cutlass’, bill-hook), with fire-stick and hoe from out of the forest and bush. Above all this is the continent where we the Super-Ape co-evolved with the rest of the fauna, and vice versa.

A Wildness Garden does require there are some restraints, by our more gentile Anthropocene standards, quite severe restraints on what should be done, and what should not be done, in order to get the best possible developments in the garden in the shortest possible time.

There should be no use of the agro-veterinary chemicals arsenal so beloved by the increasingly toxic mainstream – toxic at a global level that is, despite some apparent local improvements since Silent Spring in several of the more gentrified corner paddocks of our planet. There should be no pesticides, nor herbicides. Although I must admit that in our case there remains a disgusting rectangular cement-lined rubbish pit, deep in the garden-forest, where seemingly unavoidable domestic plastics, that feed a conservative family of four – our life-style packaging, must be “destroyed”. There are virtually none of the higher order public utilities functioning effectively hereabouts, compared with northern continental Europe for example.

To counter this there are many actions that must or should be done, again admittedly in my case, in an unavoidably ad hoc and flagrantly unscientific manner. Here, in brief are the Thirteen Steps that we have undertaken in order to rewild our plot into the exciting bird-filled “Sonic Shamba” that it is today!

We introduced simulated grazing and browsing. When we moved into our small-holding we gradually reduced the grazing pressure. Continued grazing by goats and sheep, chickens and geese, which severely constrained the ecosystem of the existing garden – maintaining a rather sterile grassland, dotted with ornamental alien saplings and flowering shrubs – was out of the question.

It had been my intention to maintain the regular presence of a single cow and her follower but that proved unworkable. Gradually, over the first three years, cattle grazing was phased out.


However simulated browsing, using pruning shears, clippers, secateurs and brute force with some ignorance, was maintained. Effort was concentrated especially upon the alien shrub community. Of whom the very rapidly proliferating exotic shrub – Lantana camara has been the most troublesome. However, in truth, working with Cherry-Pie Lantana, the indefatigable neotropical wayfaring bush, the “Curse of India”, the”American Bramble”, has provided the most difficult, and yet also the most profoundly insightful, dimension to this entire rewilding experience.


Cyclical or rotational disturbance of the ground. In essence this is further simulation of some of the activities of large herbivores, in this case upon the upper levels of the soil. At our location, in this garden, we attempted at first to simulate only some of the behavior of the recently excluded Masai hybrid-zebu cattle. But bearing in the back of the mind the knowledge that there used to be African Buffalo, Black Rhino and even forest living Elephant, trudging through here less than one hundred years ago, I gradually became a bit more creative with this disturbance! Thus the activities became more robust and we supplemented the destruction and removal of unwanted plant material with importation of what I perceived as some elements that were key to the whole rewilding process.

We began the importation to the plot of indigenous forest leaf-litter, and some forest fruits and indigenous seeds, dry twigs, bark and branches, from the nearest available ‘sustainable sources’.

We began the importation of wherever possible ‘totally’ organic cattle dung from neighbouring areas that were still being grazed by the local Mwarusha Masai zebu-hybrid cattle.

We engaged in the importation of elephant and buffalo dung on a very few occasions only; basically whenever a convenient and accessible source presented itself.

Extirpation of some of the least wanted alien trees, shrubs and ruderals – “weeds” to the eco-fundamentalists – those botanic racists who seem to believe, after five hundred years and more of globalization, that even at the continental scale, all of the bolted horses can be put back into the stables.

IMG_5648We proceeded with the gradual elimination, so far as is possible, of “unhelpful” exotic herbaceous perennials – an almost entirely alien ground flora (especially of the Compositae) – on the assumption that, at this location, an indigenous ground flora would support far more invertebrates, and therefore attract a much greater diversity of birds into the garden. For the first two years I observed closely who ate what. If nobody – whether invert or herp, bird or mammal -seemed interested in eating any product from a particular alien plant species then that species was deemed unhelpful to the programme!

We gradually expanded a programme of alien suppression. The gradual elimination of exotic ornamental tree species began in 2008. Wherever feasible we lopped, pollarded, coppiced, felled and removed – if that was acceptable to the aesthetic dictates of my own family, of our close friends and some near-residents – several trees that had been planted by the late owners, some fifteen years ago. Note that in January 2007 there was only one indigenous tree on the whole plot, near the vehicle gate, an African acacia.

We have undertaken the provision of supplementary food in the dry season to some bird species. This has been chiefly in the form of various African millets (mostly yellow millet) which are scatter-spread (broadcast) in cleared areas, and latterly in the glades that are forming within our rapidly evolving neophyte woodland.

During the recently expired La Niña sequence, which lasted from 2008 – 2013, it proved essential to provide a little grey-water to some of the indigenous saplings, especially those which we had planted in those early years, before I realised that planting was in itself “unnatural” and contrary to “the necessary rewilding flow of our times”. In any case grey-watering was ineffective largely due to the amount of watering that would have been required to establish indigenous trees in the wrong places. Places where they, themselves, had not chosen to grow. Scattering seed is fine, just as mulching with an open mind is best, and some assistance, to self-sown tree seedlings, especially in their early stages, is often a necessity! Nowadays, given the exponential urbanisation of this hill in the past five years, the pressure that has put upon our village’s gravity-fed piped water supplies, we can only afford to water plants that are growing in areas immediately around the house.

The suppression of cats: well, despite the ‘damage’ they do to the bird fauna, the feral-domestic cats are part of another story. Suffice to say we ourselves have none, there was an occasional wild cat that came here to hunt when we first moved in, and we were surrounded by fields, but nowadays, it’s nearly all cement, and our dearest neighbours, well they have six! Nevertheless being such a socialistic greeny-pacifist I have yet to resort to any action more violent than dodging off into the tangles, shouting and stone throwing!



Being Good, Traveling Green: Birdman’s Camel Safari to Lake Natron

Feeding Flamingos

In mid June 2007 I returned to Arusha from a very special safari experience, a five day pilgrimage by camel, camping across Tanzanian Maasailand. Here is my write-up, from that time, of that wonderful journey.

Our little band of fifteen people parted with contemporary civilization (i.e. the East African mobile phone network) at the foot of Longido mountain, a knobbly crowned eminence quite close to the Kenya border. Wending leisurely westward through shrubby northern acacia savanna and game-rich open pasture we made our way between the exquisite forested peaks of Kitumbeine and Gelai, to an utterly breath-taking finale deep in the Rift Valley, beneath the perfect volcanic cone of Oldonyo Lengai, on the shimmering flamingo-sequined southern shore of Lake Natron.

We were making a promotional film for Tanzania’s only camel safaris, by a company called Media88 from Milan, as part of a cultural tourism project, affiliated to the Italian NGO Oikos. The intention was to introduce low impact tourism to this relatively remote and as yet unspoilt northern frontier of Tanzanian Maasailand.

We began our delightfully machine-free safari, partly on foot and partly riding the camels, by setting our first camp at a little korongo (a seasonal watercourse or wadi) near the primary school below Kitumbeine, by a Maasai village, which is already two hours from the nearest tarmac road linking Arusha to Nairobi. In the gathering dusk Zebra and Spotted Hyenas laughed challenges to one another at a water hole in the middle distance. Meanwhile the splendid red-robed Maasai porters and guides set out a delicious candle-lit Italian supper as ghostly avian silhouettes danced around and above us. These were hawking Slender-tailed Nightjars, clearly revealing their projecting central tail feathers. They called occasionally throughout the night from the floor of the shrubby acacia woodland all around us. Absurdly their staccato churring song always suggests to me a distant malfunctioning car alarm!

Mounting-up early next morning we bade a temporary goodbye to some water dependent birds that have become successful commensals of maize-growing man in the developing landscape of East Africa. For example four nattily attired, yet seemingly ubiquitous roadside birds, or sub-Saharan “trash birds” in 1970s US birding parlance, these are our everyday companions here: African Pied Wagtail, Pied Crow, Pin-tailed Whydah and Yellow Bishop.

Over the next four days, until we reached our destination, a village at the southern corner of Lake Natron, we left behind all those species that are dependent upon settled agriculture and met with only those birds typical of extensive pastoralism – the wild uncultivated lands – home of the still partly nomadic lowland Maasai.

For me it was very interesting to observe such changes in the bird community as our camel train wound westward and, with daily altitudinal gains and losses, yet in general downwards to our journey’s end on May 24, in the searing midday heat, at the lowest point of the safari, at Lake Natron’s shoreline, deep in the Northern Rift.

The pleasures of a safari, birding from a camel’s back, certainly outweigh a certain loss of one’s physical capability to use those indispensable binoculars at each and every moment. So long as you are able to dismount more or less at will, and especially at any key sites along the route, you will miss little or nothing that could be seen from the front seat of a safari vehicle; were a Toyota land cruiser actually able to enter many of the areas that you can traverse quite easily on a camel. For a camel train can pass quietly through even quite dense stands of bush and tall grass, and along narrow rocky korongos, most of which would be impassable even for the best four wheeled vehicle. Furthermore from such an elevated vantage point, at nearly three metres above the ground, you have a beautiful view, overlooking the savanna canopy. The additional height and openness to the wonderful African sky enables unhindered scanning for raptors, diurnal migrants, swifts and singing larks. And in addition, from your elevated position, the superb peacefulness due to the complete lack of engine noise and pollution means that you can hear (and also smell!) as much as, or perhaps even more than, you would were you on foot. In essence, on this camel safari, I felt that I had perhaps half the freedoms and perspective of an Eastern Chanting Goshawk (the commonest medium-sized raptor along the way) and almost as much as a Taita Fiscal (the commonest, most definitive Lanius, a shrike of shrikes if ever there was one).


Since we were making a film, and I was the only birder-naturalist on board, we did not rack up a big bird list. I had never traveled this route before and we logged only 189 species in five days. However by traveling in such a gentle and unobtrusive manner through a glorious landscape such as this we witnessed some very special things indeed.

Most important, in each and every moment of our camel journey, I felt a sense of kinship with, or duty to, the great mountains; silent spectators, no matter whether they were looming green and close, or in some way idling nonchalant and afar. Throughout the journey we were all, fifteen travelers, in thrall to their majesty and the unforgettable scenery that they create.

Within each hour’s eighty buoyant camel strides we grew steadily closer to the awesome symmetry of the near-perfect cone of Oldonyo Lengai (2878 metres) an active volcano that launches, just south of Natron, from the uniquely mould-green moonscape of the Rift Valley floor. “Home to God” so sacred, certainly to the Maasai, whose inaudibly hissing, ash-turreted summit rim towered above our little blue-tented camp on our last night in the bush. Wending our way ever westward to the foot of this awesome being we could comfortably admire no fewer than eight “lesser peaks immortal”. Whilst behind us to the east, the one-and-only, free-standing, permanently snow-capped equatorial giant of Kilimanjaro (5895 m) slipped imperceptibly each evening into the ochre haze of the horizon. He was framed by the serene, yet exploded, olive grey majesty of Meru’s shark fin caldera (4566 m) and the stolid, staff-holding Longido (2629 m), standing quietly aside to Kilima’s south and north respectively.

Oldonyo Lengai Volcano2

Looking forward, for much of the journey, to the left of Oldonyo Lengai, who loomed straight ahead and was clearly the focus for the trek, we could admire that richly forested king of the Crater Highlands – Loolmalasin (3648 m) whose wandering summit ridges were usually lost from view each morning and evening, obscured by drifting, whispering turbans of the softest pastel cloud. Between Loolmalasin and Lengai, always edging impudently forward, as if trying to peer more closely down upon us, was the neat little cone of Kenimas (2,300 m), just a buckram lad and utterly unwooded, yet so very grassy and green, like a Scottish mountain – almost!

Olmoti crater by Loolmalasin

Closer to our route than Kenimas, sprawling to our south and north respectively, standing always on the flank, yet also appearing as if they wished to monitor our progress, were the twin tarantulas of Kitumbeine (2858 m) and Gelai (2942 m). Great and deeply green, hirsute arthropod-like, these are fine mountain homes for nature. Their deeply fissured flanks sustain very few, and exceptionally isolated, ancient looking hamlets; thus they remain but lightly cut and chopped, presenting this northern naturalist with a happy wooded patchwork in forty shades of green. Articulated ridges, bony shoulders and knobbly arms, their hairy stumpy legs protrude every which way, beneath giant green shukas (tartan Maasai blankets), as if haphazardly thrown there to protect these twins, either from the rheumatic mists of morning, or from the fierce desiccating heat of early afternoon. Finally, standing on the slate-coloured mud of Natron beyond the pink-crayoned lines of feeding flamingos, we could look toward the equator somewhere north. Far beyond the darkly floating bergs of Olosha (2526 m) and Oldonyo Sambu (1564 m), while closer yet and therefore larger stood gaunt Shombole (1564 m) whose blue-grey highland straddles the international border between Kenya and Tanzania.

Close views of mammals, often feeding unconcerned, were an important component of the camel safari. Our first two days produced several sightings of Gerenuk; a total of seventeen individuals being seen. Not coincidentally these giraffe-necked gazelles were in the same areas in which we noted several pairs of delightful clean-looking Somali Golden-breasted Buntings. They were at the south western extremity of their range, shuffling in the red dust, they searched for tiny “weed seeds” under the low stature acacia scrub of this arid Somali-Maasai environment. Another typical bird of this habitat, which we saw in quantity during the first three days, is Fischer’s Starling. A fine study in softest grey and fawn, with that obligatory sturnid eye of fortune, for the first half of our trek small flocks of this dapper bird were our constant companions. They and certain other ‘eastern forms’ dwindled in number as we pushed westward and downward into the Rift. Another restricted range species in Tanzania, the White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, curiously became very briefly abundant when we reached the stockade and huts of “Grey-eyes” boma (a boma is a traditional Maasai hamlet) that has been built in a fabulous situation, along a ridge where the outermost gravel fingers of Gelai and Kitumbeine almost grasp one another.


The most plentiful mammal on this safari was Thomson’s gazelle; several hundred were seen. Next in number were Zebra and Grant’s gazelle with perhaps some two hundred and fifty of each species observed. We also saw plenty of Giraffe (ca 40) and a few each (less than 15) of Eland and Wildebeest. Kirk’s Dik Diks were widespread, especially on the first three days. With amazing luck we found a Cheetah and her single cub, right beside the track, just three kilometers beyond our camp early on the last morning as we headed for the lake shore at Natron. Vervet Monkeys and Olive Baboons were seen on only a few occasions, chiefly in quite small troops.

Finding birds of prey was, as usual, an especial focus for me, not least on this prototype new-style safari, our comparatively ecologically-friendly camel trek. In all we calculated that we saw at least 78 individual raptors of 17 species in the five days. Pride of place must go to an immaculate adult Verreaux’s Eagle hunting rock hyraxes along a black basaltic dyke that a million years ago issued, in a vermillion stream of lava, from Gelai’s southern flank. Four African Kestrels (Falco ‘tinnunculus’ rufescens) who live in the crater of one of Gelai’s parasitic cones, near to which we camped beside the “Plain of Stars”, was a very pleasant find; for this lovely cinnamon-coloured resident falcon is somewhat scarcer than one might expect, certainly here in northern Tanzania. Only three Bateleur Eagles, each of them an adult (or near-adult) male, were seen and all on the first two days, and but one handsome adult Black-chested Snake-eagle also at the aforementioned crater. A displaying pair of Brown Snake-eagles directly over head on day two was a real pleasure to watch. The commonest small raptor was the Pygmy Falcon; we saw at least eight. Considering that we were in unprotected areas Tawny Eagles remained ‘relatively plentiful’, in that I reckon we saw seven different birds.

White-backed Vultures

We saw only eleven larger Vultures. Three Lappet-faced, including one bird thought to be in its first calendar year, five African White-backed and three adult Ruppell’s Griffons. Sadly no Egyptian Vultures were seen, even though the arid western slopes of Gelai, forming the eastern shore of Natron, arguably remain their last viable refuge in Tanzania. We found only four typical Accipiters (bird-eating hawks) both were trim little Gabar Goshawks (one an adult, one a juvenile) testament perhaps to a resurgence in the (only partly illicit) use of DDT and other lethal concoctions upon these lands of Africa.

I also paid particular attention to Streptopelia doves. Since August 2006 when we first noticed dying doves at water holes across Tanzanian Maasailand I have been much more appreciative of these classic thorn bush birds, whose calls are so hauntingly evocative of the vast African savanna. It is clear that populations remain severely suppressed; so that our total haul on this extensive transect through northern Maasailand was: African Ring-necked Dove ca 160, African Mourning Dove 23 and perhaps more significantly, and most saddening of all, Laughing Dove a species who, with only 12 individuals seen and not one heard singing, certainly gives little cause for laughing these days. Populations of Streptopelia doves have clearly suffered tremendous losses right across sub-Saharan Africa during the past year. Why? Newcastle disease or an evolving immune deficiency, perhaps combined with widespread incidental poisoning at water holes?

May 22 was a perfect day. The special interest began soon after dawn with the arrival at our breakfast table of the grey-eyed libon himself (a Maasai cultural leader and healer) from the nearby grey-eyes boma. He and one of his wives had come it seems to observe the strange eating habits of the wazungu (white travelers). An hour later it was we who became guests in his boma when we passed through the outer thorny hedge-like barrier of dried acacia branches that always surround every even half-remote Maasai settlement. This boma is divided between himself, his four wives (and their respective younger children), each round earthen hut occupying a separate fenced-off enclosure within the main compound. The remainder of the compound is divided, by low woven fences of dry thorn branches, into the nocturnal shelters for the different types of stock. The largest enclosure being for the safe storage of the most precious of his possessions – the cattle, the smallest for the donkeys, whilst an intermediate one is occupied by all the sheep and goats. “Grey eyes” was the most authentic and least ‘developed’; no evidence here of persistent pesticides or the use of veterinary pharmaceuticals, very few shards or shreds of shiny plastic debris, not even a single twisted, fluttering remnant of that ubiquitous introduced alien the black polythene bag; simply the most organic Maasai boma that I have visited yet in Tanzania – this century.

The apparent total absence of modern chemical compounds ensured a wealth of invertebrate fauna that thronged in every corner of the boma. Processing this abundant unpolluted food supply was a diversity of birds that should set any ornithological mind a spinning. One fabulous manifestation of this wonderful, and increasingly rare, example of ecological well being, was in the form of a Rufous-crowned Roller, who danced that morning back and fore between two lofty dark green balanites bushes that were growing just outside the encircling ‘dried hedge’. In tumbling, clashing flashes of red, maroon, purple and indigo this large-headed bird, a real roller of rollers, repeatedly swooped down to a bare red swathe of earthen ground, one of three, swept clean by the twice daily trampling of over two thousand hooves. These swathes radiated, petering outward, from each of three narrow passages through the outermost stockade. In so doing the magnificent ‘Purple Roller’ was obtaining very large dung beetles, who were noisily droning in and crash landing on the red earth, assembling to roll away and bury those cow pats that had not yet been gathered by the younger children. Lifting a beetle, easily as large as a bantam’s egg, the roller would fly up to a favoured perch in the balanites bush, where it would expertly toss and re-toss the rhinoceros-horn armoured beetle until it fell just right, and could be swallowed comfortably, head first.

A galaxy of bees and wasps and myriad kinds of (for me at least!) fascinating fly swarmed around this boma. Complex invertebrate ‘parasitic’ interrelations notwithstanding, the animal dung and its inherent undigested seeds, the extensive bare earth and the weed-filled curving ‘dry hedgerows’ provide them all with ample sustenance. Consequently the sky overhead was filled with the trilling calls of White-throated Bee-eaters, who in ones and twos had accompanied our every step since leaving the first camp at Kitumbeine village. Here they simply chased the larger hymenopterans. Coveys of Crested Francolins foraged unconcerned in the sheep and goat pen and all along the inside of the perimeter hedge, whilst little flocks of Wattled and Superb Starlings and White-headed and Red-billed Buffalo Weavers vied for being considered the most conspicuous avian characters on the scene. Among the gathering of African passerine seed eaters, Ploceids, Estrildids and Viduids were well represented in the form of motley-plumaged gangs of Chestnut Sparrows, dainty Speckle-fronted Weavers, sharp and sprightly Blue-capped Cordon-bleus, Crimson-rumped Waxbills, sombre looking Yellow-spotted Petronias and sizzle-singing Village Indigobirds al of whom were gathering in small mixed flocks on almost each and every surrounding shrub. In the denser bush out yonder Fork-tailed Drongos and African Grey Flycatchers hawked-down insects from twiggy acacia extremities; whilst chunky and cinereous, Ashy Cisticolas, who were unexpectedly abundant throughout our trek, alternately sneezed or sang their tremulous whistles.


The undoubted finale of this wonderful pilgrimage through Maasailand must surely always be to walk out, in the brilliant morning sun, onto a natural causeway of dried grey lacustrine mud. Perhaps, as we did last week, in pursuit of birds – in this instance three cavorting Western Reef-Egrets themselves chasing minnow cichlids – between the lapping silver shallows of Lake Natron, where great straggling lines of astonishingly pink Lesser Flamingos feed unconcerned within a few hundred metre radius of where you stand. Overhead one hundred and twenty breeding plumage Great White Pelicans drifted slowly south, doubtless heading toward the Hippo pools of Lake Manyara. Whilst at our feet swarms of Banded Groundlings, (a blackish sympetrum-like dragonfly with dark stripes across both sets of wings), would flutter up at the last moment, accompanying our every step. Far out across the shimmering quicksilver of this soda lake yet more craggy youthful mountains float, galactic battle ships, gun-metal mountains, saturated in the starkest grey and blue. In the hot and acrid breeze these bergs seemed to drift on the horizon where the mirage at Natron’s northern end ebbed silently into Kenya land. Listening to the constant gentle murmuring honks of the feeding flamingos, subsumed within a great silence, surrounded by a spectacular volcanic moonscape, in the limitless peace of the Rift Valley, one is transported to a timeless zone, where any person can simply be. Like a raindrop rejoining the ocean, united with the timeless rhythms of the Earth, effortlessly one becomes at ease with oneself. A foothold in the moment, where we have always been, standing simply human, perfectly here and now, in what feels like it just must be, the very womb of Nature.


All the photographs in this piece, with the exception of the male Giraffe’s head, were taken by my great friend Martin Goodey back in Maasailand in 2007. The giraffe was photographed by Debbie Hilaire in Arusha National Park in March 2014. I also would like to thank Geoff Harries for his expert piloting abilities, as well as for his great kindness in taking Martin and myself over Oldonyo Lengai, right up there, up with the White-backed Vultures, magnificent fliers who very sadly, likely as not, are no longer with us.

bird migration, wildlife safari

Northern Tanzania Bird-watching Tour with James “The Birdman” 13 days – January 4 to 16, 2015


As a lover of nature, with even the mildest interest in birds, you will definitely fall in love with Tanzania. It’s truly a superb destination with well over 1,100 bird species to look for. Of the ten endemic bird families known in Africa, eight can be found here. This safari has been carefully designed for those who want to concentrate upon birds, yet you will have countless opportunities to savour a host of other animals – from the small to the very large indeed! Our special nature walks will give you the chance to enjoy a break from being in the 4×4 vehicles and to observe nature at your own rhythm. In the company of our senior safari guide and lifelong naturalist James Wolstencroft, you will learn a great deal about the birds, and you’ll also be undertaking a humanistic journey. A safari where all your senses will be called into action, to appreciate not only the wildlife itself, but also the spectacular ecological landscapes that these ‘mega-faunas’ create. Landscapes which will soon imbue you with their unique and subtle magic.

Safari Specifications:

 ·  Safari designed for birders, bird-watchers or bird-lovers of all ages and abilities

 ·  Safari on a full board accommodation basis

·  Lodges/Tented Camps selected for charm, surrounding birdlife, level of comfort and high standard of hospitality

·  Itinerary focused upon the best birding locations

·  Professional driver/safari guide (with first aid certificate) for each vehicle

·  “All-Sizes Nature Guide” and Expert Birding Tutor: James Wolstencroft


Arusha National Park

Tarangire National Park

Crater Highland Forests and Endoro Falls

Eastern Serengeti at Ndutu – short grass plains, woodlands and marshes – the wish of every naturalist

Central Serengeti ecosystem

Ngorongoro Conservation Area including a full day safari down in the fabled Ngorongoro Crater

Lake Eyasi – and the Hadzabwe

with as much walking as possible “In the Nature'”

Price: USD 3,710 per person sharing (single supplement USD850)

Group Size: Maximum of 11 participants

Outfitter: Tropical Trails Safaris – Arusha, Tanzania 


+255 732 972 045



PLEASE NOTE: this wonderful safari experience, and at an “excellent price”, will be available, again with Tropical Trails and myself, over Easter 2015.

Please just scroll down, or up, to find it!

January 4 Arrival in Arusha

One of our drivers will be meeting you upon arrival at Kilimanjaro International Airport or Arusha Airport.

Please advise us about your arrival details.

You will be taken to your accommodation just outside the busy town of Arusha. Situated at an altitude of 1390m, the town is surrounded by fertile farmsteads that yield coffee, wheat and maize to the people of the Waarusha and Wameru tribes. Here you will meet James your specialised birds and nature guide plus your fellow travelers for this trip. A short briefing will give you all the practical information necessary regarding your tour. Overnight stay at Karama Lodge – on a bed and breakfast basis.

January 5

Arusha National Park

After an early breakfast, you will head off, in a four wheel drive safari vehicle (with a picnic lunch) to Arusha National Park for a day’s bird watching. Your specialist nature guide will tell you all there is to know about this small but very diverse park. Relatively few safari-goers visit Arusha National Park. The main reason for this may be that the park doesn’t offer as much big game as the other parks of the Northern circuit. Cats, for example, are rarely observed, and you can’t see the Big Five – nowadays there are no rhinos, nor lions. There are big mammals however, including forest-living Elephants, lots of Giraffe, and species such as African Buffalo, Plains Zebra, Bushbuck, Waterbuck, Common Warthog, both Blue Mitis and Vervet Monkeys, Olive Baboons and of course Guereza Colobus monkey, the emblem of a quiet park which has so much beauty to offer.

Arusha National Park has three main areas, each one providing a special kind of nature. The Ngurdoto Crater is the remains of a now extinct volcano, and has steep crater sides covered in dense forest. The Momella Lakes are a mix of soda lakes and freshwater lakes, set in mainly open bush land. Thirdy, Mount Meru, the sixth highest mountain in Africa reaching 4566m, constitutes the western half of the park, and offers several altitudinal zones, from montane forest and heath to alpine desert. Several observation points and picnic sites are scattered across the park.

The bird life is always remarkably rich, yet the greatest variety is present between October and April, when many Palearctic migrants are present or passing through. More than 400 bird species have been recorded here. Out of these, the gorgeous Hartlaub’s Turaco and both Narina and Bar-tailed Trogon merit special mention. Finding these beauties these takes both time and effort, but they can be seen. Careful scanning over the evergreen forest canopy should produce views of exciting birds of prey such as Ayres’s Hawk-eagle, African Crowned Eagle, African Goshawk, Augur Buzzard, African Hobby and Lanner Falcon.


Other impressive large birds, found especially around the numerous wetlands include Scaly Francolin, Spur-winged Goose, ducks such as Hottentot, Red-billed and Cape Teal, both Greater and Lesser Flamingos and both Black and Saddle-billed Storks; whilst overhead we’ll hear ‘yodelling’ African Fish Eagles; stalking through the shallows we shall see Black-headed Heron, Intermediate Egret, Sacred and Hadada Ibis, hopefully the uniquely endearing Hamerkop, devoted pairs of graceful Grey Crowned Cranes, lily-trotting African Jacanas, Pied Avocet, skulking Greater Painted Snipe and the two-tone Blacksmith Lapwing. In the fringing trees there should be African Green and Olive Pigeons, White-browed Coucals and perhaps an African Emerald Cuckoo. Well look aloft for six kinds of swift, Wire-tailed and other swallows and numerous kinds of martin. Along the forest edge there will be Brown-hooded Kingfisher, White-fronted Bee-eater, Silvery-cheeked Hornbill, Red-and-Yellow Barbet, Moustached Tinker-bird, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Ruppell’s Robin-chat and Montane White-eye. In the grasslands we’ll see Pangani Longclaws, some dun-coloured larks and streaky pipits. Other species should include Red-winged and Waller’s Starling, Red-billed Oxpecker, Variable, Bronze and Amethyst Sunbird, Grey-headed Bush-shrike, Tropical Boubou, African Paradise-flycatcher and we will get our first taste of East Africa’s bewildering array of smaller birds: from black-and-white batises and puff-backs to confusing warblers and those very hard to identify cisticolas, from brilliantly marked bishops and whydahs to the seed-eating sparrows and weavers, canaries, waxbills and buntings!

In the early evening we will return, our minds replete with wonderful observations, to Karama Lodge for dinner and overnight.

Arusha to Tarangire National Park

After breakfast today, we’ll transfer our attentions to one of Tanzania’s most interesting national parks, Tarangire. Established in 1970, it takes its name from the Tarangire River, a permanent watercourse that flows through the middle of the park creating spectacular views along its route. On approaching the park however, the most eye-catching aspect is a vista of ancient baobabs rising above the yellowing plain. These trees are instantly recognizable by their swollen trunks and often leafless branches – almost as if they were the roots of a tree planted upside down. The scars on their trunks bear witness to the presence of the large herds of Elephant that Tarangire supports. This is a well-wooded region with tall grasses that makes game viewing harder than out on the short grass plains of the eastern Serengeti. However as well as elephant it’s usually possible to find Lions, in the dry season there are many thousands of Wildebeest, Buffalo, Zebra, countless Impala, Grant’s Gazelle, Eland and Coke’s Hartebeest, as well as Leopard – if we’re exceptionally lucky. We will spend the whole day in the park (with a picnic lunch) and have many opportunities for wildlife viewing and of course, plenty of enjoyable bird watching.

Tarangire is in a boundary zone between different floral environments and thus provides a great variety of habitats for different birds. More than 500 species have been recorded in the park. With the bulk of the migrant birds present between October and April we will be here at the right time to find a fine cross-section of the park’s avifauna. Species such as Yellow-necked and Red-necked Spurfowl, Helmeted Guineafowl, Martial Eagle, Grey Kestrel, Emerald-spotted Wood-dove, White-bellied Go-away bird, Southern Ground Hornbill and Von der Decken’s Hornbill, Greater Honeyguide, raucous Orange-bellied Parrots, the endemic Yellow-collared Lovebird, breath-taking Lilac-breasted Rollers, Green Wood-hoopoe, Nubian Woodpecker, Magpie Shrike, Long-tailed Fiscal, African Grey Flycatcher, Superb, Hildebrandt’s and Ashy Starling –  yet another of Tanzania’s endemic birds, Slate-coloured Boubou, White-browed Scrub-Robin and the waxbills – Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Purple Grenadier and Green-winged Pytilia.

Dinner and overnight stay at the delightful Maramboi Tented Camp nearby.


January 7

Tarangire National Park and Karatu area

The whole morning will be dedicated to further bird watching in Tarangire National Park, where we will take our picnic lunch. In the early afternoon hours we will drive the short distance to Karatu town above which we will be able to enjoy a pleasant hike to Endoro Falls within the Crater Highlands forest. We will then descend to our accommodation for the night. Dinner and overnight at Endoro Lodge.

January 8

Karatu to Ndutu Area

This morning, after an early breakfast, we’ll be driven higher into the beautiful mountain forests of the NCCAA, passing the world-renowned Ngorongoro Crater on our right hand side before commencing our descent to Ndutu Safari Lodge at the edge of the Serengeti – an ‘endless plain’ of grasses. Our destination, the Ndutu area, is within the eastern Serengeti short-grass ecosystem, yet lies outside the eastern boundary of the National Park. This allows our drivers to take us “off-road” and get as close as possible to the animals, yet without disturbing them unduly (within the park limits one must remain on the marked tracks, which can be frustrating at times). We will be able to savour the immense open plains and a very lovely marshland area within woodlands where many new bird species may be found. Ndutu is an amazing place to visit all year round. There is an abundance of resident game animals in this area apart from the annual circuit of the wildebeest migration which passes here at the end of the year. All six species of cat can be found, year round, at Ndutu: Lion, Leopard, Cheetah, Caracal, Serval and African Wildcat, although some are easier to find than others! Other resident mammal species include Savanna Elephant, both Spotted and the far less common Striped Hyena, Bat-eared Fox, Ratel, two species of hare, plus various antelope and gazelles. Such a diversity of ecosystems within the Ndutu area, ranging from lofty acacia woodlands through open plains to soda lakes and marshes ensures that it is yet another of Tanzania’s several exceptional birding locations.

We will have a picnic lunch here and spend several hours dedicated to studying the birds. Some that we will hope to see include: Southern Ground Hornbill, Kori and White-bellied Bustard, Little Bee-eater, Woodland and Striped Kingfisher, Usambiro Barbet, Rufous Chatterer, Silverbird and the endemic Rufous-tailed Weaver. Species like Crowned Lapwing, Rufous-naped Lark, White-crowned Shrike, Vitelline Masked and Red-billed and White-headed Buffalo Weavers are species which should be seen on every safari in northern Tanzania. However Ndutu has many fine specialities. In a landscape with so many big mammals the birds of prey are wonderfully common and soon make themselves apparent. Species seen on our safaris include Bateleur, Tawny Eagle, Secretarybird, Black-shouldered Kite and both Eastern and Dark Chanting Goshawks as well as migrant Lesser Kestrels all the way from Central Asia. Not as common, but regularly seen, are Martial Eagle, Long-crested Eagle and White-eyed Kestrel. African White-backed, Ruppell’s Griffon, Lappet-faced and Hooded Vultures remain widespread in this seemingly pristine and ancient ecosystem, and we will certainly keep an eye out for that most endangered and extravagant-looking White-headed Vulture, an ornate species which thankfully still breeds here around Ndutu.

We will arrive late afternoon at the Ndutu Safari Lodge, home of wildlife lovers for decades. Do not be surprised if wildlife such as Genets come to our door step, this is part of the charm of the place where we will share our wildlife adventures around the camp-fire under the brilliant stars of an inky black African sky. Dinner and overnight at Ndutu Safari Lodge.


January 9


We will have the entire day to further explore this marvellous area and will organise our birding activity accordingly.  As a group, we might collectively decide if we want to come back to the Lodge for lunch or if we would rather spend the entire day ‘out in the wilds’. A short walking safari (as an option) is also possible here. Dinner and overnight stay at Ndutu Safari Lodge.

January 10

Ndutu to Central Serengeti

After an early breakfast we will leave the Ndutu area and drive via  a short walk around Naabi Hill to Seronera which lies at the hub of the Serengeti National Park. We will take a picnic lunch and enjoy a full day in the bush before reaching our comfortable permanent camp in the late afternoon. Here we will spend the next two nights. The Serengeti is justly famous for its mammals yet also undoubtedly a delight for any bird-watcher. More then 600 species have been recorded here, as many as are seen in all of Europe. Among these are species with intriguing names such as: Bare faced Go-away Bird, Eastern Grey Plantain-eater, Fischer’s Lovebird, Brown Parrot, Secretary Bird, Diederik and Jacobin Cuckoo, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Black-headed Gonolek, Karamoja Apalis, Grey-backed Fiscal, Ruppell’s Long-tailed Starling, Red-faced Crombec, Banded Parisoma, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Siffling Cisticola, Yellow-spotted Petronia, Grey-headed Social Weaver to mention only a few.

Dinner and overnight at Kati Kati Camp


January 11


The entire day today will be dedicated to exploring the central heartland of the Serengeti National Park. We will choose whether to take a picnic lunch or to return to the camp for lunch. We should get a chance to see two endemics – the Grey-breasted Spurfowl and the Tanzanian, or Ruaha, Hornbill. There will be more raptors such as Bateleur, Black-chested and Brown Snake-eagles, Martial, Tawny and Steppe Eagles, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers plus Pygmy Falcons and various kestrels.  Yellow-throated and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse come to the pools to drink, near which there will be Plain-backed Pipits, Grey-crested Helmet-shrike in the Acacia gerrardi  trees, there are several nightjar species here, and many other birds will likely be added to what should by now be an impressive list, even for this, a specifically bird-orientated, wildlife safari.

Dinner and overnight at Kati Kati Camp.

January 12

Seronera to Ngorongoro Crater

Today we will leave the Serengeti and drive back eastwards to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area enjoying a full day of game-viewing along the way. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area spans a vast expanse of highland plains, savanna, savanna woodlands and forests. Established in 1959 as a multiple land use area, where the wildlife coexists with semi-nomadic Maasai pastoralists practicing traditional livestock grazing, it includes the spectacular Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest caldera. The entire area is of priceless global importance for biodiversity due partly to the presence of several globally threatened species, yet also to the density of wildlife inhabiting the area, plus the annual migration of wildebeest, zebra, gazelles and other animals around the entire Serengeti ecosystem. Extensive archaeological research has also yielded a long sequence of evidence of human evolution and human-environment dynamics, including early hominid footprints dating back 3.6 million years.

Once we arrive at the crater, we can enjoy a naturalist’s walk along the rim. The mixture of forest, canyons, grassland plains, lakes and marshes provide habitats for a wide range of bird life. The short rains before Christmas herald the arrival of Eurasian bird migrants at the pools. White Storks, Yellow Wagtails and Barn Swallows mingle with the local inhabitants: stilts, Saddle-billed Storks, Sacred Ibis, Collared Pratincoles, Chestnut-banded Plovers and various species of duck. Lesser Flamingos fly-in (and out) overnight, from their breeding grounds at Lake Natron, to spend days feeding here. Impressive and iconic grassland birds – Maasai Ostrich, Abdim’s and White Storks, Kori and Black-bellied Bustard, Grey Crowned Cranes, Rose-throated Longclaws and others – abound.

Dinner and overnight at Rhino Lodge


January 13

Ngorongoro crater

Today, we will experience the unforgettable Crater of Ngorongoro, one of the most picturesque settings for observing wildlife in the whole world. With around 30,000 resident animals, game viewing here is excellent all year round and the photographic opportunities unrivalled!

Encounters with animals are very frequent in this “Garden of Eden”, and there is a great variety to see. As mentioned Lake Magadi, a soda lake on the floor of the Crater, supports thousands of flamingos and other waterbirds. This is also one of the best places to see the endangered Black Rhino. We will spend the entire day in the crater (with picnic lunch) before heading to Karatu for dinner and an overnight stay at Ngorongoro Farm House.

January 14

Karatu to Lake Eyasi

After an early breakfast, we will head out to Lake Eyasi (2h drive) and bird watch along the lake shores in a dramatic landscape, home to a multitude of migratory birds. The north-eastern edge of the lake lies in the shadow of Ol Doinyo Mountain on the border of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Lake Eyasi occupies one of the oldest sections of the Eastern Rift Valley, where it runs northeast- southwest for a distance of about fifty miles below an impressive three thousand foot escarpment that forms the south-eastern boundary of the Serengeti National Park and Maswa Game Reserve. To the southeast of the lake is the Yaida valley, home to the Hadzabe people, a tribe of hunter-gatherers.

Eyasi is not somewhere to visit in search of Big Game, but it is a very interesting part of Tanzania if you’re prepared to take things more slowly. All year flamingos, pelicans, herons and egrets frequent this shallow soda lake. And in season the lake attracts vast numbers of migrant waterbirds of all shapes and colours, from the larger species such as: Great White and Pink-backed Pelicans, Yellow-billed and African Open-billed Storks, African Spoonbills, the two species of flamingo, Grey-headed Gull, Pied Avocet and so forth to what, for some, might be, at first, a bewildering array of smaller waders and shorebirds, many from breeding areas as far away as the tundra of arctic Siberia. ‘Fear not though!’ for James will patiently guide you through them all! His Swarovski 80 HD telescope at hand, so that you will get the closest views possible.

Lunch, dinner and overnight at Lake Eyasi Safari Lodge.


January 15

Lake Eyasi

For some this whole day can be dedicated to bird watching alongside the lake. Alternatively, for those people interested, a bush walk with Hadzabe hunters is an option. This is unique experience since the Hadzabe represent the last surviving group of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania.

Lunch, Dinner and overnight at Lake Eyasi Safari Lodge.

January 16

Lake Eyasi to Arusha

After a late breakfast and time to enjoy the birds in the grounds of our lodge, we must leave Lake Eyasi and drive back to Arusha, either to catch an international flight, or to commence an extension to the safari, such as a beach holiday in Zanzibar.

If you need to spend an extra night in Arusha, Tropical Trails can arrange for you to stay at Karama Lodge (option).

Price of this tour: $3,775 per person sharing for a group of 11 participants 

The Price includes: 

Airport transfers

First night at Karama Lodge previous to the safari

All National Park Fees

Safari in 4‐wheel drive vehicle with professional driver/naturalist guide, maximum 3 persons per vehicle Bottle of Mineral water (1.5L per day)

Accommodation in the selected Lodges and tented Camps in full board (except the first and last days on BB)

Professional guiding by James Wolstencroft

The Price does not include:

International flight

Accommodation in Arusha on the day 13

Discretionary tipping, alcoholic drinks cigarettes, laundry, items of a personal nature, visas, personal Travel Insurance, or anything not mentioned above

Prices quoted in US Dollars per person.

For terms and conditions of payment please refer to our booking conditions.

Please note prices may be subject to change in the event of any change of Government Taxes and National Park Fees.

Tropical Trails reserves the right to adjust these rates accordingly.

About your principal guide and tutor: James Wolstencroft

“It seems that I’ve been a naturalist, a bird-watcher, a conservationist and a ‘birder’ for almost all my fifty-eight years. Definitely my first BIG love was BIRDS. Over the years I’ve grown to greatly admire, if not exactly envy, all flying creatures no matter their size, more especially those who undertake epic migrations across this globe. And I’ve been guiding nature holidays across Asia and Africa since 1988. On New Year’s Eve 2004 with my young family (and Pie the dog) I decided to move from Europe, our little cottage overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, in southern Spain, to Arusha on the slopes of Mount Meru in Tanzania. We settled here so that we could live as close as possible to some of the last great refuges of Africa’s fabled mega-fauna. In the decade that has passed I have become an “All Sizes Safari Guide” looking at everything from insects to Elephants, from Aardvarks to Zorillas. It is a privilege and real delight to share with others the great wonders with which we may be blessed by being in Africa’s Nature. The joy and awe revealed once we’re quietly observing up close the smallest and the largest of our companions, in the here and now, still wild, in a truly indescribable part of this, our beautiful, beautiful world.”

SCARLET-CHESTED SUNBIRD, chalcomitra senegalensis_1_2


Rollers of Fortune : 2014 Redux

European Roller (Romania)


Lots of European bird-watchers grew up in towns. Many, like myself – I come from northwest England – lived near the grey Atlantic, in a decidedly cool corner of our “Great Peninsula”. Here for perhaps half our days, up to seven months of each impatient youthful year we suffered a suffocating Tupperware opaqueness overhead. A grey shield of cloud that far too often blotted out the blueness of the sky. Excluding us from heaven above. From ‘freedom’.

I think that is why, for we, the child birders of the sixties and seventies, the Roller and half a dozen other southern birds portrayed in the middle of our Peterson Guide – please let’s not forget Guy Mountfort and Phil Hollom – the Kingfisher, the Bee-eater, the Hoopoe, the Golden Oriole, the Woodchat Shrike, such  birds were the embodiment of our childhood’s nature fantasies. Why? Because they are exotic, colourful, pulsating with warmth and they have the freedom to roam, proof of a life worth living. To this day, in September 2014, even though I live amongst riotous colour in Equatorial Africa, whenever I catch a glimpse of the vibrant sky blue of our Roller, the blues of any Roller – for we have at Christmas time four species here around Arusha – it never fails to spark a thrill in the child’s heart within me. Despite the fact that I was seventeen when first I encountered the Roller-being in all his tropical flesh and blood.

It was near Arcos de la Frontera in southern Andalucia, Spain. A bright Sunday morning at Easter time 1973. Lucky us! We too had just flown-in, in an Iberia jet from a dull, grey Manchester airport. Whilst he of course made it all the way to Arcos by himself, recently arrived, from far exotic African lands. I was on one of my manic early-listing missions. He was much more focused, carefully scanning the open ground beneath his telegraph wire for trundling dung and darkling beetles. Oily black insects, nutrition, caught out in the open, crossing the soft earth of rabbit mounds, beside a lumpy chalky lane in what was, for a wee while yet, Franco’s Spain.

Along that narrow road beside one of Franco’s own great wheat fields bloomed an unruly renaissance of brilliant buzzing Easter flowers. Legumes mostly; deep blue vetches and blood red Italian sainfoin, out-matched only by the whispering pagan spires of purple viper’s bugloss, already standing knee-high in the verge. Humming, smiling, they were witness to terse old ladies, robed in colourless black, scuttling like the beetles, dead-eyed up the lane to the beat of the Roman gong.

My next Roller meeting was as impressive as the first. Another in-bound Easter migrant two years later it was in an ancient olive grove, on a sun-drenched hillside, beside the hazy blue Adriatic in northern Kerkira (Corfu – April 1975). I was still reeling from my first ever sighting of a male Pallid Harrier. A silent ballet in bright white spring sunshine, he had just ghosted past me on the softest of breezes, across a wet-under-foot field of wild white narcissus; the budding wayside elms and Nightingales, still ringing in my eyes and ears. I had decided to take a short cut, through a stony patch of maquis, toward some scattered twisted olives on a slope. Suddenly there was “The Roller”, on a bare antler branch etched against the sky. Thickset, powerful, a square-headed bird with a serious beak and sharp knowing eye, a distillation of blues beneath a more uniform rufous tan. Then in seemingly reckless flight there were yet more blues, ecstatic blues, blues and beauty beyond belief.

For young naturalists – increasingly they could claim to be impoverished citizens in those materially rich northern societies – it is I suppose the simultaneous mental processing, the surprise processing of so many sense experiences which is required, that reinforces the moment in our memory. Such moments ensure our allegiance, usually for life, to the life of the wild. Wedding us to wonder – if it be your will?

Stumbling upon a gorgeous Roller, finding a longed-for bird of any kind (in today’s parlance connecting with a species on your wish, dream or bucket list) charges the brain with instantaneous, 360-degree, spherical reality! Sensation that is all around and overhead. Not images on a shiny flattish screen, slap in front of our face! Likely we are struggling with at least some physical effort, we must try to concentrate and persevere, we’re plodding along with the minor discomforts and fatigue of being in the field. We might be sitting, standing or walking, running even, yet presumably quite quietly! It might be in sunshine, in wind or rain. With my roller I was smelling the healthy earth, amongst spring flowers humming with nectar, maybe as I paused amid the hum of bees and wasps, butterflies dancing, delightful evocative contact calls of diurnal migrants, imagine European Bee-eaters dashing overhead! This for sure is easy immersion in Nature. It’s becoming aware. Sensing the uniqueness of place and I suppose in the moment, fully being there, and yet somehow also footloose in space.

Forty years later, such essential, transcendental moments must be daily sacrificed by my attachment to assimilated ecological knowledge and environmental fears. Not to mention the domestic responsibilities of raising a family! Above all I worry what must have happened to the blue skies Roller, “our European” Roller, its populations, in the short 50 years of my lifetime?

We know the species was already in retreat from the north and west of Europe during the late nineteenth century. One hundred years later that range had contracted further and by the year 2000 what were apparently healthy populations survived only eastward from the European peninsula into the lands that are again called Russian.

In the aforementioned “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (sic!)” in the second and third editions, (the bible of this 1970s era rarity hunter, twitcher on the by-pass, for the list-serve listers of the future), the habitat of European Roller is summarised simply and succinctly by Phil Hollom as:

Mature forests and fairly open country with a few trees. Breeds in old hollow trees, holes in banks, ruins etc.”

Now, and then, to reproduce in this ‘habitat’ Rollers must of course eat well. They require a lot of large to very large insects. In their African lives their diet is composed largely of Isopteran alates (that’s flying termites – and of course these are not available in Europe), Orthopterans (crickets, katydids, grasshoppers and locusts), Coleopterans (beetles) and Hymenopterans (ants, bees and wasps), also small vertebrates such as Lacerta-type lizards as well as small rodents. And of course they need safe nest sites. Rot holes in big old trees where a limb has fallen-away, rubbly creviced cliffs, earthen banks or ruined walls of old buildings and nowadays in places man-made nest boxes.

Since practically the entire population of Coracias g. garrulus and C. g. semenowi (the eastern ‘subspecies’) spend the boreal winter travelling through Africa there are also the inevitable myriad dangers of a migrant’s life, during those seven months of the year when General Winter rules the North. Months in which a European Roller once again becomes just another African Roller.

How many descendants of those mid-70s western Rollers are returning now, steadily crossing the Mediterranean and the Sahara, from the expanded European Community to Africa this migration time?

Rollers going whichever way, north or south, are returning ‘home’. In so doing their dwindling population reveals how little is left of Europe’s environmentally-sensitive countryside. In the old European communities that I knew, for such a short while, the old-farmed landscape that functioned quite well even into the late seventies has in the past twenty-five years been all but obliterated. Relegated and the regulated to a few scattered bio-spherical reservations where redundant human life-styles and “species of conservation concern” are no longer viable without finance from beyond the fence to support the landscapes of cultures that are dying if not already dead.

Not one Roller I’ll wager shall utter its near-threatened throaty rattle, in tumble-round display, above the vast swathes of squared-off waste, the deserts of grain, of oilseed rape and foreign fir and the accumulating silage bags (tractor’s eggs!) rolling-out across the Union. Sour-smelling or scentless ‘fields’ increasingly surround and overwhelm the few forgotten corners where wildlife hangs-on. Whilst along the drains and invalided hedges the despised weeds of agri-business, such as Rumex and Urtica gain yet more ground. Airborne nitrates-assisted, unruly and rank – they are the dark flowers for our time.  This is the brave new briefly profitable countryside of a supposedly wealthy Europe. Set-aside and sterile fields so-called, reinforced by liberalized land tenure laws, yet only occasionally visited by any of the people – let alone the dark-suited men who love them Homo ignoramus.


In our expanded Union, say after 20-15? Will there be three hundred pairs of “Vulnerable Rollers”, perhaps just fifty, when only ten? In the past sixty years our manufactured (profit-driven) need, for ever more efficient food-as-culture, which links the base production industries of oil and metal with wood, grain, meat and milk, has desecrated what remained in 1950 of the Roller’s habitat west of 25 degrees East. And with it what great proportion of those other trans-Saharan migrant birds, for whom we still call Europe home? In fairness it was likely done without intent, by crass brutality in the traumatised wake of War. Beyond contemporary understanding and without our true consent. Unwitting yes, yet many of us definitely sensed and even saw them disappearing, so arguments apportioning responsibility could drag-on yet. Whatever, we have lost the bulk of them. Killed-them-off as surely as if we had been those brutes and shot them down in Cyprus or in Malta.

It is my belief that it is not only the bird nerd, or avian geek, the boffin ornithologists, nor simple nature-lovers and naturalists who suffer this demise of Roller-land. I believe we still need those grazed and well-timbered parklands, Medieval wood pastures, muddles of heath and corn, eastern meadow-forest mosaics. We need new versions of these “cultural landscapes” who survive today only as open air museums, or in ever fewer mortal evanescent memories, or monochrome, petrified and flat, two dimensional images, locked in celluloid or in the damned computers.

Acquiescing in accelerating extirpation, we are losing something ineffable. Something that I think is more precious to our humanity than a suite of sky-god religions or even European Rollers. I think we are loosing our sense of belonging, of continuity, any spirit of communality. True freedoms these; the knowledge that an ordinary life is worth living. Living outside a box; and not always in one, not a life in front of one.

In Europe today, I hear that privileged childhood freedoms increasingly dwell within a moulded black or silver plastic case. On a screen that encapsulates electronic fantasies, played-out in a cartoon planet, crafted within crowded mega-cities that have so deeply absorbed our minds. I know the youth today, as always and quite naturally, they prefer their fantasies to those in which we lived. The ones I doubt we can now describe with anything like sufficient vitality to bring them back to life transformed. It seems to me that a civilization which requires such tranquilising pass-times has evolved within a wider landscape of great conformity. Corporate monotony, on its present trajectory, may soon deliver terror as rapacious and inimical to the human spirit as was any fearsome forest, or field of feudal or fascist wheat, or state collective farm in Soviet Russia. Insidious and stifling, highly mechanised, oil-dependent agriculture delivers our daily bread to the domestic terminal consumers who seldom see a cereal field without an intervening pane of glass; and have not the slightest idea what an ancient healthy forest might look like.

And as regards my take on sub-Saharan lands … “as long as it/they doesn’t/don’t come here, who up there cares, really?”

This thankfully brings me back home to the so-called “insoluble problems” of Africa, and its ten types of Roller.


In what’s left of old Europe, east of about 25 degrees East, the Rollers might survive for a little while yet. As with many bird species, of a primarily west-central Palearctic origin, nominally ‘European’ Rollers enter Africa in late autumn on a route that lies well to the north and west of the one by which they may leave the following April. From late September through October and November they pass through the lands of the Horn of Africa and Sudan east of the Nile into eastern Chad, and the C.A.R. and subsequently south through the eastern Congo, western Kenya and Tanzania roughly along the western axis of the Rift Valley. This is presumably so that they can take full advantage, on their leisurely southbound journey, of this vast region’s food resources. In many parts it will be leaping with life; with trillions of insects large and small. The acacia and broad-leaved savanna woodlands in the northern centre of the continent produce a luxuriance of growth, processed by countless life forms, in the wake of ITCZ rains which fall, in ever varying patterns, during the three months that follow the boreal summer solstice.

A very large proportion of our rollers (and almost all of the eastern race C.g.semenowi) continue south eastwards, pursuing the moisture-laden banks of cloud that continue to trigger a tremendous population explosion among the insects. Thus it is almost the time of the December solstice before the majority has arrived in southern Africa. Although often foraging alone, the travelling rollers frequently assemble in loose flocks, or ‘clump’ in areas of food abundance, where one bird can clearly see another, typically they are spaced 100 – 200m apart. For example: on Boxing Day 1940 around Dodoma, in the dry country of central Tanzania, R.F.Meiklejohn counted up to 5,000 Rollers in one small area of thorny Masai steppe.

EURASIAN ROLLER, coracias g garrulus

This huge influx of immigrant rollers into Africa each year brings them into almost daily contact with two and sometimes three resident species, which are about the same size, yet they meet without apparent aggression or need for segregation. It seems, from all the available evidence, that very rarely does a European Roller spend more than a couple of weeks in the same place; so this species is very much itinerant whilst in Africa. Perhaps the resident birds recognize the transient nature of ‘their guests’, in much the same way as the indigenous human population, on a somewhat different time scale, appears to have been doing.


In Africa the Roller clearly prefers areas where the ground is relatively open, especially where clearance or a recent fire has significantly disturbed the local insect population. In the 1940s Reginald Moreau recorded that this roller will even eat the brightly coloured, acrid-tasting and slow moving Foam Grasshopper (Zonocerus elegans) which itself feeds upon toxin accumulating Milkweeds (Asclepias fruticososus), Senecio and Solanum. When attacked the grasshoppers produce evil-smelling foam from their thoracic joints. Livestock avoid eating from bushes containing these grasshoppers and this bubbly secretion, if ingested by dog or human, frequently proves fatal. We too watched five rollers feeding with impunity on these, and other grasshopper species, in the vicinity of Kilimanjaro International Airport on the afternoon of March 17, 2007.

The journey back north to “Europe” starts in early February. Continuing through March and April the birds follow a route toward the eastern seaboard, to areas in East Africa at, or just north of, the equator; where especially in years of bountiful “short rains” a significant number will have remained all ‘winter’; feeding avidly all the while, before either crossing the northern Indian Ocean direct, or the deserts of the Arabian peninsula and Asia Minor, in what is perforce a far more sustained and determined flight.

Reginald Moreau worked here in Tanganyika (prior to independence) mostly at Amani, in the East Usambaras, which at that time occupied what was but a small clearing in montane forest, and not a typical location in which to find European Rollers. One day in early April 1946 hundreds of European Rollers settled in the trees surrounding his home in the Amani clearing. The birds were evidently being grounded for some reason, as they were very restless, flying back and fore from tree top to tree top, raucously calling all the while. Usually European Rollers are silent, or at least fairly quiet, whilst in Africa. Eventually one individual rose, circled-up into the sky and flew off strongly in a northeasterly direction followed over a period of a few minutes by all the others. Some hours later another loose group of about eighty birds arrived at the Amani clearing and behaved in exactly the same manner. It is tempting to wonder whether these birds were contemplating an imminent departure from the African continent, as Amani is less than 100km from the coast at the Indian Ocean. On another occasion at Amani (March 25) Reg Moreau was surprised to see a pair of these rollers copulating. Such behaviour is very unusual indeed amongst Palearctic birds in Africa, Amani being some 6000km from their breeding range, and three weeks in advance of normal laying. However Rollers frequently arrive at their nesting sites in pairs, so it is possible that some bonds are formed whilst the birds are still in Africa.


Professor Erwin Stresemann writing in 1944 concluded that Rollers from the northern western periphery of the breeding range, in eastern Germany, are among those that travel farthest, as far as the Transvaal of southern Africa; a great circle route of over 10,000km. He calculated that the northbound migration in spring was considerably quicker than the southbound, birds averaging some 1000km in 8.5 days. He compared this to the migration of the Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) which, although by no means a fast migrant, covers a similar distance in only half the time. He believed that this was because the Roller travels by day whilst the shrike flies at night.

Some British colonial administrators noted their observations of Rollers in East Africa. On April 5, some eighty-eight years ago, Sir Geoffrey Archer saw hundreds in the Machakos district, yet by “one week later all had vanished”. Sir Frederick Jackson, in Kenya, at the same time noted “several hundred on April 10, flying leisurely north between Samburu and Maseras, many others were resting on the telegraph wires, most were in a beautiful fresh plumage.” Colonel Stevenson Clarke records seeing a very large flock assemble at a communal roost in some thorn trees in what is now southernmost Kenya.

During the northbound migration through the acacia country of northern Tanzania some Rollers are attracted to the wires and the open areas immediately adjacent to the highway. Here they are also drawn to injured locusts and moribund beetles struggling in the red dust of the verge, sadly quite a few rollers themselves end their days like this. They are the victims of Africa’s rapidly increasing speed and the material progress of at least a few of her people. On any day in early April one may rush past several lifeless, yet still beautiful bundles of blue and tan, especially on one stretch of road some fifty kilometres either side of the town of Same, in Tanzania, yet just to the south of Tsavo. The highway that links Dar es Salaam with Arusha and Nairobi, whilst only two-lanes wide and carrying relatively few vehicles, kills an awful lot of wildlife.

In 1976, on my first African safari, I wrote in my diary for March 29:

Having departed late from Malindi we were driven to Voi safari lodge in a small white Mazda saloon, we travelled at break-neck speed, thanks to an apprentice rally-racer called Moses. Just before entering Tsavo East National Park, driving like a bat out of hell, Moses parted a loose flock of 35 European Rollers that were crossing the grassland, and its ribbon of tarmac, northwards at waist height. We killed one roller outright and minutes later struck a flava wagtail too.”

I remember the sadness of those moments, as if it was yesterday. It wasn’t.



A Twitch in Time with the Vagrant Mind

gugh to agnes

Each autumn, during the years of my retirement in the late seventies and early eighties of last century, was given over to worshipping the gods of migration. It was my personal homage to birds. To the birds and to the greatest wonder of my known world, VisMig, the migration of birds.

I was fortunate in being able to enjoy retirement before taking-on a life of work! Clearly, I foresaw, that life on Earth was not going to get forever better and better as the propaganda machinery of the dominant western culture relentlessly proclaimed. On the contrary anyone with any active interest in, or love for, our living planet, for its nature and wildness, couldn’t fail to appreciate the implications of information that was being divulged to us on an almost daily basis. Anyway, my departure from normal life took place in June 1977. It followed a short spell of great disillusionment, that set-in during a degree of self-imposed incarceration, at a highly respected mediaeval university in a former fen of eastern England.

Above all I recall one dull day, at the end of October 1976, on a narrow grey street in that historic city of spires, one formerly surrounded by the richest wetland in all of England. A post card had appeared in my pigeon-hole from a friend, whom I’d first met at Easter 1970 (on a Young Ornithologists trip to the Neusiedlersee of Eastern Austria). The card portrayed an aerial photograph, taken from the south, of a small island. An isle of celtic fields and heathery moor adrift in a soft blue sea. The view looked over Horse Point on Agnes in the Isles of Scilly, a tiny isle, who through no fault of her own, had become Saint Agnes. And my family had spent a ‘proper’ holiday week there, in the late summer of that same year, 1970. Anyway Horse Point happens to be the southernmost bit of land, essentially it’s a lichen-encrusted granite tor (an eminence of rounded, weathered boulders) in the whole of post-glacial Britain.


On the back side of the postcard, scripted in neat blue biro was my good friend’s annotated list of all the Scilly bird rarities he had seen during the previous three weeks. On reflection the previous three weeks had provided me with no highs at all, avian or otherwise. So that day I begged two other friends (friends not embedded in the ranks of the university) for a lift that coming weekend up to the north Norfolk coast. They agreed. It turned out to be a ‘Siberian’ Halloween, that last weekend of October 1976, and provided two lovely lifers, but that is perhaps another story.

Reading through those bird names, hand written on a card, birds so recently incarnate (some in synonyms so soon to be archaic – e.g. Indian Tree Pipit), must have unhinged what was left of my little window on success. Threw me off the ladder, and in an instant roundly freed me from a square life of framed ambitions.

So I left that University, as soon as was humanly possible, and the fall of ‘77 found me ensconced in Santa Barbara, California, birding daily, yet studying hard. Reading and rereading copies of the WFO journal in a back seat on some freeway, I would be riding with young luminaries, such as Paul Lehman and Louis Bevier. Each of us in, our different ways were attentive to the obsessive brilliance of established western bird finders, preeminent amongst them, Rich Stallcup, Guy McCaskie and Jon Dunn. However by end of the November I decided to quit the California scene, owing to an intractable melancholia, a sadness stemming from the need to surround myself with older and more familiar friends – I was pining for Old World genera – the birds of a childhood so suddenly expired.

As a result of my Pacific interlude it was not until the next year, on October 28 1978 to be exact, that eventually I made it back to St Agnes and the fabled Isles of Scilly. I stayed for two windswept weeks in a tiny cottage; called “The Hump”, perhaps because it perches on the top of Agnes; with another legendary bird-finder, a bearded sage named Paul Dukes. A man who has been in-on the finding, often there on Agnes, of more new birds for the British List than one could imagine possible.

Thereafter my fate was sealed. Each autumn I made sure I joined the other pilgrims on south-western pathways to Scilly. And my spirit was not to be turned away. Undeniably, unfailingly, each autumn birding experiences garnered there on Scilly, marked the zenith of my year. More than once in those years, in the weeks of autumn, a solemn vow was taken, (once in a force nine gale, within a swirling veil of the curly, ruby-red leaves of the now endangered Cornish elm) that one day I would try to write-down something, hopefully worthwhile, about those transcendent autumn days, the best of times. To explore the revelations we had shared, many outside the scope of what is generally regarded as mainstream birding. Such revelations were common, in those increasingly distant days, for many in my age-class. And so, falteringly for All Souls’ Day and Halloween in 2007, more than a score of years after the events, I decided that the writing should at least begin.


“Scilly”, as she became to us birders, is an archipelago in the north-east Atlantic straddling the imaginary forty ninth line of latitude, between 27-35 miles west southwest of the British main island. The islands lie on the very edge of Europe, in an equable climate that is maintained by the Gulf stream. They face America and, like nearly all pre-eminent vagrant traps, they have a full 360 degree catchment area (in this case sea, but it can also be dry desert) from which to gather their migrant birds. Frost is rare and the vegetation, imported and nurtured by more than a century of dedicated human activity, is in places quite lush and almost always green. Consequently birds that arrive on the islands find cover at least, and maybe some food, so they frequently survive long enough that they may be found – all the more likely if there is a veritable army of keen observers searching for them from dawn to dusk.

Every year between 1978 and 1991 from late August until mid November, (rarely we arrived a week or so earlier in summer and more frequently we were dragged away even deeper in the dark times), the irreverent band of the punkish RBC (Recession Birders Collective) might have been observed (by satellite and now by drone) each day somewhere on the isles. Spotted easily when quite exposed, on one of the motor launches that connect the big island of St Mary’s to the four inhabited off-islands: Tresco, Bryher, St. Martins and Agnes. Less easily identified when we were haunting the rustic waysides, the willow copses and gorsy headlands that fringe the busiest island of Saint Mary’s. Perhaps we might have been ‘scoped, whilst dodging across the Higher or Lower Moors – boggy areas that fill the two widest valleys of the island. Myself I could have been slipping, secateurs in hand, into the forbidden tangles, clumps of old Goat Willow – perhaps on a quest for some rare Phylloscopus. Oh! yes, you had to be furtive even then, there was no right to roam on Scilly, the islands being part of the Duchy of Cornwall, the land remained in thrall to the laws of an alien monarchy, potentially to the obscure needs of one slight man, Charles, Prince of Wales.

ovb twitch

During the day I was definitely peripheral to the birder throng. In the evenings however the lure of the pub, (hopefully you might find rather more women there!), and much less often the log, could prove compelling. During daylight however, even if a really good bird was showing-well, I would only be, at best, on the margins of those tangled knots of greenish-brown masculinity that surged erratically along the little lanes, or leaned in bedraggled lines against old dry-stone hedges peering into tiny fields, completely clogging the narrower tracks. At that time woolly hats and sour-smelling wax jackets, Barbours, were the uniform of many in Britain’s fast-lane twitcher militia. This was a body whose ranks swelled massively during periods of active vagrancy. At such times, suddenly, briefly, they would descend on Scilly, choppering-in and choppering-out, on board the red white and blue of a British Airways Sikorsky. These umbies (my term – upwardly mobile birders) would assuredly appear on the islands, in the wake of any major migrant fall-out. Typically the first would arrive “as things were found” in the clear slot, of a nor’westerly, some hours after the eastward passage into Biscay of a major Atlantic cyclone. Less often they would drift in on a grimy south-easterly breeze, wafting warmly out of the near-continent, out of the European mainland to the south of a Baltic High (a blocking anticyclone). In a good autumn there would be a really major twitch, such as this, on three or maybe four occasions.

Umbies, whilst being for the most part, excellent observers, were first and foremost dedicated to enlarging their already big British (and later World) lists. Therefore, as the eighties culture of increasing affluence reinforced such drives, more and more of them chose to remain at work, and at home, throughout the October Scilly season. Ready by the phone, at work in cities and towns across the British mainland; rather than wasting valuable holiday time sitting out a duff spell on Scilly. Which would likely be quite good somewhere else. No longer stuck on Scilly these birders could rapidly redeploy themselves (often overnight) to whichever island or headland ‘came up with the goods’. Often remote places, where a stoic yet rapidly growing band of dedicated birders, likely trained on Shetland and in Scilly, had become dedicated workers of a more local patch. Once in a blue moon they might strike lucky and discover a major national rarity. A bird that by definition almost everybody needed – perhaps even a first for Britain, and on the mainland too! Such species, by definition utter cripplers and/or blockers (not seen for many years or only seen by very few) in those cold, post- or pre-war days; such birds have subsequently become known as megas in the more cool world-speak of our PC-screen detachment.

Yet I know that most of the other birders, whenever they were there on Scilly, were benefiting just as much as I felt I was. Benefiting not only from the blessings of bearing witness to what was often the finest annual assortment of “Sibes and Yanks”, anywhere outside the Bering Sea, but also from the chance of finding their own rarities at this annual jamboree. I believe that the chase, the sport of hunting-down rare birds, of searching for, finding, identifying and most important of sharing the experiences of rarities in the field (undertaken on foot, almost entirely without private motorised transport) was a unique and daily challenge for us all. A great joy and real privilege that most of us longed for each year, as the month of October gradually drew near. Certainly for well over a decade Scilly remained the best and most enjoyable, the most sociable, place in which to play the delightful game.


Gradually we came to recognise that the majority of these rare birds, each autumn, were doomed first years, disoriented or misdirected juveniles, of globe spanning migrant species that by ill-fate became any particular region’s super rarities. Birds from far distant and, in those days, enduringly mysterious lands, inaccessible, they hailed from human nations not at all like ours. These included nearly all the “Accidental” species which were given only a cursory treatment right at the back of Peterson, Mountfort and Hollom – the original Field Guide in those ignorant times.

That we should finally clap eyes upon such vagrants and extreme vagrants, that we might first have heard about in a sixties childhood, seemed almost unbelievable. A fancied glimpse of any one of which might have occasionally graced the dreams of our birding apprenticeship in those earlier years.

The fact that almost all of these individuals, especially the mirror-image vagrants from Russia, presumably somehow searching for Indo-Chinese jungles in the sun, and the typically dazed-looking cuckoos and thrushes blown-over from North America, would soon drown in our cold northern ocean, or starve to death in some leafless wood added a haunting pathos to the experience of finding and watching these most highly desirable of avian vagrants.

However one can choose to look at this whole rarity-hunting phenomenon in quite another way; one that is both less sporting, less fanciful and yet to me more encouraging. That the birds, at least collectively, are not in any way doomed and that we are celebrating the annual revolution of life itself when we search for them. Autumn avian vagrants, of any species, appearing in any part of the Holarctic are representatives of a vanguard of pioneers who, whether via genetic idiosyncrasies or by falling victim (occasionally en masse) to the vicissitudes of changing weather patterns and climatic realignment, may find themselves one dawn flying over seas and land into places where very few, if any, of their ancestors have travelled before.

Willow fave

Ever changing environments very occasionally enable some of the pioneer minority, somewhere way off course, to survive the winter (the non-breeding season) and return whence they came or establish a breeding site in a different part of the globe. They are therefore both part of the great seasonal sacrifice and a measure of the success of a species in any one breeding season. They are the harvest and yet potentially they are also part of the seed crop.

Therefore searching for and finding these autumnal waifs and strays on remote islands and headlands, oases and deltas around the northern hemisphere each October seems to me a worthy pursuit in itself. It is a great tribute to the beauty of the birds and to the aliveness of our own people, our birders. A pursuit as alive and meaningful as any human activity can be. In fact I now feel that this pursuit is about as close as we can get, in the British Isles and Atlantic Europe (and elsewhere) to an unselfconscious participation in the annual celebration of that most important Gaelic festival Samhain. Samhain marks the disappearance of summer, of evident plant growth, and the arrival of the dark half of the year. Evidence of this festival stretches back into the times of our early Brythonic ancestors. And of course at that time doubtless it existed among almost all the diverse ethnic groups of the northlands. Undoubtedly in form, if not in name, it was practiced farther back, through the vastness of the Bronze Age and Neolithic times, and farther still even into the very emergence of our communicated awareness of the seasons and our place within the chase – to the dawn of our humanity.

Thus we – the birders – celebrate in the run-up to All Souls’ Eve, to Halloween, our own extended harvest festival, which marks the decline of summer and the onset of winter. It is our version of the Gaelic Samhain and of ever more ancient ecological rites still hiding in the mists beyond.

In so doing we may receive an in depth education in birds, in bird lore and birding, and in much else besides. As these streams pour into the Gulf stream currents of our collective memory, onto our tribal consciousness, they help sustains us. Helping us to recall, relive, and recreate the thrill of the hunt, a chase dressed here in fairly benign but not in passive garb, connecting us to some of the essence of being fully alive.

Twitching in its active form, as bird rarity hunting was, and for many it remains, no matter where on Earth we are at present, an extremely rewarding investment of our free time and of any spare energy. I hope my memories of those several seasons searching for autumn vagrants on Scilly, in my late youth’s retirement, and latterly on occasion in Shetland, in western Spain and even here in Africa, will remain with me always. Remain as dearly cherished memories.

Dedicated patch-birding, although in truth surely everywhere you bird should be – at that moment – your patch, and rarity-finding demands a certain kind of discipline, requires training and provides fulfillment, all of which many birders continue to find compelling even in later life. Despite it often being, by then, somewhat erratically pursued. As all too frequently our continued training is interrupted by adult responsibilities. Nevertheless it seems that it remains a fiery, wayward core inside an ageing heart.

And thus my friends I propose a toast, in the run-up to this Boreal Samhain of AD 2014. Let’s make a toast to all of those departed, birds and birders both, and to the unquestioning return of Spring-Our-Queen! Yes! a toast to all the birds and birders been and gone, and all those yet to be, to life’s eternal revolution!



Bird Migration through an East African Hot-Spot

September is the first of the happy months for many European birders living here in East Africa. October will get even better whilst late November is probably best overall. However the greatest volume of migrant passerines pours south across the region during early December, overnight and largely unseen.


Nevertheless it is during September that the first wave of Palearctic passerines arrives in Tanzania. That is with the exception of a few Barn Swallows and fewer House Martins who flicker through a little earlier. It is in anticipation of both relief and considerable delight that I look forward to seeing my first Northern Wheatear, crisply-margined and fresh, who will appear at the Equinox, having flown from a rock-fissure nest hidden as far from here as Arctic Canada. Yes, I am imagining it now, hopping about on a dusty lawn of goat-nibbled pasture, probably at one of the innumerable building sites that are cropping-up around the western perimeter of my town: Arusha.

I anticipate my first returning Willow Warbler. Likely as not that bird will be a bright yellow juvenile, gleaning tiny insects from the canopy of a tenderly leafing acacia on some spring-like knoll, also somewhere local. And already I imagine savouring the first Garden Warbler of the return. He (or is it she?) will be singing away quietly, likely as not invisible, maybe in the brakes of Lantana camara in our own garden – it’s an increasingly woodland-edge this “Wilding Wedge”! Their song in Africa is more subdued than that which you hear from the same birds freshly arrived, on those softest of late May mornings. Morning in a breeding spinny in the verdant European spring, which is probably Russian in the case of this Sylvia borin. Furthermore, to be honest, I can hardly wait a month for the first Spotted Flycatcher to drop in here,likely it will  be headed a long way farther south. A ‘modest species’ in character whose sub-song, employed in the winter quarters, might be missed entirely unless you are wedded, as I am through years of sweet acquaintance, to springs long ago ‘up in Europe’. For then it was a familiar garden bird. So I’m still in thrall to that softest of “sipticks”.


Most of all I look forward to that afternoon when the first bejewelled shower of European Bee-eaters cascades through the garden. They’ll be seeking a safe roosting site in the Grevillea silky oaks. The commonest of the shade trees, planted in the coffee farms of the valley below, visible from our crumbling pile of a bungalow on this hill. The valley that separates the mighty cone of Mount Meru from the four softly rounded peaks of Monduli. It’s a fine valley, a broad open space, up to 10 kilometres between big volcanic mountains. And as such the Monduli gap provides the perfect gateway through which unknown, yet still vast, numbers of migrant birds, both Afro-Palearctic and Afro-tropical, are funnelled south and north each season.

A few kilometres to the north of “the Gap”, beyond the Lammergeier village of Oldonyo Sambu, this gateway opens out into a sub-desert steppe, the location of Lark Plains. Here lives the rarest bird on mainland Africa the Beesley’s Lark, or surely it’s better these days to refer to it as the “Maasai” Lark. Together with another little brown lark, found only in a small area of Southern Ethiopia, this is the African bird that is most likely to disappear, die-out, become extinct, within the next few years.

Lark Plains

I know because I was there guiding just last week with a gentleman, called Steve, from Australia and we watched two of the habituated “Beesley’s” foraging in what has become the core of the “protected area”, at the dead centre of the plain. Thanks to an initiative pushed-along by the indefatigable Daudi Peterson of Dorobo, the villagers of Engikaret, whose live stock graze the plain, make a little money from the foreign visitors who come to “twitch” these larks. As a result the centre of the dusty plain is less overgrazed, less wrecked, than is the acacia studded periphery. Here some nameless NGOs (who really should know a lot better) inadvertently have encouraged widespread habitat degradation, over the past ten years, by drilling boreholes so that “incoming pastoralists” can share the water with their herds of sheep and goats 24-7. This leaves their long suffering wives and daughters a lot more time, and enough energy, to lop and fell many of the bigger Acacia trees that grow around the plain. Fell the trees not simply for cooking-wood but in order to make charcoal. The Commiphora wood is soft and green and sappy – and hence of little use. So the acacias are felled not for domestic consumption, but as a way of cashing-in on, what has become, the “natural capital” of the recently arrived residents of the plain. In turn this cash injection allows the men-folk to buy more sheep and goats – semi-liquid capital on the hoof – which are fed back into the wider system! Fewer and fewer trees, more space between things, more ‘alien weeds’ instead of productive pasture, more dust above all, this is the compound result of such mal-investment, ecologically speaking.


These hilly areas around the periphery of the plain, land with scant rainfall, continue to support a remarkably rich bird community. Sadly the numbers of most species, if not all of them, are on a variety of gradients of decline. A few species are seemingly increasing with the attrition of this woodland into overstocked range land. Small ones these, birds such as an indomitable, “Bird of the Future”, the dust-loving Fischer’s Sparrow-Lark. Others who remain widespread, and even appear to thrive, in such low-stature scrub include the strikingly white-browed intercedens form of Foxy Lark, a recent split from what is still called Fawn-coloured in the ever popular “Gullible Guide to the Birds of East Africa”.

Foxy Lark

The area supports not only several scarce and interesting residents such as Buff-crested Bustard, the dapper and extremely unobtrusive Bush Pipit and the range-restricted Red-throated Tit, but also a community of mostly Central Asian Palearctic migrants near the southernmost limit of their wintering range. Lovely evocative birds such as the Eurasian Rock Thrush, Pied Wheatear, Rufous Scrub Robin, Irania (White-throated Robin), Upcher’s and Barred Warbler.


Red-throated Tit

Whilst some habitat disturbance and even ‘degradation’ in the form of sustained and intense grazing pressure – by scrawny domestics in place of sleek wild ungulates – upon a savanna woodland floor appears essential for the well-being of many of these birds, the almost complete removal of the taller acacias, from this Acacia-Commiphora so-called Somali-Maasai biome, over ever larger areas hastens the ‘departure’ of an ever increasing number of species from this wonderful bird community. The birds are getting just that little bit harder to find, and to show to others, not just with each successive season but with each trip that I make to what remains nevertheless my favourite of all these local patches – top spots for birders, hot spots for naturalists.

Acacia woodland north of Mt Meru

As always I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the following photographers: to Anabel Harries for the Buff-crested Bustard, Martin Goodey for the great big Northern Wheatear and little tiny fly, for the goats on a hillside and an Acacia sunrise, to Steve Clark for the intact Acacia woodland (it’s just above the plains), for the Red-throated Tit and the Foxy Lark and to Clare Kines of the Arctic for this year’s “Canadian” Northern Wheatears (July 2014) – a father and child.