bird migration, birding, climate, martins, phenology, swallows, swifts

Swifts, Swallows, Martins – Flickering Spirits of an African Sky


Mount Meru, Tanzania. In the foreground my local patch the Monduli Gap. Photo taken at the end of the short rains and beginning of the current ENSO neutral period. From an international flight on its approach to Kilimanjaro from Nairobi, December 21, 2013.

Are there easily observed birds whose fluctuating status exposes changes in the underlying ecological circumstances – revealing the true health – of an environment, be it a village, a district, or a nation?

Apart from at the freezing Poles I suggest that we should look at Swifts and Swallows! Now you may think this a wee bit perverse. After all these are not creatures of the terrestrial environment. They are aerial feeders and they seldom or never – in the case of swifts – forage on the ground. Every species in each of these two families feeds on airborne invertebrates. However when they are attending to their young, especially when the young are in the nest, they must forage relatively close to the nest site. All the insects, and other aerial invertebrates, that the swifts and swallows capture have drifted or been blown from the forest, the fields and scrub, the marshes and crops, even from the cities and deserts down below. Admittedly some of these food items will have been transported a considerable distance on the wind.

Another reason to chose swallows and swifts is that investigating their status and distribution, in a small area, is comparatively easy. They cannot hide. So it is easy when compared with studying skulking forest birds for example. I have lived for much of the last decade in the tropics, on the plateau of East Africa at a kilometre and a half above sea level, and so I have been able to look for swifts and swallows every day, and throughout each year.


A Barn Swallow arriving in the Isles of Scilly in late March . “One swallow does not a summer make.”

Swifts and the swallows are highly mobile precisely because they have evolved to exploit seasonal changes in the spatial abundance of aerial invertebrates. They must find all their insects and also drifting airborne spiderlings etc., hour by hour, day by day, season by season and year after year. Many are long distance migrants, yet often they chose to build their nests on our buildings, so that their arrival and departure helps confirm for us earthbound human observers the annual cycle of the seasons. Consequently some of these birds, the swallows especially, have become our domestic companions during the most ecologically productive season, that in English we call summer. So they are very popular birds, not just with birders but also with the general public.


A Barn Swallow rests during migration on the Isles of Scilly. Picture: Martin Goodey.

The presence or absence, and the comparative abundance of these birds in the course of a year, in East Africa at least, reveals that it the seasonality of rainfall that is the driver. Rainfall largely determines soil moisture. Hence it determines the phenology of flowering and leafy growth and thus the abundance of herbivorous insects and their arthropod predators. The swifts and swallows are expertly tracking fluctuations in this invertebrate life after it has become airborne. And this zoo-plankton, often barely visibleis a measure of nature’s productivity below. Moreover the daily presence or absence of swifts, swallows and martins should be an obvious phenomenon for anyone who is aware of profound seasonality, as here in the savanna zones of sub-Saharan Africa.

Our district, Mount Meru, lies just three degrees south of the equator. It experiences two rainy seasons. Typically there is a shorter lighter one in November and December, and a longer one between March and early June. Being in the southern hemisphere the coldest and usually the driest period is July and August. Our warmest and then wettest periods fall between February and May. Invertebrate abundance and activity peaks before and after the height of each of these two rainy seasons.

The biological year begins, one might argue, with the arrival of the Short Rains in November. Each year at some point in the eight weeks or so leading up to the December Solstice, an immense snaking chain of thunderstorms, known to meteorologists as the Inter-Tropical Front (ITF – formerly the ITCZ), rolls southwards from the Equator across Africa toward the Tropic of Capricorn. It follows the apparent celestial position of the sun. Out of these quenching rains, that dispel three to seven months of drought, a stupendous volume of flying insects, and other tiny airborne life forms, bursts forth. And as a direct consequence of this emergence, a surge of larger, even predatory, insects (such as dragonflies) and of birds not least swifts swallows and martins, including Common Swifts, Barn Swallows and Common House Martins (from Eurasia) pours southward in front of, within and behind the towering thunderstorms.


A Common Swift in the Isles of Scilly (off the south western coast of Britain) doubtless recently arrived, after a month long northbound stop-over above the humid forests of Liberia, West Africa.

In Tanzania such migratory movements of swifts, swallows and martins may be intercepted anywhere from the Mara river, at the northern border, south and east across the freshly greening sward of the ‘Serengeti mammal park’ and the flamingo-studded salt flats of Lakes Natron, Manyara and Eyasi, down into the great trench of the Rift Valley and out over the central steppes of Masailand away into the great Miombo zone beyond.

A few years back, in the Rift Valley to the south of Natron at the boreal winter solstice, and over a period of several days, we were able to watch mixed species assemblies of many thousands of swifts. They were divided into smaller flocks, typically a few hundred in each. They were feeding either just above the ground in tight swirling tornados of soot black darts or in rangy bands, broad and deep, careering overhead. Day after day the flocks progressed fairly steadily southwards, ahead of the grey crescents of rain pushing from north-west to southeast across the valley.


Christmas at the western wall of the Rift Valley, in a “dry year”. Ol Mesera Tented Camp 40 km south of Lake Natron

The Common Swifts in these foraging flocks frequently screamed, as did the Nyanza Swifts accompanying them, the latter were most likely locally breeding birds. Both species appear to become more widespread across our swathe of East Africa in December-January i.e. toward the end of the short rains. Of course these birds are more obvious at lower levels, when foraging over the freshly greening pastures of Maasai land for example. They are especially conspicuous when feeding along, and above, the western wall of the Great Rift Valley, immediately north of Lake Manyara, and  also in the north east of the Serengeti ecosystem.

It is usually early November before we see good numbers of the three swifts who have white rumps. Of these the Horus Swift and African White-rumped Swift are almost completely absent from the Mount Meru region between late June and November. The white-rumps return as soon as the Lesser Striped and Red-rumped Swallows start building their spouted mud pellet nests – presumably to keep an eye on them, as that is where the swifts in turn will nest.

Horus Swifts

Horus Swifts over a “bee-eater” breeding site in a korongo in Arusha National Park.

The chunkier, yet nevertheless dashing, Horus Swift, also returns in big numbers during November, and they are soon at their colonies in the seasonally evacuated burrows of the White-fronted Bee-eater dug into the clayey walls of of our steep-sided korongos or wadis. Unfortunately several colonies of these two hot-bedding species (the bee-eater and the swift) have been destroyed by Chinese engineering companies, EU-funded, who are modernising the highways. This work has been on-going for the last three years, the highway past Mount Meru is constantly being refurbished. This is because it is a crucial road for the development of Africa. It reaches inland from new ports on the coast at Tanga and Dar es Salaam past Arusha to Nairobi then through Uganda to its goal, the resource-laden forests of the Congo. Earth’s last true life-rich wilderness and capitalism’s final frontier.


A sparsely vegetated korongo, a breeding site of Horus Swift, on the western slopes of Mount Meru beside the Nairobi-Dar highway.

Often it is not until Christmas that Little Swifts become abundant over the rapidly growing towns of East Africa, south of the Equator. Clearly they are benefitting from the proliferation of suitable nest sites on multi-storey, cement-rich buildings – hotels, offices, factories – now springing-up all over the region.

In damp and cloudy weather, at any time of year, one may search around Mount Meru for Scarce Swifts. They breed high on the mountain, but do forage down below, where we can see them, in small flocks, rarely in excess of twenty, at most thirty, and typically far fewer. Between October and April, especially in wet conditions when termites hatch, they may be observed feeding over well-timbered areas, frequently together with worn and moulting Eurasian House Martins. Although they are dropbow winged, and thus superficially similar to a dark-looking, short-tailed African Palm Swift, they have a fluttering foraging flight action which is quite similar to the martins. They are perhaps most reliably seen around sunset, here over the renaissance jungle of my Mount Meru garden, in Arusha’s shamba-slum-suburbia. A delight to watch: circling, rising quickly – to catch an insect – then drifting back downwards on the breeze.

African Palm Swifts, Alpine and Mottled Swifts can be seen at lower levels around Mount Meru almost throughout the year. However as regards the Big Two it is at Christmas ironically that they seem to be least frequent. At this time few are to be seen compared with a relative abundance of these magnificent beasts, particularly over the Monduli valley coffee farms, during the late dry season in early August through October. Perhaps the larger number of birds that we see in the Monduli Gap during the “long, cool and dry” are recently arrived, from distant non-breeding areas. And they are prospecting, at their nest sites, in the great cliff faces high on Mount Meru or even on Kilimanjaro. At least, with respect to these two big Tachymarptis species, that’s what I suspect!

Ngala-strange swift

A first calendar year Mottled Swift photographed by Alistair Kilpin at Klein’s Camp in the north eastern Serengeti.

In the dry season, especially in the drier years, most of the swallow and martin species – the Hirundines – become localised within my birding patches around Mount Meru. In July-August at Burka Coffee Estate, for example, only the Wire-tailed Swallow can be expected, and they are usually only in the vicinity of the coffee-sludge settling ponds. one might say that this paucity of hirundines is harrowing, between the start of July and the end of October, one of the least pleasant aspects of our cool dry season! At such times the few irrigated areas hereabouts, such as the lush lucerne fields of Mringa Estate, provide a late dry season and drought-resistant refuge for many insects and thus are a magnet for most swallow species.  As an example, for several days during November 2011 I saw nearly fifty Red-rumped Swallows over a single large lucerne field, this was at the height of our latest protracted La Niña sequence. The numbers of adults of Brown-throated Martin, of emini Red-rumped Swallow and of Lesser Striped Swallow usually seems to peak between October and mid November, presumably this is because birds are assembling immediately prior to the anticipated onset of the short rains and the start of their breeding season.


In the drought conditions of La Niña years the Wire-tailed Swallow, which utilises artificial water sources such as sludge ponds and swimming pools, is the only hirundine species which can be ‘daily guaranteed’ between mid July and early October within the suburban periphery of Arusha.

Incidentally it seems that concentrations of wintering Barn Swallows from the Palearctic (none breed here) became more patchily distributed around Mount Meru during the course of the last seven dry La Niña years, thankfully now passed! I would even dare to say that for me the cosmopolitan Barn Swallow became disturbingly scarce around Mount Meru, apart from at peak migration periods, especially in the middle of the boreal winter period.


Lesser Striped Swallow is the commonest breeding hirundine in the Monduli Gap. During El Niño events they are present all year. However during protracted La Niña periods, as between 2007 and 2013, they become scarce, especially during the “cool dry season” which in a La Niña lasts from June to November.

In summary, the number and diversity of swift and swallow species foraging over the farmed and wooded landscape that cloak the foothills of Mount Meru, and the valley of the Monduli Gap, broadly reflect the prevailing climatic situation and local weather conditions. In wetter years, that is when we experience a Pacific El Niño and/or a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, and sea surface temperature anomalies become positive off East Africa i.e. warmer, (a PIOD is a similar but non-synchronised oscillatory event to an El Niño but involving the surface currents of the Indian Ocean), green vegetation is both more abundant and widespread so that we see many more swifts, swallow and martins. At such times they are certainly more widely spread, and are present for longer periods, than they are in the drier years that are caused by a definite La Niña event and/or a negative Indian Ocean Dipole.


Masai wood pasture and buffalo-grazed hill forest above 1500 metres cloak the extensive ridges of Monduli mountain (west of Mount Meru) in northern Tanzania. Afromontane hill forest, such as this, supports a diversity of aerial insectivores including semi-resident Nyanza, Alpine, Mottled and Scarce Swift plus Common Swift in season. In Africa evergreen forest and wood pasture at moderate elevations (between 1500 and 3000 metres) is the primary foraging biome for the Common House Martin.

I feel that an annual naturalist’s investigation of how variations in global environmental factors, such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), contribute to the ecological dynamics of tropical Africa would be a very useful exercise. We live in fluctuating regional ecological conditions, yet these conditions are inextricably linked to oscillations in the combined currents of the oceans-and-atmosphere. Global phenomena that evolve independently of the more obvious anthropogenic influences upon nature, on the ground, here in Africa. These conditions are encountered by all the migrant birds from the Palearctic that winter in Africa. Billions of feathered bundles of life, on journeys of up to nine months in a year, incredible both in endurance and diversity. African journeys whose scope extends from Tangier to Table Mountain, and from the Cape Verde Islands eastwards across the immensity of sub-Saharan Africa all the way to Socotra and the ocean beyond.


The increasingly urbanised, sanitised and ecologically sterile lowlands of western Europe – not to say toxic. This is Heathrow Airport, in the former county of Middlesex (the first in England to lose the Rook), one sunny afternoon in late July 2013. In summer these days there are comparatively few Common Swifts or Common House Martins in the ‘great air space’ above London – apart from in the vicinity of the reservoirs. Strange that!

wildlife safari

Easter 2015: Fly with Birdman in a ‘Galaxy of Feathered Gems’  


“East Africa is unique. Tanzania especially so! One might argue that no other nation has so much natural variety to offer a visitor who’s interested in wildlife. For in no other part of our planet is there such diversity of large mammals nor superabundance and variety of birdlife in locations that are easily accessible and quite safe and usually highly comfortable too.

My job is to provide you, whether first-time visitor or seasoned safari-goer, with quick and authoritative information as to the identity and habits of the wild creatures you encounter day by day on your safari. With me at hand you will be able to concentrate on watching and enjoying the wildlife to the full; on shooting your videos, taking your photos, making notes, compiling lists and thereby taking home priceless reminders of the beauty, diversity and tranquility of the last wild places. Over the past ten years I have developed tours with a variety of safari ground handlers across East Africa. I have found that each tends to specialize in providing a safari with a specific momentum and degree of luxury, tours tailored to the needs of customers from different walks of life. The following tour, from April 10 to April 22 2015, which I think provides a perfect introduction to the bird and wildlife splendours of East Africa, is being operated by Tropical Trails based here in Arusha.”

A lover of nature, with even the mildest interest in birds, will fall in love with Northern Tanzania. It’s truly a superb destination with about 1,100 bird species to look for. Of the ten endemic bird families known in Africa, eight can be found in Tanzania. 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 (with their pop-up roofs) and to observe nature at your own rhythm. In the company of 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. This is 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’ actually 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

·  “Expert Nature Guide” and 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

Tropical Trails Safaris – Arusha, Tanzania 

+255 732 972 045



April 10 – 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.

April 11 – 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.

April 12 – 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.


April 13 – 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.

April 14 – 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.


April 15 – Ndutu

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.

April 16 – 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


April 17 – Seronera

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 gerrardii 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.

April 18 – 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


April 19 – 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.

April 20 – 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.


April 21-  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.

April 22 – 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: $3,710 per person sharing twin accommodation in 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 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.

Principal Guide and Tutor: James Wolstencroft

I first went on a safari (in Kenya) in 1976. I’ve been a naturalist, a bird-watcher, and a conservationist nearly all my years. The first BIG love was BIRDS. Over the years I’ve grown to greatly admire them and perhaps even envy, flying creatures no matter their size, yet more especially those who undertake epic migrations across the globe. I’ve been guiding nature holidays in Europe, Asia and Africa since 1988. On New Year’s Eve 2004 with a young family (and Pi the dog) we decided to move from Europe, and our little “migrants cottage” overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar to Arusha. To the slopes of Mount Meru in Tanzania. We settled here so that we could live near to some of the last great refuges of the African mega-fauna. In the decade that has all but passed I have done the A to Z of wildlife. Watching everyone from Inverts to Elephants, from Aardvarks to Zorillas! And it is a real privilege and often a delight to share with visitors these great wonders with which we’re blessed here “Up in Nature’s Africa”. To delight in observing closely the smallest and the largest of our companions, living wild, in an indescribably beautiful part of this, our still wonderful world.

Lesser KJW.Lichen


Praise for All Phylloscopus – “One of the most difficult groups of small passerines”

Feathers from a Birder’s Garden (1)

Mount Meru, Tanzania – September 30, 2014


Phew! … I, we both, we’ve made it, back to the plateau of East Africa and before September’s end.

The above photo of a Willow Warbler was taken on St Mary’s, in the Isles of Scilly, and is likely of the nominate form trochilus rather an acredula – which is most likely the subspecies which we saw yesterday in our garden here in Arusha. The nominate form is typically yellower on the breast, whilst in acredula the yellow wash across the breast is less extensive.

Between late September and early in May the delightful little Mosquitero Musical is often abundant in the tropics of eastern Africa from beach scrub at sea-level up into the heath zone at 3,000 metres on our mountains. I am always delighted to see the first of the return. In the same way that I never ceased to be delighted upon hearing my first Willow Warbler singing, early in April, when I was back home in Northern Europe. Most Willow Warblers, and there must be many, many millions, breed in northern Russia. In some way I think they epitomise the subtle beauty and tender joys of something which lies at the heart of our Old World birder’s birding.

The Willow Warbler is also a real migratory star. It is the most numerous bird species to make the Sahara crossing. It is also one of the smallest. The fat-free weight of this tiny mosquito eater is only 7 grams, 10-11 after laying-on pre-migratory subcutaneous fat, and it is one of the slowest fliers with a still-air speed of only 34 km per hour. Therefore it takes them between 29 and 44 hours to cross the Sahara, that is without the assistance of any favourable tail winds.

So, here’s a gentle bow to the memory of three fine Phyllosc lovers of old, Carl Von Linné (Linnaeus), Claud B. Ticehurst and Kenneth Williamson.

Out the window, from the bed,

it’s the end of morning coffee!

A dripping mountain mist

blissfully ignorant

of a surge by the Black Jihad.

The world, just for a second, is stilled.

By the sliver of a palearctic passerine,

gleaning tiny diptera

wing flick, tail wag

at the budding apex of a spire-like Terminalia.

Yup! Yup! Phylloscopus

Taxon … t. trochilus … more likely a greening acredula?

For even in this down-grey dawn

it’s far too foliate in hue,

to be the ghost form from Yakutia –

forty percent North of 66 –

the “coldest communities” on Earth !


Here is Penochka-vesnichka, likely a yakutensis Willow Warbler. The form which was described by Claud Ticehurst in 1935. Each yakutensis hatches in a loosely woven shalashik on the ground, in a stunted birch forest, somewhere in the trackless taiga way up north in the Russian Far East. This third race has a truly prodigious migration. Some “6,000 to 7,000 miles skirting the deserts of Central Asia on the north and west to reach its wintering quarters” here in East Africa.  This bird was photographed by Martin Goodey, but not in Scilly! A pale sprite, it graced the early-stages of our wilding garden in Arusha on December 7, 2008. Perhaps as many as 5% of our birds, i.e. those wintering in East Africa, are of this race.

It’s an honour having such tiny bundles of life-energy coming to feed, to bathe and to roost in my “humble-tumble pile of wilding-ness”. My garden designed in a million little moves for birds – it’s true, just ask Lui and Toran my two sons! These long-distance migrant birds enable me to feel intimately connected to the whole wonderful world of “Nature”. To communities out there, way beyond the hedge and far across the forbidding deserts (both old and new), out over the oceans – hopefully deep and often blue.

CarlvonLinneA young Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné  (from Wikipedia) who in 1758 described “for science” the Lövsångare, together with so many other life-forms, ‘the first’ trochilus Willow Warbler and the first acredula too.


A juvenile, characteristically yellow, Willow Warbler wing flicking, this one – on stop-over during migration this boreal autumn –  is of the nominate form trochilus. It was taken, again by Martin, in the Isle of Scilly off Cornwall (“in de-UK”).