If you want to come bird among the incredible wildlife riches of East Africa, specifically in Tanzania, you will need to wire-away a considerable amount of money. It would be a great pity if, in return for such an investment of time and money, you were treated to a less than optimal birding experience once here in country.
Now that it’s June 2015 I realise that I have been designing birding itineraries across Tanzania, and matching folk to the most suitable ground agents, for a full decade. One might say that my specialty is ensuring that people get the wildlife experiences that they dream of whilst here on safari. And increasingly I find that I am helping to ensure that birders don’t find themselves staying in the wrong camp and at the wrong lodge; that they are not wasting their hard-earned cash sleeping somewhere far removed from “Where the Good Birds and Animals Are”. Over the years I have noticed that mismatches between client and accommodation are all too often made.
One must bear in mind that the safari industry in Tanzania is huge. It is said that there are nearly 400 safari operators in Arusha alone. And whilst most of these can field only a couple of vehicles the largest companies have fleets of hundreds of customised Land Cruisers. As a consequence Tanzania’s Nature is a major component of the nation’s commodified wealth. Yet the rural people in general and the fabled wildlife in particular typically see little benefit for being the bedrock of this newfound affluence. This is another and very important reason why your birding dollar should be well spent by staying only in the proper places. You should not be patronising lodges and camps that aren’t being ethically run or environmentally sensitive. Sadly far too many are neither.
As I feel I’ve said so many times for the keen birder one’s choice of sleeping location, especially whilst on a motorised wildlife safari, is overwhelmingly important. The spot where you lay your head at night or rather the point where you wake at dawn is crucial if you are going to get to grips with a healthy proportion of the “good birds” that occur in any one location. The hour before dusk, and the one after dawn, are usually two of the most bird-rich hours of any day. Crucial periods of activity and detectability, that often happen around the meals that we ourselves are taking or whilst we are milling about before and after the daily game drives. Now provided that you are in a carefully chosen spot these pulses of heightened activity likely will deliver several of the best bird sightings of any day in the African bush.
Let me provide an example. How many of us know about the birding wonders to be found in the reserved forest at Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge on the eastern outskirts of Arusha? Even though this splendid accommodation is in a convenient location for the international airport toward Kilimanjaro and even more so for Arusha National Park which is just up the road. I wonder is such information available on the net? Do Ngare Sero publicise this birding fact? Despite being only one of several really great birding lodges remarkably close to Arusha Ngare Sero is one where there are some hard-to-find forest-edge and eutrophic wetland species – Black ‘River’ Duck, African Finfoot, Bat Hawk, Giant Kingfisher, Mountain Wagtail, Grey-Olive Greenbul, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Taveta Golden Weaver, and Peter’s Twinspot – right there, in and around the hundred year old gardens. Nowadays these nine birds are scarce species along Tanzania’s exceedingly well-worn Northern Circuit. They are habitat specific, skulking birds in the main, species that you most likely will dip on unless you know exactly where to look. So if you want to search for them, you would be well placed staying a couple of nights here at Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge.
One would be very foolish to fail to acknowledge the ever-increasing importance of the inconvenient facts. Getting people up close to “the very best of birds” has in many respects become ever harder during the thirty odd years that I’ve been guiding. Overwhelming human pressure, in the tropics especially, has already ruined, is now destroying, or will very soon degrade what the marketeer might describe as “nuanced subtleties of ecological niche”; the diversity of “habitat facies” that until relatively recently were found in abundance in so many of the destinations around the world that we used to visit. Even the so called heritage areas of our world bear witness to these depressing facts of life. So many safari locations across East Africa are becoming increasingly uniform as the earth is coerced into providing the grazing and browsing, suitable for the ungulate herds in their seasonal masses, and the predators who provide those coveted money shots. Those images of wild nature red in tooth and claw. Thus it’s becoming increasingly difficult, even in Tanzania, to show people what I call the soft boundaries, those birdiest places, where human activity remains benign and where birds (and the smaller mammals) continue to thrive in a diversity that elsewhere is nowadays almost unimaginable. In the National Parks such spots are few and far between, and disconcertingly they tend to shift from year to year.
In our rapidly changing ecological climate it would be remiss of me not to exhort you to avail yourself of such “Insider’s Gen” as is available, wherever you are going birding this year. Moreover this appears to have become my day job. Delivering the kind of safari information that only a skulking Bush-shrike is in a position to provide. So if you want both the detail and the broader view, if you don’t want to miss a species whose current location is more than likely only known to the insiders, then you should contact me via gonolekATgmail.com before you book that expensive yet essential safari to the birdiest places left.
Once again I am very grateful to the inimitable skills of my friend Zul Bhatia for allowing me to use such lovely wildlife photos.