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Birding out of Arusha – along the Namanga Road

We have lived in Arusha, the city the ecotourism business likes to think of as Africa’s “safari central”, for eleven years. And I’ve been birding, actively and virtually, throughout that time.

On any one day there is anything up to 600 bird species “on offer” within a radius of about fifty miles from the summit of Mount Meru. Meru is a dormant volcano, half of whose exploded cone still stands proud far above this city of a million souls. Proud and a little forbidding, dark, like the monstrous black dorsal fin of a giant petrified cetacean.

There are so many birds around the outskirts of this mountain because this is Africa; and because we are but three degrees out from the centre of the Earth; from that imaginary line that defines the equator. No shortage of sun down here.

This fabulous wealth of birds has been attributed to purely “natural circumstances”. In truth it’s more a product of humanity’s socio-economic evolution. Because Africa until very recently “remained backward and undeveloped”.

Or put another way, the one surviving hominid species, after it had walked off out of Africa into the “Middle East”, hybridised with and otherwise overcome all others, succumbed to a new disease, a highly contagious monotheistic form of madness. Homo sapiens manifested a psychotic psychological disease that has by now deteriorated into a money-driven and astonishingly brutal assault on all of earthly life itself. 

This fully modern technological man burst back into sub-Saharan Africa, all guns blazing, toward the end of our epic human drama. 

For although “we” evolved here beside these East African volcanoes, it was not until the last decades of the 19th century that “we” in the form of a recently unified and increasingly mechanised Germany, could return to grab control of the region and its resources. Here it happened to be the Germans, acting with the agreement of the British and the other Europeans. “We” colonised Africa, as we had the entire tropical region, in order to steal equatorial solar productivity, nature’s resources, for ourselves, the sun-starved “Borealites”, from a patchwork of iron age Bantu and Cushitic tribes who, together with the Nilotic Maasai, by coincidence themselves only just arriving on the East African scene. The “savages” were of course subjugated with relative ease by the spiritual, psychological and technological “superiority” of the … of the … well, use a noun or nouns of your own choice here!

Human … history … aside, Arusha’s dominant physiographic feature, set in opposition to nearby Kilimanjaro, is as I’ve said mighty Mount Meru. Having last erupted at the beginning of the twentieth century, this dramatic exploded cone rises out of a rolling plateau set at about 1,000 metres asl. Thus the nights here in Arusha are cool and yet, for most of the year, the days are either warm or favourably hot. Such conditions, coupled with a fairly benficent biennial rainy season are perfect for “life”and thus, when the white folk, and their weapons, first arrived in the late 1800s African wildlife still “ran amok.”

But by 2005, only a hundred years later, by the time my north Caucasian family arrived here, the larger wildlife was in general woefully depleted. However compared with much of the rest of the planet, as we see it today, Tanzania is  a megafaunal wonderland. 

For the mammal watchers, for example, there’s the great wildlife parks – 

the Serengeti, the Masai Mara (in Kenya), Ngorongoro Crater, Tarangire National Park, Amboseli, Kenya’s Tsavo East and Tsavo West, Mkomazi, Lake Manyara and several scarcely unvisited “hunting blocks” chiefly southwards from the Maasai steppe. Many of these places lie within one hundred miles of Arusha, as the croaking raven flies, or just a little more. 

In plan view these ‘green lungs of ecotourism lungs’ are scattered beside some huge volcanos marking the splitting crust of the Great Rift Valley – one might imagine them as verdant magic carpets, idling around ten great volcanic mounds, lamps of a long lost genie giant.

Talking of big things, big bird lists and so on, very soon, next week-end in fact, is the Arusha Bird Race aka the ABBD or Arusha Big Birding Day.  Instigated in part to raise money and awareness for the advanced training of locally-grown nature guides. Last year, with the benefits of greater and more relevant birding experience, our team won “bins down”! But this year? Well who knows? Save to say that nothing goes according to plan in Birding.

So, my pal Pete Davidson and I, we’re scouting. We’re checking at least a couple of areas, as in these dismal days of madness, nowhere feels the same, not even for a year. The pressures being brought to bear upon bird rich habitats, even here, by human so-called ingenuity are so heavy and so hostile that what was a delightful leafy copse just last year might sadly be nothing better than a barren and trampled maize fallow today.

For our first scouting trip yesterday we went northwards, to the dry and thorny bushland of the Somali-Maasai zone, in the direction of the Kenya border. These are lands of grey soil and ochre soil, of acacia scrub and red soil, and dust, lots of dust, because all the bigger trees have been, or are being, felled to bake into charcoal faggots for impoverished city dwellers. And because motly herds of Maasai goats eat anything that’s half-way mild and palatable, eat anything that cannot move away. It’s like a spin-off rerun of the ecological degradation that led to the collapse of those ancient civilisations that once filled the site of the current apocalypse between the Balkans and Mesopotamia.

As a consequence the road north to Namanga might appear to the ecologically unitiated, to the 99% or more, as just another swathe of inhospitable wasteland. Well, look that way it might, but this is Africa and that scrub it still supports some great birds.

Among the one hundred plus birds seen, in just four hours of real birding yesterday, were the following dry country species which I consider, for one half educated reason or another (!!), to be of note:

… three unid’d Gyps vultures circling far away, a few Tawny Eagles, a juvenile Gabar Goshawk, six Eastern Chanting Goshawks, a fab Brown Snake-eagle, ten Augur Buzzards, five African Kestrels (Falco rufescens), a male Pygmy Falcon, three Buff-crested Bustards, several Crowned Lapwings, including one pair with a well grown chick, many Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, a few White-bellied Go-away Birds, two groups of White-headed Mousebirds in two separate spots, plenty of Abyssinian Scimitarbills, lots of Black-throated Barbets, five species of swift, seven species of lark including Pink-breasted (pic) and a childless pair of Beesley’s, five species of swallow, including as yet a few far-northbound Barn Swallows, Northern Crombec, Ashy and Tiny Cisticola, Red-fronted Warbler, Grey Wren Warbler, Red-throated Tit, several Taita Fiscals, the odd Fischer’s Starling, two groups of African Silverbills and last but not least a male Southern Grosbeak Canary.

Pete grabbed some expert pix with his Lumix whilst I shot scenery with this iPhone.

Note the Zebra and some natty arthropods too – a super Robberfly and a fearsome, yet harmless, Solifugid.

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