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Big Game Birding – 400 Birds and 50 Mammals – Tanzania

The BGB safaris will operate, at the costs which will be quoted by our agents, in the low seasons only.  Fortunately these are the months when migrant birds, from Eurasia and Southern Africa pass through Tanzania in phenomenal numbers – November 1 to December 15 and from April 1 to May 15 each year.  
 

Day 01

We aim to begin our Tanzanian safari in the evening. Arriving at the delightfully quiet and peaceful Kilimanjaro International Airport just after dark on a scheduled flight (not included in price!). We therefore recommend the use of KLM’s direct morning departure from Amsterdam Schiphol if you are coming from either Europe or North America.

 

After clearing immigration and customs formalities, we will be met by our Tanzanian safari representatives and assisted to the transfer vehicle. Less than an hour’s drive will see us at a very efficient little lodge beside the main gates of Arusha NP. Here we will spend both our first and second night in Tanzania.

 

Accommodation at this lodge tonight, at an elevation of 1,500 metres, is on bed and breakfast basis. Please note: the tour price excludes drinks.

 

Day 02

On our first morning we will rise to the cheerful calls of a multitude of African hill and garden birds. At dawn the bell like sound of Tropical Boubou and the musical chirrup of Dark-capped Bulbuls quickly follow the raucous contact notes of Hadeda Ibis and the soft melancholy whistles of the Cape Robin-chat, uttered whilst it is only half light. Whilst the gentle yet insistent cooing of Red-eyed Doves and the chittering of Speckled Mousebirds provide a comforting backdrop throughout any birder’s day, around these outskirts of the city of Arusha.

 

To open our safari we have a full day in the verdant Arusha National Park. Here we will go on a guided walk, with an armed park ranger, along the edge of the deep evergreen forests that clothe Mount Meru. And we will eat our picnic lunch at a beautiful glade beside the Maio waterfall between giant juniper and yellowwood trees on the slopes of this dormant volcano. Afternoon activities will include our first game viewing, from our open top Toyota Land Cruiser of grassy glades and meadows, grazed by our first ‘African big game’. We will then drive up onto the forested rim of the smaller Ngurdoto Crater. In the early evening we will return to our comfortable lodge at the gate for dinner and overnight.

 

“Good” birds to be anticipated today in Arusha NP will include species as diverse as Scaly Francolins beside the tracks, Maccoa and White-backed Ducks on Momella lakes, the fearsome African Crowned Eagle (which is armed with a four centimetre hind claw), the almost dainty Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle and Mountain Buzzard, both East African trogons – the Bar-tailed and Narina, the Red-fronted Parrot, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, some secretive Hartlaub’s Turacos and perhaps an Olive Woodpecker. Overhead there should be the appropriately named Scarce Swift, amongst others of its kind. In the grasslands the very local Pangani Longclaw may be seen. Up in the hill forests the recently split Stripe-faced and Placid Greenbuls will utter their nasal calls from tall trees festooned with creepers, whilst the montane Ruppell’s Robin-chat and beautiful White-starred Robin sing somewhat shyly from the undergrowth. There is an assortment of warblers: Black-headed Apalis, three skulking ones – African Moustached, Cinnamon Bracken and Evergreen Forest Warbler – and the very noisy Trilling Cisticola. There are three or four special starlings to be found here – Waller’s, Kenrick’s, Sharpe’s and if we are very fortunate the rare Abbott’s. We will make a special effort to see the newly recognised Kilimanjaro White-eye (Z. eurycricotus) that is restricted to the two million year old forests of Tanzania’s higher volcanoes. And there are three sunbird species within the tall forest, the Olive, Collared and Bronze Sunbird. The Baglafecht Weaver (P.b.reichenowi) ubiquitous in the highlands should be seen early on; but more restricted seed-eaters, such as the two estrildids of the evergreen forest floor, the Abyssinian Crimsonwing and Green-backed Twinspot, must be sought for here on mighty Mount Meru.

 

Top mammals that we should first encounter here in Arusha NP include the very numerous Maasai Giraffe, the Common Bush-buck, the secretive forest-dwelling Harvey’s Red Duiker and another forest antelope, the tiny Suni. Utterly splendid Black-and-white Colobus Monkeys grace the treetops, often accompanied in the lower storey by the far more approachable Sykes’s Monkey. Whilst on the forest floor are ambling family groups of Olive Baboon; perhaps we will find the group that contains two albino females; they usually stay around the brackish lakes at Momella.

 

We will also keep a lookout for a tree trunk-haunting reptile, Jackson’s Forest Lizard. And all the while we should be accompanied by many beautiful forest butterfly species, especially conspicuous being the several species of forest swallowtail and the many Nymphalids – the admirals, pipers, sailers, commodores and the like.

 

Accommodation as on the previous night, on full board basis (with picnic lunch; price excludes drinks)

 

Day 03

We will depart early with a picnic lunch and drive westwards to Oldonyo Sambu and thence down to the famous “Lark Plains”, which lie some 15 km to the north of the summit of Mount Meru.  

 

There are nine species of lark to be found in the semi-arid steppe and acacia-commiphora bush at this site. We will concentrate this morning on finding the Critically Endangered endemic Beesley’s Lark (Chersomanes beesleyi) formerly called Pygmy Spike-heeled Lark. This little elf of a bird has a world population of less than fifty individuals. So it is very likely the rarest land bird in all of sub-Saharan Africa. Four other larks with restricted ranges also occur here. Two of them frequent the short grass plains. These are the Athi Short-toed Lark and Short-tailed Lark; whilst in the dry bush-land there are both ‘Southern’ Foxy (Calendulauda alopex intercedens) and Pink-breasted Larks.

 

Other ‘dream-list’ species found in this habitat, that we will be searching for, include the piping Rufous-crested Bustard, red earth-coloured Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar, White-headed Mousebird, Black-throated Barbet, Mouse-coloured Penduline-Tit, the scarce Red-throated Tit, the tiny tail switching Red-fronted Warbler, charming-in-brown the Ashy and Tiny Cisticolas, the smart Taita Fiscal – this is a very impressive Lanius, the beautiful piping Rosy-patched Shrike, the Southern Grosbeak Canary and highly localised Somali Golden-breasted Bunting.

 

After our picnic lunch in the bush we will continue our journey westwards, possibly birding at one or two productive spots en route. As we descend into East Africa’s Great Rift Valley we will see Lake Manyara and the western wall of the valley rising in front of us. I imagine that we will be excited at the prospect of spending the two full days exploring the famous senescent baobab parkland and extensive Rift Valley savannahs that grace the carefully protected Tarangire ecosystem.

 

We will drive this afternoon around to the western edge of Tarangire National Park, and we should arrive at our accommodation by late afternoon. The unspoiled, naturalistic, grounds of our lodge are very rich in birdlife and we aim to have time for a short bird walk. We may already have seen three more of Tanzania’s endemic birds by nightfall. These are three species, not only easy to find but also sociable and very vociferous, the anthropomorphic Yellow-collared Lovebird, the dapper Ashy Starling and the scaly plumaged and somewhat babbler-like Rufous-tailed (Buffalo-) Weaver.

 

Other desirable species that occur in the vicinity of the lodge include Martial and Tawny Eagle, Wahlberg’s Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle, African Pygmy Falcon, Long crested Eagle, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Orange-bellied Parrot, Nyanza Swift, Northern Pied Babbler, Bare-eyed Thrush, Spotted Palm-thrush, Magpie Shrike, Crimson-rumped Waxbill and the spectacular Purple Grenadier.

 

Accommodation at our lodge (at ca 900 metres asl right at the park boundary) on full board basis

 

 

Day 04

Today we will make a full day’s game drive within Tarangire National Park. We will rest for our picnic lunch at an open spot overlooking the vast freshwater swamps of Silale. In the evening we will return to the lodge for dinner and overnight.

 

Some of the more exciting birds today should include the odd “herd” of Common Ostrich, the Red-necked Spurfowl, uniquely fascinating Secretarybirds, the endangered and spectacular White-headed Vulture, migrant Lesser Spotted Eagles likely searching for frogs at the swamp, a party or two of flying termite eating Amur Falcons, White-bellied Bustard, Black-faced Sandgrouse, family groups of turkey-sized Southern Ground Hornbill, Von der Decken’s Hornbill, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Blue-cheeked and Madagascar Bee-eater, the unbelievably plumaged Lilac-breasted Roller, Bare-faced Go-away Bird, Mottled Spinetail (a swift), Slender-tailed Nightjars (whose whistled ‘churring’ sounds like a distant car alarm), that “essential cover bird” the Red-and-Yellow Barbet and its only slightly less outrageous relative the d’Arnaud’s, the polka dotted Nubian Woodpecker, the infamous Greater Honeyguide and more capricious Wahlberg’s Honeybird, plus a veritable host of widespread and often colourful bush-land passerine birds, many with intriguing family names –Apalis, Camaroptera, Crombec, Eremomela, Parisoma and so forth.

 

The mammals in Tarangire are a delight. It is justly famous for its well studied African Savannah Elephants, its seasonal herds of Common Wildebeest and Plains Zebra, less so for the enigmatic Eastern Bush and Southern Tree Hyraxes. In the drier areas, with luck, one may find the Fringe-eared Oryx. There are many herds of Common Waterbuck here, Impala is simply abundant, and there are many common smaller species including the charming and diminutive Kirk’s Dik Dik. Consequently the park supports several prides of African Lion. Less frequently seen predators such as Serval Cat and the nocturnal Striped Hyaena are also a distinct possibility. And there are several species of mongoose.

 

Accommodation at same lodge with picnic lunch.

 

 

Day 05

We will make a morning game drive in the park, ‘searching for things’ that we may have missed on the previous day, returning to the lodge for a leisurely lunch. In the late afternoon, we will walk from the lodge down to soda-rich Lake Burunge where we will scan the saline muddy shore and shallows for an array of water birds, species such as Lesser Flamingo, Cape Teal, Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt and the gorgeous Chestnut-banded Plover, a little sand-plover that only occurs on the very narrow band of glassy mud that surrounds just a few of the lakes along Africa’s rift valley. Palearctic shorebird species, such as Little Stint, should be much more numerous however, and we will have ample opportunity to study them in detail through our guide’s telescope.

 

Accommodation at the same lodge on full board basis.

 

 

Day 06

We will depart from our lodge with a picnic lunch. Today we will drive through agricultural land to the pristine ground-water forests and acacia woodland of Lake Manyara National Park entering through the southern gate (road conditions permitting). In the late afternoon, after spending as much time as possible around the legendary “hippo pools” we will drive up the switchback highway that climbs the western wall of the Great Rift Valley to the easternmost edge of the town of Karatu, arriving at our lodge, and its wonderful view, hopefully just in time for sunset, followed by dinner and overnight.

 

There are so many new birds to watch out for at Lake Manyara. These include one very beautiful game bird of the deep forest shade, the Crested Guineafowl and the skulking yet vociferous Purple-crested Turaco in the treetops. Parties of Silvery-cheeked Hornbill are typically first seen in ‘whooshing’ flight above the forest canopy, wherein the loud but secretive Eastern Nicator blends perfectly into the foliage. Down on the floor Red-capped Robin-chats flick-over leaves, whilst in the more open areas the soft song of the Collared Palm-thrush may be heard.

 

The old acacia woodland, streams and scattered pools of Manyara supports many interesting birds and we may be particularly happy to see additional species, that we may not have seen in Tarangire, birds such as Brown Snake-eagle, Gymnogene, Gabar Goshawk, Giant and Woodland Kingfisher, Bearded Woodpecker, Lesser Honeyguide, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Black-necked Weaver, Southern Black Bishop (E. g. friederichseni), Eastern Paradise Whydah, Green-winged Pytilia and African Firefinch.

 

Where perennial streams flow off the spectacular cliffs of forested escarpment, the margins of this shallow soda lake become less brackish. Here there are little deltas filled with tall emergent reeds and great sedges and exotic rushes such as giant Papyrus. In good years, i.e. those with plentiful rains, it often feels as if there are just too many birds to cope with at these mini-wetlands. Consequently we must pay close attention to our birding guide in order to decide where and when to look for what.

 

Species that should not be missed will include: Greater Flamingo (with Lessers further out), Spur-winged Goose and Comb Duck, the two ‘whistling tree ducks’ Fulvous and White-faced, Great White and Pink-backed Pelican, Black Egret, Yellow-billed and Saddle-billed Stork, Blacksmith, Spur-winged and Long-toed Lapwing, Collared Pratincole, the exotic Greater Painted Snipe, several smaller shorebirds, including many of the old world sandpipers and peeps – Temminck’s Stint (with a bit of luck), Marsh, Wood, Common, Green and Curlew Sandpipers, the far larger and increasingly infrequent Black-tailed Godwit, and hopefully one or two long-billed Eurasian Curlews from Central Asia. In the air two species of Marsh Harrier may be seen quartering the swamps, yelping African Fish-Eagles, in display, circle in the sky above us, where Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns and several species of swallow hawk the wetland insects. And this may be the time when we first encounter dancing pairs of the Grey Crowned Crane, an unbeatable bird indeed.

 

Accommodation at our Karatu-Rhotia lodge, 1,600 metres asl., on full board basis (picnic lunch)

 

 

Day 07

In the morning we will drive the short distance from our lodge up into the forests of the Ngorongoro Crater highlands, where we will go for a leisurely bird walk up to the Endoro waterfall and famous “elephant caves”. Dinner and overnight will be back at our lodge near Rhotia village.

 

Birds that we will be searching for today include the long-crested Schalow’s Turaco, the secretive African Broadbill, the warbler like Green-backed Honeybird and recently split Black-headed Mountain Greenbul, shining Purple-throated Cuckoo-shrike, the rather restricted Black-throated Wattle-eye, a western species – the Grey-capped Warbler. By scanning the canopy we will hope to enjoy the dancing tail-flirting antics of that sprite of the forest the White-tailed Blue Flycatcher whilst in the leaf-litter and dense tangles there should be Grey-olive Greenbuls, Mountain Thrushes and two secretive finch-like birds, the drab plumaged Thick-billed Seed-eater and the exquisite Oriole Finch.

 

In the late afternoon we will walk to the boundary of the low stature forest beside our lodge in order to observe not only some bird species of the forest edge but also those birds typical birds of the East African highland agricultural zone, some of which we may not yet have seen.

 

Accommodation at our Karatu-Rhotia lodge on full board basis.

 

 

Day 08

We will leave our lodge after breakfast with the aim of reaching the Ngorongoro Conservation Area’s main gate by 0900 hrs. Once inside the protected area will drive eastwards along the crater rim and then make our way down into the Ngorongoro Crater, via the delightfully quiet eastern descent road. We will have the rest of the day to explore the fabled Ngorongoro Crater, and will stop for our picnic lunch at a special site.  

 

The Ngorongoro Crater floor has to be experienced to be believed. Perhaps suffice to say that after seventy-something days of exploration “down there” I still find each visit to be uniquely absorbing. The birds of course are always wonderful, but the mammal spectacle is quite often well nigh incredible. The sheer number of gazelles, the herds of zebra and wildebeest criss-crossing the tracks, quite often simply astounds.

 

The birds are so special. The experiences varies from watching the plume-wafting “Moulin Rouge” display of Common Ostrich, and that of another unmissable hulk of a bird, the Kori Bustard, to the tiny Pectoral-patch Cisticola that buzzes back and fore in display flight over the grassland, sounding so much like a grasshopper that I have known many good birders who would have overlooked it completely.

 

“Special birds” down here might include the Gyps vultures. Several pairs of African White-backed nest in the tall yellow-barked fever trees at the Lerai Forest and a few pairs of Lappet-faced Vultures breed in strangler figs, especially along the lower cliffs, whilst Ruppell’s Griffons and Hooded Vulture are eager guests at any of the lion and Spotted Hyaena kills.

 

In the late afternoon we must tear ourselves away from this unique experience and return to the crater rim via the western ascent road. Dinner and overnight will be within the NCCAA at the Rhino Lodge that is set in a buffalo-grazed forest pasture near the rim.

 

With luck a Brown-backed Woodpecker may be ‘scoped coming to its roost site, from the balcony, high in a dead juniper snag. And at this season glorious Malachite and Tacazze Sunbirds and the utterly spectacular Golden-winged Sunbird should be coming to sip nectar among the flowering herbaceous borders!

Small flocks of Southern Citril and Streaky Seed-eater haunt the shrubbery whilst along the highland forest edge, near our lodge, there should be small flocks of Speke’s Weaver and Yellow-crowned Canary, the latter are ‘charming’ birds who have a tinkling conversational song, so reminiscent of goldfinches.

 

After sunset sombre plumaged Montane Nightjars whistle querulously from the lawns and Small-eared Greater Galagos (a ‘bushbaby’) screech and chatter from the denseness of the African Yellow-wood trees. Yet this is the time when much larger beasts, hulking apparitions, come lumbering out of the rank herbage that surrounds the property to graze upon the lawns! Mammals at the lodge, most often seen at night, include the Large-spotted Genet, the Bushpig, Defassa Waterbuck and African Buffalo.

 

Accommodation Rhino Lodge (ca 2,300 metres) on full board basis; picnic lunch.

 

 

Day 09

 

After an early breakfast we will depart from Rhino Lodge and proceed west down into the short grass plains of the eastern Serengeti ecosystem; the wonderland that surrounds Naabi Hill. We aim to reach Naabi, so that the vehicle may exit the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, by 0900 hrs.  

 

Once at Naabi we will be able to take a leisurely walk up onto the kopje itself, not only to enjoy the amazing views of this world-famous wild-scape but also to find certain birds and reptiles that are harder to see elsewhere. 

 

After leaving Naabi we will devote the day to “classical game viewing” as we drive across the seas of grass that constitute much of the central Serengeti National Park. Then we will make our way westward to the more varied habitats beyond Fort Ikoma Gate. We will enjoy a unique picnic lunch beside the visitor centre at Seronera, and in the late afternoon will arrive at our perfectly situated lodge near the park gate at Robanda where we will spend the final four nights of our safari.

Birds of particular note today should include numerous species typical of open-country – vultures and birds of prey, including three migrant harrier species, the Eastern Chanting Goshawk and both Mountain and Greater Kestrel. The vast plains support Ostrich, Secretarybird and in the damper areas where watercourses dissect the landscape we should see piebald male Black-bellied Bustards bouncing into the air as they perform their remarkable display.

 

Chestnut-bellied and Yellow-throated Sandgrouse frequently pass overhead in small flocks, the range-restricted Usambiro Barbet may be found where there are patches of scrub from Naabi westwards. Northern White-tailed Lark (among others), Cape Crow, White-browed Robin-chat, Silverbird, Croaking Cisticola, Grey-backed Fiscal, numerous iridescent smaller sunbirds, Little Weaver and a very pretty seed-eating bird the Grey-headed Silverbill. What you see depend upon where you stop! And here mammals, as much as birds, dictate the pace.

 

As regards mammals today might be the start of something big! In addition to attending the wildebeest (according to which season we are there) we will look for our first groups of bay-coloured Topi antelope, often together with their sandy-fawn neighbours – the Coke’s Hartebeest. And if we are very lucky, in addition to lions, we may see both Leopard and Cheetah today! And fear not, we will have ample opportunity to search for these supreme cats, and any other mammal, in the course of the three days that follow.

 

Accommodation tonight, and for the remaining three nights of our safari, will be at a lodge on a hilltop in a magnificent setting near to Robanda (ca 1,000 metres), on full board basis. We will be taking a picnic lunch on three days. Although there is the option that on one of these day we may return to the lodge for lunch with afternoon bird watching around the lodge.

 

 

Day 10

We will depart with a picnic lunch and spend the entire day in the park.

Game viewing and birding in a different section of Serengeti National Park, the exact routes taken each day will vary according to the prevailing weather conditions of the season in which we are there. 

 

In the course of our three full days of birding within the ecosystems of the western Serengeti we will endeavour to find as many as possible of the special birds and mammals. First priority will perhaps be two distinguished Tanzanian endemics, the Grey-breasted Spurfowl and Tanzanian Red-billed Hornbill. However we will also want to see some other special birds of this region such as Coqui Francolin, Hartlaub’s Bustard, the dashing Red-necked Falcon, Eastern Grey Plantain-Eater, White-headed Barbet, White-headed Saw-wing, dark-cheeked Red-breasted Swallow, the soon-to-be-split zenkeri Plain-backed Pipit, Silverbird, comical Grey-crested Helmet-shrikes, Black-lored Babbler, African Penduline Tit, the very localised Karamoja Apalis and a great variety of warblers, cisticolas, weavers and finches.

 

 Accommodation at our lodge near Robanda on full board basis with picnic lunch.

 

Day 11

We will again make a game drive, but along a different transect of the Serengeti National Park and its buffer zones. We may depart with picnic lunch and spend a full day out in the park, or return to the lodge for a late lunch, with an afternoon spent bird and mammal watching in the highly productive “wildlife management zone” of Ikoma and Ikorongo at the eastern boundary of which our lodge is situated.

 

Accommodation at lodge near Robanda on full board basis

 

Day 12

We will leave the lodge in the morning, driving westward along the Ikorongo road to Speke Bay at the eastern shoreline of Lake Victoria. We will take a late lunch at a place called “Serenity on the Lake” where a short bird walk in the naturalised grounds is often very productive. Birding along the lakeshore will yield further new species for our list, some of them “more westerly birds” such as Angola Swallow, Swamp Flycatcher, African Thrush, Black-headed Gonolek, Red-chested Sunbird, Yellow-backed, Northern Brown-throated and Slender-billed Weaver.

 

This locality will provide an opportunity to search for species that we may not have seen, or not seen especially well, at wetlands farther east. In particular birds such as the White-breasted and Reed Cormorant, African Open-bill, Black Crake, Pied and Malachite Kingfisher, various migrant warblers and ‘complicated’ Cisticolas, Cardinal Quelea, Grosbeak and Golden-backed Weaver. By mid-afternoon we will depart via the Fort Ikoma road (the same route) to our lodge for dinner and overnight. 

 

Accommodation at the same lodge near Robanda on full board.

 

Day 13

For some this may be a morning “at leisure” around our lodge, yet for most the opportunity of a bird watching walk in the immediate surroundings of the lodge will no doubt prove compelling. Lunch will be taken at the lodge before, sadly, the time will come when we must leave the miracles of the Serengeti by driving to Fort Ikoma Airstrip. Here we will depart by a scheduled flight to Kilimanjaro International Airport (the inclusive flight being booked by our ground agents) that departs Ikoma at 1545 hrs. arriving JRO at 1810 hrs.

 

Our arrival at JRO draws to a close the in country services that have been designed and led by your Birding Guide – who wrote this!

 

James Wolstencroft – “The Gonolek”

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