africa, birding, wildlife safari

The Best of Beasts with Brilliant Birding – That’s Northern Tanzania

TZ Oct 12 004 (Zul Bhatia)

Our tour commences of an evening at the relaxed and peaceful Kilimanjaro International Airport. That is when the daily KLM direct flight from Amsterdam Schiphol (and hence other capitals) arrives in Tanzania. Here you will be met by both James, your global-standard bird guide, and your Tanzanian driver-guide and taken, in a customised Toyota safari vehicle with pop-up roof hatches, the short distance to a spacious hotel in Moshi.

Moshi, which is remarkably clean and quiet for an African market town, sits at the foot of snow-capped Kilimanjaro, the world’s highest free-standing mountain. Here we will spend our first night.

After a reasonably early breakfast we will head off south eastwards, making birding stops en route, to our spectacular cliff girt ‘eco-lodge’ at Mambo View where we shall spend the second night. Today we will be travelling through dry lands, red-earth acacia country, alongside jagged and precipitous peaks of those ancient crystalline mountains – the North Pare and West Usambara – ranges that seem to vault straight out of the dry savanna. These beautiful partially forested mountains are home to very many endemic taxa.

During this first morning we will make brief sorties into the bush searching for specialities of the acacia-commiphora Maasailand habitats through which we pass. Above us we may see the magnificent black and white Verreaux’s Eagle soaring, whilst ‘down in the bush’ there should be highly localized White-headed Mousebirds, the anomalous, pipit-like Pink-breasted Lark, secretive shrike-like Pringle’s Puffbacks, and the unique, spectacular, scintillating Golden-breasted Starling. We may make time to visit Nyumba ya Mungu reservoir, if water levels are suitable, to get an early taste of the wetland avian riches of East Africa.

In the late afternoon-early evening we may be able to explore a cool montane forest, quite close to our mountain lodge, where many of the speciality birds of the West Usambaras are to be found including the endemic Usambara Nightjar, Usambara Sunbird, Tanzania’s near-endemic African Tailorbird and with luck the critically endangered, endemic Usambara Weaver.

Next morning we will travel early to Magamba forest to search for other birds of these mountains including the monkey-eating African Crowned Eagle, Hartlaub’s Turaco, Usambara Mountain and Stripe-faced Greenbul, Sharpe’s Starling, that cryptic, inveterate skulker the Spot-throat, the lovely White-starred Robin, the secretive and endemic Usambara Akalat (Ground Robin), bell-sounding Usambara (now split from Fulleborn’s) Black Boubou and another, as yet undescribed potential-split the Usambara Drongo, which will be hawking insects along the forest edge. After an early lunch in Lushoto, the capital of these mountains, we will descend to the plains and drive for four hours to our simple jungle lodge in the lusher, moist evergreen setting of Amani forest reserve deep within the East Usambaras where we will stay for the next two nights. Rare mammals encountered today could include the Angola Pied Colobus monkey and Lushoto Mountain Squirrel.

Naturetrek TZ Highlights trip 2008

At Amani there are so many important bird species to search for that we may be stumped for choice. Our primary aim will probably be to get good views of some of the more elusive species of these unique forests; birds such as the spectacular Fischer’s Turaco, Green-headed Oriole, gorgeous Red-tailed Ant-Thrush, modest-looking Usambara Thrush, secretive but noisy White-chested Alethe, Kretschmer’s Longbill, enigmatic and near-endemic Long-billed Tailorbird, here at its only accessible location, pretty Yellow-throated Woodland Warblers, the delightful black and white Vanga Flycatcher and the tiny Banded Green Sunbirds. In addition to birds there are, of course, several endemic reptiles – especially Chameleons, several amphibians, and an unknown number of endemic invertebrates. Next we head to the Indian Ocean – for two nights at Fish Eagle Point an idyllic spot 50 km north of Tanga.

Fish Eagle Point is easily the best place along the coast of Northern Tanzania for ‘diverse’ birding.This small strip of coral rag forest continues to support a very pleasing variety of coastal wildlife. There are observable medium-sized mammals here too – Blue Monkeys, Yellow Baboons, Galagos and even the diminutive and retiring Sunni antelope. The canopy community includes the nationally scarce Green Tinkerbird and on the forest floor there are such localised butterflies as the Gold-banded Forester. It appears that this elfin coastal woodland currently delineates the northern edge of the distribution of some southern bird species – such as the Kurrichane Thrush.  More conspicuous are the Black-bellied Starlings and Purple-banded Sunbirds present all day, all year, in the trees around the lodge.

FEPterns

Over the Indian Ocean there are good numbers of terns with at least five species offshore at all seasons. Crab Plovers are the  stars of a nicely varied shorebird roost, especially evident at neap tides in the east-facing bay and during the northern winter. In less than an hour’s cruise offshore in the lodge’s motorised dhow, you are over the deep waters of the Pemba Channel. Here there’s often a good variety of southerly seabirds, plus northern hemisphere migrants, whilst presumed vagrant specials, such as Long-tailed Jaeger, occurring in the appropriate season. There are adrenalin-inducing cetaceans here too! Occasionally, just after sunrise, on calm mornings during the South-east Monsoon (August onwards) Humpback Whales may be observed, engaged in fluke-slapping courtship, less than a kilometre from land.

Turning around and travelling north westwards, via the eastern margins of the South Pare mountains, we visit Mkomazi reserve, a dry country environment where several species of the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem may be found.  Here we will stay at Babu’s, a special camp near the edge of the reserve, where the habitats are most diverse. Mkomazi should be our Tanzanian introduction to many ‘essential African’ bird groups: the Hamerkop, Secretary Bird, the Gymnogene, two Guineafowl, two Thicknees, three Coursers, three members of the Musophagidae – the Turacos and Go-away Birds, three species of Mousebird, African Hoopoe, two Wood Hoopoes, three honeyguides, three savanna hornbills, four thorn-wood barbets, three bush-shrikes and at least one helmet-shrike.

These semi-arid bushland habitats are also home to some rare mammals such as the giraffe-necked gazelle, or Gerenuk, and the shy and beautiful Lesser Kudu who browse inconspicuously among the acacias. Of the beautiful birds found here some have very restricted ranges e.g. Friedmann’s Lark, Scaly Chatterer and Tsavo Sunbird. When migration southwards across the equator is in full flow, in November-December we should find numerous Palearctic ‘winter visitors’ who come to Africa from Scandinavia, the Middle East, Central Asia, the farthest corners of Russia and even from Arctic Canada. Some unusual, or rarely seen, ones that we will be watching-out for include: the delightful insectivorous and highly social Amur Falcon and the scythe-like Sooty Falcon that preys upon the migrating flocks of passerines, Iranias (White-throated Robin) skulking in the undergrowth, River and Basra Reed Warblers in the damper spots together with several other species of warbler. There are many wonderful resident birds here too; ranging in size from the antelope-killing Martial Eagle and trumpeting Buff-crested Bustards to the tiny tail-less Yellow-bellied Eremomela and dapper Mouse-coloured Penduline-Tit.

After a morning in the lowlands of Mkomazi we will return toward the highlands at Arusha (1500m) where we will stay for two nights in a quiet lodge set in well-timbered grounds, on the outskirts of this world-famous ‘safari city’, its bustling streets almost overshadowed by the dormant volcanic cone of mighty Mount Meru. Around the lodge itself we may see interesting and unusual birds such as the Brown-breasted Barbet, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Black-backed Puffback and Bronze Sunbird. We will rise extra early (0500hrs) today to make the hour long pilgrimage out to Lark Plains, in the arid rain-shadow of Meru, to see the rarest bird in all of East Africa – the critically endangered and especially hard-to-find Beesley’s Lark which has a tiny population of perhaps no more than fifty individuals. James Wolstencroft probably knows this bird better than anyone, and, so far has never failed to show them to visiting birders! These amazingly scenic plains, surrounded by great mountains, may be green and grassy at the time of our visit. We might find nine or even ten species of Alaudidae – including two other range restricted larks, Athi Short-toed and the so-called Foxy, (although this sizzle-song Calendulauda – alopex – intercedens would surely be better named the White-browed Lark), plus five species of pipit and five species of wheatear during our day in the “Arena of the Larks”.

Naturetrek TZ Highlights trip 2008

Graceful Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, Eastern Chanting-Goshawk, Steppe Buzzards, Lanner Falcons and four kinds of kestrel quarter the plain in search of rodents (and baby larks!). Ostriches and Kori Bustards and three species of Sandgrouse (Yellow-throated, Chestnut-bellied and Black-faced) may make their first appearance on our birding journey, Lammergeiers (from their eyrie on Mount Meru), Bateleurs and other less-noble looking scavengers, such as Marabou storks, and six vultures that include Lappet-faced and White-headed Vulture, are at least possible overhead. Among a hundred other regular species we may find: acrobatic Abyssinian Scimitarbills investigating the acacia twigs in search of caterpillars and spiders, White-fronted Bee-eaters, smartly pied Northern White-crowned Shrikes and Taita Fiscals, migrant Red-tailed Shrikes, Long-tailed and gorgeous Rosy-patched Shrikes hunting bees and beetles in the dry and scrubby ravines, here they are called ‘korongos’. Around the periphery of this birding arena Long-billed Pipits and Cinnamon-breasted Rock Buntings sing from the buff-coloured boulders, the graceful Red-fronted Warbler tail-wags in groups in the thickets, and somewhat comical and nuthatch-like Red-faced Crombecs, ash-coloured Fischer’s Starlings, Grey-capped Social Weavers and Southern Grosbeak Canaries will hopefully perch-up obligingly on the thorn bushes.

Next day we will continue our safari westward into the moister Zambesian ecological zone where we will stay at a spectacular lodge in Tarangire National Park on the eastern slope of the Rift Valley. Giant baobab trees and hundreds of African Elephants and other ‘big game’ species are major attractions of this large protected area. Birdlife is diverse and, depending upon the scale of the recent rains, we will be looking, in particular areas, for yet more special migrant and localized resident birds.

Species of special interest here might be Black Storks and Steppe Eagles from Central Asia, Rufous-bellied Heron, two species of Snake-Eagle, Red-necked Spurfowl, Yellow-collared Lovebird, family parties of the incredible-looking grasshopper and beetle eating Southern Ground Hornbill, sleepy, pink eye-lidded Verreaux’s Eagle-Owls, Mottled Spinetail (a small swift), the localized Rufous-crowned Roller, highly social Magpie Shrikes, Ashy Starling – the brown and dowdy, yet highly range-restricted, endemic cousin of the Golden-breasted Starling, Swahili Sparrow, the endemic Rufous-tailed Weaver and the Black Bishop

After Tarangire we will head for the Crater Highlands stopping-off at freshwater swamps at the northern margin of Lake Manyara NP. In addition to the unforgettable antics of the hippos we will doubtless enjoy the thousands upon thousands of Lesser Flamingoes who create an intense broad pink margin to the lake that it is visible for miles. At the hippo pools there is a pair of Saddle-billed Storks, there are two species of Pelican, many species of herons, ducks, terns and migrant shorebirds galore together with Red-throated Pipits from the high Arctic tundra; all will be sorted-out and their identification explained by our specialist guide who has worked with these migrant birds for over forty years. After our fill of new species of palearctic shorebird and their ilk we will leave Lake Manyara and climb the switch back road out of the Rift Valley. The evening will be spent, hopefully listening to the evocative whistles of Montane Nightjars, at a homely and comfortable lodge, once again in the refreshingly cool highlands.

TZ Oct 12 057 (Zul Bhatia)

Gibbs Farm is a functioning organic farm and coffee estate on the very edge of the verdant mountain forests of the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area. In the morning we will trek up a gentle, well-graded trail through the Croton forest looking for several forest bird species such as the rather scarce Ayres’ Hawk-Eagle, the shy and retiring Crested Guineafowl, the more widespread Hildebrandt’s Francolin, unobtrusive ground-haunting Lemon Doves, beautiful Purple-throated Cuckoo-shrikes, noisy Grey-capped Warblers and the marvellous Oriole Finch. In the late afternoon we will enter the ‘NCCAA’ by vehicle and climb to the rim of “the Crown” – and for the first time we will view the greatest jewel in all of Africa – the indescribable Ngorongoro Crater. Tonight will be spent at Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge where numerous montane forest specials will be searched for including Schalow’s Turaco, several sunbirds including the Golden-winged and the scintillating Tacazze, and some somewhat more sombre greenbuls and seedeaters.

Next day we must once again rise early in order to make the most of our time in what is truly one of the greatest wonders of the world. Words cannot describe the uniqueness and value of this place for any naturalist. By entering the park early we should be able to admire the stupendous wildlife without feeling in any way pressured. Apart from some twenty species of large mammal, in healthy numbers, we will certainly encounter an abundance and diversity of bird life that is almost as rare in this modern world. Flocks of White and Abdim’s Storks, statuesque Grey Crowned Cranes, numerous herons, five species of egret, close views of the two flamingo species on Lake Magadi, many more shorebirds including the rare and delicate-looking Chestnut-banded Plover, Pied Avocets, Black-bellied Bustards, brilliant Rosy-breasted Longclaws, tiny Pectoral-patch Cisticolas, bouncing ‘lekking’ groups of the spectacular male Jackson’s Widowbird and no doubt many more besides. Reluctantly we will have to tear ourselves away from the marvels of the crater in the afternoon and drive to Ndutu which lies on the border between the NCA and “the Crown” itself – the mighty, world-renowned Serengeti – a Maasai word meaning an endless plain of grasses. We will spend the night at Ndutu, in either the lodge or a luxury tented camp nearby, under the infinity of a star-studded, unpolluted, utterly African sky.

Image 2

In the following days we will explore the eastern perimeter of the world famous Serengeti ecosystem making the most of local knowledge and climatic conditions to see as much as is possible in such a relatively short time. Everyone with an interest in wild animals has heard of the Wildebeest migrations of the Serengeti that move with the rains around this unique and almost unbelievably rich region. By late December the Wildebeest and Zebra should be massing in the south east toward Ndutu Lake; and the famous feline predators will be following them. In addition to seeking out our own families of Lion, gazelle-hunting Cheetah brothers and stealthy solo kopje-living (a kopje is an isolated rocky outcrop) Leopards, we will marvel at the circling storks, the packs of vultures (and hyenas and jackals), the harriers, various eagles, five kinds of falcon and the kites that at times so fill the skies, with so many varied forms of flight, that one does not know where to look. A further two endemic birds are to be found here in the Acacia tortilis woodland around Lake Ndutu – the Grey-breasted Spurfowl and Fischer’s Lovebird. The area is also especially good for migrants and itinerant cuckoos in particular come here for the caterpillars in the acacias; they include the Great Spotted and handsome Jacobin. These two nights will probably be spent at the same camp, to make the best and most comfortable use of our time here.

At about midday on day fifteen, reluctantly we must make our way to the nearby airstrip, in order to catch our plane to Arusha, and thereby transfer to Kilimanjaro airport where the principle safari will conclude.

A three night birding extension (with optional afternoon snorkeling) to the beautiful and unspoilt northern tip of Pemba Island (more Crab Plovers, four endemic Pemba birds – a Green Pigeon, a Scops Owl, a White-eye and a Sunbird – and fine shorebirds, terns and exciting seabirds along the coastline) is available by emailing a request to the author via ” gonolekATgmail.com “.

FEP.J&DH

As usual I offer my sincere thanks to the photographers : Zul Bhatia, Debbie Hilaire and Rob Tizard for sending me the lovely images captured during our delightful safaris together.

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birding, speciation, zoogeography

Which White-eye was that? Endemic birding in Tanzania!

The White-eyes remain highly successful birds. Morphologically very similar to one another, they are a group of primarily ‘Austral Old World’ passerines that have adapted, by virtue of a filamentous tongue, to exploit a wide variety of nectar sources in forest, woodland, scrub and garden. However unraveling the evolutionary relationships within the Zosterops is a complex business. They have to all intents and purposes defied rational analysis until the advent of mitochondrial DNA studies in the last fifteen years. Now at last we appear to be making some progress, but inevitably the field guides and apps that bird-watchers are using, especially here in Africa, lag way behind “the current state of our knowledge”.

In East Africa: “Species limits vary, often confusingly with different authors. The distinctive, non-intergrading montane forms .. are variously merged with Z. senegalensis by some or maintained as several separate species by others ..”

So wrote Don Turner, David Pearson, Dale Zimmerman et al. in the unabridged (i.e. the hard back edition) and, as yet, I would say indispensable “Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania”. This volume remains the original and best bird guide for anyone visiting northern Tanzania. The only field guide that has detailed these all important ‘subspecies’ and described their distributions. Full awareness of, and deliberate attention to so-called subspecies was first made clear to me long ago by Chris Heard, as we were watching vagrant redpolls on the Isles of Scilly, and its importance was reinforced by Phoebe Snetsinger, in Ethiopia in 1994, who with handwritten subspecies card index in hand, fully appreciated their importance to the dizzy ambitions of world bird listers.

Today, drawing largely on the work of a recently acknowledged expert on White-eye genetics, Siobhan Cox in the UK, we can say with certainty that that “the taxonomy of East African White-eye in the published literature is an absolute mess.” 

Now I am posting here eight photographs, by my good friend Martin Goodey, that portray four African White-eye taxa. One taxon (or – if you prefer – you may call it a subspecies, or even a race) was photographed in the Gambia in West Africa, whilst the remaining three taxa were captured here in Tanzania in East Africa.

It seems that “originally”, in the lumping mind-set that was fashionable in the days of the previous Cold War, all the mountain White-eyes of East Africa were treated as conspecific within the widespread lowland Yellow White-eye known as Z. senegalensis. Later, an alternative treatment was adopted where many of the various non-intergrading mountain populations were treated as subspecies of a distinct montane species referred to under the oldest name Zosteropspoliogaster”.

Even today quite similar looking populations of white-eyes, resident in montane forest areas in parts of Kenya and in southern and eastern Tanzania, are still subsumed within Yellow White-eye – and referred to as Z. s. stierlingi here in Tanzania, and in Kenya as Z. s. jacksoni. Unlike taxa within the poliogaster group, these birds are not confined to a single mountain, or to clusters of northern volcanic mountains but have a wider range across several, primarily ancient, highland blocks. We’re not 100% sure but we think that it was for this reason they were kept in Z. senegalensis rather than being transferred into the Montane White-eye assemblage – Z. poliogaster.

Either way my current genetic work shows that subspecies within both Z. poliogaster and Z. senegalensis are polyphyletic. This suggested that they should probably be considered as individual taxonomic units rather than as subspecies of a wider species complex.” – Siobhan Cox, 2013

So if you’re coming to Tanzania, or to southern Kenya, and are unable to travel with “Birdman”, here are some things to bear in mind when you see one of our white-eyes.

Simply put it seems that we have at least “nine good taxa” occurring here in Tanzania. NB: Any unfamiliar modifier name written below is one of mine!

Maasai White-eye Z. [abyssinicus] flavilateralis – savanna woodland and gardens of the Central Steppe of Tanzania northwards, and occurring seasonally (from early June to late November) around the volcanos of Meru and Kilimanjaro, and on into southern and eastern Kenya.

South Pare White-eye Z. winifredae – an extremely localised endemic, found only in the forest reserves on the top of the South Pare Mountains.

Volcano Mountain White-eye Z. [poliogaster] eurycricotus – montane evergreen forests of Mount Meru (today these forests are largely confined to the security of Arusha NP), of Kilimanjaro, and of the nearby volcanos of Essimongor, Lossogonoi and Lolkisale.

Rift Mountain White-eye Z. p. mbuluensis – montane evergreen forest of the Ngorongoro Crater Highlands, the volcano of Kitumbeine to the east of the Rift Valley and the crystalline mountain of Longido which is immediately east of the Nairobi-Arusha highway south of Namanga.

Pemba White-eye Z. vaughani – widespread endemic in relict forest patches and gardens of Pemba Island.

Arc Mountains White-eye Z. [senegalensis] stierlingi – forested uplands of Southern and Eastern Tanzania, mostly above about 1,000 metres, the Iringa highlands, Udzungwa, Uluguru and Usambara mountains (both West & East). Also found in the highlands in Malawi, Eastern Zambia, northwest and west Mozambique. Rich green upperparts, not as dark as in jacksoni, less yellow on the forehead, supra-loral stripe narrower, yellower below, with slightly less green on breast sides and flanks.

Unfortunately, on the routes that I usually guide I have only limited field experience of the final three taxa which in the books are retained within “Yellow White-eye”.

Yellow White-eye Z. senegalensis stuhlmanni – North-west Tanzania.

Yellow White-eye Z. s. jacksoni – Kenya highlands, Loliondo highlands, possibly southwards into Ngorongoro Crater highlands. Green breast sides and flanks contrast with bright yellow chin, throat, centre of breast and belly.

Yellow White-eye Z. s. anderssoni – low and medium altitudes of Southern & Eastern Tanzania. Generally paler than the montane stierlingi with which it apparently “intergrades widely.”

Photos:

Maasai White-eye Z. [abyssinicus] flavilateralis

Lippia_White-eye

Image 1

Maasai White-eyes (as I now prefer to call them – in the books “Abyssinian” , but not when I’ve seen ’em first … ) at Magongo Hill. An early Anabel Harries photo of course – superb.

Image 2

Another of Anabel’s Maasai White-eye photos from Magongo Hill. This was her “local patch”, it’s on the western outskirts of Arusha, and is where Pete Davidson and I go birding, whenever we can get away from these silver screens.

Zosterops poliogaster eurycricotus – the Volcano Mountain White-eye see within Broad-ringed White-eye, which is frequently called Montane White-eye in some of the books

Meru-Volcano_White-eye2

This photo shows the form eurycricotus that is easily found on the tourism and safari circuit in Northern Tanzania (for a price) at Mount Kilimanjaro, or better yet on the upper forested slopes of Mount Meru in Arusha National Park or above my house, on the western slopes at Ngaramtoni.

Volcano_White-eye

Zimmerman et al. 1996 “Note yellow on forehead, little on underparts“. See plate 124; Northern Tanzanian Birds on page 300 in Don Turner, Dale Zimmerman and David Pearson’s indispensable hardback edition of The Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania. When you come on safari to Tanzania, and if you not traveling with me, don’t make that all too frequent and perfectly understandable mistake of trying to make do with the one book, the deceptively simple Helm-style: map-text-plate  layout of  The Birds of East Africa by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe. The maps are terrible and many of the passerine plates in particular have been printed so dark that they are woefully misleading. Remember this: in Africa things are seldom how they appear at the surface and, one might say, you have to dig to get to the hidden truth.

Arc Mountains (Yellow) White-eye Zosterops [senegalensis] stierlingi described as “common in eastern Tanzania” yet we see this taxon only in the Usambara mountains, above 1,000 metres .. “darker on the flanks, deeper yellow on the belly” – Zimmerman et al. 1996.

W_Usamabara_White-eye-3

Two more individuals of the Arc Mountains (Yellow) White-eye Zosterops (senegalensis) stierlingi from the West Usambaras in the mountains of the Eastern Arc.

Maweni--White-eye-2

West-Usamabara_White-eye

Finally a nominate African Yellow White-eye Zosterops senegalensis senegalensis ‘captured’ by Martin Goodey in Casamance (itself currently lumped with Senegal !) in the far, far West of Africa – over ten hours of flight in a jet liner from my abode on Mount Meru.

Gambian-Yellow-White-eye

Many thanks, as always, to Martin Goodey and Anabel Harries for providing me with so many excellent photos.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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africa, biodiversity, birding, local-patch

Our Strange Little Garden – Earth

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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