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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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 “.
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.