In mid June 2007 I returned to Arusha from a very special safari experience, a five day pilgrimage by camel, camping across Tanzanian Maasailand. Here is my write-up, from that time, of that wonderful journey.
Our little band of fifteen people parted with contemporary civilization (i.e. the East African mobile phone network) at the foot of Longido mountain, a knobbly crowned eminence quite close to the Kenya border. Wending leisurely westward through shrubby northern acacia savanna and game-rich open pasture we made our way between the exquisite forested peaks of Kitumbeine and Gelai, to an utterly breath-taking finale deep in the Rift Valley, beneath the perfect volcanic cone of Oldonyo Lengai, on the shimmering flamingo-sequined southern shore of Lake Natron.
We were making a promotional film for Tanzania’s only camel safaris, by a company called Media88 from Milan, as part of a cultural tourism project, affiliated to the Italian NGO Oikos. The intention was to introduce low impact tourism to this relatively remote and as yet unspoilt northern frontier of Tanzanian Maasailand.
We began our delightfully machine-free safari, partly on foot and partly riding the camels, by setting our first camp at a little korongo (a seasonal watercourse or wadi) near the primary school below Kitumbeine, by a Maasai village, which is already two hours from the nearest tarmac road linking Arusha to Nairobi. In the gathering dusk Zebra and Spotted Hyenas laughed challenges to one another at a water hole in the middle distance. Meanwhile the splendid red-robed Maasai porters and guides set out a delicious candle-lit Italian supper as ghostly avian silhouettes danced around and above us. These were hawking Slender-tailed Nightjars, clearly revealing their projecting central tail feathers. They called occasionally throughout the night from the floor of the shrubby acacia woodland all around us. Absurdly their staccato churring song always suggests to me a distant malfunctioning car alarm!
Mounting-up early next morning we bade a temporary goodbye to some water dependent birds that have become successful commensals of maize-growing man in the developing landscape of East Africa. For example four nattily attired, yet seemingly ubiquitous roadside birds, or sub-Saharan “trash birds” in 1970s US birding parlance, these are our everyday companions here: African Pied Wagtail, Pied Crow, Pin-tailed Whydah and Yellow Bishop.
Over the next four days, until we reached our destination, a village at the southern corner of Lake Natron, we left behind all those species that are dependent upon settled agriculture and met with only those birds typical of extensive pastoralism – the wild uncultivated lands – home of the still partly nomadic lowland Maasai.
For me it was very interesting to observe such changes in the bird community as our camel train wound westward and, with daily altitudinal gains and losses, yet in general downwards to our journey’s end on May 24, in the searing midday heat, at the lowest point of the safari, at Lake Natron’s shoreline, deep in the Northern Rift.
The pleasures of a safari, birding from a camel’s back, certainly outweigh a certain loss of one’s physical capability to use those indispensable binoculars at each and every moment. So long as you are able to dismount more or less at will, and especially at any key sites along the route, you will miss little or nothing that could be seen from the front seat of a safari vehicle; were a Toyota land cruiser actually able to enter many of the areas that you can traverse quite easily on a camel. For a camel train can pass quietly through even quite dense stands of bush and tall grass, and along narrow rocky korongos, most of which would be impassable even for the best four wheeled vehicle. Furthermore from such an elevated vantage point, at nearly three metres above the ground, you have a beautiful view, overlooking the savanna canopy. The additional height and openness to the wonderful African sky enables unhindered scanning for raptors, diurnal migrants, swifts and singing larks. And in addition, from your elevated position, the superb peacefulness due to the complete lack of engine noise and pollution means that you can hear (and also smell!) as much as, or perhaps even more than, you would were you on foot. In essence, on this camel safari, I felt that I had perhaps half the freedoms and perspective of an Eastern Chanting Goshawk (the commonest medium-sized raptor along the way) and almost as much as a Taita Fiscal (the commonest, most definitive Lanius, a shrike of shrikes if ever there was one).
Since we were making a film, and I was the only birder-naturalist on board, we did not rack up a big bird list. I had never traveled this route before and we logged only 189 species in five days. However by traveling in such a gentle and unobtrusive manner through a glorious landscape such as this we witnessed some very special things indeed.
Most important, in each and every moment of our camel journey, I felt a sense of kinship with, or duty to, the great mountains; silent spectators, no matter whether they were looming green and close, or in some way idling nonchalant and afar. Throughout the journey we were all, fifteen travelers, in thrall to their majesty and the unforgettable scenery that they create.
Within each hour’s eighty buoyant camel strides we grew steadily closer to the awesome symmetry of the near-perfect cone of Oldonyo Lengai (2878 metres) an active volcano that launches, just south of Natron, from the uniquely mould-green moonscape of the Rift Valley floor. “Home to God” so sacred, certainly to the Maasai, whose inaudibly hissing, ash-turreted summit rim towered above our little blue-tented camp on our last night in the bush. Wending our way ever westward to the foot of this awesome being we could comfortably admire no fewer than eight “lesser peaks immortal”. Whilst behind us to the east, the one-and-only, free-standing, permanently snow-capped equatorial giant of Kilimanjaro (5895 m) slipped imperceptibly each evening into the ochre haze of the horizon. He was framed by the serene, yet exploded, olive grey majesty of Meru’s shark fin caldera (4566 m) and the stolid, staff-holding Longido (2629 m), standing quietly aside to Kilima’s south and north respectively.
Looking forward, for much of the journey, to the left of Oldonyo Lengai, who loomed straight ahead and was clearly the focus for the trek, we could admire that richly forested king of the Crater Highlands – Loolmalasin (3648 m) whose wandering summit ridges were usually lost from view each morning and evening, obscured by drifting, whispering turbans of the softest pastel cloud. Between Loolmalasin and Lengai, always edging impudently forward, as if trying to peer more closely down upon us, was the neat little cone of Kenimas (2,300 m), just a buckram lad and utterly unwooded, yet so very grassy and green, like a Scottish mountain – almost!
Closer to our route than Kenimas, sprawling to our south and north respectively, standing always on the flank, yet also appearing as if they wished to monitor our progress, were the twin tarantulas of Kitumbeine (2858 m) and Gelai (2942 m). Great and deeply green, hirsute arthropod-like, these are fine mountain homes for nature. Their deeply fissured flanks sustain very few, and exceptionally isolated, ancient looking hamlets; thus they remain but lightly cut and chopped, presenting this northern naturalist with a happy wooded patchwork in forty shades of green. Articulated ridges, bony shoulders and knobbly arms, their hairy stumpy legs protrude every which way, beneath giant green shukas (tartan Maasai blankets), as if haphazardly thrown there to protect these twins, either from the rheumatic mists of morning, or from the fierce desiccating heat of early afternoon. Finally, standing on the slate-coloured mud of Natron beyond the pink-crayoned lines of feeding flamingos, we could look toward the equator somewhere north. Far beyond the darkly floating bergs of Olosha (2526 m) and Oldonyo Sambu (1564 m), while closer yet and therefore larger stood gaunt Shombole (1564 m) whose blue-grey highland straddles the international border between Kenya and Tanzania.
Close views of mammals, often feeding unconcerned, were an important component of the camel safari. Our first two days produced several sightings of Gerenuk; a total of seventeen individuals being seen. Not coincidentally these giraffe-necked gazelles were in the same areas in which we noted several pairs of delightful clean-looking Somali Golden-breasted Buntings. They were at the south western extremity of their range, shuffling in the red dust, they searched for tiny “weed seeds” under the low stature acacia scrub of this arid Somali-Maasai environment. Another typical bird of this habitat, which we saw in quantity during the first three days, is Fischer’s Starling. A fine study in softest grey and fawn, with that obligatory sturnid eye of fortune, for the first half of our trek small flocks of this dapper bird were our constant companions. They and certain other ‘eastern forms’ dwindled in number as we pushed westward and downward into the Rift. Another restricted range species in Tanzania, the White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, curiously became very briefly abundant when we reached the stockade and huts of “Grey-eyes” boma (a boma is a traditional Maasai hamlet) that has been built in a fabulous situation, along a ridge where the outermost gravel fingers of Gelai and Kitumbeine almost grasp one another.
The most plentiful mammal on this safari was Thomson’s gazelle; several hundred were seen. Next in number were Zebra and Grant’s gazelle with perhaps some two hundred and fifty of each species observed. We also saw plenty of Giraffe (ca 40) and a few each (less than 15) of Eland and Wildebeest. Kirk’s Dik Diks were widespread, especially on the first three days. With amazing luck we found a Cheetah and her single cub, right beside the track, just three kilometers beyond our camp early on the last morning as we headed for the lake shore at Natron. Vervet Monkeys and Olive Baboons were seen on only a few occasions, chiefly in quite small troops.
Finding birds of prey was, as usual, an especial focus for me, not least on this prototype new-style safari, our comparatively ecologically-friendly camel trek. In all we calculated that we saw at least 78 individual raptors of 17 species in the five days. Pride of place must go to an immaculate adult Verreaux’s Eagle hunting rock hyraxes along a black basaltic dyke that a million years ago issued, in a vermillion stream of lava, from Gelai’s southern flank. Four African Kestrels (Falco ‘tinnunculus’ rufescens) who live in the crater of one of Gelai’s parasitic cones, near to which we camped beside the “Plain of Stars”, was a very pleasant find; for this lovely cinnamon-coloured resident falcon is somewhat scarcer than one might expect, certainly here in northern Tanzania. Only three Bateleur Eagles, each of them an adult (or near-adult) male, were seen and all on the first two days, and but one handsome adult Black-chested Snake-eagle also at the aforementioned crater. A displaying pair of Brown Snake-eagles directly over head on day two was a real pleasure to watch. The commonest small raptor was the Pygmy Falcon; we saw at least eight. Considering that we were in unprotected areas Tawny Eagles remained ‘relatively plentiful’, in that I reckon we saw seven different birds.
We saw only eleven larger Vultures. Three Lappet-faced, including one bird thought to be in its first calendar year, five African White-backed and three adult Ruppell’s Griffons. Sadly no Egyptian Vultures were seen, even though the arid western slopes of Gelai, forming the eastern shore of Natron, arguably remain their last viable refuge in Tanzania. We found only four typical Accipiters (bird-eating hawks) both were trim little Gabar Goshawks (one an adult, one a juvenile) testament perhaps to a resurgence in the (only partly illicit) use of DDT and other lethal concoctions upon these lands of Africa.
I also paid particular attention to Streptopelia doves. Since August 2006 when we first noticed dying doves at water holes across Tanzanian Maasailand I have been much more appreciative of these classic thorn bush birds, whose calls are so hauntingly evocative of the vast African savanna. It is clear that populations remain severely suppressed; so that our total haul on this extensive transect through northern Maasailand was: African Ring-necked Dove ca 160, African Mourning Dove 23 and perhaps more significantly, and most saddening of all, Laughing Dove a species who, with only 12 individuals seen and not one heard singing, certainly gives little cause for laughing these days. Populations of Streptopelia doves have clearly suffered tremendous losses right across sub-Saharan Africa during the past year. Why? Newcastle disease or an evolving immune deficiency, perhaps combined with widespread incidental poisoning at water holes?
May 22 was a perfect day. The special interest began soon after dawn with the arrival at our breakfast table of the grey-eyed libon himself (a Maasai cultural leader and healer) from the nearby grey-eyes boma. He and one of his wives had come it seems to observe the strange eating habits of the wazungu (white travelers). An hour later it was we who became guests in his boma when we passed through the outer thorny hedge-like barrier of dried acacia branches that always surround every even half-remote Maasai settlement. This boma is divided between himself, his four wives (and their respective younger children), each round earthen hut occupying a separate fenced-off enclosure within the main compound. The remainder of the compound is divided, by low woven fences of dry thorn branches, into the nocturnal shelters for the different types of stock. The largest enclosure being for the safe storage of the most precious of his possessions – the cattle, the smallest for the donkeys, whilst an intermediate one is occupied by all the sheep and goats. “Grey eyes” was the most authentic and least ‘developed’; no evidence here of persistent pesticides or the use of veterinary pharmaceuticals, very few shards or shreds of shiny plastic debris, not even a single twisted, fluttering remnant of that ubiquitous introduced alien the black polythene bag; simply the most organic Maasai boma that I have visited yet in Tanzania – this century.
The apparent total absence of modern chemical compounds ensured a wealth of invertebrate fauna that thronged in every corner of the boma. Processing this abundant unpolluted food supply was a diversity of birds that should set any ornithological mind a spinning. One fabulous manifestation of this wonderful, and increasingly rare, example of ecological well being, was in the form of a Rufous-crowned Roller, who danced that morning back and fore between two lofty dark green balanites bushes that were growing just outside the encircling ‘dried hedge’. In tumbling, clashing flashes of red, maroon, purple and indigo this large-headed bird, a real roller of rollers, repeatedly swooped down to a bare red swathe of earthen ground, one of three, swept clean by the twice daily trampling of over two thousand hooves. These swathes radiated, petering outward, from each of three narrow passages through the outermost stockade. In so doing the magnificent ‘Purple Roller’ was obtaining very large dung beetles, who were noisily droning in and crash landing on the red earth, assembling to roll away and bury those cow pats that had not yet been gathered by the younger children. Lifting a beetle, easily as large as a bantam’s egg, the roller would fly up to a favoured perch in the balanites bush, where it would expertly toss and re-toss the rhinoceros-horn armoured beetle until it fell just right, and could be swallowed comfortably, head first.
A galaxy of bees and wasps and myriad kinds of (for me at least!) fascinating fly swarmed around this boma. Complex invertebrate ‘parasitic’ interrelations notwithstanding, the animal dung and its inherent undigested seeds, the extensive bare earth and the weed-filled curving ‘dry hedgerows’ provide them all with ample sustenance. Consequently the sky overhead was filled with the trilling calls of White-throated Bee-eaters, who in ones and twos had accompanied our every step since leaving the first camp at Kitumbeine village. Here they simply chased the larger hymenopterans. Coveys of Crested Francolins foraged unconcerned in the sheep and goat pen and all along the inside of the perimeter hedge, whilst little flocks of Wattled and Superb Starlings and White-headed and Red-billed Buffalo Weavers vied for being considered the most conspicuous avian characters on the scene. Among the gathering of African passerine seed eaters, Ploceids, Estrildids and Viduids were well represented in the form of motley-plumaged gangs of Chestnut Sparrows, dainty Speckle-fronted Weavers, sharp and sprightly Blue-capped Cordon-bleus, Crimson-rumped Waxbills, sombre looking Yellow-spotted Petronias and sizzle-singing Village Indigobirds al of whom were gathering in small mixed flocks on almost each and every surrounding shrub. In the denser bush out yonder Fork-tailed Drongos and African Grey Flycatchers hawked-down insects from twiggy acacia extremities; whilst chunky and cinereous, Ashy Cisticolas, who were unexpectedly abundant throughout our trek, alternately sneezed or sang their tremulous whistles.
The undoubted finale of this wonderful pilgrimage through Maasailand must surely always be to walk out, in the brilliant morning sun, onto a natural causeway of dried grey lacustrine mud. Perhaps, as we did last week, in pursuit of birds – in this instance three cavorting Western Reef-Egrets themselves chasing minnow cichlids – between the lapping silver shallows of Lake Natron, where great straggling lines of astonishingly pink Lesser Flamingos feed unconcerned within a few hundred metre radius of where you stand. Overhead one hundred and twenty breeding plumage Great White Pelicans drifted slowly south, doubtless heading toward the Hippo pools of Lake Manyara. Whilst at our feet swarms of Banded Groundlings, (a blackish sympetrum-like dragonfly with dark stripes across both sets of wings), would flutter up at the last moment, accompanying our every step. Far out across the shimmering quicksilver of this soda lake yet more craggy youthful mountains float, galactic battle ships, gun-metal mountains, saturated in the starkest grey and blue. In the hot and acrid breeze these bergs seemed to drift on the horizon where the mirage at Natron’s northern end ebbed silently into Kenya land. Listening to the constant gentle murmuring honks of the feeding flamingos, subsumed within a great silence, surrounded by a spectacular volcanic moonscape, in the limitless peace of the Rift Valley, one is transported to a timeless zone, where any person can simply be. Like a raindrop rejoining the ocean, united with the timeless rhythms of the Earth, effortlessly one becomes at ease with oneself. A foothold in the moment, where we have always been, standing simply human, perfectly here and now, in what feels like it just must be, the very womb of Nature.
All the photographs in this piece, with the exception of the male Giraffe’s head, were taken by my great friend Martin Goodey back in Maasailand in 2007. The giraffe was photographed by Debbie Hilaire in Arusha National Park in March 2014. I also would like to thank Geoff Harries for his expert piloting abilities, as well as for his great kindness in taking Martin and myself over Oldonyo Lengai, right up there, up with the White-backed Vultures, magnificent fliers who very sadly, likely as not, are no longer with us.
Lots of European bird-watchers grew up in towns. Many, like myself – I come from northwest England – lived near the grey Atlantic, in a decidedly cool corner of our “Great Peninsula”. Here for perhaps half our days, up to seven months of each impatient youthful year we suffered a suffocating Tupperware opaqueness overhead. A grey shield of cloud that far too often blotted out the blueness of the sky. Excluding us from heaven above. From ‘freedom’.
I think that is why, for we, the child birders of the sixties and seventies, the Roller and half a dozen other southern birds portrayed in the middle of our Peterson Guide – please let’s not forget Guy Mountfort and Phil Hollom – the Kingfisher, the Bee-eater, the Hoopoe, the Golden Oriole, the Woodchat Shrike, such birds were the embodiment of our childhood’s nature fantasies. Why? Because they are exotic, colourful, pulsating with warmth and they have the freedom to roam, proof of a life worth living. To this day, in September 2014, even though I live amongst riotous colour in Equatorial Africa, whenever I catch a glimpse of the vibrant sky blue of our Roller, the blues of any Roller – for we have at Christmas time four species here around Arusha – it never fails to spark a thrill in the child’s heart within me. Despite the fact that I was seventeen when first I encountered the Roller-being in all his tropical flesh and blood.
It was near Arcos de la Frontera in southern Andalucia, Spain. A bright Sunday morning at Easter time 1973. Lucky us! We too had just flown-in, in an Iberia jet from a dull, grey Manchester airport. Whilst he of course made it all the way to Arcos by himself, recently arrived, from far exotic African lands. I was on one of my manic early-listing missions. He was much more focused, carefully scanning the open ground beneath his telegraph wire for trundling dung and darkling beetles. Oily black insects, nutrition, caught out in the open, crossing the soft earth of rabbit mounds, beside a lumpy chalky lane in what was, for a wee while yet, Franco’s Spain.
Along that narrow road beside one of Franco’s own great wheat fields bloomed an unruly renaissance of brilliant buzzing Easter flowers. Legumes mostly; deep blue vetches and blood red Italian sainfoin, out-matched only by the whispering pagan spires of purple viper’s bugloss, already standing knee-high in the verge. Humming, smiling, they were witness to terse old ladies, robed in colourless black, scuttling like the beetles, dead-eyed up the lane to the beat of the Roman gong.
My next Roller meeting was as impressive as the first. Another in-bound Easter migrant two years later it was in an ancient olive grove, on a sun-drenched hillside, beside the hazy blue Adriatic in northern Kerkira (Corfu – April 1975). I was still reeling from my first ever sighting of a male Pallid Harrier. A silent ballet in bright white spring sunshine, he had just ghosted past me on the softest of breezes, across a wet-under-foot field of wild white narcissus; the budding wayside elms and Nightingales, still ringing in my eyes and ears. I had decided to take a short cut, through a stony patch of maquis, toward some scattered twisted olives on a slope. Suddenly there was “The Roller”, on a bare antler branch etched against the sky. Thickset, powerful, a square-headed bird with a serious beak and sharp knowing eye, a distillation of blues beneath a more uniform rufous tan. Then in seemingly reckless flight there were yet more blues, ecstatic blues, blues and beauty beyond belief.
For young naturalists – increasingly they could claim to be impoverished citizens in those materially rich northern societies – it is I suppose the simultaneous mental processing, the surprise processing of so many sense experiences which is required, that reinforces the moment in our memory. Such moments ensure our allegiance, usually for life, to the life of the wild. Wedding us to wonder – if it be your will?
Stumbling upon a gorgeous Roller, finding a longed-for bird of any kind (in today’s parlance connecting with a species on your wish, dream or bucket list) charges the brain with instantaneous, 360-degree, spherical reality! Sensation that is all around and overhead. Not images on a shiny flattish screen, slap in front of our face! Likely we are struggling with at least some physical effort, we must try to concentrate and persevere, we’re plodding along with the minor discomforts and fatigue of being in the field. We might be sitting, standing or walking, running even, yet presumably quite quietly! It might be in sunshine, in wind or rain. With my roller I was smelling the healthy earth, amongst spring flowers humming with nectar, maybe as I paused amid the hum of bees and wasps, butterflies dancing, delightful evocative contact calls of diurnal migrants, imagine European Bee-eaters dashing overhead! This for sure is easy immersion in Nature. It’s becoming aware. Sensing the uniqueness of place and I suppose in the moment, fully being there, and yet somehow also footloose in space.
Forty years later, such essential, transcendental moments must be daily sacrificed by my attachment to assimilated ecological knowledge and environmental fears. Not to mention the domestic responsibilities of raising a family! Above all I worry what must have happened to the blue skies Roller, “our European” Roller, its populations, in the short 50 years of my lifetime?
We know the species was already in retreat from the north and west of Europe during the late nineteenth century. One hundred years later that range had contracted further and by the year 2000 what were apparently healthy populations survived only eastward from the European peninsula into the lands that are again called Russian.
In the aforementioned “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (sic!)” in the second and third editions, (the bible of this 1970s era rarity hunter, twitcher on the by-pass, for the list-serve listers of the future), the habitat of European Roller is summarised simply and succinctly by Phil Hollom as:
“Mature forests and fairly open country with a few trees. Breeds in old hollow trees, holes in banks, ruins etc.”
Now, and then, to reproduce in this ‘habitat’ Rollers must of course eat well. They require a lot of large to very large insects. In their African lives their diet is composed largely of Isopteran alates (that’s flying termites – and of course these are not available in Europe), Orthopterans (crickets, katydids, grasshoppers and locusts), Coleopterans (beetles) and Hymenopterans (ants, bees and wasps), also small vertebrates such as Lacerta-type lizards as well as small rodents. And of course they need safe nest sites. Rot holes in big old trees where a limb has fallen-away, rubbly creviced cliffs, earthen banks or ruined walls of old buildings and nowadays in places man-made nest boxes.
Since practically the entire population of Coracias g. garrulus and C. g. semenowi (the eastern ‘subspecies’) spend the boreal winter travelling through Africa there are also the inevitable myriad dangers of a migrant’s life, during those seven months of the year when General Winter rules the North. Months in which a European Roller once again becomes just another African Roller.
How many descendants of those mid-70s western Rollers are returning now, steadily crossing the Mediterranean and the Sahara, from the expanded European Community to Africa this migration time?
Rollers going whichever way, north or south, are returning ‘home’. In so doing their dwindling population reveals how little is left of Europe’s environmentally-sensitive countryside. In the old European communities that I knew, for such a short while, the old-farmed landscape that functioned quite well even into the late seventies has in the past twenty-five years been all but obliterated. Relegated and the regulated to a few scattered bio-spherical reservations where redundant human life-styles and “species of conservation concern” are no longer viable without finance from beyond the fence to support the landscapes of cultures that are dying if not already dead.
Not one Roller I’ll wager shall utter its near-threatened throaty rattle, in tumble-round display, above the vast swathes of squared-off waste, the deserts of grain, of oilseed rape and foreign fir and the accumulating silage bags (tractor’s eggs!) rolling-out across the Union. Sour-smelling or scentless ‘fields’ increasingly surround and overwhelm the few forgotten corners where wildlife hangs-on. Whilst along the drains and invalided hedges the despised weeds of agri-business, such as Rumex and Urtica gain yet more ground. Airborne nitrates-assisted, unruly and rank – they are the dark flowers for our time. This is the brave new briefly profitable countryside of a supposedly wealthy Europe. Set-aside and sterile fields so-called, reinforced by liberalized land tenure laws, yet only occasionally visited by any of the people – let alone the dark-suited men who love them Homo ignoramus.
In our expanded Union, say after 20-15? Will there be three hundred pairs of “Vulnerable Rollers”, perhaps just fifty, when only ten? In the past sixty years our manufactured (profit-driven) need, for ever more efficient food-as-culture, which links the base production industries of oil and metal with wood, grain, meat and milk, has desecrated what remained in 1950 of the Roller’s habitat west of 25 degrees East. And with it what great proportion of those other trans-Saharan migrant birds, for whom we still call Europe home? In fairness it was likely done without intent, by crass brutality in the traumatised wake of War. Beyond contemporary understanding and without our true consent. Unwitting yes, yet many of us definitely sensed and even saw them disappearing, so arguments apportioning responsibility could drag-on yet. Whatever, we have lost the bulk of them. Killed-them-off as surely as if we had been those brutes and shot them down in Cyprus or in Malta.
It is my belief that it is not only the bird nerd, or avian geek, the boffin ornithologists, nor simple nature-lovers and naturalists who suffer this demise of Roller-land. I believe we still need those grazed and well-timbered parklands, Medieval wood pastures, muddles of heath and corn, eastern meadow-forest mosaics. We need new versions of these “cultural landscapes” who survive today only as open air museums, or in ever fewer mortal evanescent memories, or monochrome, petrified and flat, two dimensional images, locked in celluloid or in the damned computers.
Acquiescing in accelerating extirpation, we are losing something ineffable. Something that I think is more precious to our humanity than a suite of sky-god religions or even European Rollers. I think we are loosing our sense of belonging, of continuity, any spirit of communality. True freedoms these; the knowledge that an ordinary life is worth living. Living outside a box; and not always in one, not a life in front of one.
In Europe today, I hear that privileged childhood freedoms increasingly dwell within a moulded black or silver plastic case. On a screen that encapsulates electronic fantasies, played-out in a cartoon planet, crafted within crowded mega-cities that have so deeply absorbed our minds. I know the youth today, as always and quite naturally, they prefer their fantasies to those in which we lived. The ones I doubt we can now describe with anything like sufficient vitality to bring them back to life transformed. It seems to me that a civilization which requires such tranquilising pass-times has evolved within a wider landscape of great conformity. Corporate monotony, on its present trajectory, may soon deliver terror as rapacious and inimical to the human spirit as was any fearsome forest, or field of feudal or fascist wheat, or state collective farm in Soviet Russia. Insidious and stifling, highly mechanised, oil-dependent agriculture delivers our daily bread to the domestic terminal consumers who seldom see a cereal field without an intervening pane of glass; and have not the slightest idea what an ancient healthy forest might look like.
And as regards my take on sub-Saharan lands … “as long as it/they doesn’t/don’t come here, who up there cares, really?”
This thankfully brings me back home to the so-called “insoluble problems” of Africa, and its ten types of Roller.
In what’s left of old Europe, east of about 25 degrees East, the Rollers might survive for a little while yet. As with many bird species, of a primarily west-central Palearctic origin, nominally ‘European’ Rollers enter Africa in late autumn on a route that lies well to the north and west of the one by which they may leave the following April. From late September through October and November they pass through the lands of the Horn of Africa and Sudan east of the Nile into eastern Chad, and the C.A.R. and subsequently south through the eastern Congo, western Kenya and Tanzania roughly along the western axis of the Rift Valley. This is presumably so that they can take full advantage, on their leisurely southbound journey, of this vast region’s food resources. In many parts it will be leaping with life; with trillions of insects large and small. The acacia and broad-leaved savanna woodlands in the northern centre of the continent produce a luxuriance of growth, processed by countless life forms, in the wake of ITCZ rains which fall, in ever varying patterns, during the three months that follow the boreal summer solstice.
A very large proportion of our rollers (and almost all of the eastern race C.g.semenowi) continue south eastwards, pursuing the moisture-laden banks of cloud that continue to trigger a tremendous population explosion among the insects. Thus it is almost the time of the December solstice before the majority has arrived in southern Africa. Although often foraging alone, the travelling rollers frequently assemble in loose flocks, or ‘clump’ in areas of food abundance, where one bird can clearly see another, typically they are spaced 100 – 200m apart. For example: on Boxing Day 1940 around Dodoma, in the dry country of central Tanzania, R.F.Meiklejohn counted up to 5,000 Rollers in one small area of thorny Masai steppe.
This huge influx of immigrant rollers into Africa each year brings them into almost daily contact with two and sometimes three resident species, which are about the same size, yet they meet without apparent aggression or need for segregation. It seems, from all the available evidence, that very rarely does a European Roller spend more than a couple of weeks in the same place; so this species is very much itinerant whilst in Africa. Perhaps the resident birds recognize the transient nature of ‘their guests’, in much the same way as the indigenous human population, on a somewhat different time scale, appears to have been doing.
In Africa the Roller clearly prefers areas where the ground is relatively open, especially where clearance or a recent fire has significantly disturbed the local insect population. In the 1940s Reginald Moreau recorded that this roller will even eat the brightly coloured, acrid-tasting and slow moving Foam Grasshopper (Zonocerus elegans) which itself feeds upon toxin accumulating Milkweeds (Asclepias fruticososus), Senecio and Solanum. When attacked the grasshoppers produce evil-smelling foam from their thoracic joints. Livestock avoid eating from bushes containing these grasshoppers and this bubbly secretion, if ingested by dog or human, frequently proves fatal. We too watched five rollers feeding with impunity on these, and other grasshopper species, in the vicinity of Kilimanjaro International Airport on the afternoon of March 17, 2007.
The journey back north to “Europe” starts in early February. Continuing through March and April the birds follow a route toward the eastern seaboard, to areas in East Africa at, or just north of, the equator; where especially in years of bountiful “short rains” a significant number will have remained all ‘winter’; feeding avidly all the while, before either crossing the northern Indian Ocean direct, or the deserts of the Arabian peninsula and Asia Minor, in what is perforce a far more sustained and determined flight.
Reginald Moreau worked here in Tanganyika (prior to independence) mostly at Amani, in the East Usambaras, which at that time occupied what was but a small clearing in montane forest, and not a typical location in which to find European Rollers. One day in early April 1946 hundreds of European Rollers settled in the trees surrounding his home in the Amani clearing. The birds were evidently being grounded for some reason, as they were very restless, flying back and fore from tree top to tree top, raucously calling all the while. Usually European Rollers are silent, or at least fairly quiet, whilst in Africa. Eventually one individual rose, circled-up into the sky and flew off strongly in a northeasterly direction followed over a period of a few minutes by all the others. Some hours later another loose group of about eighty birds arrived at the Amani clearing and behaved in exactly the same manner. It is tempting to wonder whether these birds were contemplating an imminent departure from the African continent, as Amani is less than 100km from the coast at the Indian Ocean. On another occasion at Amani (March 25) Reg Moreau was surprised to see a pair of these rollers copulating. Such behaviour is very unusual indeed amongst Palearctic birds in Africa, Amani being some 6000km from their breeding range, and three weeks in advance of normal laying. However Rollers frequently arrive at their nesting sites in pairs, so it is possible that some bonds are formed whilst the birds are still in Africa.
Professor Erwin Stresemann writing in 1944 concluded that Rollers from the northern western periphery of the breeding range, in eastern Germany, are among those that travel farthest, as far as the Transvaal of southern Africa; a great circle route of over 10,000km. He calculated that the northbound migration in spring was considerably quicker than the southbound, birds averaging some 1000km in 8.5 days. He compared this to the migration of the Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio) which, although by no means a fast migrant, covers a similar distance in only half the time. He believed that this was because the Roller travels by day whilst the shrike flies at night.
Some British colonial administrators noted their observations of Rollers in East Africa. On April 5, some eighty-eight years ago, Sir Geoffrey Archer saw hundreds in the Machakos district, yet by “one week later all had vanished”. Sir Frederick Jackson, in Kenya, at the same time noted “several hundred on April 10, flying leisurely north between Samburu and Maseras, many others were resting on the telegraph wires, most were in a beautiful fresh plumage.” Colonel Stevenson Clarke records seeing a very large flock assemble at a communal roost in some thorn trees in what is now southernmost Kenya.
During the northbound migration through the acacia country of northern Tanzania some Rollers are attracted to the wires and the open areas immediately adjacent to the highway. Here they are also drawn to injured locusts and moribund beetles struggling in the red dust of the verge, sadly quite a few rollers themselves end their days like this. They are the victims of Africa’s rapidly increasing speed and the material progress of at least a few of her people. On any day in early April one may rush past several lifeless, yet still beautiful bundles of blue and tan, especially on one stretch of road some fifty kilometres either side of the town of Same, in Tanzania, yet just to the south of Tsavo. The highway that links Dar es Salaam with Arusha and Nairobi, whilst only two-lanes wide and carrying relatively few vehicles, kills an awful lot of wildlife.
In 1976, on my first African safari, I wrote in my diary for March 29:
“Having departed late from Malindi we were driven to Voi safari lodge in a small white Mazda saloon, we travelled at break-neck speed, thanks to an apprentice rally-racer called Moses. Just before entering Tsavo East National Park, driving like a bat out of hell, Moses parted a loose flock of 35 European Rollers that were crossing the grassland, and its ribbon of tarmac, northwards at waist height. We killed one roller outright and minutes later struck a flava wagtail too.”
I remember the sadness of those moments, as if it was yesterday. It wasn’t.