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.

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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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africa, bird migration, local-patch

The Nightingale Gardener

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Mount Meru viewed from the edge of the Aga Khan University estate. Our Wilding Wedge of a garden is in the shamba-suburban foothills under that lowest wisp of cloud.

For over a month I’ve been getting the garden ready.  Our wilding wedge beneath the steel grey pyramid of Meru. A rented hectare outside Arusha in East Africa, at a kilometre and a half above the sea. It’s an ever-changing tangled patchwork of exotic, alien hard-browsed Lantana camara in glade-thicket-and-brake. An experiment in non-racist eco-gardening, style ZooBotany-C21. An experiment by the Woolly Rhinoceros himself. A garden of vines, creepers and rank meadow flowers sheltering soft shaded fungi and an impressive annual increment of often noisy mini-beasts.

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Thrush Nightingale photographed in the garden of Geoff and Anabel Harries, in Arusha.

Below all it’s a life amongst and under trees. Exotics, aliens and, for the past seven years since we moved-in, the “Indigenous Pioneers” protected by guerrilla units of the IVF – the Indigenous Vegetation Front. There’s Croton of two species, the stately large-leaved Cordia africana, many little babies of the toweringly exquisite, formerly revered Newtonia. A tree of spirits revered around WaArusha and WaMeru farmsteads prior to the conquest of East Africa by the Middle Eastern God, and those godless Mammonites who followed Him. And more recently there’s been lots of hazel-like Sandpaper Bush springing up around the plot. Yes I’ve been getting it ready.  Readying a garden fit for Nightingales.

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The garden as seen from the balcony near the front door on a recent grey morning. Today’s Eastern Nightingale was under a bough in the top right corner of the photo.

So we’re now officially ready to help those sweet thrush-voiced grey-breasted nightingales, here for the duration, from the Baltic states and Russia Luscinia luscinia, and the cleaner looking, fawn-topped Mongolian nightingales L. – megarhynchos – golzii. As they help me. And to help those passing eye-browed blue Irania, out of some desert ‘stan, as they help me. Or gentle grey striata flycatchers, who’ve flown here from the as yet relatively healthy eastern edges of EU-trophia. I imagine the places. Places not unlike those I recall from a mixed-farming youth, where milk cows amble up and down the lanes, browsing the hedges as they go, where cattle generally are still allowed to host the occasional gut parasite, such that their dung is no longer toxic to all those fly and beetle species who were (formerly) tasked with recycling it. Semi-organic land, of farms where BIGPharma has yet to squeeze the living countryside. Land not yet hollowed-out, or enclosed and then constricted, in the hallowed name of Growth for Profit. Yes, here’s some blasphemy, as we prepare Farmageddon.

I’m here to help skulking lbj warblers, migrants who still eek out a living amongst Eurasia’s mercantilist confusion. And to help vociferous glittering gems, Afrotropical cuckoos, that fly here to parasitise our breeding birds, after a dry season spent bashing caterpillars against twigs in the leafy heart of the great Congo forest. Just as they help me! All of them. Let’s not forget the flitting swallows, the scything swifts and ethereal floating nightjars, all of them, these migrant birds. Feathered lives from far away, hatched in nests they’ve hidden where only the geotrackers go!

Irania

A male Irania ‘performing well’ on a juniper in Uzbekistan. Photo: Steve Rooke.

Just as they help me. Yep! It’s been a Birden of Love.

Since November started, most days it rains. And my avian rewards they are dropping in. The original Manna from Heaven. Just today, on November 6 in the morning, not half an hour ago, when the dark rains eased, as I was snapping spindly Lantana shoots beside the puddled green cement of the basketball court, there was a sharp flutter of wings – right against my ear. And there on the bough just ahead of me, at eye level, was the perfect eyebrowed fawn-and-tan form of a “chucking” Eastern Nightingale. I watched entranced as that out-of-the-sky golzii bounded along the grey lichened bough.

Eastern Nightingale by Anabel Harries

Eastern Nightingale in Arusha in 2007 photographed by Anabel Harries

A gorgeous bundle of energy. A small bird, relieved, a bird who might have been singing late last May along a briar bedecked stream next to a Mongol yurt.

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Birders on a Sunbird/Wings nature holiday scan a valley near Samarkand for Central Asian specialities which mostly winter in Eastern Africa. The mountains of Tajikistan are just visible in the background. Photo: Steve Rooke.

That’s why I so love these long distance migrant birds. In an instant they can fix us in the living, utterly interconnected, planet. So I can’t help but think. Where was that Nightingale skulking at Halloween, or on Midsummer’s afternoon, where was this lovely nightingale on passage last May Day? Yes, what was the world like, where this little brown bird was then? The same but a different world  – somewhere – out there. Out there far beyond this garden hedge. Way beyond my ken, but still sheltering in my heart. If I can help birds like these I will. I’ve got no further cash to fund yet more research. No more money for endless meetings between the good and the bad. I’m in no way content, not any longer, to entrust their future to a salaried caste of bureaucrats. Woefully corrupt or otherwise fallen. That’s why I do my biggest bit in the garden. Wherever that garden might be. Staggering, sweating, kneeling before the Mother of God. Until the last breath I take. Until that day when I can no longer raise my Faroffskis, nor hold these Mammoth secateurs.

For Wonder, like Biodiversity, begins at home.

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Linnaeus was briefly here in June, and doubtless listening to Thrush Nightingales, nearly three hundred years ago. A swampy area in the forest at Ottenby, Sweden.

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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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wildlife safari

Easter 2015: Fly with Birdman in a ‘Galaxy of Feathered Gems’  

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“East Africa is unique. Tanzania especially so! One might argue that no other nation has so much natural variety to offer a visitor who’s interested in wildlife. For in no other part of our planet is there such diversity of large mammals nor superabundance and variety of birdlife in locations that are easily accessible and quite safe and usually highly comfortable too.

My job is to provide you, whether first-time visitor or seasoned safari-goer, with quick and authoritative information as to the identity and habits of the wild creatures you encounter day by day on your safari. With me at hand you will be able to concentrate on watching and enjoying the wildlife to the full; on shooting your videos, taking your photos, making notes, compiling lists and thereby taking home priceless reminders of the beauty, diversity and tranquility of the last wild places. Over the past ten years I have developed tours with a variety of safari ground handlers across East Africa. I have found that each tends to specialize in providing a safari with a specific momentum and degree of luxury, tours tailored to the needs of customers from different walks of life. The following tour, from April 10 to April 22 2015, which I think provides a perfect introduction to the bird and wildlife splendours of East Africa, is being operated by Tropical Trails based here in Arusha.”

http://www.tropicaltrails.com

A lover of nature, with even the mildest interest in birds, will fall in love with Northern Tanzania. It’s truly a superb destination with about 1,100 bird species to look for. Of the ten endemic bird families known in Africa, eight can be found in Tanzania. This safari has been carefully designed for those who want to concentrate upon birds, yet you will have countless opportunities to savour a host of other animals – from the small to the very large indeed! Our special nature walks will give you the chance to enjoy a break from being in the 4×4 vehicles (with their pop-up roofs) and to observe nature at your own rhythm. In the company of senior safari guide and lifelong naturalist James Wolstencroft, you will learn a great deal about the birds, and you’ll also be undertaking a humanistic journey. This is a safari where all your senses will be called into action, to appreciate not only the wildlife itself, but also the spectacular ecological landscapes that these ‘mega-faunas’ actually create. Landscapes which will soon imbue you with their unique and subtle magic.

Safari Specifications:

 ·  Safari designed for birders, bird-watchers or bird-lovers of all ages and abilities

 ·  Safari on a full board accommodation basis

·  Lodges/Tented Camps selected for charm, surrounding birdlife, level of comfort and high standard of hospitality

·  Itinerary focused upon the best birding locations

·  Professional driver/safari guide (with first aid certificate) for each vehicle

·  “Expert Nature Guide” and Birding Tutor: James Wolstencroft

Highlights:

Arusha National Park

Tarangire National Park

Crater Highland Forests and Endoro Falls

Eastern Serengeti at Ndutu – short grass plains, woodlands and marshes – the wish of every naturalist

Central Serengeti ecosystem

Ngorongoro Conservation Area including a full day safari down in the fabled Ngorongoro Crater

Lake Eyasi – and the Hadzabwe

with as much walking as possible “In the Nature'”

Price: USD 3,710 per person sharing (single supplement USD850)

Group Size: Maximum of 11 participants

Tropical Trails Safaris – Arusha, Tanzania 

+255 732 972 045

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Itinerary

April 10 – Arrival in Arusha

One of our drivers will be meeting you upon arrival at Kilimanjaro International Airport or Arusha Airport.

Please advise us about your arrival details.

You will be taken to your accommodation just outside the busy town of Arusha. Situated at an altitude of 1390m, the town is surrounded by fertile farmsteads that yield coffee, wheat and maize to the people of the Waarusha and Wameru tribes. Here you will meet James your specialised birds and nature guide plus your fellow travelers for this trip. A short briefing will give you all the practical information necessary regarding your tour. Overnight stay at Karama Lodge – on a bed and breakfast basis.

April 11 – Arusha National Park

After an early breakfast, you will head off, in a four wheel drive safari vehicle (with a picnic lunch) to Arusha National Park for a day’s bird watching. Your specialist nature guide will tell you all there is to know about this small but very diverse park. Relatively few safari-goers visit Arusha National Park. The main reason for this may be that the park doesn’t offer as much big game as the other parks of the Northern circuit. Cats, for example, are rarely observed, and you can’t see the Big Five – nowadays there are no rhinos, nor lions. There are big mammals however, including forest-living Elephants, lots of Giraffe, and species such as African Buffalo, Plains Zebra, Bushbuck, Waterbuck, Common Warthog, both Blue Mitis and Vervet Monkeys, Olive Baboons and of course Guereza Colobus monkey, the emblem of a quiet park which has so much beauty to offer.

Arusha National Park has three main areas, each one providing a special kind of nature. The Ngurdoto Crater is the remains of a now extinct volcano, and has steep crater sides covered in dense forest. The Momella Lakes are a mix of soda lakes and freshwater lakes, set in mainly open bush land. Thirdy, Mount Meru, the sixth highest mountain in Africa reaching 4566m, constitutes the western half of the park, and offers several altitudinal zones, from montane forest and heath to alpine desert. Several observation points and picnic sites are scattered across the park.

The bird life is always remarkably rich, yet the greatest variety is present between October and April, when many Palearctic migrants are present or passing through. More than 400 bird species have been recorded here. Out of these, the gorgeous Hartlaub’s Turaco and both Narina and Bar-tailed Trogon merit special mention. Finding these beauties these takes both time and effort, but they can be seen. Careful scanning over the evergreen forest canopy should produce views of exciting birds of prey such as Ayres’s Hawk-eagle, African Crowned Eagle, African Goshawk, Augur Buzzard, African Hobby and Lanner Falcon.

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Other impressive large birds, found especially around the numerous wetlands include Scaly Francolin, Spur-winged Goose, ducks such as Hottentot, Red-billed and Cape Teal, both Greater and Lesser Flamingos and both Black and Saddle-billed Storks; whilst overhead we’ll hear ‘yodelling’ African Fish Eagles; stalking through the shallows we shall see Black-headed Heron, Intermediate Egret, Sacred and Hadada Ibis, hopefully the uniquely endearing Hamerkop, devoted pairs of graceful Grey Crowned Cranes, lily-trotting African Jacanas, Pied Avocet, skulking Greater Painted Snipe and the two-tone Blacksmith Lapwing. In the fringing trees there should be African Green and Olive Pigeons, White-browed Coucals and perhaps an African Emerald Cuckoo. Well look aloft for six kinds of swift, Wire-tailed and other swallows and numerous kinds of martin. Along the forest edge there will be Brown-hooded Kingfisher, White-fronted Bee-eater, Silvery-cheeked Hornbill, Red-and-Yellow Barbet, Moustached Tinker-bird, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Ruppell’s Robin-chat and Montane White-eye. In the grasslands we’ll see Pangani Longclaws, some dun-coloured larks and streaky pipits. Other species should include Red-winged and Waller’s Starling, Red-billed Oxpecker, Variable, Bronze and Amethyst Sunbird, Grey-headed Bush-shrike, Tropical Boubou, African Paradise-flycatcher and we will get our first taste of East Africa’s bewildering array of smaller birds: from black-and-white batises and puff-backs to confusing warblers and those very hard to identify cisticolas, from brilliantly marked bishops and whydahs to the seed-eating sparrows and weavers, canaries, waxbills and buntings!

In the early evening we will return, our minds replete with wonderful observations, to Karama Lodge for dinner and overnight.

April 12 – Arusha to Tarangire National Park

After breakfast today, we’ll transfer our attentions to one of Tanzania’s most interesting national parks, Tarangire. Established in 1970, it takes its name from the Tarangire River, a permanent watercourse that flows through the middle of the park creating spectacular views along its route. On approaching the park however, the most eye-catching aspect is a vista of ancient baobabs rising above the yellowing plain. These trees are instantly recognizable by their swollen trunks and often leafless branches – almost as if they were the roots of a tree planted upside down. The scars on their trunks bear witness to the presence of the large herds of Elephant that Tarangire supports. This is a well-wooded region with tall grasses that makes game viewing harder than out on the short grass plains of the eastern Serengeti. However as well as elephant it’s usually possible to find Lions, in the dry season there are many thousands of Wildebeest, Buffalo, Zebra, countless Impala, Grant’s Gazelle, Eland and Coke’s Hartebeest, as well as Leopard – if we’re exceptionally lucky. We will spend the whole day in the park (with a picnic lunch) and have many opportunities for wildlife viewing and of course, plenty of enjoyable bird watching.

Tarangire is in a boundary zone between different floral environments and thus provides a great variety of habitats for different birds. More than 500 species have been recorded in the park. With the bulk of the migrant birds present between October and April we will be here at the right time to find a fine cross-section of the park’s avifauna. Species such as Yellow-necked and Red-necked Spurfowl, Helmeted Guineafowl, Martial Eagle, Grey Kestrel, Emerald-spotted Wood-dove, White-bellied Go-away bird, Southern Ground Hornbill and Von der Decken’s Hornbill, Greater Honeyguide, raucous Orange-bellied Parrots, the endemic Yellow-collared Lovebird, breath-taking Lilac-breasted Rollers, Green Wood-hoopoe, Nubian Woodpecker, Magpie Shrike, Long-tailed Fiscal, African Grey Flycatcher, Superb, Hildebrandt’s and Ashy Starling –  yet another of Tanzania’s endemic birds, Slate-coloured Boubou, White-browed Scrub-Robin and the waxbills – Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Purple Grenadier and Green-winged Pytilia.

Dinner and overnight stay at the delightful Maramboi Tented Camp nearby.

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April 13 – Tarangire National Park and Karatu area

The whole morning will be dedicated to further bird watching in Tarangire National Park, where we will take our picnic lunch. In the early afternoon hours we will drive the short distance to Karatu town above which we will be able to enjoy a pleasant hike to Endoro Falls within the Crater Highlands forest. We will then descend to our accommodation for the night. Dinner and overnight at Endoro Lodge.

April 14 – Karatu to Ndutu Area

This morning, after an early breakfast, we’ll be driven higher into the beautiful mountain forests of the NCCAA, passing the world-renowned Ngorongoro Crater on our right hand side before commencing our descent to Ndutu Safari Lodge at the edge of the Serengeti – an ‘endless plain’ of grasses. Our destination, the Ndutu area, is within the eastern Serengeti short-grass ecosystem, yet lies outside the eastern boundary of the National Park. This allows our drivers to take us “off-road” and get as close as possible to the animals, yet without disturbing them unduly (within the park limits one must remain on the marked tracks, which can be frustrating at times). We will be able to savour the immense open plains and a very lovely marshland area within woodlands where many new bird species may be found. Ndutu is an amazing place to visit all year round. There is an abundance of resident game animals in this area apart from the annual circuit of the wildebeest migration which passes here at the end of the year. All six species of cat can be found, year round, at Ndutu: Lion, Leopard, Cheetah, Caracal, Serval and African Wildcat, although some are easier to find than others! Other resident mammal species include Savanna Elephant, both Spotted and the far less common Striped Hyena, Bat-eared Fox, Ratel, two species of hare, plus various antelope and gazelles. Such a diversity of ecosystems within the Ndutu area, ranging from lofty acacia woodlands through open plains to soda lakes and marshes ensures that it is yet another of Tanzania’s several exceptional birding locations.

We will have a picnic lunch here and spend several hours dedicated to studying the birds. Some that we will hope to see include: Southern Ground Hornbill, Kori and White-bellied Bustard, Little Bee-eater, Woodland and Striped Kingfisher, Usambiro Barbet, Rufous Chatterer, Silverbird and the endemic Rufous-tailed Weaver. Species like Crowned Lapwing, Rufous-naped Lark, White-crowned Shrike, Vitelline Masked and Red-billed and White-headed Buffalo Weavers are species which should be seen on every safari in northern Tanzania. However Ndutu has many fine specialities. In a landscape with so many big mammals the birds of prey are wonderfully common and soon make themselves apparent. Species seen on our safaris include Bateleur, Tawny Eagle, Secretarybird, Black-shouldered Kite and both Eastern and Dark Chanting Goshawks as well as migrant Lesser Kestrels all the way from Central Asia. Not as common, but regularly seen, are Martial Eagle, Long-crested Eagle and White-eyed Kestrel. African White-backed, Ruppell’s Griffon, Lappet-faced and Hooded Vultures remain widespread in this seemingly pristine and ancient ecosystem, and we will certainly keep an eye out for that most endangered and extravagant-looking White-headed Vulture, an ornate species which thankfully still breeds here around Ndutu.

We will arrive late afternoon at the Ndutu Safari Lodge, home of wildlife lovers for decades. Do not be surprised if wildlife such as Genets come to our door step, this is part of the charm of the place where we will share our wildlife adventures around the camp-fire under the brilliant stars of an inky black African sky. Dinner and overnight at Ndutu Safari Lodge.

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April 15 – Ndutu

We will have the entire day to further explore this marvellous area and will organise our birding activity accordingly.  As a group, we might collectively decide if we want to come back to the Lodge for lunch or if we would rather spend the entire day ‘out in the wilds’. A short walking safari (as an option) is also possible here. Dinner and overnight stay at Ndutu Safari Lodge.

April 16 – Ndutu to Central Serengeti

After an early breakfast we will leave the Ndutu area and drive via  a short walk around Naabi Hill to Seronera which lies at the hub of the Serengeti National Park. We will take a picnic lunch and enjoy a full day in the bush before reaching our comfortable permanent camp in the late afternoon. Here we will spend the next two nights. The Serengeti is justly famous for its mammals yet also undoubtedly a delight for any bird-watcher. More then 600 species have been recorded here, as many as are seen in all of Europe. Among these are species with intriguing names such as: Bare faced Go-away Bird, Eastern Grey Plantain-eater, Fischer’s Lovebird, Brown Parrot, Secretary Bird, Diederik and Jacobin Cuckoo, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Black-headed Gonolek, Karamoja Apalis, Grey-backed Fiscal, Ruppell’s Long-tailed Starling, Red-faced Crombec, Banded Parisoma, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Siffling Cisticola, Yellow-spotted Petronia, Grey-headed Social Weaver to mention only a few.

Dinner and overnight at Kati Kati Camp

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April 17 – Seronera

The entire day today will be dedicated to exploring the central heartland of the Serengeti National Park. We will choose whether to take a picnic lunch or to return to the camp for lunch. We should get a chance to see two endemics – the Grey-breasted Spurfowl and the Tanzanian, or Ruaha, Hornbill. There will be more raptors such as Bateleur, Black-chested and Brown Snake-eagles, Martial, Tawny and Steppe Eagles, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers plus Pygmy Falcons and various kestrels.  Yellow-throated and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse come to the pools to drink, near which there will be Plain-backed Pipits, Grey-crested Helmet-shrike in the Acacia gerrardii trees, there are several nightjar species here, and many other birds will likely be added to what should by now be an impressive list, even for this, a specifically bird-orientated, wildlife safari.

Dinner and overnight at Kati Kati Camp.

April 18 – Seronera to Ngorongoro Crater

Today we will leave the Serengeti and drive back eastwards to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area enjoying a full day of game-viewing along the way. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area spans a vast expanse of highland plains, savanna, savanna woodlands and forests. Established in 1959 as a multiple land use area, where the wildlife coexists with semi-nomadic Maasai pastoralists practicing traditional livestock grazing, it includes the spectacular Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest caldera. The entire area is of priceless global importance for biodiversity due partly to the presence of several globally threatened species, yet also to the density of wildlife inhabiting the area, plus the annual migration of wildebeest, zebra, gazelles and other animals around the entire Serengeti ecosystem. Extensive archaeological research has also yielded a long sequence of evidence of human evolution and human-environment dynamics, including early hominid footprints dating back 3.6 million years.

Once we arrive at the crater, we can enjoy a naturalist’s walk along the rim. The mixture of forest, canyons, grassland plains, lakes and marshes provide habitats for a wide range of bird life. The short rains before Christmas herald the arrival of Eurasian bird migrants at the pools. White Storks, Yellow Wagtails and Barn Swallows mingle with the local inhabitants: stilts, Saddle-billed Storks, Sacred Ibis, Collared Pratincoles, Chestnut-banded Plovers and various species of duck. Lesser Flamingos fly-in (and out) overnight, from their breeding grounds at Lake Natron, to spend days feeding here. Impressive and iconic grassland birds – Maasai Ostrich, Abdim’s and White Storks, Kori and Black-bellied Bustard, Grey Crowned Cranes, Rose-throated Longclaws and others – abound.

Dinner and overnight at Rhino Lodge

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April 19 – Ngorongoro Crater

Today, we will experience the unforgettable Crater of Ngorongoro, one of the most picturesque settings for observing wildlife in the whole world. With around 30,000 resident animals, game viewing here is excellent all year round and the photographic opportunities unrivalled!

Encounters with animals are very frequent in this “Garden of Eden”, and there is a great variety to see. As mentioned Lake Magadi, a soda lake on the floor of the Crater, supports thousands of flamingos and other waterbirds. This is also one of the best places to see the endangered Black Rhino. We will spend the entire day in the crater (with picnic lunch) before heading to Karatu for dinner and an overnight stay at Ngorongoro Farm House.

April 20 – Karatu to Lake Eyasi

After an early breakfast, we will head out to Lake Eyasi (2h drive) and bird watch along the lake shores in a dramatic landscape, home to a multitude of migratory birds. The north-eastern edge of the lake lies in the shadow of Ol Doinyo Mountain on the border of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Lake Eyasi occupies one of the oldest sections of the Eastern Rift Valley, where it runs northeast- southwest for a distance of about fifty miles below an impressive three thousand foot escarpment that forms the south-eastern boundary of the Serengeti National Park and Maswa Game Reserve. To the southeast of the lake is the Yaida valley, home to the Hadzabe people, a tribe of hunter-gatherers.

Eyasi is not somewhere to visit in search of Big Game, but it is a very interesting part of Tanzania if you’re prepared to take things more slowly. All year flamingos, pelicans, herons and egrets frequent this shallow soda lake. And in season the lake attracts vast numbers of migrant waterbirds of all shapes and colours, from the larger species such as: Great White and Pink-backed Pelicans, Yellow-billed and African Open-billed Storks, African Spoonbills, the two species of flamingo, Grey-headed Gull, Pied Avocet and so forth to what, for some, might be, at first, a bewildering array of smaller waders and shorebirds, many from breeding areas as far away as the tundra of arctic Siberia. ‘Fear not though!’ for James will patiently guide you through them all! His Swarovski 80 HD telescope at hand, so that you will get the closest views possible.

Lunch, dinner and overnight at Lake Eyasi Safari Lodge.

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April 21-  Lake Eyasi

For some this whole day can be dedicated to bird watching alongside the lake. Alternatively, for those people interested, a bush walk with Hadzabe hunters is an option. This is unique experience since the Hadzabe represent the last surviving group of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania.

Lunch, Dinner and overnight at Lake Eyasi Safari Lodge.

April 22 – Lake Eyasi to Arusha

After a late breakfast and time to enjoy the birds in the grounds of our lodge, we must leave Lake Eyasi and drive back to Arusha, either to catch an international flight, or to commence an extension to the safari, such as a beach holiday in Zanzibar.

If you need to spend an extra night in Arusha, Tropical Trails can arrange for you to stay at Karama Lodge (option).

Price of this tour: $3,710 per person sharing twin accommodation in a group of 11 participants 

The Price includes: 

Airport transfers

First night at Karama Lodge previous to the safari

All National Park Fees

Safari in 4‐wheel drive vehicle with professional driver/naturalist guide, maximum 3 persons per vehicle Bottle of Mineral water (1.5L per day)

Accommodation in the selected Lodges and tented Camps in full board (except the first and last days on BB)

Professional guiding by James Wolstencroft

The Price does not include:

International flight

Accommodation in Arusha on Day 13

Discretionary tipping, alcoholic drinks, cigarettes, laundry, items of a personal nature, visas, personal Travel Insurance, or anything not mentioned above.

Prices quoted in US Dollars per person.

For terms and conditions of payment please refer to our booking conditions.

Please note prices may be subject to change in the event of any change of Government Taxes and National Park Fees.

Tropical Trails reserves the right to adjust these rates accordingly.

Principal Guide and Tutor: James Wolstencroft

I first went on a safari (in Kenya) in 1976. I’ve been a naturalist, a bird-watcher, and a conservationist nearly all my years. The first BIG love was BIRDS. Over the years I’ve grown to greatly admire them and perhaps even envy, flying creatures no matter their size, yet more especially those who undertake epic migrations across the globe. I’ve been guiding nature holidays in Europe, Asia and Africa since 1988. On New Year’s Eve 2004 with a young family (and Pi the dog) we decided to move from Europe, and our little “migrants cottage” overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar to Arusha. To the slopes of Mount Meru in Tanzania. We settled here so that we could live near to some of the last great refuges of the African mega-fauna. In the decade that has all but passed I have done the A to Z of wildlife. Watching everyone from Inverts to Elephants, from Aardvarks to Zorillas! And it is a real privilege and often a delight to share with visitors these great wonders with which we’re blessed here “Up in Nature’s Africa”. To delight in observing closely the smallest and the largest of our companions, living wild, in an indescribably beautiful part of this, our still wonderful world.

http://www.tropicaltrails.com

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Uncategorized

Being Good, Traveling Green: Birdman’s Camel Safari to Lake Natron

Feeding Flamingos

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).

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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.

Oldonyo Lengai Volcano2

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!

Olmoti crater by Loolmalasin

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.

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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.

White-backed Vultures

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.

Sulphur-breasted-Bushshrike

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.

Flamingos

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.

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bird migration, wildlife safari

Northern Tanzania Bird-watching Tour with James “The Birdman” 13 days – January 4 to 16, 2015

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As a lover of nature, with even the mildest interest in birds, you will definitely fall in love with Tanzania. It’s truly a superb destination with well over 1,100 bird species to look for. Of the ten endemic bird families known in Africa, eight can be found here. This safari has been carefully designed for those who want to concentrate upon birds, yet you will have countless opportunities to savour a host of other animals – from the small to the very large indeed! Our special nature walks will give you the chance to enjoy a break from being in the 4×4 vehicles and to observe nature at your own rhythm. In the company of our senior safari guide and lifelong naturalist James Wolstencroft, you will learn a great deal about the birds, and you’ll also be undertaking a humanistic journey. A safari where all your senses will be called into action, to appreciate not only the wildlife itself, but also the spectacular ecological landscapes that these ‘mega-faunas’ create. Landscapes which will soon imbue you with their unique and subtle magic.

Safari Specifications:

 ·  Safari designed for birders, bird-watchers or bird-lovers of all ages and abilities

 ·  Safari on a full board accommodation basis

·  Lodges/Tented Camps selected for charm, surrounding birdlife, level of comfort and high standard of hospitality

·  Itinerary focused upon the best birding locations

·  Professional driver/safari guide (with first aid certificate) for each vehicle

·  “All-Sizes Nature Guide” and Expert Birding Tutor: James Wolstencroft

Highlights:

Arusha National Park

Tarangire National Park

Crater Highland Forests and Endoro Falls

Eastern Serengeti at Ndutu – short grass plains, woodlands and marshes – the wish of every naturalist

Central Serengeti ecosystem

Ngorongoro Conservation Area including a full day safari down in the fabled Ngorongoro Crater

Lake Eyasi – and the Hadzabwe

with as much walking as possible “In the Nature'”

Price: USD 3,710 per person sharing (single supplement USD850)

Group Size: Maximum of 11 participants

Outfitter: Tropical Trails Safaris – Arusha, Tanzania 

http://www.tropicaltrails.com/

+255 732 972 045

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Itinerary

PLEASE NOTE: this wonderful safari experience, and at an “excellent price”, will be available, again with Tropical Trails and myself, over Easter 2015.

Please just scroll down, or up, to find it!

January 4 Arrival in Arusha

One of our drivers will be meeting you upon arrival at Kilimanjaro International Airport or Arusha Airport.

Please advise us about your arrival details.

You will be taken to your accommodation just outside the busy town of Arusha. Situated at an altitude of 1390m, the town is surrounded by fertile farmsteads that yield coffee, wheat and maize to the people of the Waarusha and Wameru tribes. Here you will meet James your specialised birds and nature guide plus your fellow travelers for this trip. A short briefing will give you all the practical information necessary regarding your tour. Overnight stay at Karama Lodge – on a bed and breakfast basis.

January 5

Arusha National Park

After an early breakfast, you will head off, in a four wheel drive safari vehicle (with a picnic lunch) to Arusha National Park for a day’s bird watching. Your specialist nature guide will tell you all there is to know about this small but very diverse park. Relatively few safari-goers visit Arusha National Park. The main reason for this may be that the park doesn’t offer as much big game as the other parks of the Northern circuit. Cats, for example, are rarely observed, and you can’t see the Big Five – nowadays there are no rhinos, nor lions. There are big mammals however, including forest-living Elephants, lots of Giraffe, and species such as African Buffalo, Plains Zebra, Bushbuck, Waterbuck, Common Warthog, both Blue Mitis and Vervet Monkeys, Olive Baboons and of course Guereza Colobus monkey, the emblem of a quiet park which has so much beauty to offer.

Arusha National Park has three main areas, each one providing a special kind of nature. The Ngurdoto Crater is the remains of a now extinct volcano, and has steep crater sides covered in dense forest. The Momella Lakes are a mix of soda lakes and freshwater lakes, set in mainly open bush land. Thirdy, Mount Meru, the sixth highest mountain in Africa reaching 4566m, constitutes the western half of the park, and offers several altitudinal zones, from montane forest and heath to alpine desert. Several observation points and picnic sites are scattered across the park.

The bird life is always remarkably rich, yet the greatest variety is present between October and April, when many Palearctic migrants are present or passing through. More than 400 bird species have been recorded here. Out of these, the gorgeous Hartlaub’s Turaco and both Narina and Bar-tailed Trogon merit special mention. Finding these beauties these takes both time and effort, but they can be seen. Careful scanning over the evergreen forest canopy should produce views of exciting birds of prey such as Ayres’s Hawk-eagle, African Crowned Eagle, African Goshawk, Augur Buzzard, African Hobby and Lanner Falcon.

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Other impressive large birds, found especially around the numerous wetlands include Scaly Francolin, Spur-winged Goose, ducks such as Hottentot, Red-billed and Cape Teal, both Greater and Lesser Flamingos and both Black and Saddle-billed Storks; whilst overhead we’ll hear ‘yodelling’ African Fish Eagles; stalking through the shallows we shall see Black-headed Heron, Intermediate Egret, Sacred and Hadada Ibis, hopefully the uniquely endearing Hamerkop, devoted pairs of graceful Grey Crowned Cranes, lily-trotting African Jacanas, Pied Avocet, skulking Greater Painted Snipe and the two-tone Blacksmith Lapwing. In the fringing trees there should be African Green and Olive Pigeons, White-browed Coucals and perhaps an African Emerald Cuckoo. Well look aloft for six kinds of swift, Wire-tailed and other swallows and numerous kinds of martin. Along the forest edge there will be Brown-hooded Kingfisher, White-fronted Bee-eater, Silvery-cheeked Hornbill, Red-and-Yellow Barbet, Moustached Tinker-bird, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Ruppell’s Robin-chat and Montane White-eye. In the grasslands we’ll see Pangani Longclaws, some dun-coloured larks and streaky pipits. Other species should include Red-winged and Waller’s Starling, Red-billed Oxpecker, Variable, Bronze and Amethyst Sunbird, Grey-headed Bush-shrike, Tropical Boubou, African Paradise-flycatcher and we will get our first taste of East Africa’s bewildering array of smaller birds: from black-and-white batises and puff-backs to confusing warblers and those very hard to identify cisticolas, from brilliantly marked bishops and whydahs to the seed-eating sparrows and weavers, canaries, waxbills and buntings!

In the early evening we will return, our minds replete with wonderful observations, to Karama Lodge for dinner and overnight.

Arusha to Tarangire National Park

After breakfast today, we’ll transfer our attentions to one of Tanzania’s most interesting national parks, Tarangire. Established in 1970, it takes its name from the Tarangire River, a permanent watercourse that flows through the middle of the park creating spectacular views along its route. On approaching the park however, the most eye-catching aspect is a vista of ancient baobabs rising above the yellowing plain. These trees are instantly recognizable by their swollen trunks and often leafless branches – almost as if they were the roots of a tree planted upside down. The scars on their trunks bear witness to the presence of the large herds of Elephant that Tarangire supports. This is a well-wooded region with tall grasses that makes game viewing harder than out on the short grass plains of the eastern Serengeti. However as well as elephant it’s usually possible to find Lions, in the dry season there are many thousands of Wildebeest, Buffalo, Zebra, countless Impala, Grant’s Gazelle, Eland and Coke’s Hartebeest, as well as Leopard – if we’re exceptionally lucky. We will spend the whole day in the park (with a picnic lunch) and have many opportunities for wildlife viewing and of course, plenty of enjoyable bird watching.

Tarangire is in a boundary zone between different floral environments and thus provides a great variety of habitats for different birds. More than 500 species have been recorded in the park. With the bulk of the migrant birds present between October and April we will be here at the right time to find a fine cross-section of the park’s avifauna. Species such as Yellow-necked and Red-necked Spurfowl, Helmeted Guineafowl, Martial Eagle, Grey Kestrel, Emerald-spotted Wood-dove, White-bellied Go-away bird, Southern Ground Hornbill and Von der Decken’s Hornbill, Greater Honeyguide, raucous Orange-bellied Parrots, the endemic Yellow-collared Lovebird, breath-taking Lilac-breasted Rollers, Green Wood-hoopoe, Nubian Woodpecker, Magpie Shrike, Long-tailed Fiscal, African Grey Flycatcher, Superb, Hildebrandt’s and Ashy Starling –  yet another of Tanzania’s endemic birds, Slate-coloured Boubou, White-browed Scrub-Robin and the waxbills – Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Purple Grenadier and Green-winged Pytilia.

Dinner and overnight stay at the delightful Maramboi Tented Camp nearby.

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January 7

Tarangire National Park and Karatu area

The whole morning will be dedicated to further bird watching in Tarangire National Park, where we will take our picnic lunch. In the early afternoon hours we will drive the short distance to Karatu town above which we will be able to enjoy a pleasant hike to Endoro Falls within the Crater Highlands forest. We will then descend to our accommodation for the night. Dinner and overnight at Endoro Lodge.

January 8

Karatu to Ndutu Area

This morning, after an early breakfast, we’ll be driven higher into the beautiful mountain forests of the NCCAA, passing the world-renowned Ngorongoro Crater on our right hand side before commencing our descent to Ndutu Safari Lodge at the edge of the Serengeti – an ‘endless plain’ of grasses. Our destination, the Ndutu area, is within the eastern Serengeti short-grass ecosystem, yet lies outside the eastern boundary of the National Park. This allows our drivers to take us “off-road” and get as close as possible to the animals, yet without disturbing them unduly (within the park limits one must remain on the marked tracks, which can be frustrating at times). We will be able to savour the immense open plains and a very lovely marshland area within woodlands where many new bird species may be found. Ndutu is an amazing place to visit all year round. There is an abundance of resident game animals in this area apart from the annual circuit of the wildebeest migration which passes here at the end of the year. All six species of cat can be found, year round, at Ndutu: Lion, Leopard, Cheetah, Caracal, Serval and African Wildcat, although some are easier to find than others! Other resident mammal species include Savanna Elephant, both Spotted and the far less common Striped Hyena, Bat-eared Fox, Ratel, two species of hare, plus various antelope and gazelles. Such a diversity of ecosystems within the Ndutu area, ranging from lofty acacia woodlands through open plains to soda lakes and marshes ensures that it is yet another of Tanzania’s several exceptional birding locations.

We will have a picnic lunch here and spend several hours dedicated to studying the birds. Some that we will hope to see include: Southern Ground Hornbill, Kori and White-bellied Bustard, Little Bee-eater, Woodland and Striped Kingfisher, Usambiro Barbet, Rufous Chatterer, Silverbird and the endemic Rufous-tailed Weaver. Species like Crowned Lapwing, Rufous-naped Lark, White-crowned Shrike, Vitelline Masked and Red-billed and White-headed Buffalo Weavers are species which should be seen on every safari in northern Tanzania. However Ndutu has many fine specialities. In a landscape with so many big mammals the birds of prey are wonderfully common and soon make themselves apparent. Species seen on our safaris include Bateleur, Tawny Eagle, Secretarybird, Black-shouldered Kite and both Eastern and Dark Chanting Goshawks as well as migrant Lesser Kestrels all the way from Central Asia. Not as common, but regularly seen, are Martial Eagle, Long-crested Eagle and White-eyed Kestrel. African White-backed, Ruppell’s Griffon, Lappet-faced and Hooded Vultures remain widespread in this seemingly pristine and ancient ecosystem, and we will certainly keep an eye out for that most endangered and extravagant-looking White-headed Vulture, an ornate species which thankfully still breeds here around Ndutu.

We will arrive late afternoon at the Ndutu Safari Lodge, home of wildlife lovers for decades. Do not be surprised if wildlife such as Genets come to our door step, this is part of the charm of the place where we will share our wildlife adventures around the camp-fire under the brilliant stars of an inky black African sky. Dinner and overnight at Ndutu Safari Lodge.

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January 9

Ndutu

We will have the entire day to further explore this marvellous area and will organise our birding activity accordingly.  As a group, we might collectively decide if we want to come back to the Lodge for lunch or if we would rather spend the entire day ‘out in the wilds’. A short walking safari (as an option) is also possible here. Dinner and overnight stay at Ndutu Safari Lodge.

January 10

Ndutu to Central Serengeti

After an early breakfast we will leave the Ndutu area and drive via  a short walk around Naabi Hill to Seronera which lies at the hub of the Serengeti National Park. We will take a picnic lunch and enjoy a full day in the bush before reaching our comfortable permanent camp in the late afternoon. Here we will spend the next two nights. The Serengeti is justly famous for its mammals yet also undoubtedly a delight for any bird-watcher. More then 600 species have been recorded here, as many as are seen in all of Europe. Among these are species with intriguing names such as: Bare faced Go-away Bird, Eastern Grey Plantain-eater, Fischer’s Lovebird, Brown Parrot, Secretary Bird, Diederik and Jacobin Cuckoo, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Black-headed Gonolek, Karamoja Apalis, Grey-backed Fiscal, Ruppell’s Long-tailed Starling, Red-faced Crombec, Banded Parisoma, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Siffling Cisticola, Yellow-spotted Petronia, Grey-headed Social Weaver to mention only a few.

Dinner and overnight at Kati Kati Camp

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January 11

Seronera

The entire day today will be dedicated to exploring the central heartland of the Serengeti National Park. We will choose whether to take a picnic lunch or to return to the camp for lunch. We should get a chance to see two endemics – the Grey-breasted Spurfowl and the Tanzanian, or Ruaha, Hornbill. There will be more raptors such as Bateleur, Black-chested and Brown Snake-eagles, Martial, Tawny and Steppe Eagles, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers plus Pygmy Falcons and various kestrels.  Yellow-throated and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse come to the pools to drink, near which there will be Plain-backed Pipits, Grey-crested Helmet-shrike in the Acacia gerrardi  trees, there are several nightjar species here, and many other birds will likely be added to what should by now be an impressive list, even for this, a specifically bird-orientated, wildlife safari.

Dinner and overnight at Kati Kati Camp.

January 12

Seronera to Ngorongoro Crater

Today we will leave the Serengeti and drive back eastwards to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area enjoying a full day of game-viewing along the way. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area spans a vast expanse of highland plains, savanna, savanna woodlands and forests. Established in 1959 as a multiple land use area, where the wildlife coexists with semi-nomadic Maasai pastoralists practicing traditional livestock grazing, it includes the spectacular Ngorongoro Crater, the world’s largest caldera. The entire area is of priceless global importance for biodiversity due partly to the presence of several globally threatened species, yet also to the density of wildlife inhabiting the area, plus the annual migration of wildebeest, zebra, gazelles and other animals around the entire Serengeti ecosystem. Extensive archaeological research has also yielded a long sequence of evidence of human evolution and human-environment dynamics, including early hominid footprints dating back 3.6 million years.

Once we arrive at the crater, we can enjoy a naturalist’s walk along the rim. The mixture of forest, canyons, grassland plains, lakes and marshes provide habitats for a wide range of bird life. The short rains before Christmas herald the arrival of Eurasian bird migrants at the pools. White Storks, Yellow Wagtails and Barn Swallows mingle with the local inhabitants: stilts, Saddle-billed Storks, Sacred Ibis, Collared Pratincoles, Chestnut-banded Plovers and various species of duck. Lesser Flamingos fly-in (and out) overnight, from their breeding grounds at Lake Natron, to spend days feeding here. Impressive and iconic grassland birds – Maasai Ostrich, Abdim’s and White Storks, Kori and Black-bellied Bustard, Grey Crowned Cranes, Rose-throated Longclaws and others – abound.

Dinner and overnight at Rhino Lodge

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January 13

Ngorongoro crater

Today, we will experience the unforgettable Crater of Ngorongoro, one of the most picturesque settings for observing wildlife in the whole world. With around 30,000 resident animals, game viewing here is excellent all year round and the photographic opportunities unrivalled!

Encounters with animals are very frequent in this “Garden of Eden”, and there is a great variety to see. As mentioned Lake Magadi, a soda lake on the floor of the Crater, supports thousands of flamingos and other waterbirds. This is also one of the best places to see the endangered Black Rhino. We will spend the entire day in the crater (with picnic lunch) before heading to Karatu for dinner and an overnight stay at Ngorongoro Farm House.

January 14

Karatu to Lake Eyasi

After an early breakfast, we will head out to Lake Eyasi (2h drive) and bird watch along the lake shores in a dramatic landscape, home to a multitude of migratory birds. The north-eastern edge of the lake lies in the shadow of Ol Doinyo Mountain on the border of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Lake Eyasi occupies one of the oldest sections of the Eastern Rift Valley, where it runs northeast- southwest for a distance of about fifty miles below an impressive three thousand foot escarpment that forms the south-eastern boundary of the Serengeti National Park and Maswa Game Reserve. To the southeast of the lake is the Yaida valley, home to the Hadzabe people, a tribe of hunter-gatherers.

Eyasi is not somewhere to visit in search of Big Game, but it is a very interesting part of Tanzania if you’re prepared to take things more slowly. All year flamingos, pelicans, herons and egrets frequent this shallow soda lake. And in season the lake attracts vast numbers of migrant waterbirds of all shapes and colours, from the larger species such as: Great White and Pink-backed Pelicans, Yellow-billed and African Open-billed Storks, African Spoonbills, the two species of flamingo, Grey-headed Gull, Pied Avocet and so forth to what, for some, might be, at first, a bewildering array of smaller waders and shorebirds, many from breeding areas as far away as the tundra of arctic Siberia. ‘Fear not though!’ for James will patiently guide you through them all! His Swarovski 80 HD telescope at hand, so that you will get the closest views possible.

Lunch, dinner and overnight at Lake Eyasi Safari Lodge.

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January 15

Lake Eyasi

For some this whole day can be dedicated to bird watching alongside the lake. Alternatively, for those people interested, a bush walk with Hadzabe hunters is an option. This is unique experience since the Hadzabe represent the last surviving group of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania.

Lunch, Dinner and overnight at Lake Eyasi Safari Lodge.

January 16

Lake Eyasi to Arusha

After a late breakfast and time to enjoy the birds in the grounds of our lodge, we must leave Lake Eyasi and drive back to Arusha, either to catch an international flight, or to commence an extension to the safari, such as a beach holiday in Zanzibar.

If you need to spend an extra night in Arusha, Tropical Trails can arrange for you to stay at Karama Lodge (option).

Price of this tour: $3,775 per person sharing for a group of 11 participants 

The Price includes: 

Airport transfers

First night at Karama Lodge previous to the safari

All National Park Fees

Safari in 4‐wheel drive vehicle with professional driver/naturalist guide, maximum 3 persons per vehicle Bottle of Mineral water (1.5L per day)

Accommodation in the selected Lodges and tented Camps in full board (except the first and last days on BB)

Professional guiding by James Wolstencroft

The Price does not include:

International flight

Accommodation in Arusha on the day 13

Discretionary tipping, alcoholic drinks cigarettes, laundry, items of a personal nature, visas, personal Travel Insurance, or anything not mentioned above

Prices quoted in US Dollars per person.

For terms and conditions of payment please refer to our booking conditions.

Please note prices may be subject to change in the event of any change of Government Taxes and National Park Fees.

Tropical Trails reserves the right to adjust these rates accordingly.

About your principal guide and tutor: James Wolstencroft

“It seems that I’ve been a naturalist, a bird-watcher, a conservationist and a ‘birder’ for almost all my fifty-eight years. Definitely my first BIG love was BIRDS. Over the years I’ve grown to greatly admire, if not exactly envy, all flying creatures no matter their size, more especially those who undertake epic migrations across this globe. And I’ve been guiding nature holidays across Asia and Africa since 1988. On New Year’s Eve 2004 with my young family (and Pie the dog) I decided to move from Europe, our little cottage overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, in southern Spain, to Arusha on the slopes of Mount Meru in Tanzania. We settled here so that we could live as close as possible to some of the last great refuges of Africa’s fabled mega-fauna. In the decade that has passed I have become an “All Sizes Safari Guide” looking at everything from insects to Elephants, from Aardvarks to Zorillas. It is a privilege and real delight to share with others the great wonders with which we may be blessed by being in Africa’s Nature. The joy and awe revealed once we’re quietly observing up close the smallest and the largest of our companions, in the here and now, still wild, in a truly indescribable part of this, our beautiful, beautiful world.”

SCARLET-CHESTED SUNBIRD, chalcomitra senegalensis_1_2

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Rollers of Fortune : 2014 Redux

European Roller (Romania)

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Amikosik

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.

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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.

R-crowned_Rollers

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.

EURASIAN ROLLER, coracias g garrulus

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.

Roller-fodder

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.

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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.

mature.Guinea.savanna

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