africa, birding, wildlife safari

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

TZ Oct 12 004 (Zul Bhatia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naturetrek TZ Highlights trip 2008

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

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

FEPterns

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

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

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

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

Naturetrek TZ Highlights trip 2008

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

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

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

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

TZ Oct 12 057 (Zul Bhatia)

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

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

Image 2

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

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

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

FEP.J&DH

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

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

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

MonduliGap_aerial

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.

PortHellickBarnSwallow

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.

BarnSwallow

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.

swift

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.

Horus Swifts

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.

Horus_Korongo

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!

Ngala-strange swift

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.

Wire-tailed_Swallow

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.

LSSwallow1

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.

Monduli_forest

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.

Strange_NO.HMs

The increasingly urbanised, sanitised and ecologically sterile lowlands of western Europe – not to say toxic. This is Heathrow Airport, in the former county of Middlesex (the first in England to lose the Rook), one sunny afternoon in late July 2013. In summer these days there are comparatively few Common Swifts or Common House Martins in the ‘great air space’ above London – apart from in the vicinity of the reservoirs. Strange that!

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africa, biodiversity, birding, local-patch

Our Strange Little Garden – Earth

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Falteringly I have become a gardener. Although not in any sense a typical gardener. I’ve become a Gardener for Nature. It started, at what was then our family home in Cumbria in northern England, in January 1983. But I now see it as every sensible person’s duty, in this Age of Extinctions, to welcome Nature back into our garden, our immediate outdoor living space. If you are any kind of naturalist, surely it makes sense, because almost certainly that’s where you will be spending most of your time, that is when you are not sitting beside a shining screen.

This short piece is a call to arms, or rather a call to tools. A plea for folk to get ecologically active in their garden wherever they live. For example, I myself am an alien where I live, having existed here in Africa only since 2005. So this is a request that people dig-in, wherever and whenever possible, get with an Ark-ival Rewilding Programme, right there “on your own plot”, no matter where or how small that parcel of ground might be. So please just try it and see!

This is a brief summary of one man’s very limited activities, during seven years in an area of almost one hectare, at an elevation of 1,400 metres on the southern slopes of a dormant volcano in Equatorial East Africa, to create what already has succeeded in becoming a very Strange Little Garden indeed.

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It might seem perverse, someone lives within fifty miles of the fabled Ngorongoro, and the star-studded Serengeti, yet feels absolutely compelled to engage in what some might call “extreme wildlife gardening”. Or “adventure gardening” as I now prefer to think of it. Yet that is precisely what I am doing. A more mundane description of the aims of this endeavor might be: Maximising biodiversity per unit area. Yet I prefer above all: Gardening for Nature and for those with courage to feel it, it’s Gaia Gardening. Even here, in East Africa, the original home of the Big Game Safari, urban development is progressing so fast that the need to do something for nature is arguably even greater than it is in the declining nations of the North. As a peep through that hole in the hedge above will attest.

Gardening. Wilfully and manually disturbing an otherwise undisturbed, or unneeded, small piece of ground, in this case of one hectare – is to recreate a plot, a fragment, a shard, sliver, wedge or scrap of undeniably contrived wildness. It’s a small area, yet one where one hundred years ago there stood lofty semi-deciduous afro-montane forest, and where less than two hundred years ago black rhino, african buffalo and savanna elephants roamed, in numbers, browsing, bending and moulding the living landscape as if to their will.

IMG_4717A Wildness Garden does not mean that there should be no people actively participating in it! On these slopes of Mount Meru, for example, for as far back as we need to go, there have always been people, ‘hunter-gathering’, all around the mountain. After all this is a miniscule piece of land, but one in the middle of a continent where we humans first began to evolve, evolving In Nature. And to this day, especially in large parts of this huge continent of Africa, people remain a fundamental constituent of the wildness, “scratching a living” with a panga (aka machete, ‘cutlass’, bill-hook), with fire-stick and hoe from out of the forest and bush. Above all this is the continent where we the Super-Ape co-evolved with the rest of the fauna, and vice versa.

A Wildness Garden does require there are some restraints, by our more gentile Anthropocene standards, quite severe restraints on what should be done, and what should not be done, in order to get the best possible developments in the garden in the shortest possible time.

There should be no use of the agro-veterinary chemicals arsenal so beloved by the increasingly toxic mainstream – toxic at a global level that is, despite some apparent local improvements since Silent Spring in several of the more gentrified corner paddocks of our planet. There should be no pesticides, nor herbicides. Although I must admit that in our case there remains a disgusting rectangular cement-lined rubbish pit, deep in the garden-forest, where seemingly unavoidable domestic plastics, that feed a conservative family of four – our life-style packaging, must be “destroyed”. There are virtually none of the higher order public utilities functioning effectively hereabouts, compared with northern continental Europe for example.

To counter this there are many actions that must or should be done, again admittedly in my case, in an unavoidably ad hoc and flagrantly unscientific manner. Here, in brief are the Thirteen Steps that we have undertaken in order to rewild our plot into the exciting bird-filled “Sonic Shamba” that it is today!

We introduced simulated grazing and browsing. When we moved into our small-holding we gradually reduced the grazing pressure. Continued grazing by goats and sheep, chickens and geese, which severely constrained the ecosystem of the existing garden – maintaining a rather sterile grassland, dotted with ornamental alien saplings and flowering shrubs – was out of the question.

It had been my intention to maintain the regular presence of a single cow and her follower but that proved unworkable. Gradually, over the first three years, cattle grazing was phased out.

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However simulated browsing, using pruning shears, clippers, secateurs and brute force with some ignorance, was maintained. Effort was concentrated especially upon the alien shrub community. Of whom the very rapidly proliferating exotic shrub – Lantana camara has been the most troublesome. However, in truth, working with Cherry-Pie Lantana, the indefatigable neotropical wayfaring bush, the “Curse of India”, the”American Bramble”, has provided the most difficult, and yet also the most profoundly insightful, dimension to this entire rewilding experience.

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Cyclical or rotational disturbance of the ground. In essence this is further simulation of some of the activities of large herbivores, in this case upon the upper levels of the soil. At our location, in this garden, we attempted at first to simulate only some of the behavior of the recently excluded Masai hybrid-zebu cattle. But bearing in the back of the mind the knowledge that there used to be African Buffalo, Black Rhino and even forest living Elephant, trudging through here less than one hundred years ago, I gradually became a bit more creative with this disturbance! Thus the activities became more robust and we supplemented the destruction and removal of unwanted plant material with importation of what I perceived as some elements that were key to the whole rewilding process.

We began the importation to the plot of indigenous forest leaf-litter, and some forest fruits and indigenous seeds, dry twigs, bark and branches, from the nearest available ‘sustainable sources’.

We began the importation of wherever possible ‘totally’ organic cattle dung from neighbouring areas that were still being grazed by the local Mwarusha Masai zebu-hybrid cattle.

We engaged in the importation of elephant and buffalo dung on a very few occasions only; basically whenever a convenient and accessible source presented itself.

Extirpation of some of the least wanted alien trees, shrubs and ruderals – “weeds” to the eco-fundamentalists – those botanic racists who seem to believe, after five hundred years and more of globalization, that even at the continental scale, all of the bolted horses can be put back into the stables.

IMG_5648We proceeded with the gradual elimination, so far as is possible, of “unhelpful” exotic herbaceous perennials – an almost entirely alien ground flora (especially of the Compositae) – on the assumption that, at this location, an indigenous ground flora would support far more invertebrates, and therefore attract a much greater diversity of birds into the garden. For the first two years I observed closely who ate what. If nobody – whether invert or herp, bird or mammal -seemed interested in eating any product from a particular alien plant species then that species was deemed unhelpful to the programme!

We gradually expanded a programme of alien suppression. The gradual elimination of exotic ornamental tree species began in 2008. Wherever feasible we lopped, pollarded, coppiced, felled and removed – if that was acceptable to the aesthetic dictates of my own family, of our close friends and some near-residents – several trees that had been planted by the late owners, some fifteen years ago. Note that in January 2007 there was only one indigenous tree on the whole plot, near the vehicle gate, an African acacia.

We have undertaken the provision of supplementary food in the dry season to some bird species. This has been chiefly in the form of various African millets (mostly yellow millet) which are scatter-spread (broadcast) in cleared areas, and latterly in the glades that are forming within our rapidly evolving neophyte woodland.

During the recently expired La Niña sequence, which lasted from 2008 – 2013, it proved essential to provide a little grey-water to some of the indigenous saplings, especially those which we had planted in those early years, before I realised that planting was in itself “unnatural” and contrary to “the necessary rewilding flow of our times”. In any case grey-watering was ineffective largely due to the amount of watering that would have been required to establish indigenous trees in the wrong places. Places where they, themselves, had not chosen to grow. Scattering seed is fine, just as mulching with an open mind is best, and some assistance, to self-sown tree seedlings, especially in their early stages, is often a necessity! Nowadays, given the exponential urbanisation of this hill in the past five years, the pressure that has put upon our village’s gravity-fed piped water supplies, we can only afford to water plants that are growing in areas immediately around the house.

The suppression of cats: well, despite the ‘damage’ they do to the bird fauna, the feral-domestic cats are part of another story. Suffice to say we ourselves have none, there was an occasional wild cat that came here to hunt when we first moved in, and we were surrounded by fields, but nowadays, it’s nearly all cement, and our dearest neighbours, well they have six! Nevertheless being such a socialistic greeny-pacifist I have yet to resort to any action more violent than dodging off into the tangles, shouting and stone throwing!

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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.

tractor.eggs

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.

IMG_0848

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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Find 500 Birds around Mount Meru in Tanzania

Sat_MeruNearly 650 bird species have been recorded in an area only slightly wider than that covered by this green satellite photograph of Mount Meru in Northern Tanzania. The long axis of the photograph amounts to barely 30 km. And since June 2005 this area, within a radius of about 20 km from the summit ridge of Mount Meru, has become the core of my home range. Not bad for a “birder’s local patch”. Although I do miss the ocean badly!

BIRDING MOUNT MERU – A FIVE DAY BIRDING ITINERARY

Night One: An evening arrival from Europe into Tanzania is highly recommended, ideally on board KLM’s direct flight from Amsterdam Schiphol to Kilimanjaro International Airport.

There will follow an hour’s transfer by 4WD safari vehicle, with that all-important pop-up roof, either into Arusha town (economy options), or to Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge or Hatari Lodge (the high convenience options – hco), to arrive in time for some ‘owling’ or a perhaps little ‘jarring’ over a delicious evening snack under the stars of Africa.

AWO

If you choose the higher convenience option, your accommodation will be at either Hatari Lodge or Ngare Sero Lodge – both of which are family-run and extremely well situated by being on the edge of the national park.

African Hobby

Nights Two & Three: Two full days exploring Arusha National Park

After a breakfast, inevitably interrupted by birds, we’ll drive to the undisturbed evergreen forest surrounding Ngurdoto crater (see green photo above – rhs), an outlier of Mount Meru which is such a majestic feature of this landscape. The outer walls of Ngurdoto, a small and secluded basin in the jungle, are clothed with luxuriant submontane forest. On the drive we will enter dense and beautiful stands of African olive Olea africana and O. hochstetteri and a variety of strangling figs Ficus thonningii that form a canopy over the narrow road up to the crater rim. The cliff girt sides of the crater itself are clad with sprawling ferns and Mikindu date palms which support nesting pairs of both African Hobby and the resident race minor of Peregrine. We should be able to walk along broad footpaths near the crater rim that provide excellent vantage points and a superlative view over the forest canopy. Looking out across the swampy floor of the crater one can admire a forested mountain ridge that leads the eye to the shimmering snows of Mount Kilimanjaro, only forty kilometres distant. From our elevated position Cape BuffaloBushbuck and family parties of Common Warthog can be observed foraging on the improbably green crater floor. These ungulates often share their Typha and Cyperus papyrus swamps with an array of wetland birds.

ABD

We may see both Black and Yellow-billed Storks, perhaps even Saddle-billed (has bred) together with various herons and egrets. Periodically the trees around the viewpoints bustle with bird activity as a mixed species foraging-wave ripples through. We should be able to enjoy much of the varied bird community here which includes both widespread and local elements. For example we might find regionally scarce species such as African Cuckoo Hawk and Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon; and will almost certainly see Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaterSilvery-cheeked HornbillWhite-eared Barbet, Black Rough-wing SwallowAfrican Hill Babbler, Placid GreenbulWhite-eyed Slaty FlycatcherKenrick’s and Waller’s StarlingsMontane White-eyeBlack-fronted Bush-shrike, Collared Sunbird and several equally attractive migrant bird species.

 Buffs.Ngurdoto(AH)

After a picnic lunch at Mikindu vantage point we shall continue our exploration of Arusha National Park. Likely our next stop will be at “Serengeti Ndogo’” a spacious glade where iconic large mammals, such as Maasai Giraffe and Plains Zebra are usually accompanied by various water birds around the shallow pools and wallows. Then we will travel through forest at a lower altitude, entering a distinctly different environment.  The tiny Sunni Antelope is often seen here as is the near-endemic duiker of the form harveyi a potential split from Natal Red Duiker. We shall scan the treetops for Mitis Monkey and troupes of ornate Guereza Black and White Colobus. Birds here might include African Emerald Cuckoo, perhaps a roosting African Wood-Owl, the lowland Narina TrogonMoustached Green TinkerbirdBlack-backed Puffback, Forest BatisBlack-headed Apalis and Black-headed Oriole. A stop at a small marsh in the forest might yield brief views of a Buff-spotted Flufftail or the slightly less skulking African Waterail particularly if the weather conditions are conducive. After our first day’s birding (back) in the Afrotropics, our minds will have been exposed to many sensations from the great forests and marshes of Africa’s past. So we shall return to our lodge in the late afternoon in plenty of time for a relaxing dinner. Night at Ngare Sero or Hatari Lodge or in accommodation of a similar standard nearer to Arusha.

Kili_Meru

Arusha National Park – the forested slopes and alti-montane shrublands of Mount Meru 

Today we will explore vegetation zones on the eastern slopes of Mount Meru both by vehicle and on foot with an emphasis on the montane evergreen forest. Our 4WD vehicle will enable us to ascend with relative ease through the different floral zones of the mountain. We will pass through areas characterised by African olives and groves of gnarled Wild Mango Tabernaemontana usambarensis climbing into areas dominated by stately pencil cedars (Juniperus procera) and towering African Yellow-beam Podocarpus gracilior. The trunks and branches of the forest trees are festooned with a great variety of epiphytes whilst the pendulous garlands of old man’s beard (Usnea) contribute to a feeling of other-worldly enchantment. Accompanied by an armed forest ranger (for there are misanthropic old buffalo in these mountain woods!) we shall enter secret forest glades and walk the banks of mountain streams lined with flowering red hot pokers Kniphofia thompsoni and scarlet fireball lilies Scadoxus multiflorus. The tropical montane forests of Africa are excellent places in which to observe a variety of impressive butterflies.  Mount Meru is particularly well-endowed with richly colourful and charismatic species such as the Gold-Banded ForesterGaudy CommodoreGreen-veined CharaxesGreen-banded and Mocker Swallowtail and the Forest Mother of Pearl.

 Hartlaub's Turaco

We will walk through the shrubby heather belt Erica arborea at Kitoto on the Miriakamba trail above the taller forest, into the exploded crater of Meru itself and toward the foot of the dramatic ash cone within it. Here one may find the scat of Leopard and see droppings of forest-dwelling Elephant, whilst the grubbing and rooting disturbance of Bush pigs can be found almost everywhere. Sometimes smaller animals such as the endemic Three-horned Chameleon can be seen beside the trails. Amongst many new bird species which should be seen today  African Black DuckMountain BuzzardAfrican Crowned EagleRed-fronted ParrotHartlaub’s TuracoBar-tailed TrogonRüppell’s Robin-ChatWhite-starred RobinBrown Woodland Warbler, both Striped-faced Greenbul and Black-headed Mountain GreenbulSharpe’s Starling and Red-faced Crimsonwing are some of my particular favourites! In the Meru crater flocks of Alpine and Nyanza Swift wheel above you and if lucky a Lammergeier might be picked-out soaring along the truly spectacular rust-coloured cliff face.

Once again, if on “hco“, our evening meal and accommodation will be at one or other of the equally charming Hatari Lodge or Ngare Sero Lodge; both of which are family-run and strategically located at the edge of the national park.

 IMG_5026

Arusha National Park – the Momella Lakes

During our days in Arusha National Park we will also focus attention at the foot of Mount Meru, around the Momella lakes. This area of gently rounded hills, open grassland, scrubby Dodonaea sand-bush and small highland lakes offers a marvellous variety of habitats that support a great variety of animals and birds. Some of the Momella lakes are fed by underwater springs and nurture large population of aquatic wildlife throughout the year. Others are more seasonal and their fluctuating water levels attract a quite different selection of species. Touring this lake-studded landscape we will be keeping an eye-out specifically for big mammals such as  Common Waterbuck, Bohor ReedbuckCape Buffalo and Hippopotamus. After periods of rain Helmeted Terrapins disperse from the lakes to seasonal pools whilst amphibians such as Platana frogs can be found in many of the puddles and pools.  Large concentrations of water birds may include scarce species such as Southern Pochard and occasionally Maccoa DuckCape Teal are usually common at the more brackish lakes and large flocks of Lesser Flamingo and a few Greater Flamingos often can be studied at very close range. A variety of beautiful bee-eaters and hundreds of Hirundines skim for dragonflies, stoneflies and chironomid midges across the open water. White-backed Ducks frequent the well-vegetated fringes of freshwater Lake Longil as do Common and Lesser MoorhensBlack Crakes and African Jacanas. There are cormorants, occasionally African Darters, and sometimes one can see both species of ‘afro-tropical’ pelican here. Spur-winged Geese and Hottentot Teal are resident, whilst migrant plovers and sandpipers (e.g. Blacksmith Lapwing and Three-banded Plover as against Marsh Sandpiper and Ruff respectively) abound and of course there are many active passerines in the surrounding vegetation to ponder (Cisticolas) or to savour (shrikes).

IMG_6142

The grassland and bush near to the lakes supports interesting and local species such as the attractive Pangani Longclaw, the contentious Nairobi Pipit and many voluble cisticolas together with the African Moustached Warbler. Flocks of Helmeted Guineafowl, Hildebrandt’s and Scaly Francolin and occasionally other galliformes can be found along the tracks. In the evening we will return once again to the home comforts of either Ngare Sero or Hatari Lodge.

Abbott's Starling

Night Four: Into the evergreen woodlands of Kilimanjaro and the acacia-commiphora country of the “West Kilimanjaro ranches”

After breakfast we shall load our Toyotas with soft-bags and provisions and drive across the Maasai plains to the ranches of Kilimanjaro where we will encounter for the first time dry zone birds that occur in the rain shadow west of Mount Kilimanjaro. Our route passes through one area where some lower elevation forests of Mount Kilimanjaro remain in good condition. Here we will search for various East African specialties including some species more typical of the coastal zone, birds such as Northern Brownbul, the ultra-skulking Kretschmer’s Longbill, Red-capped Robin-chat, the ‘gorgeous’ Four-coloured Bush-shrike, and some australo-papuan representatives such as Blue-mantled Trochocercus.  We will take our picnic lunch in the vicinity of the National Park gate at Londorossi and then explore some highland forest before driving onward to the plateau for some enchanting scenery and yet more new birds. Notable ‘wish-list’ species here might include the Near-Threatened piebald Abbott’s Starling, parties of the crepuscular, and often sought after, Olive Ibis and commoner species such as the noisily duetting Hunter’s Cisticola.  As we gain altitude we should find Malachite Sunbird as well as the extraordinarily burnished Golden-winged Sunbird, while on the open-land of the Shira plateau itself one can occasionally find some of the really high altitude species, birds such as Alpine Chat and the wispy-tailed, scintillatingly green, truly ‘afro-alpine’ Scarlet-tufted Sunbird.

colobus

We will descend from the forests of Kilimanjaro in the late afternoon.  Today’s experiences culminate in the beautiful acacia woodland of Sinya and Olmolog. Lying in the rain shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro these privately managed areas remain in good condition by virtue of “easement agreements” with the local Maasai. Here we shall stay at either Hatari Lodge’s tented camp, known as Shu’mata Camp or at Ndarakwai Ranch, both are accessible, well managed parcels of the once so vast East African wilderness. After our evening meal a nocturnal game drive should be very rewarding. Night drives usually provide participants with excellent views of some of the more secretive nocturnal representatives of the area’s unique fauna, birds like Bronze-winged and Three-banded Courser, a few owl species and undoubtedly we will hear the manic whip-lash-ing of many Slender-tailed Nightjars.  Animals here include the rare Maasai Clawed Gecko, both Striped and Spotted Hyaena, Northern Lesser GalagoSpringHare and both the local lagomorphs African Savanna Hare and Cape Hare. Common Genet, African CivetAfrican Wild CatBat-eared Fox, five Mongoose species, Black-backed and Golden Jackal provide the essential carnivores and if we are blessed, we will find not just an Aardvark but also a Zorilla. So there we have it, on a short bird tour, very much the A to Z of African Mammals!

 larks-plain2

Night Five: A day in the desertic steppe of the “Volcano’s Rain Shadow”

We will drive westwards to further explore the complex habitat mosaics typical of East Africa’s grazed Acacia-Commiphora woodlands. Principal tree species include the umbrella thorns Acacia abyssinica and A. nilotica, the Yellow-barked Acacia Acacia xanthophloea and also Acacia mellifera. They combine to support an astonishingly rich assemblage of birds and animals. Extensive grassy glades, seasonally-inundated areas, narrow wadis and boulder outcrops further diversify the landscape. This area is very important for numerous Palearctic migrants amongst which we might want to concentrate upon finding Caspian PloverIrania, Rufous Scrub-Robin and Upcher’s and Barred Warblers. During migration many northern raptors pass through this wide funnel between the huge mountains of Meru and Kilimanjaro. They include substantial numbers of Steppe EagleSteppe BuzzardPallid and Montagu’s Harrier and falcons; Eurasian Hobby and Lesser Kestrel being especially numerous during passage periods. This dry zone always strikes the visitor from temperate lands as being unusually rich in bird species and those characteristic of the Somali-Maasai zone are of course well represented. Priorities for us should include Black-faced and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, the in essentially endemic Fischer’s LovebirdAfrican Grey and Von der Decken’s HornbillWhite-bellied Go-away-bird, both Blue-naped and the sought-after White-headed MousebirdPink-breasted LarkScaly and Rufous ChattererMouse-coloured Penduline TitSpotted Morning ThrushNorthern and Red-faced CrombecHildebrandt’s and Fischer’s StarlingRed-fronted WarblerPygmy BatisRosy-patched Shrike and Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrikesBeautiful and Eastern Violet-backed SunbirdSteel-blueEastern ParadisePin-tailed and Straw-tailed WhydahsWhite-headed Buffalo-weaverPurple GrenadierBlack-faced WaxbillBlue-capped Cordon-bleu and Somali Golden-breasted Bunting.

This area used to provide a rare opportunity to observe a healthy and balanced elephant community. Nowadays one never knows what to expect! Nevertheless the long-necked Gerenuk, an acacia-browsing gazelle, is locally common and family herds of  Lesser Kudu may still be found in this bushland.

beesley's lark(MH)

Day Six: “Lark Plains”

After breakfast we will descend farther to the Ang’yata Osugat plains, the grazing lands of the Engikaret Maasai. This near-circular expanse of semi-arid steppe is the number one site in Tanzania for the Alaudidae – for finding larks. Likely we will begin by searching for the localised, long-billed and very distinctive Short-tailed Lark together with our local speciality Calandrella the Athi Short-toed Lark. Relict riparian woodland along the Ngare Nanyuki water course should provide yet more classic afrotropical birds, species from groups as diverse as wood–hoopoes and scimitarbills, set against bush-shrikes, batises and helmet-shrikes.  There should also be Cardinal and Nubian Woodpeckers, endearing Red-fronted Tinkerbirds, smart Long-tailed and the super-smart Taita Fiscals to the tiny in the shape of Yellow-bellied Eremomela and Buff-bellied Warbler amongst an array of others gems.

b taita fiscal

The plains continue to support populations of both Kori Bustard and Secretarybird though Thomson’s and Grant’s Gazelles and other savanna mammals should be more plentiful here. We will pass through stunted acacia-commiphora woodland where we should add yet more birds to our list, including restricted-range species such as Tiny and Ashy Cisticola and the near endemic Red-throated Tit. However today’s birding highlight for most undoubtedly will be “lark plains”, where up to nine species of lark can be seen in a morning! The plains are full of other grassland species such as resident and migrant wheatears and up to four species of pipit. This heavily-grazed plain supports the world’s last few score Beesley’s Larks. This Critically Endangered endemic can be found only here in the rain shadow of the two great volcanos and is likely the rarest bird on mainland Africa. Being highly terrestrial, relatively confiding with a slightly curved bill, (for digging), a scaly mantle, a buffy-rufous breast and characteristic rodent-like scurrying gait it is a very endearing rarity indeed.

 lammergeier(AH)

Leaving the plains we will climb slightly onto the partially cultivated western slopes of Mount Meru. Here we will pause to examine the bird-life of a rocky korongo (ravine or wadi) where yet more species can be added to our by-now lengthy list, birds such as Horus Swift, that notoriously clown-like Red-and-Yellow Barbet (after all “you’ve got to get the cover bird”), Schalow’s WheatearKenya Rufous Sparrow and Southern Grosbeak CanaryLanner Falcons and White-eyed Kestrels are usually soaring somewhere overhead and on some days Lammergeiers, from their mountain fastness, deign to join the Tawny Eagles, Pied Crows and White-necked Ravens in the jostle for discarded bones at the edge of Oldonyo Sambu a small traditional Maasai market alongside the Nairobi highway.

After fifty minutes, stopping only to admire a breeding pair of rufescens Mountain Kestrels (until recently ‘lost’ within Falco tinnunculus) we will reach the western outskirts of the bustling ‘new city’ of Arusha. A late afternoon visit to a tiny area of tall riparian woodland and shady pools, ‘ground-water forest’, secreted within a quiet coffee estate, near to where I’m writing this piece, could add yet more scarce and local species. Eventually though, we must come to the end of this five day birding-extravaganza. Although Madagascar (Malagasy) Pond-HeronGolden-tailed Woodpecker, Pallid HoneyguideWahlberg’s HoneybirdGrey-olive GreenbulRetz’s HelmetshrikeBrown-throated Wattle-eye and Peters’s Twinspot may remain to be found … in here.

Eventually we must tear ourselves away from our delightful birding, either to return to the mercifully relaxed international airport at JRO (in order to catch our return KLM flight to Amsterdam), or to join an onward safari with the rest of our group or family (for likely as not they’re yet to be birders!) onward to Tarangire, Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater or even the overly-fabled Serengeti National Park.

A five day Nature Tour similar to the one described briefly here, a circumnavigation of mighty Mount Meru, especially if it takes place between early November and late April, i.e. during the Boreal Winter, and includes at least two full days within the 542 sq. km. of Arusha National Park should produce a bird list of nearly 500 species.

If you are interested in such a short, but highly productive tour, which we can schedule at any-time of the year, and which certainly provides the perfect orientation for any birder prior to your longer wildlife safari, with family and friends, please let us know, as early as possible, whether you would want the economy option, or the higher convenience option (HCO), as mentioned above, because these two small lodges get booked-up very quickly.

GiraffeANP(AH)

As always I would like to thank my birding friends, who have very kindly provided some really lovely photos to grace this post :

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Charles Davies (Abbott’s Starling), Martin Goodey (as indicated), Anabel Harries (Maasai Giraffe, Lammergeier and some of the ‘scenics’) and especially Martin Hale for the charming Beesley’s Lark pair and the ‘dapper’ Taita Fiscal; some of the photos are even my own! Thanks also to Hagai Zvulun for pushing the original innovation.

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