Northern Tanzania Feb 23—Mar 10, 2012
Posted by Dion Hobcroft
It is difficult to convey the excitement of a wildlife safari in Tanzania. It's like having front row seats at the dawn of time, only many times better. If you do one thing in your life, visit Tanzania!
We started our tour in the delightful Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge near Arusha, amidst cool mountain air, montane rainforest, and a huge variety of birds. Among the great species here were Trumpeter and Silvery-cheeked hornbills, the scarce African Black Duck, and Giant Kingfisher, not to mention Peter's Twinspot. Troops of spectacular colobus monkeys and the more dapper Sykes' monkey kicked off the mammal list.
Bar-tailed Trogon, Arusha National Park, Tanzania— Photo: Dion Hobcroft
We spent our first full day in Arusha National Park where we encountered a stampede of plains zebra and giraffe within minutes of entering the park boundary. In the cool mountain rainforest we were soon among the birds enjoying great views of specialties such as Hartlaub's Turaco and Bar-tailed Trogon. Wetlands produced the White-backed Duck, while alkaline lakes hummed with enormous flocks of Lesser Flamingos with the odd Greater sprinkled in. Mammals were also in the forefront of our minds, and we made successful efforts to locate such specialties as the bright rufous Harvey's duiker.
The next morning we enjoyed a superb flight over the Ngorongoro Crater to land at Seronera in the central Serengeti. Within minutes of loading up the land cruiser, and meeting our experienced and delightful wildlife guide and driver, Geitan, we were watching an adult leopard working on the carcass of an impala it had secured in a tree—quite the Serengeti introduction.
It was difficult not to stop every ten yards for new sightings. These included Ostrich, the endemic Gray-breasted Spurfowl, White-headed Vulture, Amur Falcon, and Secretary-bird (among 20 raptor species seen this day), Kori and White-bellied bustards, Bare-faced Go-away-bird, and perennial favorites like Lilac-breasted Roller, Abyssinian Scimitar-bill, and the amazing Southern Ground-Hornbill to mention a few.
Then there were our first African elephants, black-backed jackals, herds of zebra and wildebeest, hippopotamus, warthogs, giraffe, and Cape buffalo, and we sharpened our identification skills on hoofstock like Grant's and Thomson's gazelles and topi.
In the afternoon we arrived at Lake Victoria with a welcome chance to stretch our legs. As we explored this bird-rich environment, it reminded me of the High Island fallout scenes in the movie "The Big Year." Dazzling Red-chested and Scarlet-chested sunbirds flitted from flower to flower; Purple Grenadier, Red-billed Firefinch, and Blue-capped Cordonbleu massaged the seeding grasses; and a host of weavers including the localized Slender-billed, Northern Brown-throated, Jackson's Golden-backed, and Black-headed all added splashes of color.
By breakfast the next morning we were enjoying point-blank views of Square-tailed Nightjar, the cryptic Heuglin's Courser, nesting Water Thick-knee, a pair of magnificent pink eye-lidded Verreaux's Eagle-Owls, Usambiro Barbets, African Fish-Eagle, African Openbill, and the showy Black-headed Gonolek. We were then back in the cruiser and back into the Serengeti, notching up many more new species for the trip list ranging from Green Woodhoopoe to Lesser Honeyguide.
Our interesting hotel in Seronera designed around a rock outcrop known locally as a kopje (pronounced copy) abounded with rock hyrax and stunning Mwanza Agama lizards, while hippos could be observed lawn-mowing in the evening from your rooms, just making sure you kept the windows locked so the vervet monkeys did not loot your possessions. The morning safari here produced more than ten lions at a kill and an amazing three leopards in three minutes! In the afternoon a mating pair of lions stole the show, with pleasant distractions like flocks of Lesser Kestrels, a Gray Kestrel, and a Black-bellied Bustard.
With frequent showers providing good cool weather and suppressing the dust and the tsetse flies, our luck was in and we headed off to Ndutu. We dropped into the excellent Serengeti visitor center that was not only highly informative, but also alive with birds. Highlights included a female Semi-collared Flycatcher, beautiful Meyer's Parrots, and the interesting Cut-throat Finch (somebody call a vet!)
Ndutu proved to be perhaps the most popular place on the tour, and it seemed that we were exceeding our expectations every day. Cheetahs were in excellent form, and watching four cubs cavorting and playing with their patient mother was simply tremendous.
Cheetah cubs, Ndutu, Tanzania— Photo: Dion Hobcroft
A striped hyena with a cub was also a rare sighting, while bat-eared fox, small-spotted genet, and banded and dwarf mongoose had the smaller carnivores on the front page. Birding was excellent with Caspian Plovers in breeding plumage, Chestnut-banded Plover, Temminck's and Double-banded coursers, flocks of Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, Pygmy Falcon, Fischer's Lovebird, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Short-tailed Lark, and Rosy-throated Longclaw just a few of the interesting species seen so well.
We met the main wildebeest migration here with some million plus wildebeest on view from horizon to horizon, employing an army of dung beetles and satiating the appetite of a horde of carnivores. From Ndutu we headed to Oldupai Gorge visiting a Masai village en route. At the gorge we visited the museum and attended an interesting lecture on the many fascinating anthropological and palaeological discoveries in this ancient site. Before we knew it, we were on the caldera rim of the much anticipated Ngorongoro Crater—one of the best protected sites in all of Africa.
Our safaris here were highlighted by sightings of at least eight black rhinoceros. These armour-plated perissodactyl behemoths are now pushed to the brink of extinction, surviving only in intensively protected zones like the crater. Beyond the rhinos we saw the most incredibly tusked bull African elephants, lions, incredibly tame mammals of all descriptions including the rather demonic-looking spotted hyena, and had superb views of hippopotamus grazing out of the water following a thunderstorm.
In the montane rainforest around our hotel we were delighted to see such gems as Tacazze, Golden-winged, and Malachite sunbirds, Abyssinian Crimson-wing, and a perched Crowned Hawk-Eagle from the room for some lucky folks. Our first Red-collared Widowbirds and Pin-tailed Whydah were a big hit, as were Schalow's Turaco, bush duiker, and tree hyrax.
From Ngorongoro we drove to the delightful Gibb's Farm, also located on the Ngorongoro Crater rim. Here the beautiful gardens and delightful meals were a highlight. We experienced superb birding with such gems as African Emerald Cuckoo, Klaas's Cuckoo, Delegorgue's Pigeon, White-tailed Blue-Flycatcher, African Hill Babbler, Black Cuckoo-shrike, Brown-headed Apalis, Rueppell's Robin-Chat, and the incredible Black Bishop to highlight a few.
Our next stop was the highly diverse Lake Manyara National Park that encompasses a tremendous array of habitats in a compact zone. Huge nesting colonies of Yellow-billed Storks, plenty of Pink-backed Pelicans, our first Saddle-billed Stork, flocks of wintering Collared Pratincoles, a perched Little Sparrowhawk with a still wriggling passerine in its talons, and a perched Martial Eagle were just the warm-up. At lunch we shared our table with Red-and-yellow Barbets, followed by the incredible Eastern Paradise Whydah, followed by our first Red-cheeked Cordonbleus, African Pygmy Kingfisher, and Village Indigobirds.
On the hotel grounds the next morning we were treated to walkaway views of Pangani Longclaw. Displaying Southern Red Bishop and our first Straw-tailed Whydah kept the momentum at a fast pace, and then we arrived at the gate of Tarangire National Park. Yellow-collared Lovebirds, Ashy Starlings, two African Scops-Owls, beautiful Black-faced Sandgrouse, and stunning perched Bateleur Eagles kept the list going forward at a dizzying rate. We spotted one of our best mammals here in the form of a fine male lesser kudu, while the really up-close herds of African elephants filled photographic digital storage space. At dusk we enjoyed watching hawking Dusky Nightjars with a cold beverage in hand.
On our final full day the birding and mammal watching was still terrific. Orange-bellied Parrot, Mottled Spinetail, Comb Duck, and the chunky White-headed Barbet were some of our last sightings.
We finished back in Arusha with some last-minute shopping, and a species list exceeding 400 birds and an exceptional 46 mammals. Northern Tanzania is truly exceptional. The far-sighted conservation policies of the 1950s that set aside vast areas for wildlife have produced the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth. It should not be missed.
It was a pleasure to share this safari with such a wonderful group and our very experienced and delightful guide, Geitan.