Northern Tanzania Feb 23—Mar 11, 2013
Posted by David Wolf
The Serengeti has been called the greatest wildlife show on earth—and I don’t think that anyone on VENT’s 2013 tour would dispute that title! We spent two weeks roaming this glorious wilderness from west to east, in the process spotting all of “The Big Five,” plus countless numbers of hoofed mammals, their attendant predators, and well over 400 species of birds, including many unique to the African continent. Each area brought surprises, and by the end of the trip we had a lifetime’s worth of wonderful memories—and plenty of photos to confirm them.
Since everyone arrived a day early, we began with an “unofficial” day of birding at Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge, on the lower slopes of Mt. Meru. It would be hard to imagine a more peaceful and relaxing setting than this old estate converted to an intimate tourist lodge. Here, amidst the gardens and tall trees bordering a lily-covered pond, we gained an introduction to African birds, in the process enjoying such gems as African Black Duck, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, spectacular Silvery-cheeked Hornbills, White-eared Barbet, Mountain Wagtail, and the very local Taveta Golden-Weaver. Best of all had to be the Giant Kingfisher that worked back and forth along the trout stream until he came up with a surprisingly large crab that he finally managed to gulp down. The Guereza Colobus and Gentle monkeys were entertaining too.
Our first “official” day on safari took us to nearby Arusha National Park. This park is small, but has many different habitats, and yielded an almost overwhelming variety of birds, favorites including a pair of elegant Gray Crowned-Cranes with two tiny chicks, and the Hartlaub’s Turacos sneaking through the canopy of the mountain forest. Here too were our first large mammals, as well as a rarely seen Harvey’s Duiker.
We were up early the next morning for our flight to the Serengeti, which took us right through the Crater Highlands and over the vast eastern plains to the central part of the national park. Our very knowledgeable and competent safari drivers, Gaitan and Deo, met us here, and after watching our first friendly Superb Starlings and Silverbirds, we were soon driving west through the park, thrilled to see many large mammals and classic African birds like Ostrich, storks, raptors, and Secretary-bird. Stops along the Grumeti River yielded a huge crocodile, hippos keeping an eye on us, and a pair of Eastern Plaintain-eaters cackling hysterically, while a stop in a special grove of acacias produced the obscure Karamoja Apalis, a small warbler only recently found here and known from only a few sites in the world. We arrived at lovely Speke Bay Lodge on Lake Victoria with plenty of time for a late afternoon walk, highlighted by a perched Lanner Falcon, pairs of Water and Spotted thick-knees, ridiculously tame Heuglin’s Coursers, and confusing nightjars roosting on the ground. African Fish-Eagles and Hamerkops went about their business along the nearby shore, and Lake Victoria specialties like Red-chested Sunbird and Slender-billed Weaver were numerous right around the lodge patio. The next morning we enjoyed birding here on foot, a chance to stretch our legs and learn more of the abundant small birds of the acacia bush before driving back through the park to Seronera Lodge. It was a long day by the time we neared the lodge, but of course we had to stop for our first herds of elephants. And then there was that elusive leopard that jumped out of the tree as we pulled up. It simply vanished into the tall grass with one great leap, leaving us tantalized and frustrated!
A day of game drives in the Seronera area fully confirmed that we were indeed in wildest Africa, with sightings like two leopards up a tree; many large giraffes and other plains animals; and fascinating birds both large and small. That afternoon an immense bull elephant wandered inside the lodge gate, pushed over a tree that it decided wasn’t worth eating, and then strolled into the nearby woodlands. A few minutes later, as we sat engrossed, scanning a pond with an immense Goliath Heron and other waterbirds, he walked right up to the vehicles, passing by the startled birders only a few breathtaking feet away! The day ended with a big pride of fat and lazy lionesses and cubs that had feasted on a large buffalo and consumed most of it.
The next morning, after enjoying a close Rufous-crowned Roller from the breakfast table, it was off to remote Ndutu Lodge on the edge of the vast short-grass plains. This region is drier than the central Serengeti, but seasonal showers green it up in February and March—and attract the largest concentration of large mammals on earth, as countless wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, and others move in to take advantage of the nutritious new grass shoots. With them come the predators and high hopes of seeing them.
This year the rains had been erratic and not very good, so the next day we had to travel some distance out from Ndutu before we found ourselves amidst the herds, but then it was absolutely magical. Grazing animals were everywhere from right around us to the far horizon; hyenas were prowling; vultures were cleaning up carcasses; we flushed a rarely seen African Wild Cat that actually gave us decent views; and then a shy cheetah that rapidly disappeared, all the while having the entire area to ourselves. Then, as the morning warmed and we headed back to camp, we bumped into three almost-independent lion cubs sleeping under a shade tree, and finally a cooperative cheetah that was also feeling lazy and allowed a close approach. At the lodge we were constantly entertained by the little Fischer’s Lovebirds and other small birds at the water feature, and even the endemic Gray-breasted Spurfowl came sneaking in. Our second day around Ndutu produced three different dens with cute Bat-eared Foxes sunning beside them, and then a pile of five cheetahs, apparently a female with four very large cubs, as well as numerous birds of the acacia woodlands and nearby lakeshore.
Taking leave of Ndutu, we began a very diverse travel day with large herds of gazelles and close looks at three species of sandgrouse. A stop at Olduvai Gorge, the “Cradle of Mankind” where Louis and Mary Leakey made their groundbreaking discoveries, was interesting, but things got really good after lunch as we slowly climbed into the hills, topped a rise, and suddenly found ourselves staring down into spectacular Ngorongoro Crater. We descended and crossed the Crater to reach our lodge on the opposite rim, in the process gawking at the sheer numbers of animals that we passed, highlighted by a huge black-maned lion looking a bit frumpy as it sat in a light drizzle; our first two black rhinos (thus completing “The Big Five”); innumerable Abdim’s Storks, Spur-winged Geese, crowned-cranes, and other large birds; and finally a large pride of fat and sassy lionesses, with a huge and overstuffed male lying nearby in a cool streambed.
The next day was spent on a full-day game drive inside the Crater that produced more spectacular sightings and an immensely satisfying number of birds and animals. On our final morning at the Crater we worked hard for some mountain forest birds around the lodge and then watched several rarely seen Lemon Doves coming to drink, before continuing on to Gibb’s Farm for a feast of a lunch. Here we found the lovely garden alive with small birds, including the delicate White-tailed Blue-Flycatcher, a local specialty; nesting Grosbeak Weavers; and lots of sunbirds. The next day we visited Lake Manyara National Park, a very diverse small park nestled at the base of the Rift Valley Escarpment, finding such prized birds as a male Narina’s Trogon and breeding-plumaged Eastern Paradise-Whydahs.
The final stop on this diverse tour was Tarangire National Park, a spectacular area of rolling grassland studded with huge old Baobabs and other trees. We saw this region at its very finest, after a season of good rains, and it was just gorgeous, making it hard to believe that the entire region becomes leafless and barren during the height of the dry season. Tarangire is world-famous for its elephants, and after seeing an estimated 300+ on our full day here we understood why! However, we found so much more than elephants, including an elusive Serval sneaking around on the edge of the marsh grass; a huge variety of raptors including a rare Red-necked Falcon in an isolated tree; five species of francolins in one day; and endemic birds like Yellow-collared Lovebird and Ashy Starling. We ended with a trio of big male cheetahs on the prowl in stunning late afternoon light; the impala they were stalking were too alert and the hunt was unsuccessful.
The next morning found us slowly driving out of Tarangire, somewhat wistful knowing that our safari was coming to an end, when a lioness with three playful small cubs was spotted right beside the road. Then it was one last new bird for our list, a black morph Gabar Goshawk perched right next to the vehicles, and back into Arusha for lunch and preparation for an evening departure. It was over all too soon.