Northern Tanzania Feb 23—Mar 11, 2014

Posted by Kevin Zimmer


Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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As has become the routine, virtually the entire group arrived in Tanzania a day early to recover from the international flights and enjoy some relaxing birding on the lovely grounds of Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge, an old estate converted to an intimate tourist lodge. Here, amidst the spectacular gardens and remnant forest bordering a lily-covered pond and trout stream, we gained an introduction to African birds, including several species that we would not see elsewhere on the trip. Among our many prizes were such iconic African birds as African Fish-Eagle and Hamerkop, as well as some confiding African Black Ducks, spectacular Silvery-cheeked Hornbills, White-eared Barbet, Mountain and Gray wagtails, and actively nesting Taveta Golden-Weavers and Grosbeak Weavers. For all of that, the biggest hits may have been the spectacular pair of Giant Kingfishers and the diminutive, but stunningly gorgeous Malachite Kingfisher. We topped it off with nice views of an African Wood-Owl, and some extended studies of two special primates—Guereza Colobus and Blue (Syke’s) Monkey.

Malachite Kingfisher, Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge, Tanzania, February 2014

Malachite Kingfisher, Tanzania, Feb. 2014— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our first “official” day on safari took us to nearby Arusha National Park, lying in the shadow of Mt. Meru. This park is small, but has many different habitats and offers a wonderful variety of birds and big game. Topping the highlights here were our superb views of Hartlaub’s Turaco and our extended studies of a magnificent juvenile Crowned Hawk-Eagle, but we also enjoyed the spectacle of alkaline lakes ringed with throngs of Lesser and Greater flamingos (not to mention lots of Cape Teal), and picking off such gems as the endemic Pangani Longclaw, White-fronted Bee-eater, Southern Pochard, Moustached Tinkerbird, Brown-breasted Barbet and many more.

Early the next morning, we drove to Kilimanjaro Airport, where we caught a commercial flight to Mwanza. From here, it was a two-hour drive to our lovely lodge at Speke Bay, situated right on the shore of Lake Victoria. After devouring our late lunch of locally caught tilapia, we ventured forth on a late afternoon bird walk around the lodge grounds. Highlights came with dizzying speed, from easy-to-see but hard-to-identify Slender-tailed and Square-tailed nightjars, to incandescent Black-headed Gonoleks, to ridiculously tame but no less elegant Three-banded (or “Heuglin’s”) Coursers and Spotted Thick-knees. I lured in a Pearl-spotted Owlet, which, in turn, brought all kinds of smaller birds intent on mobbing the owl, among them, Silverbirds, Red-chested Sunbirds, and a variety of weaver species. Before calling it quits for the night, we even picked up a Gray-breasted Francolin, an endemic of Tanzania. We spent most of the next morning birding on foot around the lodge, enjoying groups of Pied Kingfishers and Water Thick-knees, a very responsive Dideric Cuckoo, and flashy Slender-billed, Northern Brown-throated, Golden-backed, and Black-headed weavers.

Three-banded Courser, Speke Bay, Tanzania, February 2014

Three-banded Courser, Tanzania, February 2014— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

After lunch, we headed east to begin our Serengeti adventure. We had a long way to go to reach Seronera Lodge, so this first drive through the western corridor of the park provided more of an introduction than anything, but what an introduction it was! After securing nice studies of the highly localized Karamoja Apalis, we followed with a raucous trio of Eastern Plantain-eaters, a river full of hippos and crocodiles, three species of bustards, three species of whydahs (Pin-tailed, Eastern Paradise, and Steel-blue, all in breeding plumage), a Black Coucal, a Serval that gave brief views, and, when we were just minutes away from our lodge, a magnificent Leopard, bathed in late afternoon sun, as it straddled a bare limb.

Leopard, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, February 2014

Leopard, Tanzania, February 2014— Photo: Kevin Zimmer







The next two days were ones of high adventure, as we were treated to two more Leopard encounters, a lone Cheetah, and a couple of groups of Lions, one band of which had gone off-script by climbing a tree. There were herds of elephants, all of the expected ungulates and other big game, startlingly colorful Agama Lizards, and birds galore. We also spent one afternoon’s game drive getting way too familiar with tsetse flies, the pesky scourge of the migratory herds of big game. If I had to pick a single highlight though, it would be the amazing Serval that crossed the dirt track in between our two land cruisers, only to stop, cross again, and then stroll toward the rear vehicle after the lead vehicle had turned around and come back. The long-legged, big-eared cat ended up walking right past our land cruiser, at distances nearly too close to focus on! By midday of our second day, we had exited the park at Naabi Hills, but not before encountering some impressively immense herds of migratory wildebeest and zebras. From Naabi Hills, we made our way across the dusty Naabi-Ndutu Triangle Plains to Ndutu Safari Lodge, our home for the next three nights.

Serval, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, March 2014

Serval, Tanzania, March 2014— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our two full days in the Ndutu region could only be described as magical. Mammals were the focus here, and rightfully so, as we thrilled to daily multiple encounters with big cats, starting with a pride of resting Lions on our first morning. Each of the animals looked to be bulging at the seams during this time of plenty, none more so than the big dark-maned male that kept his distance from the rest of the pride. Things got more than a little interesting when Erik managed to get his safari vehicle stuck in the mud not 20 feet from the two closest cats, but after some anxious strategic debate over the wisdom of having Erik exit the vehicle to attach a towrope, our drivers opted wisely for using the free land cruiser to push (bumper-to-bumper) the other one out, minus the rope.

We scored three different Cheetahs on each of our two days, none more amusing than the pair of siblings that decided to use a safari vehicle full of rubbernecking tourists as a combination lookout perch/resting spot for a solid half-hour or more. When the two lanky felines finally decided to move on, one of the pair couldn’t resist hopping onto the hood of the vehicle parked next to us, and, in the ultimate “Yankee Go Home” statement, defecating on the hood before hopping off again and resuming its hunt! We also had two more Leopard encounters in the Ndutu region:  a lone cat sprawled on an open limb in terrific light on the first day, and a female with a grown youngster lounging in a spiny acacia on our second day. We also spent some time watching a Grant’s Gazelle chase a Black-backed Jackal around and around a thicket—undoubtedly, there was a young gazelle bedded down somewhere nearby, and the jackal had bad intentions. We watched the drama unfold for more than 30 minutes, and neither the gazelle nor the jackal gave any indication of throwing in the towel. For all the thrills of repeated encounters with predators, the biggest mammal highlight was provided by the sheer primeval spectacle of witnessing the migration of hundreds of thousands of grazing wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles—truly one of the greatest shows on earth.

Lion, Ndutu region, Tanzania, March 2014

Lion, Ndutu region, Tanzania, March 2014— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

With all of the mammal action, it was a little hard to concentrate on birds, but there were still plenty of memorable avian encounters to reflect upon. I particularly enjoyed the surprise Marsh Owl that we kicked up out on the high plains, as well as the many squabbling, mixed-species groups of vultures that attended the carcasses left by big predators. Groups of dapper Double-banded and Temminck’s coursers were always a treat to come across, as were displaying White-bellied Bustards, nest-building Secretary-birds, and flashy, but strange looking Eurasian Hoopoes. The grounds of our lodge were notable for the constant parade of Blue-capped Cordonbleus and other species coming to the water feature, not to mention the nesting Fischer’s Lovebirds, vocal Pearl-spotted Owlets, and omnipresent Rufous-tailed Weavers. Nearby Ndutu Lake and Lake Masek provided throngs of waterbirds, including classy Pied Avocets and Chestnut-banded Plovers, not to mention masses of Greater Flamingos.

Taking leave of Ndutu, we traveled back across the Triangle Plains, in the process enjoying once again the spectacle of the great ungulate migration, with brief stops for multiple groups of Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, the occasional Kori Bustard or Secretary-bird, and our first Taita Fiscals. A stop at Oldupai Gorge, the “Cradle of Mankind” where Louis and Mary Leakey made their groundbreaking discoveries, provided an insightful look into the ancient past for all, and a glimpse of present-day life in a Masai boma for those who took the optional side excursion. We also enjoyed some good birding at the gorge, highlighted by Banded Warblers, Black Bishops, and gaudy Red-and-yellow Barbets. Upon leaving the gorge, we headed directly to Ngorongoro Crater, stopping along the way for several new birds, highlighted by some flashy male Straw-tailed Whydahs. Before we knew it, we found ourselves on the rim of the crater, enjoying the spectacular panoramic view. We descended and crossed the crater to reach our lodge on the opposite rim, in the process taking time to gawk at the sheer numbers of big game (including a sleeping Black Rhino) and the flocks of Abdim’s Storks and Sacred Ibis that attended the herds. We particularly thrilled to repeated close studies of the many Gray Crowned-Cranes, surely one of the most striking of Africa’s birds.

Gray Crowned-Crane, Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, March 2014

Gray Crowned-Crane, Tanzania, March 2014— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The next day was devoted to birding the Crater. Stops along the way in the crater rim forest yielded such prizes as Hildebrandt’s Francolin, Schalow’s Turaco, Rameron Pigeon, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, White-necked Raven, Golden-winged Sunbird, and, of course, everyone’s favorite, Red-faced Cisticola. We were also treated to prolonged studies of a demonic-looking Slender Mongoose that appeared to be sunbathing. Once we were on the crater floor, we were again immersed in throngs of big game, including two distant Black Rhinos, some particularly long-tusked African Elephants, Lions, Spotted Hyaenas, and both Golden and Black-backed jackals. We also enjoyed some amazingly up-close-and-personal encounters with Kori and Black-bellied bustards and loads of other grassland birds. Our picnic lunch site was remarkable for numbers of hippos, our only African Darter of the trip, and for the throngs of predatory Black Kites that were constantly sailing overhead, intent on snatching a sandwich from some unlucky tourist with poor situational awareness. Upon exiting the park in the late afternoon, we made a short side trip through Masai land, where we were thrilled to find both Red-collared and Jackson’s widowbirds, as well as the much less spectacular, but harder-to-find Moorland Chat.

After some productive early morning birding on the lodge grounds the next day, we set off for Gibb’s Farm, making a few opportunistic stops along the crater rim en route. Our best find of the morning was the striking and rarely seen African Cuckoo-Hawk. We arrived at Gibb’s Farm just in time for a sensational lunch, after which we enjoyed a few hours of relaxed birding on the lovely grounds before continuing on to our lodge. Among our best finds here were such notables as White-tailed Blue-Flycatcher, White-headed Barbet, Brown-headed Apalis, Arrow-marked Babbler, Green-headed Sunbird, and Holub’s Golden-Weaver.

Martial Eagle, Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania, March 2014

Martial Eagle, Tanzania, March 2014— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our next day was devoted to exploring Lake Manyara National Park, a small, but very diverse park nestled at the base of the Rift Valley Escarpment. Highlights here were many, ranging from superb views of a Purple-crested Turaco (but boy, did we work for it!), to a massive, and exceptionally confiding adult Martial Eagle. We also enjoyed seeing numbers of Collared Pratincoles, Red-chested Cuckoo, African Pygmy-Kingfisher, and the spectacle of a Pearl-spotted Owlet being mobbed by more than 20 species of smaller birds.

Our final stop of the tour was at Tarangire National Park, a spectacular area of rolling grassland studded with huge, picturesque Baobabs, and famous for its estimated population of more than 2,500 African Elephants. The park certainly lived up to its reputation as a premier spot for elephant viewing—we encountered one herd after another, probably involving in excess of 300 individuals, in our one-and-a-half days here, and, in the process, witnessed all kinds of interesting elephant behaviors. This was also a remarkably birdy spot, treating us to a non-stop parade of Yellow-necked and Red-necked francolins, Black-faced Sandgrouse, Yellow-collared Lovebirds, Lilac-breasted and European rollers, Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, bizarre Southern Ground-Hornbills, Red-and-yellow Barbets, Magpie Shrikes, Ashy Starlings and many more. If I had to pick a single birding highlight from Tarangire, it would probably be our time spent watching that Gabar Goshawk trying to predate the nest of the pair of White-crowned Shrikes. The shrikes had appropriated one of the nests of an abandoned Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver colony, and were doing their best to protect their eggs or young from the marauding raptor. The goshawk’s main problem was trying to figure out which abandoned weaver nest, out of perhaps 20 in the same tree, was being occupied by the shrikes. We watched, spellbound, as the goshawk went from nest to nest, often clinging acrobatically from the nests themselves, attempting to probe the contents, all the while being dive-bombed repeatedly by the pair of shrikes. Eventually, the goshawk was driven from the tree, but I suspect that we had witnessed only the opening round in the fight.

Lilac-breasted Roller, Tarangire National Park, Tanzania, February 2014

Lilac-breasted Roller, Tanzania, February 2014— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

All too soon, we were back in Arusha, with a last lunch and shopping stop at the Cultural Center, and a few hours to relax, re-pack, and reflect on our amazing safari back at the place where it all started a few weeks earlier—Ngare Sero. Fittingly, we had our best views of Kilimanjaro on our drive to the airport.

I couldn’t have asked for a more fun or congenial group of folks with which to share my return to Africa. It was a blast, and I hope our paths cross on future trips. A special thanks to Anthony for keeping us on schedule and for making everything run smoothly, and to our drivers, Moses and Erik, for all of their hard work, and for cheerfully and safely escorting us through some fabulous country.

Red-and-yellow Barbet, Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania, March 2014

Red-and-yellow Barbet, Tanzania, March 2014— Photo: Kevin Zimmer







Favorite Birds of the Trip (as voted by the group)

1. Red-and-yellow Barbet
2. Malachite Kingfisher
3. Martial Eagle & Gray Crowned-Crane (tied)
4. Lilac-breasted Roller & African Pygmy-Kingfisher (tied)
5. Secretary-bird, Kori Bustard & Heuglin’s Courser (tied)