Northern Tanzania Feb 22—Mar 10, 2015

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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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, the entire group arrived in Tanzania 1–2 days 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, Gray Crowned-Crane, and Hamerkop, as well as some confiding African Black Ducks, a fierce African Goshawk, braying Silvery-cheeked Hornbills, impressive Giant Kingfishers, the stunningly gorgeous Malachite Kingfisher, White-eared Barbets, dapper Mountain Wagtails, and actively nesting Taveta Golden-Weavers and Grosbeak Weavers. For all of that, the biggest hit may have been the exquisite male Peter’s Twinspot that showed well on a couple of occasions. We topped it off with nice views of a lovely pair of African Wood-Owls, and some extended studies of two special primates—Guereza Colobus and Blue (Syke’s) Monkey.

Peter's Twinspot

Peter’s Twinspot— 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 the elusive Bar-tailed Trogon and Hartlaub’s Turacos in the highland forest, our extended studies of a magnificent Long-crested Eagle at the end of the day, and finding four of the rarely seen Greater Painted-Snipe in the midafternoon. 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 White-fronted Bee-eater, Southern Pochard, Purple Grenadier, White-browed Coucal, and many more. Mammalian highlights were provided by spectacular Guereza Colobus monkeys, rarely seen Harvey’s Duikers, and, for the second consecutive year, an albino Olive Baboon.

Early the next morning, we drove to Kilimanjaro Airport (stopping en route for a photo-op of the majestic mountain itself), 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 a short break to settle in to our rooms, 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 and Red-chested Sunbirds (the latter attending an active nest) and to ridiculously tame 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, “Usambiro” Barbets, a Black-billed Barbet, Spotted Morning-Thrushes, White-bellied Canaries, and Green-winged Pytilias. Before calling it quits for the day, we also picked up some lovely Yellow-winged Bats and thrilled to the sight of 50+ Pied Kingfishers gathering in a communal evening roost.

Three-banded Courser

Three-banded Courser— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

The next day we picked up right where we left off, spending a couple of hours birding on foot around the lodge, enjoying groups of Pied Kingfishers seemingly dispersing to distant feeding areas, and sorting through a variety of flashy weavers, including Slender-billed, Northern Brown-throated, Golden-backed, and Black-headed. For all of the bird activity on the pre-breakfast walk, the two biggest highlights of the morning came after breakfast, starting with our surgical strike on the elegant Three-banded (or Heuglin’s) Coursers, of which we found three (thanks George!). In the process of searching for and looking at the coursers (which performed admirably), we also encountered no less than 12 Spotted Thick-knees (some of which treated us to spread-winged threat displays without yielding ground) and three Water Thick-knees. Then, as we were packing up and preparing to leave, Jenny (or was it Linda?) discovered a magnificent Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl on its nest, right next to our cabins! The sleepy female offered up splendid views, right down to those shocking pink eyelids!

After bidding our farewell to Speke Bay, we headed east to begin our Serengeti adventure. A stop at the entrance gate to the Serengeti allowed us to stretch our legs and pick off a number of new birds, most notably a handsome Bearded Woodpecker, a trio of Red-fronted Tinkerbirds, some flashy Fischer’s Lovebirds, and an improbable looking male African Paradise-Flycatcher. We had a long way to go to reach Serena 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 and some unexpected Red-throated Tits, we followed with a raucous quartet of Eastern Plantain-eaters, our first endemic Gray-breasted Francolins, three species of bustards (Kori, White-bellied, and Black-bellied), our first encounters with bizarre Southern Ground-Hornbills, a shy group of Bat-eared Foxes, and thousands of migrating wildebeest. The migrant wildebeest herds were somewhat unexpected in this part of the Serengeti at this date, but the continuing drought to the east and the resulting lack of feeding opportunities in the Ndutu region had pushed the herds farther west in search of greener pastures, providing us with a real spectacle of migration in progress.

Wildebeest migration, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Wildebeest migration, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

The next two days were ones of high adventure, as we rubbernecked between the ridiculous wealth of large mammals and the abundant exotic birds. The Serengeti is practically synonymous with large predators, particularly those of the feline variety, and in this regard, it seldom, if ever, disappoints. We enjoyed multiple up-close-and-personal encounters with Lions (totaling 16 individuals), including a pair of impressively large, full-maned males, not to mention a pair of elegant Cheetahs and a Leopard dozing in a tree. But foremost among our cat sightings was a female Leopard whose cubs were ensconced in the rocks of one of the many kopjes (pronounced “copies”). After playing hide-and-seek with the assembled safari vehicles for awhile, the female emerged from a rocky crevice, holding a youngster by the scruff of its neck, and then carried the none-too-happy-looking cub to a second, undisclosed hiding spot. The entire scene was so dramatic that we nearly failed to take notice of what would prove to be the only Rufous-crowned Roller of the entire trip as it flew right past us!

Leopard with cub, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Leopard with cub, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

In between cat sightings, we scored some memorable birds, among them, the recently described Tanzanian Red-billed Hornbill, a perched adult Bateleur, Goliath Heron, yet another Greater Painted-Snipe, Secretary-bird, Pygmy Falcon, Dark-chanting Goshawk, Red-fronted Barbet, Greater Honeyguide, Magpie Shrike, Rufous-tailed Weaver, Village Indigobird, and many, many more. All of the usual mammalian suspects were present too, from African Elephants, Giraffes, and Hippos to all of the expected ungulates, and to entertaining bands of Dwarf and Banded mongooses. By our last morning in the Serengeti, we had received word that the great migratory herds of wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles had indeed bypassed the Ndutu region and were massing in the vicinity of Naabi Hills where we were due to exit the park by noon. This meant that while we could at least bear witness to what is possibly the single greatest mammalian spectacle on earth, we could not linger over it—the clock was ticking on our time in the Serengeti. As we approached Naabi Hills, the spectacle began to take shape all around us—the plains were liberally peppered with animals (most of them wildebeests) in every direction, for as far as the eye could see. Long lines of wildebeests snaked across the landscape, most of them moving at a trudging pace, drawn inexorably toward the unfulfilled promise of lusher grazing and calving grounds. The air was hazy with the dust launched by millions of hooves, and this, combined with the near constant bleating calls of the wildebeests and the prehistoric appearance of the animals themselves, lent a surreal quality to the scene. Adding to the primeval feel were the scattered covens of Marabou Storks and vultures of three species, each cluster marking the end of the journey for a wildebeest or other migrant that had fallen prey to the waiting predators. As if to punctuate this point, Spotted Hyenas, many of them with bloated bellies and bloodstained muzzles, moved through the interstices of the great herds indifferently, their hunger temporarily satiated. In fact, except for one hyena that was zealously making off with the remains of a wildebeest calf as if it were a trophy, the rest of the lot appeared more interested in wallowing in the few muddy pools that lined the road, probably to ward off the attacks of the pesky tsetse flies that inevitably accompany the movements of the ungulate masses. Masses of Barn Swallows darted back and forth ahead of the wildebeests, expertly using the mammalian hoards as beaters to flush insects from the grass, while smaller numbers of Lesser Kestrels hovered constantly overhead, ever watchful for flushed grasshoppers and other arthropod and small vertebrate prey.

Cheetah

Cheetah— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

Reluctantly, we too, like the wildebeests, had to push on, leaving the spectacle behind. After consuming our box lunches at the Naabi Hills gate, we began making our way southeast across the dusty Naabi-Ndutu Triangle Plains. Although these plains appeared particularly barren, the migration was still very much in evidence, but with Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles replacing wildebeests as the main players. Kori Bustards were unusually common—at one point, I counted 12 in view from a single spot—and by day’s end we had tallied more than 30! Stops for other goodies were frequent, ranging from Black-winged Plovers and a single Caspian Plover to a perched Greater Kestrel and scattered Capped, Northern, and Isabelline wheatears. Eventually, we made it across the high plains into the dry woodlands beyond, arriving at Ndutu Safari Lodge, our home for the next three nights, around 6:00 p.m.

Ndutu is probably my favorite stop on our trip. The intimacy of the lodge, combined with the proximity to a variety of habitats (alkaline lakes, freshwater marsh, short-grass plains, woodland, and bush) and the resulting bird diversity, and the ever-present possibility of encountering cats (big and small) and their prey, makes for a nearly unbeatable combination. In 2014, the area treated us to multiple amazing Leopard experiences, but this year, the headlines belonged to the Cheetahs. We thoroughly enjoyed our various encounters with these elegant animals, ranging from a lone individual feeding on a recently killed wildebeest calf to a mother setting off on a hunt with her two nearly grown youngsters.

With the large migrant ungulate herds well to our west, it was easier to concentrate on birds, although a mix of jackals, Bat-eared Foxes, and Common Genets still provided a nice mammalian complement to the aforementioned Cheetahs. Birds of prey were especially noteworthy, offering up repeated studies of Tawny and Steppe eagles, Long-crested Eagle, Augur Buzzard, Pygmy Falcon, and others, plus one glorious perched adult Martial Eagle. Other avian highlights that come readily to mind include our close studies of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, watching an adult and a juvenile Great Spotted Cuckoo hopping on the ground beside our vehicles as they snatched up one Lepidopteran larva after another, seeing endemic Gray-breasted Francolins on virtually every excursion, and having small birds ranging from eremomelas and cisticolas to crombecs, parisomas, and sunbirds mobbing our owl calls. Smartly patterned Double-banded Coursers were always a treat to come across, as were the attractive, but strange looking Eurasian Hoopoes and Abyssinian Scimitarbills. 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 Chestnut-banded and Kittlitz’s plovers, as well as masses of Greater Flamingos.

Fischer's Lovebirds

Fischer’s Lovebirds— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

Taking leave of Ndutu, we traveled back through the woodlands (where we witnessed a group of Lions make a brief and unsuccessful attempt on some warthogs and a zebra) and across the Triangle Plains, with brief stops for multiple large groups of Yellow-throated Sandgrouse and one extremely cooperative pair of Short-tailed Larks. We also made a couple of stops for some striking male Blue-headed Tree Agamas (here, in the absence of trees, perched entirely atop rocks!) in high breeding condition. These spectacular lizards proved to be surprisingly common along much of the morning drive, but as we approached Oldupai Gorge, we noticed their abrupt replacement by the even more strikingly colored Red-headed Rock Agamas.

A stop at Oldupai Gorge, the “Cradle of Mankind” where Louis and Mary Leakey made many of their groundbreaking discoveries, provided an insightful look into the ancient past. Although persistent high winds negated any real attempts at birding around the gorge, we still picked off a few prizes such as Black Bishop, Red-billed Firefinch, and a skulking (but sharp looking) male Irania (White-throated Robin), the latter a somewhat scarce Palearctic migrant. Upon leaving the gorge, we headed directly to Ngorongoro Crater. The drought-parched pasturelands en route were nearly devoid of birds, so there was little reason to stop. 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 stop for a few avian prizes (Klaas’s Cuckoo, Northern Anteater-Chat, Mourning Wheatear, and lots of Abdim’s Storks) en route to our primary target for the afternoon, which was the endangered Black Rhino. Once on the crater floor, it was not long before we had located our quarry, and we were rewarded with nice studies of this threatened and magnificent animal. With a rhino under our belts, we could afford to stop for a few more birds as we made our way across the crater and up the far side. Particularly noteworthy were the stunning Rosy-throated Longclaw that sang from a grass clump right beside the road, a covey of Shelley’s Francolins as we ascended the lower slopes, and a Hildebrandt’s Francolin that opted to cross the road directly in front of us as we made our way up through the montane forest that stretched to the crater rim.

Black Rhino and African Buffalo

Black Rhino and African Buffalo— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

The next day began with a pre-breakfast birding walk around the grounds of Sopa Lodge. Sunbirds showed particularly well, ranging from small Northern Double-collareds to large and extravagantly colored Tacazze and Golden-wingeds. Other prizes included a pair of Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters, a Brown-backed Woodpecker, and absurdly tame Tropical Boubous whose unusually confiding ways were exceeded by those of a seemingly oblivious Tree Pipit that strolled about at our feet. The remainder of the day was to be devoted to birding the Crater, but high levels of bird activity in the crater rim forest along the way resulted in numerous productive stops. Eventually, we made it to the crater floor, where once again, we found ourselves immersed in throngs of big game, including three distant Black Rhinos, some particularly long-tusked African Elephants, Lions, Spotted Hyenas, and both Common (Golden) and Black-backed jackals. We also enjoyed some amazingly up-close-and-personal encounters with Kori Bustard, Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, Abdim’s Stork, and loads of other grassland birds. Our picnic lunch site was remarkable for numbers of hippos, some very obliging Fan-tailed Widowbirds, and for the throngs of predatory Black (Yellow-billed) 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 searched hard for widowbirds, ultimately dipping on Jackson’s Widowbird, but scoring at the eleventh hour with Red-collared Widowbirds, as well as the much less spectacular, but harder-to-find Moorland (Alpine) Chat.

Verreaux's Eagle-Owl

Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

After some productive post-breakfast birding (highlighted by a stunning Emerald Cuckoo and an elusive pair of Schalow’s Turacos) on the lodge grounds the next day, we set off for Gibb’s Farm, making a lone stop at the exit gate en route. Here, we were treated to multiple pairs of nesting Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters, a Gray Cuckooshrike, Spectacled Weavers, Red-faced Cisticola (I had to mention it somewhere!) and others. After some opportunistic stops that netted Yellow Bishop, Cut-throat, and a nesting colony full of Speke’s Weavers, we arrived at Gibb’s Farm just in time for a sensational lunch. Afterwards we enjoyed a few hours of relaxed birding on the lovely grounds, delighting in such notables as White-tailed Blue-Flycatcher, duetting Ruppell’s Robin-Chats, noisy groups of Arrow-marked Babblers, Green-headed Sunbird, and Holub’s Golden-Weaver. From here, it was a very short drive to our nearby lodge.

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 less-than-stellar views of a Purple-crested Turaco (and boy, did we work for everything we got on this bird!) to count-the-nasal-mites views of a spectacular pair of massive Saddle-billed Storks (he with the dark eyes, she with the yellow eyes). African Spoonbills, Black Herons, Collared Pratincoles, Crowned Hornbills, and eye-catching Red-and-yellow Barbets were just a few of the many other bird highlights of the park, which also treated us to the antics of multiple troops of Olive Baboons and more than a few Blue (Syke’s) Monkeys. We reserved some time near the end of the day for stops along the entrance road to our lovely lodge, perched atop the escarpment overlooking the Great Rift Valley. These stops netted us a male Straw-tailed Whydah in full breeding plumage, as well as some mixed-species estrildid flocks containing numbers of African Silverbills and Cut-throats.

Red-and-yellow Barbet

Red-and-yellow Barbet— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

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 and European bee-eaters, bizarre Southern Ground-Hornbills, D’Arnaud’s Barbets, Magpie Shrikes, Ashy Starlings and many more.

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. Upon arrival, I made a last check of the trout ponds and discovered a Broad-billed Roller, which lingered long enough for me to round up all interested parties and make it back to add one more special bird to the trip list!   

You all were a great group and I hope our paths cross on future trips. I’ll be sending a highlight CD to everyone, once I’ve finished editing all of my photos! A special thanks to Anthony for keeping us on schedule and for making everything run smoothly, and to our drivers, Gaitan and Roger, for all of their hard work, and for cheerfully and safely escorting us through their fabulous country.