Northern Tanzania Feb 21—Mar 08, 2016

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, virtually 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 a pair of African Black Ducks, a confiding Little Sparrowhawk, Red-chested Cuckoo (singing “It will rain” repeatedly), a fruiting tree filled with Rameron (African Olive) Pigeons, impressive Giant Kingfishers, the stunningly gorgeous Malachite Kingfisher, White-eared Barbets feeding fledged juveniles, dapper Mountain Wagtails, attractive male and female Black-throated Wattle-eyes, and actively nesting Taveta Golden-Weavers and Grosbeak Weavers. We topped it off with nice views of a lovely African Wood-Owl and some extended studies of two special primates—Guereza Colobus and Blue (Syke’s) Monkey.

Black-throated Wattle-eye (female), Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge

Black-throated Wattle-eye (female), Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge— 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 a lovely Hartlaub’s Turaco (endemic to east Africa) in the highland forest, and a Crowned Hawk-Eagle flying overhead, but we also picked off such gems as Cape Teal, White-fronted Bee-eater, Spectacled Weaver, Moustached Grass-Warbler, White-browed Coucal, and many more (including no less than five species of cisticolas, representing a genus destined to become a group favorite). I was particularly happy to find approximately 300–400 Lesser and Greater flamingos livening up the alkaline waters of the Momela Lakes, particularly given that there had been no flamingos on the lakes during my scouting visit just two days earlier. Mammalian highlights were provided by several impressively large troops of Olive Baboons (with many tiny youngsters), rarely seen Harvey’s Duikers, and loads of Giraffes, not to mention one particularly aggressive Blue Monkey at the picnic site that managed to swipe Michael’s sandwich right out of his hands!

Early the next morning we drove to the Arusha airport, where we caught our small plane flight to the Seronera airstrip in the central Serengeti. The flight itself was most enjoyable, treating us to spectacular scenery and even some identifiable wildlife (how often can one claim Lion sightings from a plane?). Upon arrival, and after making use of the facilities, we loaded up and began our introductory birding/game drive through the western corridor of the Serengeti, with a quick detour at the very start to follow up on a hot tip regarding a nearby Leopard. The elegant cat was right where reported, treating us to excellent views of this often elusive predator within our first hour in the Serengeti!  With Leopard in the bag, we began our drive through the western part of the park in earnest, slowly working our way toward the exit gate and our intended destination of Speke Bay. Given that nearly everything was new at this early juncture in the tour, frequent stops were inevitable. There were White-bellied Bustards in the road, a perched juvenile Martial Eagle that eventually launched into flight and circled in ever-widening loops above us, the rare Karamoja Apalis, a Yellow-throated Longclaw carrying a praying mantis to feed unseen babies, an elegant Double-banded Courser, and a slightly annoyed looking Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl (nicely spotted by Gaitan) being pestered by a group of starlings. For all of this, I perhaps got the biggest charge out of the spectacle of seeing thousands of migrant White Storks concentrated at the edges of a large prescribed burn. The storks stalked back and forth at the very edge of the flames, spearing vertebrate and invertebrate prey fleeing the fire with ruthless precision. There were, of course, masses of mammals, but in the interest of getting to Speke Bay with time for late afternoon birding, we elected to restrict mammal stops on this afternoon to a minimum. We made a couple of particularly noteworthy stops along the Grumeti River, where, in addition to scoring our only Eastern Plantain-Eaters of the tour, we also thrilled to an amazing Hippo show, with some notably huge Nile Crocodiles thrown in for good measure.

White Storks, Serengeti National Park

White Storks, Serengeti National Park— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

After exiting the Serengeti National Park, it was a 30-minute 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 cryptically plumaged day-roosting Square-tailed Nightjars, to incandescent Black-headed Gonoleks and Red-chested Sunbirds, to ridiculously tame Spotted Thick-knees and equally confiding Swamp Flycatchers and Silverbirds. The resident Pearl-spotted Owlet was MIA, but playback of its call did succeed in luring in a number of smaller birds looking for a fight, most notable of which was a flashy Black-billed Barbet. It was also nice to score great views of Klaas’s Cuckoo early in the trip—these emerald-and-white brood parasites are often vocal at this time of year, but can be frustratingly elusive to track down.  

The next morning we picked up right where we left off, spending a few hours birding on foot around the lodge, a venture highlighted by impressive numbers of Pied Kingfishers and a loafing (but very approachable) Water Thick-knee along the shoreline, a low-flying Black-breasted Snake-Eagle, and a variety of flashy weavers, including Slender-billed, Northern Brown-throated, Golden-backed (Jackson’s), and Black-headed (Yellow-backed), many of which were well into nest-building and courtship activities. Sunbirds (particularly Scarlet-chested and Red-chested) and Black-headed Gonoleks were again conspicuous, a Dideric Cuckoo substituted nicely for the previous day’s Klaas’s Cuckoo, and the fierce little Pearl-spotted Owlet finally put in an appearance, attracting the usual mob-scene of little passerines in the process. It was particularly nice to encounter a dazzling male Black-winged Red-Bishop in full breeding plumage. High on our priority list for the morning was tracking down the elegant Three-banded (or Heuglin’s) Courser, a large courser with decidedly crepuscular habits that spends most of the day resting cryptically in the shade (much like the various thick-knees). In the process of searching for and looking at the coursers (which performed admirably), we also encountered no less than 12 Spotted Thick-knees, a quartet of “Usambiro” Barbets, and a couple of African Thrushes.

Three-banded Courser, Speke Bay

Three-banded Courser, Speke Bay— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

After an early lunch, we said our goodbyes to Speke Bay and headed east to resume our Serengeti adventure. This, our second drive through the Serengeti’s western corridor, allowed more time for mammal-viewing, and we were treated to nice views of Eland, an inquisitive Black-backed Jackal, and a group of Topis that, for whatever reason, barreled across the road in front of us at breakneck speed, as if an entire pride of Lions was hot on their heels. Stops for birds were equally frequent, as we notched numerous raptors (Tawny Eagle, Dark Chanting-Goshawk, and a trio of harrier species), a group of five bizarre Southern Ground-Hornbills striding resolutely across the plains, a cluster of 20 Wattled Lapwings, a couple of adult male Pin-tailed Whydahs, and a skulking Black Coucal among many others. Late in the drive, we came to a screeching halt for a screeching male Coqui Francolin right beside the road that repeatedly belted out his grating excuse for a song with unapologetic gusto. Each call was delivered with such force that I half expected the bird to just explode from the effort—indeed, digitally magnified images of its gaping bill showed rare detail of the bird’s entire palate! It was difficult to pull ourselves away from this performance, but we had to be to our lodge by 6:30 p.m., and that time was quickly approaching. Vowing not to stop again, we greatly picked up the pace, only to have our good intentions go out the window when a sibling pair of grown Cheetahs turned up along the entrance road to the lodge. It was the perfect end to a day filled with highlights both avian and mammalian.

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. This trip was no different, as we were treated to another Leopard and multiple Lion sightings over the next two days. All of the usual mammalian suspects were present too, from African Elephants, Giraffes, and Hippos, to all of the expected ungulates, to entertaining bands of Dwarf and Banded mongooses and Warthogs (“Warties!”) whose comically thin tails appeared forever at attention. An afternoon drive into the grasslands near Serena Lodge even turned up an inquisitive pair of Bat-eared Foxes that blundered into my camera viewfinder as I was tracking a Kori Bustard! Birding highlights were almost too numerous to mention, although a few favorites inevitably stand out. It was particularly nice watching the pair of African Hawk-Eagles perched less than 15 feet above the ground as they appeared to be intent on finding the Helmeted Guineafowl that were noisily alarming from the concealment of the grass below. There was also the pair of Pygmy Falcons copulating in the bare tree top next to the road while a White-rumped Shrike, every bit as large as the falcons, sat just inches away as a spectator. Or what of the wonderful trio of White-bellied Bustards that paraded directly in front of our vehicles on our afternoon drive through the grasslands? Or the nonstop action of the mob scene led by Cinnamon-breasted and Golden-breasted buntings responding to my owlet calls? There was the unusually confiding Bearded Woodpecker and the group of fearless Usambiro Barbets at the visitor center, not to mention the procession of gaudy Estrildid finches that came to bathe in the puddles left by the water truck after it had replenished the water tower behind the restrooms. For all of this, the most indelible memory from the Serengeti for the folks riding in Anthony’s van that day will no doubt be the Black Mamba that tried to attack the Land Cruiser!

Cheetah with wildebeest kill, Ndutu Plains

Cheetah with wildebeest kill, Ndutu Plains— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

Exiting the Serengeti at Naabi Hills, we crossed the dry Triangle Plains to the Ndutu region, which 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. There were no Leopards to be had in the Ndutu woodlands this year, but cats were still a featured part of our experience. We saw no fewer than 5 Cheetahs here, including one that had just brought down an adult wildebeest within the previous hour. The cat was still feeding when we happened onto it, and the kill was so fresh that other predators and scavengers had yet to happen on the scene, meaning that the Cheetah could enjoy its meal in relative peace. A loafing pride of 9 Lions (two of them well above ground in a tree) bathed in the glow of late afternoon light was the highlight of our first afternoon in the Ndutu area, whereas a diminutive and rarely seen African Wild Cat was, for those lucky enough to see it, the prize the following morning.

The migratory herds of wildebeest, zebras, and gazelles proved to be moving targets on this trip. We encountered straggling small groups, including a few wildebeests with wobbly-legged calves being followed closely by a Black-backed Jackal, in the Ndutu woodlands on our first afternoon in the area, but the bulk of the migration was nowhere to be found. The next morning we received word that the masses of ungulates had already pushed through the area, and were staging southeast of our position. Realizing that this morning represented our only shot at experiencing the migration, we scrapped our original plans and began bushwhacking our way to the southeast in the hopes of catching up with the ever-restless herds. We had to pick our way carefully, for the plains were still in the grip of the recent rains, and the seemingly dry ground was just a thin veneer concealing a treacherously muddy base. Getting stuck out here would prove both inconvenient and expensive in the extreme! Eventually, we caught up with the tail end of the migration, and the spectacle that unfolded to the horizon was worth the effort. 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 greener pastures. As closer groups moved among us, the near constant bleating calls combined with the prehistoric appearance of the animals themselves, lent a surreal quality to the scene. One very pregnant wildebeest in apparent distress stopped in front of us and laid down, as other nearby wildebeest ceased their measured trudging and gathered around. The expectant female remained prostrate for only a moment before struggling to her feet, and then, after a few heaving contractions, began birthing her calf right in front of us. The process took only a few minutes (with the female continuing to graze throughout!), and even less time for the still glistening calf to start struggling to its feet. After several pathetic attempts ended in face-plants, the calf finally struggled to its feet and remained upright, and none-to-soon, for the impatient herd was already on the move, and the mother was nudging her newborn into action to keep pace. It was an incredibly poignant moment to witness, and one that illustrated both the urgent and ephemeral nature of life on the African plains.

Fischer's Lovebirds, Ndutu region

Fischer’s Lovebirds, Ndutu region— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

With the large migrant ungulate herds moving steadily to our south, it was easier to concentrate on birds, although a mix of jackals, Bat-eared Foxes, and Common Genets (in the lodge dining room each night!) still provided a nice mammalian complement to the abundant birdlife. Other avian highlights that come readily to mind include our close studies of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, seeing endemic Gray-breasted Francolins on virtually every excursion, a dark-morph Gabar Goshawk, multiple Great Spotted and Pied cuckoos, and having small birds ranging from eremomelas and cisticolas to crombecs, parisomas, sunbirds, and even lone male Straw-tailed and Steel-blue whydahs mobbing our owl calls. 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, White-rumped Shrikes that took food from our hands, and omnipresent Rufous-tailed Weavers. Nearby Ndutu Lake provided throngs of waterbirds, including classy Chestnut-banded and Kittlitz’s plovers, masses of Greater Flamingos, and a rarely seen (away from the coast) migrant Eurasian Curlew, a first for me in Tanzania.

Taking leave of Ndutu, we traveled back through the woodlands and across the Triangle Plains, with multiple stops for groups of Yellow-throated and Chestnut-bellied  sandgrouse, dressy Double-banded Coursers, a pair of stilt-legged Secretary-birds, and a couple of Spotted Hyenas. We also made a few 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 the initial stretch of “main” road, 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, White-breasted (Abyssinian) White-eye, Southern Grosbeak-Canary, and Red-billed Firefinch. Upon leaving the gorge, we headed directly to Ngorongoro Crater. In contrast to our 2015 trip (when the landscape was obviously drought-stricken), the Masai lands that we traversed en route to the crater were lush with grass grown tall from the early rains, and this paid off in the presence of a stunning male Straw-tailed Whydah hovering in display above a female.  Before we knew it, we found ourselves on the rim of the crater, enjoying the spectacular panoramic view. We descended, pausing to catch up with the locally distributed Wailing (Lyne’s) Cisticola and a persistently amorous male Yellow Bishop, and then crossed the crater to reach our lodge on the opposite rim, in the process, taking time to check out a seasonal marsh loaded with waterfowl (including Spur-winged Goose, Hottentot Teal, and good numbers of Red-billed Teal), herons and egrets, and Whiskered Terns. Opportunistic stops yielded still other avian prizes, among them, Black-bellied Bustard, Northern Anteater-Chat, Mourning (Schalow’s) Wheatear, and masses of Abdim’s Storks, but our primary afternoon target, the endangered Black Rhino, was nowhere to be seen, and would have to wait for at least another day. All was not lost on the mammal front, however, for we scored what was to be our only Serval of the trip when one walked across the road in front of our lead vehicle, and then emerged from the tall grass on our right to allow brief, but close profile views for people in both vehicles.

Black Rhinoceros, Ngorongoro Crater

Black Rhinoceros, Ngorongoro Crater— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

 

The entire next day was to be devoted to birding the Crater, but with several preliminary stops in the oddly beautiful, moss-festooned Acacia forest cloaking much of the Crater rim. There were loads of new birds for us here, ranging from bottle-green and crimson Schalow’s Turacos to exquisite Golden-winged Sunbirds, and soaring Mountain Buzzards to duetting Hunter’s and Red-faced cisticolas. But, on this day, many of the forest birds proved unresponsive and unusually difficult to see, resulting in several time-burning stops before reaching the park entrance gate. It was very late in the morning before we made it to the crater floor, where in addition to enjoying a nice aggregation of Gray Crowned-Cranes, we found ourselves immersed in throngs of big game, including some particularly long-tusked African Elephants, Lions, Spotted Hyenas, multiple Common (Golden) Jackals, and our first Black Rhinos, the latter disappointingly distant and unimpressive in the heat shimmer. Our picnic lunch site was remarkable for numbers of hippos, not to mention the Speke’s and Rufous-tailed weavers that boldly entered our vehicles in search of scraps while we sat inside, eating our box lunches. Things picked up greatly in the afternoon, starting with a remarkable concentration of some 200 Black-winged Lapwings right next to the road, a nice pick-up of a bird that we had dipped on during our time on the high plains at Ndutu. Soon after, we came to a sudden stop for another Black Rhino, this one much closer to the road on our left, and headed in our direction. We sat, transfixed, as the lumbering behemoth trotted steadily toward the road in front of us, then crossed to the right and gave everyone on the right side of the Land Cruisers an equally grand profile. A high overcast sky allowed for much better photographic conditions than would normally be the case in midafternoon, and our many photographers took full advantage—you could practically smell the digital media burning up! After what I labeled as the single best group experience that I could remember having with a Black Rhino, everything else that came our way in the afternoon was gravy. Noteworthy nonetheless, were our encounters with Black-bellied Bustards and Rosy-throated Longclaws, the glowing throats of the latter showing particularly well in the low-angle sunlight of the late afternoon.

After some productive post-breakfast birding (highlighted by a pair of rarely seen Brown-backed Woodpeckers and our best views yet of the flashy Schalow’s Turaco) on the lodge grounds the next day, we set off for Gibb’s Farm, but only after making a productive detour into nearby Masai lands beyond the Crater rim to search for widowbirds. The hillsides and valleys were lush with tall grass, and the Masai settlements and clusters of grazing goats and cattle scattered across the slopes to the horizon only added to the bucolic setting. More than one person remarked that it was as if we had entered some lost paradise. The pastoral lands surrounding us were definitely a paradise for widowbirds, males of which were abundant, conspicuous, and in full breeding mode.  Lovely Red-collared Widowbirds were everywhere, but it was the decidedly less common and colorful Jackson’s Widowbirds that stole the show with the bizarre jumping displays of the absurdly long-tailed males. Capped Wheatears, Southern Citrils, Moorland (Alpine) Chats, White-necked Ravens, a ghostly male Pallid Harrier, and a dark-morph Augur Buzzard were also nice, as was a completely unexpected adult Eurasian Sparrowhawk perched atop a Masai structure.

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, noisy groups of Arrow-marked Babblers, a wealth of sunbirds (including one insanely cooperative Eastern Double-collared Sunbird that posed for several minutes without budging), Scaly-throated and Green-backed (Eastern/Slender-billed) honeyguides, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, African Black-headed Orioles, multiple Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters, and Holub’s Golden-Weaver. From here, it was a very short drive to our nearby lodge.

Purple-crested Turaco, Lake Manyara National Park

Purple-crested Turaco, Lake Manyara National Park— 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. With an array of habitats ranging from lush, groundwater forest to dry acacia woodlands, to a soda lake surrounded by grasslands and freshwater marshes, this park has something for everyone. Highlights here were many, but topping the list for most of us was the magnificent Purple-crested Turaco that waited to appear until the afternoon, but then treated us to lengthy, stellar studies, and an impressive vocal performance. Also noteworthy was the nicely perched Common Buzzard and the low-flying pair of Booted Eagles (one light-morph and one dark-morph!); Pink-backed Pelicans, Yellow-billed Storks, and African Spoonbills lined-up side-by-side; a Black Heron showing off its canopy-feeding technique; more than 700 Collared Pratincoles covering the dried mud flats near the Hippo pools; Silvery-cheeked and Crowned hornbills; dazzling Black-winged Red-Bishops and Golden-backed (Jackson’s) Weavers in the reed beds; a Little Bittern that picked up out of the reeds and flew past before touching down on the other side; a tree festooned with migrant European Bee-eaters; a lovely Pangani Longclaw in the grasslands; and eye-catching Red-and-yellow Barbets and Green-winged Pytilias at the picnic grounds. The park also treated us to the antics of multiple troops of Olive Baboons and more than a few Blue (Syke’s) Monkeys, as well as some nice elephants.

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 group after another, probably involving in excess of 200 individuals, in our one-and-a-half days here, and, in the process, witnessed all kinds of interesting elephant behaviors. Tarangire is at its best when conditions in the surrounding region are dry, and the park, with its permanent water sources, is a magnet for grazing animals and their attendant predators. This year, the early rains had resulted in an abundance of tall grass in and out of the park, and concentrations of game were thin on the ground. Strikingly, we saw no cats on this visit, and truth be told, any cats present would have been impossible to see amid the lush grass unless they were up in the trees or standing in the road. Seed-eating birds were also conspicuous by their absence, nor were many Palearctic migrant passerines in evidence. But conditions were unusually good for widowbirds and bishops (as they had been throughout the tour), and, as always, there was the usual parade of Yellow-necked and Red-necked francolins, Gray Kestrels, Black-faced Sandgrouse, Yellow-collared Lovebirds, Red-bellied (Orange-bellied) Parrots, Lilac-breasted and European rollers, Blue-cheeked and European bee-eaters, bizarre Southern Ground-Hornbills, D’Arnaud’s Barbets, Woodland Kingfishers, Magpie Shrikes, Ashy Starlings, and many more. The concentration of Yellow-billed Storks along the Tarangire River was particularly noteworthy, and the grounds of Sopa Lodge were alive with Bare-faced Go-away-birds, impossibly cute Bush Hyraxes, and strikingly colorful Red-headed Rock Agama lizards. 

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.

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 Moses, for all of their hard work, and for cheerfully and safely escorting us through their fabulous country.