Northern Tanzania Oct 31—Nov 17, 2016

Posted by David Wolf


David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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There simply aren’t enough superlatives to describe VENT’s premier November tour to Northern Tanzania.  It was impressive throughout, mind-boggling at times, and always fascinating.  We experienced what is perhaps the greatest mammal show on earth, the migration in the Serengeti ecosystem, plus a wide array of wonderful birds and animals. Even after more than 50 trips to Africa, your leader came away exhilarated by all that we had seen and done!  Few destinations have improved as the decades have gone by, but Tanzania certainly has. The facilities were great, with each lodge quite different and unique.  Food was abundant and tasty, the people friendly, and most important, the parks and reserves are in great shape.  Our driver/guide, Geitan Ndunguru, was a delight to be with, highly skilled, full of information, always cheerful, and with a wonderful sense of humor.  This is a country with a lot going for it!

Lion, Ngorongoro Crater

Lion, Ngorongoro Crater— Photo: David Wolf


Our visit was timed for a season of change, as the prolonged dry season gave way to the first showers of the oncoming rainy season.  However, climate is never as strictly defined as one might expect, and this year the first showers were on the late side and very localized.  This worked to our advantage, especially with the birds, as they were concentrated around the remaining water sources both large and small. Waterbirds that spread out far and wide into ephemeral marshes and ponds with the rains were bunched up in large numbers at a few key sites, while in the drier areas even small puddles attracted birds coming to drink.  Because of the long dry season the grass was short or the ground grazed bare in many areas, making things easier to spot, as well as setting many of the hoofed mammals on the move in search of lusher pastures where the first showers had fallen.

Cheetahs, Ndutu Safari Lodge

Cheetahs, Ndutu Safari Lodge— Photo: David Wolf


We had so many highlights it is impossible to pick just a few.  Who would have guessed that the Common Zebra would be the mammal of the trip?  This species is widespread, present in all of the reserves visited, and seen often, but it was the sheer number of them on this safari that was amazing.  They were the vanguard of the great migration into the central Serengeti, and here we watched single file lines that stretched for miles, snaking through the grasslands, with great masses backed-up and milling around the few remaining waterholes.  We literally saw thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of them on several days!  Lions were another contender for favorite mammal, and we found them 7 days in a row, including huge males with full manes, lionesses galore, and adorable cubs of several sizes and ages.  We found them feeding on a zebra, bloody muzzles and all; cringed as a big male swatted a lioness away from a kill it was guarding; watched a female moving her cubs to the shelter of a crevice in a kopje; and were amused by a courting and mating pair.  We also had great luck with other cats.  That most elusive-but-widespread of the large African carnivores, the Leopard, was seen three times, each of them draped over the limbs of an isolated tree.  Cheetah is the rarest of the large cats, and they roam far and wide, so we were very lucky to find 3 in one morning near Ndutu.  The first was a shy old female that steadily moved away from us, but then we found “the brothers,” two handsome young animals lying down right next to our vehicle, seemingly ignoring us.  Surprisingly, our first cat was a rarely-seen Serval as we drove through the western corridor into the Serengeti in an afternoon drizzle.  Of course, without the prey base we would not have seen so many predators, and we thoroughly enjoyed the 16 species of antelope that we learned to tell apart, from tiny dik-dik to the huge Eland.  The African Buffalo were always impressive, especially the huge herd of hundreds that came thundering out of a gully, stirring up a cloud of dust as they wheeled and stared at us.  The elegant Giraffes were a delight, but for some of us the elephant will always be their favorite safari animal.  Tarangire is home to large numbers, and they did not let us down!  Among our many encounters with them, we watched a bull systematically stripping branches from an acacia; followed several parades of cows and babies; and had a young female wander into the grounds of Tarangire Sopa Lodge by our rooms, only to be chased out by the staff as it trumpeted wildly.

Lilac-breasted Roller, Serengeti

Lilac-breasted Roller, Serengeti— Photo: David Wolf


Each and every day brought special sightings of many classic African birds.  Common Ostriches and Secretary-birds were seen striding through the grasslands often and well, while we also had a surprising number of spectacular Saddle-billed Storks and Southern Ground-Hornbills.  Recent burns attracted huge Kori Bustards, up to 12 in one day, and numerous pairs of elegant Gray Crowned-Cranes. Solitary Hamerkops posed motionless for us; we thrilled to turacos slipping through the mountain forests on blazing wings; colorful rollers and bee-eaters elicited “oohs and ahhs”; wood-hoopoes scrambled around on the acacia trunks like acrobatic woodpeckers; and loud choruses of robin-chats woke us up at daybreak. The many dull “warblers” weren’t as exciting (except to your leader, who kept forcing you to look at them), but their diversity seemed limitless. Bush-shrikes, the largest family unique to Africa, proved elusive, but by the end of the trip we had seen and heard a nice selection of them, as well as their close relatives the White Helmet-Shrike, Black-throated Wattle-eye, and Chin-spot Batis. Raptors were present everywhere and seen daily in amazing diversity, from huge Martial Eagles and Lappet-faced Vultures to tiny Pygmy Falcons, with classics like the Bateleur and African Fish-Eagle in-between in size. We were especially lucky to watch a pair of magnificent Verreaux’s Eagles cruising along the wall of the Great Rift Valley, while a close perched Grasshopper Buzzard as we neared Kilimanjaro Airport for the flight to Mwanza was a rare treat and a first for this tour.

Black Heron, Lake Manyara

Black Heron, Lake Manyara— Photo: David Wolf








A nice surprise was the wide variety and great numbers of waterbirds concentrated at a few key sites around the larger lakes and marshes.  On the highly alkaline Momela Lakes in Arusha NP we estimated 25,000 Lesser Flamingos ringing the lake in pink, a spectacular sight. In the Ngorongoro Crater we laughed at the Black Crakes scrambling over the backs of a tightly-packed herd of hippos in a pool, with Egyptian Geese, Sacred Ibis, Blacksmith Lapwings and others resting nearby.  Along the receding shore at Lake Manyara we spent hours along one short stretch of track, going from one close bird to the next, gaining incredibly close studies and photos.  Especially exciting was the discovery of a distant Black Heron, a species never guaranteed on an East Africa safari.  While watching it we realized that several nearby “lumps of mud” were actually more of them that were foraging by spreading their wings into a canopy to attract small fish to the shade. Scanning carefully produced more and more, until our final tally was at least 58, a remarkable count! They were amidst a huge resting flock of at least 1,500 Yellow-billed Storks and 330 African Spoonbills, phenomenal numbers for one site, while nearby were hundreds of Great White Pelicans and waterfowl, including Comb Ducks and Spur-winged Geese, plus abundant shorebirds and marsh-dwellers. In Tarangire the great Silale Marsh was nearly dry at this season, but seepage along the edge attracted at least 1,200 resting African Openbills, 550 Glossy Ibis, and flocks of hundreds of Long-toed Lapwings and Collared Pratincoles, as well as our only Bohor Reedbuck antelope.

Klipspringer, Lobo Lodge

Klipspringer, Lobo Lodge— Photo: David Wolf


As I finish writing this I find still more highlights that deserve an honorable mention. How about the 2 Woolly-necked Storks feeding on a dead wildebeest calf that did not make it across the Grumeti River?  Or the Crested Guineafowl and Syke’s Monkeys in some kind of foraging association inside the shady groundwater forest at Manyara?  There was that wonderful meadow by the kopje at Lobo where we stopped for a herd of gamboling Impala in nice light and ended up spotting 11 more species of mammals as we sat there, including Oribi and Klipspringer, two small antelope not often seen…The nice study of the very localized Chestnut-banded Plover at Lake Masek, and three species each of sandgrouse and coursers, all seen closely several times…The tiny African Scops-Owl and pair of huge Verreaux’s Eagle-Owls roosting by day in acacias in Tarangire…Impressive Silvery-cheeked Hornbills in the Manyara forest and literally hundreds of baboons marching across the lakeshore grassland there (“Planet of the Apes” anyone?).  At Speke’s Bay we found brilliant Malachite Kingfishers along the shore and African Pygmy Kingfishers in the nearby bushes for comparison.  There were the super-close Red-and-yellow Barbets digging at a nest hole in a roadside termite mound, flocks of endemic lovebirds chattering away, brilliant sunbirds feeding at exotic flowers, and the surprise male White-throated Robin (Irania), a scarce and normally secretive migrant from the Middle East.  We found the many nest styles of the weavers fascinating, even if their owners were hard to identify, and oohed over the swarms of Blue-capped Cordon-bleus, Cut-throats and other colorful estrildids.  And then there were the great looks at some very obscure birds, like the Short-tailed Lark, African Penduline-Tit, Gray-olive Greenbul, Greencap Eremomela, and Mountain Yellow-Warblers, all of them great finds but undoubtedly more exciting for your leader than memorable for everyone else!

You were a great group to share the Northern Tanzania safari experience with, it was a special treat to have Steve Hilty along on his first trip to Africa, and I hope to meet up with all of you on a future VENT tour.  Enjoy the memories and photos!