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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Tanzania: Kilimanjaro to the Serengeti

2024 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Most of us, particularly we privileged older folk from ‘the cool developed northlands’, the few who can still afford to travel widely across our world, are wont to preserve and treasure as many as possible of the wondrous experiences which we create along the way. This was especially true on our recently concluded, admittedly expensive yet absolutely unforgettable, WINGS bird watching safari to Tanzania in East Africa.

We aim to conserve our memories of our travels by ‘smuggling home’, at least in a virtual sense, the images, stored as countless stills and videos, images safely locked inside our smart phones, entombed within our SLRs, or sealed in plastic bags on minute chips and discs. We strive thereby to preserve and to resuscitate at leisure our cherished experiences, nowadays digitally enhanced, of the most outstanding moments, hopefully abundant and yet each utterly unique.

It happens that though I rarely take bird photographs I have been very fortunate to have lived the life of a safari guide, living in Tanzania for nearly 15 years from 2005 onwards. As a consequence I have conducted scores of bird-centred journeys across this land. Along a route which has become known, in the trade, as “The Northern Circuit”. I can honestly say that each of those safaris has evolved into a very different experience both from any that came before, as well as from those which have followed. Unique journeys they are, and ones that never fail, in any sense, to move me, “always delivering some insight” quite often undeniably profound. This year’s WINGS safari in November 2023, was no exception to this rule.

IN DETAIL: We began our WINGS birding tour at about 1,500 metres in lush forest greenery around Arusha National Park. As usual after a nocturnal arrival into the velvet darkness of tropical Africa. We arrived at the relatively ‘laid back’ Kilimanjaro International Airport and then there was a mercifully short road transfer to our accommodation at Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge. Thence quickly into our delightful yet old-fashioned rooms. Well-appointed accommodations these, certainly bedrooms that set a high standard that was maintained throughout our trip. Now this being the time of the “Short Rains”, and an El Niño year, we were treated, throughout, to our fair share of heavy rain showers. Fortunately, they never seriously disrupted the birding at any given point.

All this bountiful moisture on an easterly breeze off the Indian Ocean meant that the forests everywhere, and of Arusha National Park in particular, were as green and beautiful as I have ever known them to be. Consequently there was an abundance of butterflies and other colourful invertebrate delights to entertain us, even if the insectivorous birds were at times a little less forthcoming. As is typical on our safaris, by careful planning and by expert manoeuvring of the Toyota Land-cruiser, this time by our youthful driver Godbless, (“can you see my light?”) we were delighted by the many great views which we obtained of so many fabulous bird and mammal species.

Everyone’s highlights and recollections of a tour are their own. So here are a few of mine that spring to mind!

In Arusha park we were able to get close to both species of African flamingo - the Lesser and the Greater - feeding and dancing at the little brackish lakes not far from Momella Gate. Here we were also treated to views of nine Maccoa Ducks amongst the Southern Pochards. These are Africa’s counterpart of the stiff-tailed Ruddy Duck and a bird that recently has become much rarer across East Africa.

We saw some truly fabulous kingfishers (eight species in total on the tour), especially in bushland neighbouring waterbodies, though few here were despatching fish! Instead they were usually intent upon catching solifugid camel spiders and other fearsome looking arachnids. Overall the Grey-headed was the commonest.

After three nights in this delightful old lodge, and its century-old well-timbered garden, beside a trout stream, (where a pair of African Black Ducks delicately tended their three ducklings) in the foothills of Mount Meru, we commenced our sojourn westwards. We drove through bustling Arusha, the third largest city of Tanzania, heading toward the fabled savanna game parks of the East African plateau. Before that we should have to cross the Great Rift Valley, a colossal continental landscape feature visible, or so it is said, from far out in space. And prior to that we would spend a couple of idyllic days at a lodge in a park that, outside Tanzania, is less well known. Situated on one of the broad eastern terraces of the massive rift-rupture in the Earth’s surface lies Tarangire National Park. And this is a place full of birds.

Tarangire is also home to a very considerable population of elephants and, as a consequence, it has evolved into a globally unique savanna ecosystem, characterised by mighty, yet senescent, baobab trees. The high density of elephants prevents regeneration of these “upside-down trees” in all but the most inaccessible and rocky of places. Despite this being a relatively recent and temporary ecological anomaly it does provide us with a unique and beautiful insight into the dynamic interrelationship “between the architectural mega-beasts and their bush” a phenomenon that continues to characterise these vast and, by humans, scarcely inhabited African savannas.

In Tarangire in the mornings we were surrounded by our first swirling flights of old world vultures (four species), rising in the thermals, together with even larger Marabou and a few Yellow-billed Storks plus at least five species of eagle.

Before breakfast an array of multicoloured smaller birds, (sunbirds, weavers, bush-shrikes), tend to sun themselves in the tree tops, they are easily observed from above at the remarkable viewpoints around the safari lodge. All are species for which the East African savanna habitat is rightly famous.

Later on in the day once we had started finding White-bellied and Hartlaub’s Bustards, (the first two of five species of bustard that we encountered on the tour), our first migrating Palearctic raptors appeared overhead, in the shape of the ‘cross-like’ Steppe Eagle, quartering harriers, hovering Lesser Kestrels and the scythe-winged Eurasian Hobby.

At a small water hole in the Lemioni plains we watched some splendid, evidently recently arrived, Knob-billed Ducks, the drakes cavorting pugnaciously and ostentatiously, and often quite aggressively, at least until the females departed to prospect for a nest site in a cavity in the trunk of one of the ancient elephant-gnarled baobabs.

The Ashy Starling, in comparison with most of the Afrotropical starlings, and in most lights has a downright dowdy plumage. Yet they make up for their lack of iridescence by being a highly sociable endemic bird with a restricted range. In much of this range they live utterly unmolested lives. Therefore, as is happily the case with so many of the birds in Tanzania, over recent generations they have become decidedly tame and are very approachable. In fact typically they approach you! And Tarangire Safari Lodge, where we stay, with its “legendary awesome view” must be without doubt the finest place in which to observe them.

It was in Tarangire National Park that we were lucky to be able to undertake an unscheduled night drive. Several mammal species were observed that we would not have seen otherwise. Additionally we found a Saddle-billed Stork dashing around in a shallow pool, evidently successfully feeding at night, both fishing or ‘frogging’, whilst at the back of the pool the first Spotted Hyaenas of our trip, doubtless the local clan, hung-back, haunting the flickering shadows at the limit of our spotlight beams.

After Tarangire we visited Lake Manyara National Park where we had wonderfully close views of the monotypic Hamerkop, alternately waggling each foot in the daily search for frogs. This was at a bubbling brook that flows through the evergreen ground water forests of this relatively small protected area. The forest here was full of Silvery-cheeked Hornbills, and this was the only site in which we saw Crowned Hornbill.

Leaving Manyara in the late afternoon, after a very birdy picnic lunch, (for birding it helps if you can be momentarily and surreptitiously a rather messy eater!), we drove up the mighty western wall of the Great Rift Valley to our accommodation above the small town of Karatu. The town, on the edge of the Crater Highland forests, is a diverse area inhabited by the Wa-iraq, or Mbulu. People who speak a Cushitic language, not a Bantu one such as Swahili, the lingua franca of this great region. Mbulu is but one representative tongue, of one of no less than six language families, that can be heard somewhere in Northern Tanzania.

The next morning we had the undeniable pleasures of being out of the vehicle and of walking among the birds, along elephant and buffalo trails, into the lush Endoro forest which clothes the ridges high above the town. Here we added a number of arboreal and skulking species to our already bourgeoning bird list. After lunch we continued our drive westwards through the “NCA entrance” to the great, or perhaps greatest ‘parks’ of them all: into the world renowned Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Park.

At mid-afternoon along the rim of the breath-takingly beautiful Ngorongoro Crater, over 2,500 metres above sea level, we reached a position which I usually consider to be the zenith of our safari, although at this point we are not even half way through. 

I have made the descent into the huge caldera of Ngorongoro many times over the years. Yet on each visit, especially as we are leaving the crater; (whilst our driver painstakingly negotiates the hairpin bends of the ascent road, mindful of being through the gate before curfew at 1800 hrs); I am simply in awe at the display of natural wonder that we have just witnessed. 

So it seems somehow anomalous that during my three visits to the crater in 2023 it was the recently created freshwater wetlands that, for me, really stole the show. The conservation area authorities have been forced to import many tons of “marrum” (a hard red gravel) from the crater rim to maintain the vehicle tracks across swathes of the infamous black cotton soil, localities which otherwise would quickly become a quagmire, especially in the “long rains” of April. This has impeded the flow of several rivulets and over the past three years has created a large freshwater ecosystem. Today this is a birding site that rivals the former freshwater lagoons at Hippo Pools, in Lake Manyara. Pools which sadly were destroyed by a great flood in 2020.

It was wonderful for me to discover that the pair of handsome Yellow-billed Ducks, whom I first found here in the heavy rains at Easter of ´23, were still in situ, dabbling unconcernedly, among an even greater avian throng than there had been last April. By contrast the two drab looking female Garganey, scarce Palearctic migrants which ‘graced’ the shoreline of the expansive saline Lake Magadi (this one at Ngorongoro Crater), were feeding among a far more exotic and colourful cast of perhaps thirty species of waterbird. To be sure they were all equally wonderful!

Words can never do justice to Ngorongoro, one simply has to go there to see it to believe!

The next day descending, out of the morning mists, from Rhino lodge in the heights of the “ Crater Highlands” toward the plains of the Serengeti we traverse a rain-shadow landscape. A pastoral land created by the cloud blocking effect of these uplifted tectonic mountains, west of this great massif and of the continually expanding rupture in our Earth’s surface that is The Great Rift Valley.

Soon we are in a steppe-like environment and detouring slightly to pass the word famous archaeological site of Oldupai Gorge. This is also a Maasai word, the name for a species of succulent Senseveria, a word which the colonial Germans must have struggled with and altered to “Olduvai”. We are headed for acacia woodlands around the exquisite and historic lodge at Lake Ndutu, a location made somewhat famous late last century by the screening of the “Big Cat Diaries” by the BBC. These woodlands are surrounded by extensive savanna which in this season teem with wildebeest, zebra and other ungulates.

This past November it was on a Sunday morning, very much out-in-Nature under the perfect blue canopy of an African sky, that we marvelled at the seemingly endless short-grass plains and roaming mega-fauna of the incredible eastern Serengeti.

We were exceptionally fortunate, being out here in our LandCruiser, yet otherwise completely alone. The more as we came across three Secretary Birds tight beside the track. They were engaged in an extremely serious, even violent dispute, seemingly over a potential perfect nesting site at the top of a short and spindly flat-crowned acacia. The leggy jumping, dancing and prancing, the kicking and the head jabbing of these two presumed males, would put to shame the oft times barbarous antics of those fighting cocks of old.

After Ndutu we enter the Serengeti proper. We drove for almost a full day, from south east to north west making a complete transect of the various types of grassland that this huge protected area encompasses.

In the northern Serengeti, more especially on the lightly wooded escarpment that overlooks the Mara river, peering into the hills of southernmost Kenya beyond, it was fascinating to observe both of the Western spurfowl species, side by side, both the endemic Grey-breasted and the ‘Zambesian’ Red-necked. They were very tame around our super luxury camp at Mara-Mara on the crest of one of these ridges.

Staying at this sumptuous tented camp yielded a number of new bird species for our list, including various African warblers - they are quite exciting to some - “write-ins” such as the Green-capped Eremomela and the Black-backed Cisticola. New for a trip list that was fast approaching five hundred. A high number partly by dint of our brief exploration of these moister habitats, “new habitats” in an area that is nearer to the Equator.

There were some new mammals here too, such as that small antelope the enigmatic Oribi, some of whom seemed determined to dry-off by sun bathing of a morning in our vehicle tracks. And there were Hyaenas, hollering at night, around the camp.

This was the area where we finally got to watch a female Greater Honeyguide, who appeared to be trying to lure us to an invisible bee’s somewhere in the dense shrubbery below the camp access road.

We had to tear ourselves away from the Mara region in order to end our westward journey on the shores of Lake Victoria. Here, at the delightfully tranquil Speke Bay Lodge, were able to relax our bones and walk around the tree-filled grounds. This unofficial nature reserve produced for us a host of western lakeshore species, and other hard-to-see-well birds such as Square-tailed Nightjar and Three-banded Courser, each at their day time roosts. We found the Blue-headed Coucal by the judicious use of play-back and carefully counted the small herd of hippopotamus as they waited for the twilight to come ashore and graze among our bandas (African rounded bungalows).

Finally it was time to drive through the densely populated farmlands to Mwanza (the second city of Tanzania) and board our Precision Airways domestic flight back to Kilimanjaro. We birded in the late afternoon around the KIA lodge beside the airport. And at dusk we watched Slender-tailed Nightjars displaying on a cement pathway beside the rarely visited swimming pool.

Our last day in the field in Tanzania took us out into the nearby Maasai steppe along the Simanjiro road to the escarpment. I think everyone was surprised to see so many bird species, nineteen of which were additions. Pride of place might be given to the Golden-breasted Starlings, we saw five of them, rare and flamboyant cousins of the aforementioned endemic Ashy Starling. Sadly their future is less secure, due to the demand for locally produced charcoal, and they are only present in one nationally protected area. We also found a single pair of the White-headed Mousebird, a largely frugivorous bird, cousin of the near ubiquitous Speckled Mousebird which, together with Common Bulbul, was the most widespread species being seen on fourteen days of the tour.

Then it really was the end of the tour and our journey back to … a separate reality (?).

                                                                                                                                                                                 - James Wolstencroft

Created: 07 February 2024