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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Tanzania: Kilimanjaro to the Serengeti

November 2019 Narrative

The unique WINGS/Sunbird Safari Birding Route has evolved over eight years to become what the designer feels is a highly efficient introduction to the ecological wonders of northern Tanzania.

And thus, we started our November tour this year, as has become usual, in the highland gardens of Meru View Lodge. A modest abode, yet with great and birdy gardens, less than a kilometre from Ngongongare, the main gate to Arusha National Park.

Once inside the park, early on our first full day, we immediately experienced the hustle and bustle of a tropical morning’s avian activity. Birds were everywhere. Out in the glades between the zebra and buffalo and deeper inside, among the moist and varied woodlands which wrap around the foothills of Meru’s eastern flank, an awesome tawny-coloured precipice. This great curved palisade forms the eastern wall of the fifth highest mountain in Africa. Standing proud, less than four degrees from the equator, she is known as Mount Meru. A dormant volcano nowadays fully incorporated into Tanzania’s Arusha ‘game park’; and this protected; together with a few forested lesser peaks, ash cones, scenic craters and mountain lakes.

On this tour we saw most of the bird species that one might hope for at this and our subsequent locations. And in addition to the many regular birds were a few surprises. Among those birds logged in the course of the first two days was our first big eagle. As we were returning to the lodge, at sunset on the second day, we found an adult Martial Eagle (with prominent bulging crop) settling down to roost in a gnarled croton tree right beside the rust red track. 

We also managed to encounter the Martial’s equally fearsome relative, on both days in this park, the African Crowned Eagle. However, these eagles were displaying, whistling a lot like curlews, high above ourselves and the leafy evergreen canopy between us and the sky. It is in these majestic forests that you find the eagles’ favoured prey: those gloriously attired, gruff-voiced, black and white Colobus Monkeys. And they also take the timid peeping Blue Monkeys and the three diminutive, and by contrast, almost silent antelope: the chestnut red Harvey’s Duikers, the tiny olive brown Suni and the sandy coloured Kirk’s Dik-Dik. All of whom are targeted within each eagle’s phenomenal sights.

High on the forested slopes of the mountain we found somewhat skulking arboreal birds, such as White-starred Robin, obtaining decent views, for the most part, of ground dwelling species rarely seen. Nevertheless, the fleeting flight views of Evergreen Forest Warbler, teased-out across a rushing mountain stream by “the indispensable Bird App”, left more than a little to be desired. Bird of the (second) day for some would almost certainly have been the male Abbott’s Starling who sang and snatched berries, apparently unconcerned, all around us in the fruiting understorey beside the giant Fig-tree Arch.

In the heavily grazed yet verdant clearings that surround the brackish Momella Lakes we were truly stunned to find a female Serval (on the first evening) right beside the road, quietly preoccupied with hunting rodents, late one afternoon. It could be said that if a Serval almost crosses your path, on the first full day of a tour, the omens speak of bigger cats to come!

Leaving the slopes of Mount Meru, for Lake Manyara on day three, along the northern route, we would almost complete a circuit of the mountain. We went this way in order to experience “Lark Plains”. Lying in the rain shadow of the mountain these seemingly barren and often dusty plains are home to what is arguably the rarest landbird in all of mainland Africa. This, the most delightful little sprite of this desert steppe, is the Critically Endangered Beesley’s Lark. There cannot be more than fifty individuals who remain. By phoning ahead to our two Maasai guides we engineered a most efficient capture of this and three other key lark species on the plain. We were also treated to excellent views of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and other arid land specialists.

From here we drove directly, almost without a single stop, to Maramboi. Here we would sleep in embarrassing luxury for the next two nights of the tour. Splendid comfort despite the heat of the Great Rift Valley, a vast lodge sprawling along the savanna margin of the saline flats that form the eastern boundary of Lake Manyara. From here we spent a full day exploring the “granny Baobab savannas” (senescent grazed woodlands) of Tarangire National Park where a further dizzying array of often brightly coloured birds awaited us here. And, by returning to the main road, via the northern gate at sunset, we lucked-in on the first of five Leopards for the trip. She was no doubt hoping, in spite of the attentions of a couple of safari cars, to complete her arboreal daytime snooze, out on a broad limb of a sausage tree (kigelia) close beside the Tarangire river.

The next day we continued westwards through Lake Manyara National Park, which lies along the foot of the rugged western wall of the Rift Valley. Here we bumped into our first really big cats, in the form of two Lionesses strolling past the car, who like the rest of us, were out looking for lunch. It must be said that the diversity of birds today was at times almost overwhelming. Yet this avian intoxication is truly something remarkable. Pride of place today, among the array of bird images, must surely go to the female Greater Painted snipe, that we watched at close range, and in perfect light, feeding daintily in the open, beside the stony causeway circuit that leads round Hippo Pools.

In the fading evening light of that exhausting day our Toyota Land-cruiser climbed the zigzag road of the western wall, our driver skillfully driving us, (as ever), up into the cool of the East African highlands. Cool once again, this time at Karatu where next morning we enjoyed a decent walk ascending a well-kept trail into the highland forests above Gibb’s Farm. Of the many flying wonders to which we were treated here I suppose the most delightful might have been the pair of nesting White-tailed Flycatchers; not to forget the little leaf mantis however, who was foraging ultra-cryptically beside the track. In the afternoon at last we entered the promised western lands: via the gate of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

In the afternoon we made what has become a customary Sunbird pilgrimage to the ancient fig trees along the crater rim - in search of Schalow’s Turaco. This year we were invited by Kitenge, a security guard, inside the gates at “Wildlife Lodge”. In the space of three quarters an hour we were almost continuously surrounded by an exquisite selection of those highland birds that inhabit these mysterious forests. Forests whose branches are draped by mosses and Usnea beard lichens, their boughs encrusted with blooming epiphytes.

The next day was “Our Day in the Crater”. Every time I visit Ngorongoro Crater I am sceptical that it will “again deliver the goods”. Yet every time I am amazed that despite the falling water levels amid the increasing tourist pressures to which Ngorongoro Crater is subjected it remains an utterly unique and wondrous place.

As we descended to the crater floor, after ticking-off Lynes’s Cisticola, and we found our first cat, a distant Caracal hunting grass rats amidst the grassy scree of the lower slopes. And later in the day we saw our second Serval of the safari. Another female, she was not far from a large pride of lions sheltering from the afternoon glare, very near the picnic site at the lake formed by Ngoitokitok springs. It was in the crater that we made our first really close acquaintance with some of the plains wildlife”, those world-famous ungulates, the great herds of the Serengeti.

Leaving Ngorongoro early the next day we continued our adventure westwards into the Serengeti itself. After visiting the anthropological museum at Olduvai we travelled on to the park gate at Naabi Hill where we enjoyed our further study of mini-beasts, in the shape of our third colourful species of agama lizard for the trip - whose males are quite shockingly coloured - the Mwanza Flat-headed Agama. After that, and before our picnic lunch at Seronera, we achieved a very remarkable one day feline hat-trick. For we saw a male Leopard hunting reedbuck, a Cheetah mother and her son, and a panting Lioness lying in the verge, all in the space of half an hour!

We crossed into the Western Serengeti biome during the course of the afternoon and took up residence outside the park. We would pass the next two nights on a shrubby hill, across the narrow yet almost pristine Robanda river, a watercourse that divides the Ikona Wildlife Management Area from the most exclusive safari reserve of the Sasakwa Concession Area. Thankfully from now on the boxed picnic lunches became a thing of the past, since we would return to our accommodation for a cooked meal. After all who can forget those marauding roast-chicken thieves, the sharp, dark kites of Ngoitokitok, who almost stole the show in Ngorongoro?

Our only adversaries now were Tsetse flies, who are certainly common enough in the moist western savannas of the Serengeti ecosystem. These taller grasslands and wood pastures, near the mighty Lake Victoria-Nyanza, support a very different and more complex fauna from the somewhat desiccated short grass plains, in the rain shadow of the Crater Highlands to the east. Around both Serengeti Simba Lodge and at Mbalageti Luxury Tented Lodge we concentrated on finding as many as possible of the range-restricted bird species of the Lake Zone. In addition to getting good views of some excellent bird species, such as a family party of Grey-crested Helmet-shrikes, we were treated to close encounters with other beasts including a pair of Bat-eared Foxes, two Puff Adders and a big male Savanna Elephant. We met the latter gentleman both mornings on the Mbalageti plain. He had retained some of the friskiness of youth into his old age, and certainly had not lost his legendary elephant memory.

At last after several days in the safari vehicle it was wonderful for all of us to reach the breezy shores of Lake Victoria and to settle into some quiet pedestrian birding among the well-kept grounds of our lodge. Here we could enjoy close views of normally shy nocturnal birds, such as Heuglin’s Courser, Spotted Thick-knee and Slender-tailed Nightjar. And we got to grips with the complex of weavers and sunbirds that this location has to offer. Eventually the time came for us to fly away from the Serengeti and the lake and to return to where our safari had begun, at Kilimanjaro International Airport.

We settled-in for our final night of the tour at the little scrubby, flower-filled hill that stands beside the runway, a remarkable spot, that is in fact a de facto nature reserve protected by the existence of the Lodge, the only “airport hotel”.

On the last morning we took breakfast early and travelled from here out into the Maasai Steppe. This is a plateau with typically a harsh and arid environment, the landscape of the Somali-Maasai biome. This year however was exceptional as there had been plentiful and early short rains, that fell throughout October. Consequently, the area was in full bloom. This meant there was a wealth of new birds for our trip list to be found amongst the thorny scrub. In fact, the crowning jewel of our safari, for me at least, was getting wonderful views and thus photographic opportunities for my clients, of the scintillating Golden-breasted Starling. Arguably it was bird number 450 for the “total trip list” and a fitting conclusion to a series of superb safari experiences among the wildlife splendours of this distinctive land - Tanzania. Somewhere so special that it remains an utterly essential part of the world, a top destination for the Natural Historian. And it remains an honour to be able to help reveal some of its infinite wonders to others of a similar disposition.

James Wolstencroft.

Created: 02 December 2019