Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Birding and Game-viewing in Tanzania

April 2010
(Bird and wildlife photos by Nancy Bell, text and scenic photos by Chuck Bell)

Easter Sunday, April 4
We arrived in Arusha, Tanzania late in the evening to begin a "Megafari" designed and led by Tropical Birding's Keith Barnes.  We breezed right through immigration, bag pick up and customs in this small airport and went outside to await our driver.  It turned out that all 6 of us on this first leg of the safari were on the same flight.  We gathered on the airport foyer, loaded up our bags and took the short drive to the Kia Lodge, where we met up with Keith.  It was really good to see him again.  We had a very nice air conditioned room, repacked for tomorrow and went to bed.

Monday, April 5
We had a rather restless night because of jet lag and were up before 4:30 am.  Our Starbucks Via was really nice.  We had breakfast at 5:30 am and set off at 6:00 am for a day's birding at Nyumba ya Mungu, a big reservoir surrounded by dry country acacia scrub about 2 1/2 hours to the east.  We hadn't gotten very far down the paved road when there was a loud clunking underneath our long-chassis Land Rover.  We stopped and went birding on the flat plain while Zefa, our driver fixed it.  A good rule is go birding while the driver fixes whatever the problem is!  We got our first lifer of the trip, a Long-tailed Shrike, which Nancy photographed. Nancy slowly worked her way towards the shrike, getting photos a little closer each time until she was as close as the lens would allow!   A Eurasian Hobby flew over and scattered some larks we were watching.  Zefa was successful in dealing with the vehicle and we drove on, stopping to bird at many places along the way.  We had seen nearly all of these species elsewhere before but it was good to see them again.  A nice refresher.  The lake was full of water birds, and we really added to our day list.  
Eastern Paradise Whydah
Speke's Weaver
We had a very good box lunch under a shade tree, then birded more around the lake before starting our journey back to Kia Lodge to pick up our luggage and continue on to Arusha.  Throughout the day we caught glimpses of the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro, as the clouds moved in and out.  While Zefa loaded the luggage, we had diet cokes, which turned out to cost a ridiculous $3 each.  Back on the road, we cut into Arusha National Park.  Our crew was ecstatic to see giraffe with babies, zebra, buffalo, etc.  

We arrived at Hatari Lodge, right on the edge of the park, shortly after dark.  It is owned by Germans, and we were met by Mette, the German manager.  We dumped our stuff in our truly gorgeous, two-level room, and went to dinner.  We had pork with a cherry sauce. Excellent.  We did the bird list, returned to our room and went to bed.  We were exhausted, still suffering from jetlag.  We had 125 species today, 4 of them new.

Tuesday, April 6
Coffee was delivered to our room at 5 am, starting the day very nicely.  But things went downhill fast when we discovered we had no hot water despite the very high price of this place.  We took cold showers and headed to breakfast at 6.  The sunrise on Mt. Meru was spectacular, and breakfast was good.  We headed into Arusha National Park and up the mountain.  We entered the montane forest quickly and stopped at a campground where we were permitted to get out of the car.  We saw many forest birds.  Among them were Forest Batis, Black-headed Apalis and a flyby of Waller's Starling, which were new for us.  We then went to another forest campground where we birded some more.  As we drove from place to place, we stopped very often to watch mammals.  

This park has very big populations of giraffe and Olive Baboon.  Nancy took untold numbers of pictures of baboons.  A small group of Kenrick's Starling flew across the road, another lifer.  We also saw Cape Buffalo, Waterbuck, Burchell's Zebra, warthog, bushbuck and a few species of dik dik.  We climbed up to the Ngorodutu crater, where we had our box lunches and watched game and birds, far below, including Crowned Crane and Black Stork.  Scarce Swift flew overhead. 
We then drove to the Momella Lakes, where we saw numerous migrant waders and two large flocks of Lesser Flamingo, among other species.  On the way back to the lodge, we saw Scaly Francolin.  We arrived at the lodge before dark, and Nancy spent the remaining daylight photographing Vervets.  As the vervets played Nancy could not help but notice the large canine teeth they had!  Chuck found we still had no hot water but took a cold shower anyway.  We complained, and Mette gave Nancy a key to another chalet to take a hot shower.  We did the bird list, had a nice meal and turned in.  We have seen 197 species in two days, with 5 more new today for a total of 9.

Beesley's Lark
Wednesday, April 7
We started our day with coffee at 4:30 am, breakfast at 5:30 and a departure at 6. We rarely have enough time to enjoy these lovely lodges.  As we pulled out of the lodge, a Montane Nightjar flew in front of the Land Rover and then alongside giving us a distant view of a lifer to start the day.  We had a better look at Scaly Francolin as we drove through the park on our way to Arusha.  It was fairly long to get there, and today we were in the middle of the 3 rows, the least comfortable seats.  We fueled in Arusha and travelled north more than an hour to Larigoro, near the Kenya border, and to a unique arid plain in the rain shadow of Mts. Kilimanjaro and Meru.  It is the only habitat of the Beesley's Lark, on which Keith did his PhD dissertation.  He said there are only about 45 birds left of this critically endangered species, and it has one of the smallest ranges of any bird species on earth, just the small arid plain here.  We found several singing Beesley’s Larks as well as several other larks, including Athi Short-toed lark, which is a likely split from Somali Short-toed Lark.  There were Maasai Ostrich, Thompson's Gazelle and Zebra on the plains, as well as Maasai with their herds of cattle, goats and fat-tailed sheep.  And there were several other species of grassland birds.  There were a pair of stately Seretarybirds, and raptors soared overhead, including dozens of Lesser Kestrels migrating north.
Secretarybird
We retraced our route to Arusha.  The road was under construction by a Chinese company.  The work made for a very rough and dusty journey.  Arusha is a very dirty, crowded town.  We finally arrived at Coffee Lodge on the western outskirts of town to pick up our packed lunches.  But since it was already 2:30 pm, Zefa and Keith arranged for us to go out into the garden to eat it.  Coffee Lodge is a high-end lodge on a former coffee estate.  The big round table in the garden was delightful and the large canvas umbrella structure overhead was welcome, as we had a shower while eating our lunch.  


Nancy clowning with Masai women
It had been a tough, long morning but the Beesley's Lark was worth it.  After lunch we headed west and then south toward Lake Manyara, stopping to bird along the road.  Each time we stopped we attracted several Maasai and enjoyed interacting with them.  Nancy photographed Goldenbacked Weavers and Southern Red Bishops. She really had a great time with her new tripod, although the camera continued to have focusing problems.  
Rufous-tailed Weaver, Chuck's 5000th bird
Chuck finally got his 5000th life bird, a Rufous-tailed Weaver, a very restricted-range northern Tanzania endemic.  We arrived at Maramboi Camp shortly after dark.  It is a lovely tented camp on the lake shore.  We went to our rooms, dropped our stuff and returned for checklist and dinner.  While dining, we charged up our batteries and downloaded Nancy's flash cards onto the netbook at the generator-powered plug strips on the bar.  The bed enclosed in netting was huge and lovely.  We were exhausted and fell asleep quickly.  So far we have seen 238 species, 16 of them new.  We have always found the tented camps to be wonderful and we loved the feeling of being on the plains with the animals.  There was an armed guard to walk us to our tent after dark. 

Thursday, April 8
We started the day with a copious breakfast at 6 am and headed out to Tarangire National Park.  We spent the entire day birding and game-viewing from the Land Rover with top hatches open.  Because it is the rainy season, most of the game was widely dispersed including far outside the park boundaries, following its traditional migration paths.  We saw a very nice bull elephant in its prime, a small cow herd, a few warthogs, giraffes and zebra (as well as small impala herds, etc.  

Ashy Starling
We concentrated mostly on the birds, and we saw 4 lifers today, including Ashy Starling, Northern Pied Babbler and Hildebrandt's Francolin.  We had a bit of rain and put up our umbrellas inside the vehicle.  Rather amusing.  But we managed to dodge a big storm that dropped at least a couple inches of rain in the area around the lodge.  We returned to the lodge at 4:30 pm and downloaded all of Nancy's full flash cards.  We did the check list and took a short night drive before dinner.  We managed to get to bed early.

Friday, April 9
We left at dawn and headed to Lake Manyara National Park.  In the small town on the edge of the park, we stopped to look at several trees filled with roosting storks and pelicans.  We then entered the park and were treated to a show by two close Silvery-cheeked Hornbills.  A little further on we watched a small cow herd of elephant only a few feet from our vehicle!  They were so close Nancy could only photograph the eye at times!  We stopped at a lake overlook with hippos and several species of palearctic shorebirds.  Most impressive was a very large flock of Collared Pratincole.  The lake was not much more than a very big mud puddle surrounded by a very muddy edge, and the hippos were really too far away from where we were allowed to stand to get great photos. 
Red-and-Yellow Barbet
For lunch stopped at a picnic area complete with picnic tables.  We had Red-and-yellow Barbets right at our picnic table begging food.  They were courting and Nancy took many close-up photos.  Mary spotted a lump on a tree branch.  It was a roosting nightjar.  We studied it very closely in an effort to identify it.  We concluded that it was a probable Sombre Nightjar female though it could have been a Eurasian Nightjar.  We took lots of pictures, and Keith is going to have some expert look at them.  After lunch we headed west stopping at some flower patches for sunbirds.  We saw the big Bronze Sunbird.  We then entered Ngorongoro National Park.  We climbed up the forested crater rim, birding along the way.  When we came to the top, we had our first view of the huge expanse of the crater 2000 feet below us.  It was truly impressive and beautiful in the soft evening light.  As we drove toward our lodge, an elephant gave a mock charge right at Nancy's window, trumpeting loudly.  The Sopa Lodge here is gorgeous, perched unobtrusively on the crater rim.  We had a huge room and the first hot shower water in days.  We had dinner in the huge dining room and got to bed shortly after 10 pm.  We've seen 300 species so far, 26 of them new.

Saturday, April 10
We had the buffet breakfast in the dining room at 6:30 am and headed down into the crater.  We stopped a few times for birds in the woodland of the crater wall.  As we descended, we could see a column of at least 1000 zebras stretching across a small corner of the vast plain below us.  We stopped to watch a close herd of Wildebeest.  Then a lone Spotted Hyena came out of the grasses and walked among the herd looking for opportunity.  But none presented itself, and the hyena, which had a bad left hind leg, lay down in the grass out of our view.  We drove on toward the middle of the crater admiring the large herds of animals until we came to a pair of lions, which had been mating for the past couple of days.  We stayed there for an hour hoping they would mate again but they just slept.  We stopped again for a very photogenic pair of Gray Crowned Cranes. 
Gray-crowned Cranes
Throughout the morning Nancy, Mary and Larry took pictures of all things large and small.  Every stop was punctuated by the rapid click of Canon shutters.  We saw some vehicles lined up in the far distance and realized they were watching a Black Rhino.  We went over there and had good looks at two rhinos.  Then, Zefa spied a Cheetah way in the distance.  We looked at it through Brian's scope.  


We went to a picnic spot by a small lake, where we were allowed to get out of the car.  It was a relief to stretch our legs plus we were ready to use the toilets.  We sat down under a large shade tree to eat our box lunches.  We were soon surrounded by several Rufous-tailed Weavers, Superb Starlngs and Speke's Weavers begging for food. It was amusing that here was my 5000th bird trying to get some of my lunch.  While eating her piece of chicken wrapped in foil, Nancy was distracted by these lovely birds.  She looked away from her chicken for an instant, and a Yellow-billed Kite swooped in from behind, dusting Chuck's ear with its wingtip, and snatched the chicken breast right out of the foil in Nancy's hand!  We were all shocked. Nancy did not feel a thing and was left staring at her now empty foil!  But another kite did the same to Mary, coming from behind and grabbing her samoosa. These kites were experts!  After lunch, we headed for Lake Magadi, the biggest body of water in the crater.  It was teeming with flamingos, both Greater and Lesser, giving the lake a vast ring of pink around its entire shoreline.  We could not get very close to the water’s edge and Brian’s spotting scope was required to view the shorebirds. We looked at lots of waders, including a huge flock of Ruff.  We slowly worked our way back across the plain during the remainder of the afternoon.  Rain squalls chased across the crater all afternoon and finally one caught us, and Zefa quickly closed the open top.  We got to the lodge around 5:30 pm, relaxed, showered, went up to the lobby for the bird list, ate dinner and turned in.  We have seen 326 species so far, 28 of them new.

Sunday, April 11
We birded on the beautiful lodge grounds after breakfast, seeing Schalow's Turaco and other montane woodland birds.  We got one lifer:  Eastern Mountain Greenbul.  Then we drove two-thirds of the way around the crater before heading down the west side.  We drove through a huge depression where large herds of Masaai cattle where grazing along with large numbers of zebras, Thompson's Gazelle and Wildebeest.  This is one of the few places where cattle and wild animals can be seen grazing alongside each other.  We also saw a few traditional Masaai compounds with round mud huts and a boma of piled thorn bushes to contain the cattle in the compound at night.  We stopped at the Ngorongoro airstrip where we could get out to walk, searching for Jackson's Widowbird.  We finally spotted it going up and down in some tall grasses.  We drove on down to Oldupai Gorge, where Mary Leakey found the earliest hominid in 1959.  Oldupai is a wild form of sisal found in the area and used by the Masaai for its fiber.  Europeans mispronounced and misspelled the name making it Olduvai.  We ate our box lunches, listened to a short talk and looked at the small well worn museum.  We did some birding in the very dry and very hot acacia and then drove on down onto the plain.  We headed south onto the Ndutu Plain, where there were at least a million Wildebeest.  
We found a kill attended by two Spotted Hyena and a swarm of vultures.  The photographers were thrilled.  We arrived at Ndutu Lodge, nestled in the acacia woodland, just after dark.  We did the bird list, ate a late dinner and tumbled into bed.  So far, we have seen 351 species, 30 of them new.

Monday, April 12
Ndutu is famous for its big cats, and we left the lodge before dawn to look for them.  We got waylaid repeatedly be close up raptors and other birds along the way.  We saw nothing special in the first three hours of driving around through the acacia woodland.  We drove up a koppie and got out of the car to enjoy a delightful packed breakfast and thermoses of coffee.  It was nice to be out of the vehicle for a bit.   We then went further and eventually came upon a female cheetah with her "teenaged" cub.  


We stayed with them for more than hour, with the photographers documenting their every move.  It seemed the full-sized cub wanted to play and have an adventure and kept pulling away from the mom.  But mom was not interested in doing anything in the heat of the day and refused to humor the youngster.   
We finally moved on at noon and found another female with two fairly large cubs under a shade tree.  More pictures of these very close cats surrounded by beautiful purple flowers.  This is the best viewing Nancy has ever had of cheetahs and she was loving every minute.  If it was up to her she would have been happy to spend hours just watching and photographing them! 

The bird highlight of the morning were two different Martial Eagles, an immature and an adult, and a Long-crested Eagle, which posed nicely for photos.  We returned to the lodge for a very late lunch and a bit of rest before going out again.  We looked for leopards in an area Zefa knew they frequented but the only really interesting thing we saw were two small groups of Bat-eared Fox. They were great fun to watch.   We had bought drinks at the bar and put them in a cooler in the vehicle.  We stopped on an island in a dry riverbed for sundowners, where we could see a considerable distance in all directions for our safety.  It was very pleasant.  
When we returned to the lodge, the "house" Genet was up in the rafters.  Nancy had photographed it the night before.  The Genet looks like a small wild cat with a lovely long thick tail that Nancy wanted desperately to touch as it hung gracefully down from the rafters.  Then when she thought the animal was not paying attention she stood up on the couch and stroked that lovely tail.  The Genet merely pulled his tail away and out of her reach.   As usual we put all of our stuff on the charger in the lounge, as we had no power plugs in our room.  We now have seen 365 birds, but we got no new ones today, for the first time on this trip.

Tuesday, April 13
We went out at dawn again, this time to look for a lioness with two 2-month-old cubs.  We saw their fresh tracks on the road but we couldn't discover her hiding place though we spent a lot of time driving off-road.  We stopped in a relatively open area for our box breakfast among grazing zebra.  It was just beautiful.  Shortly after resuming our drive, Nancy called "Cats!"  And there were four Cheetah running through the grass.  They were shy unlike the ones yesterday and were moving away from us.  This makes a total of 9 Cheetah seen in two days at Ndutu.  We returned to the lodge, paid out and loaded our luggage.  We had really enjoyed the Ndutu Plains.  We now headed north onto the southern Serengeti Plain, which at this time of year is where most of the region's 2 million Wildebeest are congregated with their calves.  It is the short grass of this southern section that attracts them. They stretched completely across the immense horizon in a wildlife spectacle that is unequalled anywhere else on Earth.  In all of his time in Africa, Chuck had never seen anything even remotely like this huge biomass of animals.  

We drove on to the entrance gate of Serengeti National Park where we had lunch on picnic tables that were well attended by Hildebrandt's and Superb Starlings and Rufous-tailed Weavers.  We then continued our long drive west through the long grass of the central Serengeti.  Animal numbers here were quite low but we did see a lioness sleeping up in a lone acacia tree quite a long ways back from the road.  We also picked up a lifer, the Gray-crested Helmetshrike, a rare bird with a very small range that was also a lifer for Keith.  The road was barely a track in some places, though it is the only road to Mwanza, a big town on Lake Victoria.  It became very hairy when we got into the heaviest rain of the trip.  But Zefa did a masterful job of easing the big Land Cruiser through slippery sections and deep mud holes, all the while keeping an eye out for lions and leopards.  

Zefa
He was a fabulous driver and guide.  Keith said Zefa was the best he has ever worked with in all his tours!  We arrived at the Mbalageti Camp after 5 hours of hard driving in the park.  Though it was almost dark, it was clear this was a high-end luxury camp.  However when our Massai escorts took us down the very long path to our luxury tent we found we had neither electricity nor hot water.  As Chuck told the camp manager, it was the most expensive cold shower we have ever taken.  Dinner made up for it though.  The Nile perch was excellent, and the chocolate mousse was positively the best we've ever had anywhere.  Though the camp holds 80, we were the only guests in this low season.  While we dined, the camp electricity was restored and out hot water heater was fixed.  It was a very long but exciting day.  So far we have seen 376 species, 31 of them new.



Wednesday, April 14
Mbalageti Camp was so beautiful, peaceful, remote and luxurious that Chuck elected to stay behind while the group went off on safari.  He spent a couple hours birding around the camp, enjoying the challenge of identifying birds on his own.  It was also much easier to hear their calls without a bunch of people around making noise.  The camp has a satellite connection to the internet, and Chuck checked his email, finding out that he was one of the 10 winners of a University of Phoenix national volunteer award that will bring $10,000 to PWV.  He was a week after the deadlines to sign and return forms and worried through his lunch that we might lose the award.  He immediately sent off emails, and he started trying to call at 4 pm, at opening of business in Atlanta, but getting a dialtone proved impossible.  But finally the Indian camp manager came up with another idea.  One of the cleaners had a cell phone that got a weak signal up here via Vodacom (Chuck's uses Zain).  For $2 Chuck managed to make a two-minute call to Atlanta, confirmed we wanted the award, and arranged to call the next day from Nairobi.  

Black Coucal
Nancy had a great day with the group.  She got good photos of leopard lounging in a somewhat distant tree, had a fun time with begging Dwarf Mongoose and Yellow-spotted Rock Hyraxes during the picnic lunch, and lots of birds in the trees.  She got two lifers, the Black Coucal and the Red-throated Tit.  We had a nice though late dinner and crawled into our luxurious netted bed.

Thursday, April 15
We departed Mbalageti about 7:30 am and quickly encountered considerable muddy stretches of road from last night's rain.  We stopped to see a couple of new trip birds and we looked without success for the Karamoja Apalis, which seems restricted to a small thin variety of acacia and prefers single stem trees.  After a lot of slipping and swatting of tsetse flies attracted to the vehicle, we arrived at Serengeti's Saronera airstrip.  The bush pilot Liz admonished us for having more than 15 kgs each of luggage but took our load anyway.  The flight to Arusha in the single engine Cessna Caravan took about an hour.  
We waited about half an hour at Arusha, which gave us enough time to eat our very delicious box lunches.  We then got onto another Cessna for the 15-mnute flight to Kilimanjaro airport.  Keith was told that our onward flight to Nairobi was delayed by two hours, which would put us in too late to make our connection to Entebbe.  But after awhile, we were told the plane was more or less back on schedule so we could make our connection.  Our birding totals for Tanzania were 388 species seen with about 30 new birds for Chuck and 35 for Nancy.     

We finally departed for Nairobi at 5:30 pm.  We had a glorious view of the snow covered peak of Kilimanjaro poking up through the clouds and bathed in the low afternoon sun.  Chuck took pictures out the window of our Beechcraft 1900.  

We landed in Nairobi in less than an hour, and ground staff of Fly 540 (the name of the airline) was on hand to walk us over to our Entebbe flight, which had been held for us.  We took off at about 6:15 pm on a Canadair jet, arriving in Entebbe a little after 7 pm.  We had done a 2+hour drive followed by 4 flights and 5 airports in one day in Africa, and all of our luggage made it with us.  A real miracle! 

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