Tanzania: Birding Among the Beasts
Millions of animals on the move and a supporting cast of colorful and conspicuous birds.
With its huge, unspoiled wilderness areas and plains loaded with game, the vast landscapes of Tanzania reflect an Africa of old. This tour, timed to coincide with the arrival of masses of wildebeest in the central Serengeti, explores northern Tanzania’s exceptional diversity. With the rains having fallen recently, the landscapes display a fabulous palate of colors, from the fresh green grass to the red sands, to the billowing black afternoon thunderstorm clouds. Almost every night, the epic skies produce a spectacular orange and vermilion sunset. Birds are in full breeding regalia, and watching the long-tailed, testosterone-laden widows and black, red, and yellow bishops frantically displaying and chasing each other is a major highlight. Our optional pre-trip extension visits the arid landscapes of the Tsavo corridor, the endemic-rich Usambaras, and the exotic Pemba Island.
Day 1: Arusha. After arrival at Kilimanjaro airport, we head to a lodge near Arusha National Park.
Day 2: Arusha NP. We’ll spend the day on Mt. Meru, which looms over Arusha. The mix of habitats here includes montane forest, and offers us many exciting birds including Crowned Hawk-Eagle, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, and splendid songster Rueppell’s Robin-Chat. As we head up the mist-enshrouded slopes, the yellowwood trees become draped in Usnea old man’s beard lichen and we search for skulking gems such as White-starred Robin and the dapper Brown Woodland-Warbler. The park is also an excellent place to find large herds of buffalo grazing the mountain’s lower slopes, not to mention a remarkable abundance of giraffes and a chance for scarce forest antelope like Harvey’s duiker and sunk.
Day 3: Arusha district. We drive around the looming Mt. Meru to the lark plains. These grasslands are home to the last 200 Beesley’s Larks on Earth, and we will search long and hard for this critically endangered Tanzanian endemic. Other interesting species here include Chestnut-bellied and Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, shrikes, migrant wheatears, pipits, and larks galore. The plains are lined by Drepanolobium whistling thorn trees, while hills offer a scrubby habitat that can deliver Red-fronted and Black-throated Barbets, Red-throated Tit, eremomelas, and crombecs. Thicket habitat and riparian strips offer many great birds, including Slate-colored Boubou, Nubian Woodpecker, the highly gregarious Gray-headed Social-Weaver, and the possibility of migrants like Spotted Flycatcher and Common Nightingale.
Days 4-6: Tarangire National Park. From Arusha we head to Tarangire, where we shall enjoy some of northern Tanzania’s finest birding. The low baobab-clad plains and fever-tree groves here support many cool species including three Tanzanian endemics and near-endemics: Ashy Starling, Yellow-collared Lovebird, and Rufous-tailed Weaver. The lush grasses are full of ground birds like Northern White-bellied Bustard and both Red-necked and Yellow-necked Francolins. This is one of the better places to see elephants, which can occur in great numbers along the Tarangire River.
Days 7-8: Tarangire to Ngorongoro Crater. After leaving the Great Rift Valley, the road climbs to the edge of the magical crater. We’ll keep our eyes peeled for flowering Leonotis; if we find a patch, we might be get to savor the coolest sunbird spectacle in Africa, with the impressive Golden-winged, coppery-colored Bronze, and iridescent purple Tacazee Sunbirds all competing for nectar from the same flowers. Descending into the crater with its towering vertical walls is like finding Africa’s Garden of Eden. Inside, we seek myriad grassland and woodland birds, as well as scavenging vultures amidst a thronging wildlife spectacle virtually unequalled on earth. 30,000-some big mammals are resident here, and a decent proportion of them can be seen from a single view point within the crater, an indescribably magnificent sight.
Days 9-10: Ndutu. We move through the Malanja depression and onto the Serengeti plains, where sandgrouse, bustards, and larks abound. Grant’s gazelles are scattered across the plains, while Ostrich and giraffe walk swaying in the haze. Towards Ndutu we enter beautiful mature Acacia woodland with alkaline lakes and swamps. The lodge’s waterhole is a bird magnet with ever-present Fischer’s Lovebird, a variety of bishops, waxbills, and widowbirds, and the endemic Gray-breasted Spurfowl. The woodlands harbor Rufous Chatterer, Cardinal and Bearded Woodpeckers, Black-faced Babbler, and Green Woodhoopoe. The wildebeest will have recently calved in this area, and up to half a million females may be in attendance with their young, presenting a wildlife spectacle of awesome proportions, impossible to describe and enthralling to experience. The attendant predators, particularly lions and hyenas, follow their movements closely, and the vultures await each kill with renewed enthusiasm.
Days 11-12: Serengeti NP. We explore the vast acacia-studded plains of Serengeti NP, encountering herds of wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, and giraffe alongside their associated predators. Although it’s always difficult to find, this is one of the best places in East Africa for leopard. The birds, of course, are party to this drama. We’ll search for Meyer’s Parrot, Tanzania Red-biled Hornbill, Bare-faced Go-away-bird, Usambiro Barbet, and Gray-headed Silverbill.
Day 13: Serengeti to Kilimanjaro Airport. We return to Arusha, stopping for lunch at the picturesque Gibbs Farm, a good place for Green-headed Sunbird and Grosbeak Weaver.
Usambaras & Pemba pre-tour extension (9 days)
This trip begins nine days before the main tour, and explores a diverse set of areas that further spice up what is already a fascinatingly diverse tour. First, we head for the arid Tsavo-corridor woodlands of Same. Nestled in the rain shadow of the Usambaras and Pares, the thornscrub offer fantastic birding. Targets include Black-throated Barbet, Purple Grenadier, White-bellied Go-away-bird, Orange-bellied Parrot, Red-fronted Warbler, Rosy-patched Bushshrike, Somali Golden-breasted Bunting, and many others.
Next on the agenda are both the West and East Usambara Mountains, which are part of an ancient arc of crystalline mountains. These treasure troves are full of endemics and montane species not easily available elsewhere in Africa. Highlights may include a bird that is found nowhere else in the world, the Usambara Akalat. Other rare specialties we’ll search for include Usambara Thrush, Usambara Weaver, Spot-throat Modulatrix, and Long-billed Tailorbird, a relict species of Asian affinities, which requires much luck to see. The lowland coastal forests in the East Usambaras at the Amani-Sigi reserve support Chestnut-fronted Helmetshrike, Red-tailed Ant-Thrush, and the beautiful Green-headed Oriole.
Our final stop is the idyllic and laid-back Pemba Island. One of the Spice Islands, cloves are spread throughout Pemba’s streets. Here we bird Ngezi Forest Reserve looking for the dainty Pemba Scops-Owl, Pemba Sunbird, Pemba White-eye, and Pemba Green-Pigeon. There is the opportunity for some idyllic snorkeling on the nearby Manta Reef before we head to the big game parks of Northern Tanzania to start the main tour.
CLIMATE: Cool to warm, with some rain likely.
DIFFICULTY: Mostly easy. There will be some fairly long walks in the Usambaras.
ACCOMMODATION: Most of the time we will be based in excellent lodges in National Parks and Game Reserves. However, on the extension, the accommodation at Same and in the East Usambaras is rustic and simple.