Tanzania: Birding Among the Beasts

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.

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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.

Ashy Starling is a very cool-looking Tanzanian endemic
Ashy Starling is a very cool-looking Tanzanian endemic (Ken Behrens)

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.

Seeing a cheetah mother with cubs is a special experience
Seeing a cheetah mother with cubs is a special experience (Ken Behrens)

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.

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Usambaras & Pemba pre-tour extension (10 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.

On the extension, we search for dry-country specials like Red-fronted Warbler in the Same area
On the extension, we search for dry-country specials like Red-fronted Warbler in the Same area (Ken Behrens)

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.

Day 1: Arusha to Same.

Day 2: Mkomazi to Lushoto. 

Day 3: West Usambaras.

Day 4: Lushoto to East Usambaras.

Day 5: East Usambaras highlands.

Day 6: East Usambaras lowlands.

Day 7: Tanga to Pemba.

Day 8: Pemba Island.

Day 9: Pemba to Arusha.

Day 10: Begin main tour or fly home.

We may see Brown-headed Parrot on the extension
We may see Brown-headed Parrot on the extension (Ken Behrens)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. We’ll typically be up early (around 6 am), and stay out until around 5 pm. Where possible we will use the middle of the day to rest up, or travel between localities. There will also be a few days that are full days in the field. There will be a few optional nocturnal outings to search for owls and nightjars; these are normally done just before dinner and seldom last for more than an hour (typically between 6–7 pm). Tanzania is a decent sized country, and driving can often be slow because there is so much to see along the way! Most drives are under 4 hours in duration with the exception of a 5-6 hour drive on day 13 and a 6-7 hour drive on day 9 of the extension. There will be packed lunches on many days; but sitting with a packed lunch for a siesta under a tree is often a far more relaxing way to do things than spending a long time driving back to camp for lunch, only to head out again in two hours.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Almost all the birding is done from mostly flat roads and other easily accessible areas, and much time is spent birding from the safari vehicle. There is little walking on this tour, at the most you can expect to walk about 2 miles (3 km) on a few days; there is a bit more walking required on the extension than on the main tour.

CLIMATE: Quite pleasant both on the higher plateau and in the main Rift Valley localities (usually 65°-80°F, 18°-27°C). At the Ngorongoro Crater rim, and in the Usambara highlands on the extension, it is cooler, with some rain highly likely.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to superb on the main tour (including some of the nicest accommodation available on a birding tour!), all have private, en-suite bathrooms, and full-time hot water. In most places electricity is available 24 hours a day. Several lodges have generators, and they will switch it off for part of the night, but alternate light sources are provided. On the extension, the accommodation at Same and in the East Usambaras is fairly rustic.

PHOTOGRAPHY: If you are a casual photographer, you will love this trip! Nowhere in Africa are birds more cooperative, and nowhere are mammals so easier to see. We are visiting many places where birds are common and approachable, so there are ample of opportunities for the casual photographer to indulge and enjoy shooting. However this is primarily a birding trip, and if you are a serious photographer, it may be best to consider our Kenya, Namibia or South Africa Photo Journeys.

WHEN TO GO: We usually run our set-departure trip around April trip when the birds are all breeding, in plumage and very vocal. This trip can be run as a custom tour at almost any time of the year, and in the boreal winter (October – March) many migrants flood into Tanzania meaning your bird list can even be longer; if you want to include Grumeti river crossings, June –August is the best time. In our opinion, the best of the wildebeest and zebra migration is during the birthing cycle, when the set-departure tour runs.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Visas are required for most nationalities. They can be obtained on arrival by citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India and China, most European countries, and others. However it is a good idea to obtain a visa in advance just in case travel requirements change at short notice – it is important to double check about six weeks before the tour.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 9 (extension), and the night of day 1 through the night of day 12 (main tour); meals from lunch on day 1 to breakfast on day 10 (extension), and from dinner on day 1 to lunch of day 13 (main tour); reasonable non-alcoholic drinks with meals; safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from mid-day of day 1 to the afternoon of day 9 (extension), and from the evening of day 1 to the afternoon of day 13 (main tour); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in suitable safari pop-top vehicle(s) from day 1 to day 9 (extension), and from day 1 to day 13 (main tour); entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; roundtrip flight to Pemba Island (extension only); a printed and bound checklist to help you keep track of what you have seen (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters at hotels (if you require their services); flights other than those included on the extension; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess baggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.

Gallery of the Top 20 Wildlife Targets of Northern Tanzania: