Anyone with the slightest interest in African bird life, whether they be living in or just visiting Tanzania, is indeed fortunate. For here in Tanzania there are birds literally everywhere.
From the icy barrens around Kilimanjaro’s snowy summit to the sun-baked soda shores of Lake Natron. From coral reefs and islets in the blue Indian Ocean, to the hippo pools at Manyara or inside Ngorongoro Crater; from cool riparian forests of the Selous or in the Usambara Mountains to a tiny back garden in Arusha – everywhere there are beautiful birds to watch.
You don’t need to be especially wealthy, or spend a small fortune in the National Parks, to enrich your life with a seemingly inexhaustible array of unique and intimate bird experiences.
A great number of bird species have been recorded within the territory of Tanzania, nearly 1150 in fact - pending further DNA analyses of the ‘difficult ones’ by the geneticists. That is approaching twice the number found, by all the ornithologists and birders who have ever lived, in Europe west of Moscow or in America north of Mexico. Each region having about 750 bird species recorded within it.
Many tourists, most of whom have more than a passing interest in birds, come through the portal of Kilimanjaro International Airport and the booming city of Arusha as they head for those unique mammal experiences to be garnered ‘out west’.
Most have at least a little time to spare here and there; so I thought it would be helpful to draw attention to some of the enviable birding situations in which they could find themselves.
Kilimanjaro International Airport - KIA lodge.
The airport environs, and adjacent small hotel, are often the first (and/or last) truly sensual experience of Tanzania for many a safari-goer. Carved out of dry bushland they are very good places to watch certain birds of prey - such as ‘wintering’ Pallid and Montagu´s Harrier, resident Black-shouldered Kite and Gabar Goshawk.
The lodge gardens are always enlivened by the very tropical iridescence of Superb Starlings, Scarlet-chested and Variable Sunbirds. Comical yet very cute Blue-naped Mousebirds bound through the trees, ancient-looking Grey Hornbills pipe-whistle from the crowns of the acacias and tiny seed eating Red-cheeked Cordon Bleus peck about under the colourful flowering shrubs. Here you can get breath-taking face-to-face views of Little, Horus and White-rumped Swifts, African Pied Wagtails and the ubiquitous Yellow-vented Bulbul as they come to drink – literally at eye level - from the delightful swimming pool in its ‘elevated mini-kopje’.
The scenic crater lake of Duluti is surrounded by a footpath through tall forest trees that also passes a miniature papyrus swamp . Duluti is the perfect place for a brief morning, or late afternoon, birdwalk. The fish-rich margins support many White-breasted and Long-tailed Cormorants, several species of heron and egret, and usually the odd Knob-billed Duck and Yellow-billed Stork. A pair of glorious African Fish Eagles and numerous piebald Augur Buzzards are often to be seen circling overhead. In the woods dapper White-cheeked and Brown-breasted Barbets scold noisily from the fruiting fig trees, dwarfed by ungainly Silvery-cheeked Hornbills who gather with swishing wing-beats to cackle cacophonously from the higher branches. In the leafy shade of the forest floor, or in some dense vine tangle, ‘skulkers’ lurk, as if too embarrassed by their own beauty to show themselves clearly: African Pygmy Kingfisher, Red-capped Robin Chat, Collared Sunbirds and one of those pretty African domino finches – a neat study in black, white and red - the Twinspots (at this locality they’re Peter’s). There are also somewhat duller, but quite localized species such as Grey-Olive Greenbul and Black-throated Wattle-eye.
The upper forests of this giant sentinel, that dominates the bourgeoning little city of Arusha, now lie within Arusha National Park. There are many excellent birds to be found around the shambas, ravines and woodlots of the lower slopes accessible from the city without too much difficulty provided that you can find a four wheel drive and a knowledgeable local guide. The slopes above Ilboru Safari Lodge and Sakina district are particularly interesting. Typical Afromontane species occur here especially in the damp gulleys and residual forest fragments. They include many really impressive birds, some of which are quite local or even rare, such as Crowned Eagle, Ayre’s Hawk Eagle, Hartlaub’s Turaco, Bar-tailed Trogon, Olive Woodpecker, Abbott´s Starling and Malachite Sunbird. There are also many small and cryptic species, that are far more modest in appearance, often damned hard to see well, yet likely to appeal very much to the birding connoisseur: Hunter’s Cisticola, Brown Woodland, Cinnamon Bracken and Evergreen Forest Warblers, Black-headed Mountain and Stripe-faced Greenbuls and Abyssinian Crimsonwing.
Outside the perimeter of the airport, just west of town, are some low scrubby hills that shelter pockets of moister broad-leaved bushland, small wetlands fed by seasonally dry korongos (seasonal watercourse or wadi) and groves of Yellow-barked Fever- trees. These areas support a very varied bird community. To do justice to this environment in words would, in itself, require a small book. However suffice to say here that even a brief exploration of any of the tracks that criss-cross the area can turn up a selection of scarce and attractive bird species. Especially so during the peak migration months of November-December and March-April, and some of these species are quite difficult to find elsewhere. Some special favourites of mine live in the Burkha-Kisongo area: African Hobby, Greater Painted Snipe, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, African Firefinch, both Yellow and Black Bishops, Jackson’s Golden-backed and Taveta Golden Weavers being among them.
Oldoinyo Sambu and Lark Plains
On the Nairobo road, about an hour out of Arusha, one comes to the scene of the weekly Maasai livestock market of Oldoinyo Sambu. At this ramshackle village, in addition to those ever present commensal scavengers - Yellow-billed Kites, Pied Crows and Red-winged Starlings one can occasionally meet with a great bird that is a true master of the skies. For one of the most magnificent of all flying beings, the Lammergeier, also known as Bearded Vulture or Bone-breaker, sometimes descends from its eyrie in the cliff-girt fastness of Mount Meru to the korongo at the back of the village. It comes in search of bones, thrown there by the decidedly earth-bound butcher, on market day. During the northern winter huge Steppe Eagles soaring on flat, broad wings join the smaller local Tawny Eagles who circle the village removing smaller scraps of offal from the vicinity of the market.
Six kilometres beyond the village you reach, on the right hand side, an open plain devoid of trees. This flat and inhospitable-looking area has recently become known within the international bird watching community as ‘Lark Plains’. Here there are no less than nine species of these somewhat nondescript yet, to my mind, highly attractive birds whose beautiful songs certainly more than compensate for what some see as their excessively dull, brown-biased plumage. Preeminent among the Alaudidae here is Beesley’s Lark, discovered in the early sixties by John Beesley and, according to prevailing cold-war fashion, lumped or dumped by Con Benson in the Spike-heeled Lark complex. Undoubtedly it is soon to be split by the modern authorities; elevated to the rank of a full species with the most unenviable IUCN threat status of Critically Endangered. Only some 45 individuals exist – all of them confined to this circumscribed barren sub-desert plain which is called Angyata Osugat by Maasai graziers with whom the larks share scant pasture.
Motorable tracks cross the plain and one is well-advised to stick to them, not only for fear of getting stuck, but also in order to avoid crushing eggs and nestlings of rare ground-nesting birds or scarring the fragile environment with yet more tyre tracks.
The other larks, of which my two favourites have been lumbered with the uninspiring names Athi Short-toed and Short-tailed Lark, are not the only interesting birds out on the plain. There are many raptors here including resident White-eyed Kestrels, Lanner Falcons, Black-breasted and Brown Snake-Eagles as well as a host of migrant birds of prey that come from as far as the Pacific seaboard of Siberia. There are huge, sedate Kori Bustards stalking across the grassy waste, who seldom seem to feel the need to fly, Crowned Lapwings are common, exotic-looking Temminck´s and Two-banded Coursers remarkably inconspicuous, smartly black and white Capped Wheatears, brown and streaky Grassland Pipits and, as you approach the eastern margin of the plain, a whole host of species associated primarily with the acacaia-commiphora thicket-woodland of what is known to ecologists as the Somali-Maasai biome. To begin to describe this dry land avifauna that stretches away across Amboseli and Tsavo into the desertic horn of Africa is beyond the scope of this brief introductory article and besides we are now getting toward the limits of what can be done at a comfortable and leisurely pace, in a half day-trip out of Arusha.