Travelling down from Nairobi on the Namanga road, about an hour out of Arusha, one passes a seemingly featureless arid plain that stretches away eastwards toward the distant snowy summit of Kilimanjaro. This tree-less plain is home to what is arguably the rarest bird in all of mainland of Africa. A 'newly-created' passerine species with a global population of at very best one hundred individuals.
Just back from a very intense nine days birding. Ploughing tracks between the red mud of Mkomazi, the damp Cisticolas of Nanja black cotton, and the dapper undescribed-drongos of a dripping forest-edge in the West Usambaa - a total of 363 bird species recorded.
On Friday morning December 15; after we managed great views of the ‘kuni’ pair of the now near-invisible Beesley’s Larks; they are only to be found these Indian Ocean dipole days by following-up on their shorebird-like “kreek-kreek-kreek” through the knee-high waving grasses; at ten forty a typical adult Short-toed Eagle (very probably a male) came-in low southward from Kenya (and heaven knows where else), swirling round, hovering twice, clearly hunting en route, over the driest area remaining – the acacia commiphora grazed mosaic along the northern fringe of the Angyata Osugat and over the Sinya track.
Typical is - one with a complete soft brownish grey ‘shawl’ and grey-streaked white lower throat, grey-brown covert bar contrasting with darker brown flight feathers of the upper wing, with blackish stippled lines on the underwing coverts and well barred flight feathers, and a white breast very lightly marked with crisp dark brown crescent rows, the belly and undertail coverts appeared an almost immaculate white.
My client - the illustrious ‘Greater Baltic’ conservationist Tommy Ek - managed to fire-off three pretty good, yet distant, pictures of the bird’s underside as it began drifting away toward West Kilimanjaro-Ngare Nanyuki; and then I dropped to kiss the warm yellow earth in euphoric prostration.
A thunderous tropical rain storm arriving, most unusually out of the north, broke against the great black massifs of Meru and Manjaro in the early hours of November 23. Shortly after daybreak Dismus and I once again escaped Arusha via the northbound "Nairobi road"; for a while yet this African highway is both dangerously and delightfully narrow - all too soon it will be upgraded by engineers of the next dynasty to a far more murderous, three-lane 'Chinese modern standard'. Maybe. Because today raging torrents of coffee-coloured water frequently impede our progress as they rush the great slopes down. And, once we have descended to the desert plain of larks, it is clear, very few cars are making it through from Kenya.
Tuesday November 21 really was a Red Data Day.
Returning to Osugat, after an ankle injury enforced my absence for eleven days, Dismus and I discovered many changes out on the desert plain. In eastern Africa we are in the midst of what a climatologist might call - an exceptionally productive "short rains event". On the arena, behind the walls of Meru, occasional showers averaging perhaps a few drops more than one, and on every other day, have thrown a green veil across the ochre yellow soils and tempted the desert steppe into partial bloom. Presumably after loitering in the Horn lands, at long last Palearctic bird migrants are arriving, many local passerines are nesting and some butterfly populations are being bountiful, dispersing downwind and westward in search of habitat new.
At last yesterday, Friday November 10, at ten in the morning, Dismus and I trundled away from the seething mass of bureaucratic compromises that daily permeates existence here in the city of Arusha. In less than an hour, fossil oils fueling the old blue Land Rover, we had put a million years between ourselves and the dark-day rain puddles of the twenty first century African street. Yes! We were back in the sparkling silence of a little desert, the one that is called Angyata Osugat.
Angyata in the Maasai language means a treeless expanse - a type of steppe to the ecologically-minded; and Osugat their name for the seasonal watercourse (a korongo or wadi) that drains the area northeastwards toward Lake Amboseli, just inside Kenya territory. The Angyata of the Osugat is indeed a unique fragment of the earth's surface, lying as it does between three towering volcanic giants: Kilimanjaro to the east, Longido to the north and Meru to the south - one that I have come to call in these gladiatorial days "The Arena of the Larks".