Thinking about birdwatching in Africa but want to avoid the crowds? Then head for eastern Tanzania, home to some of the most exciting birds on the planet, writes Stephen Moss
If you were planning a birding trip to Tanzania, what would be your top three sites? Chances are that the Serengeti would be first on your list, closely followed by the Ngorongoro Crater and perhaps neighbouring Arusha. You’d certainly see lots of great birds – and plenty of other wildlife. But you might also get fed up with having to share your experiences with crowds of tourists, each trying to get that special photo, and encouraging their guides to get as close as possible to the animals to achieve their aim.
But there’s another Tanzania: arguably even easier to reach, as it is all within a day’s drive (or short flight) of the former capital Dar-es-Salaam. It’s safe, absolutely beautiful, and packed with birds. And in terms of a wide range of landscapes, it’s as good as anywhere I’ve been in Africa.
My companions Graeme, Kevin and I started with a circuit of three different ranges in the Eastern Arc Mountains, isolated ‘islands in the sky’ dotted along the ancient Rift Valley. Together, these are known as ‘Africa’s Galapagos’ for the extraordinary array of endemic birds – and other creatures – that live there. Driving north from Dar, our first stop produced a small flock of bright Golden-yellow Weavers with black masks.
Superficially similar to the common and widespread African Golden Weaver, this population may turn out to be an entirely separate species. Known as the Ruvu Weaver, after the river along whose banks we found them, this taxon has been known about for decades, but has only recently been considered for full species status. Either way, it was a beautiful bird, and seeing them was a great start to our 12-day tour.
Leaving the stiflingly hot plain we rose into the cooler Usambaras, and reached our first destination, Emau Hills Lodge, by mid-afternoon. Almost the first bird we saw was a Pale Batis, like a miniature Pied Flycatcher, sitting on its nest along a narrow branch.
A short walk around the area produced more wonderful birds: huge Trumpeter Hornbills flying across the late afternoon sky; a Long-crested Eagle perched on a nearby tree; and Olive and Amethyst Sunbirds, the first of no fewer than 11 species of sunbird seen on the trip.
The following day produced even better views of very rare members of that wonderful family: the endemic Amani sunbird, and my favourite, the Uluguru Violet-backed Sunbird, which is named after what was to be our next destination, the Uluguru Mountains.
I should probably confess at this point that this was no casual birding trip, but an expedition, with just one target species in mind. Before you dismiss me as a ‘world lister’, I can explain: I have spent the last few years writing a book on the origin of bird names, whose title is Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, and felt that I needed to encounter the bird itself. To find out why, and if we succeeded, you’ll have to wait until the book comes out!
Fortunately, given the legendary rarity and elusiveness of Mrs M’s eponymous bird, there were plenty more species to enjoy. We pitched camp by the side of a river, and with our guide Elia took a walk around the forest trails nearby.
All images: Alamy
The birds were harder to see here than at Amani, but even more rewarding when we did: a Yellowbill (also known, rather confusingly, as Green Coucal) creeping around a bush like a squirrel; a very elusive African Tailorbird (actually a kind of warbler), and best of all, several Livingstone’s Turacos – a worthy tribute to the legendary Victorian explorer. Like all turacos, these are extraordinary birds: moss green, with a long tail, prominent crest and, when they fly, bright crimson wing-linings.
In the high forest, where we went in search of Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, we saw other birds found nowhere else in the world: the Uluguru Mountain Greenbul, and the graceful Loveridge’s Sunbird, named after an early 20th Century British ornithologist. Even when it got dark, the action didn’t stop – we were woken in the night by the unmistakable, metronomic call of an African Scops Owl perched just above our tents.
The third in our trio of Eastern Arc mountain ranges – after the Usambaras and Ulugurus – was the tongue-twisting Udzungwas. After the privations of camping it was great to arrive at the delightful Hondo Hondo Lodge, at the foot of some impressive hills. As well as the birds, the monkeys are a great attraction here, too: troops of yellow baboons entertained us as we drank a cold beer or two, while the trees around held the endemic Iringa Red Colobus and also Sykes’s Monkeys.
Oddly, the three endemic birds we were looking for live not in the mountains, as is usually the case for such isolated species, but on the floodplain of the Kilombero River. Two of them are so little known that they still don’t have official names. To see the first of this unique trio, we headed out to the edge of our guide Emmanuel’s home village. Here, in the baking midday sun (what do they say about mad dogs and Englishmen?) we came across a tiny, streaked bird flitting about on the edge of a field: a White-tailed Cisticola.
In case you are not familiar with this family, they present one of the greatest of all bird identification challenges, though this bird was actually quite distinctive, at least by cisticola standards.
Next day, we rose early for the long drive to the Kilombero River, home to the other two endemics. Almost as soon as we got out of the car we found not just one, but both of them: a fine male Kilombero Weaver, perched along the riverbank, and a Kilombero Cisticola – unstreaked, and looking rather like a Cetti’s Warbler with a prominent supercilium – close by. Then we enjoyed one of the highlights of the trip: travelling slowly up and down the river in large, punt-like canoes.
I love watching birds from a boat: they are far less wary than if you approach on foot, and being on the water also gives you a unique perspective – almost a bird’s eye view. As we glided past, we had great views of a fine selection of waterbirds: Giant and Malachite Kingfishers, African Jacanas, Water Thick-knees (looking remarkably like our own Stone-curlew) and the mighty predator of this wonderful continent, African Fish Eagle.
By now, we were starting to see more and more raptors, including fabulous views of a Great (aka Black) Sparrowhawk perched on a tree as we climbed to a waterfall above Hondo Hondo for a swim. As we headed back down into the lowlands, I totted up our total raptor list for the trip so far: 15 species, almost as many as I’ve ever seen in Britain. But as we entered the gates of Mikumi National Park, we simply had no idea of the wonders that awaited us.
Birding reminders of home
At first, our attention was drawn by the sudden variety of birds, and how easy they were to see after the rigours of birding in the mountains. Everywhere we turned, there were Lilac-breasted Rollers and Southern Ground Hornbills, the latter flashing their long eyelashes as if they were flirting with us.
Familiar reminders of home, too: Wheatears, Common and Wood Sandpipers, and, rather more exotic, both White and Black Storks, all enjoying the benefits of winter in Africa before they headed back north to breed.
However, it was the raptors that really stole the show: over the next two days at Mikumi we more than doubled our species count, with Grey Kestrel, Black-shouldered Kite, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, Lesser Spotted, Steppe and Tawny Eagles, and no fewer than five species of vulture.
Having recently returned from India, whose vulture population has been virtually wiped out by the use of a chemical given to cattle, it was good to see these amazing scavengers doing so well here; alongside plenty of mammals including Lions, African Elephants, Giraffes and Zebras – or, as our guide Roy called them, ‘disco donkeys’.
But if Mikumi was good for raptors, then our final destination, Selous Game Reserve, was outstanding. Named after a Victorian big game hunter and soldier, Selous is – and this fact surprised me, too – the largest game reserve in the whole of Africa, and one of the biggest in the world. To get there, we had to fly in, over miles and miles of unspoilt land; having arrived, we discovered, to our delight, that we were the only guests at the splendid Selous Impala Camp.
The most beautiful bird ever?
Our host at Emau Hills had warned us that Selous would be ‘brutal’, with midday temperatures hitting 40°C. But we were lucky: a thin layer of cloud kept the heat just about bearable, and early starts and late finishes meant we saw some wonderful spectacles.
Cruising along the mighty Rufiji River, we came across vast flocks of bee-eaters – no fewer than seven species, including the rare Bohm’s and the incredibly beautiful Northern Carmine Bee-eaters, which swept low over the ground alongside our vehicle like the Red Arrows. As I said to my companions, there may be a more beautiful bird in the world, but at that particular moment, I couldn’t think of one.
On leaving Mikumi, we had reached a total of 33 different raptor species, 22 of them seen in Mikumi alone. Surely, there couldn’t be any more? And yet they just kept on coming. African and Eurasian Marsh Harriers, the rare Dickinson’s Kestrel, Lizard Buzzard, African Hobby, Osprey and a delightfully confiding Little Sparrowhawk, all helped bring our total for the trip up to 42 – roughly the same number found in the whole of Europe.
If birds-of-prey, as top predators, indicate a healthy environment, then we must have hope for the birdlife of this beautiful country, which is full of unexpected surprises.
For us, the trip wasn’t quite over. Roy, who had organised the trip so well kindly invited us to his home by the Indian Ocean just north of Dar for a farewell meal with his delightful family.
Of course, we had to carry on birding – a few familiar waders (and one lifer for me, Sooty Gull) nudging the trip total over the 300-species-mark. But as dusk fell, and we headed to the airport for our night flight home to a rather chilly UK, it wasn’t the numbers, but the sheer
variety of birds, mammals and other amazing wildlife we’d seen, that led us all to vow to return to Tanzania, someday soon.
PLACES TO STAY ON A BIRDING TRIP TO TANZANIA
Selous Impala Camp, Selous.
Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa, by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe (Helm)