Saturday, February 23, 2013

A long trip...

On 23rd Dec, Gina and I set off on the beginning of what was to turn into a 6 part- 7-week trip for me adding many birds to my list. In preparation for the 4 week ranger training course I was coordinating, I needed to take my open landrover down to Ruaha National Park. We decided to make the most of the 1200km+ drive and try to maximize on the number of birds we could see.

Part 1: 23 & 24th December 2012.

Chome Forest:
Our first stop was Chome Nature Reserve in the Pare Mountains. The Pare Mountains are the northern mountain range of a chain of isolated forests considered the Galapagos of East Africa or Eastern Arc. Getting to Chome proved a little more difficult than we expected and the 1.5hr drive advertised in the brochure turned into a 4hr drive that involved a lot of 4x4 low range diff-lock driving. Now if you’re not familiar with that terminology, it means we were crawling up slippery and treacherous roads using everything the car had to get us there. Of course, it had to start raining, and the new tent I’d made for the trip decided to leak (not to mentioned I’d forgotten to make tent pegs), and the little stove wouldn’t work… we finally managed to cook some pasta and sleep dry.

The next morning, bright and early we started looking for birds. Forest birding is hard, really hard, especially if you don’t know their calls. Armed with binoculars and my new camera, we managed to get a few good species including the South Pare White-eye, a small little yellow thing that is only found in that forest.

Others new to the list included:
·      Bar-throated apalis
·      Waller’s starling
·      Common waxbill
·      Usambara double collared sunbird

Bar-breasted apalis
Usambara double-collared sunbird
 By 10:30 a.m., looming rain clouds scared us away from the forest… the road was too treacherous and another downpour might mean we’d be stranded so we slid down the mountain to the Pangani river where we camped.

Again rain, but the beer in the fridge was cold, and we found a shelter to cook our dinner so all was well. When we woke in the morning, the river had flooded its banks and was 3ft from our tent. 

Part 2

It’s slow going in an open vehicle, especially when the one cloud in the sky happens to open up directly over you, but with adventurous spirits we made our way to Ushongo beach south of Pangani for some beach time… and of course gulls, terns, waders and coastal forest species.

Birds en-route:
·      White-winged widowbird
·      Retz’ helmet shrike
·      Village indigo bird
·      Black & white cuckoo

I must admit I might be a bit color blind because some of those yellows and oranges look the same to me. Nevertheless, with the help of non-color blind people, we managed to sort out most of the waders and terns including:

·      Whimbrel
·      Sooty gull
·      Lesser sandplover
·      Grey plover
·      Sanderling
·      Crab plover
·      Lesser crested tern
·      Common tern
·      Ruddy turnstone
·      Brown noddy
·      Terek sandpiper
·      Long tailed cormorant
·      Mangrove kingfisher
·      Saunder’s tern
·      White-cheeked tern

Around camp:

·      Mouse coloured sunbird
·      Southern banded snake eagle
·      White-throated bee-eater
·      Yellow-throated longclaw
·      Collared sunbird
·      African golden weaver
·      Black bellied starling

A quick morning drive into the forest rewarded us with:

·      Eastern nicator
·      Levant’s sparrowhawk
·      Fisher’s turacco
·      Eastern yellowbill
·      Trumpeter hornbill
·      Black collared barbet
·      Eurasian Golden Oriole
·      Little yellow flycatcher
·      Uluguru violet-backed sunbird
·      Purple-banded sunbird
·      Orange winged pytilia
·      Yellow-rumped tinkerbird
·      Pale batis

Part 3
Getting to Ruaha.

After a week without rain, we climbed back into the landy and set off toward Morogoro… of course it rained. “Oh, yes, that’s the first rain we’ve had in weeks,” was our welcome at Mbuyuni farm retreat where we splurged for a hot shower and clean sheets.

En-route additions to the list:
·      Southern cordon bleu
·      Pin-tailed whydah
·      Indian house crow
·      Dark chanting goshawk

The next morning (2nd January) we drove toward Iringa, arriving in Mikumi town just as their “first rain in weeks” pelted down for an hour and a half while we enjoyed WiFi and lunch. Braving looming clouds, we squeezed through Baobab valley and up the escarpment to Iringa arriving just in time for more rain. It’s ok if you’re dry, and we managed to stay dry setting up our tent under a thatch roof. A post-rain walk rewarded us with African Fin-foot.

Waking up to more rain the next morning, we spent the morning in Iringa town and decided to not to head to Ruaha until the 4th. But as Murphy’s Law would have it, it rained even harder the next morning. After draping everything with garbage bags, we set off, arriving in Ruaha just as the rain stopped.

While eating lunch on the bridge over the Ruaha river, we were rewarded with a herd of greater kudu coming down to drink, and with the background music of hippos grunting, Gina saw her first Giant Kingfisher, a good tick for my list. Braving other looming clouds we made our way to Mdonya Old River Camp while enjoying some beautiful views, birds, and mammals. 

Part 4
Ruaha National Park

Coordinating some training for rangers in Ruaha, I didn’t have the time to get to the more distant corners of the park to see some of the more special birds, but still managed to get a few new species for my list just within the savannah section that we were in.

Additions to the list:
·      White stork
·      Yellow-billed stork
·      Giant kingfisher
·      Black-lored babbler
·      White pelican
·      Little sparowhawk
·      Senegal coucal
·      Black-bellied bustard
·      Great spotted cuckoo
·      Eastern paradise whydah
·      Black swift
Castle rock and amazing light.

Part 5
Udzungwa Scarp

With a 1000km drive looming in front of us, Simon Peterson who had assisted me with training and I arrived in Iringa and quickly jumped on the opportunity to give a researcher a ride to an isolated forest in the Udzungwas. Flemming Jensen discovered the Rufous-winged sunbird in the early 80’s, recorded the first Iladopsis and Swynnerton’s robin, all very special birds. Together with Elia Mulungu who is definitely in the top 5 birders in Tanzania, and a cook, we drove the 100kms to Uluti on the edge of the Udzungwa Scarp. A short walk took us to a campsite in the depths of the forest where the two of them would stay for 2 weeks, measuring birds and taking blood samples.  Simon and I, with our fingers crossed, stayed 3 nights in the hope of seeing as many birds as possible.

The landrover that got us there... and tested to its limits.


With very little access to the national economy, subsistence farmers are always eager for a little extra cash.
On the edge of the forest- farming all the way up to the edge.
Looking south...
As I’ve said before, forest birding is hard and without Elia’s help it would have been a very frustrating expedition. Elia knows every bird’s call and that really helps to narrow things down. Our camp list quickly grew to over 50 species… I only recorded the ones I saw or clearly heard- 40 species. Apparently it’s cheating to use mist nets on a Big Year,but I don’t get it, and I’m doing this for myself, so I’m counting them! Without the nets I would have seen a third of the species and the learning experience was unbelievable.

In the hand:
·      African Broadbill- a fun bird that makes an awesome sound with its wings as it flies a tight circle advertising its territory.
·      Dapple throat- a very rare bird that’s in its own family. This bird is thought to be most closely related to the first passerines that colonized Africa from Australia.
·      Swynnerton’s robin- a beautiful little bird
·      Evergreen forest warbler- more often heard than seen
·      Fulleborn’s boubou- a bird that doesn’t like to be caught in a net
·      Bar-tailed trogon- truly a gem, related to the Quetzals of Costa Rica
·      Square-tailed drongo
·      Yellow-streaked greenbul
·      Forest batis- a real beauty
·      Collared sunbird
·      Olive sunbird
·      Spot-throat- another rare bird
·      White chested alethe- another beautiful bird that’s hard to see
·      Shelley’s greenbul- a generic bird
·      Orange ground thrush
·      African hill babbler
·      Fulleborn’s sunbird (formerly known as double collared sunbird)
·      Tamborine dove
·      Udzungwa iladopsis (currently being split from Pale-breasted)
·      Iringa akalat (Iringa ground robin)
·      Yellow-throated woodland warbler
·      Lemon dove
·      Cabanis greenbul

Heard and seen:
·      Livingston’s turacco
·      Bronze-naped pigeon
·      White-tailed Crested flycatcher
·      Black-throated bushshrike (Many-colored bushshrike)
·      Waller’s starling
·      Silvery-cheeked hornbill
·      Black-headed apalis
·      Chapin’s apalis
·      African taylor bird (a cool little warbler that sews leaves together to make a nest)
·      White winged apalis- a beautiful and rare little bird
·      Grey cuckoo-shrike
·      Dark-backed weaver
·      Rufous-winged sunbird
·      Mountain buzzard

Shelley's greenbul

Dapple-throat (Dappled Mountain Robin)

White-chested alethe

Swynerton's robin
Forest batis
Iringa akalat (Iringa ground robin)
Iladopsis (Udzungwa)
Fulleborn's boubou
Lemon dove
Part 6
Getting home

Having capitalized on the forest bird experts, Simon and I were relieved to get out of Uluti before rain would have stranded the car until the dry season. Ready to get home, we wanted one last try at some Miombo birds.

 On our way toward Mikumi, we spent a night in a campsite on the Pangani river before cutting north along the Mikumi-Kilosa road. It was nice to be out of the forest and able to easily see birds again and we quickly got some new species for the list.

·      Rufous bellied tit
·      White-headed black chat (Arnot’s chat)
·      Olive thrush
·      White-bellied cuckoo shrike
·      Peter’s twinspot
·      Crested barbet
·      Golden-tailed woodpecker

Pushing on, we headed towards Handeni, horrified and saddened at all the slash and burn clearing that was making way for farms. Finding an isolated bit of Miombo we set up camp adding a few gems including:

·      Barred owlet
·      Yellow bellied hyliota
·      Miombo wren warbler
·      Pale-billed hornbill
·      Brown necked parrot
Arnott's chat

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Taste of Ruaha & Arusha National Parks

Forest birding. Photo by Pietro Luraschi.
Having won the tender to train rangers in Ruaha National Parks to conduct safe walking safaris, I headed down to Ruaha for a quick recce with friend, fellow birder, and fellow guide trainer Pietro Luraschi. The task of finding the site for the training camp distracted from birding but we managed to see over a 100 species adding the following to my list. 

White-crowned Lapwing
Spur-winged Lapwing
Spotted Thick-knee
Heuglin's Courser
Purple-crested Turaco
Square-tailed Nightjar
Broad-billed Roller
Ruaha Hornbill
Collared Palm-Thrush
Grey-capped Social Weaver
Gabar Goshawk
d'Arnaud's Barbet
Yellow-bellied Greenbul
Pale Flycatcher
Great Egret
Amur Falcon
Grey Kestrel
Red-necked Falcon
Common Cuckoo
Böhm's Spinetail
African Firefinch
African Golden-breasted Bunting

Ruaha is Tanzania's largest national park and has a phenomenal bird list that includes quite a few "new" species. During the training in January and after I hope to see some of the special Miombo species and Ruaha specialities.

Not only birds in the forest.
With Pietro in Arusha for only a couple days, we headed off to have a look at Hatari Lodge in Arusha National Park and to get up into the forest on Mt. Meru. Forest birding is a whole different story to savannah birding and I was pleased to add the following birds to the list including some we saw on the way in.

Hartlaub's Turacco

Dusky flycatcher

Starred robin

Cinnamon breasted bee-eater

Eastern double collared sunbird

Lesser Spotted Eagle
Peregrine Falcon
Alpine Swift
Sand Martin
Red-throated Tit
Diederik Cuckoo
Slender-tailed Nightjar
Lesser Flamingo
Greater Flamingo
Southern Pochard
Grey Crowned Crane
Spot-flanked Barbet
White-naped Raven
Rüppell's Robin-Chat
White-starred Robin
Common Stonechat
Olive Thrush
Hunter's Cisticola
Grey Wagtail
Mountain Wagtail
Eastern Double-collared Sunbird
Abyssinian Crimsonwing
African Moustached Warbler
African Dusky Flycatche