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Zanzibar and central Tanzania, July-August 2010,
This short trip report outlines a visit to Zanzibar and central Tanzania (Mikumi National Park, Udzungwa National Park, the nearby Kilombero floodplain and Ruaha National Park) that we made in summer 2010. On mainland Tanzania we were accompanied by Chris and Jackie Mills, who have already produced a report, including their subsequent visit to Pemba. This, with lots of great images, can be found at http://www.norfolkbirding.com/tanzania_tripreport_2010.html .
Although there are hundreds of trip reports available for Tanzania, almost all cover exclusively the northern third of the country. Zanzibar seems to be a widely acknowledged desert for birding (not - quite - true!) whilst prior to travelling I found almost no information aimed at birders regarding Ruaha. From a wildlife point of view the latter location was easily the highlight of our Tanzanian trip.
We sorted out Zanzibar ourselves but the mainland Tanzania part of the trip was organized by Chege wa Kariuki of Birdwatching East Africa (email: email@example.com and see their website http://www.birdwatchingeastafrica.com/ ). Chege specializes in guiding in Kenya where he is renowned; this was his second guiding trip to central Tanzania. He accompanied us, booked the hotels and our local driver, Isa. All of this worked very well and we certainly recommend Chege as a guide. As well as being very knowledgeable, he is a very genuine chap and also, importantly, a lot of fun to bird with. The emphasis of our trip was to view and photograph lots of birds and mammals in a relaxed and fairly civilized manner. For that reason, we did not pursue the Eastern Arc endemics that occur on isolated mountain tops such as the Ulugurus or Udzungwas; these require of lot of hard graft including long walks in and overnight camping.
We spent five days here in all, splitting our time between Stone Town (3 nights) and a small beach hotel in Paje, on the south-east coast (2 nights). We dug these out of Lonely Planet (and booked them several months in advance; the northern summer is high season here); there were lots of similar ones to choose from. This was a reasonable balance and allowed us to feel that we had seen at least a bit of the island whilst not actually doing too much at all. Getting round was easy with lots of taxis, buses and just about anybody on the street in Stone Town keen to offer suggestions, discounted vanilla (amongst other things!) and just about any tour you fancy that would be specially organized for you by their brother with a very special price that would be better than any other price that anyone else would offer you.
Birds are not common or diverse on Zanzibar, and most of the island is covered in either spice plantations or degraded, wind-blasted scrub that is pretty impenetrable and mostly, if not wholly, invasive. We found the best places to be:
1 Jozani Forest This is on the main road between Stone Town and Paje; we spent a day there by cycling back from Paje along the fairly empty main road (about 10 miles one way). Most taxis and tours stop here to see the endemic Zanzibar Red Colobus monkeys; these are totally habituated and utterly adorable. We had recently been in Uganda and seen a lot of primates at close quarters but photographing these at spitting range after the mid-morning buses and hordes had gone was certainly as highly memorable as any experience in Uganda. We then headed back across the road to the main forest. Jozani is a last remnant of the coastal forest that would have originally covered all of Zanzibar. We saw a reasonable selection of species here, although of course, diversity is well down compared to mainland coastal forests (despite the relatively recent disconnection between the island and the mainland; this latter fact is also presumably the reason for Zanzibar’s lack of endemics, unlike Pemba).
More interesting species included: Green Wood-hoopoe, Crowned Hornbill, Forest (Dark-backed) Weaver, Forest Batis, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Black-backed Puff-back of the black winged affinis form and even Pale-breasted Illadopsis.
Apparently Fischer’s Turacao still occurs here but are not easy to find (at least not in mid-summer).
Nearby, there is an interesting butterfly farm that is well-worth a visit and we also a mangrove boardwalk that sometimes produced Mangrove Kingfisher (but not for us!)
2 Paje A walk south of the village along the beach will result in scattering of Arctic waders over-summering (should lots more in the northern winter), a few terns and lots of dark egrets that are presumably all Dimorphic although many do not show conclusively all of the few field characters mentioned in the field guides. Coastal scrub just inland from the beach produced lots of Madagascar Bee-eaters, Pale Batis, African Golden-Weaver and three sunbird species, including Purple-banded. Black-winged Starlings fed alongside a Red-winged Starling in the hotel garden and were much easier to observe than in their normal dense coastal forest habitat.
3 The crossing between Dar and Zanzibar We did this both ways; it was fairly easy to arrange as we simply went to the main boat terminal on the main quay in Dar, fought our way through the Heathrow-style melee and bought a ticket. There seems to be at least several ferries a day, although, again akin to Heathrow, timetables, or anyone to give you any information, appear to a bit of a big ask. The crossing took a bit under 2 hours. Coming back was very poor with almost nothing save for a single Sooty Gull. However, the outward journey was much better with plenty of terns of three species, well over 100 Brown Noddies and even a few Masked Boobies. By East African seabirding standards, that is all quite respectable!
B. Mainland Tanzania
Our first and last nights here spent at the beachside El Mediterraneao, a hotel in the suburbs a bit to the north of downtown Dar. This was a nice relaxing place to be and kept us out of Dar itself which, apparently, is generally regarded as fairly wise thing to do. Wandering round in the morning in the hotel garden and outside along the coastal strip produced a fair selection of common species (including Water Thick-knee, Brown-breasted Barbet, Mosque Swallow, Village Indigobird and African Golden-Weaver) but also Blue-cheeked Cordon-bleu, a species I have not seen anywhere else despite several trips to East Africa. Spotted Morning-Thrush was another notable species found by kicking around here in the morning.
1 Mikumi National Park
This was our first destination back on the mainland; it is a 4-5 hour drive inland from Dar. The road cuts right through the park, so there is good (if not very peaceful; the road is fairly busy) game-viewing en-route. We spent three nights here, based at the Genesis Motel (on the main highway on the western edge of the park). This is pretty basic and the staff, although very friendly, were not very well-organized but the few lodges in the park are apparently astronomically priced. The one advantage of stopping here were the outrageously easy Collared Palm-Thrushes in the garden and car-park; we never saw this species elsewhere.
Other species seen in the field and scrub around here included: Andalusian Hemipode, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Fischer’s Sparrowlark and Jameson’s Firefinch.
We spent quite a while over three days touring the national park, accessed from the park centre on the north side of the highway about 20 minutes east of the Genesis Motel. This was very pleasant and there was a lot of game (although predators were hard to come by; we saw just two very sleepy lions at long range) and quite a few birds, although we later found Ruaha, being far more remote, a much better wilderness experience. In July-August the whole area was bone-dry and lots of it was burnt to a crisp. Unlike Ruaha were there is a major river valley to concentrate things, water is scarce in Mikumi, at least in the areas we visited. Surprisingly, most game was widely scattered with little obvious signs of congregations at the few watering holes we did find.
Interesting species found around in the national park included: large numbers of raptors (twelve species, including abundant Bataleurs, White-headed Vulture and three sightings of Dickinson’s Kestrel), Black-bellied Bustard, Horus Swift, Pale-billed and Von der Decken’s Hornbills (and numerous Southern Ground Hornbills), plenty of Brown-headed and Grey-headed Parrots, Long-tailed Fiscal and Northern Pied-Babbler (both the latter species were common but well off-range from the map provided in A Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa) and finally Southern Blue-eared Glossy-Starlings (common) and Eastern Paradise-Whydah.
One of the few advantages of visiting Mikumi over Ruaha (apart from the fact that it is far more convenient) is that there is some very accessible Miombo woodland quite close to Mikumi village. We reached this by driving about 20 minutes out of the town, on the road to Ulaya and spent a profitable morning here where birding was very easy in the almost leafless trees. Birds were abundant and included a few miombo specials. In this category came Red-throated Wryneck, a superb pair of White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Arnott’s Chat, Cinnamon-breasted Tit, Stierling’s Wren-Warbler and three Cabanis Bunting. We looked hard for Racket-tailed Roller here but to no avail.
2 Udzungwa Mountains National Park and the Kilombero Floodplain
We spent two nights here after an easy two hour drive westwards from Mikumi. We were not too thrilled to find that we were staying in the Genesis Motel again (it’s a chain!) but there actually appears to be nowhere else. The motel is on the main ‘road’ (it is actually a very dusty track) between that skirts the base of this particular range of the Udzungwas between Mikumi and Ifakara and an easy walk back to the visitor center that serves as the HQ for the recently-declared National Park. From here, a network of trails leads into the forested hills. They are steep and quite narrow and getting significantly high up is a serious undertaking; we settled for trekking the trails close to the visitor centre.
In general, and presumably due it being the dry season, birding was rather slow with flocks hard to come by. Some of the more interesting observations included Bat Hawk (over the visitor center mid-morning!), a few Trumpeter and many more Silvery-cheeked Hornbills (including 40 in a flock!), White-eared Barbet, Lesser Honeyguide, Green-backed Woodpecker, numerous Black Cuckooshrikes, three Grey Cuckooshrike, Red-capped Robin-chat, Blue-mantled Crested and Black-and-White Shrike-Flycatchers, three Uluguru Violet-backed Sunbirds, Retz’s Helmet-Shrike, Square-tailed Drongo and Green-headed Oriole. A stream crossing the road on the track between the national park and Mikumi yielded Half-collared Kingfisher, Mountain Wagtail and Red-backed Manakin.
Rather more significant than the birds in this part of the Udzungwas are two monster rare primates. The attractive Iringa Red Colobus is difficult to miss around the visitor centre but the Sanje Mangabey, only discovered in 1979, requires booking a special visit with guides to a habituated troop. We signed up for this and had fantastic close encounter with about 100 of these fascinating monkeys. This troop has been habituated for several years now and it is hoped that such visits will form a centerpiece for tourists in this national park. It was certainly a great thing to do, and easily pipped those Uluguru Violet-backed Sunbirds!
Back to business, another big draw of this part of the Udzungwas is its’ proximity to the Kilombero floodplain. This extensive river plain beyond Ifakara, hemmed in by distant hazy hills, is home to no less than three endemics (ok, admittedly ‘merely’ a weaver and two cisticolas, both of which have yet to be formally described!) and is drive of about 90 minutes from the Genesis Motel. We had a prolific afternoon here, birding the last km or so before the river crossing. Kilombero Cisticola was virtually the first bird we saw, with Kilombero Weaver almost as easy. White-tailed Cisticola took lot longer but succumbed just before we called it a day. The search for the latter dislodged Square-tailed Nightjar and we also racked up African Wattled Plover, Coppery-tailed Coucal, a juvenile Diederik Cuckoo (seemingly being attended by the weavers!), Marsh Tchagra (‘Anchieta’s) and many delightful Zebra Waxbills. Lots of cormorants, herons and storks moving around at dusk included at least one Madagascar Pond-Heron.
3 Ruaha National Park
This wonderful park hardly seems to get a look in amongst Tanzanian national parks but it really is superb place to visit. It boasts vast rolling landscapes and lots of game but is far removed from the hordes of visitors and traffic jams that scar more popular parks to the north and in southern Kenya. This is, of course, because it is rather remote; we spent most of day getting here from Mikumi. After the upland town of Iringa the track becomes fairly bumpy and dusty, and there are still a few hours to go. We had five nights here, based at Ruaha Hilltop Lodge (about 30 minutes short of the main park entrance). This meant a bit of a drive when we were heading into the park but the advantage was a splendid location, a really nice, plush place to stay (Genesis Motel it was not!) and being able to freely bird on foot in the early mornings before breakfast. The lodge is surrounded by dry woodland which provided quite a few species that would be very difficult from a vehicle in the main park.
The national park itself is vast; we were only skirting the fringe of it by heading in on day trips. However the Ruaha River runs as a contrasting ribbon of green through the parched and dusty hills all around and is only a short drive in from the main gate. From there a network of tracks can be followed that skirt the river edge for many km. This is where we spent most of our time, slowly ambling along with lots of long pauses as and when. The bridge where the main track crosses the river was a good place to wait and watch for things to happen, we spent several evenings here as we could get out to wield cameras. We also completed a guided walk (information on things like this available at the main entrance) that took us along the river for several km; being on foot was a very nice change. Generally we saw few other vehicles and were on our own most of the time; it was only by day 4 when realized we had not seen any lions and we went to look for some that we started meeting other vehicles.
Birds in the National Park Although Ruaha has rather a lot of miombo, it seems not to be in the section of the park that we visited. This means that most of the birds we saw were widespread south / east African species. Some of the more notable ones included: up to twelve Saddle-billed Storks daily, 18 species of raptor (including many Lappet-faced Vultures and a pair of Red-necked Falcons in residence near the bridge), about 10 Buff-crested Bustards in all, Crested Guinneafowl, Greater Painted-Snipe and White-crowned Lapwings along the river along with three African Skimmer there, daily sightings of Black-faced Sandgrouse and Yellow-collared Lovebirds, Fischer’s Sparrowlark, many Von der Decken’s Hornbills and groups of Magpie-Shrikes. Two of the commonest birds, and quite unmissable, were Ashy Starling and ‘Ruaha’ Red-billed Hornbill (both Tanzanian endemics) but both were eclipsed by outrageous views of a pair of Bat Hawks screaming right over the main entrance gate again and again at dusk one evening.
Mammals We were determined not to get stuck amongst other vehicles, which we didn’t, but this meant that we ran the risk of not seeing any big cats. On our last full day we went and found both Lions and Cheetah at locations well known to local drivers. This was fine but, of course, we had a fair amount of company. Far better was the finale later on the same day when, as we were heading out just before dusk, we chanced on a small pride of Lions crossing the road a little before the main gate. We had them all to ourselves, views were totally unobscured and soft late afternoon light was perfect for photography.
Birds around Ruaha Hilltop Lodge We spent several mornings birding and photographing here, plus a morning at the nearby and rather lusher River Camp (just a few km back towards Iringa) from the Lodge. This was very productive, and some of the more interesting species included: Bearded Woodpecker, Eastern Nicator (easy to see!) and Orange-winged Pytilia, amongst many commoner species.
4 Baobab River Camp
We stayed here to break up the very long journey from Ruaha to Dar. The camp is between Iringa and Mikumi, but much closer to the latter. It is situated just off the main road in the Ruaha river valley, an area characterized by lots of massive baobabs. This was a nice place to break the journey and the thorn scrub around the camp in the early morning produced nice birding with everything very easy to see. Brown-breasted Barbet was the main notable but we also racked up Klaas’s Cuckoo, Yellow-bellied Greenbul and Ashy Starling.
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