Tanzania is roughly the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined. Almost 40% of its land is protected. Because the government involves local people in this effort, including providing jobs and making compromises on land use, poaching is greatly reduced. We tourists were warned that the wild lands were an Animal Kingdom, a place where we would be caged in our vehicles and the animals free.
After check-in at the Serena Mountain Lodge, I relaxed on the terrace and watched a little bronze mannikin steal nesting material from the thatched roofs of hotel buildings. Huge silvery-cheeked hornbills clambered through the trees, squeaking and braying at each other. The males’ massive casques (enlarged beaks) looked heavy but were almost translucent. When the birds took off, their wings rattled like a helicopter.
Strolling the hotel grounds, I lost my heart to the sunbirds. Brilliant charmers with long decurved bills and iridescent colors, they reminded me of our hummingbirds, but at twice the size. My field guide showed me over 50 species of sunbirds in East Africa–what a birding challenge!
On our first two safari days, we visited Arusha National Park. In a daze of delight, I turned from birds to animals to birds, and sometimes watched both together–big ruminants and oxpeckers came as a package deal.
All through the trip, I gloried in giraffes, gangly and photogenic, with solemn stares and ingénue eyelashes. Groups of zebras were dazzling, so stripy my camera had trouble focusing. The power and beauty of big cats, the delicacy of antelopes and gazelles, the majesty of elephants fascinated me every day.
Arusha introduced us to Tanzania’s treasure-house of birds. Imagine looking up to see two huge pale owls side by side on a high branch. They were Verreaux’s eagle-owls, probably a pair, and about the size of our great grays. They perched calmly, preening, and occasionally touching bills.
Near a small lake, we saw our first gray crowned cranes, tall and stately. Their upright golden crests nodded as they probed in long grass. I was delighted to discern two chicks, little heads just visible above the green.
Some birds held to a black-and-white dress code. One was the common fiscal, the first of many species of shrike we were to see. A dark Abdim’s stork stood nearby, its white belly shining when it flew. A sacred ibis carried on the theme; its black decurved bill, bare black head and neck and black plumes contrasted sharply with white wings and chest.
We traveled toward Ngorongoro Crater on the Great North Road that runs the length of Africa between Capetown and Cairo. Tall candelabra of blooming sisal illuminated the roadway.
Our safari vehicles traversed the steep, rocky side of the crater toward Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, situated at a slightly breathless 7500 feet. The crater spread itself far below. Enraptured, I saw a rainbow that arched down into the crater as if the heavens were blessing all the life within.
Next day, we were ready early. As we motored down from the lodge, we passed Maasai people wrapped in red-patterned cloth and carrying clubs and spears. They were driving their cattle, sheep, and goats to meadows on the crater’s outer slopes. Because the crater, an ancient collapsed lake bed, contains many springs and is always green, the Maasai are allowed to bring their cattle into it if there’s a serious drought.
Oh, the incomparable crater. It’s a hidden world enclosed in walls 2000 feet high. A primordial Noah’s ark of animals lives in its 100 square miles of grasslands, swamps, and forests. I took great pleasure in contemplating this enclosed but not inaccessible world. A model of inter-connectedness of predator, prey, and habitat, it’s on a scale that allows you to think you have a chance of understanding it.
As we came out of an acacia woodland, I saw my first superb starling. Lamprotornis superbus is the right species name: its back and throat were metallic blue, its wings greenish, its belly bright red, all emphasized by a white breast-band like a ribbon of honor. Its eyes were creamy white, startling in the dark face and head. This is what starlings can look like if they try! Why, I asked myself, didn’t the man who imported starlings to America for Shakespeare’s sake choose these beauties? It turns out that superb starlings are in America, being studied at the Smithsonian’s Conservation and Research Center in Virginia.
Now we were coasting along a grassy slope. Zebras and Grant’s gazelles grazed beside ungainly wildebeest, with a couple of big elands in the background: a quintessential African picture. A Montagu’s harrier floated above the grassland and vanished into the distance.
We stopped, spotting a large bird, crested head erect, long neck inflated: a kori bustard displaying for a female. The bird was full-bodied and over four feet tall; it’s the heaviest flying bird in Africa. I gazed in admiration as the big guy strutted along, his white throat feathers and ruff puffed out, his wings lowered and tail raised seductively. The smaller browner female kept her demure distance, but I hoped she was as impressed as I was.
European white storks with black flight feathers and red bills stood about as if explaining that they would be heading home soon, looking for just the right chimneys to nest on. By a small pond, rufous-tailed weavers were building nests in a big acacia tree; the woven nests hung like strange fibrous fruits. Black kites circled above people who were picnicking there. Our guides had warned us about these avian thieves, and sure enough, we saw one kite grab a sandwich. Little did we know that our own group would be targeted by these bandits a couple of days later.
That morning, we saw our first lion. We watched, transfixed, as she passed very close to our vehicle. So close that I could have counted her whiskers. Her eyes were on a warthog and she paid no attention to worshipful tourists.
Not so habituated to safari vehicles were the Maasai ostriches. Every time we approached these giant birds, they flounced away. Their acute vision and tendency to panic serve as a useful warning to other prey animals, but it annoyed me. I wanted more time to study them, with their long white necks, soft dark wings, and large eyes, but mostly I saw fluffy rumps going thataway.
At Lake Magadi, however, we found birds that totally ignored us. We were staring at a gazillion lesser flamingos, pretty in pink, with a few greater flamingos, taller and whiter, stalking in the deeper water. With the flamingos at this crusty-edged soda lake were grey-headed gulls and shorebirds; what a sight!
Ngorongoro Crater, vital but detached, had evoked a memory of the time before mankind was born. Appropriately, we went the next day to Olduvai Gorge. Here were found some of the earliest traces of man.
The gorge was off-limits to non-scientists, but the visitor center displayed fossils, data, and maps of significant finds. This is an active seismic area; volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai farther down the Great Rift Valley was spewing ash and heat, causing a strong thermal wind near the edge of the gorge. Ash blew into our eyes, but we still managed to see some brilliant birds that were flitting around the shrubbery near the museum–a purple grenadier, speckle-fronted weaver, and a spectacular southern red bishop, decorating a bush like a bright flower.
Serengeti National Park
When we stopped at the entrance to Serengeti National Park one of my most-wished-for birds made its appearance: an African hoopoe. Hoopoe! Just saying the word made me smile. This slim bird, all black-and-white and cinnamon, strolled about, poking its long beak into possible food-holding cavities. Unfortunately, I never saw it erect its black-tipped crest.
The park entrance was located on Naabe Hill. This was a kopje, a mound of rocks, mostly granite, left over from the upheavals of the formation of the Rift Valley. From the hill’s top, I could see for miles across the flat grasslands ahead. The wide plain, broken by smaller kopjes and occasional large acacias, imparted an ancestral-memory scene of primeval savanna.
We stopped at a hippo pool in the River Seronera. The big animals were mostly submerged, raising nostrils to snort and breathe, and issuing groans and funny honks. Nearby, graceful black-winged stilts and a little stint were probing the mud. A three-banded plover gave us its aristocratic profile, its bright-red eyering like a colorful monocle. A black crake posed on the bridge and a Nile crocodile, looking less like an animal than a discarded tire, dozed at the far end of the pool.
The Seregeti Serena hotel provided additions to the bird list with no effort, as von der Decken hornbills and red-billed hornbills racketed through the trees near the breakfast tables. I loved the wacky Jimmy Durante schnozzolas on all the hornbill species. It was tempting to wish that Shakespeare had mentioned these birds, too.
The Serengeti gave us our only leopard, a female that had dragged an impala into a tree. Wow.
We saw many new bird species in the Serengeti, with its lower altitude and wider grasslands. The batteleur, a dark short-tailed eagle, was a good find. But our closest eagle was a big tawny eagle that was chowing down on an African hare by the roadside. A second tawny eagle sat above it in a tree. When white-headed vultures moved in, the second eagle got antsy and departed, the vultures followed the flying bird, and the eating bird hopped away, dragging his dinner to a more secluded spot. Lions contended with vultures, too.
One morning I got up before dawn and went on a balloon ride. As we drove through starry darkness to the launch site, a nightjar fluttered up. Once we 16 passengers were stowed in the balloon basket, the pilot lifted off. Early morning light gilded the grasses, increasing the contrast with dark acacias. Beneath us, springs and pools were outlined in lush growth, green islands in the browner lands. Zebras trotted on ancient trails. This is me, I marveled, gliding like a bird over the Serengeti! Below me, I could even see a lion pride, papa, two mates, and cubs.
An hour later, we were back on the ground. While we were enjoying the traditional post-balloon champagne toast, three secretary birds came striding briskly across the grassland. I raised my glass to these long-legged raptors with plumes like quill pens on their necks. The very birds for a writer.
For lunch that day, we stopped at a hillside picnic area with a view out over the plains. Large logs had been sectioned and upended to serve as stools. We gathered our box lunches and chose seats. “Look out for the black kites,” warned the guides, indicating a pair in the acacia above us. If those marauders weren’t menacing enough, two marabou storks, huge sly scavengers with naked pink heads and white ruffs, stood nearby. They tried to look innocent, like the Artful Dodger waiting for a full and careless pocket to pick.
The kites weren’t into waiting. One swooped down and snatched a piece of chicken from a woman’s hand. She cried out and jumped up. The startled kite lost its grip on the chicken and let it fall; a lurking marabou gobbled it, bones and all. In the next attack, a kite grabbed a sandwich and cut the holder’s hand. We all moved away from the tree and packed up, ceding the field to the kites and storks.
Two-thirds of Lake Manyara National Park, the smallest in Tanzania, is covered by its soda lake. We never approached the lake, as its environs are very caustic; when it floods in the rains, its alkalinity kills the surrounding vegetation. From a distance, it appeared a soft and innocuous pink, a lake made of flamingo wings.
In this park, we marveled at our first baobabs, majestic multi-branched trees of ancient lineage. Some were about 1500 years old. One reason they survive in these days of forest decimation is that the wood isn’t useful to humans–it’s too soft.
Here we spotted our first saddle-billed storks, on a nest at the top of a tree. The big storks with their long tri-colored bills looked comfortable in their great nest. Who needs chimneys?
Both days in the park we visited a hippo pool in a freshwater inlet to the soda lake. Besides the usual Egyptian geese and shorebirds, this pool had several new birds for our lists. A favorite: a streaky brown shorebird called a water thick-knee. What a strange critter it was, with its eponymous thick knobby knees and its big yellow eyes.
This pool also produced great white pelicans, which were quite a bit bigger than our white pelicans. Near them were pink-backed pelicans, smaller, duller and showing little visible pink. Running about the sidelines were spur-winged plovers, recently renamed spur-winged lapwings. I’m partial to plovers, and these blew me away with their stylish formal dress. I could hardly turn away from them to look at the tiny Hottentot teals, so cute with their blue bills; the glossy ibis (the same species we have); and the strange-looking knob-billed ducks. What did draw my attention was a massive Goliath heron, the largest heron in the world. This wow of a bird, looking like our tri-colored heron on steroids, stood about five feet tall; its bill was a spear a Maasai would envy.
This park had a wonderful jungly feel, with its cordia trees so angular and gray, dainty wild mangos, feathery acacias with their fearsome thorns, climbing vines, and mahogany trees. The air carried the rich smell of growth and greenery mingled with the hot brown smell of dust.
Tarangire National Park
The pitted, rutted, ungraded road to Tarangire Treetops gave our spines that famous “African massage.” It was worth every jolt. This is my list of new birds in one hour of the first morning: bearded woodpecker, orange-bellied parrot, red-necked spurfowl, yellow-collared lovebird, northern pied babbler, red-billed buffalo-weaver (a baobab was full of their nests), and white-bellied go-away-bird. By mid-morning, I’d added several more, including a coveted pygmy falcon and a yellow-necked spurfowl that flirted with us through the scrub.
The big story at Tarangire is its 2500 elephants. In this part of the Animal Kingdom, we could look across a plain and see a line of elephants moving through a swampy tall-grass area with occasional baobabs dwarfing the enormous animals. Beyond them lay green ridges dotted with acacias and beyond them, hills blued by distance, with the cones of extinct volcanoes thrusting among them. Magical.
On our last day, my personal bird list for the trip reached 220 with a collared pratincole. I was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of new exotic birds with exotic names. So varied were they that it was a treat to see species I’d seen before, such as the beautiful (and common!) lilac-breasted roller and the grey kestrel we found on the same perch both days in Tarangire.
We birders are out early and late. We attend closely to details of identification and habitat. Perhaps we see more of the sometimes elusive African animals than other travelers do. Long may black-headed herons fish by hippo pools, red-billed oxpeckers pick parasites off Cape buffalo, and white-backed vultures haunt lion kills. As I flew back to the U.S., I was already planning my return to Africa’s Bird/Animal Kingdom.