After a week of orientation at my new job, we were taken outside of Dar es Salaam for a weekend trip to Mikumi National Park, located about four hour's drive west of Tanzania's largest city. This massive park, the fourth largest in the country, isn't as well known internationally as the Serengeti, Kilimanjaro, or Gombe Stream National Parks, but at over 3000 square kilometers in size it is one of Tanzania's largest game reserves, including some of the world's most impressive mammals, such as the leopard, lion, giraffe, elephant, and hippopotamus. Of course, the park is also home to over 400 bird species, which was my principal interest during our visit and will most likely serve as the lens through which I will explore the natural environment of Tanzania and greater east Africa over the next few years. The tradition of Birding Ecuador lives on, then.
Coming from Ecuador, where I basically had the run of the country and birded every remote area on foot and without incident, I found birding in Tanzania to be a decidedly different experience. First of all, the predatory mammals hold dominion within the reserves, and at no point are birders allowed outside of the vehicle when on safari, even in the most basic sense. It's simply too dangerous when lions and leopards are prowling around. For three days, we instead drove along dirt roads through open savanna habitat in search of mammals, stopping on occasion when someone pointed out a bird of interest. Granted, as birds don't appear to be wary of cars, this method of wildlife observation did allow us to approach birds within a few meters on occasion. Still, road birding has never been a great joy of mine, and I was shocked that we couldn't stretch our legs and traverse the earth in a more natural search for birds. Indeed, fuel is quite expensive here at over one USD per liter, and I couldn't help but calculate the true cost per new bird that I saw on the trip as we cruised around on our air-conditioned bus all day.
Second, unless you have your own transport, you are most likely on safari with novice wildlife enthusiasts that don't have much knowledge or interest in birds. As most of them probably won't have good binoculars either, it feels rather insensitive to keep requesting the driver to stop when no one else on the bus will be able to appreciate the bird you've spotted in the distance. As this trip was our maiden safari, Aimee and I generally had a positive attitude about missing birds for this reason, figuring we would catch up with them on another trip when we had our own transport; indeed, we have since purchased a 4x4 Mitsubishi Pajero and are now equipped to explore the country on our own terms, even if it is from the safety of a vehicle. Still, it pained me to miss identifying about twenty species as we sped by in a cloud of dust in search of lions.
Third, birding in Tanzania, at least in savanna habitat, is remarkably easy. In comparison to most habitats in Ecuador, where forests are dense, dark, and usually misty, spotting birds in the savanna is child's play, and terrestrial birds, such as the Helmeted Guineafowl, Red-Necked Spurfowl, and Black-Bellied Bustard, are commonly seen stomping along the roads within the parks. Due to hunting pressure and the general nature of most habitats, encountering a similar bird in Ecuador requires either incredible patience or luck. I'm sure there are rare and difficult birds lurking within the tall grass of the open plains, but my initial impression is that birding in east Africa is considerably more leisurely than in the Andes and Amazonia.
Focusing more on the park itself, Mikumi is one of Tanzania's many Important Bird Areas, recognized by BirdLife International. There is a variety of habitat within the reserve, including modest hills covered in extensive miombo woodland and riverine forest in addition to the vast flood plain of the lowlands. A large number of migrant species have been recorded here, and there are also several pairs of allopatric species that overlap in this area, for example, the African Grey and Pale-Billed Hornbills. This might be due to the great size of the protected area, which conserves transition zones between geographically distinct habitats, although I'm only speculating. Finally, the park has some key species, none of which I saw, including the Broad-Tailed Paradise-Whydah, Racket-Tailed Roller, Dickinson's Kestrel, and Pale-Billed Hornbill.
Our group was fortunate to be guided by resident author Graham Mercer, a former educator who has completed extensive research, and subsequent publication, on the varied natural and cultural splendors of Tanzania. During our excursions, he would sit calmly at the front of one of the buses, pointing out mammals and birds whenever he had the chance to look for them while patiently answering the group's incessant questions about animal behavior and wildlife conservation. His passionate interest in the country was contagious, though, as we all jostled for his attention, hoping he would share some delicious anecdote that we could relay later to the others. One night during our stay, he presented a wonderful slide show of his photographs, taken over several decades of travel in the country, and documenting a surprising array of obscure indigenous groups. In particular, he recounted locating a rare group of hunter and gatherers that wandered like nomads through the northern part of the country, erecting makeshift shelters by weaving bushes together over their heads. Graham used to be a pretty keen birder, too, and his presentation was peppered with terrific photos of the birds of Tanzania.
Arriving just after noon on a Friday, we settled into our luxurious accommodations at Mikumi Wildlife Camp, just off the main highway that passes unfortunately through the middle of the park (thanks to improvements in the surfacing of the road over 450 large mammals were killed during a five-year period in the 1990's). Just in front of the line of comfortable bandas, or shelters, was an artificial watering hole that attracted large groups of elephants, zebras, wildebeests, and of course birds during our visit, which was in the middle of the dry season. In fact, viewing wildlife at the camp was just as easily accomplished lounging around the private patio as bouncing around in the bus on safari. Notable observations at this watering hole included Saddle-Billed and Marabou Storks, as well as Southern Ground and African Grey Hornbills. The Superb Starling, Grey Kestrel, Brown-Headed Parrot, Common Bullbull, and Fork-Tailed Drongo were also seen around the grounds of the camp, while the Bateleur eagle was frequently spotted soaring high above.
Although it was frustrating at times driving around in a bus full of non-birders and passing by many new birds without a look, we were lucky to spend one morning in a private car apart from the rest of the group, searching for birds and stopping whenever we pleased. Consequently, we didn't make it very far from camp, but we did arrive at another watering hole by the end of the morning, having encountered a pair of lions stalking a lone zebra along the way. They didn't come close to making a kill, but one lioness approached our car within a few meters and crossed the road several times right in front of us, which was a good reminder of why visitors aren't permitted to leave the vehicle at any time within the park. Observations on this exclusive birding safari included Blacksmith Lapwing, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, White-Browed Coucal, and Black-Bellied Bustard.
My favorite birds of the trip, though, were seen from the bus with the rest of the group, including the Little Bee-Eater, Crested Barbet, Scarlet-Breasted Sunbird, and Malachite Kingfisher, all gorgeously colored birds that weren't photographed due to the considerable distance from which we spotted them. On both late afternoon safaris with the thirty-person group, we visited yet another watering hole, where Crocodiles and Hippopotamus are regularly seen when it's full. The hole was dry for some reason, but the area still contained a few birds, including the Lilac-Breasted Roller, White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, and Long-Tailed Fiscal. Here, while enjoying a few beers at sunset one evening, we also spotted a solitary Hamerkop, which is my best bird to date in Tanzania. This large but drab and brown waterbird is the only species in its family, and it's remarkable for its extraordinarily hammer-shaped head when seen in profile; indeed, Hamerkop means Hammerhead in Afrikaans. Flipping through the Princeton Field Guide to the birds of east Africa this summer to familiarize myself with the region's specialties, I was struck by this bird, which is neither heron nor stork, as much as by any other species.
Looking ahead, I'm a bit daunted by the prospect of learning the birds of Tanzania to the extent that I did in Ecuador. Getting around here is certainly more challenging, and important bird areas are located much farther apart than in the Andes. While Tanzania is no doubt one of the poorest countries in the world, ecotourism is shockingly expensive; even car camping in a national park can cost as much as the most exclusive lodge in Amazonia. Living here isn't proving as easy as in South America either, and my colleagues keep telling me how much hotter and unpleasant it will be in just a few months. All that being said, birding is still a wonderful reason to explore, and birds themselves reveal so much about the peculiarities of a country and its geography. Whatever I do manage to see and learn of Tanzania then you can trust will be recorded here.
Notable birds seen: Hamerkop, Saddle-Billed Stork, Grey Heron, Marabou Stork, Helmeted Guineafowl, Red-Necked Spurfowl, Black-Bellied Bustard, Lappet-Faced Vulture, Bateleur, Grey Kestrel, Pied Crow, White-Naped Raven, White-Browed Coucal, Burchell's Coucal, Crowned Lapwing, Blacksmith Lapwing, Ring-Necked Dove, Malachite Kingfisher, Brown-Headed Parrot, Red-Billed Hornbill, African Grey Hornbill, Southern Ground-Hornbill, Red-Billed Oxpecker, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Crested Barbet, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Long-Tailed Fiscal, Scarlet-Chested Sunbird, White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, Superb Starling, Little Bee-Eater, Common Bullbull, Fork-Tailed Drongo.