Pugu Hills Forest Reserve is located about an hour’s drive from Dar es Salaam, provided that you drive fearlessly on chaotic, bombed-out roads. Although Aimee and I typically leave home for our birding excursions well before dawn, we still encountered some ridiculously congested traffic on route to our destination, only about 30km west from Msasani Peninsula, where we live in Dar. Public transport clogged the roads as people streamed into the city from the rural outskirts, overburdened trucks crashed through potholes and over misshapen speed bumps, pedestrians weaved through moving traffic as densely as a Persian rug, and streams of men on bicycles commanded valuable space on the tarmac with their teetering loads of charcoal, tomatoes, or eggs. Indeed, leaving the city on a Saturday morning is not for the timid.
We were on our way to a small patch of forest, where a few hundred hectares of coastal scrub and woodland are protected, at least in name. Originally, I was hoping to visit the actual forest reserve run by the Tanzanian government, but after investigating my options I was discouraged enough to the point where I thought it best to book a visit to a private reserve, Pugu Hills, which is adjacent to the supposedly protected forest (we heard disturbing accounts of poaching and deforestation from our hostess during our visit, and saw a few shocking before and after photos portraying the decimation of the reserve). Ultimately, this proved to be the best course of action, as the habitat at Pugu Hills was just what I was looking for, and the infrastructure for visiting birders was more than adequate, with several trails for walking and a variety of delicious options for lunch.
Arriving at the entrance around 7am, we first encountered a family group of Crowned Hornbills in a tall and sparsely leafed tree. This transitional habitat between cultivated land and woodland would prove particularly fruitful on this sunny morning, as we found the Speckled Mousebird, Cardinal Woodpecker, Green-Winged Pytilia, Black Cuckoo-Shrike, and Red-Billed Firefinch all in the vicinity. We also briefly witnessed a magnificent raptor on the wing, flying low to the ground as it glided through the trees in search of prey. There are a bewildering number of species of hawks, eagles, and kites in this region, though, and I feel much more helpless than in Ecuador in terms of identifying raptors.
The highlight of our morning was no doubt a moderately sized mixed flock we followed for an hour as it moved slowly though the dense brush along one of the private nature trails. Although each new bird species observed is a delightful surprise, several birds in particular simply stunned us. The Black-Throated Wattle-Eye took us aback with its antbird-like qualities, but instead of having a red-colored eye ring, it actually had raised red skin flaps around its eyes. This pair of smart black and white birds foraged slowly, making a unique clicking noise as it moved along. A mating pair of Narina Trogons was also a nice find, although I’ve never been very enthralled by this phlegmatic family of birds. Perhaps the confiding Red-Capped Robin-Chat was the most enchanting bird of the day, as it swooped in at close range in the undergrowth and proceed to flick through the leaf litter almost at our feet.
Afterwards Aimee and I climbed the hill to check out the actual reserve, walking along the firebreak between Pugu Hills and the forest. As it was near midday at this point, there wasn’t much to see, except for some huge raptors perched in the distance (I had left my scope in the car as always), and we decided to make one last circuit of the nature trail. This time we found a marvelous male Green-Winged Pytilia, one of the region’s many spectacularly colored waxbills. A pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers also caught our attention, but the most unusual bird of the morning was the Eastern Nicator that appeared briefly from dense cover. The field guide describes this species as almost annoyingly vocal but very difficult to see, so perhaps we were simply lucky to get a look at the bird, much less a photograph of it. At any rate, it certainly took me a few hours to identify, as I puzzled over its field markings during lunch.
Before leaving for the day, we made sure to case out the accommodations for a possible future visit, noting that the rooms were made out of canvas and self-contained like a yurt and nicely furnished ones at that, complete with four-post beds. In front of the bandas, were rows of flowering shrubs from which a boisterous group of sunbirds was busy feeding. Lovely and miniscule Collared Sunbirds seemed to be everywhere, but I was struck by a much larger and dull-colored species, the Olive Sunbird, that had a small, orange malar stripe at the base of its bill. Considering the rest of its brilliantly-colored family, this humble-looking bird is truly one of a kind.
Notable birds seen: Speckled Mousebird, Narina Trogon, Brown-Hooded Kingfisher, Crowned Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Cardinal Woodpecker, Black Cuckoo-Shrike, Eastern Nicator, Red-Capped Robin-Chat, Yellow-Breasted Apalis, Black-Throated Wattle-Eye, Olive Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Green-Winged Pytilia, Red-Billed Firefinch, Bronze Mannikin.