Aimee and I were waiting to visit Mikumi National Park for the second time in the rainy season, but the period of the short rains has yet to arrive, at least here in Dar es Salaam, and the long rains aren’t until late February. During the wet season, supposedly, the floodplains explode in a burst of color, as lush green grass grows a meter tall and wildflowers dot the landscape. This dramatic transformation coincides with the breeding season for many birds, and male widowbirds, whydahs, queleas, and bishops sprout striking red plumage and grow spectacularly long tails. The concentrated groups of large game for which Mikumi is famous disperse into the hills or are obscured from the road by the verdant new growth, but for the birds, and the birders, the rainy season is the best time.
As soon as we arrived at the park on Saturday morning, having left Dar well before dawn, we realized that the landscape had become even more parched and denuded since August, the time of our first visit. Even the artificial pools that are constructed and maintained by the park had mostly dried up, and the plains were littered with the bleached bones of impala, wildebeest, zebra, and buffalo. Near the entrance is the excellent Mikumi Wildlife Camp, where we stayed in August and which still had one pool filled with water. Huge groups of buffalo, elephant, and zebra were loitering nearby seemingly taking turns at having refreshment while warthog and baboon came and went without hesitation. Between the road and the pool were hordes of vultures, mostly African White-Backed Vultures, picking through the remains of several recently deceased animals.
Driving towards another pool about 15 kilometers from the entrance, we passed giraffe feeding on the acacia trees and more elephants wandering the plain. Common birds along this stretch included the Long-Tailed Fiscal, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Red-Necked Spurfowl, Helmeted Guineafowl, Black-Bellied Bustard, Ring-Necked Dove, African Grey Hornbill, Crowned Lapwing, and Superb Starling, all birds we had noted on our first visit. Approaching the pool, which had dozens of vultures already spiraling down from above, we first stopped at a tree to admire a pair of perched White-Headed Vultures, looking with what was perhaps longing at the chaotic scene of the pool in the distance. These not unattractive vultures are generally chased off from kills by the larger and more aggressive scavenging birds.
Indeed the spectacle of the pool was gruesome, as harried impala, zebra, and wildebeest stalked around in the deep mud attempting to reach the small muck-filled pool in the center. In this unsightly watering hole, a single flatulent hippopotamus lay still, covered in black mud, as acrid bubbles rose to the surface around it. Animal carcasses in various stages of decay littered the area as vultures worked the scene, establishing their feeding hierarchy with a horrid display of posturing and violence. Stunned by the struggle for survival, we surveyed the scene from the car, noting some pacific birds also in attendance, including the Saddle-Billed Stork, Hamerkop, Blacksmith Lapwing, and Grey Heron. Hundreds of Ring-Necked Doves came and went as well, easily negotiating the mud with their ultra-light bodies.
With five species of vultures noted, we turned back in the direction towards the entrance gate, attempting to make an obvious loop judging from the map we had purchased of the park. Several detours later, we were back on the road we had come into the park on, having encountered a few dodgy ravines that I wasn’t comfortable enough to charge through in our car (our trustworthy old Toyota Landcruiser would have surmounted these obstacles with ease). Unfortunately, having left the road a few times to turn around, I became a bit lax with the park’s driving rules, and spotting a huge raptor in a nearby tree, approached in the car for a better photograph. A passing vehicle reported this violation to the park rangers at the entrance, and we almost had to pay a steep fine that I narrowly, and unethically, escaped. Deservedly, I still can’t determine what type of eagle it was despite the close-range photographs, although I’m now thinking either Steppe or Tawny Eagle (Update: Ron Eggert at Tanzanian Birds confirmed the Tawny Eagle identification).
Embarrassed by having flaunted the rules and then lied about it, I retreated with Aimee to our accommodation in the wooded hills on the other side of the highway that passes directly through the park. Vuma Hills Tented Camp is a classic, luxury safari camp, where visitors stay in private canvas tents set up on raised and covered platforms. It sounds much more rustic than it really is, although as the bush comes just to the edge of the platform the effect is certainly like camping. After a terrific lunch and a few Safari beers, we retired to the tent for a rest. Relaxing on the porch and studying the field guide, which I hadn’t touched for several weeks in favor of Jonathan Franzen’s excellent new novel Freedom, I noted a few new birds. Broad-Billed Roller called noisily from several treetops, Yellow-Bellied Greenbull moved about in the brush, and Marico Sunbird fed ostentatiously along a few flowering branches. Following up on some scratching sounds coming from the leaf litter, I found a small family group of Crested Francolin, and then enjoyed a pair of delightful White-Browed Scrub-Robin, displaying by cocking and spreading their tail feathers and quickly flashing their wings.
Instead of returning to the floodplain for an afternoon game drive, Aimee and I decided to drive through the wooded hills, attempting to make another obvious loop on the map. A few minutes into the drive, though, and our car was filled with tsetse flies, which transmit sleeping sickness and also bite shocking hard and deep. The flies are supposedly attracted to movement, and swarm into moving cars whenever they stop, such as the case was when I stopped for a pair of Crowned Hornbill. As the air conditioning doesn’t work in our car either, we quickly had to abandon the game drive and turn back to the camp. Sitting on the porch again and looking out over the plain, where with out binoculars we could see elephants passing along over ten kilometers away, we watched a thunderstorm break spectacularly at sunset. Suddenly a small owl jumped up from the ground into a tree nearby, an African Barred Owlet, and it scrutinized us boldly before dashing out into the woodland.
With a few hours left on our 24-hour entrance passes, we embarked on an early-morning game drive through the plains, hoping to find lion and leopard, as well as any new birds. On our way over to the hippo pool, we first found a pair of beautiful Northern Carmine Bee-Eaters, a species that wasn’t on the park list that I picked up from the Vuma Hills office. I also found a Caspian Plover with a group of Crowned Lapwings, and Aimee pointed out a pair of Wahlberg’s Eagle preening each other in a tree. Returning across the plain to the pond from the day before, we encountered a pair of Northern Pied Babblers and several migratory Northern Wheatears, their white rumps flashing starkly in the drained-yellow landscape.
Nearing the pool, we stopped to inspect another vehicle through our binoculars, in which every one was gazing up at tree above the pool and pointing in amazement. I could see a long appendage draped casually over a branch, and prematurely declared to Aimee that we were about to see our first leopard. Indeed, this is usually how you see cheetah, leopards, and lions on safari, by following up on the finds of other safari groups. Circling the tree in our car, we were first dismayed and then fascinated to see that it wasn’t a leopard at all, but a disemboweled impala that was strung over a high branch. Clearly it had been killed the night before, most likely by a leopard, and then carried up into the tree, where the animal could feed on it in peace without having to defend its prey from lions or hyena. We watched the carnage for another half an hour before it was time to leave the park and make the drive back to Dar, which took almost six hours in the sweltering afternoon traffic.
Notable birds seen: Hooded Vulture, Lappet-Faced Vulture, Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture, White-Headed Vulture, African White-Backed Vulture, African Hawk Eagle, Bateleur, Wahlberg’s Eagle, African Black Kite, Caspian Plover, Crowned Lapwing, Egyptian Goose, Hamerkop, Hadada Ibis, Saddle-Billed Stork, Marabou Stork, Open-Billed Stork, Grey Heron, Black-Bellied Bustard, Crested Francolin, Helmeted Guineafowl, Red-Necked Spurfowl, African-Barred Owlet, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Broad-Billed Roller, Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, Little Bee-Eater, Green Wood-Hoopoe, Red-Billed Oxpecker, Nothern Pied Babbler, Long-Tailed Fiscal, Black-Crowned Tchagra, Yellow-Bellied Greenbull, White-Browed Scrub-Robin, Northern Wheatear, Pale Batis, Spotted Flycatcher, Superb Starling, Marico Sunbird, White-Browed Sparrow Weaver, Pin-Tailed Whydah.