Arusha National Park: December 20-22, 2010

Short on big game, such as the elephant and lion, Arusha National Park ($35 per person per 24 hours) draws relatively few visitors compared to other national parks on the northern Tanzania tourist circuit. The park is a marvel, though, encompassing a wide variety of habitats and including two spectacular volcanic features, Mount Meru (4,566 meters) and Ngurdoto Crater, which is fully intact at 400 meters deep and 3 kilometers in diameter. Aimee and I first had two full days to explore the lower-elevations of the park on our own, and then we would embark on a four-day ascent of Meru along with our friend from Ecuador, Mark Thurber, who would join us after working on an environmental consulting project in Libya.

The Arusha area is littered with places to stay, offering everything from budget options in the city to high-end camps inside the park’s boundaries. We decided on a modest but comfortable lodge just outside the park, Meru Mbega Lodge, owned by the same folks who ran the lodge we stayed at just outside the Selous Game Reserve in October. After getting settled, we made the short drive to the park entrance, where we greeted with the welcome sight of intact montane forest covering hundreds of square kilometers. Given the impressive rate at which Tanzania is converting its forests and woodland into charcoal, even within its parks and reserves, I’m always relieved to witness a successful conservation effort.

With the plan of exploring the Momella Lakes on the far side of the park, saving the crater for the following day, we drove off across the park on its principle gravel road, stopping to admire some zebras, warthogs, and buffalo in a clearing along the way. We were surprised to see packed busses bouncing along the same road, as well as lorries barreling down it at high-speeds, but unfortunately this is the norm as the park straddles the ridge between two cities, with this road being the most direct route connecting them. The high volume of traffic made our next bird sighting even more surprising, a pair of African Crowned Eagles hunting vervet monkeys from a roadside perch within the forest.

Aimee and I had pulled over to the side of the road as soon as we had spotted these massive eagles swooping from perch to perch as they pursued a terrified troop of monkeys. Meanwhile, busses and safari vehicles raced past us sending up dust and gravel in all directions. Much like Harpy Eagles in size, stature, and stoicism, the African Crowned Eagles continued to stalk the moneys ruthlessly, unperturbed by noisy vehicles or the amazed birders who were observing them at close range. Raising their crests expressively, they worked together, one to distract the monkeys in the open while the other approached them from deeper cover. The male in particular appeared powerful enough to kill a young impala, which makes the monkeys they were hunting more of an appetizer than a main course. Eventually, they retreated into the forest unsuccessful, leaving Aimee and I thrilled with what would be our most impressive bird observation of the entire trip.

Near the Momella Lakes, the park’s habitat changes abruptly from moist montane forest to arid savanna and acacia woodland. Fed by underground streams, the alkaline lakes are large and shallow, supporting a rich avifauna highlighted by the gaudy Lesser Flamingo. Indeed, the larger of the two lakes is home to more individual birds than I’ve ever seen at one time, and Aimee and I were transfixed by the sight, sound, and smell of more than ten thousand Lesser Flamingoes feeding together. Other good bird observations made while driving around the lakes included the Great Crested Grebe, Great Cormorant, and African Moustached Warbler, and we also noted giraffe, Kirk’s Dik-Dik, and waterbuck. Exiting the park at sunset, we were treated to the magnificent site of a full moon rising over Mount Kilimanjaro to the northwest.

The following morning, we returned to the park, this time to explore the crater rim, which requires some fearless 4x4 driving up steep, forested tracks. Hoping for a glimpse of the east African endemic Hartlaub’s Turaco, I stopped frequently along the way and we figured out the identification of a few new bird species, including the White-Eared Barbet, Stripe-Cheeked Bulbul, and Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater. We then checked out the crater floor from two viewpoints, the neatest perspective offered by The Glade, which afforded spectacular views of both Meru and the crater. Aside from a few buffalo and hippopotamus, we didn’t see much wildlife down below on the marshy floor, but the forest on the outer walls of the crater was magnificent, with much larger trees than those found along the principle park roads.

Relaxing in the gardens of the lodge in the afternoon, Aimee and I were delighted by a pair of African Hoopoe feeding in the grass. These clownish birds were so absorbed in the act of searching out grubs and beetles deep in the ground that we were able to approach them within two meters as they probed into the soil with their long decurved bills. The male would periodically raise its crown feathers and flash its beautiful crest, and at one point it crowed in celebration after delivering a savory morsel to its mate. They stuck around all afternoon, dashing about the garden in dipping, woodpecker-like flight as they methodically worked over one patch of earth after another.

The following morning we picked up Mark at the Kilimanjaro International Airport, stopping in Arusha briefly to pick up some extra supplies for our climb beginning on the next day. Although Mark had been on the road for weeks in Libya, and had to take typically arduous route to get to northern Tanzania, we dragged him immediately into the park, where we had set up a canoe safari on the Momella Lakes with Green Footprint Adventures. If you’re serious about seeing wildlife in Tanzania’s National Parks, you’ll have to suffer through long hours of driving in 4x4 vehicles, so it’s imperative that you take advantage of every opportunity to get out of the car and do something different. Paddling around the lakes in the late afternoon light was definitely a welcome treat, and we witnessed some excellent wildlife, including hippopotamus, giraffe, and an albino baboon. Mark even spotted a Serval Cat, which is a beautifully spotted predator that hunts shorebirds by stalking them within the cover of tall grass.

Notable birds seen: Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, Great Cormorant, Long-Tailed Cormorant, Lesser Flamingo, Greater Flamingo, Spur-Winged Goose, Egyptian Goose, Cape Teal, Southern Pochard, Hottentot Teal, African Crowned Eagle, African Fish Eagle, African White-Backed Vulture, Mountain Buzzard, African Jacana, Black-and-White Cuckoo, White-Browed Coucal, Narina Trogon, African Hoopoe, Silvery-Cheeked Hornbill, Crowned Hornbill, White-Fronted Bee-Eater, Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater, White-Eared Barbet, Grey Woodpecker, Mountain Greenbull, Stripe-Cheeked Greenbull, African Dusky Flycatcher, Common Stonechat, Black Cuckoo-Shrike, African Moustached Warbler, Chin-Spot Batis, African Paradise Flycatcher, Montane White-Eye, Bronze Sunbird, Variable Sunbird, Common Waxbill, Crimson-Rumped Waxbill.

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