Mkomazi National Park: December 18-19, 2010

After months of planning, Aimee and I finally lighted out to explore northern Tanzania, leaving Dar es Salaam well before dawn to avoid the traffic that clogs the modest single-lane highway that serves as the city’s primary entrance and exit road. Our ambitious plans for the three-week adventure would take us through the entire northern Tanzanian safari circuit, as we explored in our own car most of the country’s national parks and game reserves in the region. Would our aging 4x4 Mitsubushi Pajero really make it all the way to the remote Serengeti and back? And what else might go wrong along the way, we wondered, as Tanzania has consistently placed obstacles before us ever since we arrive in August. Pondering these questions as we pounded coffee, we tried to reset our attitudes to better reflect that today was the first day of a long and much-deserved vacation.

Eight hours of remarkably easy driving later, we pulled into the Elephant Motel, a comfortable roadside stop in the town of Same, roughly halfway from Dar to Arusha. This would be our base for several days while we investigated the little-known Mkomazi National Park, a newly upgraded reserve along the northeastern border with Kenya. In fact, Mkomazi is basically an extension of the much larger Tsavo National Park in Kenya, and it is home to a large number of arid acacia-country bird species, none of which I had ever seen before. The park is also beautifully scenic as hills roll gently in all directions, and Kilimanjaro can be seen sometimes in the far distance. Given the paucity, and timidity, of large game in the reserve, it is permissible for visitors to get out of the car occasionally and stretch their legs, as long as they stay within 25 meters of the vehicle, of course. Indeed, without lions and leopards stalking about, there aren’t many visitors to the park, and we drove around for hours without ever choking on a Toyota Landcruiser’s dust.

Mkomazi is also notable for two conservation projects involving the reintroduction of the Black Rhino, which has been decimated throughout the continent by poaching, and the charismatic African Wild Dog, which has been victimized by exposure to diseases transmitted by domesticated dogs. Aimee has yet to see either animal, so it was easy convincing her to spend a few days in the park, ostensibly searching them out while I was actually hunting for a handful of obscure birds, such as the Three-Streaked Tchagra, Shelley’s Starling, and Somali Long-Billed Crombec. Throughout our visit, which consisted of a long afternoon and the following half day, we hardly saw anything out of the ordinary or really unique to the park, but we were entranced by the picturesque beauty of the landscapes and thrilled by all the new bird species we encountered, including such acacia and savanna standouts as the Red-and-Yellow Barbet, Secretary Bird, and White-Bellied Go-Away-Bird.

After paying our 24-hour entrance fees ($25), we rolled slowly into the park, cruising through glorious woodland that even at midday was filled with birdsong. Yellow-Throated Spurfowls and Crested Francolins scattered occasionally in front of our car, as I stopped frequently to admire an Augur Buzzard, a group of Von der Decken’s Hornbills, and the ubiquitous Northern White-Crowned Shrikes. As we continued, the habitat opened up into grassland, and we noted several predators perched in the few remaining treetops, including Eastern Chanting-Goshawk, Black-Shouldered Kite, and Pearl-Spotted Owlet. It felt great just to be birding again after months of hard work, and it was especially thrilling to have to look up almost every bird observed in the field guide, as they all seemed new.

Driving towards Babu’s Camp, the only luxury tented camp inside or outside the park, which is set against a lovely hill dotted with massive baobab trees, we ticked several more new species, including European Roller, African Orange-Bellied Parrot, and Hildebrandt’s Starling, an east African endemic that bears more than a slight resemblance to the common Superb Starling. The atmosphere at the camp looked outstanding, offering front-porch opportunities for birding, but I had decided it was simply too expensive to stay in one luxury camp after another for three weeks. Indeed, the cost of traveling in northern Tanzania is radically high, even for tax-paying residents such as myself. Park entry can be as much as $50 per person per day, and rustic camps are typically $200 per person per day. When added to fuel costs, which are over $1 per liter, even independent travelers of reasonable means are looking to economize in almost every financial decision they make.

Before leaving the park in the early evening, we stopped to check out the campsite, having brought camping equipment along with us as a back-up plan in case our reservations fell through or we simply wanted to improvise. Camping in Tanzanian parks is supposedly an edgy experience as large mammals frequently walk through campsites at night. I’ve seen plenty of photos from my colleagues at work who have woken up to the sight of lions stalking around their tents or elephants probing around their car for food. Mosquitoes, scorpions, and snakes are other hazards. The site was gorgeous in the dying light, though, and if it weren’t for the costs involved ($50 per person per night), it would have made for a great first night of our trip. We stopped for a final bird before the entrance gate, a Pangani Longclaw that we had flushed along the road, and then spent a relaxing evening back at the quiet Elephant Motel.

The following morning was as exciting as the previous day, with high levels of bird activity and more new species seen. Our best early morning discovery was a Pygmy Falcon, an attractive but diminutive raptor standing at only eight inches in height. Heading towards Dindera Dam instead of Babu’s Camp, we encountered our first pair of Red-and-Yellow Barbets, stunningly colored in the dry brown and green landscape. This delightful bird graces the cover of the Princeton Field Guide, Birds of East Africa. Our next find was even more impressive, as we watched a massive bird soar up from the plains on a thermal. At first, I though it was one of the region’s huge storks, as the bird’s long legs trailed it in flight. Then, I realized that the bird also had a long tail trailing it, making this observation our first of the spectacular Secretary Bird, a predominantly terrestrial raptor whose long legs and tail trail its body in flight. Indeed, I was so excited to find this unique east African endemic so early in our trip that I climbed onto the roof our car later to observe another individual that was hunting through the grasslands in the distance. Just try to imagine a 1.5-meter raptor striding through the high grass on long legs in search of snakes and lizards to stomp on and eat, and you’ll understand why I was so jazzed.

After failing to find any standing water at Dindera Dam, or anywhere else in the park, we decided to move on to Kilimanjaro National Park in the afternoon, having run out of time on our 24-hour entrance passes to Mkomazi. The birding had been excellent, and the experience of relaxed and solitary driving along the park roads would prove to be highly unique as we explored the more popular parks in northern Tanzania. Back at the entrance gate, we picked up a few more new species, including several colorful waxbills like the Purple Grenadier and Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, before heading off on our way.

Notable birds seen: Secretary Bird, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Bateleur, Pygmy Falcon, Black-Shouldered Kite, Eastern Chanting-Goshawk, Augur Buzzard, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Francolin, Yellow-Necked Spurfowl, Buff-Crested Bustard, Emerald-Spotted Wood-Dove, African Orange-Bellied Parrot, Black-and-White Cuckoo, Pearl-Spotted Owlet, White-Bellied Go-Away-Bird, White-Browed Coucal, Little Bee-Eater, Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater, European Roller, Red-and-Yellow Barbet, Von der Decken’s Hornbill, Red-Billed Hornbill, African Grey Hornbill, Pangani Longclaw, Northern Pied Babbler, Red-Backed Shrike, Northern White-Crowned Shrike, Isabelline Shrike, Black Cuckoo-Shrike, Fork-Tailed Drongo, White-Naped Raven, Superb Starling, Hildebrandt’s Starling, Red-Billed Buffalo-Weaver, White-Headed Buffalo-Weaver, Green-Winged Pytillia, Purple Grenadier, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, White-Winged Widowbird, Pin-Tailed Whydah.

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