Sadaani National Park: February 12-14, 2011

A migrating Crab Plover might travel from Dar es Salaam to Sadaani National Park in under an hour. Arriving by car takes more than four though, and the lack of a direct route has no doubt discouraged many expatriates from visiting this relatively new and unique park that protects over one thousand square kilometers of coastal woodland, scrub, and grassland habitat. Indeed, Sadaani is the only national park in east Africa along the Indian Ocean, and although there’s not as much large game to be seen as in the country’s more established parks and reserves further inland, it’s definitely worth a weekend of relaxed exploration. Having procured luxurious accommodation right on the deserted beach at Sadaani Safari Lodge, Aimee and I decided to spend our last three-day weekend together in Tanzania here, looking forward to a variety of activities, including driving, walking, and boating safaris.

Leaving home before dawn, we arrived via Chalinze at the park entrance after four hours of relatively easy driving, making a weekend trip from Dar to Sadaani slightly more feasible than to Mikumi National Park. After paying our entrance fees ($20 per person per 24 hours), we drove slowly through open grassland and acacia habitat, spotting a few birds, such as Dark Chanting-Goshawk and Northern Carmine Bee-Eater along the way. Waterbuck, bushbuck, and yellow baboon were common, although in small numbers. Aside from the inhabitants of the village of Sadaani, a small fishing community located within the boundaries of the park, we encountered no other tourists while driving the well-signed network of roads. We checked into our room, having received a generous upgrade to an excellent suite, and took a long nap after lunch, which would have been perfect if it weren’t for the large party of obnoxious Chinese guests sitting at a table nearby. Indeed, China has recently increased its investment in Tanzania, creating a significant tension between western diplomats and aid workers long used to their wealthy, almost kingly, status here and the newly rich Chinese expatriate business class who are simply looking for a good time.

Amid the peaceful din of the wind and waves, I drifted in and out of sleep, slowing becoming aware of a substantial amount of bird activity outside. A few minutes of investigation in some fruiting bushes nearby yielded a host of good birds: Red-Fronted Tinkerbird, Black-Collared and Brown-Breasted Barbets, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Black-Bellied Starling, and Common Rock-Thrush. Aslo, in a large conifer overhead were dozens of bee-eaters, including Blue-Cheeked and Northern Carmine Bee-Eaters. In fact, there were birds everywhere around our banda, including swallows overhead and terns just offshore. After reeling off hundreds of photographs, including decent shots of a restless pair of Black-Headed Batis, I returned to our room, where Aimee was reading a back issue of African Birds and Birding. An offshoot of Africa Geographic, this terrific South African magazine is focused entirely on the continent’s avifauna, highlighting individual species and notable conservation projects. From the issues I glanced through that were scattered about the lodge, there’s very little on east Africa. With variety of protected areas and well-developed infrastructure, South Africa looks simply like birding heaven.

Back on the road for an evening game drive, Aimee and I puzzled long over several confusing birds. The first simply appeared to be African Grey Hornbill, but upon closer inspection all the birds in this group clearly had creamy-yellow lower mandibles along with an orange-red tip. According to the field guide, the Pale-Billed Hornbill is restricted to miombo woodland and is rarely found further afield; it’s a species I’ve yet to see despite having spent considerable time in miombo woodland in southern Tanzania. Eastern Yellow-Billed Hornbill, another possibility, has been recorded at Sadaani, but I was confident that this wasn’t the correct identification, as the birds we were watching had dark grey wings and mantle, like the common African Grey Hornbill. We continued on with the issue unresolved, soon encountering a massive black and white eagle along the road. At first glance, I was convinced it was a juvenile African Crowned Eagle, as it alighted in a nearby tree with its crown raised high in agitation. With its thighs and talons out of sight though, it could just have easily been a juvenile Martial Eagle, and we would see a pair of adult Martial Eagles the following day.

Birding in Tanzania is so easy compared to Ecuador that it was nice for once to have some identifications to mull over that evening, and I was still pondering the following morning as Aimee and I drove out to Zaraninge Forest on the southwestern side of the park. Unfortunately, the weather and tidal conditions prohibited a boat safari on the Wami River, so we decided to explore one of the largest swaths of protected coastal humid forest left in Tanzania, hoping to see some forest bird species. Just a few kilometers down the entrance road to the forest, we turned back due to heavy rains and treacherous road conditions; I had spun out several times already in the wet black cotton soil. Having now been foiled twice on our excursion, we glumly drove back to the lodge. Suddenly, Aimee pointed out a huge eagle perched in the distance, and we approached it carefully by car. A soaking Martial Eagle sat out in the open directly above the road. For the next hour as the storm receded, we watched this magnificent specimen as it dried and preened itself in the growing light. Note the delicate black spotting on the bird’s pure white underparts.

Several kilometers later we found another adult Martial Eagle perched in the open, this time far from the road. In fact, there were several eagles on the wing in the improved weather, including a Black-Chested Snake-Eagle rising on a thermal in the distance. Thwarted again the following morning by the weather and tides, we never did have the chance to explore the Wami River by boat, which passes through mature mangrove and riparian forest habitat and is supposedly excellent for birding. Again, there were great birds to see in the fruiting bushes by our room, including a pair of the territorial Spotted Morning-Thrush. A final pass through the savanna on our way back to Dar yielded Flappet Lark, Red-Backed Shrike, Common Scimitarbill, Levaillant’s Cuckoo, and Yellow-Rumped Seedeater, concluding our restful but still engaging visit to Sadaani National Park.

Notable birds seen: Open-Billed Stork, Black Kite, African Fish Eagle, African White-Backed Vulture, Black-Chested Snake-Eagle, Dark Chanting-Goshawk, Bateleur, Martial Eagle, Black-Bellied Bustard, Caspian Tern, Gull-Billed Tern, Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater, Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, European Roller, Common Scimitarbill, Crowned Hornbill, Trumpeter Hornbill, Brown-Breasted Barbet, Collared Barbet, Red-Fronted Tinkerbird, Flappet Lark, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Zanzibar Sombre Greenbul, White-Headed Black-Chat, White-Browed Scrub-Robin, Spotted Morning Thrush, Red-Faced Crombec, Scarlet-Chested Sunbird, Isabelline Shrike, Red-Backed Shrike, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Lesser Masked Weaver, Bronze Mannikin, Black-Headed Batis, Common Rock-Thrush, Palm-Nut Vulture, Yellow-Rumped Seedeater, Black-Bellied Starling.

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