Selous Game Reserve: February 7-11, 2011

One of the perks of being in education is chaperoning school trips, which at expensive international schools can seem like once-in-a-lifetime vacations. Just consider some of the excursions that teachers and students at the International School of Tanganyika take during the year: a six-day ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro; five days of scuba diving off the north coast of Zanzibar; a week in the Hague to participate in Model United Nations; or a five-day trek in the Ngorongoro Crater Highlands. Fortunately, I was able to maneuver my way onto an excellent five-day safari in the Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania during IST’s Extended Studies Program. Although Aimee and I had already visited the Selous in November, my interest was piqued by the packed itinerary of the trip: one full-day game drive, two full-day walking safaris, and one afternoon boat safari in what is Africa’s largest protected area and home to probably the largest populations of elephants, buffalo, hippopotamus, and lions in the world. Even if the students were loud and rambunctious at times, there’s no way we wouldn’t see a ton of wildlife, especially birds.

Arriving at Hippo camp located outside the Mtemere Gate on Monday afternoon, we boarded four boats for a safari on the Rufiji River, with expectations of encountering hippopotamus at close range. Having taken some remarkable bird photographs in November with the help of our skilled boat driver, I was poised to fire away again, but it started to pour within minutes of our departure. Amazingly, these were the first rains of the year in the Selous, and everyone grew anxious as the skies grew darker, particularly to the remote northwest where we would be driving and walking during the rest of the week. After watching some African Golden Weavers worry over their nests in the rain, we sped around an island to meet the hippos on the other side, passing several Pied and Malachite Kingfishers along the way. As soon as the students had seen the hippos, they clamored to return to shore as none of them had brought a raincoat and many were now soaking wet. Motoring to the riverbank, we noticed that the skies were clearing and decided to continue upriver with the handful of students that were still enthusiastic.

Scores of Trumpeter Hornbills sailed overhead as they crossed the river for the night, dipping and rising in flight with a burst of hurried wing beats, unmistakably like toucans, their South American cousins. A variety of pigeons were also steadily on the move, until a Lanner Falcon burst out of the trees and scattered them in all directions. Along the islands we had fleeting looks at White-Crowned Lapwing, Water Thick-Knee, and Goliath Heron, but compared to November the bird activity was significantly lower and less interesting. Having really talked up the quality of birding in the Selous with my colleagues on the trip, I was worried that we wouldn’t see much during the next few days, especially if the weather was poor. Happily, things turned around quickly the next morning as we broke down camp and prepared to enter the reserve for the next three days. A juvenile African Pygmy Kingfisher was absorbed in its preening ritual in the bushes near the toilet, and I was able to show off its fancy plumage to several students and teachers who passed by.

Our luck continued at the entrance gate, as we watched Southern Ground Hornbill, Black-Backed Puffback, Southern Cordonbleu, and a fabulous Green-Winged Pytilia while our guides from AfriRoots secured our entrances to the reserve. Twenty-five students, four teachers, and a variety of guides, cooks, drivers, and armed rangers were distributed in half a dozen battered Landcruisers and Defenders. We were certainly a huge party, and it was wise to spilt up into two groups for the game drive, while the armed rangers and cooks drove ahead to our campsite at Lake Tagalala, sixty kilometers deep into the reserve. The four students in my car were an interesting mix, although they were alike in that none of them had been on a serious safari before. I gently let everyone know that we’d be stopping for birds as well as mammals, and tried to get the students interested as well by allowing them to take photographs with my camera or look through my binoculars on occasion. Our driver, John Bosco, was a real sport, and he made sure to stop the car every time we passed a good photographic opportunity, such as an African Spoonbill feeding along the shore or a Northern Carmine Bee-Eater perched low just off the road.

The most prized sight in the Selous Game Reserve is that of the endangered African wild dog, and despite finding sixteen individual lions throughout our full-day game drive, we were ultimately disappointed to miss this rare canine. The lions were quite active though, and we watched several groups of them feast on recent wildebeest kills. We also found a male lion in the open drinking from a small pool in the heat of the day. The most interesting birds we encountered included a single Pink-Backed Pelican, several Crested Barbets, and a spectacular Giant Kingfisher perched on a dead tree amidst dozens of Cattle Egrets. I was also surprised to see Von der Decken’s Hornbill as far south as the Selous. Migratory bee-eaters were present in huge numbers, especially the glorious Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, which was widespread in a variety of habitats within the reserve. We arrived at our fly camp along Lake Tagalala in the afternoon, setting up camp closer to the water than I was comfortable with, especially considering the group of twenty hippopotamus wading a few meters off shore. The armed rangers would patrol the area all night, we were assured, and with multiple campfires going there was no danger of hippos trampling one of our tents on its way to feed in the tall grass.

The next day we set off on foot in two groups towards Beho Beho Hot Springs, several kilometers away in the hills to the northwest of the lake. Having seen so many active lions the day before, it was a bit unsettling to be walking around far from the safety of a car, but our concerns melted away as the sun rose higher in the sky. Our armed ranger Apollo definitely knew his birds, but he was intent on marching us as fast as possible along a circuitous route to the springs. I managed to catch a glimpse of a few birds though, including Spotted Morning-Thrush, Common Scimitarbill, Pale Batis, and Southern Red Bishop. As it was my first authentic walking safari, I tried to be content seeing the familiar mammals on foot, albeit at a much greater distance than usual. Indeed, impala, giraffes, and waterbuck scattered back into the woodland whenever they sensed our presence, sometimes from many hundreds of meters away. While it’s certainly wise to be alert to the presence of lions in the area, the far greater danger is that of encountering elephants, buffalo, or hippos. In fact, in the last few months there have been three tourist deaths on walking safaris in Ruaha National Park, two caused by elephants one by hippopotamus. After enjoying the hot springs for a few hours, we drove back to camp, searching for wild dogs but finding an exquisite Red-Necked Falcon along the way.

On the following day, we planned to walk from Lake Tagalala to Lake Manze, again breaking into two smaller groups for safety. The teachers switched groups, and I immediately noticed an improvement as one of the guides pointed out a group of Grey Go-Away-Birds high in a tree. Stopping to examine tracks and discuss animal behavior, we covered many kilometers on foot this morning, passing through open dry areas, woodland, and marsh habitat. African Fish Eagle, Collared Palm-Thrush, Red-Necked Falcon, Brown-Necked Parrot, and Grey-Headed Kingfisher were among the better birds seen, but the highlight was no doubt passing within five meters of a female lion concealed in a bush. Our group was walking quietly along in single file when one of the guides signaled for us to stop and waved me and the other trailing students to the front of the line. He carefully explained that there was a lion in dense cover nearby, which I quickly confirmed with my binoculars, and cautioned us to back up slowly and silently. Later, he shared that this was only the second time he had seen a lion in ten years of leading walking safaris in Tanzania, explaining that usually they hurried away at first sight or smell of humans on foot. Exhilarated but exhausted, we concluded our hike with a picnic lunch under a massive baobab tree, a spot from which another guide told me had seen an African Crowned Eagle kill a young impala a few years ago.

That afternoon we returned to the Mtemere Gate in our vehicles, stopping occasionally for a bird or mammal but again failing to catch sight of a wild dog. At one point, we saw dozens of vultures circling low over some woodland near the road, and thinking it was a fresh kill, we drove off to investigate, finding only a dead wildebeest with a metal snare around its leg (African White-Backed Vultures, of course, were busy pulling out its entrails). Whether for meat or profit, poaching in the Selous is a serious problem, and there are stories of boatloads of elephant tusks being shipped off to East Asia each month. Back at the Hippo Camp, where we would be camping for the final night of the trip, we boarded the boats for another attempt at a safari on the Rufiji River. Although the weather was much improved from Monday afternoon, the bird activity was again disappointingly low, and our boat driver had a poor eye for spotting birds and an even poorer ability to maneuver the boat close enough for good photographs. Considering I had spent the whole week in a game reserve instead of a classroom, it wasn’t hard to be content with observing the gorgeous Malachite Kingfishers from a distance.

Notable birds seen: Great Egret, Goliath Heron, Pink-Backed Pelican, Long-Tailed Cormorant, African Darter, Striated Heron, Black Egret, Grey Heron, Hamerkop, Yellow-Billed Stork, African Open-Billed Stork, Marabou Stork, Sacred Ibis, Hadada Ibis, African Spoonbill, Egyptian Goose, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, White-Faced Whistling-Duck, Black Kite, African Fish Eagle, White-Headed Vulture, African White-Backed Vulture, Lappet-Faced Vulture, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Lanner Falcon, Red-Necked Falcon, Helmeted Guineafowl, African Jacana, Black-Winged Stilt, Blacksmith Lapwing, White-Crowned Lapwing, Crowned Lapwing, Common Ringed Plover, Water Thick-Knee, Common Sandpiper, Brown-Necked Parrot, Grey Go-Away-Bird, Black-and-White Cuckoo, White-Browed Coucal, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, Giant Kingfisher, White-Fronted Bee-Eater, Little Bee-Eater, Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater, Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, Broad-Billed Roller, European Roller, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Green Wood-Hoopoe, Common Scimitarbill, African Grey Hornbill, Southern Ground Hornbill, Trumpeter Hornbill, Von der Decken’s Hornbill, Crested Barbet, African Pied Wagtail, Common Bulbul, Spotted Morning Thrush, Collared Palm-Thrush, Red-Faced Crombec, Spotted Flycatcher, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Pale Batis, Grassland Pipit, Wire-Tailed Swallow, Collared Sunbird, Long-Tailed Fiscal, Isabelline Shrike, Black-Backed Puffback, Fork-Tailed Drongo, Red-Billed Oxpecker, White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, African Golden Weaver, Red-Billed Firefinch, Green-Winged Pytilia, Southern Cordon-Bleu, Southern Red Bishop.

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