Tarangire National Park: December 28, 2010

Tarangire National Park is just two hour’s drive from Arusha, but we had to double back and head south to reach it from our base at Mto Wa Mbu. Although it was two months too late to visit the park during its peak season, which is the height of the dry season, Tarangire is simply too celebrated a destination by safari connoisseurs to pass up. For example, travel writer and historian Graham Mercer, who used to teach at the international school where I work in Dar and who has lived in country for three decades, calls it easily his favorite park, praising its diversity of habitat as well as its high concentration of game along the river during the dry season. Several of my colleagues also visited in October and were treated to huge herds of elephants and several family groups of cheetah. It’s also noteworthy for the relative lack of crowds compared to Manyara, Ngorongoro, and Serengeti. There are plenty of expensive lodges to stay inside and outside the park, but we decided to save our money by making a day trip from the Lake Manyara region, where there is a wider range of accommodation.

Again, the author of the Bradt Guide to Tanzania, Philip Briggs, who is certainly a bird enthusiast if not an expert birder, informed me of the special birds to focus on during our short visit. Two east African endemics, the Yellow-Collared Lovebird and Ashy Starling, are reported to be easier to see here than any other site in Tanzania, and we found both species feeding on the ground together within the first hour of our visit ($35 per person per 24 hours). The lovebirds were particularly dramatic as they fanned over the ground in tight formation, their green and yellow plumage looking even more brilliant against the dusty ground. We spent the next several hours exploring the Little Serengeti Circuit, a dense network of roads that pass through savanna grasslands, finding a host of new birds, including Black-Faced Sandgrouse, Two-Banded Courser, White-Bellied Bustard, Brown Snake-Eagle, and Common Ostrich. At two and a half meters in height, the latter is an incredible sight no matter how many times you’ve seen an ostrich in a zoo, and Mark, Aimee, and I gazed out the windows in amazement as a group of six birds strode about the plain.

Tarangire is easily the most confusing national park or game reserve that we’ve driven through on our own. Despite having multiple maps of the road system, we had no clue where we were at times and struggled to orient ourselves in the overcast morning. Obtaining directions from another driver would only help for a hundred meters or so, until we reached the next unmarked fork in the road. Sure, seeing Red-and Yellow Barbet, Red-Billed Hornbill, and Lilac-Breasted Roller at seemingly every turn was a nice consolation, but ultimately we wanted to reach Lake Burunge and perhaps even Gursi Swamp, sites that promised Long-Crested Eagle and cheetah. Eventually, my confidence was shaken to the point where we had to stay in sight of the main road and be content with the path more traveled along the Tarangire River. Happily, this allowed us to stop in for lunch at the lovely Tarangire Safari Lodge, where we feasted for once after several days of eating out of the cooler in the car. The grounds of the lodge were also excellent for birds, including Ashy and Superb Starlings, White-Bellied Go-Away-Bird, and Grey Woodpecker.

After lunch we continued south along the Tarangire River, where we saw several herds of elephants walking along and feeding in the adjacent woodland. We watched one huge tusker in particular tear down an entire tree to eat the small green leaves on its thorny upper branches. Indeed, elephants had destroyed many trees throughout the park; perhaps a third of them in total had been damaged to some degree. There is a nice viewpoint in this area south of the Tarangire Safari Lodge that overlooks the river from a cliff. We stopped here for a while to take a break from driving the main road, whose washboard surface made for a brutally bouncy ride. A group of White-Headed Buffalo-Weavers was extremely confiding here, where at Mkomazi National Park, for example, they were very wary. In fact, birds at all the viewpoints and picnic sites in the busy national parks are more or less habituated to humans, as they’ve learned to pick up the scraps that tourists leave behind from their box lunches. For once, birders can view and photograph various sparrows, starlings, weavers, and waxbills at their leisure.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we decided to drive back around to the entrance and head south towards Lake Burunge again to look for waterbirds and birds of prey. Again, we were forced to drive along the rough main road, as any attempt to take the smaller and smoother dirt roads would end up with us getting lost. I stopped once to inspect some birds feeding on the ground just back from the road, which proved to be a group of Rufous-Tailed Weavers, another Serengeti endemic species. This unique bird, both in appearance and behavior, has been placed in its own genus, and is described sometimes as a cross between a sparrow-weaver and a babbler. When we got back on the road, I noticed the car was riding poorly and stopped to examine the suspension. Another u-bolt had broken off, and the springs were dangerously close to coming loose like they did a week ago outside of Kilimanjaro National Park. Mark encouraged me to drive it slowly to the entrance gate, where a mechanic could hopefully replace the bolt and straighten out the springs.

We limped into the park, covering less than five kilometers in thirty minutes and had to all plans of continuing our driving safari that day. Unfortunately, we still had to drive back to Mto Wa Mbu that evening, which was another two hours away. While it’s generally difficult to get things accomplished in the country, I must say that so far Tanzanians have always proven happy to help foreigners in distress, especially when it involves a potentially lucrative car repair. Indeed, within a few minutes there were half a dozen rangers and mechanics discussing our problem. They discussed the situation for a long time, in fact, and I had to send Aimee away to enjoy the viewing tower near the park gate as she was getting distressed. Since no one had any spare u-bolts that were the appropriate size, the head mechanic decided to switch two of them around and then tie up the springs held by one bolt with lots of wire. This took a few hours to accomplish, after which he informed us that we could only drive at ten kilometers per hour back to the main road; otherwise, the remaining u-bolt would break and the springs would collapse. We made it, of course, but would experience considerable delay the following morning as we had the car repaired for our long drive out to Serengeti National Park.

Notable birds seen: Common Ostrich, Egyptian Goose, African White-Backed Vulture, Black-Chested Snake-Eagle, Brown Snake-Eagle, Tawny Eagle, Helmeted Guineafowl, Common Kestrel, White-Bellied Bustard, Spotted Thick-Knee, Two-Banded Courser, Blacksmith Lapwing, Black-Faced Sandgrouse, Yellow-Collared Lovebird, White-Bellied Go-Away-Bird, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Red-Billed Hornbill, Von der Decken’s Hornbill, Southern Ground Hornbill, Red-and-Yellow Barbet, d’Arnaud’s Barbet, Nubian Woodpecker, Grey Woodpecker, White-Browed Scrub-Robin, Northern Pied Babbler, Magpie Shrike, Slate-Coloured Boubou, Ashy Starling, Rufous-Tailed Weaver, White-Headed Buffalo-Weaver, Black-Faced Waxbill, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu.

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