The Usambara Mountains in northeastern Tanzania posses the same type of biological diversity that I learned to appreciate while living in the Ecuadorian Andes. These two steep coastal ranges trap warm, humid air blowing off the Indian Ocean and receive several meters of rainfall annually. This climactic effect combined with different soil conditions in each range have produced impressive levels of plant and insect endemism, which support, of course, a wide variety of endemic bird species. Indeed, there are a number of species and races of birds named after the mountains themselves: Usambara Weaver, Usambara Alkalat, Usambara Hyliota, and Usambara Eagle-Owl. And there are a great many more bird species that are restricted to these montane forests and those of the greater Eastern Arc Mountains, which stretch far inland to Iringa. In terms of avian significance, visiting these mountains should be a top priority for birders; however, their remoteness and general lack of infrastructure combined with the powerful attraction of the country’s famous game parks, such as the Serengeti, have resulted in low levels of tourism. As individual reserves like Amani are dependent upon revenue to support their conservation efforts, there is still steady deforestation in the Usambaras despite their having been long recognized for biological diversity.
Indeed, this was my first trip to the Usambara Mountains, and I’m a dedicated birder who has lived in the country for almost a year. My colleague Cyrille and I had decided to spend our week-long vacation first at Tarangire National Park, a classic game park in northern Tanzania, and then at Amani Nature Reserve, a small forest reserve in the Eastern Usambaras (10,000 hectares in size with approximately 3,000 ha of undisturbed forest). I had made arrangements in advance to stay at Emau Hill Forest Camp and even printed out the directions off their website, but stupidly I didn’t study them carefully or consider how long it would really take for us to arrive from Tarangire. As a result, we didn’t show up until 10pm after having deposited the car in a muddy ditch a few hundred meters from the camp. Four hours of driving in the dark on a narrow, slippery dirt track up the mountains had left us a bit rattled, and it took Cyrille a while to realize that having made it so far was a real tribute to his steady nerves and driving acumen (naturally, he kept blaming himself for getting the car stuck). The camp itself looked beautiful in the starlight, as we enjoyed a few drinks and tucked into the vegetarian fare, and the tents were well constructed and comfortably equipped with beds and solar-powered lamps.
In the morning, the owner Stephen gathered a large workforce to dislodge the car and pull it back onto the road (see Cyrille's photograph of the endeavor above), while I waited around the camp for Martin Joho, who would be my private bird guide for the next two and a half days ($25 per day; 0786-108086; firstname.lastname@example.org). There were some great birds to watch in the garden, including White-Eared Barbet, African Paradise Flycatcher, and Uluguru Violet-Backed Sunbird, so I didn’t mind the delay. Having worked as a field researcher and guide for many years, Martin has comprehensive knowledge of the birds of the region, and he works very effectively with English-speaking birders who are serious about tracking down the bird specialties of Amani Nature Reserve, of which there about twenty. Although he didn’t have audio equipment with him, he was able to attract birds with an impressive array of calls and sounds, and he organized our excursions efficiently so that we maximized our opportunities to see the more difficult birds, including the Long-Billed Tailorbird. In general, I was very happy with his guiding and would strongly recommend him to visiting birders who only have a few days to spend exploring the reserve.
We started off down the steep road that leads up to the camp, passing along clearings and forest edge. Quickly, we spotted a Fischer’s Turaco bounding up a tree, its beautiful plumage changing color as it passed through light and shade. Two Green Barbets were calling to each other from different fruiting trees, and an African Harrier-Hawk was busy probing into cavities in the tree branches with its long legs. Massive Silvery-Cheeked Hornbills were calling noisily from the canopy and flying loudly from tree to tree, no doubt dispersing seeds all over the place. In fact, the hornbills are in part responsible for the profusion of non-native tree species throughout the reserve, having gorged themselves on the fruit of exotic trees in the large botanical garden surrounding the research station. Noting a pair of African Crowned Eagles soaring overhead, we then moved on into the forest along a narrow trail. Within a few minutes we had tracked down a mixed flock, lead by a pair of Square-Tailed Drongos, and we were soon parsing the subtle differences between greenbul species, including Shelley’s, Cabanis’s, Yellow-Streaked, Little, Stripe-Cheeked, and Tiny Greenbulls. We also noted Moustached Green Tinkerbird, Black-Throated Wattle-Eye, Forest Batis, Dark-Backed Weaver, Yellow-Throated Wood-Warbler, Yellow White-Eye, and Uluguru Violet-Backed Sunbird.
After lunch we tried for the enigmatic Long-Billed Tailorbird, which is a small, endangered forest warbler with only a few hundred pairs remaining. As part of his research duties, Martin is responsible for tracking these birds and monitoring their behavior, and he regularly visits several territories in the area around the camp. Although their nesting habits have never been studied, the tailorbird appears to be related to the tailorbirds of Southeast Asia than the similar-looking apalis warblers of Africa. After a few different attempts at a territory behind the camp, we finally resorted to using playback on the following afternoon, which provoked the resident pair into immediate and aggressive defense of their territory. As the light was good, I decided to try for a few photographs, despite my damaged lens and the birds’ movement in the dense tangles blanketing the clearing. Although the photographs aren’t of high quality, they give a truer sense of the bird’s plumage than the field guide, which exaggerates the contrast in color between the upper and lower parts. Martin elaborated on the species further as we sat in the shade and reflected on our observations, sharing his understanding of the bird’s habits and habitat.
The following morning we visited the area around the research station, which is at about 950 meters above sea level. The exotic trees around the complex were good for both Amani and Banded Green Sunbirds as well as Green-Headed Oriole. We also spotted a Southern Banded Snake-Eagle perched on a dead tree in the distance before walking the Mbamole Hill Trail. Without having playback it took Martin about an hour to coax the Black-Fronted Bush-Shrike and Red-Tailed Ant-Thrush from a mixed flock, but we succeeded at getting great looks at both birds (I was especially relieved to finally record my first bush-shrike seen in Tanzania and am hoping this observation opens the floodgates, so to speak). In the afternoon, Martin and I walked the Turaco Trail, which passes through undisturbed forest and probably offers the highest quality forest birding in Amani, along with two other forest transects that he walks regularly as part of his research. I was hoping desperately to see the African Broadbill, but our real focus was on Turidae, of which there is unusually high diversity in the Usambaras due to the richness of the leaf litter on the forest floor. While we only recorded White-Chested Alethe, Martin tells me that during the period of the short rains, from October to November, when the robins and thrushes are breeding, he sometimes hears Swynnerton’s Robin, Sharpe’s Akalat, Orange Ground-Thrush, Spot-Throat, and others, an impressive array of similar skulking species all foraging through the same habitat.
Having also noted Bar-Tailed Trogon, Red-Faced Crimson-Wing, and Half-Collared Kingfisher that day, it was with great satisfaction that I relaxed in the evening after ten long hours of walking up and down steep trails. On our way out of the reserve the next morning, we stopped for an hour at a patch of lower elevation forest near the entrance gate at Sigi ($30 per person). Birding along the road, which is about 300 meters above sea level, we first encountered a magnificent male Peter’s Twinspot that stopped briefly to check us out peering through the undergrowth. Then, we encountered a huge mixed flock that left us scrambling to pick out the specialties, including Southern Hyliota, Kretschmer’s Longbill, Green-Headed Oriole, Chestnut-Fronted Helmet-Shrike, and Black-and-White Shrike-Flycatcher. In the midst of all the action, I pointed out to Martin a squat, large-eyed bird that looked a bit like a robin but with a heavier bill. It sat almost motionless on a branch within the forest as warblers and flycatchers bustled about, so it took me a minute to get him onto it. Imagine my embarrassment when he identified it as the African Broadbill, the very bird I had been hoping to find on this trip.
Notable birds seen: African Harrier-Hawk, African Crowned Eagle, Long-Crested Eagle, Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, African Hobby, Lemon Dove, Fischer’s Turaco, Silvery-Cheeked Hornbill, Half-Collared Kingfisher, Moustached Green Tinkerbird, Green Barbet, White-Eared Barbet, African Broadbill, Bar-Tailed Trogon, Greater Honeyguide, Mountain Wagtail, Little Greenbul, Shelley’s Greenbul, Stripe-Cheeked Greenbul, Cabanis’s Greenbul, Yellow-Streaked Greenbul, White-Browed Robin-Chat, White-Chested Alethe, Red-Tailed Ant-Thrush, Little Rush Warbler, Dark-Capped Yellow-Warbler, Common White-Throat, Willow Warbler, Yellow-Throated Wood-Warbler, Long-Billed Tailorbird, Black-Headed Apalis, Green-Backed Caramoptera, Kretschmer’s Longbill, African Dusky-Flycatcher, Black-Throated White-Eye, African Paradise Flycatcher, Pale Batis, Forest Batis, Southern Black Flycatcher, Yellow White-Eye, Olive Sunbird, Uluguru Violet-Backed Sunbird, Amani Sunbird, Banded Green Sunbird, Square-Tailed Drongo, Waller’s Starling, Black-Fronted Bush-Shrike, Red-Backed Shrike, Grey Cuckoo-Shrike, Chestnut-Fronted Helmet-Shrike, Green-Headed Oriole, Dark-Backed Weaver, Red-Faced Crimsonwing, Yellow-Bellied Waxbill, Peter’s Twinspot, Southern Hyliota, Cabanis’s Bunting.