Despite already having achieved my modest goal of observing four hundred bird species in Tanzania this year, I simply had to visit the Udzungwa National Park before I left this country for good (it’s the continent’s second most biodiverse place in terms of bird species). With less than two weeks remaining in Africa for me, it was now or never, and so I got in the car on Friday afternoon and drove for eight hours until I reached Udzungwa Forest Camp, which would be my base for a final weekend of birding in East Africa. If you’re going to come all this way, though, it’s a shame to skip the Kilombero floodplains, which is a flat, swampy region home to three endemic bird species: the Kilombero Weaver, Kilombero Cisticola, and White-Tailed Cisticola. The site is just a few hour’s drive beyond the eastern entrance gate to the national park, although it’s a rough road depending on the season; in fact, on the return trip Saturday afternoon, we passed a half-a-dozen large trucks stuck in the mud. The weaver is an easy tick at the Kilomero River, but the cisticolas proved more difficult for me to find, especially without the knowledge of an experienced guide.
Having arrived a few hours short of midnight on the previous night, I was rather grumpy the following morning, and the miserable road conditions and cloudy weather further soured the day’s prospects in my mind. Despite driving past long kilometers of gloriously full-grown reed beds and rice and cornfields, all simply littered with stunning bishops, weavers, whydahs, and widowbirds, I couldn’t shake my negative attitude, which worsened as we arrived at the ferry across the river. Here we would board a dugout canoe for a few hours to explore the marsh and search for the weaver and the Kilombero Ciscticola, which inhabits the flooded reedbeds of the region, according to the field guide. Our boatman, Anthony Hermani (mobile 0684 598 907; price Tsh 40,000), looked shaky though, and within minutes it was pouring rain. “Ten hours of driving for this mess,” I muttered miserably. But after an hour or so, the weather cleared and we were soon in hot pursuit of the resurgent birdlife along the river’s many flooded islands and inlets.
The Kilombero Weaver is almost assuredly a guaranteed tick, as every flooded island and reed bed apparently hosts a dense colony of these colorful, vociferous birds. Photographing them proved a bit more challenging, but there’s little suspense to be found in their straightforward identification. The cisticolas proved significantly more difficult, even after I learned from the field guide that the White-Tailed Cisticola prefers the drier habitat surrounding the floodplains. We regularly found the Winding Cisticola, which isn’t an easy identification in itself, but had neither sight nor sound of the relatively distinctive Kilombero Cisticola (it probably would have helped had me or my guide had an audio recording of the bird’s unusual call). There was still plenty of excitement to be had in the dugout though, despite whiffing on two-thirds of the site’s endemic species.
While Lesser Swamp Warbler, White-Crowned Lapwing, and Malachite Kingfisher were all good ticks, the highlight of the excursion was definitely being attacked by a territorial hippopotamus. Approaching a flooded island while standing in the canoe with binoculars raised, we were startled by the roar of an aggressive hippo, or kiboko in Swahili. Within seconds, it was bearing down on us, swimming just under the surface like a shark in attack with an impressively tall bow wave. The boatman violently slapped the water with his pole while my bird guide dove to the back of the boat. Meanwhile I crouched in shock, wondering if I should jump out of the way and into the water. Just before it rammed into the dugout like a torpedo, it ducked under the boat and made a wide circle around us. Needless to say, we got the hell out of there, but I would start shaking later in the morning whenever we heard the hippo reasserting his territory with powerful grunts.
The rest of the morning we spent searching fruitlessly for the Kilomero Cisticola, which neither my guide nor boatman had any knowledge of. I was pleased to find several groups of Zebra Waxbills, but ultimately I was irritated that I failed to procure the necessary resources and information for all three ticks. Visiting birders should thoroughly do their homework on the cisticolas’ habitats and habits, as well as bring their own audio recordings and the services of a verifiably knowledgeable bird guide. If you’re happy with a leisurely canoe ride and a plethora of water birds, then it’s certainly worth the few hours’ drive from Udzungwa National Park and the lodges and camps in the area. The views themselves along the road past the mountain range and into the floodplain are worth it, especially if you’ll only be in country for a short while longer.
Update: I was discussing my observations with some other birders who know the region quite well, and they said that the cisticola I saw from the canoe on several occasions was almost certainly the White-Tailed and not the Winding Cisticola. In fact, no one has recorded the Winding Cisticola in the area. You'll have to look carefully at the tail, then, for the white U-shape around the sides and base.
Notable birds seen: Common Squacco Heron, Striated Heron, Black-Headed Heron, African Open-Billed Stork, African Fish Eagle, Lizard Buzzard, Water Thick-Knee, White-Crowned Lapwing, White-Browed Coucal, Speckled Mousebird, Striped Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, White-Fronted Bee-Eater, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Crowned Hornbill, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Winding Cisticola, Grey-Headed Sparrow, Kilombero Weaver, African Golden Weaver, Red-Collared Widowbird, Fan-Tailed Widowbird, Yellow Bishop, White-Winged Widowbird, Black-Winged Bishop, Zanzibar Red Bishop, Zebra Waxbill.