Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tanzania – the heart of East Africa (Part 3)

Extending from the Taita Hills of Kenya south to the Udzungwa Mountains of southern Tanzania lies the endemic-rich Eastern Arc Mountains. Nicknamed the Galapagos of Africa, several of the ranges such as the Udzungwa, Uluguru and Usambara Mountains hold scores of endemics and some of the best birding in East Africa. Due to the lack of glaciations and relatively steady climate, the flora and fauna of these tropical forests had plenty of time to evolve becoming a very unique ecosystem.

After having to pass up the Udzungwa and Uluguru Mountains, I was eager to spend four days birding the East Usambara Mountains. Upon arriving back to the mainland, I met up with the owners of Emau Hill Forest Camp who offered to give me a lift to camp – a three hour journey up a terrible mountain road. Emau Hill offers a great base point for exploring Amani Nature Reserve and the rest of the Usamabaras.

Emau Hill Forest Camp
 The first three days were spent birding around camp and nearby trails; you don’t have to go very far to find great birds. On my first morning I woke to the loud calls of Silvery-cheeked Hornbills and Fischer’s Turacos – no need for an alarm clock! Leaving my tent I explored around the garden adding countless birds to my trip list – Olive and Uluguru Violet-backed Sunbirds, Montane White-eye, Southern Citril, Red-backed Manikin, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Black-throated Wattle-eye and several species of Greenbuls mostly restricted to the Eastern Arcs.  This place was phenomenal! 

East Usambaras near Emau
 Day by day I was adding endless trip birds – Mountain and Gray Wagtails, Evergreen Forest-Warbler, Kenrick’s and Waller’s Starlings, Cabanis’s Bunting, Baglafecht Weaver, White-browed Barbet, Long-crested Eagle – my list was getting an enormous boost. The ultimate highlight though was an Usambara Eagle-Owl - one of the most difficult endemics – that I had early on the second morning calling from the opposite side of the valley.

Following a successful three days around camp I hitched a ride back down the mountain with one of the tour groups that were present during my stay. Obviously you don’t stop birding once you enter a vehicle so on our way down we were adding several more good birds including Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Mombasa Woodpecker, Red-tailed Rufous-Thrush, Red-capped Robin-Chat, Black-and-white Flycatcher, Little Yellow Flycatcher and the highlight of the day – Usambara Hyliota! This little known, minute, endemic is mainly recorded from the foothills of the East Usambaras. It is listed on the endangered list as its entire population is roughly 1,000 – 2,500 individuals, according to Birdlife International, and its habitat is disappearing at a rapid pace.  

It was hard to leave what I would consider my favorite region of Africa yet, but there was still more birding to be done. After returning to civilization, I took a bus 8-9 hours to Arusha and settled down at a backpackers for the night.

About an hour north of town lie the Angyata Osugat Plains, east of the village Engikaret in the rain shadows of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Meru. These Massai lands are well-known for one of the rarest birds on the African continent – the Beesley’s Lark. A recent split from the more common Spike-heeled Lark, these birds number no more than 100 individuals. After a much needed goodnights rest, I headed north in search of these rarities. With tips from local birding legend, James Wolstencroft, I was able to find two Beesley’s after about three hours of searching! I can’t even explain the rush that went through me as I watched one of the rarest birds in Africa with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance. Other birds of note include Montague’s Harrier, Kori Bustard, Temminck’s Courser, Athi Short-toed Lark and Fischer’s Sparrowlark.

Angyata Osugat Plains
Beesley's Lark
 Although nothing could come close to topping the Beesley’s, I continued birding the final hour of daylight in the nearby Acacia-commiphera woodlands. Being a new area I haven’t birded, I was able to pick up quite a few new birds including White-bellied Go-Away Bird, Von Der Decken’s Hornbill, Red-tailed Shrike, Superb and Hildebrandt’s Starlings, Beautiful Sunbird, Kenya Rufous Sparrow and White-bellied Canary. Before I knew it, it was dark and I headed back to Arusha.

Drive back to Arusha
Mt. Kilimanjaro
Unfortunately, this ended my last day of birding in Tanzania as it was time for me to start heading back south - I needed to be in Cape Town by December 10th (20 days away) and I still needed to travel through Malawi, Mozambique and across South Africa.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tanzania - the heart of East Africa (Part 2)

Off the coast of Tanzania lies Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous archipelago consisting of two main islands and numerous smaller islets. The larger and more populated Unguja Island, informally known as Zanzibar, is a popular tourist destination offering white sandy beaches, shop browsing in Stone Town, and some of the best scuba diving off the coast of Africa. The smaller, less frequently visited Pemba Island to the north is less developed and more appealing to naturalists. If this wasn’t a bird/nature orientated blog, I would go on forever talking about the fascinating, rich Muslim culture of the islands but for the meantime, I will try to keep it bird related.

Stone Town
 From Dar es Salaam, I hopped on a ferry to Stone Town, the largest city in the archipelago where I spent three nights exploring the historical town and the rest of Unguja Island. Although bird-wise it’s not that exceptional, there are two endemic mammals – the endangered Zanzibar Red Colobus (Monkey) numbering around 1,000-1,500 individuals and the presumably extinct Zanzibar Leopard. The local belief that the leopards were kept by witches to wreck havoc on the villagers combined with habitat encroachment caused their decline. Unguja is also home to an endemic subspecies of the Servaline Genet.

Paja Beach
 Besides observing a few shorebirds on the beaches, the only real birding I did on the island was an hour at Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park, particularly to see the Zanzibar Red Colobus, being at their stronghold in this 19 sq mile park. It took no effort to find them as they were hanging along the main road and around the parking lot. Birding was considerable slow but Black-bellied Starling, East Coast Boubou and Dark-backed Weaver made a showing.

Jozani Forest
Zanzibar Red Colobus
 On the fourth day I hopped on another ferry to Pemba, an island off the tourist route, which still holds on to its very traditional Muslim heritage. During my four night stay, I only saw 3-4 other ‘westerners’. Based out of Wete, the largest town on the island, my goal was to see all four endemics: Pemba Scops-owl, Pemba Green-Pigeon, Pemba White-eye and Pemba Sunbird as well as the incredibly massive Pemba Flying Fox – a species of bat that went nearly went extinct but now numbers around 20,000. To see what they look like, check out (

Upon arriving to Wete in the evening, I watched as thousands of the crow-sized Pemba Flying Foxes were leaving their roost to forage for fruit and later that night heard my first of the endemics – a Pemba Scops-owl. The following two days I easily picked up the more common of the endemics, the sunbird and white-eye just around town leaving the Pigeon – the most difficult of the four. North of Wete is the Ngezi Forest Reserve – one of the most reliable areas to find them. Due to the lack of a vehicle and dalla dallas (local transportation) I decided to chat to the locals instead as they usually know more about the local birdlife than anyone else. Shortly later I was watching three Pemba Green-Pigeons, or ninga as the locals call them, in a known roost tree. No need heading all the way to Ngezi when you have help from the locals! Other interesting birds I had on the island include Brown-headed Parrot, Mangrove Kingfisher, Broad-billed Roller and Palm-nut Vulture.

Mangroves on Pemba
 Before I knew it, I was on a flight back to the mainland ending my week on the Zanzibar archipelago. It was time to head to the endemic-rich East Usambara Mountains and Mt. Kilimanjaro! (End of part 2)

(Note: sorry for the lack of bird photos, after nearly 3 months, my photo taking became lazy)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tanzania – the heart of East Africa (Part 1)

Home to some of the oldest human fossils on earth, the vast Serengeti where the great wildebeest migration occurs, Mt. Kilimanjaro – Africa’s tallest mountain, Zanzibar and it’s incredible beaches, and some of the most fascinating cultures, Tanzania should be on the top of everyone lists of places to visit.

Mt. Kilimanjaro
This geographically diverse country has everything from montane forests, tropical coast, deserts, savannah grasslands, scrub and the largest freshwater lake in the world – it’s no wonder the bird list surpasses 1,000 species! Not only that, the endemic-rich Eastern Arc Mountains and the coastal forests are part of two major Biodiversity Hotspots in eastern Africa.

The idea of going to Tanzania was on the spur of the moment. My three month travel visa for Namibia was about to expire and I was planning my route back to Cape Town via Botswana. I really did not want my trip to come to an end so after getting word of a train that takes you from central Zambia all the way to the coast of East Africa; I was on that train within a couple days! You must understand, I had no knowledge on Tanzania, the birds, the culture, nothing - I was headed to foreign lands. I did some quick research on the internet creating a basic itinerary and picked up the Birds of Africa south of the Sahara (which includes East Africa) in Lusaka before boarding the train.

Waiting for the train at Kapiri Mposhi
There’s no doubt, the train ride was one of the top highlights of my four month trip. If you want to experience Africa off the tourist route and into the heart of the countryside – take the Tazara. Connecting Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the railway was originally built by the Chinese in the 1970’s to encourage trade. Little maintenance has occurred in the past four decades leaving the train far from Western standards but it was still an enjoyable trip. November 4th at 6pm I set off on the train with two fellow travelers I just met – a South Korean and a Zambian. We passed time by chatting, playing guitar, looking out the window and birding. The train stops every couple hours at rural train stations, which allowed us to interact with the locals, buy goods and practice our limited Swahili with the children.

Bananas for sale
Village kids having fun
Meals were surprisingly good, believe it or not, which is probably due to that fact that everything we were eating was just bought a few minutes before from the villagers and cooked by the chefs on board. It was interesting watching the live chickens be carried onboard and shortly later, a plate of chicken, nshima (ground maize flour), soup and vegetables served for only $3. About a day later we arrived at the Tanzania border where the customs agents boarded as well as money changers. 

The second full day we traveled through Tanzania passing the Eastern Arc Mountains including the Udzungwa Mountain Range (home to over 600 endemic plants, 5 endemic primates and several endemic birds including the unique Udzungwa Forest Partridge) and the Uluguru Mountain Range (also home to numerous endemics including the Uluguru Bush-shrike which was only just rediscovered in 2007). Unfortunately for me, I only had a total of two weeks to spend in Tanzania before I had to start heading back south so I had to skip these incredible mountains for now. I’m already planning a return trip to be able to explore these areas along with the nearby Kilombero Swamp, which holds a few endemics itself. 

Udzungwa Mountains
Fifty-five hours later after we left, the train arrived at the Dar es Salaam train station at 1am. Due to the high crime in the area, the security guards locked all ‘hundreds’ of people in the station where we all shared the hard floor for the night. (End of part 1)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Namibia Wrap-up

          It’s been another lengthy gap since my last update two months ago and a lot has transpired. Backpacking in Africa without a laptop, regular internet, and time makes it incredibly difficult to maintain a blog. It’s safe to say that from today on forward, I won’t be able to use that excuse anymore as I have returned to Cape Town with regular internet and will be back to the states in three weeks.

African Jacana

 Starting where I left off on October 12th, I remained in the Caprivi through the end of the month filling in those gaps on my Namibia list with help from returning summer migrants. Various highlights in those remaining weeks include Hooded Vulture, Lizard Buzzard, Long-toed Lapwing, six species of cuckoos, Rosy-throated Longclaw, and two Northern Grey-headed Sparrows at their most southern limit. Finally having time to tally up my Namibia list – I can now say that I’ve finished at 362 species (10 out of 14 endemics/near-endemics) putting me in first place on eBird for Namibia. Quite impressive for relying on hitchhiking and public transportation only! With a car, I probably could have surpassed 400 with some effort. Other highlights include the dozens of mammals such as Lions, Black Rhinos, Sitatungas, Hippos, various buck species and my favorite – Leopard.

Avis Dam - Windhoek
 While staying in Katima Mulilo preparing to head back to South Africa via Botswana, I caught word of a local train that connects Zambia to Dar es Salaam on the coast of Tanzania. Within a couple days I was eastward bound - my trip just took a new direction…

Dunes near Walvis Bay