Tanzania Day 9 – the Ndutu Area

Ndutu Safari Lodge is a classic with 34 individual ensuite cottages where once again we were to be escorted coming to and from the main lodge building at dawn and after dusk. Unlike the spear equipped Masai at Kubu Kubu, our guides here were only equipped with flashlights. We decided not to think about what would happen if there really was an encounter with unfriendly wildlife. Our cottage was comfortable and again came with a very nice shower. We had a good dinner after going over the bird list for February 22nd and after a comfortable sleep we birded on the grounds of the lodge starting just after 6:00 a.m. Then we had breakfast and were back in our safari vehicles and on the “road” by 7:30 a.m. None of the 27 species seen at the lodge were new for the trip, but we had really good looks at a Beautiful Sunbird, Mourning Collared Doves and Red Rumped Swallows.

Beautiful Sunbird
Mourning Collared Doves
Red Rumped Swallow

Our birding that morning went through the Ndutu woodlands to the Big Marsh and on the Ndutu plains. Cindy decided to sit out the birding that morning and remained at the Lodge. You never know what will be seen and this decision could have been disastrous as we would see two really great male lions and then our first cheetahs, but there would be many more lions and more cheetahs as well, so disappointment turned to celebration later. On the birding side, it was another great morning as we observed 91 species of which 13 were new for the trip and four were lifers for me: Gray Breasted Spurfowl, Double Banded Courser, White Tailed Lark and Gray-Headed Silverbill. Okay there is some confusion here because I have photos of Gray Breasted Spurfowl from February 21 and it appears on our bird lists for both the 21st and 22nd but does not appear on an Ebird list until February 23rd. Rather than go back and rewrite the Ebird lists from our guide and my Blog post for the 21st, I am just going to go with the photo here. A Courser photo was included in the previous blog and I was not able to get a photo of the Lark. A photo of the Silverbills is also below.

Gray Crested Spurfowl
Gray Headed Silverbills – Lifer

Many of the shorebirds included in the preceding post were seen at the Big Marsh as were large flocks of both Lesser and Greater Flamingoes and we also had Marabou Storks, Gray and Black-Headed Herons, and a flock of Gull Billed Terns. We flushed a Kori Bustard off its nest revealing two large blue eggs. As was our experience in much of the open plains, we also had a number of raptors, Lilac Breasted and European Rollers, Secretarybirds, Hornbills and Bee-eaters. It was this morning that we also had a number of beautiful little Fischer’s Lovebirds, a crowd favorite.

Marabou Stork
Gray Heron
Black-Headed Heron
Fischer’s Lovebirds

In addition to these bigger showy birds, we also had some lovely little ones that were fun to photograph.

A Banded Parisoma with an Attitude
Rufous Chatterer – and It Really Does Chatter
Southern Red Bishop

Without question, it was a great morning of birding but much more so, it was a super morning for animals. In addition to our “usual suspects” we had our first Eland of the trip. These are large and powerful antelopes. The males can weight up to 2,000 pounds with the females coming it a svelte 600 pounds. Males can be 6 feet high at the shoulder – the largest antelope in the world.

Eland Bull

The Eland was great but the find that brought the most excitement – until there was an even better find – was a pair of male lions lazing on the dirt. We first noticed several safari trucks out across a mud flat and knew there had to be something good. The driver radio network confirmed that there were lions so we headed off to them. But at first it did not seem that way as they looked to be less than a mile away. We had to take a circuitous several mile route to actually get there, however, as the mud was not crossable. It was definitely worth the wait as these were unquestionably very handsome animals – our best looks at lions yet. These pictures have appeared in an earlier blog – out of time sequence. We watched these big males for 20 minutes and they barely moved. These were the only lions that we saw that were not in the grasses.

Not too long after our visit with the lions we got word that a group of cheetahs were resting under a tree and off we went – retracing our circuitous route that had brought us to the lions and completely ignoring any birdlife along the way. As I have indicated previously, our intersections with lions on this trip were better quality and quantity wise than my trip to Kenya where we had only two lionesses. I had seen more lions, including males in South Africa, but nothing close to our encounters in Tanzania. Cheetahs had also been a disappointment in Kenya, where we had only distant views of two cheetahs mostly hidden in the grass. This history was about to change as when we arrived at the “cheetah spot” we had three gorgeous cheetahs lounging together in the grass, hidden more by each other than the grass itself. They were resting and hardly active but we were pretty close and had great views and many photo ops. The bad news was that Cindy was not with us. She would be extremely disappointed to miss the two lions, but that would be nothing compared to missing the cheetahs.

Our First Cheetahs
Truly a Beautiful Animal
Just Wow!!

We would return to the Lodge for lunch and I would have to tell Cindy what she missed. On the way back we had a distant view of a Long-Crested Eagle constructing a nest, its long crest showing well in profile. Two pictures I had missed were of Winding and Desert Cisticolas. As anyone who has bided in Africa knows, cisticolas are really tough to ID. Of the 10 species of cisticola seen on our trip, Rattling Cisticolas were by far the most common, being observed on 13 different days. I got many photos of that one but missed 50% of the group – I think. And I say that because I have photos of some cisticolas that I simply cannot ID

Long Crested Eagle

On the surface Cindy was really happy that we had seen the cheetahs and seemed ok, but underneath I knew she was unhappy with herself for sitting it out that morning. I consoled her that there would be more but of course there was no guarantee of that – but that was the last day she would sit out any part of the trip. We had lunch outside at the Lodge where we could watch a little water drip that was a great bird magnet visited by Blue Headed Cordonbleu, Red-billed Firefinch, Vitelline Masked Weaver, and Common and Crimson Rumped Waxbills, the latter two new for Tanzania although I had previously seen them in Kenya and South Africa respectively.

After lunch we were back in the safari vehicles birding the area around the lodge and then down to the Ndutu Lake shoreline. We had no new species until we got to the shoreline, and unfortunately, we also got no cheetahs or lions. At the shoreline we had only a single look at a single bird, but it was one that I very much wanted to add to my world list, a Chestnut Banded Plover, one of the Charadrius small plovers and very similar to the Collared Plover I had added to my life list in Mexico in 2021 and saw again in Ecuador last year. This sharp looking little guy was my 17th Charadrius plover. There are currently 32 such species, so I am only just over halfway there with zero chance of seeing them all, although that would be a lot of fun.

We had 62 species on that last birding trip for the day with only five new for the day and with one more lifer for me – a Black Winged Bishop which somehow I managed not to get a photo of despite having good looks. Probably the most spectacular birding was seeing the large flocks of Lesser and Greater Flamingoes including close up – one of the spectacles of any visit to East Africa – birding or not.

Lesser Flamingoes in Flight
Greater Flamingo
Flamingoes – A Small Portion of Those Present

We had 114 species for the day bringing my Tanzania list to 329 species so far and my World List to 3016. Very pleased with both, I just wished Cindy had seen the cheetahs, unquestionably the highlight of yet another great day.

One of the best things about Ndutu Lodge was its smaller size and homey feel despite being far from home. It was welcoming and all-around comfortable with an appropriate understatement that felt just right. Regular visits from the Civet helped.

Main Lodge
Dining Room
Civet – Main Lodge Visitor

Tanzania – Days 7 and 8 – More Central Serengeti, More Birds

Our tour continued in the Central Serengeti area adding new bird species, grand vistas, increasing numbers of ungulates and more lions, Our trip list for bird species in Tanzania had grown to over 250 species and especially since we were in similar habitat to ones we had covered in the previous few days, it was getting harder to find new species, but we were in some drier country, and we did add 28 new species on February 21 and another 25 the following day. Birding in South American countries like Ecuador, Peru and Brazil (for me and certainly other places where I have not birded) it always seemed like there could be yet another species around every corner with even small changes in habitat leading to more species, and with species density being so great, even going back over the same places again and again, new species would be found that were previously missed. Especially on the plains in Africa, where there is neither the same density of species nor certainly the same density of supporting plant life, it did not seem that new species would so readily appear. However, what African birding lacked in density was made up for by coverage as we would travel through pretty large areas, always on the lookout for something new.

On the morning of February 21st we again traveled through the area from Kubu Kubu to the Seronera area in the Serengeti and then continued along the Seronera Circuit to the North Park Entrance. Pictures of many of the birds we found are grouped below. It was a good morning for photos including three new lifers and a photo of a lifer from the previous day that I had not photographed. Unfortunately I did not keep detailed lists along the way so I did not realize that with these three new lifers, I was now over 3000 species worldwide. Reconstructing the morning from photo data, I believe that in retrospect, the Isabelline Shrike was species number 3000.

I mentioned in a previous blog post that there were restrooms in the parks at entrance gates or sometimes at other places used for rest stops or picnic areas. There were also a few commercial enterprises at these areas for sundries, coffee, candy etc. These photos give a sense of these spots and the entrance gates themselves.

A Lovely Attendant at One of the Spotless Ladies Restrooms
Blair and Cindy at One of the Serengeti Entrances
Food Truck
Coffee Shop – Coffee is a Major Crop in Tanzania and the Coffee was Excellent
Speed Limit in the Park was 50 Kilometers per Hour (about 31 mph) and was generally followed, good advice on bumpy dusty tracks, except when racing off for Big Cats. Buffalo Skulls and horns were at most entrances.

As written previously, most of our animal encounters were hardly action scenes – mostly grazing or sleeping with little interaction. There were two notable exceptions on these days in the Serengeti. The first was a challenge for dominance at a waterhole filled with Hippopotamuses. While a couple dozen other hippos basically remained unmoved, swishing their tails, almost fully submerged and often grunting, two large bulls faced off and pushed each other around, gaping mouths open with long razor-sharp tusks. This continued for many minutes until one finally convinced the other that he was the boss. Neither suffered any visible damage, but we expect one at least suffered damage to his ego and standing in the community. When the tussle was done, both males acted as if nothing had happened with the loser only retreating a few yards and all was quiet again – grunting aside.

A Battle for Dominance – the Hippo on the Left Prevailed

The second action sequence was even briefer than the hippo battle but involved even larger animals as two elephants pushed each other around for a few moments as we watched not sure what was at stake or what would happen next. Then a third elephant joined the fray. There was some trumpeting and movement, but it did not last long, and we wondered if it was a family feud or maybe some kind of family bonding. After a few moments the elephants moved off as if nothing had happened.

The Initial Face Off
A Third Elephant Enters
Was It a Family Feud or Family Bonding?

We continued to see lions on both of these days in the Serengeti and hoped for another leopard or our first cheetahs. It was not to be. Hard to be disappointed with “just more lions”, but we had been spoiled. We had been told that there were some lions in the park that were rock climbers – often settling on top of kopjes (pronounced “copies”) either for the warmth of the rocks or perhaps a better lookout spot. It was always a surprise to see a rock outcropping as the rest of the grasslands were incredibly flat with only the rocks, mostly acacia trees, termite mounds and animals rising above the flat land. We expected that lions might be atop rocks that were maybe 5 or possibly ten feet high. When we finally saw “rock lions”, they were on boulders that were at least 20 feet high and did not seem to have clear paths up. Of course, we only saw them from the front, but it still seemed an impressive feat.

This Lioness Rocks
I Guess Pigeons are not Lion Food

In the previous blog post, I promised a big section on shorebirds seen on the trip. Reviewing lists and photos, though, I see that while many were seen on these two days and previously, my lifers were seen later, so I am putting off that writing until later in this blog. Instead, however, I am including a section on starlings, a much-maligned species in the US where we only have the introduced European Starling that is found almost everywhere. It has its moments when its iridescence is in full color and in good light, but it is an otherwise dim cousin of the many striking and even beautiful starlings of Africa. We saw 8 species on this tour and I was able to get ok photos of them all. I have seen 8 other species of starling elsewhere and hope there will be more to come.

The late birding on the 21st added two lifers and some really cool birds. The lifers were Tanzanian Red Billed Hornbill and Straw Tailed Whydah. The hornbill had only relatively recently been split from Northern Red Billed Hornbill as a new species, and the Whydah in addition to be a very neat bird also completed the Whydah Grand Slam with the previously seen Steel Blue, Eastern Paradise, Pin Tailed Whydahs and the Village Indigobird. These other Whydahs were new for the trip if not my life list but were great additions.

Tanzanian Red Billed Hornbill – Lifer
Straw Tailed Whydah – Lifer
Rufous Crowned Roller
White Bellied Bustard

February 22 (Day 8) would be a movement day leaving Kubu Kubu and ending up at Ndutu and the Southeastern Serengeti. Birding started again within the Central Serengeti later moving to the Ndutu area with over 100 species for the day – 25 new for the trip bringing us well over 300 species for the tour and I would add another 7 lifers. This was one of the days where there was no official Ebird lists so I lumped everything together on an eight-hour list of my own and I really cannot separate the list into parts of the areas we visited. I am not going to try to be specific and will just cover all the birding for that day – skipping over many of the mammals seen again – except for the Dik Dik, the third smallest of the African antelopes, which greeted us in the morning at Kubu Kubu. Weighing under 10 pounds, they are solitary grazers that are monogamous (rare for antelopes) and are decidedly “cute”.

Dik Dik

In no sequential time order here, I am going with some of the great birds, starting with two species of francolin and two species of sandgrouse that we saw, one of each of which were lifers for me. I was particularly keen to see and photograph the sandgrouse. Sandgrouse are visually like a cross between a dove and a grouse. I had seen one of the species, the Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse in Hawaii during my 50/50/50 project (where like most birds on the islands, it is an introduced species), but had not gotten a photo. How much better to see and photograph it on its native turf. The other sandgrouse was the Yellow Throated Sandgrouse – and a third species, Black Throated Sandgrouse, would be added later in the trip.

Chestnut Bellied Sandgrouse -Life Photo
Yellow Throated Sandgrouse – Lifer

The lifer francolin was the Coqui Francolin, one of 9 gallinaceous birds (francolins, quail, spurfowl and guineafowl) seen on the trip. The Coqui is smaller than the Crested Francolin (the other francolin seen that day) and the male is easily distinguished by its golden/rufous head. Altogether I have seen 16 species of gallinaceous birds in Africa with most seen on the side of roads as we drove through various habitats. On the roads they jump out, but in the grass, they are well camouflaged and can be nearly invisible.

Coqui Francolin – Lifer
Crested Francolin- Also Seen in Kenya

I mentioned earlier that vulture populations or at least their presence seemed to be much lower than expected. This was maybe the best day for seeing them, as we had a small group at a rotting carcass, some perched and many soaring in the air. On my previous visits to Africa there had been at least one scene where dozens of vultures were scavenging a carcass – a raucous and gory scene. On our trip we had six species of vulture, missing only the Palm Nut Vulture from my Africa list (seen in Kenya) but they were often distant or soaring high in bad light. The pictures below are from a number of different sightings/locations. I was not able to get photos of Hooded or White-Headed Vultures.

Ruppell’s Griffon
Lappet Faced Vulture
White Backed Vulture
Egyptian Vulture

As was often the case, dry savannah was intermixed with water holes or riverine areas or ponds so there was the chance to see shorebirds and other water-oriented species. OK, here it is the afore-promised collection of shorebirds. Twenty-eight species seen – 5 lifers in RED.

In the afternoon, we were in drier country and started seeing larks. By far the greatest number were Fischer’s Sparrow Larks, but we also had both Red-Naped and Red-Capped Larks. I got photos of these three species and would later add Short-Tailed Lark. If I had been the only person in the vehicle, I may have gotten photos of Fawn-Colored and Flappet Larks earlier but it was just too hard to stop the vehicle in time to get photos of birds that were both hard to see and also usually on the run. Later in the trip I would also miss a photo of a White Tailed Lark but at least I got a good view as it scurried off.

To close out this blog post I am adding some miscellaneous species that were seen this day and at other times as well.

Black Crakes
Pied Cuckoo
Purple Grenadier
Rock Martin

It has been another great day and we now left the Central Serengeti and would spend time in the Ndutu area with nights at Ndutu Lodge. Although we would not see the massive migration hoped for due to he late arriving rains, this would be the area where we saw it beginning and hopefully predators would follow prey.

Tanzania Day 6 – The Central Serengeti and Kubu Kubu Tented Lodge – Birds and Cats

This is how Kubu Kubu Tented Lodge was described in the VENT materials for our Northern Tanzania Tour: “our luxurious home for the next three nights…Situated on a hilltop overlooking the vast plains of the central Serengeti this recently opened (Summer 2016) luxury tented camp is a delightful base of operations for our time in the Serengeti. The tents are incredibly spacious and well-appointed and are placed on permanent platforms, each with its own private balcony. In-suite, private bathrooms feature open air showers with abundant hot water (dubbed “the world’s best shower” by more than one participant) and flush toilets, and the entire camp is solar powered, with backup generators providing 24-hour electricity. The camp is full board (including all drinks), and WI-FI is available in the central area.” Right on all accounts, with my only slight challenge being why the accommodations were called tents as they in no way resembled my picture of such. The walls were so sturdy and solid that I would have considered them buildings – and that is not a complaint. The showers – one outside (private adjoining our indoor bathroom) and one inside really were awesome. The water was solar heated, plentiful and very forceful. There was a beautiful pool – of no interest – and a fine main lodge with good food and a good bar. Best of all the people were terrific.

Some photos of Kubu Kubu – hardly roughing it.

View from the Balcony of Our Tent
Our View from the Main Building Balcony at Kubu Kubu
Definitely Not Roughing it at Kubu Kubu
Cindy and Priscilla at Kubu Kubu – She Made Our Stay Even Better
Our “Tent” Was the First One on the Left – Blair Carrying a Lunch for the Road

Kubu Kubu was another place where we had to be escorted to and from our rooms at dawn and after dusk. Our escorts were local Masai tribesmen dressed in their beautiful red Shuka cloths and their beaded necklaces and bracelets and always accompanied by an iron rod/spear just in case the hyenas or lions (which we could hear at night) were on the prowl. Cindy asked one of her protectors if he had ever used his spear. “Why yes…on both lions and hyenas.” This is a good place to interject how much we were enamored with everyone we met in Tanzania. Incredibly friendly and always with a smile. It always seemed genuine and always welcoming. The standard greeting every time you pass someone was “Jambo”, Swahili for “hello” but there was so much more to it as it was always followed by “How are you?” (Habari) and it was often more than a platitude. Not too long after our arrival we found ourselves using these same words every time and we usually got a response of at least “very good” or even “wonderful”.

Our Masai Escorts/Protectors

On Monday February 20th, our actual Day 6, we started the morning with breakfast and then birded around the lodge until 8:30 a.m. We had 27 species including many new for the trip (Note once again that the Ebird lists did not always correspond to bird lists reviewed at night, but it all came out right in the end). The following is just a sampling of birds that morning.

Afterwards, we loaded up onto the safari vehicles and drove the Kubu Kubu entrance road to the park. It was excellent birding with 39 species of which 8 were new for the trip and a Greater Kestrel which was a lifer for me.

Greater Kestrel (Lifer)
Swahili Sparrow – Lifer

It was 9:30 a.m. and we were now in the park where we would bird and animal gaze for the next 3+ hours before lunch on the road in the Seronera area. Of our 61 bird species, half were new for the trip and 8 were lifers for me getting me within two of my self-important target of 3000 species in the world. Photos of 6 of those lifers are below.

I did not include a photo of one of the lifers that was really high on my list both to see and hopefully to get a good photo. That is the Collared Pratincole which is a shorebird but looks something like a swallow. We saw them several times during the trip – always next to water and always pretty distant and in poor light. So I got some photos, but all were disappointing as it is a really cool looking bird. I have added an internet photo that really shows it off to my own rather poor one.

There would be more birds later in the day and there were always lots of mammals – more views of species previously seen, but everyone was a wonderful experience – just so different from life in the US of A. But this day added some new mammals and lots of excitement. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, there are LOTS of safari operators and thus lots of safari vehicles in the parks at the same time. Maybe its not true for all of them, but there is a community of guides/drivers/operators that seem to be constantly in touch with one another over their radios. Like information posted real time on our WhatsApp groups, there is a constant flow of sightings over the radios. Of particular interest are any sightings of Big Cats – Lions, Cheetahs and Leopards. Over the course of our tour we would have many such sightings usually following some shared radio information and then maybe followed by a race to the place, less for the lions which were pretty much sleeping and resting and remaining for a long while, but definitely the case for the cheetahs and any leopard. I don’t recall if our first lions were found on our own or were tipped off by the radio community, but there is something very special about any lion sighting and not much compares to your first one.

This Gives an Idea of the Number of Safari Vehicles (from a lunch stop in the Ngorongoro Crater – a later post)

I had seen only two lions, both females, on my Kenya trip in 2007. That was disappointing, especially without a male, but it was somewhat made up for by their proximity – as in literally on the hood of our vehicle – an open vehicle. They had been resting very close and then one decided to check the comfort level on the hood. That got the adrenalin going. There were more lions on my trip to South Africa in 2014, maybe a dozen or so including a couple of fully maned males. The Serengeti has more lions than probably anywhere else. During our tour we saw almost 100 lions, including many males, mostly in the Serengeti. We never saw any hunting activity, which occurs mostly at night, but we had great looks. The photos below are from several days in the Serengeti – a great collection of beautiful and very impressive animals.

Our First Male Lion – A Fitting Look for the King of the Beasts
Probably Two Brothers Resting in the Open – They Were Unmoved for Well Over an Hour

Most of the groups of lions we saw had a single Alpha Male and maybe 8 lionesses and a few cubs. We saw two or three lionesses that had radio tracking collars. Many of the lions (and other animals) in the Serengeti have been studied for many years. (See photo above.) Many of the lions, and many of the other animals we saw, were covered with flies – a fact of life on the plains. We had our own intersections with the flies but mostly in wooded/forested areas. With few exceptions, we never had a group of lions to ourselves as there would either be other vehicles there when we arrived or would join us while we watched. We heard stories of major traffic jams and skirmishes at some sightings, but all went smoothly for us. The photo below taken on Cindy’s iPad is typical of how we saw most of the lions – sleeping in the shade under a tree. There were probably at least 4 other safari vehicles around this group when we were there.

Five of maybe 10 Sleeping Lions – Our First of the Trip

When we were around the lions, we completely forgot about the birds and kept hoping for some action – it never happened – just lions at rest. After maybe 20 minutes or so it was back to birding. We had lunch at a safe stop where we could get out of the vehicles – and like every other meal in Africa, there was too much food. Somehow that did not stop us from eating all of it, burying any guilt feelings. An interesting part about birding in Africa, and animal watching, too, is that even though there is mostly grassy plains, there is water and both mammals and birds are drawn to it. As an example, over the course of the trip we saw 75 species of “water birds” including waders, shorebirds, gulls and terns, waterfowl and such. Except for some of the large waders, none of the species were new for my world list, but how cool to get great looks at species that are mega rarities when seen in the US – shorebirds like Marsh, Wood and Green Sandpipers, Common Greenshanks and 11 species of Plovers/Lapwings. There will be a big section of the next blog dedicated to shorebirds, but it was particularly fun to see them and then a few minutes on the plains seeing species like Common Ostrich, Secretarybird and Guineafowl or one of the four species of bustard or one of the 8 species of gallinaceous birds that were often feeding on the dirt roads.

Common Ostrich
Helmeted Guineafowl

We were told that vulture populations seemed to be down and this matched our experience and it also seemed that there were not as many raptors seen as we expected. That said during the trip we found more than 40 raptor species even if not in great numbers of some. Without question the Secretarybird was my favorite – as it had been on my first African trip in 2007. Altogether we probably had more than a dozen sightings of this species. They were not new life birds, but on this day I was happy to add photos of 4 kestrel species to my world photo list, the Greater, Eurasian and Gray Kestrels shown above as well as a Lesser Kestrel. The most common raptor was Tawny Eagle.

Lesser Kestrel
Tawny Eagle

Birders in the vehicles could not hear the conversations over the radio, but every once in a while, a word would be heard. As we were driving along one of the dirt tracks, we thought we heard a word that brings instant excitement, “Leopard”. Shortly thereafter there seemed to be a lot less attention to bird sightings and a quickened pace of the vehicle. Maybe 15 minutes later we could see a group of safari vehicles surrounding a tree in the middle of the savannah. Guide and driver confirmed that we had our first leopard of the trip. We did not know it then, but it would also be our last one as well. Lions are awesome, and cheetahs are beautiful and elegant, but most people on safari would agree that leopards are special. Part of it is their beauty, part their rarity and part that they are so often seen up in trees, usually with the partially eaten carcass of a prey animal hung over a nearby branch and it seems impossible that not only could such a large animal climb up into the tree but that it could carry a heavy animal up with it. They are amazingly strong and powerful animals. And yes they are quite beautiful. I had seen only a single leopard in Kenya and only two adults and 4 cubs in South Africa. Each was breath-taking. This one was as well even though it almost looked like you could pet it with its sleepy lazy look as people in maybe 8 vehicles looked on.

Leopard Balancing Act

Unlike lions and to a lesser extent cheetahs, leopards are solitary animals with defined territories. Males which are larger than females, can weigh up to 200 pounds and measure 28 inches at the shoulder and over 8 feet in length (tail included). They are the smallest of the “Big Cats” – lions, tigers and jaguars all being larger and cheetahs not included in the group. Smallest, yes but pound for pound also the strongest being able to carry prey weighing more than it does up a tree. Leopards are still found in Africa, India, China and Southeast Asia. Snow Leopards of the Himalayas are a different species. Like lions, they hunt mostly at night and rest during the day. Our leopard definitely had mastered the resting thing. We did find an antelope stashed on a lower branch, but we could not identify it. When I was in South Africa, I saw a huge male leopard carrying a Steenbok up a tree. We watched the leopard for maybe 30 minutes, maneuvering for different positions as one or another of the safari vehicles would finally leave.

We birded some more on the way back to Kubu Kubu. What a great day, familiar mammals again adding lions and our leopard, more than 100 species of birds including 45 that were new for the tour and 13 new lifers and many photos. Many would later consider the leopard the best sighting of the trip. Cindy thought it was the giraffes, until there was a close up elephant and then the lions and then the leopard. Africa is a smorgasbord of delights. It was February 20th – less than a week into the trip with anther 12 days ahead.

Tanzania Day 5 – Speke Bay and the Serengeti

I did not keep Ebird lists during the trip relying on Kevin Zimmer for that. We did, as usual on most tours, do group bird lists each evening before dinner checking off each species seen that day. Kevin shared a few lists early but as the tour pressed on, it became an overwhelming task to keep current and most lists were not entered on Ebird until well after we returned and as might be expected, there was not always a full correlation between the Ebird lists and our checklists as we recounted them each day. In this post I have pretty accurate information for the morning of Day 5 at Speke Bay and then our drive to the Serengeti after lunch, but it falls apart a bit after that. The following details the morning of the 19th and the drive to the Park, but thereafter I am combining all of the sightings for our days in the Serengeti – one of many highlights of the trip.

Sunday morning at Speke Bay got off to a great start. One of the staff at Speke Bay had located a roosting Barn Owl and two Three Banded Coursers on the property. It was a bit of a walk especially stumbling over the Hippopotamus tracks, but some really great birds. Like the Osprey, Barn Owls are found on every continent except Antartica. I had seen them in Australia and of course North America, but this would be the first one in Africa. I had seen Three Banded Coursers in Kenya at Lake Baringo in 2007 and even had photos, but they are a very cool looking bird and I was very happy to see it and photograph it again. We birded for several hours at the Lodge before heading to Serengeti National Park in the afternoon. The first set of photos are all from Speke Bay.

Barn Owl – A Very Tough Photo
Three Banded Courser
Chinspot Batis
Klaas’s Cuckoo
Red-billed Firefinch
Buff-bellied Warbler
Swamp Flycatcher

These next photos are not necessarily in sequence as explained above regarding Ebird lists. Some sightings that can be specifically linked to a place are photos of Bare Faced Go-Away Bird, Hamerkops, Pin-tailed Whydah and Eastern Plantain Eater that were taken at the Grumenti River in the Serengeti. This was also where we had one of my favorite experiences of the trip. We saw at first one and then several large white birds in a field. They were White Storks. I had seen some in Pecs, Hungary in 2002 but had no photo. They are the birds that “delivered babies” in some European folklore. I got my photo and then we saw more and more including a group perched on an open branched tree. They are gorgeous, magnificent birds and seeing them flocked and then perched was very special. The Plantain-eater was a lifer and earlier we had a Karamoja Apalis, the only other lifer among the many dozens of birds seen.

Karamoja Apalis (Lifer)
Bare-faced Go Away Bird
Eastern Plantain-eater (Lifer)
Yellow-billed Stork
Pin-tailed Whydah
White Stork
White Storks
Village Indigobird

Not at the river, but some other great birds seen that day in Serengeti National Park were our first Secretarybirds, Southern Ground, African Gray and Von der Decken’s Hornbills, Kori Bustards, Gray Capped Warbler, and our first of what would be many Lilac Breasted and European Rollers.

Southern Ground Hornbill
Von der Decken’s Hornbill – Female
African Gray Hornbill
Gray Capped Warbler
Kori Bustard
Lilac Breasted Roller
European Roller

It was at the river that we also saw our first Hippopotamuses and our first Nile Crocodiles. We would see hippos many times later always in large groups. The Crocs were less abundant and neither looked very friendly.

Our First Hippos
Our First Nile Crocodile

These photos provide a great transition from birds to mammals for it was at the Serengeti that we experienced the great diversity of African mammals. Some would be on this first day in the park and then others each day later we would see Elephants, Hippos, Impalas, Zebras, Baboons, Hyenas, Lions, Jackals, Warthogs, Giraffes, Wildebeest, Cape Buffaloes, Waterbucks, Topi, Gazelle’s and Kongoni (Hartebeest) and our only Leopard. These photos were from that first day – many more will be added later in this post which combines the following days. The Serengeti may well be the most famous of the African National Parks. It was both a very favorite place and a huge disappointment on the trip. The disappointment had nothing to do with the place itself – only the timing of our visit. VENT had scheduled this trip when it did to be able to see the great migration of wildebeests and zebras (among others) that occurs annually. Unfortunately this year the rains came late so the migration of a million animals was delayed. We saw maybe the start but instead of hundreds of thousands of animals, we saw “only” thousands – still amazing but how awesome to have been able to see “the real thing”.

The Serengeti is a vast grassland plain of more than 11,500 square miles (about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined) of which about 5,700 square miles are in the National Park, a World Heritage site that was established as a park in 1951. The Entrance to the park is $60.00 ($70.00 in peak season) per person per day with additional costs per vehicle and per person for each night stay (part of the accommodation cost). This generates a lot of money which is used for maintenance etc. As an aside the restroom facilities in the park were spotless!! Only 4-wheel drive vehicles are permitted in the Park and driving is allowed only on existing tracks – no cross-country exploration. Tourism is big business with many levels of accommodation ranging from basic to super-luxury. It is estimated that more than 350,000 people visit the park each year!!

A Sampling of Mammals of the Serengeti (Saving the Cats for Later)

African or Cape Buffalo
Serengeti Elephant
Spotted Hyena
Silver Backed Jackal
Blue Wildebeest or Brindled Gnu
African Zebra
Thompson’s Gazelle
Grant’s Gazelle
Kongoni (Hartebeest)

Since I was only using a telescopic lens (100-500 mm with a 1.4 extender) I could not really get any wide-angle photos showing the scale of the migration that we did see – often hundreds or even thousands of animals of numerous species at one time. This photo gives some sense of the mixed herds with some birds mixed in. By far the largest groups were of Wildebeest followed by Zebras and then Buffalo. There were often small herds of Impala – usually a single male with his harem of females or maybe a small group of non-dominant bachelor males together.

Life on the Plains

This post has largely been a collection of photos and there is just no way they can give anything but a snapshot of what really has to be experienced in person capturing the diversity of life, the immensity of the plains, the gatherings at waterholes and the constant moving and grazing of the animals with amazing birds in every niche of the Serengeti. I have included most of the mammals seen in the Serengeti here except for the Big Cats – always favorites of every visit, even those by list building birders. We would leave Speke Bay Lodge and move on to Kubu Kubu Tented Lodge from which we would continue to explore the Serengeti. And in the next post, there will again be lots of birds and there will also be Cats!!

Tanzania Days 3 and 4 – Travel and Speke Bay

To avoid a long drive, we would be flying from West Arusha to Mwanza from which we would then head to our next accommodations at Speke Bay Lodge on the shores of Lake Victoria. Our flight was preceded by some birding on the grounds of Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge and would include some birding on the drive from the Mwanza Airport to the Lodge. This limited birding added only 18 species to our trip list, but three were new life birds as well. One of the life birds, Abdim’s Stork, was found at the Kilimanjaro Airport where a group of 40 were circling just as we arrived. We would see many later with good views and photo ops.

The entrance to the airport was chaotic as maybe 200 people were in line outside the entrance to the small terminal waiting to get through security – there was not enough room inside to accommodate the crowd. It was pretty hot and there was no sun cover but the real concern was making our departure time. It was not a great case of efficiency, but the line moved faster than feared and we were there in plenty of time. It is about 500 miles from Arusha to Mwanza – a drive of 10 hours or more. The flight was only an hour and 10 minutes and saved us the long drive and made for a much more efficient itinerary.

The new life birds seen at Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge that morning were Green Malkoha and Green-backed Honeyguide. Not the best of photo ops for the Malkoha as it was buried in foliage, but getting any picture was greatly appreciated. I am also including photos of some other fun birds seen that morning.

Green Malkoha
Green-backed Honeyguide
Little Greenbul
African Pied Wagtail
White-eared Barbet
Black-backed Puffback Female
Amethyst Sunbird

We made no serious stops on the way from the Mwanza Airport to Speke Bay but had passing looks at a number of waders that we would see again later in the trip. Cattle Egrets seemed to be in every field and we easily saw more than 500 of them. Other “waders” included Great and Little Egrets, African Sacred Ibis, Black-headed Heron, Marabou Stork and African Openbill. Speke Bay Lodge is located on the south-eastern shore of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, East Africa. It is 15 kilometers from the Serengeti National Park. It would be our comfortable home for the next several nights and our take off place for exploring the wonderful Serengeti. At the end of the day, our trip list was at 134 species.

Black-headed Heron
African Openbill

Our accommodations at Speke Bay were in individual bungalows fronting on Lake Victoria. As would be the case in many places we stayed, after dusk we were supposed to be escorted back to our rooms after dinner. Why was that? Because we were in Wild Africa and hippos often would amble through the grounds to feed at night. We never saw a hippo but we saw many hippo tracks even a quarter mile or more from the Lake.

Our Bungalows at Speke Bay Lodge

After breakfast on Saturday, February 18th, Day 4 of our tour, we birded all day on and around the extensive grounds at Speke Bay Lodge. In about 10 hours we had 77 species, including 53 new birds for the tour and 5 new life birds for me: Eurasian and Square Tailed Nightjars, Common Reed Warbler, Black Bishop and Blue-capped Cordonbleu. I don’t know how many were new but I got photos of more than half of the species seen.

Eurasian Nightjar
Square Tailed Nightjar
Blue-capped Cordonbleu
Black Bishop

It is tempting to add all of the photos, but I am doing some self-imposed selecting and just including favorites from the day including the 4 Kingfisher species we saw.

Woodland Kingfisher
Gray-headed Kingfisher
Malachite Kingfisher
Pied Kingfisher
Dideric Cuckoo – The Cuckoo that Says Its Name
Nubian Woodpecker
White-browed Robin Chat
Golden-backed Weaver
Malachite Sunbird
Black-headed Gonolek
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
Blue-Naped Mousebird
Water Thick-knee
Red-chested Cuckoo – The Most Common of the 11 “Cuckoo” Species Seen on the Tour – Heard Often
D’Arnaud’s Barbet – “Usambiru” maybe a split later

Our weather was great and there were very few bugs. Food was good and we even got in some walking, which would become much more limited as we got into wildlife parks where we could be in danger. Our trip species count was now at 187 species. I had added 20 lifers and probably more than twice that many life photos. The next day we would bird again at Speke Bay Lodge and then head into the iconic Serengeti National Park.

Tanzania – Day 2 – Arusha National Park

After the multi day/multi hour flight to Tanzania and the 11 hour time change, we had no idea how sleeping would go and how we would feel for our first morning in Tanzania. Breakfast was a civilized 7:00 a.m. and our trip to Arusha National Park would not start until after 8:00. Under the circumstances, sleeping went well and we made it to the generous breakfast on time and were ready to go, excited for the adventure. The basic set-up for the tour would be travel in two safari vehicles – Toyota Land Cruisers with 8 passengers each and a pop top. Each had the driver and guide in the front two seats and six tour members in back with three rows of two passengers each with a window. A good policy was that each day, passengers would rotate – the two in the back would move up to the middle, the middle would move to the front and the two in front would go to the other vehicle, replaced by two from that vehicle who had been in the front and now would go to the back. This completely removed some of the friction that has occurred on some tours where seats are literally fought over.

A bit more background: Our two guides were Kevin Zimmer from VENT and Anthony Raphael from Tanzania Birding Tours (tanzaniabirding.com), the local partner for VENT. Our two wonderful drivers were Godbless and Moses. Kevin has been leading this trip for VENT for many years but is probably even better known for his guiding excellence in Brazil. In addition to his formidable birding skills, Kevin is a great storyteller and all around good company. Just give him a Coke Zero and he is a happy guy. Anthony also has amazing birding skills, extremely knowledgeable with an uncanny knack for finding birds in dense foliage and high up in the trees. Anthony was also the go to guy for any administrative needs or help finding anything you needed. Godbless and Moses were excellent drivers and really fun to be with. If you are wondering about those names, in Tanzania, when you reach a certain age (maybe 18) you get to pick your own name. Those were their choices.

Our Safari Vehicles

After breakfast we boarded the vehicles and were off. In what would be a familiar pattern, we would head for a destination but might bird along the way once we got off city roads, stopping at likely places or where one of the guides spotted a bird of interest. Our main destination would be Arusha National Park, a small park of only 215 square miles. Being only 8 miles from our lodge, we went directly to the Entrance gate where we birded on foot for a while and then turned off the main park road onto the side track to the Fig Tree Arch. In just under 2 hours, we saw 28 species (no lifers yet). As tempting as it is to detail each species and include photos, if I want to get these blogs done, that is too large a task. Instead I am going to include a list of species as reported on Ebird, including just a few photos. We were now in mammal country so there will be lots of those photos as well.

Yellow Breasted Apalis
Spot Flanked Barbet
Cinnamon Chested Bee-Eater
Speckled Mousebird
Variable Sunbird

At the entrance gate, we also had our first “elephant” – an amazingly life-like creation. From the Momela Gate Entrance, we drove to Fig Tree Arch – a giant fig tree with an arch at the base large enough to drive through – truly an awesome tree. Along the way we observed 18 bird species – 12 new for the trip, including two spectacular birds: Hartlaub’s Turaco and Bar Tailed Trogon. In addition to the Trogon, I had 5 other lifers including Scaly Spurfowl. It seems like there is confusion or disagreement about using names “spurfowl” or “francolin”. We would see many on this tour.

Momela Entrance Gate “Elephant”
At the Fig Tree Arch
Scaly Spurfowl (Lifer)
Hartlaub’s Turaco
Bar Tailed Trogon – Lifer

We spent the rest of the afternoon birding in the Park along the Momela Lakes Circuit. Now our birding would be mixed with our first mammal watching including giraffes, elephants and zebras. And this is where it gets really hard to pick what to write and what pictures to include. with a variety of habitats we had forest birds, water birds, shorebirds, and birds of more open country – 56 species in all including 6 species of waterfowl, 6 species of swifts, and 8 species of shorebirds. The only lifer was a Moustached Grass Warbler – sadly no photo. Among the avian highlights were our first Greater and Lesser Flamingoes, Little and White Fronted Bee-eaters, 50 Ruffs and our first Gray Crowned Cranes.

Greater Flamingo
Lesser Flamingoes
White Fronted Bee-eater
Little Bee-eater
Gray Crowned Crane

All told we had 70 species for the day bringing our trip list so far to 116 species. This included 12 world lifers for me and many new photos (I did not keep a running account of these.) I expected that the parade of lifers would slow but I was feeling pretty good that I would get to my minimum target of 37 to get to my self-imposed important target of 3,000 species. Cindy was enjoying the birds but it was really the scenery and the mammals that got to her. She was hooked when we saw our first distant tableau of giraffes, impalas, wildebeests and zebras.

Later we had a herd of zebras very close including a mother and colt and then had a giraffe that was towering over us from maybe 25 feet away and lots of warthogs. The first elephant was also pretty close and knowing that it could charge and tip over the vehicle brought home that we were most definitely in Africa.

Zebra Colt
Warthog Boar
Giraffe Above Us
A Very Real Elephant

It was then back to Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge for another fine dinner and a celebratory Gin and Tonic, which soon became our favorite drink in Africa. It was a bit warm in our room which did not have a fan (turned out we should have asked for one), but we left the screened windows open and it got comfortable pretty soon. My best moment of the day was when Cindy called the trip “life changing”. You really have to see the animals in the wild yourself to understand; and we were just beginning.

Our Room at Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge

Africa Again — Finally

The Prelude – When Cindy Bailey and I first started dating now going on five years ago, one of the subjects we explored was travel goals. Close to the top of the list was my telling her she had to get to Africa before it disappeared. I had been fortunate to have traveled to Kenya and to South Africa and each trip had been magical. We also talked about travels to South America. She had not been to either area and we agreed to make them early travel priorities. We found two trips that greatly appealed: a trip to Tanzania with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) and a birds and wine trip to Argentina and Chile with Field Guides. Given that Cindy was not a birder, these at first seemed like a bit selfish on my part, but the sale was easy. It was the wine that made the Field Guides trip easy and as for Africa, it was my assurance that even avid birders quickly forgot about the birds when there were cheetahs, lions or leopards to be seen.

We committed to both trips and then…Covid. Both of those trips were wiped out as were possible trips to Cuba and to Charleston S.C. and Savannah, GA. Two years of exciting travel disappeared as the world isolated and tourism vanished. When a comfort level with travel finally returned, the trips we had planned were no longer available. I was desperate for a great birding trip and Cindy just wanted to travel somewhere new. So we traveled to Ecuador – a top birding destination and a trial run for other travel later. Ecuador was great and even though there was maybe a bit more birding than Cindy would prefer, she loved the nature, the people and the place and even many of the birds, especially the colorful tanagers and hummingbirds that visited the many feeders at fun lodges. OK Africa was back on the agenda – even a “birding” trip. When we found two spots open on the VENT Tanzania trip for February/March 2023, we signed on. It was months ahead and when Cindy had her fall on some ice in November 2022 and tore her rotator cuff, there was a possibility that we would have to cancel. The surgery went well. The recovery went well; and we were good to go. In this series of blogs, I will share the rest of the story, in Cindy’s words, “a life changing trip.”

All told our trip was 20 days – leaving Seattle of February 13th with an 11.5 hour flight on Qatar Airways from Seattle to Doha, Qatar. an 8-hour layover and then a 5.5 hour flight from Doha to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, reversing that with a somewhat shorter return to Seattle on March 5 – with an 11 hour time difference making that 28 hour trip seem a lot less. I probably could write an entire blog post about flying on Qatar Airways (not as great as advertised) or our two layovers at the Doha Airport – otherworldly and not necessarily in a positive way. We had “economy premium” seats. Basically that meant a few extra inches of leg room – same food as economy and that’s it. Before we left, we had seen a list of movies on the Qatar Air entertainment system. Not the case. They advertised 4000 options. Maybe so but the sound quality was poor, the picture not much better and, understandably, many of those thousands were either Arabic or Bollywood movies. Maybe three of the movies that had caught our interest earlier were available, the rest ones we had barely heard of. On an 11+ hour flight, anything to kill time is welcome. We did watch “Rear Window” and that was about it.

Doha, Qatar at Night

The flight was smooth and did leave and arrive on schedule. Flying into Doha is quite an experience. After miles/hours of nothing, we could see the bright lights of the City of Doha – almost a Disneyland of architecturally flamboyant high rises. Cindy likened it to the strip in Las Vegas. The airport is over the top as well. It is humongous. We got off the plane down a stairway that was brought up to the plane. Then we boarded a bus and had a fairly long ride around the tarmac to get to the terminal itself. Then, even though we had obviously cleared security to board the plane, we went through even more stringent security to get into the terminal itself – as connecting passengers. I think it was around 5 in the evening local time and the terminal was busy but not crowded. There were helpful guides around to direct people to wherever they were going. (“Go the giant bear and turn right” was our direction.) We were going to a lounge where we would spend the next 7 hours until our flight to Kilimanjaro. This was no ordinary terminal shopping place. A partial list of stores includes Harrods, Jimmy Choo, Apple Store, Samsung Store, Swarovski, Duty Free, Coach, and Michael Kors among others. A simple magazine shop? Not really. The lounge was nice although somewhat crowded. For the entry fee of $55 each, we got nice seats, free drinks, some decent food (a great soup) and access to a very limited sleeping area with some horizontal seats that were ok, but the room was too small and too noisy (including people talking out loud on their phones – really?!!??). We each got maybe an hour of sleep once sleeping spots opened up. Our departure was set for 1:30 a.m. on the 15th. We left the lounge at midnight and OMG, there were thousands of people in the terminal. Definitely a mix of folks from everywhere, Africa, India, Europe, America, and Australia. Surprisingly not many East Asians and no noticeable Hispanics. Not too many were shopping except mostly at the duty free shop. It was a LONG walk to get to our gate, but we were there in plenty of time and boarded for the next flight which at 5 hours seemed a dream after the previous one. No improvements on the entertainment system, but adrenalin and excitement was kicking in and despite so little sleep, we felt pretty good when we arrived. Tanzania is 11 hours later than Seattle so we left on the 13th and arrived on the 15th. Altogether, we had flown almost 10,000 miles.We were ready.

Seattle to Doha to Kilimanjaro

Tanzania is in East Africa, largely south of the Equator with an area of 364,900 square miles, almost 900 miles of coastline on the Indian Ocean and a population of 64 million. As points of reference, that is 100,000 square miles larger than Texas and a population almost twice that of California with a longer coastline. It is only the 13th largest country in Africa – a big continent indeed, second only to Asia. Our tour started in Kilimanjaro – about 250 miles west of the Indian Ocean and basically was a circle route going west to Mwanza and then back with stops at 8 lodges – all way more than comfortable.

Our Tour Route in Tanzania

After considering other approaches, I have decided to write this in a similar fashion as other travel blogs, a mostly sequential log of what we did when although there may be some jumps or references backwards and forward. There will be a lot left out, but I am going to try to include places and birds and animals and peoples and stories and impressions without an absolute consistent linear connection. First though a continuation of this prelude for context if nothing else.

I had four main goals for this trip. First and foremost was for Cindy to enjoy Africa, seeing the animals I had talked about as well as some beautiful birds but mostly to feel the magic of a very special place so different from anything else she had experienced. Secondly I specifically wanted to add at least 37 species to my World Life List of bird species seen to get me to 3000 species. Third was to get pictures of some of the new birds as well as of species I had seen in Kenya or South Africa but for which I had no photos. The hope was to get photos at least 130 new photos to get me to around 1770 species hopefully on my way to more than 2000 someday. The last goal was to have both of us come away wanting more. This was not a trip to add that many species to my life list. Looking at the bird list from previous VENT Tanzania trips, even though the species list promised over 400 species, there was great overlap with my 2007 trip to Kenya and 2014 trip to South Africa, and at the very most it looked like maybe a chance for maybe 70+ lifers. Not going to make you wait for the end to find out. The final numbers were 432 species seen including 77 World Lifers. I got photos of 339 species including 150 new species photographed. (As a side note: when I returned home I had a chance to go over all of my photos from earlier trips – something that took well over 100 hours. I discovered I had previously unidentified photos of another 15 species including another 7 world lifers. So bottom line a very good listing and photography trip plus the trip-initiated review process resulting in more lifers in both categories. The official Ebird stats are a World Life List of 3040 species and 1810 world photos. Since I took almost no photos on many early trips and relatively few until fairly recently, I guess I am pretty happy – just wish I had taken photos earlier.)

In Africa Officially Day 2 – Arrival at Ngare Sero

I have friends that have undertaken international adventure travel on their own. We are not that brave. We did have to arrange our own air travel – a lot more challenging, a lot less fun, and a lot more expensive than it was even not that many years ago. But everything else was in the hands of VENT. I had excellent experience with them on earlier trips to Kenya, India and Texas and was pleased with the itinerary, the planned accommodations, the guides and office administration. The only moment of tension was upon arrival at the Kilimanjaro Airport, just Cindy and me, hoping that as we departed the airport, someone would be there holding a sign with our names on it – our secure entry into our adventure and transportation to our first accommodation, the Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge, where we would join the group, all of whom had arrived the previous night flying through Amsterdam. Thankfully, there he was, holding that welcomed sing: Bernson/Bailey. We were now officially “On Safari”.

Eco-tourism, especially the safari business, is a big part of the Tanzanian economy – over 10% of GDP. This is similar to many European Countries like the U.K., Italy and France but contrasts greatly with not even 3% in the U.S. And unlike those countries, the large majority of Tanzanian tourism is international. Accordingly the tourist infrastructure in Tanzania is highly developed, with many well-maintained National Parks, superb lodges and numerous travel companies. For example, all of the safari vehicles we saw had company signs/logos on their sides or on their spare tire covers at the back of the vehicle. We noted over 100 different safari companies. It’s a big business. That’s not to say the roads were all that great – except the main highways between cities, we almost entirely on dirt roads/tracks, dusty and bumpy. A surprising measure of that bumpiness was the “steps accounting” on the digital watches of many travelers. The watches counted the bouncing as steps and at the end of a day when we were barely out of the vehicles, total steps often were in excess of 12,000.

We encountered our first bumpy, dusty dirt road on our way from the Kilimanjaro Airport to Ngare Sero Lodge, our first home away from home. The Lodge is about 21 miles from the airport. The first 19 or so miles are on the good 2 to 4 lane T2 (Kikatiti) Road. The road provided our first glimpse into non-tourist Africa with commercial activity on both sides of the road and also agricultural fields. Shops were generally very small and constructed very differently from familiar development back home – mostly simple construction with materials at hand, adobe bricks, corrugated iron, some wood – not built for the long haul. The road was fairly busy with a mix of small cars, small trucks, jitneys, and many motorbikes. Fruits and vegetables were often being sold right at the curbside perhaps by the families that had grown them on small pieces of land. Intersections along the way were with dirt roads that headed off to small lots and small homes away from the highway. It was on one of these intersections that we left the pavement and headed off on dirt. One would not have guessed that a mile or so in, passing some very rundown looking properties we would turn onto a paved driveway and a gate that took us to our lodge – manicured lawns, beautiful plantings, a main building and lodge rooms which would be our very comfortable home for the next two nights.

All of the other members of the tour had arrived at Ngare Sero the night before, met for breakfast and had a first bird walk with VENT guide Kevin Zimmer early that morning. We arrived a bit after that first bird walk had finished and checked into our room and then walked the grounds, met some of the others and looked for some birds on our own. The first species I saw was a Red Headed Weaver, which I had previously seen in Kenya. The group reassembled and we walked around the grounds, the small pond and the little stream that were on the property. It was not the greatest look, but I quickly added my first life bird for the trip, a Taveta Golden-Weaver at its nest on some reeds in the pond. On that first walk we had a total of 41 species including additional lifers Little Sparrowhawk, Common House Martin, Kenrick’s Starling, and Gray Olive Greenbul. Some other highlights were Cindy’s first hornbills, Silvery Cheeked and Crowned, an African Fish Eagle, and a Tambourine Dove. I was happy to get several photos including of a very lovely Yellow-breasted Apalis.

Red-Headed Weaver
Taveta Golden-Weaver
Kenrick’s Starling
Gray Olive Greenbul
Common House Martin
Crowned Hornbill
Silvery Cheeked Hornbill
Tambourine Dove
Yellow-breasted Apalis
Peter’s Twinspot – Sadly Not Seen by Me

Unfortunately a species we did not see was a Peter’s Twinspot. It was high on my target list and this was the only location where it was a possibility. It had been seen by two birders briefly at breakfast and despite looking for it with many eyes and at many times later, it was not seen again. There were very few disappointments on this trip, but this was one.

After lunch and then a chance to rest, we had another bird walk on the grounds in the afternoon which added a few more species although no lifers and then after dinner we reassembled and Kevin called in an African Wood Owl. There is a resident pair at the lodge. Unfortunately I forgot to bring my camera. The male perched in the open and with Kevin’s spotlight we had great looks. I borrowed Kevin’s camera so I could say that I took a photo. I have not received a copy of that photo yet so am substituting one from online and will replace it if I get one from Kevin.

African Wood Owl

The tally for the day was 47 species with some lifers and some new photos. Missing the Twinspot hurt but I at least thought there was always tomorrow. And tomorrow meant into Arusha National Park – great birds and our first African mammals. Sleep came easily.