Tanzania – Day 11 – The Ngorongoro Crater

We spent the night of February 24th at our new lodging at the Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge. Serena is a group of 36 luxury resorts, safari lodges, and hotels, which are located in East Africa and Central and South Asia. I had previously stayed in one in Kenya. Given some of the places we heard about in East Africa, we have to be careful using the word “luxury”. The word “luxury” has a different meaning to different folks in different places, but there was certainly no complaint about these accommodations – just more of a “touristy” feeling even if luxury touristy than some other places we stayed. Beautiful setting overlooking the Ngorongoro Crater and with lovely individual rooms. We have no idea what the charge was to our tour company for our rooms, but I also just looked up what a room would cost for two next month and see they start at $450/night. That may or may not seem pricey, but it is a steal compared to the suite price (only suites are available) at the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge where the starting price per night is a mere $1325 – per person that is. Of course, the website reminds you that there are “private butlers to take care of your every whim”. We took care of our own whims at our lodge, but they did a great job taking care of everything else.

Our Room at Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge
Ngorongoro Serena Safari Lodge Overlooking the Crater

The Ngorongoro Crater caldera in the Great Rift Valley is an incredible place. Created in an immense volcanic eruption more than 3 million years ago, it is the largest intact caldera in the world over 100 square miles and 2000 feet below the crater rim which itself rises to an elevation of over 7,000 feet. Lake Magadi in the crater adds to its beauty and is home to many water birds including thousands of Flamingos. We would spend two plus days in the area including a visit to Olduvai Gorge where the Leakey’s did their famous work. During our stay we added 48 species to the tour list and I added 7 species to my world list. Altogether we had 217 species in the crater and the rim area near the lodge, half of all the species we saw on the entire trip. Two of the new life birds were added on the 25th, a Short Tailed Lark and a White Throated Robin.

Short Tailed Lark
White Throated Robin

There are a lot of cuckoos in the world – ornithologically speaking here. I have seen 37 species in the world – only 6 of which were seen in the ABA Area. The rest are from Europe (1 species), Asia (5 species), Australia (6 species), South America (7 species/5 unique) and Africa with 12 (plus one overlap) species. Of the 13 species seen in Africa, 11 were seen on this trip. Although members of the cuckoo family are relatively large, it is not always easy to get good photos in heavy foliage. Two seen on the morning of February 25th were very cooperative.

White Browed Coucal
Great Spotted Cuckoo

It was also a good day for raptor photos. A sampling is below. Altogether on the trip we had 42 raptor species and my Africa raptor list is 63. Every time I go over those numbers, I am surprised at how many raptors there are in Africa, but that number compares fairly closely with the 54 raptor species seen in the ABA area and 49 species seen in South America. The difference, however, is that I have seen almost all of the ABA raptors and I know there are many more raptors in Africa that I have not seen – yet. Altogether there are more than 100 raptors in Africa.

Pallid Harrier
Dark Chanting Goshawk

Two other raptors seen earlier in our trip but not included in any blog posts were Augur Buzzard and Martial Eagle. The former was seen on a number of occasions including one where it looked like it was making an African Buffalo very unhappy. We had three encounters with a Martial Eagle, a very fierce looking and thus aptly named bird, it is the largest eagle in Africa. In the picture below, it was perched and appeared to have a very full crop. This is a good place to repeat that vultures, especially in American Westerns, are often called buzzards – an error as the latter are hawks with feathered heads and primarily hunt for and kill their own prey while vultures generally have no fathers on their heads and are almost exclusively scavengers. Unlike in the US where there are only two eagle species, Bald and Golden, there are many more in Africa. We saw 9 species on this trip and I have seen 5 others in Africa and more than two dozen worldwide.

Augur Buzzard and an Unhappy Buffalo
Augur Buzzard
Martial Eagle with a Full Crop

I am not going to catalog all of the species seen on our first day in the crater but want to include a set of photos of Wheatears. There seems to be some uncertainty as to how to classify this group of birds, previously thought to be closely related to thrushes. They are generally rather dull colored and found in drier environments. We saw 5 Wheatear species on our trip including the Northern Wheatear which I have seen as a mega rarity in my home state of Washington and also in Nome, Alaska where there is a breeding population. Normally it is a bird of the Eastern Hemisphere. The new addition to our Wheatear collection in the crater was the Abyssinian Wheatear, joining the previously seen Northern, Capped, Isabelline, and Pied Wheatears. We also had our first Northern Anteater Chat, which is a close relative. These species are generally found on or among rocks where they hunt insects.

We added three more species of Cisticolas on this day as well, Wailing, Hunter’s and Red Faced Cisticolas. This is a reminder to keep better track of photos as they are taken. Back home many days after the observations and without notes or sound recordings, and working off of single photos that do not necessarily include details of characteristics that distinguish species, it has been very difficult (impossible?) to identify this challenging group of similarly appearing birds. I am including photos of the species that I think are accurate but definitely open to input and willing to change or omit. Not shown are Singing, Desert, Trilling and Winding Cisticolas which were seen but not photographed or at least not knowingly photographed. I have seen six other cisticola species elsewhere in Africa and have little or no good photographic evidence of those observations – nasty little buggers!!

A highlight of the day was a visit to the Oldupai Gorge. Note that this is the correct name for the place made famous by the discovery of early skeletal remains believed to be of mankind’s earliest ancestors to walk the earth. It is more commonly known as the Olduvai Gorge and is thought of as the “Cradle of Mankind”. Pioneering work by Mary and Louis Leakey found early remains which they claimed as Homo habilis a direct pre-ancestor or Homo sapiens. There is a museum on site which includes a reconstruction of one of the early finds and there were birds around the museum which also caught our attention. The whole area of paleoanthropology is fraught with uncertainty but what is certain is that the Oldupai site remains as one of the most important in the search for our earliest human ancestors.

Early Hominid

A fun species seen at the museum was the Speckled Pigeon shown here with another similar and attractive pigeon species, Rameron Pigeon. Also including a new dove for the trip, Dusky Turtle Dove shown with a daintier Laughing Dove. Doves and pigeons belong to the same family of birds, Columbidae, and I think in general pigeons are larger and stockier. Altogether we had 12 dove or pigeon species on the tour. Near the museum we also had several species of Sunbirds – Variable, Beautiful, Scarlet Chested and Eastern Violet Backed.

Speckled Pigeon
Rameron Pigeon
Dusky Turtle Dove
Laughing Dove
The aptly named Beautiful Sunbird

Another new bird for the 25th was a Hildebrandt’s Spurfowl. We would see two additional species of spurfowl later (Red and Yellow Necked). I mentioned in an earlier blog that some of the species I had seen in earlier trips had been renamed from francolin to spurfowl. I am not sure these descriptions are authoritative, but one source suggests that: “Francolins have quail like upperparts while spurfowls have streaked or vermiculated back feathers. Francolins typically crouch and sit tight before flushing when disturbed, whereas spurfowls tend to run for cover.” (University of Capetown) Another says: “Francolins are smaller and have yellow legs whereas spurfowls are generally larger and have orange, red or black legs. Spurfowls have backwards-facing spurs on their heels which they use during their courtship dueling.” I checked my photos to see if the leg color suggestion held. Only a few of my photos included the legs, but where they did, the colors matched the suggestion. On the other hand, we saw two fighting Crested Francolins and there were backwards-facing spurs.

Hildebrandt’s Spurfowl (Note the orange legs)

Although I have not included any of their photos for this blog, there were as always lots of mammals this day, but we did not find the one we were most eagerly looking for – Black Rhinoceros. Spoiling the suspense, we did find them on the 26th and their story will be told there. We did have lions and antelope and warthogs and of course birds on the plains including some of our best looks at Common Ostrich. Weighing as much as 320 pounds, standing as tall as 9 feet and able to run up to 43 mph, they are really pretty awesome.

Common Ostrich

My last photo included for February 25th is a species that Cindy really liked – Egyptian Goose. Maybe they would have more appeal to me if I had not only seen them in Africa but also in Florida and Arkansas in the U.S. where they are ABA “countable” even though recognized as introduced. They were the waterfowl species seen most often on the tour, present at almost every waterhole and any other body of water.

Egyptian Goose

At the lodge that night we went through our usual routine of gathering before dinner to do “the list” for the day. The only negative for this was that there were a few occasions where a species was seen by one of the vehicles but not the other. Generally there was good communication but if there was one thing that I wish was done better was communication by our Tanzanian guide, Anthony. He was a terrific person and a great birder in addition to being the organizational glue for the tour. But he at times did not let the other vehicle know what he/they were seeing. It really happened seldomly, but with every bird being a potential lifer, I missed a couple that maybe I would have seen otherwise. A really good part of the routine was that we usually had a drink while going over the list. The drink of choice became tonic water over ice with a lime. Maybe half of the time, we added some gin. Somehow that just felt better than a glass of wine in this setting.

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