Thursday, 30 July 2009

Tanzania - Part 4

Our last three nights in Tanzania were spent at the Ngorongoro Serena Lodge, situated on the rim of the famous Ngorongoro Crater. Here we were at an altitude of 2,300 metres and at least two layers of clothing were essential; we were very glad of the hot water bottles that magically appeared in our beds each night! The view from our rooms was spectacular and the grounds of the lodge provided some worthwhile birding when time permitted.

We spent the best part of two days down in the crater. (Actually, it's not really a crater but it's probably too late now to start calling it 'Ngorongoro Caldera'.) It covers about 260 square kilometres and is reckoned to be home to about 30,000 animals. Because there is ample year-round food and a constant supply of water, there is very little seasonal movement of wildlife in and out and, of course, to some extent they are hemmed in by the crater walls.

A typical view across the crater

The road from the rim descends about 600 metres to the floor of the crater. Other safari vehicles intent on their quest for the 'Big Five' raced past us as we stopped to look at Hildebrandt's Francolins and Schalow's Wheatears on the way down!

Schalow's Wheatear - still treated by some as a race of Mourning Wheatear

Most of the mammal species that we had already seen elsewhere were down there on the vast expanse of grassland (Giraffes were a notable exception) and, in addition, we eventually got a distant look at one of the several Black Rhinos that still inhabit the crater. Unfortunately, apart from an occasional twitch of an ear, it barely moved. Once there were more than 100 of them but they were reduced by poaching to about 20 and although this has now stopped the population shows little sign of recovery. We saw even more Wildebeest here than we had found in the Serengeti, thousands of them in fact, coming to drink along with hundreds of Zebras. Thomson's and Grant's Gazelles were very common and we also found a few Eland and Kongoni.

Blue Wildebeest or Brindled Gnu - they never look happy!

Eland - the largest of the antelopes

As might be expected with all these prey species present, we saw quite a few Lions and there were carcasses attended by Spotted Hyaenas, White-backed Vultures and White-necked Ravens.

A young male Lion

We drove some considerable distance around the crater over our two visits, stopping regularly to look at and photograph the wildlife most of which seemed remarkably confiding. Large birds such as Kori Bustards, Grey Crowned Cranes and Ostriches made particularly easy subjects. Smaller grassland species such as Crowned Lapwings, Red-capped Lark and Grassland Pipit required just a little more effort.

Kori Bustard

Crowned Lapwing

Grassland Pipit

Grey Crowned Cranes

Tanzania definitely lived up to its reputation as one of the world's top wildlife tourism destinations. Thanks go to Sanjay and Peter at Roy Safaris for their contributions to making our birding safari the undoubted success that it was.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Tanzania - Part 3

On Day 5 of our tour in Tanzania we made the long drive from Lake Manyara to the Seronera River Valley in the Serengeti, one of the world's most famous wildlife areas where we stayed for four nights at the Serengeti Serena Lodge.

July isn't the time of year to witness the spectacular migration of Wildebeest and Zebras for which the Serengeti is best known but there was still more than enough to see and our stay provided a wonderful experience. Maybe we did see only a few thousand Wildebeest and Zebras rather than the million or two that are present at other times of the year but the variety of mammals and birds was truly impressive.

Zebras at a waterhole

Of course, this was a bird watching tour and on numerous occasions when we were doing just that, watching birds, we attracted looks ranging from pity to scorn from the drivers and occupants of the many other safari vehicles that we encountered. They were interested only in finding the so-called 'Big Five' and mention of a Rattling Cisticola or a Tawny-flanked Prinia left them totally bemused. It wouldn't do for us all to be the same but it was hard not to think that it was they who were missing out. Why wouldn't you, for instance, want to look at colourful Fischer's Lovebirds and Lilac-breasted Rollers, handsome Blacksmith and Crowned Lapwings, the dapper little Capped Wheatear or bizarre Secretary Birds and Southern Ground Hornbills? It's hard to fathom!

Secretary Bird

We did stop from time to time to look at Lions, Leopards, Cheetahs, Buffalo, Giraffes and all the rest. In fact one day we were lucky enough to see two Cheetahs hunting. One minute they were lying down seemingly asleep, the next they were in pursuit of the one poor individual that they had singled out amongst a herd of a hundred or so Thomson's Gazelles that were fleeing in a cloud of dust. Their speed was amazing and the gazelle had no chance of escape; it was all over very quickly. Actually, it wasn't quite over because another spectator at this kill had been a Lioness and just when the Cheetahs thought they had their meal, this Lioness appeared from nowhere and took it off them! We watched as she struggled to make off with it, presumably to feed her cubs. Meanwhile, the Cheetahs, no doubt a bit put out by this, had little choice other than to start again and plan another strike.

Lioness with stolen Thomson's Gazelle

Cheated Cheetahs

There are many predators here and huge numbers of prey species. It was routine to come across the carcasses of Zebras, Buffalo, Wildebeest and the rest and often it was the presence of vultures that first drew our attention to them from some distance away. White-backed Vultures were easily the most numerous but Lappet-faced were also reasonably common and we also saw Ruppell's Griffons and White-headed Vultures. Also cleaning up after the Lions were Spotted Hyaenas without whom the plains would be littered with bones; their highly acidic digestive system can apparently deal with almost anything!

African Buffalo

Lappet-faced Vulture

Spotted Hyaena

The diversity of wildlife in the Serengeti is the result of diverse habitats: vast grasslands, riverine forests, swamps, kopjes and woodland. Much has been written about it and it has featured in countless television documentaries but it really should be very high on anyone's list of 'must visit' places to see at first hand.

More to follow...

Monday, 27 July 2009

Tanzania - Part 2

From Tarangire we drove the short distance to Lake Manyara National Park for a one-night stay at the Lake Manyara Serena Lodge. This gave us a very limited time in the park, just an afternoon on arrival and then the following morning before we moved on again.

Manyara is actually a relatively small park - it covers 330 square kilometres, 200 square kilometres of which is lake when water levels are high. The road in to the park passes through some quite dense woodland where Silvery-cheeked Hornbills were the most notable birds. Numerous Olive Baboons lined the road and we also saw several Sykes's Monkeys. On the grassy floodplain, Zebras, Wildebeest, Giraffes and Impala were grazing.

Olive Baboon

Silvery-cheeked Hornbill

We had seen from the lodge, situated high on a hillside above the lake, what must have been tens of thousands of Lesser Flamingos, from a distance just a mass of pink. Unfortunately, when we went to the lake we found there was no way that we could get anywhere near them which was rather frustrating. These are birds some of which breed at Lake Natron, a Ramsar Site that is currently threatened by the development of a soda ash plant on its shores. A world wide campaign is in progress to stop the planned construction of the soda ash factory by Tata Chemicals Ltd of Mumbai, India and National Development Corporation of Tanzania.

Although there were no close-up Flamingos we did get some excellent views of other birds at the edge of the lake. There were countless Great White Pelicans, at least 200 African Spoonbills and a similar number of Yellow-billed Storks, plus Grey Herons, Great Cormorants of the race lucidus, Collared Pratincoles, Spur-winged Lapwings, Cattle Egrets, Grey-headed Gulls and even a couple of Greenshanks. It was quite a sight. All of these were at the aptly-named Hippo Pool - apparently the collective noun for a group of Hippos is a bloat, which seemed quite appropriate!

Hippopotamus - with Yellow-billed Oxpecker onboard

Great White Pelican

African Spoonbill

Amongst the many other birds seen in the park, personal favourites were a pair of elegant Mountain Wagtails at a nest - a reminder that the lake is at an altitude of about 1,000 metres above sea level.

More to follow...

Tanzania - Part 1

This month's Avian Adventures tour in Tanzania followed a familiar itinerary that took us to Tarangire, Lake Manyara, Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, places that can provide some of the most wonderful wildlife spectacles available anywhere on Earth. Our local driver/guide was Peter Loishiye Laizer who was excellent throughout and had a good knowledge of the birds, something that isn't guaranteed from safari guides in East Africa.

After a night in Arusha on arrival, we began in Tarangire National Park and enjoyed a two-night stay at the very comfortable Tarangire Sopa Lodge. Birding began on the way there with roadside species such as White-headed Buffalo-Weaver, Lilac-breasted Roller and Northern White-crowned Shrike providing a taste of things to come.

Northern White-crowned Shrike

Red-headed Rock Agama (female) - common around the lodge

The park is at its most attractive to large concentrations of wildlife in the dry season (June to September) when the Tarangire River offers a permanent water source. The rolling landscape was otherwise mainly dry and dusty red with huge baobab trees, acacia thorn-bush and large areas of parched grassland. During our stay we saw in good numbers most of the expected large mammal species. There were hundreds of Elephants, Zebra, Wildebeest and Impala for instance, plus Giraffes, Grant's Gazelles, tiny Kirk's Dik-diks and many more. We found our first of many Lions seen on the tour soon after lunch on the first day, always an impressive sight even when just 'lion around' doing nothing.

African Elephants

It was the birds, though, that were our main focus and there was always something to see ranging from the large, easy to see and identify, Ostriches to the more challenging cisticola species and weavers and bishops most of which were not unfortunately in their brightest and most helpful plumage. As many as 550 species are said to have been recorded in the park, amongst them the endemic Yellow-collared Lovebird and Ashy Starling both of which were very easy to see. Not surprisingly, showy species such as Saddle-billed Stork, Long-crested Eagle, Martial Eagle and Bateleur were among the favourites but a delightful Two-banded Courser was also particularly popular.


Martial Eagle

Saddle-billed Stork

Ashy Starling

Two-banded Courser

More to follow...

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Lesser Antilles: 3. Dominica

Our flight to Dominica included just a 15-minute touchdown on Guadeloupe to pick up passengers. Oh how I would have loved a chance to go searching for the endemic woodpecker!

On arrival on Dominica, we headed for the Indian River where much of the recent ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie was filmed. Here we met with David of Cobra Tours who took us on a splendid rowboat trip along the river. Plumbeous Warblers, Lesser Antillean Flycatchers, Black Swifts and Rufous-throated Solitaires (amongst many others) vied for our attention as we quietly made our way along the river. And what about this Frangipani Moth caterpillar!

For most of our stay, Bertrand Jno Baptiste, better known as ‘Birdy’, was our expert guide as we searched for the island’s special birds. A trip to the Emerald Pool area proved very productive – Blue-headed Hummingbird was probably the star but other hummers also featured along with Red-throated Solitaire, Lesser Antillean Flycatcher, Broad-winged Hawk and Lesser Antillean Swift. We also saw the endemic tree lizard Anolis oculatus.

The Botanical Gardens produced our first views of an Imperial or Sisserou Parrot, a striking green-and-purple-plumaged member of the genus Amazona. Unfortunately it was in a cage! We went looking for a wild one in the Morne Diablotin National Park but without success although we did manage to hear one. The other endemic parrot, Red-necked or Jacquot, was much more obliging.

There were lots of great birds to see including Lesser-Antillean Peewee, Blue-headed and Antillean Crested Hummingbirds, Lesser Antillean Saltator and Red-legged Thrush but Antillean Euphonia proved elusive. Zenaida Doves and Grey Kingbirds were common everywhere.

All in all this was a great visit to the Lesser Antilles. Thanks go to the Tourist Boards of the various islands for hosting us and to Joanna and Kylie of the Saltmarsh Partnership for including me on the trip. I hope to return next year with an Avian Adventures group.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Lesser Antilles: 2. Montserrat

On Montserrat we were the guests of Carol and Margaret at Olveston House, owned by Sir George and Lady Martin. It proved to be the perfect base from which to explore the island with our bird guide James 'Scriber' Daley. Much of the island has been off limits since Mount Soufrière erupted in 1997 causing all but 3000 or so of the 12000 population to flee the island but we were shown the devastation wrought on Plymouth, Montserrat's once vibrant capital, from a boat skippered by Troy of the Green Monkey Inn & Dive Shop.

Scriber took us to the best sites on the island to see the endemic and endangered Montserrat Oriole. The trails were sometimes challenging but we were rewarded with great views of Orioles, Forest Thrush, Bridled Quail-Dove, Brown Trembler, both Purple-throated and Green-throated Caribs, plus Scaly-breasted and Pearly-eyed Thrashers. From the cliff top at Lookout Point we could see distant Red-billed Tropicbirds, while Caribbean Martins flew above us.

A trip to the Botanical gardens was hosted by Lady Fergus, Director of the National Trust of Montserrat, who showed us a short film detailing some of the conservation work being undertaken in collaboration with the RSPB, Kew Gardens, London Zoo and the Durrell Foundation on Jersey. Work that seeks to protect the environment where endangered species such as the Montserrat Oriole and the Mountain Chicken Frog can be found.

Pie, one of the gardeners, took time out to show us the flowers and trees in the collection then climbed a palm tree to harvest coconuts for us, which he promptly and expertly prepared. I was surprised by the taste of the fresh flesh – so different to shop bought fruit.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Lesser Antilles: 1. Antigua & Barbuda

We’re both back in the UK now following our separate travels; June to the Lesser Antilles, Peter to Tanzania.

June, lucky ‘girl’, has had twelve days as a guest of the Tourist Boards of several very beautiful islands in the Caribbean: Antigua & Barbuda, Montserrat and Dominica. She was with a party of tour operators visiting the islands with a view to developing birdwatching tourism and she is now working hard on the details and arrangements for a tour there in 2010 for Avian Adventures.

During the course of a four-day stay on Antigua and Barbuda, the group visited various hotels, restaurants and bars but the majority of the trip was spent visiting birding sites with local guides, Joseph Prosper and Victor Joseph of The Environmental Awareness Group.

One of the main highlights was a day trip by catamaran to Bird Island. This small island has nesting colonies of Sooty and Bridled Terns, Red-billed Tropicbird, Laughing Gulls, Brown Boobies and Brown Noddies. While the rest of the boat’s passengers snorkeled, sunbathed or beach-combed, the birders headed for the cliffs.

Another day was spent on Barbuda, just a 20-minute flight from Antigua. On arrival, there was a sumptuous breakfast at the luxurious Lighthouse Hotel hosted by General Manager, Mr. Mohammed Sallah but soon it was back to business with the rest of the day spent seeking out birds. There was a visit to what is said to be the largest Frigatebird sanctuary in the Western Hemisphere with great opportunities for photography, but the climax of the trip was a sighting of the endemic Barbuda Warbler. Still considered a race of Adelaide’s Warbler in 1991 when this stamp was issued, it was given full species status in 2000.

At the end of the trip and after visits to Montserrat and Dominica, having checked in at the airport for the return flight to the UK, there was time for lunch at the Sticky Wicket restaurant adjacent to the (Sir Allen) Stanford Cricket Ground.

Montserrat and Dominica to follow...

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Where are our summer migrants?

Where are our summer migrants? That's a question that we've heard on numerous occasions in recent times as every year the numbers of birds returning to the UK to breed seems to reduce. Several species that were once very common are now hard to find. Here in Staffordshire, Spotted Flycatcher, Pied Flycatcher, Turtle Dove, Yellow Wagtail, Ring Ouzel and Cuckoo are just some of the species that have suffered serious declines.

European Turtle Dove

So what's happened to them? Well, there's probably no one simple answer to that question but we're pleased to see that the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has launched a project to try and find out, species by species, just what is going wrong. Details of this and the Out of Africa Appeal for funds to finance it can be found on their website and this is surely a cause that everyone with any interest in birds should be willing to support.

The BTO is already well-placed to monitor bird populations through its Nest Record Scheme, Constant Effort ringing, the Breeding Bird Survey, BirdTrack and other studies. But these are concerned only with the UK and many of the problems faced by migrant birds are, of course, in their wintering areas and on their migration routes. The BTO plans now to get involved, jointly with RSPB and other organisations across Europe to support conservation in West Africa and to carry out survey work in countries such as Ghana where so many migrant birds spend the winter.

Pied Flycatcher

Climate change and shifting weather patterns and habitat loss both in the UK and Africa are no doubt major issues affecting most species; for some, hunting and trapping in southern Europe will be having an effect. However, it does seem to us that the catastrophic decline in insect food is the most obvious factor that presents a problem to all birds. It was five years ago that the RSPB organised its Big Bug Count to see how many insects crashed to their doom on vehicle number plates but there was no previous data with which to make a comparison. Maybe there are plans for a repeat survey. In the meantime, surely anyone who has been involved for any length of time in the study of insects, in moth trapping, for instance, will tell you that numbers of insects have declined dramatically, even over the past 20 years. Maybe the question we should be asking is: Where are our flies, butterflies, grasshoppers and moths?