Friday, December 10, 2010

Into the Heart of East Africa

Reminiscing about Africa in a blizzard in Montana -

We departed Dar es Salaam in the morning on a flight bound for the Arusha airport, a small facility southwest of the city. Kilimanjaro rose above the clouds to the north as we approached our destination. When we arrived at the airport we wound up waiting for our driver Eric and the vehicle (who had departed from Dar the night before - about an eight hour drive. The logistics of the trip were sometimes difficult to figure out). While we were waiting Steve and I managed to get out in the parking area near the small terminal for arrivals and found a Pied Crow, Lilac-breasted Roller, and African Pied Wagtail. I am sure there were more birds to be found but once again we were thwarted by security. Apparently the wooded area next to the airport was a prison and we were asked not to use our binoculars and camera in the area.
After our drivers arrived we headed in our separate directions. We had originally thought we would spend the night in Arusha, but plans had changed and we were instructed to proceed to the tented camp we were to call home for the next couple of weeks.
Driving is Africa was an experience. It was my first experience driving on the left side of the road and on top of that it was my first experience with the sharing the road free-for-all with pedestrians, donkey carts, motorcycles, large trucks and anything else that wanted to use the road to get from one place to another. First we had to get through Arusha, a rather sprawling mass of structures and people with apparently only one road to get from one side of the city to the other. After traversing the city we spent another hour or so on a fairly well paved road as we skirted the west side of Kilimanjaro heading north towards the border with Kenya before we hit the unpaved section.
We arrived in Tanzania at the end of the dry season and it was dry. The roads were very dusty and bumpy and I felt sorry for the people walking along the road as we went by in a cloud of dust. Even going through small villages we barely slowed down as everyone (and everything) scrambled to get out of the roadway.
It was also a birders hell. A brand new county, new landscape, new birds, and I was flying through it help bent to get to our destination. I knew that I would need to keep my "lets stop and look at that bird" credits for later so I tried to identify what I could and gritted my teeth as unknown bird after bird passed by in a cloud of dust.
I did manage to identify a few larger species though. There was a Augur Buzzard perched in a low bush next to the road, a flock of Cattle Egrets in a field along the road, Yellow-necked Spurfowl scattering off the road edges, and Helmeted Guineafowl in nearby fields. The countryside was brown and dry except for the remaining forests on the slopes of Kilimanjaro that I could see up-slope from the road.

Augur Buzzard

Helmeted Guineafowl

We arrived at the Elerai Tented Camp, also known as Kambi Ya Tembo (Elephant Camp) in the afternoon. Elerai is the Maasai name for a type of yellow bark Acacia tree which are found in the area.

The camp is situated at the crest of a long ridge (my tent was the small tent to the right of the main lodge).

The main lodge, where all the meals were served, is a large open structure with a steep thatched roof.

There are couches for relaxing and tables where we dined. Most nights I was entertained by the bats snagging insects from around the lamps and the toads calling in the pond.

Turning around and looking east at the entrance to the main lodge often produced good views of Mount Kilimanjaro.

The back of the main lodge looks out over the plains of West Kilimanjaro.

The main lodge is perched at the edge of the ridge and perched just below the main floor is a shallow concrete lined pool.

When we arrived I was greeting by the wonderful staff and a small group of White-bellied Go-away-bird.

The most common birds at the camp were a variety of finches and pigeons.

There was a pair of Specked Pigeons living in the rafters under the main lodge.

Ring-necked Doves,

African Mourning Doves,

Emerald-spotted Wood-Doves (above) and Laughing Doves were common, usually perched in the trees near the shallow pool, waiting tor their turn at the water.

The most common bird around the lodge though were the Red-billed Quealeas. There were hundreds of birds coming to the water each evening. They all perched in the nearby trees and when the time was right they descended en mass to the water.

The leading edge of descending birds would rush to the waters edge, grab a quick drink, then return to the trees, followed in quick order by the next wave of birds. This continued until the birds were disturbed or all the birds had gotten their fill.

Other finches around the lodge included African Silverbills.

Chestnut Finches

Crimson-rumped Waxbills

Gray-headed Silverbills

Cut-throat Finches

Since it was the end of the dry season, many of the birds were in their non-breeding plumage, which led to some identification problems.

This species was interspersed with the Red-billed Queleas. I believe that is it a Cardinal Quelea.

The same species as above.

I think that this is a House Sparrow

Another House Sparrow?

And then there is this waxbill. I am not sure exactly what it is but as near as I can figure it is a variation of a Crimson-rumped Waxbill?

This was the scene most nights at camp. A beautiful sunset with the trees filled with queleas and pigeons.


Camera Trap Codger said...

What an experience, and what classy birds! (Have you read "A good man in Africa" or Meinertzhagen's "Kenya Diary"?)

Mark Churchill said...

Beautiful pictures, especially the finches. I think you've already got your mystery waxbill solved: a crimson-rumped, juvenile. Most of the true waxbills and their close relations the firefinches develop the brightly coloured bills as they mature.

Cat Urbigkit said...

Beautiful images, great post.

Radd Icenoggle said...

As CBC season comes upon us, and I start to think about frozen toes and (fingers crossed) a rarity or two, I am really enjoying these posting about your trip to the Dark Continent.

John Carlson said...

Thanks everyone. Nice to know you all are still stopping by. More soon as long as Cat promised to tell more stories about her trip to Spain.
Thanks for the ID thoughts on the waxbill Mark. I figured that was what it probably was but wanted to see if others had more definitive thoughts than me. Chris, I haven't read either and will be sure to look them up. Always love good book recommendations.
Have fun on the CBC Radd. I am using these posts to warm up a bit too.