The Ultimate In Birding Tours

Africa

NORTHERN TANZANIA

An extraordinary birding and mammal watching adventure

Wednesday 1st April – Tuesday 14th April 2020

Leaders: Nik Borrow and a local naturalist guide

14 Days Group Size Limit 6
Thursday 1st April – Wednesday 14th April 2021

Leaders: Hannu Jännes and a local naturalist guide

14 Days Group Size Limit 6

NORTHERN TANZANIA: OVERVIEW

Birdquest’s Northern Tanzania birding tours and wildlife watching experiences include the Same plains, the Arusha area, Tarangire National Park and Lake Manyara, as well as the unforgettable Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti plains. Our Northern Tanzania birding tour is not just a wonderful birding tour (turning up a huge bird list in just two weeks), but also an extraordinary mammal-watching experience as well (including Lions, Cheetahs, Leopards, Black Rhinos and many, many others). There are not many birding tours where you can combine finding a series of endemics and other avian specialities with piling up a large bird list and at the same time enjoying one of the world’s greatest wildlife spectacles. Join us on this marvellous African adventure in Tanzania: you are not going to be disappointed!

For birders, Northern Tanzania birding tours offer the chance to happily combine top level African birding, featuring a very rich avifauna that includes a whole series of endemics and other regional specialities, with some extraordinary mammal-watching that just happens to coincide with the best birding route through this marvellous part of the world!

The most awesome wildlife experience on Earth is most surely to be found in Northern Tanzania. The huge Serengeti National Park and the adjoining, and almost equally famous, Ngorongoro Conservation Area are so remarkable that one cannot do justice to these incredible places in words alone. Over two million large mammals live in this immense African wilderness that has miraculously survived, thanks to the remarkable understanding of the people of Tanzania, who, despite all the pressures upon them, have kept faith with the vision of the park’s founders. The vast herds still circulate across the Serengeti in the same way as they did when Man’s earliest ancestor’s walked these very plains, followed by their attendant carnivores in a cycle of life that has continued unbroken for millions of years. How incredible that we can still say this about any place on Earth in the 21st century, when so much of our planet has been changed out of all recognition!

During our Northern Tanzania birding and wildlife tour we shall travel through this magnificent region with a really fine driver-guide who is a great companion as well as an endlessly patient and accomplished individual who will make sure we really do have ‘the experience of a lifetime’. We will travel in a 4×4 Land Rover or Toyota Landcruiser that has been specially adapted for safari work, with a large roof hatch that make observation and photography easy. These vehicles are a huge improvement on the safari minibuses still used by some bird tours, being more comfortable, more spacious (with a much larger opening in the roof) and better able to cope with any difficult road conditions. They cost a lot more than a minibus, and this must be reflected in the tour price, but we have never met anyone who did not consider these excellent vehicles as worth every extra penny!

The awesome gathering of wildebeest (or gnus) and zebras on the shortgrass plains of the southeastern Serengeti in Tanzania occurs between January and April each year, while much of the local birdlife comes into breeding plumage in March and April. For birdwatchers, March/April is absolutely the time to visit the area. There is simply no comparison with the other months of the year.

Our journey will first take us to the dry bush country of the Pare plains. Here we shall be wanting to find White-headed Mousebird, Scaly Chatterer, Pringle’s Puffback and Tsavo (Purple-banded) Sunbird, as well as a marvellous selection of more widespread dry country birds typical of this part of East Africa.

In the region surrounding Arusha, in the shadow of the two great volcanoes, Meru and Kilimanjaro, we will look for a variety of forest birds (some of which we will not see further west), see the restricted-range Taveta Golden Weaver and visit the dry bush plains towards the Kenyan border, home to the extremely rare and very range-restricted endemic Beesley’s (or Pygmy Spike-heeled) Lark, before we head further west.

Next we will explore the thornbush and baobab country of Tarangire National Park, home to large numbers of African Savanna Elephants, endemic Yellow-collared Lovebirds and Ashy Starlings, and restricted-range Northern Pied Babblers and Pangani Longclaws, and so much else besides.

We will break the journey to the Crater Highlands with a stop at Lake Manyara National Park, spectacularly situated at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley. Famous for its waterbird spectacle, Manyara also holds a good selection of large mammals.

These areas will, however, provide just a foretaste of the glories to come, for our next destination is the spectacular Ngorongoro Crater, both a scenic and a wildlife wonder of the world. Here we will have some thrilling close encounters of the animal kind, as most mammals in the crater are extraordinarily unafraid of vehicles, and some great birding. Pride of place here goes to the critically endangered Black Rhinoceros, but other stars include Kori and Black-bellied Bustards, flocks of pink flamingoes and some marvellous Hippos.

After this wonderful experience we will descend from the Crater Highlands into the endless plains of the southeastern Serengeti. We shall be visiting the area at the prime season, when the rains have usually turned the entire area from a parched thirstland into a green paradise that attracts over a million large mammals, the great majority being Serengeti White-bearded Wildebeest, Plains (or Burchell’s) Zebras and Serengeti Thomson’s Gazelles, to the shortgrass plains. Here we will be based first in the south-central part of Serengeti National Park and finally in the famous Lake Ndutu area, probably the finest Serengeti wildlife area of them all.

As well as being a fantastic experience in its own right (chatting round the campfire under African skies, quite possibly with Lions roaring in the distance, is something one never forgets!), being based in these remote areas will get us right in amongst a fabulous selection of birds, including such specialities as Grey-breasted Spurfowl, Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, Fischer’s Lovebird, Tanzanian Red-billed Hornbill, White-tailed Lark, Karamoja Apalis, Grey-crested Helmetshrike and Rufous-tailed Weaver, and some amazing mammals, including such dramatic and highly photogenic subjects as Lion, Leopard and the incomparable Cheetah, never mind a sea of wildebeest (or gnus) and zebras.

The rich bird and mammal life of the Serengeti is awesome enough, but the whole experience is made even more special by the amazingly beautiful scenery, with dramatic cloudscapes and sunsets, seas of bright green and tawny grass, those evocative flat-topped acacia trees, and granite kopjes and distant mountain ridges rising above the plains.

By the time we end our Tanzanian odyssey we will have seen so many avian, large mammal and scenic wonders that it will be hard to appreciate that all this has happened to us in just two weeks! Our Northern Tanzania birding tour will produce vivid, unfading memories that one will treasure for the rest of one’s days.

Birdquest has operated Northern Tanzania birding tours since 1983.

What makes the Birdquest Northern Tanzania birding tour special? The high quality way to go on a birding or mammal watching safari in Tanzania is to use specially modified and extended 4×4 vehicles, either Toyota Landcruisers or Landrovers, with large opening roof hatches. These vehicles make the safari experience so much more comfortable.

The cheaper alternative, used by some Tanzania birding tour operators (who can as a result reduce per person costs by up to US$800 for a safari of this length), is to put folk into small minibuses (passenger vans) that will have significantly less space and a much less comfortable ride on bumpy dirt roads (these are a fact of life on any Tanzanian safari). Furthermore, the minibuses used either have no 4×4 capability or a more limited capability than proper ‘off road’ vehicles like Landcruisers, so they can struggle to pass muddy or rutted sections of road (conditions regularly present in Tanzania). If you see a Tanzania birding tour description and it does not clearly specify that you will be travelling in a Landcruiser or Landrover 4×4, check with the tour operator in case they are going to have you travel in a minibus! In our opinion that tempting reduction in the tour price comes at a very high cost in terms of client comfort.

Tour Intensity: Northern Tazania is an easy grade tour. There is almost no nightbirding/night game driving (most parks do not allow it), there is no need to get up unusually early as the sites are mostly close to the accommodations, accommodations are generally very comfortable and there are no tiring, unusually long journeys. In addition, as there is also so much wildlife and nature to see, this is a good tour for partners who might not find a more intense birding tour to their liking.

Accommodation & Road Transport: The lodges and safari camps used in Tanzania are of good or very good standard almost throughout. For one night at Same the lodge is simple but comfortable. Road transport is by specially adapted Landrover or Toyota Landcruiser 4×4 vehicles with opening roof hatch. Main roads are mostly good or reasonable (but there are also plenty of rough tracks in the sanctuaries and some ‘off-road’ driving).

Walking: The walking effort is easy throughout our Northern Tanzania birding tour. Walking is restricted to a limited number of specified areas in the national parks/game reserves. This is of little hindrance and indeed we can approach many large birds and mammals far more closely in a vehicle than we could on foot.

Climate: Typically, it will be warm or hot, dry and sunny for much of the time in Tanzania, but overcast conditions are fairly frequent and there will be some rain. At higher altitudes temperatures are cool to warm.

Bird/Mammal Photography: Opportunities during our Northern  Tanzania birding tour are outstanding.


PRICE INFORMATION

Birdquest Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.

We also include all tipping for local guides, drivers and accommodation/restaurant staff.

Deposit: £580, $750, €650.

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates and deposit amount)

 


2020: £5220, $6790, €6040. Kilimanjaro/Kilimanjaro.
2021: provisional: £5300, $6890, €6130. Kilimanjaro/Kilimanjaro.

Single Supplement: 2020: £390, $510, €450.
Single Supplement: 2021: £390, $510, €450.

This supplement will not apply if you indicate on booking that you prefer to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available.

This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

NORTHERN TANZANIA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY

Northern Tanzania: Day 1  Our tour begins this morning at Kilimanjaro airport.

(There are some intercontinental flights directly into Kilimanjaro or you can fly into Tanzania via such cities as Nairobi or Dar-es-Salaam. If your arrival flight is not convenient for the tour start, we can arrange overnight accommodation for you at a comfortable lodge immediately outside the airport. The same applies for your departure from Kilimanjaro.)

Providing the weather is clear, we should see the majestic peak of Mount Kilimanjaro rising high above the plain. From here we will drive south-eastwards to Same for an overnight stay, commencing our ‘dry bush country’ birding this afternoon. The presence of a large reservoir adds diversity to the birdlife.

Northern Tanzania: Day 2  This morning we shall continue to explore the dry, hot, bush country of the Pare plains. Here, happily for us, we face no restrictions on having to stay in our vehicles, which makes looking for some species distinctly easier.

In particular we shall be hoping to find a number of restricted-range specialities, including the amazing-looking but localized White-headed Mousebird and Tsavo (Purple-banded) Sunbird, as well as the furtive Scaly Chatterer and Pringle’s Puffback.

The thick acacia scrub should be alive with birds this morning. Comical-looking White-bellied Go-away Birds and Northern Red-billed, Von Der Decken’s and African Grey Hornbills perch up prominently. Glittering Eastern Violet-backed, Hunter’s, Variable and Beautiful Sunbirds should be easy to find as they flit from one flowering bush to another. (The local form of Beautiful Sunbird is sometimes split as Gorgeous Sunbird.) Pink-breasted Larks, Zanzibar Sombre Greenbuls, White-browed Scrub Robins and Northern White-crowned Shrikes should also be found perched in the larger bushes and small trees, while the branches of the larger acacias are regularly inspected by roving Abyssinian Scimitarbills. Spotted Palm Thrushes sing joyfully and the loud calls of Slate-coloured Boubous sound from the depths of the thickets, while Red-fronted Tinkerbirds ‘poop’ away, even through the heat of the day. Beautiful Blue-capped Cordon-bleus and Purple Grenadiers search for food beneath these same bushes.

We also have a good chance of finding such desirable species as the striking African Bare-eyed Thrush, Pygmy Batis, the distinctive cathemagmena form of the Rosy-patched Bushshrike, the incredible Golden-breasted Starling, Southern Grosbeak-Canary and Somali (Golden-breasted) Bunting. If conditions are right then we may also see Straw-tailed and Steel-blue Whydahs in breeding plumage, and we will keep an eye open for Fire-fronted Bishop, an irruptive and irregularly seen species that is occasionally found here.

Additional species that we can hope to find during this action-packed visit to the Same region include Pink-backed Pelican, Reed (or Long-tailed) and White-breasted Cormorants, Western Cattle, Little and Great Egrets, Black, Squacco, Striated (or Green-backed) and Grey Herons, Marabou, Yellow-billed and Woolly-necked Storks, Sacred and Glossy Ibises, African Spoonbill, White-faced and Fulvous Whistling Ducks, Egyptian Goose, Red-billed Teal, Western Osprey, Eastern Chanting Goshawk, Common and Augur Buzzards, African Fish Eagle, Tawny and Long-crested Eagles, Lanner Falcon, African Jacana, Water Thick-knee, Black-winged Stilt, Blacksmith and Spur-winged Lapwings, Kittlitz’s Plover, Common Greenshank, Ruff, Wood and Common Sandpipers, Grey-headed Gull, Gull-billed, White-winged and Whiskered Terns, Emerald-spotted Wood Dove, Namaqua, Red-eyed, Ring-necked and Laughing Doves, Red-bellied (or African Orange-bellied) Parrot, White-browed Coucal, African Palm and Little Swifts, Blue-naped Mousebird, Grey-headed and Pied Kingfishers, European and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, European and Rufous-crowned Rollers, Green Wood Hoopoe, Black-throated, D’Arnaud’s and Red-and-yellow Barbets, and Nubian Woodpecker.

Passerines include African Pied and Blue-headed Wagtails, African (or Grassland) Pipit, Barn and Lesser Striped Swallows, Dodson’s Bulbul, Northern Brownbul, Northern and Isabelline Wheatears, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, Spotted and African Grey Flycatchers, Eastern Olivaceous and Upcher’s Warblers, Winding, Rattling and Ashy Cisticolas, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Grey Wren-Warbler, Yellow-breasted Apalis (here of the ‘Brown-tailed Apalis’ song type), Red-fronted Warbler, Northern and Red-faced Crombecs, Abyssinian White-eye (the form here is sometimes split as Pale Scrub White-eye), Mouse-coloured Penduline Tit, Isabelline Shrike, Long-tailed Fiscal, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Fork-tailed Drongo, Pied Crow, Superb and Wattled Starlings, Yellow-spotted Petronia, White-headed Buffalo Weaver, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Chestnut, Vitelline Masked, Lesser Masked and Black-necked Weavers, Red-billed Quelea, Red-billed Firefinch, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Black-faced Waxbill, Green-winged Pytilia, African Silverbill, Village Indigobird, Pin-tailed Whydah, Reichenow’s (or Kenya Yellow-rumped) Seedeater and White-bellied Canary.

Afterwards we will drive back past Kilimanjaro to the Arusha area for an overnight stay. Our hotel is delightfully situated amongst coffee plantations and vegetable gardens in the verdant country at the foot of Mount Meru (4565m).

A visit to a nearby forested lake should produce the restricted-range Taveta Golden Weaver and Grey-olive Greenbul, as well as more widespread species such as Little Grebe, the noisy Hadada Ibis, Common Moorhen, Tambourine Dove, Red-chested Cuckoo, the superb African Emerald Cuckoo, Brown-hooded and perhaps Giant Kingfishers, Speckled Mousebird, Silvery-cheeked, Trumpeter and Crowned Hornbills, Brown-breasted and White-eared Barbets, Little Greenbul, the lovely Rüppell’s Robin-Chat, White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher, Grey-backed Camaroptera, African Paradise Flycatcher, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Tropical Boubou, Black-backed Puffback, Northern Fiscal, Red-winged Starling, Olive, Collared, Amethyst and Bronze Sunbirds, the stout Thick-billed (or Grosbeak) Weaver, and Village, Baglafecht and Spectacled Weavers, as well as the attractive Sykes’s Monkey and perhaps the fabulously shaggy Guereza Colobus monkey.

Northern Tanzania: Day 3  Before dawn we may locate the attractive African Wood Owl and, if we are fortunate, the delightful Garnett’s Greater (or Small-eared) Galago (one of the bush babies) close to our lodge before we head off to some open grassy plains not far from Arusha in search of the highly localized Beesley’s (or Pygmy Spike-heeled) Lark. This Tanzanian form is so geographically isolated from the range of the Spike-heeled Lark in Southern Africa that it is no surprise that genetic studies have shown it deserves specific status. This is wonderful lark habitat and we should also encounter Rufous-naped, Foxy, Red-capped, Athi Short-toed and Short-tailed Larks, and Fischer’s Sparrow-Lark. Also frequenting the area are Lanner Falcon, Crowned Lapwing, African (or Grassland) Pipit, the interesting goodsoni form of the Plain-backed Pipit (which is sometimes included in Buffy Pipit, but which may represent a distinct species), Isabelline Wheatear and the smart Capped Wheatear. Careful searching should turn up Temminck’s Courser.

Nearby are extensive areas of thornbush where we could well find such species as Banded Parisoma, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Brubru, Greater Blue-eared Starling, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Kenya (Rufous) Sparrow and the smart Grey-capped Social Weaver. Along the highway from Arusha, we should encounter our first Yellow-billed Kites, Speckled Pigeons and White-fronted Bee-eaters.

Afterwards we will bypass the bustling city of Arusha and then head westwards, first through rolling, partly cultivated landscapes and then through steadily drier bush country, until we reach Tarangire National Park. Here we will spend two nights at a comfortable game lodge. The park protects a huge swathe of acacia savanna and thornbush country in northern Tanzania. The gigantic baobab trees that tower above the thornbush are a very attractive feature of Tarangire, and something that will be completely missing once we travel further west.

Northern Tanzania: Day 4  Tarangire has a rich and diverse avifauna, but the prime specialities here are two Tanzania endemics, Ashy Starling and Yellow-collared Lovebird, both of which are common, as well as the restricted-range Northern Pied Babbler.

As we explore the national park, Common Ostriches stride across the open areas and noisy Helmeted Guineafowl, Coqui and Crested Francolins, and Red-necked and Yellow-necked Spurfowls scuttle away from the roadsides. Raptors are numerous and may well include Black-winged Kite, White-backed, Rüppell’s and Lappet-faced Vultures, Black-chested and Brown Snake Eagles, the seemingly tailless, acrobatic Bateleur, Gabar Goshawk, Steppe Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle and the small but fierce Pygmy Falcon. Colourful Lilac-breasted Rollers and Magpie Shrikes scan for insects from prominent perches.

One of the most impressive species of the area is the Southern Ground Hornbill and we are likely to see these huge, ground-feeding birds stalking along right beside the road or flying heavily up to a convenient tree branch.

Amongst the many other species we should encounter in this part of Tanzania are Hamerkop, Knob-billed Duck, Senegal Lapwing, Three-banded Plover, Green Sandpiper, Black-faced Sandgrouse, Mourning Collared Dove, Meyer’s (or Brown) Parrot, Bare-faced Go-away Bird (the local form is sometimes split as Black-faced Go-away-bird), Common Cuckoo, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Mottled Spinetail, Mottled Swift, Striped Kingfisher, Little Bee-eater, African Hoopoe, Eastern Grey Woodpecker, Flappet Lark (a bird that gives itself away by its far-carrying purring wing-beat sound), Red-rumped and Mosque Swallows, Pangani Longclaw, Arrow-marked Babbler, Willow Warbler, Brown-crowned Tchagra, African Black-headed Oriole, Red-billed Oxpecker, Swahili Sparrow, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Golden-backed and Red-headed Weavers, the smart Black Bishop, the equally fancy Pin-tailed Whydah, the showy Long-tailed (or Eastern) Paradise Whydah and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting.

With a little luck we will come across two or three of the scarcer denizens of the park, which include Hartlaub’s Bustard, Dusky Nightjar, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Collared Palm Thrush, Rock Cisticola, Pale Wren-Warbler and the strange Cuckoo-finch (or Parasitic Weaver).

Tarangire is a superb place for seeing African Savanna Elephants, often at very close range. We are likely to come across some standing quietly amongst the tall grass, motionless apart from the slow flapping of those huge ears and those slowly chomping jaws, as yet more grass disappears into those gigantic stomachs, while at other times a party may lumber across the road in front of us or make their way slowly across the glistening shallows of the Tarangire River. Yes, this is what Africa is all about!

At this time of year the rains have turned Tarangire green and the lush growth of grass provides a bonanza for the local mammals. As well as many elephants, we can also expect to see Plains (or Burchell’s) Zebra, Cape (or African) Buffalo, Thomas’s Dik-Dik, Ellipsen Waterbuck, Grant’s Gazelle, the graceful Impala and Eastern White-bearded Wildebeest. Olive Baboons wander into the tracks, confident that they have the right of way, and cheeky Vervet Monkeys can be a hazard at any of the viewpoints where visitors can leave their vehicles – ever ready to leap down from the trees and run off with the best of the picnic. Other likely mammals include Unstriped Ground Squirrel and Dwarf Mongoose.

We may be able to make a night drive during our stay. Regular sightings include Slender-tailed Nightjar, the strange Spring Hare and White-tailed Mongoose. There is even a very slim chance of sighting an Aardvark.

Northern Tanzania: Day 5  After some final exploration in Tarangire we will cross the Great Rift Valley to Lake Manyara National Park. The unusual groundwater forest at Manyara holds Purple-crested Turaco, Ashy Flycatcher and often other species of interest. We will also be able to see a selection of waterbirds, including Great White Pelican, Intermediate (or Yellow-billed) Egret, Purple Heron, the huge Goliath Heron, the colourful Saddle-billed Stork, Spur-winged Goose, Hottentot Teal, the beautiful Long-toed Lapwing, Little Stint,  and Curlew and Marsh Sandpipers, plus Brown-throated (Sand) Martin. In the distance are vast numbers of flamingoes.

After leaving Lake Manyara we shall climb up a spectacular escarpment, with wonderful views out across the vast shimmering expanse of the lake and its fringing groundwater forest, and then travel through the rich agricultural lands and forests of the Crater Highlands of Tanzania before reaching the Karatu area for an overnight stay. We may see Montane Nightjar this evening.

Northern Tanzania: Day 6  Today we will ascend the Crater Highlands until we will reach the Ngorongoro Crater itself, where we will stay for two nights. The beautifully-constructed, luxurious game lodge where we will stay is carefully built into the rim of the crater and offers awesome views. Gazing down from the observation areas, one can see the entire crater laid out below one like a map, and even make out distant elephants, rhinos and herds of antelopes and buffalos!

Many interesting birds, including a number of montane forest species, can be seen in the lodge grounds or elsewhere on the largely forested rim and outer flanks of the Ngorongoro Crater, including Hildebrandt’s Francolin, Olive Pigeon, Schalow’s Turaco, African Cuckoo, African Black and Nyanza Swifts, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, Common Scimitarbill, Moustached Green Tinkerbird, Common House Martin, Black Saw-wing, Tree Pipit, Mountain Greenbul, African Stonechat, Cape Robin-Chat, Abyssinian (or Mountain) Thrush, the skulking Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Red-faced, Hunter’s and Lynes’s Cisticolas, Brown-headed and Bar-throated Apalises, Grey-capped Warbler, Brown Parisoma, African Dusky Flycatcher, Montane White-eye (the form here is sometimes split as Mbulu White-eye), Black-crowned Tchagra, Waller’s Starling, gorgeous Variable, Eastern Double-collared, Tacazze, Golden-winged and Malachite Sunbirds, Speke’s Weaver, the striking Yellow Bishop, Jackson’s Widowbird (with its fascinating and distinctly amusing bouncing display), the almost equally impressive Red-collared Widowbird, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Yellow-crowned Canary, Southern (or East African) Citril and Streaky Seedeater.

We should also see two or three of the more difficult species, which include Mountain Buzzard, Brown-backed Woodpecker, Brown Woodland and Mountain Yellow Warblers, the dainty White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, the colourful Black-fronted Bushshrike (a bird with a truly extraordinarily ‘song’) and the attractive Oriole-Finch. Mammals are rather hard to find, for a change, but we should come across the attractive Blue Monkey.

Northern Tanzania: Day 7  Even without its extraordinary wildlife, Ngorongoro Crater would be a very special place, for this is one of the scenic wonders of the world. The immense caldera is over 16 kilometres across, covers over 260 square kilometres and is over 600m deep!

Some 30,000 large mammals are resident in the area and they can be seen speckling the grasslands from the crater rim. Montane forest covers the rim, but the floor is predominantly grassland, although there are patches of woodland, lakes, swamps and rivers. The sides of the caldera are steep, with precipitous cliffs in places, restricting the flow of large mammals into and out of the area.

This morning we shall descend from the rim by way of a tortuous mountain road. Early in the morning there is often a sea of mist covering the crater floor, with just the rim catching the first rays of the sun – an incredibly beautiful sight. And down there, below that cotton wool blanket, so much wonder awaits us! The commonest and most conspicuous large mammals are Serengeti White-bearded Wildebeest, Plains (or Burchell’s) Zebra, Grant’s and Serengeti Thomson’s Gazelles, the ugly but amusing Common Warthog, Cape (or African) Buffalo and African Savanna Elephant, indeed most of these are hard to get away from as big herds of zebras, wildebeest (or gnus), gazelles and buffalos are constantly meandering across the crater floor as they feast on the bountiful grass of the long rains.

Ngorongoro is one of the most reliable places in the world for seeing the endangered Black (or Browse) Rhinoceros, mainly because they have nowhere they can easily hide (and neither do poachers!), and we shall enjoy some marvellous views of these magnificent leviathans, perhaps at close range. The crater also has a high predator population. Spotted Hyaenas and Black-backed Jackals are quite common, whilst the local Lions are often both approachable and highly photogenic.

Towards the southern end of the crater is Lake Magadi, a shallow soda lake with glistening salt flats at its periphery. Here, if conditions are right, thousands of Greater and Lesser Flamingoes slowly sift for brine shrimps in the shallow water and the lake’s margins provide a resting place for flocks of White Storks and feeding places for Cape Teal.

At this time of year we may find the intra-African migrant Abdim’s Stork feeding amongst the incredibly green, wildflower-spattered grasslands, while other birds in this habitat or amongst the beautiful, yellow-barked ‘fever trees’ (a kind of Acacia) include Black-headed Heron, the huge Martial Eagle, the lovely Grey Crowned Crane, the huge Kori Bustard (often to be seen in full display), Black-winged Lapwing, Dusky Turtle Dove, Bearded Woodpecker, Yellow-headed and Grey-headed Wagtails, Banded Martin, Northern Anteater Chat, Winding, Desert and Pectoral-patch Cisticolas, White-naped Raven and Cape Rook. Marshy areas hold Black-crowned Night Heron, the uncommon Black Stork, Yellow-billed Duck, Northern Shoveler, Southern Pochard and Lesser Swamp Warbler. If we keep on checking the Western Marsh Harriers we may come across the attractive African Marsh Harrier.

For the photographer, the crater is a true paradise, for not only are both mammals and large birds very used to vehicles and people, allowing amazingly close approach (almost touching distance at times, which creates quite an impression!), but the wonderful skyscapes and the constantly moving shadows of the clouds on the dappled crater walls produce an incomparable backdrop. No wonder so many of the world’s greatest wildlife photographs and films have been made here!

Northern Tanzania: Day 8  After some final birding at the rim of the Ngorongoro Crater, we will drop down from the Crater Highlands into the shortgrass plains that form the western part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, keeping a lookout for new birds, such as Taita Fiscal, along the way. This is Masai country and from time to time we will encounter these proud cattle herders with their traditional red cloaks and spears (and no doubt some of the young men who nowadays like to dress up and pose for photographs – in return for a consideration!). If some of the great herds are present in the area, which very much depends on the distribution of rain, we could be treated to a first incredible introduction to the Serengeti plains.

Eventually we will enter the Serengeti National Park the pride of Tanzania, as we head for the south-central sector of the park for a three nights stay at yet another wonderfully situated and very comfortable game lodge. As we leave the shortgrass plains behind the landscape changes and we can gaze out over a sea of tall grassland, peppered with acacias along the watercourses and punctuated by hills and kopjes of huge rounded granitic boulders, that stretches away to the far horizon. At this season the cloudscapes are often dramatic, making for some incredibly beautiful sunsets.

Northern Tanzania: Days 9-10  At dawn a low mist often hangs over the Serengeti grasslands, the trees and kopjes projecting above a white blanket, providing us with yet another incredible wilderness scene. In this region of Serengeti there are great expanses of tall, moist grasslands haunted by Harlequin Quail and attractive White-bellied and Black-bellied Bustards and quartered by migrant harriers – Montagu’s, Pallid and Western Marsh, as well as migrating Lesser Kestrels. Here we should also find, the beautiful little Double-banded (or Two-banded) Courser, Black Coucal, Plain-backed and Red-throated Pipits, strikingly-patterned Yellow-throated and Rosy-breasted Longclaws, Fan-tailed and White-winged Widowbirds, the miniscule, whirring Quailfinch and a confusing array of cisticolas including Croaking and Zitting. If we are in luck we will find the secretive Fan-tailed Grassbird.

The miombo woodlands in this area hold two very special birds, Tanzanian (or Ruaha) Red-billed Hornbill, a central Tanzanian endemic that just reaches to this southern part of Serengeti, and the highly localized Grey-crested Helmetshrike, a species restricted to a few areas in northern Tanzania and adjacent Kenya. We should have no problem finding the hornbill and with a little luck a noisy and inquisitive flock of helmetshrikes will come in to investigate our recording. Another very special restricted-range but uncommon speciality of the open country here is Karamoja Apalis, which we will try hard to locate.

At Seronera, location of the park headquarters and one of the original lodges, one of the kopjes has an educational boardwalk snaking amongst the boulders and trees, complete with interesting and unusual metal sculptures of Serengeti creatures. It is a great place for a walk, with many tame birds and Yellow-spotted Hyraxes and Black-necked Rock Hyraxes. Here we should find Buff-bellied Warbler, Red-throated Tit, Marico Sunbird and Green-winged Pytilia, amongst others.

Other birds we should find during our time in the south-central Serengeti include African Harrier-Hawk, Grey Kestrel, Spotted Thick-knee, African Green Pigeon, White-rumped Swift, Woodland Kingfisher, Spot-flanked Barbet, Cardinal Woodpecker, the localized White-tailed Lark, Grey-rumped Swallow, Red-backed Shrike, Grey-backed Fiscal and Black Cuckooshrike.

This is by far the best area in the Serengeti to look for Leopards and, with patient searching, we should be rewarded with great views of one or more individuals resting in a tree in the thin gallery woodland along one of the rivers. There is something special about Leopards – maybe it is those cold eyes looking at one, or those beautiful spots, or that feline grace mixed with sheer power, or how seldom seen they are compared with the diurnal large cats, or all these factors combined!

We may also come across a group of Banded Mongooses living in a termite mound and watch both Wild Cat and the beautiful, lanky Serval Cat stealthily stalking through the grass, while antelopes in this area include Bohor Reedbuck, Kongoni and the even more awkward-looking Serengeti Topi. Small lakes and river pools in the area are home to groups of Hippopotamus and we shall enjoy spending some time watching these huge animals watching us, waggling their ears or rearing up and opening those huge mouths. The noise as they fight, or simply object to being buffeted by their neighbours, is quite indescribable and is something redolent of the African wilds.

As regards the great herds of migratory Serengeti White-bearded Wildebeest and Plains (or Burchell’s) Zebras, we could strike lucky during our time in the south-central region of Serengeti National Park or they could just as likely be largely absent. (Although ‘largely absent’ in this context means present in just thousands rather than tens or hundreds of thousands!) The large herds tend to avoid the tallgrass areas until the shortgrass plains further east are grazed to the limit, for the cover makes life easy for Lions and other predators, but if it is drier than usual they move westwards earlier in the season.

Northern Tanzania: Day 11  After spending part of the day in Serengeti National Park we will cross back into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area on our way to Lake Ndutu, where we will stay for the next three nights. After dinner one can sit around the campfire and chat away under a crystal clear African sky ablaze with stars. Indeed this is the kind of primeval night sky that is now just a distant memory in ‘developed’ countries, but almost unchanged from the one which our earliest ancestors gazed upon and began to wonder about. We may well hear the throaty roaring of Lions in the distance – a reminder that here we are not the masters.

Northern Tanzania: Days 12-13  Lake Ndutu is situated right on the border between the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park. At this time of year the Ndutu area can be the most exciting place in the Serengeti and thus in Tanzania. Over one million grazing mammals stream into the shortgrass plains, providing there is enough rain to cause the grass to grow, occurring at a density of many thousand per square kilometre in places, or even tens of thousands! If there is a drought in the area most move elsewhere, but if conditions are right these plains literally seethe with ungulates – mainly Serengeti White-bearded Wildebeest (which will have calved earlier in the year, and so will now be accompanied by numerous youngsters), but also huge numbers of Plains (or Burchell’s) Zebras and Serengeti Thomson’s Gazelles. As long as conditions are suitable (and they do vary from year to year), we should enjoy some amazing experiences here as our vehicles drive right amongst these vast gatherings of large animals until we are completely surrounded and look out over a sea of large mammals that may even stretch away to the horizon – a truly awesome sight. The constant grunting of the gnus and the braying of the zebras, and the constant motion of the accompanying Western Cattle Egrets and Wattled Starlings as they try to keep up with the herds, add something special to this most African of experiences.

Predators are of course attracted to such a wealth of potential food and we should encounter Lions, perhaps a whole pride trotting along on the edge of a herd, which will part to let them through, or lolling around with full bellies like huge domestic cats. Ungainly but powerful Spotted Hyaenas, less lovely but curiously impressive nonetheless, will also be seen regularly, and both they and the Lions typically allow one to get amazingly close. Here also, feeding on carrion or small mammals, are Common Jackals and delightful Bat-eared Foxes, while Cape Hares and sometimes even a Honey Badger may be disturbed amongst the sea of grass.

One of the best of all our experiences in this fantastic place will be a hunt for the glory of the Serengeti plains, the incomparable Cheetah. For the best chance of success we will set off early and drive far from the nearest road. Here the grass is long enough to give some cover to predators, but not much. By careful scanning we should locate Cheetahs hunting in this area and we will try to spend some time with them, perhaps watching them stalking gazelles or even witnessing a kill. The sheer speed with which the chase begins and ends, for it is all over in about 15 seconds, is breathtaking and, harsh as it seems to us, all part of the natural pattern of life here on the plains. These graceful animals are quite fearless of vehicles and so we may enjoy some extraordinary close encounters and with a bit of luck we will be entirely alone as we follow these marvellous creatures across their ancestral lands. The lodges in the Serengeti plains are so widely spaced that, although in some popular areas one regularly encounters other vehicles, it is possible to escape into more rarely visited places where we shall feel as if we are in the midst of our own immense private game reserve.

If we can leave early enough, we may well see the wallaby-like, nocturnal Spring Hare bounding across the dry grassland in the pre-dawn. In the woodland, Kirk’s Dik-Diks (surely the most endearing little antelope in Africa, with this form sometimes split as Cavendish’s or Naivasha Dik-Dik) and Scrub Hares are quite common, while the diminutive Steinbuck can also be found. At night, Common (or Small-spotted) Genets can often be encountered.

Birdlife is also rich and varied in the Ndutu area, due to the juxtaposition of grasslands, woodland and two saline lakes, Lake Ndutu and Lake Masek.

Amongst the woodland and scrub the endemic Grey-breasted Spurfowl and the pretty little endemic Fischer’s Lovebird are common, while the endemic Rufous-tailed Weaver is straightforward to find. We should also find Dark Chanting Goshawk, Greater Kestrel, Black-and-white, Great Spotted and Diederik Cuckoos, the impressive Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, Slender-tailed Nightjar, Usambiro Barbet, Wire-tailed Swallow, Black-lored Babbler, Silverbird, Chin-spot Batis, Hildebrandt’s Starling (much less common than Superb), Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Speckle-fronted Weaver and Crimson-rumped Waxbill. At this time of year, when Lesser Masked and Rufous-tailed Weavers will be noisily constructing their nests, many birds are in full breeding plumage, including the star amongst the local seedeaters, the uncommon but striking Steel-blue Whydah.

At the lakes we can drive close to thousands of flamingos and many other waterbirds, including Pied Avocet and Common Ringed and Chestnut-banded Plovers. A visit to a large marsh may turn up Greater Painted-Snipe, as well as some Common Snipe.

Out on the shortgrass plains the avifauna is quite different, and here we will be looking in particular for the very attractive Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, as well as the aptly-named but bizarre-looking Secretarybird, Hooded and White-headed Vultures, Collared Pratincole and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse.

Northern Tanzania: Day 14  After a final opportunity to see yet more wonderful things around Ndutu, we will leave the Serengeti plains behind, feeling both happy and sad. Happy to have seen so much, sad to be leaving it all behind! Before we re-cross the Crater Highlands, we will make a stop at the famous Oldupai (or Olduvai) Gorge, where the Leakey family have discovered so much about our earliest ancestors. Here, at the scenic rim of the gorge, we have another chance to find the hulking Southern Grosbeak-Canary and we could encounter a lingering wintering White-throated Robin (or Irania). Afterwards we will make our way to Kilimanjaro airport. Here, in the late afternoon, our African journey will finally have come to an end and it will be time for some fond farewells to the driver-guide who has looked after us so well and indeed become our friend.

NORTHERN TANZANIA TOUR REPORT 2019

by Nik Borrow

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NORTHERN TANZANIA TOUR REPORT 2018 (I)

by Mark Van Beirs

View Report

NORTHERN TANZANIA TOUR REPORT 2018 (II)

by Nik Borrow

View Report

Other East Africa birding tours by Birdquest include: