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Migration in Tanzania

In March 2018, we embarked on our first tour Tanzania.  For most of us, seeing the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater was an unfulfilled childhood ambition that became crystalized all these years later! Expectations, therefore, were high and the tour did not disappoint. 

Altogether, we visited five national parks/conservation areas with great experiences and different highlights at each of them.  Arusha National Park, for instance, is the best place in Tanzania to see Quereza Colobus. We were lucky to come across them twice as they foraged in the canopy.  Getting a good view of them was a challenge, but with their long, drooping black and white hair, and disproportionally fluffy tail, they looked very attractive and worth the effort.  Another highlight here was our walk with an armed guide across the African savanna alongside Masai Giraffes.   There were about 20 of them foraging in the open and oblivious of our presence.  It was mesmerising to be so close to them. From the distance, we could see, breaking through the clouds, two of east Africa’s greatest peaks: snow-capped Mt Kilimanjaro (5,895 m) and Mt Meru (4,566 m), adding even greater value to this experience.  The most memorable birding encounter here, was seeing an immature Martial Eagle, ripping apart its freshly caught prey on a branch and watched intensely by us for some time.

Staying at a luxurious tented camp with a view from our own verandas over Lake Manyara spreading beneath the dramatic cliffs of the East African Rift Valley and thousands of foraging flamingos in the distance, was another memorable experience.  During the wet season, these birds inhabit the edges of the lake in flocks of thousands, but they are not present here during the dry season.  An early morning walk with a Masai guide to the edge of Manyara Lake made us realise how lucky we were to be able to witness this enormous gathering that happens here every year.

Tarangire National Park gave us different highlights.  The park is famous for its high concentration of African Elephants and indeed we came across wandering herds quite frequently.  One encounter was particularly memorable, when Elephants were next to our vehicle, almost within touching distance. As much as it was an exhilarating, it was also a hair-raising experience because of the proximity of these huge beasts to our vehicle.  The park was dominated by the Acacia woodland, but in places, it thinned out slightly, giving way to open thornveld, interspersed with magnificent Baobab trees.  Birding here was very rewarding, with our first colourful Splendid Starling, which we could not stop photographing.  How little did we know, that later it became one of the most frequently seen birds on the trip. Von der Decken’s Hornbill, Ashy Starling (a local endemic), the colourful Red-and-white Barbet, White-headed Buffalo-Weaver, African Orange-bellied Parrot, Yellow-collared Lovebird and a cute Pygmy Falcon, were all admired by us, but there were two birding experiences that we will remember the most.  Seeing an African Harrier-Hawk invading a Superb Starlings’ nest and stealing a chick, before flying away with it to a nearby tree, was truly memorable.  The Starlings chased it all the way, but to no avail. As sad as it was, we were pleased to witness the whole event unfold in front of us.  The highlight though was on our way out of the park, when we suddenly saw five Southern Ground Hornbills, each holding a mouth-full of litter.  They were all spread out and standing either on the ground, tree trunks or a termite mound. Seeing these birds in small groups is not uncommon because they live in social groups of about two to eight individuals, with cooperative breeding and care for the offspring.  Unfortunately, we were pressed for time and had to leave before, no doubt, witnessing some action.

Our tour was designed to coincide with the migration of Blue Wildebeests. Every year, between January and March, some 1.3 million Blue Wildebeest and thousands of Plain Zebras and Thompson’s Gazelles congregate in the Serengeti to give birth, creating one of the greatest wildlife spectacles. At this time of the year, the animals wander between the southern Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, slowly moving towards the central Serengeti, following the best grazing conditions and water. We devoted our time between southern and central Serengeti to track down the migratory herds. In the Masai language, the Serengeti means “endless plain”, and indeed vast expanse of beautiful and serene grassland stretches to the horizon.

It was breath-taking to witness an endless stream of Wildebeests and Zebras in numbers that can only be seen on the migration. Some were foraging and spread out as far as we could see; others were flowing across the plain in an orderly manner as they would have done on their annual movement for generations. A lot of them had a youngster by their side, almost all of the same young age, which indicated that they all gave birth at the same time. The calves are easy prey for the predators, and so the latter abound here. We saw Cheetahs, Leopards, Spotted Hyenas, Golden and Black-backed Jackal in good numbers. But, the Lions were the ones that blew our minds, because they seemed to be almost everywhere, and altogether, we saw 37 Lions on our tour! This inevitably attracted a good number of vultures, who waited for an opportunity to feast on leftovers. We watched with great interest in two different locations, an unprecedented number of Rüppell’s Griffon, White-backed and Hooded Vultures attending a dead Elephant and fighting for the best place at the “dinner table”. We also had some ornithological highlights, and these included about 100 Lesser Kestrels taking to the air and indicating that their migration was on, as well as about 30 Yellow Wagtails and up to 100 Ruffs, all foraging vigorously side by side and getting fat reserves for their journey north to the breeding grounds. Birds of prey were particularly well represented, with a total number of 37 species. Montagu’s Harriers and Augur Buzzards were particularly abundant and pleasure to watch but seeing a Secretarybird being chased by a gang of Crowned Plovers and a graceful Long-crested Eagle having a drink at a pool in the middle of the road, were also memorable.

The best was left to last, and indeed the Ngorongoro Crater was mind blowing. The crater forms an oval shaped caldera of an extinct volcano, that occupies an area of 304 km2, making it the largest volcanic caldera on Earth. This enormous caldera is almost flat, and is covered mainly by open short grass plains (with occasional Umbrella Acacia Acacia tortilis and African Myrrh Commiphora africana trees), giving us the opportunity to see wildlife at a distance. The area was lushly green when we were there and, not surprisingly, with such abundance of food, the number of grazing mammals was astonishing. Buffaloes, Blue Wildebeests, Zebras, and Thompson’s Gazelles, in particular, were present in big numbers. But, what was most fascinating was their tolerance of our presence – they all went about their business almost in touching distance from our vehicle. It was wonderful to watch youngsters following every step of their mothers, some still wobbly on their legs, trying to get some milk from their attentive mothers and being guided by the herd. And indeed, the protection was necessary as the predators were abundant here, and according to park’s authorities, 40% of young animals in the Ngorongoro Crater are killed by predators. We were particularly taken by the numbers of Lions that we saw, 20 in total, which represents 31% of their population in the crater. One particular encounter was memorable; we were on our way to the lodge leaving the crater at the end of the last day, when we spotted six youngsters and two adult Lions resting on the top of a hill amongst rocks, overlooking the plain. This on its own would not have been so exiting, but a herd of Zebras was grazing not far from them and one youngster, too adventurous for its own good, broke away from the group. We could see that the Lions were getting alert and fully aware of the prey. Tension was rising, but the Zebras sensed their presence, and the mother nervously guided the youngster back to the group and away. Sadly, we could not continue our observation, because, the day was closing on us and we had to leave.

The crater is also famous for its population of Black Rhinos (50 in total), and we had the opportunity to see them on two occasions. As with mammals, birds were also easily accessible here, and the most memorable encounters have to include a Black-bellied Bustard fully exposed and calling by the side of the road, a Secretary Bird and a Kori Bustard trotting alongside our vehicle in search of prey, numerous Rufous-naped Larks with their distinctive crests, and brightly coloured Rosy-throated Longclaws singing their hearts out and proclaiming their territories, and finally, two Grey Crowned Cranes involved in courtship display, dancing, heads pumping, bowing, jumping and wing flapping.

A non-wildlife attraction included a visit to Oldupai Gorge. This is the most important paleoanthropological site in the world, where hundreds of fossilized bones and stone tools, dating back millions of years, were found and provided evidence of humankind’s ancient ancestors. We listened to an interesting talk by a staff member while overlooking the gorge and browsed through a museum, which depicted the work and findings of earlier expeditions.

Non-birding sightings included, amongst others, a Flag-necked Chameleon, which changed its body colour as it moved from light to dark surrounding, and a fascinating female Spider-hunting Wasp, as it flew around in search of spiders, which she then paralyses and let the larvae to feed upon it. Colourful butterflies were also abundant, including a Diadem (Hypolimnas misippus), Yellow Pansy (Junonia hierta), Citrus Swallowtail (Papilio demodocus), African Golden Arab (Colotis aurigeneus), Soldier Commodore (Junonia terea), Common Smoky Blue (Euchrysops malathana) and Dark Blue Pansy (Junonia oenone), to name just a few.

Plants were not ignored on this trip either and the beautiful Fire Lily (Gloriosa superba) in full bloom, and perhaps, a weird-looking Red Thorn Acacia (Acacia lahai), which with intertwined branches and a broad flat crown in the Ngorongoro Crater, generated most excitement.

We also had two lovely celebrations. Special cakes were made for the occasions and the staff at both localities gave us surprise performances, by singing and dancing around us. Needless to say, the trip would not be the same, without our traditional doses of Amarula on African safaris!

There are numerous memories that will linger with us for ever, but the images of the vast plains of the Serengeti filled with thousands of migratory game and the spectacular Ngorongoro Crater were the best. In addition, the friendliness, attention and care given to us by everybody we came across at various locations was astonishing. However, the unforgettable “Jambo! Jambo!” that was sung to us by the locals almost everywhere we went, added an extra dimension to this memorable trip.

Jambo! Jambo bwana!

Habari gani? Mzuri sana!

Wageni, mwakaribishwa!

Tanzania? Hakuna matata!

For more pictures from Tanzania please look in the Gallery: Birds of Tanzania and Wildlife of  Tanzania.

Trip Report 2018


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Ngorongoro Crater

Blue Wildebeest Migration


Bufallo in Ngorongoro

Thomson's Gazelle

Zebra in Ngorongoro

Blue Wildebeest Migration

Spotted hyena with a prey

Kori Bustard in Ngorongoro

Superb Starling

White-headed Buffalo-Weaver

Von der Decken's Hornbill

Yellow-billed Oxpecker


Citrus Swallowtail

Fire Lily in Ngorongoro