Thursday, 4 July 2019

Tarangire National Park; an underrated Tanzanian treasure #2 - birds

Today I want to complete my introduction to the wonderful but under-appreciated Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania which, as I explained in part 1, undeservedly seems to live in the shadow of nearby and better-advertised Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. If you missed the previous instalment you might like to take a peek there before reading this, as there's quite a bit of information about the park there. Today I want to focus on the birds of Tarangire, of which nearly 500 species have been recorded - but don't blanche, I shall just be offering a selection today!
Lilac-breasted Roller Coracias caudatus sitting out in the open and scanning the ground for unwary
small animals; surely one of the loveliest birds anywhere. They are widespread and quite common
across much of the south-eastern half of Africa.
This roller was just one of around 120 species that we saw in our relatively brief sojourn in the park (less than 48 hours) - and bear in mind that you can't get out of the vehicle. (See the first instalment of this blog to realise why!) Moreover, had we been there a few weeks earlier, large numbers of migrants from Europe and western Asia would also have still been present (though we'd also quite likely have got bogged and many of the fabulous mammals would have been on migration out of the park). 

One of the few places where you can walk around is the extensive picnic area at the entrance gate, and you will be greeted by a range of birds as soon as you alight.
Yellow-collared Lovebirds Agapornis personatus are often not easy to get close to,
but they hang around the gate most obligingly. They are only found in Tanzania.
(It was very wet and dully lit when we arrived, so some of these aren't as sharp as I'd like.)
Alone of the African parrots, the lovebirds are in the same family as the Australian parrots;
the rest have their closest relatives in South America.
Ashy Starling Lamprotornis unicolor is another Tanzanian endemic.
Africa is rich in starlings, but this is one of the least colourful.
Here's one of the more dramatic starlings, the appropriately named Superb Starling Lamprotornis superbus.(Colloquially dubbed Superstars by some locals.)
They are widespread from Tanzania to the Horn of Africa, but I couldn't imagine getting blasé about them.
Red-necked Spurfowl (or Francolin) Pternistis afer is common in Tarangire, as is its close
relation the Yellow-necked Spurfowl Pternistis leucoscepus (below).
Both species are noisy, especially when displaying from a termite mound or shrub early
or late in the day. Spurfowls and francolins are in the pheasant, quail, chook etc family.
White-headed Buffalo-Weavers Dinemellia dinemelli are abundant and most attractive.
Their colonies of scruffy woven grass nests are everywhere.
('Buffalo' supposedly refers to a habit of foraging with African Buffaloes.)
Other birds can also be seen without the assistance of a vehicle at the various lodges; here are a few impressive 'house birds'. 
Bare-faced Go-away-bird Corythaixoides personatus.
The go-away-birds are a group of three (or four) grey and white turacos (normally a very colourful group);
they take their name from the southern Grey Go-away-bird, which complains 'go waaaay' in a loud, quavering whine.
Von der Decken's Hornbill Tockus deckeni, a large East African hornbill; this is the male - the female has a black bill.
Like other hornbills he seals the female in a nesting hollow with hardened mud and droppings, and feeds
her through a narrow opening. Its name honours German explorer Karl Klaus von der Decken who twice tried
to climb Mount Kilimanjaro (hitherto unscaled by Europeans) but was defeated by the weather.
Lesser Striped Swallow Cecropis abyssinica; a familiar and handsome swallow
of much of sub-Saharan Africa. It is happy to share its home with humans.
African Scops Owls Otus senegalensis also have a very wide distribution.
And I could not find a vantage point without that stick across its face!
Which brings us to predatory birds and, unsurprisingly with such a richness of resources, there is a broad diversity of them. Let's start with another common owl, the little Pearl-spotted Owlet Glaucidium perlatum.

Like the South American pygmy-owls to which it is very closely related,
this one has eye-spots on the back of its head to persuade bigger predators that it is watching!
And of course there are many diurnal hunters, from small to very large.

Pygmy Falcon Polihierax semitorquatus, a tiny falcon which breeds in weaver nest chambers.
In this part of the world the hosts are usually White-headed Buffalo-weavers (see above).

Amur Falcon Falco amurensis, above and below. While most Siberian-breeding species
migrate south to south-eastern Asia, this one makes a much longer flight across India
to Africa. This female (streaky below, unlike the male) had stayed in Tarangire later
than most migrants.

A small falcon, most of her food is insects, especially termite and ant swarms in Africa.

The African Harrier-hawk Polyboroides typus is a most unusual bird of prey. It specialises in dragging adult
and nestling birds, reptiles, squirrels and invertebrates from holes and crevices with the aid of
immensely flexible 'knee' joints. It also eats a lot of fruit.
(Awful light for both this and the next picture, apologies.)

Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax; a large eagle found right across central Africa and on the Indian subcontinent.
It takes mammals as large as hares and small antelopes, guinea fowl, spurfowl, hornbills and reptiles, as
well as (fresh) carrion.

Immature Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus. This big powerful predator takes a range of medium-sized prey,
mammals, birds and reptiles (especially big monitor lizards).

Secretary Bird Sagittarius serpentarius. A very strange and utterly beguiling bird, which is in the same
Order as hawks, eagles and vultures, but is the only member of its Family. It's big, to 1.5 metres tall, and
stalks the grasslands on long powerful legs. As the species name suggests it kills many snakes - kicking them to
death with strong heavy toes, or dropping them from high in the air - but also takes many grasshoppers and
vertebrates as diverse as mongooses, squirrels, tortoises and birds.

But there are other hunters of vertebrates apart from owls, falcons, hawks and eagles. It's not an easy gig being a small animal (or indeed a large one if you're down the food chain) in such a place.
Southern Ground Hornbills Bucorvus leadbeateri are big birds (a metre high and weighing up to 6kg)
and I reckon seriously scary as they swagger in small gangs through the grass monstering insects, frogs,
snakes, tortoises, hares, squirrels and almost anything else unlucky enough to be caught.

Northern Red-billed Hornbill Tockus erythrorhynchus. The hornbills form a sister family to the two ground hornbills;
they are smaller so of course focus on smaller prey, but this one catches geckoes and nestlings as
well as wide array of invertebrates. This species is found across the arid lands immediately south of the Sahara.
Most kingfishers in Africa (as elsewhere) are dry country woodland hunters rather than primarily
fishers. The attractive Grey-headed Kingfisher Halcyon leucocephala is found across most of Africa;
it too eats lizards, mice, frogs and nestlings in addition to many invertebrates.
And if you're one of those small animals that has escaped the attention of a kingfisher, chances are a shrike will get you instead.
Magpie Shrike Urolestes melanoleucus, along with other shrikes, are scattered in vantage points across the landscape.
Northern White-crowned Shrikes Eurocephalus ruppelli are even more prevalent, but being smaller
tend to limit their ambitions to invertebrates.
Even cuckoos can be fairly serious predators. These White-browed Coucals Centropus superciliosus are widespread
in Tarangire and far beyond across eastern and southern Africa, searching the understorey for lizards, snakes,
frogs, mice and small birds as well as a range of insects and spiders.
The big swamps, including Silale mentioned last time, plus the waterways, support a great diversity and numbers of wetland specialists. Here are just a few.
Knob-billed (or African Comb) Ducks Sarkidiornis melanotos; males above, females below.
The male's bill knob increases in size during breeding season.

The attractive White-faced Whistling Ducks Dendrocygna viduata are found not only widely in Africa,
but through most of South America as well.
The Hamerkop Scopus umbretta is the only member of its entire family, with its closest relatives seemingly being pelicans.
It is a familiar and common wader throughout most of Africa, feeding mostly on fish and frogs,
though it will take whatever it can catch.

Water Thick-knees Burhinus vermiculatus. The group of mostly nocturnal foragers, superbly camouflaged,
is also known as stone-curlews (in Australia, Europe and Asia).

Pied Kingfishers Ceryle rudis are abundant and familiar across Africa and southern Asia.
Indeed they are said to be one of the world's most abundant kingfishers.
This makes them no less attractive and pleasurable; one of the things I enjoy about  them is
their ability to hover above the water, something only a few other kingfishers do, and then briefly.
I realise I've gone on here rather more than I'd intended (as I do), so I'll wind up with just a few more selected species that I find especially attractive or interesting.

The beautiful quiet plumage of sandgrouse always attracts me, and they are a fascinating group of dry-country birds.
Black-faced Sandgrouse Pterocles decoratus (female above, male below at rear) are restricted to north-eastern
Africa. Like other sandgrouse they maintain tight pair bonds while living at least part of their life in flocks,
and males carry water to chicks in hot ground nests in highly absorbent breast feathers.

Coursers and pratincoles form another interesting family; they are waders which have adapted to dry country living. They can be quite cryptic and hard to see as they rest during the day. Here are a couple from Tarangire.
Bronze-winged Coursers Rhinoptilus chalcopterus. Many, including this species, are active at night, and
remain stationary during the day. They typically crouch and usually face you when approached,
looking quite different from their elongated appearance in the guides.

Double-banded Courser Rhinoptilus africanus, looking more like how the field guides portray coursers!
Black-lored Babbler Turdoides sharpei. My Australian readers will immediately think of a different
group of birds but, while similar in their gregarious and rowdy behaviour, they are not closely related.
Spotted Palm Thrush Cichladusa guttata; a most attractive bird and a truly superb singer and mimic.
Meyer's Parrot Poicephalus meyeri is in life more deeply coloured than this light shows.
It is one of the 'African and New World' family of parrots, unlike the lovebird above.

And we'll wind up ('at last' I hear you sigh) with the smallest bird we've met today, but one I find full of character - and very attractive indeed. One day we'll give the lovely little waxbills (often referred to as finches, especially in Australia) an entire blog posting to themselves.
Male Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu Uraeginthus bengalus, holding down a relatively enormous grass stalk
(the bird weighs no more than 10 grams) to harvest the seeds.

So, Tarangire National Park. Whatever your natural history interests, this one deserves your attention next time you're passing through Tanzania...

By the time my next post appears I'll again be in South America, so another slightly longer hiatus between posts. But I'll be back in time for (our) spring!

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Thursday, 20 June 2019

Tarangire National Park; an underrated Tanzanian treasure #1

We're just back from a scintillating five weeks in Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa, and of course I'll be sharing some of its delights with you in the coming months. It was my first time east of Uganda, and a great deal was new. The first reserve we visited was Tarangire National Park in the northern highlands of Tanzania, less than 150km from the city of Arusha, which is the gateway to Tanzania for many visitors. We found it a truly excellent introduction to east Africa, and that impression remained even after we later visited the more famous wonders of Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater (both to the north-west on the Kenyan border). As soon as we entered the park we encountered two mighty Africans for which Tarangire is renowned.
Two wonderful African giants which characterise Tarangire - elephants under an
African Baobab Adansonia digitata.
In this post I'll introduce the landscape of Tarangire and some of the mammals we encountered; it is also noted for its bird wealth, which I'll talk about next time. Here are some photos which I hope can give an impression of the park, which is huge - 285,000 hectares.

Looking out over some of the vast plains, supporting a grassy savannah with a covering of acacias
(notably Umbrella Thorn Acacia or Vachellia tortilis) and Combretum spp. in particular.
In drier sections succulents, including tree-sized ones, appear.
Euphorbia sp.
Combretum sp. and African Baobabs.

Tarangire is not uniformly flat however, with an altitude ranging from 1000 to 1500 metres above sea level.
Crossing a range of hills to look into the distance over the plains.
The park takes its name from the Tarangire River which flows through it from south to north, ending in Lake Barunge (or Burungi) on the park's north-western boundary.
The rich Tarangire River valley, which during the dry season (June-September) supports large numbers
of grazing mammals, which migrate to follow the rains. As you can see from the photos,
we were there in the wet, albeit the tail end of it.
Actually the seasons aren't quite as simple as that statement suggests - the northern Tanzanian highlands have two wet seasons, from March to May and again from October to December. 

Another important aspect of Tarangire's ecology is the presence of extensive swamps (or perhaps flood plains) down the eastern side of the park.
Looking out over Silale Swamp.
And of course these grassy woodland landscapes support a huge biomass of grazing and browsing animals. Let's start (or continue) with the elephants for which Tangarire is famed.
Elephants in the Tangarire landscape.
It is a very special experience to be close to these massive animals, in a vehicle with lifting top, with guides (in our case a Tanzanian and a South African) who know and understand them.
It is somewhat unnerving to be this close, and you need reliable guides to do it safely.
This young male wasn't very interested in us actually, he just wanted to graze there.
He was actually close enough that a couple of ticks on his underside were quite evident!
His domed head contrasts nicely with the characteristically angled forehead of a female, as shown below.
Male above, and female below.

It is hard to imagine how much grass and foliage even a relatively small herd like this must consume every day.
The wicked acacia thorns don't seem to deter them either.
Red elephants can be a bit of a shock initially, but the colour reflects their love of a good mud wallow.
And it's probably time to move on from elephants, I realise, but just one more...
All the Tarangire baobabs show signs, some quite intense, of elephants constantly scratching against them,
but they don't seem to show signs of stress.
Of course the elephant aren't the only one devouring the grass either.
Impala Aepyceros melampus are a constant in the landscape; this is a female herd.
Impala male. Only he has the horns. A male will try to hold a territory,
in which he hopes to amass a harem of females like the herd above.
Pair of Grant's Gazelle Nanger (Gazella) granti.In this species the female does have horns, though his are much larger.
Waterbuck Kobus ellipsiprymnus, a big antelope; male above, female and calf below.
These show the characteristic 'sat on a painted toilet seat' rump markings of the species.
 And a much smaller one.

Kirk's Dik-dik Madoqua kirkii, while the largest of this antelope group, is still less than 40cm high
and weighs less than seven kilograms. The preorbital gland below the eye is very evident here;
he (only males have horns) uses this to make his territory by smearing the secretion on grass and twigs.

Plains (or Burchell's) Zebra Equus quagga also place quite a pressure on the park's grasses.
This is the commonest and most widespread of the three zebra species.

Group of curious foals; it's always a delight to come round a corner and encounter these lovely animals.
Another eternal delight is any encounter with the extraordinary Giraffe Giraffa camelopardalis.
Their sheer size is startling too, if seen close. A male can be almost six metres tall and weigh close
to two tonnes. The 'horns' are bony cartilage covered in skin; his are knobbed,
hers are thin and tufted with hair. This is the Masai subspecies.
Common Warthogs Phacochoerus africanus tend to be wary, but family groups scampering through the grass
with erect tails are a common sight.
Unstriped Ground Squirrel Xerus rutilus, a dweller of dry savannahs of north-east Africa.
A mammal group which fascinates me (and gives me great pleasure) is the hyraxes, not least because of the knowledge that their closest relatives (albeit still distant!) are elephants and manatees...
Yellow-spotted Rock Hyraxes (or Bush Hyraxes) Heterohyrax brucei shelter under
a roadside rock overhang.

Rock Hyrax Procavia capensis perched on the roof of our lodge. A substantial colony of them
regarded the stone staircases and roofs as just convenient rocks and cliffs. This species lacks
the conspicuous eyebrows and pointy face of the previous one.
 Nor are the hyraxes the only ones to take advantages of the lodge's rocky features.
Common Agama Agama agama. These spectacular males fight vigorously for mating rights;
this may have been the cause of this one's truncated tail.
On the other hand of course, Tarangire supports many predators, from small to very large.
Dwarf Mongoose Helogale parvula, supposedly Africa's smallest carnivorous mammal (though this claim
must exclude pure insectivores). They mostly eat invertebrates but also take small lizards and snakes,
and could conceivably have nipped off the agamas tail; this individual's tribe lives in the
lodge grounds.
One of my highlights from the visit was my first ever wild Cheetahs, a mother and three young cubs, some distance off the road (at least 100 metres).
Initially the family was resting near a thorn tree, but eventually she led them further from the road.
We were extraordinarily lucky this trip with Cheetahs, generally reckoned to be 'difficult' in most places; in the end we saw 11 of them, spread across four parks. Remarkable.

And just as we were about to leave Tarangire, it produced a classic Africa scene, with a pride of Lions finishing off last night's kill - a young buffalo. 

These two big youngsters were resting by the water, having presumably fed, until their attention
was taken by something in the tree above...

The Nile Monitor seemed to appreciate that there was no point in coming down for some time.
Nearby the rest of the family was finishing off the meal.
The male, who would have fed first, was doubtless lying and digesting somewhere nearby.

Sadly for them, happily for us, Tarangire is not a heavily visited park, as people with tight schedules either pop in for a day visit, or skip it altogether on their way to Serengeti. Having seen both, I am adamant that that would be a big mistake and one that I hope you don't ever make! Next time I'll be back with a sample of Tarangire's remarkable bird life.

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