About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

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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