I’m now several weeks removed from leading a birding safari to Tanzania, and now that I’m back here in reality-ville, it feels a world away. While I was gone, the first of the early migrants snuck in, like Common Grackles. Upon seeing some as I drove through Orleans shortly after returning, I said to myself – hey, Rüppell's Starlings. This was of course not correct - I left that grackle-like species back in the Serengeti. It took some time to adjust to the more pedestrian birds and mammals of home – as you know if you’ve been, even the starlings are spectacular in East Africa.
With six Mass Audubon travelers in tow, including a small flock of Cape Codders, I visited Northern Tanzania, home to some of the world’s great parks – the wildlife-filled bowl of the Ngorogoro Crater, Tarangire with its dense population of elephants and spectacularly alien baobab trees, and of course the famed Serengeti and its thundering herds of zebra and wildebeest chasing the rains from Kenya to Tanzania.
It had been a while since my last visit to East Africa, where I studied wildlife management for a semester in college, so I found it took a lot of work to re-learn the 800 or so species of birds possible in the region. For an American birder, there’s no frame of reference for a lot of the species in Africa, and I didn’t want to embarrass myself by confusing a Brubru with a boubou, an eremomela with a cameroptera, or, worse yet, a coucal with a cuckoo. And don’t get me started on the cisticolas – they make our sparrows seem gaudily colored. But with fun names like Zitting, Rattling, and Wailing Cisticola, one can almost forgive their infuriating drabness.
Most people don’t go to Africa to see small, confusing birds, of course. So on several occasions, we made a point to cast a perfunctory glance at the sleepy lions a few feet from our Land Cruiser, the imposing herds of African Buffalo staring us down, or the several leopards we saw one afternoon in the Serengeti. Another evening we watched a family group of thirty elephants splashing around in a water hole like enormous children, in perhaps the purest demonstration of animal joy I’ve seen. We had good luck with all the usual big targets with the exception of rhinos, which never came within camera distance. But I’m inclined toward the more obscure and seldom seen mammals, anyway, with sightings of the small, lanky cat known as a Serval; the family of sleepy, snuggling bushbabies, a type of huge-eyed nocturnal primate; and the just plain adorable Bat-eared Fox near the top of my highlight list.
We also deigned to look at the more stereotypical birds of an African safari. Visits to multiple alkali lakes provided that classic Rift Valley scene of many thousands of Greater and Lesser Flamingoes feeding together in a writhing pink mass of legs and long necks; gigantic, ponderous Kori Bustards strutting fearlessly about the plains; and the delightfully weird Secretary Bird, essentially a hawk that’s been stretched into absurd lankiness on a medieval rack, stalking the savannahs in search of snakes and other prey.
I could go on and on of course, but part of traveling is accepting that others have a limited attention span for our vacation stories. I’ll just say this - if you have any interest in wildlife, get yourself to Africa somehow, because there is nothing like it anywhere. And with the wildlife facing threats from habitat loss to poaching to climate change, it won’t necessarily be there forever.
Take a look at more photos from Mark's trip here.