Monthly Archives: November 2012

Zanzibar: the end of Safari?

The archipelago of Zanzibar, located off the coast of Tanzania, is a beautiful holiday destination and made a relaxing end to our safari trip. We stayed in a luxury resort on the South-eastern coast, looking directly out over the white sand and turquoise waters into the Indian Ocean.

Aside from being a stunning tropical holiday destination, Zanzibar is rich in culture, history and wildlife. I intend to focus on the latter, but here are a few historical facts you may, or may not, know about Zanzibar:

  • The capital, Zanzibar City, contains the ancient port of Stone Town, once one of the wealthiest cities in the world because of the spice and slave trades.
  • It is the site of the shortest war in history. The Anglo-Zanzibar war lasted 38 minutes on the morning of 27 August 1896.
  • It was the birth place of Freddie Mercury, who was born with the name, Farrokh Bulsara.

The largest island of Unguja has a mixture of tropical forests, mangrove swamps, rocky scrub-land, white beaches and coral reefs. The areas of highest vegetation, including the Jozani Forest Reserve are spectacularly biodiverse.

The wildlife includes the rare and endemic Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey (Procolobus kirkii) with about 1500 specimens remaining in the wild…

The islands are also home to some stunning birds including, the Old World equivalents of the Hummingbirds, the Sunbirds…

The unidentified female above and the male Purple-banded Sunbird (Cinnyris bifasciata), below, were both seen in the garden grounds of our hotel…

I took the photo of this Broad-billed Roller (Eurystomus glaucurus), below, from the terrace of our suite…

Some of the bird species in Zanzibar have been introduced, or appeared, very recently, such as the very familiar House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)…

… and some of the introduced species, such as this Indian House Crow (Corvus splendens), below, pose a competitive and/or predatory threat to native species…

The sea on the eastern coast of Zanzibar is quite extraordinary. The fisherman and snorkellers below are paddling in very shallow water which extends out about half a mile to where you can see the waves breaking to the upper right and where the darker blue of the oceanic deep water begins…

This can be seen very clearly in a satellite image (Warning! I am about to break my rule, of only posting photos I have taken, for the first time in this blog) with the hotel shown by the red bed symbol (you can even see the swimming pool) and then the turquoise water suddenly stopping to the right…

The long extension of shallow water means that the tide goes in and out by a huge distance every day. During periods of low tide, the sea exposed a sandy/muddy expanse of pools which is fertile feeding ground for wading birds…

Aside from a lot of seaweed, the tide would expose a large number of Crustacea and Mollusca, including crabs. Some of which blended in nicely with the white sand…

… whilst others were brilliantly camouflaged against the green-stained rocks of the water-carved short rocky cliffs, below, (I know I have been failing as a taxonomist by not naming the crabs, but there are at least 4,500 species of crab and very few easy references online to identify them)

Nearly every crevice in the rocks seemed to house a crab or a lizard…

At low tide, the beach was strewn with an array of shells. Frequently, the shells would walk off with their resident hermit crabs (not true crabs at all don’t ya know, but still with around 500 species!) scuttling away…

Every evening I would walk along the beach at low tide watching large numbers of wading birds and gulls feast on the exposed bounty of the sea. Although often taking photos in dusky evening conditions, some of the waders I managed to capture digitally included…

Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea):

Crab Plover (Dromas ardeola):

Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola):

… and Common Greenshank (Tringa nebularia):

Zanzibar may have been the relaxing end to our Safari trip, but the wildlife watching continued whilst relaxing on our veranda, walking along the beach, and even sitting by the pool…

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Safari: Part VI – Birds of the East African plains

I have reserved my final blog post of this Safari series, on my trip to East Africa, for the birds that I saw. I don’t intend to write much in the post as I hope the pictures will speak for themselves; illustrating a tiny fraction of the amazing variety of bird life found in East Africa.

Sometimes I was really pleased with my photos, and sometimes … straining at maximum zoom to capture a bird with the sun behind it for example... I wasn’t. I managed to photograph around 100 species of bird in two weeks (albeit, there are some I still can’t identify, and some too blurry to put on t’interweb) and have organised them below, roughly, following the major families of birds….

Common Ostrich (Struthio camelus massaicus), Ngorogoro, Tanzania

Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea), Ngorogoro – one of only three birds displayed here likely to be seen in the UK (I have marked the other two with an asterisk *)

Black-headed Heron (Ardea melanocephala), Serengeti

Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), Ngorogoro

Marabou Stork (Leptoptilos crumeniferus), Ngorogoro rim

Saddle-billed Stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis), Maasai Mara

Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis), Maasai Mara

Grey Crowned Crane (Balearica regulorum), Ngorogoro

Hadaba Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash), Serengeti – I also saw Sacred Ibis and Glossy Ibis in Africa but annoyingly didn’t get any good pics

Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta), Maasai Mara – not a great photo this, but a truly extraordinary bird…

Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori), Ngorogoro – Its name may sound like an insult, but this bad boy (as eagle-eyed readers of my blog will already know) is the heaviest flying bird in the world…

Black-bellied Bustard (Eupodotis melanogaster), Maasai Mara – the white blur at the bottom of the photo is me catching some of the top of our vehicle in the shot I think: what a pro!

Coqui Francolin (Francolinus coqui), Maasai Mara – I was very pleased to capture this shy bird so clearly…

Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris reichenowi), Serengeti – The red wattles on the face of these Guineafowl in this slightly out of focus shot are key to identifying this as one of the reichenowi race…

Blacksmith Lapwing (Vanellus armatus), Serengeti – This bird gets its name from its call which sounds like a blacksmith’s hammer chinking against an anvil…

Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus), Serengeti – this is a juvenile bird…

Green Sandpiper* (Tringa ochropus) and Wood Sandpiper* (Tringa glareola), Maasai MaraYou get two for one here, the Green Sandpiper is in focus in the foreground with the Wood Sandpiper behind it in the background…

Greater Painted-snipe (Rostratula benghalensis), Maasai Mara

Three-banded Plover (Charadrius tricollaris), Serengeti

Water Thick-knee (Burhinus vermiculatus), Serengeti – just out of shot to the top left of the photo below was a very large sun-bathing Nile Crocodile, but the Thick-knees seemed oblivious…

Wood Sandpiper*(Tringa glareola), Serengeti – a marginally clearer shot of the Wood Sandpiper who we saw above in the blurry background to the Green Sandpiper…

Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Ngorogoro – This Kite is taking a break from trying to steal tourists’ sandwiches…

Black-shouldered Kite (Elanus caeruleus), Serengeti

Secretary Bird (Sagittarius serpentarius), Maasai Mara

African White-backed Vulture (Gyps Africanus), Serengeti – I was particularly pleased with this photo…

Augur Buzzard (Buteo augur), Ngorogoro

Dark Chanting Goshawk (Melierax metabates), Maasai Mara

Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus erythrorhynchus), Serengeti

Von der Decken’s Hornbill (Tockus deckeni), Serengeti

Usambiro Barbet (Trachyphonus usambiro) right and possibly d’Arnaud’s Barbet (Trachyphonus darnaudii) left, Serengeti – This beautiful pair are possibly interbreeding species (albeit very closely related). I am almost certain that the bird to the right is Usambiro Barbet due to its dark bill. To the left is likely to be d’Arnaud’s Barbet or a hybrid between the two…

Little Bee-eater (Merops pusillus), Ngorogoro – We saw a few different types of Bee-eaters, but this is the only presentable photo I caught of these stunning birds…

Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudata), Maasai Mara – as with above, we saw lots of these gorgeous birds, but this poor quality shot was the best I managed as they never quite sat still enough for me. This one seems bemused as to why I am taking its picture and is cocking its head at me…

African Mourning Dove, (Streptopelia decipiens), Near Serengeti – East Africa has an amazing array of beautiful doves and pigeons. I captured two species of them in pixels…

Dusky Turtle Dove (Streptopelia lugens), Rift Valley view near Nairobi

Slate-coloured Boubou (Laniarius funebris), Serengeti

Common Fiscal (shrike) (Lanius collaris), Ngorogoro

Common Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus), Serengeti

Brown crowned Tchagra (Tchagra australis), nr Maasai Mara

African Pied Wagtail (Motacilla agiump), Maasai Mara

Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava), Ngorogoro

Red-faced Crombec (Sylvietta whytii), nr Maasai Mara – The Crombecs are a fascinating family of tail-less warblers…

Yellow-breasted Apalis (Apalis flavida), nr Maasai Mara

Greater Blue-eared Starling (Lamprotornis chalybaeus cyaniventris), Maasai Mara – this slightly fuzzy shot is of the cyaniventris race of the Greater Blue-eared Starling, seen here perching on an African Buffalo…

Superb Starling (Lamprotornis superbus), Serengeti – What an aptly named bird! This species is common and bold (it will feed out of a tourist’s hand). It also seems to be found interchangeably with its cousin, Hildebrandt’s Starling, shown immediately beneath this shot and distinguished by the lack of the white stripe…

Hildebrandt’s Starling (Lamprotornis hildebrandti), Kenya

Sooty Chat (Myrmecocichla nigra), Maasai Mara

Sooty Chat female (Myrmecocichla nigra), Maasai Mara – OK, posting two birds of the same species is cheating slightly but this dimorphic pair (they have different colourations) posed so well for me, I thought they both deserved a place in this blog…

White-browed Robin Chat (Cossypha heuglini), Ngorogoro – This beautiful bird perched almost unnoticed as a few metres away, a Lion was feeding on a Zebra carcass

White-naped Raven (Corvus albicollis), Ngorogoro rim – I love ravens, they are the heavy-weight bruisers of the crow family

Yellow-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus africanus), Maasai Mara – seen here chilling out on their host, African Buffalo…

Swahili Sparrow (Passer suahelicus), Maasai Mara

Speckle-fronted Weaver (Sporopipes frontalis), Serengeti – The Weaver birds and their amazing nests are a constant feature in East Africa. I was lucky enough to photograph several species…

Vitelline Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus), nr Maasai Mara

Grey-capped Social Weaver (Pseudonigrita arnaudi), Serengeti

Rufous-tailed Weaver (Histurgops ruficaudus), Tanzania – I can’t quite remember exactly where I saw this bird

Baglafecht Weaver (Ploceus baglafecht reichenowi), Rift Valley view near Nairobi – You do not expect it to be difficult to identify a bright yellow bird with a black head, but when I saw how many weavers are bright yellow with black heads in my field guide, I felt like crying. I think this is a reichenowi race of the Baglafecht Weaver…

Speke’s Weaver (Ploceus spekei), Maasai Mara

Red-billed Buffalo Weaver (Bubalornis niger), Tanzania

White-headed Buffalo Weaver (Dinemellia dinemellia), Serengeti

Common Waxbill (Estrilda astrild), Ngorogoro – for the final photograph I thought I would show you this gregarious flock which better displays the species’ character than a close-up of an individual…

This was a supremely geeky exercise in cataloguing that had almost therapeutic value for me 😉 but for those of you who have flicked through, I hope it has served to give an idea of the mesmerising array of variety of avian fauna that can be found on Safari. Thank you!

Safari: Part V – In praise of the Antelope

When people go on Safari, they often focus their attention on ‘The Big Five‘ or on the large predators. Don’t get me wrong, seeing Lion, Elephant, and Leopard in the wild is an incredible experience, but I was equally thrilled to see the wonderful diversity and beauty of the Antelope.

All creatures great and small

East Africa provides splendid example of the diversity of antelope, from the mighty Common Eland (the second largest antelope in the world after it’s rarer Northern cousin, the Giant Eland) which can be nearly 3.5m in length and weigh almost a 1000kgs…

…to Kirk’s dik dik, the smallest antelope in East Africa at around 70cm in length (and only 30cm in height) and a fully grown male (I can’t bring myself to call this creature a bull) weighing up to 7kgs (nearly 143 times smaller than the Eland!)…

The great herds

Antelope are social animals. The greatest herds are formed of the powerful Blue Wildebeest, seen below (with a Common Zebra to the left) near the banks of the Mara River where hundreds will die crossing…

Wildebeest are the most populous mammal of East Africa and well over a million of them embark on the perpetual cycle of migration which will see huge herds following the rains and moving around 1800km every year.

A study in Impala

The Impala is another common antelope of Africa. I saw the male below in the Maasai Mara…

Dominant males like the one above, will collect and herd as many females as possible. They are ever ready to prevent any of the harem leaving and also to defend their dominance through fighting with any challenger males. The single male, below, can be seen with the large horns standing on a raised mound to the right surrounded by the females over whom he exerts sole mating rights…

Males that have not yet earned, or that have lost, dominant status will congregate together in bachelor herds for safety…

Even young males will fight to determine hierarchical status…

Impala is a Zulu word meaning ‘gazelle’, but they are also sometimes cheekily called the McDonald’s Antelope. They are a ubiquitous food source for many predators and could certainly be described as fast food as they can run over 80kph if threatened. But this name is also because of the black ‘M’ on their hind quarters…

Gazelle

Closely related to the Impala are the true Gazelles. We saw two species on Safari: Grant’s Gazelle and the smaller but more strikingly marked, Thompson’s Gazelle. One of each helpfully stood next to each other, indicating the size difference, in the Serengeti…

Antelope variety

The diversity and different adaptive strategies employed by the varied antelope species fascinates me. Whilst the Gazelle above can roam for days in near-desert conditions, the Defassa Waterbuck, below, will never stray far from a source of water…

The deer-like appearance of the Waterbuck, above, can be contrasted with the final two species of the total 9 members of the antelope family we saw: the strange looking Coke’s Hartebeest…

… and the beautifully marked, Topi…

If you go on African Safari, I strongly encourage you to look closely at the antelope, for I am quite certain that many secrets of life on the Savannah can be unlocked through study of these amazing creatures.

Safari: Part IV – Ngorogoro: a natural wildlife enclosure

Two to three million years ago, a giant Volcano – probably higher than any peak remaining on the African continent – exploded.

The human mind can surely barely fathom the catastrophic nature of such destructive force. Rock in many forms (lava, boulders, and dust measured in the millions of tons) would have been scattered for hundreds of kilometres.

The earth, underneath what had been the volcano, imploded forming a caldera (or crater-like cauldron) 610 metres deep, 19 kilometres in diameter and 260 square kilometres in area…

The steep caldera walls are twice the size of the highest cliffs in Britain (Hangman Cliffs in Devon in case you were wondering), which means that sizeable proportions of the animals that get in to the Ngorogoro Crater will never leave: this has had the effect of creating a natural wildlife enclosure.

We visited just before the rains and so unfortunately the giant salt lake inside the crater was dry and the Flamingoes were still weeks away from arriving. Nevertheless we saw large herds of Wildebeest, Common Zebra, Thompson’s Gazelle and many other species grazing the flat plains.

Most of the caldera is flat grassland, sometimes appearing bleak and deserted or just policed by an Ostrich…

The puffed-up male on the right is chasing the trespasser off his territory. We watched them run (they can reach speeds in excess of 70kph!) for a couple of kilometres or so until the victorious incumbent was satisfied that the pretender was far enough off his patch of nondescript territory and into another.

We also watched a female Thompson’s Gazelle watch us nervously with her newly-born youngster in the middle of the plains…

But much of the interesting wildlife is found around the edges where there is more varied vegetation and tree cover. As well as rare animals such as Bat-eared Fox and Serval, that I blogged about before, we saw Cheetah (rare in the caldera), and Elephants standing in the shade and giving themselves dust-showers to keep cool…

… as well asBlack-faced Vervet Monkey…

The Ngoitokitok Spring feeds an enormous swamp on the eastern side of the caldera which remains lush all year round. The black and white speck in the tree on the left in the photo below is actually an African Fish Eagle (I will show you a closer picture in a later blog)…

In the photo below, taken on the fringes of the swamp seen as a green scar on the dry yellow grassland, there are literally hundreds of living creatures including (I studied under zoom): Wildebeest, Common Zebra, African Buffalo, Thompson’s Gazelle, Warthog, Ostrich, and Coke’s Hartebeest:

There are many great species to see in the caldera, although the steep descent and lack of trees mean that Giraffe are missing (along with some other antelope such as Impala and Topi).

Such concentrated collections of ungulates (hoofed creatures including dainty gazelle and mighty elephant) inevitably attract predators. The Ngorogoro Crater is believed to have the highest concentration of large mammal predators anywhere in Africa (and I would guess, possibly, on earth). But the contained nature of the ecosystem is also a cause of problems, particularly for Lions. The Lions in the caldera have grown, and now evolved, larger than their cousins from outside of the caldera due to the plentiful supply of meat.

When a wandering male makes his way down the steep slopes to challenge the existing Ngorogoro males, the chances are he will lose any fight and be scared off back out of the caldera. Now the gene pool is becoming dangerously limited as the 80 or so Lions of the caldera are increasingly in-bred. We watched the lone female below eating from a Common Zebra carcass. Perhaps she is elderly or injured as the pride were not with her and probably hunt better without her slowing them down:

The Ngorogoro is a truly incredible wild place, but we should not be fooled into thinking that all is completely well in what may appear to be a natural Eden.

Safari: Part III – The endless plain: Serengeti

120 years ago, German geographer and explorer, Dr Oscar Baumann, was the first westerner to visit one of the last great ‘undiscovered’ wildernesses on the planet: what we now call the Serengeti National Park.

For around two hundred years before that, the Maasai people had been wandering the area with their cattle. In their ‘maa’ language, they called it the ‘endless plain’, and for very good reason…

At 14,763 square kilometres, three quarters the size of Wales, at first appearances there is nothing for miles and miles and miles.

Travelling on the dusty roads in 4X4s, sometimes it seems like there is nothing living other than dry grass and occasionally, out of the heat haze, a lone gazelle will appear and then disappear behind your vehicle’s dust clouds like a desert apparition.

But appearances can be deceiving. Standing up in our LandRover with hot wind in my face and staring into nothing for as far as the eye could see in every direction, I suddenly saw a head rise up close to the road and out of a dip in the grass. It was a young male Lion…

When the rains come, the endless plains become green and full of flowers and the great herds of Wildebeest and Zebra flood down from the Maasai Mara. Before those rains come, the wildlife is sparse but easy to view. Sometimes a solitary bird, like the giant Kori Bustard (the world’s heaviest flying bird) appears…

… or small numbers of gazelle (like the Grant’s Gazelle below) which can last for long periods without water…

… or small groups of bachelor or old Zebra that cannot make the migration…

Every now and again the monotonous landscape is broken by a small oasis of huge weathered rock and trees: Kopjes…

‘Kopjes’ are excellent viewing posts for predators. These Thompson’s Gazelle, above, are grazing within the sight of at least two Lions: one resting in the shade on the rock to the far right and another on the floor to the immediate left of the first (its head is just visible to the naked eye).

These stone islands in the plains are some of the most ancient rocks on earth. Formed around 4 billion years ago (when the young earth was still cooling) metamorphic granite bubbled up into the crust. As the sedimentary rock has weathered over hundreds of millions of years, the tops of these rocks (much harder than the surrounding crust) have become exposed like the tips of ancient stone icebergs floating in a sea of grass.

As well as being useful lookout stations for Lion, Leopard, and Cheetah, the Kopjes are refuge to a number of other creatures including the colour changing, Rock Agama, lizard…

… and the Rock Hyrax, which, despite looking like a large rodent, is actually the closest living relative to the Elephant!

Acacia trees seem to huddle for protection near these islands in the nothingness…

But the great plains are also dissected by a number of rivers. The banks of these rivers are home to much greater concentrations of wildlife all year round. As we approached water, where grazing animals inevitably congregate, we also found earthen mounds with families of Lion…

… and Cheetah…

The mother (far left) and two cubs were surprisingly close to the Thompson’s Gazelle in the background who appeared alert but otherwise un-flustered that their nemeses were close by.

As we passed through more vegetation, sometimes just small collections of trees…

… we found families of Elephant, including these playful juveniles…

… and troops of gregarious Olive Baboon , including these females with suckling young…

Eventually, we found the water where we were extremely lucky to see, what I believe to be, the rare and secretive Clawless Otter (please let me know if I have mis-identified this)…

… as well as the unmistakeable Nile Crocodile, the largest and most feared reptile in Africa…

The endless plains of the Serengeti with their thriving water-based arteries were some of the most beautiful living landscapes I have ever seen. As we drove out of the National Park as the sun went down, we saw the beginnings of the nightly stomp of the mighty Hippo from their watery daytime homes and out on to the grassy plains to feed without the damaging glare of the African sun on their backs…

Safari: Part II – Life and death on the Maasai Mara

The Maasai Mara (or Masai Mara) is the prime game reserve in Kenya. It is over 1,500 square kilometres and part of the much larger Mara-Serengeti ecosystem which crosses from South-West Kenya into Northern Tanzania (and covers an enormous 25,000 square kilometres).

The grasslands/savannah of the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti are the stage for one of the greatest wildlife shows on earth. Every year, around July, millions of animals migrate North from the Serengeti to the Mara and then they migrate back again around October. We were there just before the rains in the Serengeti which will tempt millions of Wildebeest, Common Zebra and many other species back across the Crocodile-infested Mara River into the Serengeti.

This show is a great display of wild ‘life’ and ‘death’.

Life and death

This family of Hippo, above, are on the Mara River, where every year millions of antelope and Zebra will cross and every year thousands will drown or be killed by waiting Nile Crocodile, Lions, and Hyena.

We were lucky enough to witness the extraordinary courtship displays of the Ostrich (females ‘dancing’ below)…


And after some equally exotic displays from the male, the … err … successful result…


Animals on the Mara, particularly antelope, must be able to keep up with the herd almost as soon as they are born. Here is a female Waterbuck and its suckling calf partly obscured by the grass…


And here (below) a Lioness keeps watch as her young cubs are safely hidden behind a mound…


The enormous presence of mammal life on the savannah supports other life. Sometimes symbiotically… such as these Yellow-billed Oxpecker hitching a lift and clearing ticks and mites from an African Buffalo (below)


And sometimes to the singular advantage of predators…


… such as these Lions (above) resting a few metres away from their ‘kill’, a half-eaten Common Zebra…

And where the top predators have killed, the scavengers are surely to be found close by…


Ruppell’s Vulture keeping watch and waiting patiently over a Lion-kill  where the big cat is asleep. As soon as the Lions leave, the Vultures will move in.

The Maasai people

Eastern Africa is home to many different ethnic groups (or tribes), but few have remained as close to their traditional way of life as the nomadic pastoralists, the Maasai people, after whom the reserve is named.

The men wander the plains with large herds of cows and goats, whilst the women build and maintain the houses in villages designed to protect them and their livestock from predators at night. They continue to live a relatively simple life, mainly consuming the products from their livestock: meat, milk, and blood (which they drink tapped from the neck veins of living cows).

To a travelling foreigner, life for the Maasai seems tough…


Children are expected to grow up quickly. The children above and below (with joke glasses we gave them) will soon be expected to become men.


When boys reach the age of 14-16, they are circumcised without anaesthetic or antiseptic. If they cry, they are almost rejected by their community and will certainly never marry. If they ‘survive’ this ordeal, they will then endure another: they wander the plains in a group, shut out of the villages for four months and living from the land in small groups, identified by their painted faces and normally dark clothing:


If the boys survive this, they return to their communities and would then be expected to prove themselves as warriors – traditionally by killing a lion – and then showing off their manliness to women from other villages and getting a wife (or two or three or more) by showing how high they can jump…


Whether amongst the animals or the people of the Maasai Mara, I was struck by the closeness the inhabitants exist to both a raw and vital life and a very real and constant threat of death.