Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Day 6--East Usambara Mountains

We awoke to find that there was still no power, but we still were able to have a nice breakfast with eggs, sausage and a an almost pancake like chapati.  After eating we went out to find a beautiful blue sky day, and wave after wave of silvery cheeked hornbills flying overhead.  I was so spellbound by the sight that I totally spaced out getting a photo. 

Once the hornbills had passed, we began to tour the grounds of the Amani Malaria Research Center.  One of the most common birds is what we began calling Brian's drongo (photo above taken by Bob).  Five years ago Brian and another birder submitted DNA and other info on this bird for review by the powers that be because they felt this was a separate species from the ubiquitous fork-tailed drongo.  They still are awaiting a response.

One of the reasons to visit the E. Usambaras is the endemics that live there.  Above is a green banded sunbird that we saw several times around our lodging (photo taken by Bob--click on any photo to enlarge).  We also found on our morning walk the endemic Uluguru violet-backed sunbird, but did not get a good photo of it.  There were several African golden orioles (photo taken by Bob).

One of the unusual sightings was the termite colonies that we found in many trees.  You can see the "runways" they build to get up the trunk to their home.  In the same area where this photo was taken we were able to "call in" a pair of the endemic long-billed tailorbirds.

At one point we found an African crowned eagle soaring overhead (photo taken by Bob).

While in the towns and cities you see lots of homes and buildings built with bricks or stone, the vast majority of the housing particularly in the countryside is made of "sticks and wattle".  In the photo below Brian is wearing the fanny pack, Stu is to his left, Bob is closest to the house, and to the far left is Anthony who was a local bird guide who joined us for the day.

As we walked around the area, we kept seeing lots of birds including the green-headed oriole just above (photo taken by Bob).  At one point we walked through a beautiful garden area which my wife would have loved seeing in person.

One of my favorite bird families is the kingfishers of which E. Africa has 15 different species including the brown-hooded in the photo just below.

Another bird family that we do not have in the U.S. is the honeyguides.  In the photo just below taken by Bob is a lesser honeyguide, our first for the trip.

Another lovely sunbird is the purple-banded just above.  The turacos--Fischer's in the photo just below (both photos taken by Bob)--is a extremely colorful family of 10 bird species that does a very good job of hiding in trees given its size (16-30 inches).  Fortunately their calls are quite loud which helps you locate them in the dense foliage.

After wandering around all morning, we returned to our lodge for lunch--a welcome break from our poor box lunches.  After eating, we spent the next couple of hours just hanging out around the lodge, birding on our own.  This was the first time on the trip that we "slowed down" enough to do this.  It was great being able to bird solo and study the birds that were nearby.

Mid afternoon we got back into the landcruiser to drive to a nearby area to look for some more new birds.  Enroute we enjoyed watching the extremely colorful malachite kingfisher feeding along a stream.  We also found a southern-banded snake eagle perched in a tree (both photos by Bob).

We drove by several hillsides that were planted with tea, plus the tea "factory" where they process the tea leaves.

Our key target bird for the afternoon was the half-collared kingfisher because Amani was the only area we were going to visit that the species could be found.  As we drove slowly along a stream we head one calling, but did not find it.  On our way back home near the same point where we had heard it calling, Bob amazingly in the dwindling light picked one up sitting on a rock (photo taken by Bob).

We found it just in time to make it back to our lodging area to do an olive ibis stake out.  The olive ibis is a woodland ibis, and is very difficult to see.  Anthony told us that at dusk most days a few fly by at one vista point on their way to an evening roost site.  It was quite chilly as we patiently waited for them to come by.  Just below where we were watching was someone's home with a large satellite dish behind it.  I said before coming on this trip that I thought the only real difference I would find between today and 40 years ago when I came to Uganda was the addition of communication technology like satellite dishes, cell phones and the internet.  As it turned out, I was right.
Finally about 6:30 as the light was almost gone we heard, and then saw at some distance the olive ibises fly over the treed ridgeline.

Our last bird of the day was not the olive ibis.  One of the endemics at Amani is the Usambara eagle-owl.  Brian had only seen this owl twice before.  We got our "torches" and walked a short distance to a spot where the eagle-owl had nested in the past.  We played a tape, and at first heard no response.  Then we began to hear a call that sounded similar but not a perfect match.  It was close by, then it seemed further away, and then it was close by again.  We kept using our flashlights to scan the trees around us, and finally saw what looked like an owl very high up in a tree.  Because it was so still, it took us about 10 minutes to confirm that it was a juvenile owl making an abbreviated call.

We decided to be happy with finding the juvie, and had started to walk away when we heard an adult calling.  We were able to see it fly into a tree nearby, and then we heard a second adult calling.  The juvie's calling had brought in its parents.  Most amazingly, as we shined out torches on the one adult owl, the second adult flew in and mated briefly with the first.  Brian had never seen eagle-owls mating.  Between the mating owls, and the overall success of bird finding during the day, Brian said it was the single best day of birding he had ever had in the East Usambaras.

We practically floated back up the hill to our lodge where there was still no electricity.  We did have enough water heated by the stove for all of us to take spit baths before eating another simple meal by candlelight.  After doing the bird list update, we found we had passed 300 different species seen and/or heard.  And tomorrow we were heading to Pemba Island.  Stay tuned!

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