Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tanzania Part 2 - Ngorongoro Crater

After leaving Lake Manyara on the afternoon of June 5, we climbed the Rift Valley escarpment heading toward the crater highlands of Northern Tanzania. Our destination, Ngorongoro Crater, is the largets unbroken, unflooded volcanic caldera in the world. The crater floor sits 2000 feet below the crater rim, and covers an area of 102 square miles. Though zebra and wildebeest move in an out of the crater throughout the year, there is very little immigration/emmigration of the crater lion population, with the result that the crater lions have become severely inbred. The crater is home to about 25,000 large mammals, including the "Big 5" species of lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhino, but there are no impala or giraffes in the crater. New bird species added enroute to the crater and on the grounds of Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge were Long-crested Eagle, Speckled Pigeon, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, Red-rumped Swallow, Cape Robin-Chat, Common Stonechat, White-browed Scrub-Robin, White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher, Montane White-eye, Golden-winged Sunbird, Tacazze Sunbird, Scarlet-tufted Malachite Sunbird, Baglafecht Weaver, and Streaky Seedeater.

Long-crested Eagle. 6/5/09

We got an early start on June 6 and started our descent for a full day on the crater floor. We quickly encountered significant herds of wildebeest and zebra, and got reasonable views of three bull elands, the largest, and amongst the wariest, of antelope species. Shortly after the eland encounter, we found ourselved ideally positioned to watch a wildebeest nearly walk into a lioness crouching in ambush. The wildebeest finally detected the lioness when no more than 10 yards separated the two, and the wildebeest beat a hasty retreat before the lioness could pounce. The lioness retreated across the road to where the rest of the pride waited, giving the alpha male a swat on the nose before lying down for a nap.

Bull Eland in Ngorongoro Crater. 6/6/09. (click to enlarge)

Lioness Waiting in Ambush. 6/9/09. (click to enlarge)

Just a Love Tap. 6/6/09/ (click to enlarge)

The crater floor gave us our first views of Ostriches and Kori Bustards, and excellent views of at least four different black-backed jackals. A visit to one of the hippo pools found several of the big beasts lolling in the water as a variety of waders fed around them, including a trio of Black-headed Herons that one of our group insisted were western reef-herons. How he arrived at that erroneous conclusion I never did figure out. We ate our boxed lunches with the safari vehicles arranged around us like a fort, not for protection from lions or other mammalian predators, but rather to shield us from the marauding Black Kites who have learned that pre-made sandwiches can be easy pickings.

Black-backed Jackals. 6/6/09 (click to enlarge)

Grey Heron, Hippo, and Blacksmith Plover. 6/6/09.

Black-headed Heron. 6/6/09.

Black Kite Hunting Sandwiches. 6/6/09.

After lunch our goal was to find a Black Rhino. Ngorongoro Crater is one of the last places to find this animal in Northern Tanzania, and despite the fact that 27 rhinos currently inhabit the crater, they can be very difficult to find. We finally located three rhinos, though due to bad light and distance, photos were not possible. The highlight of the afternoon was watching a cheetah stalk and very nearly catch a Thomson's gazelle. As we started to depart the crater we had to stop for three ostriches who had decided to sit in the road like large, feathery speed bumps. As we ascended the road back to Ngorongoro Sopa Lodge, we were graced with superb, albeit brief, views of a normally shy serval sitting next the road. These small, spotted cats are seen much less frequently that their larger cheetah, lion, and leopard cousins.

Cheetah in Pursuit of a Thomson's Gazelle. 6/6/09.

Resting After the Unsuccessful Hunt. 6/6/09.

Speed Bumps. 6/6/09.

New bird species recorded on this very productive day, beyond those mentioned above, were Little Grebe, Spur-winged Goose, Maccoa Duck, Red-billed Teal, Hottentot Teal, Cape Teal, White Stork, Black-shouldered Kite, African Marsh Harrier, African White-backed Vulture, Hildebrandt's Francolin, Red-knobbed Coot, Black-bellied Bustard, Three-banded Plover, White-winged Tern, Dusky Turtle-Dove, Rufous-naped Lark, Red-capped Lark, Banded Martin, Wire-tailed Swallow, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Eastern Double-collared Sunbird, Olive Sunbird, Tropical Boubou, White-naped Raven, Rufous-tailed Weaver (endemic to northern Tanzania), Lesser Masked Weaver, and Pin-tailed Whydah.

African Marsh-Harrier. 6/6/09

Coming in Part 3: Serengeti National Park.

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