Birding in the Ngorongoro Crater: Visiting Tanzania’s Garden of Eden

Visiting Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania offers a glimpse of an almost unique variety of exotic, migratory and uniquely impressive birds. By Duncan Butchart

Ngorongoro, Tanzania. 9 February 2012. Rising up from the eastern arm of the Great African Rift Valley, Ngorongoro was once a gigantic volcano, perhaps taller than Kilimanjaro. Today, its peak long since collapsed into a caldera, it is an extensive highland area with the spectacular 600-metre deep Ngorongoro Crater as its focal point. Apart from being one of Africa's scenic wonders, it has such approachable wildlife that it is sometimes derogatorily labelled a 'zoo'. It also boasts such diverse habitats and micro-climates that it provides extraordinary birding opportunities in a comparatively small area.

 The birdlife is not the most common reason tourists visit Ngorongoro - but it should be

The birdlife is not the most common reason tourists visit Ngorongoro - but it should be

Ngorongoro Conservation Area is situated in northern Tanzania and can be reached on a good road from Arusha. Safari operators fly clients into the adjacent Serengeti or Manyara airstrips. Hiring a 4x4 entails the use of a company driver, but this may be the best bet for independent birders.  A new tar road from Arusha reaches right up to the Lodware entrance gate, although ordinary cars can’t go any further on the muddy, rutted roads.

With a constant stream of moist air moving in from the Indian Ocean, the eastern slopes of Ngorongoro are deeply forested, as is much of the crater rim, with ancient Nuxia and Ficus trees draped in epiphytic orchids, ferns and lichen. At the forest edge, noisy gangs of Hunter's cisticola berate any passer-by, while cinnamon-chested bee-eaters hawk insects from exposed perches.

 Astonishing plumage is the norm around the crater. This starling shows off his colours

Astonishing plumage is the norm around the crater. This starling shows off his colours

Nectar-feeding sunbirds love the great variety of Afro-alpine flowers, with golden-tailed, malachite, bronze and tacazze sunbirds vying for the honour of most glorious. Deeper in the cloud forests furtive birds such as the white-starred robin, black-fronted bushshrike, Abyssinian crimsonwing and bar-tailed trogon live isolated lives. It is a truly wonderful place.

Despite its popularity, Ngorongoro is an expensive destination, although adventurous travellers on a tight budget can backpack and camp. For those wanting to travel in comfort on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, the renowned Ngorongoro Crater Lodge offers the most luxurious accommodation, and also boasts the best resident guides with excellent local bird knowledge. Gibbs' Farm is a small garden hotel set in a coffee plantation bordering the protected area, which offers guided bird walks on a good trail network.

 The unique Ngorongoro combination of high altitude and lush forests offers a haven for birdlife

The unique Ngorongoro combination of high altitude and lush forests offers a haven for birdlife

In contrast to Uganda and Kenya, there are few specialised bird guides in Tanzania, although some lodges have good general guides. Birdquest, Birdseekers and other UK bird tour operators offer trips to northern Tanzania.

Down on the crater floor, the habitat is primarily grassland, cropped short by resident buffalo, wildebeest and gazelle. Trees are restricted to the course of the Munge stream and the Lerai Forest, dominated by open-branched fever trees. The grasslands are home to ostrich, kori bustard, rufous-naped lark and rosy-breasted longclaw, while superb starling, rufous-tailed weaver favour wooded areas. Nearby, the expansive Lake Magadi lures thousands of lesser and greater flamingos, and seeing these pastel pink flocks against the backdrop of the dark forested crater slopes is truly breathtaking.

Other parts of the lake see chestnut-banded plover and avocet dabble in the shallows, joined by legions of migratory Palearctic waders between September and March. As if that wasn’t enough, freshwater pools on the crater also attract a host of ducks, including migratory gargany and European shoveller which squeeze in among the abundant hippos.

 Crater Lodge has not only superb views, a great place to stay, but also excellent guides to show you round

Crater Lodge has not only superb views, a great place to stay, but also excellent guides to show you round

All the hotels and lodges at Ngorongoro are perched on the crater rim, offering magical views over the area. Up there at this altitude (2,200 metres above sea level) the air is crisp and the breezes stiff. A stroll around the grounds of any of the lodges will offer views of birds like the streaky seedeater, white-eyed slaty-flycatcher and tropical boubou, while augur buzzards soar overhead.

Just an hour's drive west from the Crater rim, on route to the adjacent Serengeti, lies Oldupai Gorge - the so-called cradle of humankind - where a completely new suite of arid-adapted birds are to be found. And for many, Ngorongoro is also famous for its large mammals, so any birding experience will automatically involve encounters with big game. But that’s another story, another time . . .

When & What

 Down on the crater floor, savannah birdlife is everywhere pecking, strutting and preening

Down on the crater floor, savannah birdlife is everywhere pecking, strutting and preening

June and July are the coolest months in the highlands. Rainy seasons have become less predictable in recent years, but March to May is often wettest. The best field guide to the region is 'Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa' by Stevenson & Fanshawe (Poyser, 2002). Also recommended are 'Watching Wildlife East Africa' by Andrew & Rhind (Lonely Planet, 2001), and 'Tanzania' by Philip Briggs (Bradt, 2002).

Duncan Butchart is a writer, illustrator, photographer, published author and a naturalist.He is the owner of Nature Works, providing hand-drawn maps, identification charts, brochures and more for eco-tourism operators. Duncan is based in Nelspruit, South Africa.

Photos : Crater Lodge, Tanzanie Tourism