IN SEARCH OF THE AFRICAN GREY PARROT
Cindy and Steve Coster
You will be very familiar with the African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus), a favorite pet well known for being able to “talk”.
We were stationed on Kilombero sugar plantation in Tanzania, south but fairly close to their natural habitat, and on a weekend off we decided to find them.
They occur naturally from the South east of Lake Victoria, westward to the coastal countries of the Congo, Gabon & Cameroon.
Traveling in East Africa is interesting to say the least.
This trip was not too bad by local standards. We flew from Kilombero to Dar es Salaam in a 13-seater Cessna Caravan on a Friday morning and then had to hang around Dar for a few hours as we found out that our connecting flight to Mwanza on the Lake was cancelled the previous day!
From Mwanza, a short hop in a 6-seater Cessna took us to Rubondo Island.
Eric, the Manager of Flycatcher Camp was at the airstrip to meet us and after we’d paid our Park fees were taken to the camp by Land Rover.
We didn’t know what to expect and if the Land Rover was anything to go by, not much!
We had to climb in the back and slide across the seat as only one of the back doors opened from the outside.
Eric sat in front, put his seat belt on and kept his door closed by leaning out of the window and holding onto it with his elbow.
The starter motor didn’t work so another chap from the camp gave us a push and then he jumped into the “dog box” behind us and once we got going the engine purred.
The short drive to camp was through the most beautiful tropical forest with huge trees and long tailed Paradise Flycatchers (Terpsiphone spp.) flitting across the road.
It was around 6.30pm when we finally arrived and all we could say was WOW!
There were ten tented bandas (cabins) set amongst the tropical date palms and trees in a small bay with a sandy beach with the forest as a backdrop – really beautiful – and we had it all to ourselves!
There was a swimming pool and the thatched, open bar/lounge and dining area built on different levels around rocks on a small hillside.
There are tropical plants growing amongst the rocks in the dining room with carved wooden hippo and a dugout canoe perched naturally and decorating the rocks.
Rubondo Island is in a National Park and is a sanctuary too as chimpanzees that had been illegally caught for export were introduced there, as well as some African Grey Parrots which had been confiscated at Nairobi airport.
We did not get to see the chimps because Rubondo is a fairly big island – 250 sq. kms (96 sq. miles) – and most of it is very dense tropical forest.
There are practically no roads and we only had two days.
The birdlife though is amazing, and all the species occur in abundance.
The orchestra of birdsong never stops – it just changes tune at dawn, daylight, dusk and nightfall.
There are hundreds of Yellow-billed Kites (Milvus aegyptius), a lot of them nesting and their high-pitched quavering trill goes all day long.
The piping notes of the White-browed (Cossypha heuglini), Snowy-crowned (Cossypha niveicapilla) and Red-capped Robin-Chats (Cossypha natalensis) increase in volume and become melodious stereophonic duets in the evening, and the rapid piping whistles of Water thick-knee (Burhinus vermiculatus) rise in pitch and volume and then die away on a melancholic note.
Eric who was pretty good with his birds, took us for a long walk on Saturday morning through the forest and along the lakeshore.
We were lucky to see a pair of very rare Sitatunga antelope that have double-jointed, long, thin legs with long split hooves for walking in the marshes.
When we got back to camp at lunch time, we heard the unmistakable loud slurs and raucous notes of some African Grey Parrots.
Then we saw them flying across the forest and there were eleven altogether.
We had found the birds we had come to see.
Their beautiful scarlet tails contrast with their pale silver-grey bodies and give them away.
A huge WOW for us in fulfilling a long-held desire – seeing them flying free!
The journey though, was not over. In the afternoon we did a boat trip to some smaller islands occupied only by thousands of birds.
There were lots of African Fish Eagles (Haliaeetus vocifer), Long-tailed Cormorants (Reed Cormorants, Microcarbo africanus), and the nesting Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) and African sacred ibis (Threskionis aethiopicus) were squawking and squabbling over territory.
Along the way we saw some fish poachers who parked their boat on the shore and took off into the forest at high speed when they saw us approach them.
Our team had no compunction in hauling their fishing net aboard (a new net that they said would have cost them around US$ 400), plus about 30 nice-sized Tilapia that were still alive, and towed their boat to the Parks Board rangers who were patrolling in another boat nearby.
There were at least another 30 Tilapia in the poachers’ boat.
Back at the camp, we were warned against swimming in the lake because of crocodiles, and we saw plenty of them.
We discovered a lovely, shady and secluded deck next to the water and amongst the whitened rocks, colored by hundreds of Long-tailed Cormorants and Little Egrets that spend their days fishing there, and drank our tea listening to the water lapping the rocks.
The smell wasn’t unpleasant and took us straight back to the Antarctic and the smell of the krill that all the Penguins ate.
Even the Yellow-billed Kites went fishing at Rubondo and swooped down on the water exactly like Fish Eagles.
We did a shorter walk on Sunday morning after a hearty breakfast including delicious Tilapia, compliments of the poachers.
In the afternoon we drove across to the other side of the island where the camp attendants leave one boat moored in the care of the Parks Board rangers.
We took the boat and spent the afternoon exploring the papyrus reed beds along the shore.
One of the motors was a small, silent electric one and every time we saw something interesting our boatman switched off the main motor and we glided quietly closer for a better view.
Again, we spotted some poachers.
They disappeared into the papyrus and we left them but confiscated their net along with some more Tilapia!
Altogether we identified 72 bird species, which all occurred in huge numbers and it was very exciting to see so many Pygmy Kingfisher (Ispidina picta).
We got 13 “lifers,” including Eastern grey plantain-eater (Crinifer zonurus), Blue-headed Coucal (Centropus monachus), Blue-breasted bee-eater (Merops variegatus), Black-and-white casqued Hornbill (Bycanistes subcylindricus), Angola Swallow (Hirunddo angolensis) , Snowy-headed Robin-Chat, Swamp
Flycatcher (Muscicapa aquatica), Brown-throated Wattle-eye (Platysterira cyanea), Red-chested Sunbird (Cinnyris erythrocercus), Slender-billed Weaver (Ploceus pelzelni), Northern Brown-throated Weaver (Ploceus castanops) as well as the African Pygmy Kingfisher and of course, the African Grey Parrots.
We had an early start on Monday morning for our charter flight home, and it was chilly.
Steve had developed a nasty cold so really felt the chill and borrowed a Masai blanket from Eric to keep him warm.
It really was a great and relaxing weekend and it was heart-warming to see conservation in action.
They were doing great work with rescue animals and birds.