We met in the St. Peter's Church parking lot at 5:00am on Sunday. We crammed into three vehicles for a drive to Bagamoyo. We were ten people; the leader was the notorious Neil Baker.
It was dark, but the road was smooth and almost empty. In less than an hour we arrived at our first destination: the Livingston Club. The Livingston Club is a lovely, open, refreshing establishment; for birders in particular, the Livingston is beautifully situated along a white sand beach beside a thin mangrove forest.
It is the last in the line of hotels along the northern end of Bagamoyo, about two kilometers from town center, where the tarmac road ends. The sky was lightening as we uncapped our binoculars. Dawn is the magic time for birding. The birds start to sing before light so many can be identified aurally, if you have a good ear.
At first light the birds are up and about hungry for the tasks of a new day; therefore it is a good time to identify them visually. Being an important component at the Tanzania Bird Atlas, Baker knows an amazing amount about Tanzania's birds. Aurally he can identify them by call, and he can often accurately imitate the call.
He can tell you when a bird is imitating the call of another bird! Visually he can identify almost every Tanzanian bird during all stages of life, males and females, even when moulting. Every week, people send him photos of mystery birds to identify. He is world famous in that regard.
Along the beach we saw several species of plovers (Sw. ndoero) (Crab, White throated, and Spur-winged) and sandpipers (Sw. kitwitwi). Dozens of Carmine Bee-eaters were flying over the ocean. They are elegant with a sleek strong aerodynamic body followed by a long straight layered tail.
They were flying this way and that, as if flirting with the rising sun. The light, peeking up from the horizon, flashed onto their feathers- bright carmine red. The bee-eaters (Sw. kinega) seemed to hold fire as they darted here and there, riding the air above the waves, catching insects. We moved onto some commercial salt pans, and walked along the bunds. Many waders were searching for food in the salt pans.
We passed Black winged Stilts (Msese Bawanyeusi), Water Thickknees, Great Flamingoes (Heroe Mkubwa), Terns, and Marsh Sandpipers. When Baker saw a small bird with a short fine beak and a black eyepatch and cried," A Red-necked Phalarope". He explained, "This little bird is very rare here, although sometimes large flocks can be seen at sea. They breed in the Arctic around small pools.
Rednecked Phalaropes winter in three different places - the European population all winter on the Indian Ocean. Now they are getting ready to fly north." Above us were more Carmine Beeeaters - flashing red. A Great Sparrow hawk floated above - their diet is birds.
A Buteo Hawk followed. We walked to the edge of the ponds. In the bush beyond we heard tinkerbirds (tonk tonk tonk) and cameropteras (Sw. kibwirosagi) (pyeek pyeek pyeek pyeek). There were starlings (kuzi), doves (njiwa), Yellow-throated Longclaws (Sw.Tokeeo Koomanjano), and Zanzibar Red Bishops (Sw.Kweche Mwekundu).
We watched a pair of Yellow- breasted Apalis in the scrub, Black crowned Tchagras in the euphorbia, a Winding Cisticola (Kidenenda Mkuu) posing on the top of a grass stem and Golden Weavers (Kwera Tumbodhahabu) building a nest. Then Baker cried again, "Boehm's Spinetail". "Rare on the coast," he explained as we watched it fly with distinctive slow wing beats, foraging around the tree canopy and above the grasses.
If I were birding without Baker, this would be the kind of bird I would never know the name of - I would just note a swallow like bird. But Baker filled out the picture. Later he sent a map of the 553 sightings of Boehm's Spinetail in Tanzania - no breeding records at all. We came to some grass lands with electric wires running overhead.
Beeeaters were swooping after insects from the wires: Carmine, as we had been seeing, but also Blue-cheeked and White throated. About one hundred of each. The landscape was not spectacular - flat scrub and grass land. It is heavily used in ways that are valuable and difficult to price.
It felt like time out of time. The Bee-eaters have been greeting the sun for thousands of years. Yet, it seemed like the city could thoughtlessly swallow this before long. With that thought surrounding me in heavy gloom I sat on a hillock. I looked up. It seemed the Carmines tipped their wings on purpose to capture and flash the new day's rays. Could that be?