Birding Without Borders

Day 228: The Tapatio Triumph

A little help from a good luck charm.

August 16, 2015: Arusha, Tanzania  Joe lined up a couple of birding stops en route to Nairobi this morning, with our main target the Sharpe’s Longclawa Kenyan endemic that looks kind of like a meadowlark. We left Lake Baringo first thing, crossed the Equator, and arrived at the Kinangop Grasslands, where the longclaws live, late this morning.

With a name like the Kinangop Grasslands, I expected to find, well, a grasslandbut soon realized that the habitat has mostly been destroyed. The Sharpe’s Longclaw now lives a tenuous existence on tiny patches of pasture wedged between tree plantations, houses, and crop fields in this one small part of Kenya. Joe, Alan and I stopped at several of these fields and walked a grid to search for birds, but couldn’t find a longclaw to save our souls. After the third fruitless search, the mood began to get a little deflated, and we returned to the car.

It was time to deploy the good luck charm. More than a week ago, when Alan (who is from Seattle) joined me for this session in Kenya, he brought an awesome gift: A bag of Tapatio (Mexican hot sauce) flavored Doritos chipsmy favorite American junk food! I have been saving them all week for just the right moment, and, this morning, that moment arrived.

“Tapatio, work your magic!” I said, as I popped the bag open in the back seat and breathed in its sweet aroma. Joe tried a chip, grimaced a bit at its spiciness, then delicately ate one more. “I don’t know when I’ll eat one of these again,” he admitted.

Then he got serious. “We have time to try only one more spot,” Joe continued. Alan and I happily polished off the rest of the Doritos while we repositioned to a fourth pasture down the road, this one larger than the first three. This time, when the three of us walked into the field, spread out to cover more territory, the mood was focused: Now or never.

A hundred yards in, Alan yelled something like, “Bird!” and pointed to a patch of thick grass by a barbed wire fence. We stalked closer, and two Sharpe’s Longclaws walked into view! It’s amazing how much these birds look and act like meadowlarks, though they are not related at all to those North American speciesan excellent example of convergent evolution. The finer points would be discussed later, but, at that high-five moment, the only words we could articulate were “Yeah! Oh my gosh! Whoop-whoop! Thank you, thank you, Tapatio!”

I caught my flight with ease and, less than an hour later, touched down in Arusha, Tanzania this evening, with Mount Kilimanjaro looming over the horizon. I’ll spend the next 13 days in northern Tanzania before continuing to Uganda. The Tanzania visa process was laughably elaboratethey sent me to three different booths, stamped everything in sight, took a hundred dollars, took all of my fingerprints, and took my picture four times (maybe I should shave more often?). A tourist in line asked, “Hey, man, are you going to climb the mountain?” 

“Nah,” I said. “I’m a birdwatcher.”

New birds today: 4

Year list: 3,996

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