Birding Without Borders

Day 233: The Ngorongoro Crater

On safari in a two-million-year-old Eden.

August 21, 2015: Ngorongoro Crater Rim, Tanzania — As we left our safari lodge in the Serengeti this morning, I signed out of the visitor log by the front desk. The log had a “best sightings” section next to the usual “comments.” Flipping back, everyone had written the same things: Lion, lion, cheetah, leopard, cheetah, lion, leopard, lion, lion, cheetah, cheetah, leopard, lion. I admit the big cats are cool, but what about all the other Serengeti creatures? In block capitals, I wrote “KARAMOJA APALIS!!” and went away smiling.

So it was ironic when the morning’s highlight was yet another wild cat. As we left the Serengeti Plain today, something flashed across the dirt road and disappeared. We caught up to it just in time to glimpse a servala medium-sized cat with beautiful spotsslinking into the grassland. That puts me up to five cat species in the past two weeks!

Today’s mission was the Ngorongoro Crater, a spectacular and heavily visited natural feature near the Serengeti. This crater, which was formed a couple million years ago in a massive volcanic eruption, is 2,000 feet deep and covers a hundred square miles with a perfectly flat, mostly grassy floor. There are some nice birds here and I added a Desert Cisticola to my list this afternoon, but at Ngorongoro, mammals stole the show.

Because it is a natural enclosure, the crater is an isolated eden with about 25,000 large animals inside. Enormous herds of wildebeest and buffalo roamed the crater’s floor today with large numbers of zebras and gazelles. At times there were so many animals that Roger had to slowly push our Land Cruiser through them like a cattle drive. Near a picnic area, two lions were lounging on a grassy knoll with at least 38 hyenas hanging close by, apparently waiting for some action. It was hot and dusty, and it seemed the hyenas were in for a long wait.

When we subsequently arrived at the picnic area for lunch, Anthony instructed us to eat inside the vehicle, which seemed obviousbut then he explained that it wasn’t because of the lions. Aggressive Black Kites, a type of opportunistic raptor, are known to swoop and attack people here to steal their food. We picnicked in our seats and kept a sharp eye on the sky, but no kites appeared.

“See?” said Anthony. “If you stay inside, the kites don’t come!”

New birds today: 1

Year list: 4,030

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