East Africa

Dense crowd of Lesser Flamingos in lake.

Dense crowd of Lesser Flamingos in Big Momella Lake, Arusha NP

Everyone loves flamingos, those bundles of pink plumes on stilts. People on our safaris always want to find and photograph them. Here in Tanzania, at Arusha National Park near Mt. Meru, there are soda lakes where flamingos cluster. Flamingos are beautiful, yes,  and are also highly evolved to exploit their unique habitats – lakes full of algae and small crustaceans. They feed with beaks upside down, straining this food from greenish looking water. The chlorophyll of the algae contains carotenoids, pink or orange compounds which are deposited in flamingos’ plumage. Lesser flamingos, who feed directly on algae, are pinker than greater flamingos who eat brine shrimps. The quality of their shallow watery ‘pastures’ constantly changes, so they flap from lake to lake in the rift valley seeking the best food. We used to live on a flyway between Lake Eyasi and Lake Manyara, and often at night we’d see and hear their honking V’s passing over. These strange birds do amazing group parades, chorusing while marching, and they build crusty crater-like mud nests in the middle of desolate caustic lakes.

Lake Momella in Tanzania with dense fringe of flamingos

Flamingos fringe one of the Momella Lakes

Here I want to share a  fact about these fascinating birds. Researchers in 20 nations spent four years on a project to sequence the entire genomes of 48 species of birds. One of the results is that flamingos are closer relatives to pigeons and grebes than to look-alikes such as egrets and storks.  Another surprise was that the chicken seems to be way back there in the genome line, closer to the original bird stock than anything except ostriches.  Studies on bird evolution continue to evolve!

 

The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos  is a wonderful film produced in 2008 by Disney.  If  you missed the TV presentation maybe your library has it. This link tells you more about the film.

Close-up of Lesser Flamingo head

A Lesser Flamingo’s bill is all dark red, and its plumage is rich pink.

Close-up of Greater Flamingo head.

A Greater Flamingo’s bill is pink with a black tip, and its plumage is paler.

Mt Meru and Mt Kilimanjaro viewed from Arusha, Tanzania

Mt Meru (L) and Kilimanjaro (R) viewed from Moivaro near Arusha. Click for bigger view.

I’m looking at two huge dormant volcanoes that grew out of the stretched and splitting rift valley floor. This is the view from above the house where I’m staying with friends just outside Arusha  – known as the safari capital of Tanzania. Mt. Meru rises steeply above the city and Mt Kilmanjaro dominates the land 50 miles to the east.

These two mighty mountains impress me with their majesty and moods. We get to see them frequently because the international airport was built halfway between them in order to avoid their massive effect on wind and weather. We got to know these two while writing guidebooks about them for Tanzania National Parks  years ago. In addition to their uplifting views and challenging climbs they shared secrets too, their shy wildlife like bushbucks and plume-tailed colobus monkeys, their forests, canyons, ponds, streams and falls of butterflies as well as water.

Jeannette gazes at Mt Meru from a house near Arusha

Mt Meru looms in the distance with “parasitic cones” in the foreground.

I’m especially fond of Mt. Meru, a blown out cone (similar to Mt. St. Helens) almost 15,000 ft high and very steep. You can just make out the torn side at the right of the mountain in the picture. Mt. Kilimanjaro is more bulky and going bald in the warming climate, its ice cap melting. Kili is Africa’s highest and the world’s highest free-standing mountain at 19,340 feet above sea level. Kili is actually composed of three cones –  broad-shouldered Shira, the eroded peak of Mawenzi and indented top of Kibo with its crater and ice-fields.

I’m not a lover of hikes in high cold places. However, the plant and animal life on these rift valley mountains is abundant and extremely attractive. Here are some pictures to give you glimpses of life on the mountains.

Jeannette stands among Giant Senecio trees on Kilimanjaro

I’m in a Giant Senecio grove on Shira Plateau, Kilimanjaro

A red balsam flower found only on Kilimanjaro

A red balsam flower, Impatiens kilimanjari, endemic to the forests of Kilimanjaro

A Black-and-white Colobus monkey rests in a tree in Arusha National Park

A Black-and-white Colobus monkey rests in a tree in Arusha National Park