Dense early morning mist was swirling around the old buildings at Amani, as I emerged from my room at the Medical Research Institute. It had taken most of the previous day to get here from Arusha, the last stretch of rutted road up the forested slopes of the East Usambara mountains being particularly challenging. Arriving at dusk, the rambling complex of old colonial buildings had the spooky aura of an Alfred Hitchcock movie set.
A dozen or so African Green-Pigeons flew through the mist and settled in a large strangler fig arching above the entrance road. I followed them and was soon peering up into the branches of a Ficus natalensis laden with juicy yellow figs. The tree was a hive of bird activity, with two Silvery-cheeked Hornbills plucking the pea-sized figs with the tips of their huge bills, tossing them into the air, then gulping them down. White-eared Barbets outnumbered the sombre-looking Green Barbets by at least twenty to one, and starlings of three species swizzled and snapped at the fruit. In the midst of this feeding frenzy were two elegant Green-headed Orioles – their moss-green upperparts merging into the foliage, but offset by their bright butter-yellow underparts and neck collar. Each oriole collected figs with its slender coral-red bill, clearly relishing the fleshy fruit. A Moustached Green Tinkerbird began its rapid trilling call in the canopy, and while searching for this elusive critter I noticed three more of the splendid orioles in the upper part of the tree. Clearly, the Green-headed Oriole is not uncommon here.
At an elevation of 900 metres above sea level, the little settlement of Amani has a fascinating history, having been set up as a ‘health centre’ and botanical garden by the German colonial government in 1893, then becoming an agricultural station before being occupied by British forces in 1916. During the 1930s and 40s, the eminent ornithologist R.E.Moreau was based here and conducted detailed research on numerous bird species. The botanical garden was expanded throughout this time, boasting a magnificent collection of trees and plants from around the world. In recent years, the centre has taken on the rusty patina characteristic of colonial buildings in the tropics, although the old post office is still in operation and the Tanzanian National Institute of Medical Research is now based here. Birders are welcome, but the simple rooms and basic meals will not be garnering any Condé Nast luxury travel awards in the near future.
The East Usambara range is part of the ancient Eastern Arc mountains which extend in a broken spine from southern Kenya to central Tanzania. A great many endemic bird species occur here, but much of the forest has been cleared, degraded or fragmented in recent times, and the survival of species such as Amani Sunbird, Usambara Eagle-Owl, Long-billed Tailorbird and Dappled Mountain-Robin is of grave concern in the face of expanding human populations.
There are three distinct races of Green-headed Oriole, each restricted to a small distribution range on the eastern seaboard of Africa. The southernmost race. Oriolus c. speculifer (distinguished by its white primary wing coverts) is confined to the forests of Mount Gorongosa in Mozambique and this species is a major ‘target bird’ for southern African birders. (P.S. ‘ndegi’ is the Swahili word for ‘bird’).
Amani, East Usambara mountains, Tanzania, February 2004