“This is the most birds I’ve ever seen! I never knew they were here!”
The bright Zanzibar sun is mellowing in the afternoon, as we head north from One Ocean Stone Town. We are on board the beautiful sailing dhow M V Henya – decks cleared of the usual SCUBA gear and equipped instead with a cooler of refreshments and trays of delicious snacks. This is no ordinary zanzibar sunset cruise however – we are in search of big birds and fruit-bats.
The islets we are visiting are within clear sight of Stone Town, yet you wouldn’t know they host one of Zanzibar’s best kept secrets and most spectacular wildlife-watching experiences.
First, we head to a sandbank. From a distance, it appears little more than a desert island, but as we draw nearer, looking first through binoculars then with the naked eye, clouds of circling birds appear.
The captain eases the throttle, and we approach slowly so as not to alarm the birds. At the eastern end of the sandbank a great flock of Lesser Crested Terns are resting, bright white birds with bright orange bills. These agile aeronauts spend most of their time out at sea feeding on small fish. Yet here are tens, even hundreds. While some rest, others wheel around our heads checking us out, then land again on the sand.
At the other end of the sandbank, we find a more mixed flock of birds of all different shapes and sizes. A large, year-old Heuglin’s Gull stands alone in the surf breaking over the bar, dwarfing much smaller Sooty Gulls. By far the most numerous of this group are one of my favourite birds: Crab-plovers. These striking, unique black and white birds are in a family of their own and can only be found in the Western Indian Ocean. In fact, I’ve met birders who come to Tanzania especially to see them. Here, at least 60 or 70, if not more, huddle together facing into the wind. Among them we can also see Grey Plovers, a couple more Lesser Crested Terns, and their cousins the Greater Crested terns (much larger with a lemon-yellow bill), a Common Tern (a species not that common here), and even, to my great delight, a European Oystercatcher! I’ve only seen one in Zanzibar before, a couple of years ago, on this very sandbank. I wonder if it’s the same bird?
Tempting as it is to linger, the afternoon light will soon give way and we have more wildlife still to see.
So, we sail on past Chapwani Island, where we catch sight of a group of Water Thicknees perched beneath a cliff, and a Common Ringed Plover with its bright white collar runs about on the beach. Water Thicknees are one of the iconic birds of the Zanzibar evening soundscape, calling as they fly over Stone Town rooftops – ti-ti-ti-i ti, twee twee twee. Their Swahili name is Chekeamwezi, which means ‘laugh at the moon’, and on cue, the crescent moon is beginning to show above us. A flock of Grey Plovers fly past, showing their distinctive black armpits.
BIRDS ON EVERY BRANCH
Our journey continues to the tiny islet of Kibandiko – known in English as Snake Island. Its silhouette resembles a cargo ship. It would be virtually impossible to land, as the uninhabited island is surrounded by overhanging rocky cliffs and cloaked in impenetrable forest.
I don’t know whether there are many snakes here, but there are certainly birds in spectacular abundance. As the sun slips towards the horizon, the sky is filled with a species not usually associated with the coast: Cattle Egrets – coming to roost for the night. If Kibandiko does not host all the cattle egrets from the west side of Unguja, it must be a great proportion of them. Thousands upon thousands of birds descend, with new flocks of 20, 30, and many more, coalescing, flying around the island, and selecting a tree to roost on. Among them are other species: dark and pale morphs of the Dimorphic Egret (an intertidal species) and the thickets conceal Black-crowned Night-herons which we later see flying towards the main island with their distinctive, raven-like croaking call. Closely scanning the tree-top flocks bears fruit – a beautiful Sacred Ibis is also roosting among the egrets.
We are all overwhelmed. Even Gary, who’s sailed and dived here for 25 years, had not realised this tiny islet is home to the most birds he’s ever seen, “In 25 years in Zanzibar, I never knew they were here!”
FLIGHT OF THE FRUIT-BATS
The sun is setting now. After watching it sink into the ocean while sipping a glass of wine, it is time for the last show of the night. We sail back to Chapwani, this time to the North-eastern side. Again, the sky is full, but this time it teems with very special mammals: Straw-coloured Fruit-bats. With a wingspan of 75 cm, only one African fruit-bat is larger (the Pemba Flying Fox). They roost by day on Chapwani; as the egrets fly one way, the bats fly the other to feast on fruits across Unguja. Pouring out from the forest by the light of the moon and stars, tens of thousands of fruit-bats fill the air from horizon to horizon. The chatter, circling close over our heads, then wheel away towards the twinkling lights along the coast.
With this spectacular finale, it was time to raise the sail for home ourselves.
- Lesser Crested Tern
- Greater Crested Tern
- Common Tern
- Sooty Gull
- Heuglin’s Gull
- European Oystercatcher
- Grey Plover
- Ringed Plover
- Water Thicknee
- House Crow
- Cattle Egret
- Dimorphic Egret
- Sacred Ibis
- Black-crowned Night-heron
- Straw-coloured Fruit-bat
ADDITIONAL SPECIES SEEN PREVIOUSLY
- Long-tailed Cormorant
- Openbill Stork
- African Fish Eagle
About the author
Nell Hamilton is a writer, coastal ecologist, naturalist, ecological gardener and environmental educator. She lives in Zanzibar with her partner and two rescue dogs.