My Big Year

2012 might to me be a year of milestones. I for instance turned 30, my dad turned 60, my safari and guide training business is entering its 5th year… and the Tanzania Bird Atlas Project reached its goal of 1 million records.  
I’ve decided in celebration that I’m going to do a Big Year starting Nov. 7th. Many people will know what a big year is from the Hollywood movie that came out last year. I don’t watch a lot of movies, but my girlfriend convinced me to watch this movie because it’s about birds. It might also be a coincidence that is the second year that I organized the on-the-ground logistics for a 23 day Tanzania endemic trip run by Birdquest in the UK, where they routinely score 490±3 species of birds.

Now Tanzania is one of the most diverse countries in the world, one that boasts 11% of the world’s bird species. If you have a bit of experience with birds and try, you can easily get over 100 species in a day. Friends of mine (Daudi Peterson, David Moyer, Jon Simonson, Mike Peterson), also mentors, recorded 318 species in a day, and when I was 14, I used to challenge myself to get over 60 species in a day just in the backyard.

Some of my friends and guests who have been on safari with me think I know every bird, but that’s the way I feel when I go birding with serious birders who know their LBJs. LBJs are Little Brown Jobbies or the little brown and grey birds that are really hard to identify. If it were up to me, I might have used slightly different language to describe those little things.  As much as I love birds, I hit the wall with those LBJs and there’s too much other stuff out there that is so intriguing that I’ve pursued some of them instead of challenging the wall, but… maybe it’s time to face it and break it.

It took me a while to find the world record for a world big year, but apparently it stands at 4,372 species. The couple who hold the record have their own blog Now, I’m not going to sell my house to fund around the world trip, and I had to promise my girlfriend I wouldn’t be the Bostiks guy. I haven’t spent hours strategizing, I don’t have an audio playback system to call rarer birds in, I really struggle with LBJs, but I do have a lot of friends who love birding and my work takes me to many different parts of Tanzania. My real motivation to do a big year is for fun. It’s a challenge and I’m going to need to focus (but not too much), but I’m not going to twitch (well I might a bit). I’m going to hope to get a lot of help from friends around Tanzania who know where to find local species… but ultimately I’m hoping to get a chance to learn a whole lot.

Lilac-breasted Roller (Ndutu)
So, if you’re keen, follow me on this celebration of Tanzanian biodiversity- here…


A Hadza man tells me the names of different places.
A couple of weeks ago I took a family to spend a few days with the Hadza hunter-gatherers. The Hadza are a very interesting people to visit, not because of a complex society, but the opposite- beautiful simplicity. The Hadza speak a language full of clicks- not dissimilar to the bushmen of the Kalahari, yet linguistically distinct. They live almost entirely off roots, berries, honey and meat that they collect daily. The technology is so simple that there is no obligate reliance on anyone, so everyone is practically equal and independent. Their society is based on immediate return, not delayed return like most others so there is no need to accumulate food or amass wealth.
Not the stance they teach you in archery.
But an effective one..
Anthropologists studying hunter-gatherers and especially the Hadza see it as an opportunity to look into the past and try to understand how our ancestors probably lived. They’re not saying that the Hadza are backward or subhuman, but that the technology they use is probably very similar to the technology that the first humans used. By definition: “hunter-gathers are people who forage for wild foods, practicing no cultivation or animal husbandry (Marlow, 2010).” Because the environment that the Hadza live in is so similar and close to the habitat in which early homonid fossils have been found, they are the most relevant society to study from an evolutionary viewpoint.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) larvae are a delicacy.
In a study conducted in the 80’s that scored different societies based on their complexity the Hadza (and Mbuti pygmies of Congo) scored 0 on the scale of 0-40 (Marlow, 2010). Hadza technology consists of a bow, arrows, and some men have an ax. Many also have a knife, and the women use sharpened sticks to dig for tubers. They make fire and light rolled cigarettes by using a fire drill.

Entrance tube of a Stingless bee (Trigona sp.) hive.


Who am I?

1.     I am a mammal.
2.     I belong to my own taxonomic order called Pholidota but I’m more closely related to Carnivores than other mammals.
3.     I am bipedal (which means I walk on my two back legs).
4.     I don’t have teeth so I have a very strong muscular stomach and sometimes I swallow sand to help grind my food.
5.     I can extend my tongue nearly half a meter and it is very thin. It isn’t attached to a hyoid bone like most mammals but instead it extends into my thorax.
6.     I spend a lot of time with my face in anthills and termite mounds so I have small eyes and my ears are basically just holes in my head.
7.     Some people refer to me as myrmecophagous.
8.     I am a very good digger and the claws on my hands are extremely tough.
9.     I have a heavy tail that I use as an anchor when I dig.
10. I have hard scales that even a lion can’t bite through so I roll up in a ball when I feel threatened.
11. Like most other one-of-a-kind animals, I’m threatened by the animal trade because my scales are used in Chinese medicine and witchcraft. If only they knew that they could chew their fingernails for the same effect- my scales, just like rhino horn is just keratin like fingernails.