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The Art of New Species

We first came to live in Ruaha National Park in June 1994. It was about a year after this that I decided to do a large water-colour painting of the Red-billed Hornbills that were so plentiful in the Park. I always work from life, so I set off one morning in search of these beautifully patterned birds, hoping to find some willing to pose for me for more than a few seconds!  Sure enough, they were everywhere, and I stopped often to look carefully at the facial details, as this is always the most important part one needs to ‘get right’. 

I became rather bemused as all the birds I stopped to look at had black grubby faces, and pale eyes, nothing like the cleaner looking Red-billed hornbills I had painted in Tarangire National Park, in northern Tanzania. Those had pink skin, dark eyes and plenty of white on the face.

At that time I was very much a ‘novice’ birder. I thought them to be young birds, so I decided to continue looking for the appropriate subject. Over the course of several days I never found what I was looking for as absolutely all the hornbills I had observed over more than 600 sq. km. had black faces and pale eyes.

On my return to camp I mentioned to Rob that there was something funny about the hornbills here. “Oh nonsense” he replied, “these are all Red-billed hornbills”.  To cut a long story short, it didn’t take Rob long to agree with me - there was something different about the hornbills in Ruaha.


In the 1960’s and early 1970‘s Rob did extensive collecting for various American museums, of birds, small mammals and bats all over Africa, so he was very familiar with the scientific side of birding. We, and the Park officials were thrilled when the experts who conducted the study told us that this is was indeed a new species which was duly called, Tockus ruahae, the Ruaha Red-billed Hornbill.


The extent and range of these birds is clearly indicated on the map, which was kindly supplied by Neil and Liz Baker, from their Tanzania Bird Atlas.

Shortly after the excitement of this had died down, Rob and I were enjoying a trip in a remote and unexplored, relic highland forest, in the extreme western portion of the Ruaha Park. At 1,800 m this small forested area has proved to be most interesting for birds. In 2002, just as we were leaving this highland forest, to head back home to the lower Ruaha Valley, I spied a black and white bird that was hopping around. It looked similar to Arnot's White-headed Black Chat (Myrmecocichla arnotti), but this bird had a black cap and a complete white collar, encircling the neck. It flew off, and I couldn’t locate it again to show Rob. Although I was very excited about my find, we had to leave. It would have to wait until we returned the following dry season.

In 2003, we returned, and set up our camp in a slightly different location. We were surprised and thrilled to find that we were right next to a nest that belonged to the black and white bird with the cap and collar that I had seen the previous trip. We were traveling with the then Chief Park Warden, Mr Mtahiko, and the Chief ecologist, Gladis Ng’umbe. We took loads of photos, and I did several paintings too. We all became very fond of this brave little bird who hopped around so happily, totally unfazed about us camping in her space.  The nest was in a hole at the top of a 4 ft stump, which was located right amongst a busy area of camp activities, so we had fabulous viewing of our new bird! All our visual information that was collected at that time was sent to Dr. Rauri Bowie, in South Africa. Eventually, some 7 and a half years after I first saw our “new” chat, the paper describing it was accepted and Ruaha has yet another “new” species. It has been called Pentholaea collaris, or the Ruaha Chat.




In the end, it was found that its range began west of the Eastern Arc Mountains, south into Zambia and as far west as eastern Congo and Rwanda. Interestingly, the Eastern Arc Mountains provide the boundary between the Ruaha Chat and Arnot's White-headed Black Chat. East of these mountains you will only find Arnot's White-headed Black Chat. 

Ruaha Chat (Pentholaea collaris) to the West | White-headed Black Chat (Myrmecocichla arnoti) to the East 

We would like to thank all the people who helped us on this journey of discovery. Most of all we would like to thank the then Chief Park Warden of Ruaha National Park, Mr Mtahiko, whose enthusiasm and co-operation never wavered, plus Mr Godwell Meing’ataki the Chief Park Ecologist and current acting Warden in Charge for his invaluable help. Dr. Rauri Bowie was fantastic, and we are really indebted to his hard work and enthusiasm for the project. We were delighted, when after 8 years of knowing Rauri only through emails, we were able to meet face to face. We enjoyed having dinner together in our nearest town, Iringa. Needless to say, we had an awful lot to “chat” about. The circle is now complete, but there are many more surprises in store!

Crested guineafowl (Guttera pucherani granti) | Mikumi National Park

When we looked closely at the Crested guineafowl (Guttera pucherani) found in Ruaha we were puzzled by the red on the face, and red under the chin with a broad, plain black collar which this bird sports. The subspecies found in Ruaha, which was thought to be G. p. pucherani, on our investigation transpired to be the same as the original Guttera pucherani granti. Which was named from one specimen collected from Dodoma in 1871 (Elliot) and which was mysteriously dropped from all literature. We found that this bird is certainly much more widespread than previously thought and is now known from Lake Manyara in the north, the Harar Hills and Bwi Hills (Pienaar Heights) between Babati and Kondoa, Ruaha National Park, the areas south of Ruaha, the Udzungwa National Park, and Mikumi National Park. 

Ruaha is a fascinating place to live and every day presents new excitements great and small. I  keep detailed records of the birds, animals, weather and the vegetation, which are invaluable. Everyday we learn new things about our fabulous environment and how the birds, animals, trees, flowers, sunshine, rainfall, insects all depend on what everything else is doing, or not doing. Nothing can stand alone and nothing can be isolated from the whole - the ‘big picture’ is all important.

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