Friday, December 31, 2010

In Search of Inyoni (birds)

3 weeks. 21 days. More than 500 hours. It has been just a short time since I first set foot in Rwanda. As you may know, I came here to volunteer at a youth village designed to help orphans repair their hearts and then help repair the world. I am very interested in the role that outdoor environmental education can play in helping the students, and I have dedicated myself to exploring the possibility.

Last sunrise of 2010, Eastern Province, Rwanda

Before I start any programs or proclaim that birds or trees can help people here, I need to know what is out there. Documenting the flora and fauna of the village will be a long-term process, but I have started thus far by using a good amount of my free time to document the bird life here at Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV).

View of ASYV and beyond from the school

ASYV is about 144 acres large, which is bigger than 100 American football fields. The land is mostly spread out over one side of a hill, but the property does contain the top of the hill and some of the other side. There are farms and other people that live and share this hill with ASYV, and we are bordered by a perimeter fence. At the lowest point of the property is the farm and residential area; as you go up the hill, you pass the offices, sports fields, and dining hall. Toward the top of the hill is the school, which looks far out over the village into other hills, some wetlands, and a lake (Lake Mugesera- see Hike to the Lake). Behind the school and up the hill a little bit more are several acres of abandoned farm land which has been mostly overtaken by grasses, a few trees, and bushes. The birding is pretty good from top to bottom, although the top seems so far to have the most potential for viewing unusual birds.

Michele searching the top of the hill area

On 18 of the days I have been here, I have gone bird watching at ASYV. Most of the time, I start at around 5:40 am to catch the sunrise and conclude before starting my job at 8 am. I have gone out midday, in the afternoon, and before sunset as well. I take binoculars, sometimes a camera, and sometimes my spotting scope. I always take notes, usually just recoding bird names, but I will describe any species that I cannot immediately identify and make notes about behaviors, hot spots, or other meaningful observations. My walks cover the property starting from bottom to top, but I am never able to explore the whole property all at once, so I alternate routes. Michele joins me for most of the trips, but there are days when she prefers sleep (and she has missed a few birds- tough trade-offs!). So far, I have spent 42 and a half hours bird watching on the property.

Yellow-backed Weaver (Ploceus melanocephalus)

We have found and identified 74 species on the property. I expect this number to go up as seasons change and birds migrate. There are around 5 more species that we could not positively identify yet, and they are not included in this analysis. Birds from 28 families are represented, with Ploceidae, the weavers, having the most species present (11 species). In fact, two of the weavers, Yellow-backed Weaver and the Baglafecht Weaver, are among the most commonly seen birds. Of the 74 bird species, all but 11 have repeat sightings. Twenty-six of the birds have been spotted on more than 50% of the days.

Southern Red Bishop (Euplectes orix)

We have birds that are red, yellow, blue, brown, black, white, striped, spotted, and all sorts of mixes in between. Several of the more common birds are spectacular, including the Southern Red Bishop and the Variable Sunbird. We have recorded some amazing visiting birds just once and look forward to seeing them again, including Ross’s Turaco, Long-crested Eagle, Double-toothed Barbet, and Black-chested Snake Eagle.

Variable Sunbird (Cinnyrus venusta)
Long-crested Eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis)
One species in particular that gave us great trouble was the Red-necked Spurfowl. This species is a francolin, which to all the non-birdwatchers, is similar to a quail or even a small turkey. This species is reportedly very shy, and I can attest to that. Michele and I had spotted a pair in the same spot near the bottom of the village on 5 occasions before finally getting the field mark we wanted for a positive ID. We could easily see that the birds had bright red legs and feet, a red bill, and a red face patch over its eye. Furthermore, it had the size and shape of a francolin, was not striped, and was fairly dull brown all over. That narrowed our choices down to just about 2-3 species. We could assume, but when you see a new bird and want to add it to your list, you want to be absolutely sure of the identification. Most of the time we tried to get a closer look, however, the birds became aware of our presence (even at a distance) and flew or scurried into the bush. This week, we set up before dark on three days to scope them from a distance. Unfortunately, fog hampered our efforts on two days; one day the fog moved in after we got there! Today, we stayed with the birds for around 40 minutes, and finally got to see its red neck. The field guide shows the bird, subspecies cranchii, in sort of an upright position, displaying a small red neck patch. The birds in the field were often with their heads pointed to the ground to feed, thus obscuring their neck. As the saying goes, patience is bitter, but the fruits of patience are sweet. Indeed they are, as we finally saw the red neck patch on each bird. With all of the details matching and all the other possibilities ruled out, we had our bird.

Red-necked Spurfowl (Pternistis afer)

In addition to writing about sustainability and life in Rwanda, I plan to feature a bird family every so often by displaying photographs and discussing their roles in the ecosystem. This country is rich in birds, and I cannot wait to share their beauty with all of you. Umwaka mushya (oom-nwaka mu-tcha) (Happy New Year)!

2 comments:

  1. Waited for this post and must say worth the wait. Excited to see a picture of Michele. What an incredible travel log of Rwanda, a country foreign to most but now explodes in amazement as your documentation unfolds. Your photos of the land and birds are impressive and professionally done. Cannot wait for your next post. You and Michele take care. Poppy.

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  2. Your pictures are absolutely stunning! (Can you post them to ASYV facebook's page too?) Am really enjoying the blog... Thanks!

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