Sunday, December 4, 2011

Earth on the Wing

Meyer's (brown) parrots (Poicephalus meyeri) on the left with a male
African orange-bellied parrot (Poicephalus rufiventris) on the right,
Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

Yellow-billed storks (Mycteria ibis) on the wing,
Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

White-crested helmet-shrike (Prionops plumatus), near Kibungo, Rwanda

Denham's bustards (Neotis denhami),
Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

African paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis),
Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

My final photograph in Africa. Although I am no longer in Rwanda,
you can read about my continuing experience with birds,
ecology, and sustainability at Earth on the Wing.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The crane they call Umusambi

Grey-crowned cranes (Balearica regulorum) live in Africa. In Rwanda,
this is the bird they call umusambi.

Grey-crowned cranes range from Uganda (where they are the national bird)
and Kenya down along the eastern half of sub-Saharan Africa nearly
to the tip of South Africa. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Rubona Sector Almanac

“There are some can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” Aldo Leopold, in the forward to A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold used basic interactions between plants, animals, soils, water, and weather on his farm in Wisconsin to illustrate the complex web of ecology in A Sand County Almanac. In homage to his most famous writing and my favorite book, I compiled a few brief observations over the past year from each month to celebrate a small piece of land in the Rwandan countryside. 

Leopold started with the awakening of a slumbering skunk in the first mid-winter-thaw in January and finished the month-by-month progression with the birds struggling to grapple with the colds of December. In Rwanda, which has a small temperature range all year round, the seasons are less clear. There is a distinctive dry season (June-August) and a distinctive wet season (September-November), but the rest of the time, it is just less wet and less dry. For those of you interested in the wild things in your backyard, this is a snapshot of a few wild things in my backyard this past year, a rural hillside in Rwanda.


You wake up in a fog. There are hills flowing over the earth’s crust in every direction but you might as well be anywhere. The birds are timid in the fog and you can get closer to them than usual, if only you could see them clearly. Unless rains come, the sun will bake off the fog within an hour. It feels hot by 8 AM, but the equatorial sun is mitigated by our elevation of 1,550 meters (about 1 mile). 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Visiting the relatives

We share around 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, according to the San Diego Zoo. In Kibale National Park, Uganda, these relatives rule the forest.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Leave only footprints

Hippo prints, Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. Note the tire track
on the right came before the hippo passed.

Tracks from the past
Impressions in the mud
Here but now gone
Our footprints linger on

Leopard print, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

Take only memories
Leave only shapes
Elephants, hippos,
Leopards and apes

Friday, November 11, 2011

Art and science collide!

Binoculars. Colored pencils. Early mornings. Rough drafts. In a world full of birds, art and science combine to make bird knowledge accessible.

Red-eyed dove - Streptopelia semitorquata - Inumah

Agahozo-Shalom is rich in birds, and now its students can learn about them with a new poster illustrating more than 30 of the most common species.

The poster features drawings and the names of the birds in English, Latin (scientific), 
and Kinyarwanda. One of Rwanda's top bird guides (who is a native Kinyarwanda 
speaker) helped us to find the local names. A student artist completed 26 
of the species while Michele (the art teacher) completed 7 species. The poster is 
shown here in lower resolution because it is not yet ready for distribution.

Meet the artist: Rossi, a 9th grade student at ASYV, drew most the birds.
He was president of the student art club and spent his free time on
Saturdays and Sundays illustrating our feathered friends.

Take a virtual bird tour of Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village!

Interested in nature? Great! New to birdwatching? No problem! Join us for a virtual tour of the birds of Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.

Black-headed herons (Ardea melanocephala) visit ASYV- so should you!

The sun rises at about 5:45am here, and we could start our bird walk this early if you like. Birds tend to be most active in the morning (about 6am-10am), but the real draw of the early start is that the sun lights up the sky as it appears from behind the hills.

Worth the early wake-up... sunrise at ASYV

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The ones you miss (Ballad of the Birding Blues)

Get ready for some heartache... as much as birds can cause.

First, think about basketball. You have to take shots to score. It is the only way to get points. Inevitably, you are going to miss some of those shots too.

If you want to see a wide variety of birds, you have to go out looking. To see new birds, you may have to travel and spend money/energy/time to find them. Sometimes you get the birds. Sometimes you don't.

Green-breasted pitta, painting at Kibale National Park headquarters.
Never saw it in the flesh (in the feather!)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Run like an antelope

Thomson's gazelle (Gazella rufifrons) in Ngorongoro Conservation Area,
Tanzania. Look at all those flamingos in the background! What a life, to
run around free and enjoy the birds, without a care, except for lions,
cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas, of course.

The name antelope refers to a wide variety of mammals. Although antelopes are extremely diverse, they all share some basic characteristics.

White-bearded gnu (a subspecies of blue wildebeest (Connochaetes 
taurinus albojubatus) in Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania.

Antelopes are even-toed, hoofed mammals. They share this foot morphology with hippopotamuses, warthogs, giraffes, and deer, but none of those are "antelope."

Female eland (Taurotragus oryx) in Akagera National Park, Rwanda.

Monday, October 31, 2011

If truffula trees were real...

I am not sure Dr. Seuss visited Africa before writing and illustrating The Lorax, but if he had, he would have seen his fictional truffula trees. The umuko, as it is called in Kinyarwanda, or Erythrina abyssinica, lights up the hillsides of Rwanda.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Beauty Pageant

Some birds just show it off. A group of seedeaters called Estrildids are small but especially attractive. Even the duller species have their flair. Let's take a look.

Male green-winged pytilia (Pytilia melba) at Agahozo-Shalom Youth
Village, Rwanda

Be sure to vote for your favorite estrildid in the comments section.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Saturday Service and the spirit of umuganda

You won't find a business open or a bus running from 7 am to noon on the last Saturday of the month in Rwanda. Instead, you will find nearly every citizen over 18 engaged in the community service program called "umuganda."

Agahozo students pose with the litter they cleaned up at a Saturday
Service event.

At Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, we practice umuganda in a slightly different way. Every Saturday (and on Sunday for 7th Day Adventists), students participate in village-wide community service projects. One of my roles here this past year has been to coordinate these "Saturday Service" events.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Zebras, rhinos, and giraffes oh my! A mammal extravaganza

Common zebra (Equus quagga) in Ngorongoro Conservation Area,

There are roughly 5,000 mammal species on Planet Earth. Some extraordinary species inhabit East Africa. Enjoy them!

Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) in Ngorongoro Conservation Area,

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bringing the sausage tree to Agahozo

The sausage tree is found in a variety of habitats, including the open
plains of Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

The sausage tree is a prominent tree of the African landscape. It is native to sub-Saharan Africa and can be found in nearly every country in that range. But you hardly see them in Rwanda.

The tree gets its English name because its fruits resemble giant sausages.
This picture is from one of the only Kigelia trees I have seen in Rwanda.

Kigelia pinnata is found in the surrounding countries Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi in savannahs and woodlands from 1100-3000 above sea level (I have seen it in both Uganda and Tanzania). Despite having the elevation and (at least formerly having the) habitat, I have only seen a few individuals of this species in Rwanda, all near the shore of Lake Muhazi, but I would guess it can also be found in Akagera National Park.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The gecko in my bathroom and other lizards of East Africa

I love this little lizard. It eats bugs and poses no harm to anything else.

I like all types of wildlife. I see lizards from time to time as I am birding or as they wander into our house. I don't plan to provide much text... just enjoy the lizards!

Tropical house gecko (Hemidactylus mabouia) at Agahozo-Shalom
Youth Village, Rwanda

Usambara two-horned chameleon (Chamaeleo fischeri) in the West
Usambara Mountains, Tanzania

A young Usambara two-horned chameleon that I picked up from the
middle of the road and put into the vegetation.

A species of chameleon in dry country outside of Tarangire National Park,

Water monitor (Varanus niloticus) in Murchison Falls National Park,

Striped skink (Trachylepis striata) at Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village,
Rwanda. It is funny that this picture is actually out in the nature park at
ASYV because I see these skinks everywhere. They live just off the
pathway that leads away from my house and they are everywhere,
even venturing inside to eat bugs.

Mwanza rock agama (Agama mwanzae) in Serengeti National Park,
Tanzania. The female is actually duller brown, again a form of sexual

Red-headed agama (Agama agama) in Murchison Falls National Park,

I think this is a Tree agama (Acanthocercus atricollis), but I do not have
a more definitive field guide nor did I get a look at whether it has a
dimpled occipital scale on the crown of its head or not. Call me a bad
lizard-watcher, but I have no idea what that is or how I would know
if I saw it. Herpetologists, help!

Basking is a behavior of reptiles to warm themselves up in the sun.

How can you not love lizards? For sharp, scaly little critters, they sure
are cute.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Boy, you're lookin' fine! Sexual dimorphism in birds

Ostriches (Struthio camelus) are sexually dimorphic. The male (right)
has a pinkish neck and legs, and black and white feathers. The female
(left) is mostly brown. 

When males and females of the same species have different physical forms, it is called sexual dimorphism. These differences can be in body parts, color patterns, and size.  If you are trying to identify a species, recognition that the sexes may appear different is key. I once met a woman who swore she had two species of cardinals in her yard, but after a bird walk she discovered the Northern Cardinal males are bright red whereas the females are greyish red. Same species, but different looking. 


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Kinyarwanda-English Bird Dictionary

Kids that followed us on a birdwatching hike imitate our use of binoculars.
South of Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, Rwanda.

Bird = inyoni. Whenever someone eyes us suspiciously or gawks at us as we are out staring at a bird, all we have to say is “inyoni.” Hahaha, uproar and laughter! Inyoni, imagine that!

Kinyarwanda: Sarufuna, English: hamerkop (Scopus umbretta) at Lake
Kivu, Rwanda

Many of the bird names in Kinyarwanda are not specific to the species of bird, but represent a group of similar birds. For example, although there are seven types of turacos in Rwanda, some as strikingly different as Ross’s Turaco and the Great Blue Turaco, the name is the same for them all (inganji). 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Chatting with Robins

White-browed Robin-chat (Cossypha heuglini). Vegetation by Lake Kivu,
Rwanda. This is also a common bird at Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.
Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers)

One of the tricky aspects of bird lingo is that some common names do not carry over from location to location. In addition, some birds have names because of similar looking birds, but are not even classified in the same family. For example, one might assume that the American Robin (Turdus migratorius) and the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) are closely related. Not so! They are actually classified in different families, with the American Robin in Turdidae (which contains Thrushes and other similar birds) and the European Robin in Muscicapidae (Old World Flycatchers). 

East Africa contains examples from both families, and they are delights!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Little Game Hunters: Eagles, Hawks, and Falcons

Bateleur eagle (Terathopius ecaudatus) at rest in Murchison Falls
National Park, Uganda

Everyone can enjoy eagles, hawks, and falcons, otherwise known as birds of prey. Everyone, that is, except the prey. Sorry rodents, snakes, lizards, and smaller birds, this post celebrates your air-borne stalkers.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A birthday with gorillas

The dominant male silverback gorilla is singing HAPPY BIRTHDAY
to me in his loudest voice. Ok, he's actually just yawning.

It is nearly 11 am, and we have been hiking up the side of an ancient volcano for nearly two hours. As Michele, myself, a group of six others, and a guide clamber through stinging nettles, bamboo, and mud, my eyes light up and I grab Michele's hand.

There they are…

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Year of the Beard

The year of the beard

Ok, ok, so I have had a beard continuously for years. However, I have not trimmed my beard in a year to the day (September 29, 2010-September 29, 2011), and thus it was certainly a year of an ever-thickening beard. Here are some of places and things this beard has been and done...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Alien invasion!

Flowers of Lantana camara. Look closely- each one of those blooms is
a small flower on a bigger 'head.' Each head can have up to 20 flowers.

I have met the enemy, and its name is Lantana.

Lantana camara is a plant species originally from Central and northern South America. Sixty years ago this beautiful plant was still in its native range, but it was taken to Europe as an ornamental. People then took it around the world, and now sixty countries or major islands are grappling with its effects on their ecosystems.

Lantana thick and tall in Agahozo-Shalom Nature Park, 7:30 am one morning.
You can barely make out the tree inside.

Lantana is all over East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi). On our hillside in Rwanda, outside of landscaped and cultivated areas, Lantana is the dominant plant. You pass it on the way to the dining hall and school, you sit near it in the amphitheater, and you see it in Parike W’Agahozo (Agahozo-Shalom Nature Park). In the park especially, where we are promoting the growth of native species, Lantana is a major problem; it is a non-native (alien), invasive species.

The same view of the tree as above five hours later with Lantana removed.
There is still more to remove from the back and sides, and several stumps
still need  to be removed. Clearing Lantana from this tree was particularly
tricky because there are swarms of honeybees that live in it!