Thursday, June 30, 2011

Where the Blue Monkeys climb: our journeys through the swamp

From the top of our hill, Lake Mugesera and the swamp appears to be just a short walk away. Six kilometers later, you look back, and realize that the six kilometers back are uphill. Fortunately, the wildlife is worth it.

Welcome to the swamp!

There are several routes one can take to reach the lake. Sometimes great birds are found along the way; sometimes hordes of children swarm a few meters behind you. Whatever the route, although it is only 5km to the lake as the crow flies, your path will wind at least 6km past farms, homes, and through swamp.

Swamp-jumping! We have yet to have a full fall-in. If that happens,
we'll definitely get pictures! 

The swamp that fringes Lake Mugesera is actually much better for spotting wildlife than the lake itself. We have seen only around four species on the lake water in five trips, but dozens live in the swamp.

The muck and water can past your knees. Expect to get a little wet.

Much of the swamp has been cleared and cultivated (rice is a major crop in former swamps). Local residents harvest the papyrus and use it to cover soil to prevent unwanted plants from growing. Still, some native vegetation remains.

Papyrus dominates the swamp. What lives inside is a mystery unless you
are lucky enough to have something pop out. 

Patience is required at the swamp. Some spots hardly even afford a view. The potential in a swamp is high, but at the same time, you may walk away with seeing only common species.

Hadada ibis (Bostrychia hagedesh) forage among the swamp grasses.
They are one of three ibis species found in Rwanda.

We have yet to find any of the regional papyrus-endemic species in our local swamp (endemic means that a species is unique to some area, whether it be a habitat type or region). However, if we do find one, it would be quite the treasure. Shoebills, papyrus gonoleks, papyrus canaries, Carruther's cisticolas, and white-winged warblers are all known to live in swamps in Rwanda.

Find the bittern! Clue: look for its outstretched neck.

The allure of the swamp is mainly different birds than we are used to seeing. Every once in a while, we find a species new to us. Our swamp is the only place we have seen little bitterns, cape wagtails, northern brown-throated weavers, and slender-billed weavers.

The little bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii) is spectacular bird, and we
believe there is a pair nesting in this piece of swamp (we have
seen them in the same spots over a three-month period).

There are plenty of butterflies and dragonflies that dazzle along. Sometimes frogs jump from the side and plop into the watery muck of the swamp. We have yet to see any snakes, but this is a habitat where several species could thrive. Locals say there are no crocodiles, and our observations confirm that. People have told us that hippos and elephants used to live here- can you imagine looking down from the hill and seeing elephants?

We found a troop of twelve gentile blue monkeys (Cercopithecus species)
traversing the swamp. They came out on the opposite side to raid
some banana trees.

If you are interested in seeing the swamp and the lake near where Michele and I live, plug in these coordinates to Google Earth or another similar program:  Latitude: 2° 4'13.31"S Longitude: 30°22'5.07"E. That spot is a small cove surrounded by swamp that is favored by both human residents for water and by birds for its prominent perches and abundant food. You can see the swamp (full of small squares that are now cultivated) going north until it forms the top of a "Y." Welcome to the local swamp!

The electric malachite kingfisher (Alcedo cristata) is great to see,
unless you are a fish, amphibian, or giant insect. It uses its long,
spear-like bill to snag its prey while in swooping down at the water.

The pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) is a widespread species that is very
easily seen at the swamp and hovering over the lake.

The blue-headed coucal (Centropus monchus) is a species that lives
primarily in swamps. Although it sometimes calls while resting in the open,
most of the time it is secretive as it forages among the swamp grasses.

The sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) stands here on some cropland
just outside the swamp. It is generally looks for macroinvertebrates
and snatches them with its long, curved bill.

Cape wagtails (Motacilla capensis) are reportedly common in southern
Africa,  but here in East Africa they are considered "local" residents that
can only be found near their territories. Indeed, at the swamp is the only
place Michele and I have seen them.

The black-headed gonolek (Laniarius erythrogaster) is a brilliant-looking
bird.  Jet black on the head, back and wings with a blood-red throat and
belly, it is always a pleasure to see. 

The swamp flycatcher (Muscicapa aquatica) is only found around,
you guessed it, swamps and lakeside vegetation.

Once we are satisfied or if rain clouds or darkness approach, it is time to turn our backs to the lake and begin the long walk climbing from 1335 meters above sea level to our house at 1538 meters above sea level. The lake and swamp is not for everyone; in fact, some might say it is for the birds! So it is, and also for bird lovers like us.

Swamp creatures!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Happy Environment Day from Agahozo!

This past Saturday, Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village celebrated Rwanda's Environment Day. The Environment Club and its two sponsors (a woman named Anne-Marie and myself) coordinated the day's events, which included tree plantings, speeches, and a movie.

Two students and their housemother planted an acacia tree in their yard
 for Rwanda's Environment Day. When fully grown, this tree will be great
 for wildlife and for shade.

We started the day with over 50 people working on our new nature park and trail and gave the inaugural tour to some visiting donors (the park and trail will be covered in an upcoming post). Then we hosted an after-lunch event, where we screened a fun environmental film, heard from four speakers about water and trees, and explored environmental issues at an Idea Marketplace. This event attracted more than 250 village residents, including 220+ students and over 30 staff/volunteers. Finally, we planted 34 trees, including 11 acacia, 20 papaya, and 3 guava. Please enjoy the pictures of our version of Earth Day!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Agahozo staff members learn to fly!

To understand another person's perspective, sometimes you have to step into their shoes. To understand the world of birds, you might just need to sprout some wings and fly. On June 8, I helped the staff of Agahozo-Shalom see our planet and our village from a bird's eye view.

Agahozo-Shalom staff and volunteers act the part of birds in the
migration challenge.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Total Lunar Eclipse from Rwanda

The moon at 6:13 pm was pretty spectacular.

The moon at around 7pm. Clouds threatened, but fortunately never
blocked the view.
Just after 8:20 pm, the lunar eclipse began.

Family 1 Profile Pictures

My friends of Family 1- Haile Silassie, you can see your pictures at this link: Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Congratulations to my students from the Bronx!

June is already half over and that means the school year is nearly complete in New York City. Everybody is getting ready for summer, but some students enter the break knowing that when they return in September, it will be to new schools entirely. For students at PS/MS 15 in the Bronx, finishing 8th grade is a big deal. The Institute for Environmental Learning is a K-8 school, and most of the 8th graders have attended the school for 9 years. I was lucky enough to get to know some of the wonderful young people at 15 as a science teacher and environmental club sponsor.

This group photo in June 2010 features students from multiple grades
and includes a few returning Go Green alumni from previous years.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Carpentry Pictures, Enrichment Year

As promised to my enrichment year students, here are pictures from this year's carpentry program and from our final day. We built 5 sets of shelves, a projector stand, 2 benches, and helped build some of the nature park fence; it was a very successful term. Don't forget there are some photos on a previous post. Enjoy them!

Good times at Agahozo!