The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Monday, March 28, 2011

Exploring Akagera Fringes

We set off from Kibungo as early as we could. A dawn start with a group of four is like herding cats. It's always the hats and the raingear you have to go back for. Jared and Michelle are young volunteers working for an American organisation, who live not far away, and they had come to spend the weekend with us. Jared, in particular, is as keen a birder as it is possible to be. To the uninitiated reader, this necessarily entails having, not just a life list of bird sightings, but a day one as well. His enthusiasm was welcome as it would allow me to be lazy with my own note taking which is a little episodic in any case. He was also happy to bring his heavy bird book. I seldom bring mine anyway preferring, stupidly, to check doubtful sightings later at home when deciphering details of an obscure species, whose characteristics seemed so obvious at the time, becomes more than a little speculative sitting in an easy chair with Mutzig in hand.
Story conflation - this one was taken the day before at a nearby lake
Reaching the edge of Akagera NP involves taking motos from Kabarondo, a small town north of Kibungo, and travelling along a bumpy, dirt road for 40 minutes to a small outlying village called Nyankura. We were hoping the moto drivers would take us to the park entrance with a little bit of encouragement and a bonus payment. There we would walk backwards and explore the acacia woodland which is not part of the park proper. I was with the moto leader in our convoy and kept saying 'komeza gike' or 'go on a bit more' in hope that we wouldn't be dumped in the middle of Nyankura with its overly friendly children who would undoubtedly want to follow us wherever we went for the rest of the day.
Nyankura is a frontier town much of which didn't exist 20 years ago when the park was two and a half times bigger than its current size. In 1997 three years after the genocide, thousands of refugees had returned from Uganda and Tanzania with nowhere to live and, to accommodate them, much of the northern part of Akagera was de-gazetted for public use. It is now 1085 square kilometres in size compared to 2500 previously and no lions are left. In our area, which is further south, most of the encroachment appears to have been done by stealth and the park and its wildlife is under daily pressure from poachers and woodcutters.
My functional Kinyarwanda must be improving because we successfully reached our destination - just in time for an enormous Martial Eagle to soar overhead and the heavens to open. Luckily, we were able to take shelter in an unoccupied guard post which has been built with the long term goal of fencing in the whole of the park against intrusions. Unobserved through the observation slats we watched an Impala and newly born foal cross the road. Red-necked Spurfowl were busy everywhere. Common Duiker danced away into the scrub. Water and Bushbuck bounded off but seemed to know where the park boundaries lay.
After an unusually long drizzle (it was almost as cold as a Scottish summer's day!) the rain stopped and - this is unlikely in Scotland - we stepped out of our chilly quarters to observe the swooping of a pair of Lilac-breasted Rollers and the water shaking antics of a family of Bare-faced Go-away-birds. Grey Hornbills and a beautiful Pearl-spotted Owlet (see picture in Cavorting in Kenya post and Picasaweb) sat close together in a bare tree. Not wanting to dilly-dally too long, we started back through the woodland parallel to the road. It was important not to stray too far inland to avoid stumbling across grazing Buffalo which are common, and one of African wildlife's biggest killers of careless humans.
Ross's Turaco
Very quickly things got interesting. A pair of Crested Barbet foraged, woodpecker-like, on a wizened tree. Yellow-fronted Tinkerbirds appeared nearby. Whoever thought up the charming name for these small cousins of the bigger barbets deserves a koala stamp of approval. A Ross's Turaco showed his clownish face through a fruiting tree. Black-faced Oriole and Levaillant's Cuckoo took advantage of the sunshine to start some much delayed feeding. We took a slight detour after noticing a resting African Fish Eagle and juvenile not far off. 'Eagle' and 'majestic' are as clichéd as 'a good time was had by all' but what other words can describe the mature bird in the picture? Interesting looking? Woodland and Malachite Kingfisher were here too. However, we didn't linger as the rich grasslands could easily have contained Buffalo.
African Fish Eagles
We headed closer to the road when suddenly we hit one of those rich birding moments where you wish you were an octopus - for its eyesight not the ink. The adrenalin rush, for those not especially interested in birds, is similar to playing football with a possible bite from a lurking Black Mamba replacing an opponent's boot against your shin in the danger stakes. Or for those interested in needlework maybe the adrenalin charge comes from trying to escape prickle attacks at giant quilting bees. Anyway, Greater Blue-eared and Ruppell's Long-tailed Starlings hawked the numerous insects present after the rains highlighting their brilliant iridescent plumages against the afternoon sun. A metallic bronze-green Diederik Cuckoo, with its clunky name, was far from awkward in its catching ability. Green Wood-hoopoes and Common Scimitarbills clambered among the tree branches looking for grubs. A Bearded Woodpecker tried to fool me into thinking it was another species. Meyer's Parrots squawked overhead. A delightful, little Miombo Wren-Warbler hopped across a hedgerow.
Crested Barbet
The older body simply cannot cope with so much excitement. I had been checking up on a bird in Jared's book and needed to switch from my reading glasses to my field ones when a large, female Red-chested Cuckoo swooped between the branches to grab its fill. No point hanging your specs round your neck where the heavy binoculars swing! I wonder how many pairs of crushed glasses there are lying in obscure parts of the bush. A long time ago some outdoors equipment designer had the bright idea that everything would be all right if you filled shirts with as many pockets as possible. The famous safari suits beloved of naturalists were born. But they are still not quite good enough because you have to remember where everything is in the voluminous pockets. Mice have been known to breed there amongst the used paper tissues and sandwich crusts. Ideally, I want someone to make a sunhat where I can safely place my reading glasses as well as my sunnies when the binoculars are in action. But can it be done?

Meanwhile the Black-headed Gonolek got away. Actually it didn't, I just wanted to type that name; we saw it the day before in Kibungo Valley but that is another story.

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