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)!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Meeting some of the world’s poorest, but nicest, people


I slept in today for the first time in several weeks. When Michele got back from leading a yoga session, she told me we had been invited to visit a Batwa village.

The Batwa are one of the ethnic groups here in Rwanda. They were pygmy hunter and gatherers settled here long ago, but adapted as the forests were cleared and other groups settled. Over the last couple centuries there has been much mixing of ethnic groups here so now the term “Twa” (short for Batwa) is generally used to describe very poor people.

Twa people singing and clapping

Our two hosts for the field trip met us at our village. One works here from America on official business and the other is a Rwandan social entrepreneur who does many things, but is currently involved in helping spread technology through Rwandan schools. Both of these individuals had helped this Twa village over the last couple years to improve their situation.

When our hosts first got involved, the village was extremely poor and was seriously impacted by malnutrition. For example, they ate no more than one meal a day. They did not have sewage treatment or even pit latrines, so their waste was a direct hazard to their water supply.

Over the last couple years, with outside help, they have acquired a few cattle, a few goats, rabbits, and improved their wastewater situation. They also have built two water catchment systems (think big rain barrels) that collect water from the two metal roofs they have, which reduces the trips down the hill to a small stream. They now get to eat twice a day, but are still food insecure (if disaster, drought, or if disease hits, their health will decline rapidly and they will starve).

View from the Twa village

One-hundred and sixty-eight people lived in this village, on the side of a hill outside of Kigali (the capital). Their view was beautiful, looking down over a green valley eventually climbing up into hills. The first striking thing, however, was not the poverty, but the overwhelming warmth with which we were greeted. So many people came up and hugged each of us.  Men, women, and children all came up to hug and shake our hands as if we were old friends or family. It was almost overwhelming, but I felt like I was very welcome on their land.

A Twa family's circular hut

We toured the village and got to step inside a few “houses.” This settlement had no electricity or running water. The first home we visited was constructed of wooden limbs tied together and walled with red clay and pebbles. Its roof was thatched plant material.  While these roofs are traditional Rwandan, they can be problematic when it rains. Only two homes in the village had corrugated metal roofs, which keep water out. These metal-roofed homes had the water catchment systems. Just across from the more modern hut with the metal roof was a circular hut with a thatched roof. A mother and father lived in this hut, which contained a raised cot and shelf hand-made of local materials. It also contained several pots on top of an open fireplace (really just a place for a fire on the floor).There was only room for three of us to stand huddled together, and we were nearly spilling out the entrance. Other homes were even smaller, with some like tents made of thatched plant material and some made of clay. Families live in these tiny spaces… And I thought my 315 square foot apartment in NYC was on the smaller side.

A Twa family's residence

Once back in the common area, the inhabitants broke into song and dance. It was like a flash mob, without any clear direction or leader. From the video we got, I can count at least 41 people of all ages involved.  The mix of clapping, drumming, and singing lasted around six minutes. Afterward, some villagers spoke in Kinyarwandan and a translator explained to us that they were so grateful for us to come and see their performance.

Twa dancing

The young Rwandan social entrepreneur then handled details of some microloans with the villagers. People expressed their concerns, asked questions, and divided up the funds. They will be trying three small new businesses that should bring desperately needed income. Currently, other than subsistence farming, this village has one source of income. They carve sharp sticks for brochettes, roasted lamb meat on a skewer, which is a popular treat in Rwanda. For 100 skewers, they get 100 Rwandan francs, which is about 17 cents US dollars. I counted at least two piles of 600 sticks made by many people, and I am not sure how many they make over all.  But consider the math: if they produced 10,000 skewers a day, then that would bring in about $17 USD. Divided by 168 people, that is just about a dime a day per capita income. And I doubt they produce or could sell that many skewers on a regular basis. Such small amounts, such as a $100 microloan, can make tremendous impacts on the lives of those who need it most; they are often are willing to work very hard to improve their lot when given the opportunity.

Both men and women carve the brochette skewers

Poverty comes in many forms and can be defined in many ways, but generally, according to the World Bank, poverty is “pronounced deprivation in well-being.” The people I met today have very little income, produce most of the food they eat, and have no refrigeration to prevent spoilage. They do not have access to modern health care, do not have running water or electricity, and do not have vehicles or other personal transportation. The road to their village is narrow, unpaved, and marked with deep gullies from erosion. Some of these challenges can be resolved fairly easily, while other improvements may take decades of societal change to produce.

600 brochette skewers will sell for just over $1 USD

As we left the Twa village, I reflected on how positive they seemed to be despite the tremendous challenges they face. They have so little, but they work hard. They band together to share when it would be easy to fight for small bits. I hope that their situation improves and that as it does, they keep the sense of community that they possess. My visit with some of the world’s poorest people was quite a humbling experience.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Hike to the Lake

The road to Rubona, a nearby marketplace

This Saturday morning, Ido, Michele, and I left the village at 5:40 am just as the sun was rising. We hiked 6km mostly downhill on dirt roads and footpaths to a swamp and lake. We considered taking motos, which are two-seater motorcycles/mopeds driven by their owners, but opted to walk instead. And what a good decision! Out of all the new birds we saw, most were on the way to the lake. We saw hadada ibis, a male grosbeak weaver, two fork-tailed drongos, and a black-necked weaver on the walk down.

The swamp, mostly of papyrus, was a place we wanted to go, but only got there after some young kids helped us navigate the footpaths dividing small farms. In and around the swamp, we found fan-tailed widowbirds (new to Michele and Ido), two blue-headed coucals, and a sunbird that we could narrow down to two possibilities but not fully identify. At one point we saw a large raptor in a tree. We spent about half an hour observing it, noting details, and narrowing down the possibilities. It was a real puzzle. The bird was very dark if not black, had a black eye with no ring of any kind around it, had a bill that was yellow on the base and faded into a black tip, wings that extended beyond the tail, appeared to have reddish on the tail and some white on the wing, but it did not fly. We went through all 80+ raptors that occur in the region (only about 60 have been recorded in Rwanda), took some pictures, and finally gave up. There were two raptors that looked most like it, but neither had all of the details that matched and neither had the size of this bird. We hoped this bird would appear later...
"Mystery Raptor" (read on for its identity)
We arrived at the lake and were disappointed with the paucity of bird life. Agriculture consumes most of Rwanda and at this particular lake cultivation went right up to the banks. We have heard that the water quality is very poor in this lake (no swimming) which also may contribute to the lack of birds. There were a couple pied kingfishers around, which we all have seen in Israel. At once small cove, we saw black crakes and a malachite kingfisher (again, life birds for us all). The black crakes were quite beautiful with black and brown bodies, a bright yellow bill, and red legs and feet. The kingfisher is dark blue with a long bright orange bill for snagging and spearing its prey. Other than that, there were no birds to be seen, so we headed back to the swamp.
Black Crake
We crossed the swamp at a strange sort of bridge, which consisted of straw packed down to absorb the water and make crossing possible. It sunk as we stepped on it and at times we felt like we might collapse in! It was clearly used by local people to reach pools in the swamp for filling jugs of water so we assumed it be safe. On the other side, we found yellow-throated canaries, but decided it was getting hot and thus time to start the journey back. Just then I spotted a flash of red down in the papyrus. We stood and waited to no avail, but then spotted a path that led to the edge of the swamp. There we found two black-headed gonoleks and even snapped a picture! The field guide reports these beautiful birds to be shy so seeing them so clearly made them the species of the day.
Black-headed gonolek
As Ido, Michele, and I were staking out the black-headed gonoleks and a couple emerald-spotted wood-doves that showed up (both life birds for all of us) by the papyrus swamp, up the hill a little bit a crowd of twenty-three local residents had gathered to watch us. Apparently “umuzungus” (white people/foreigners) don’t walk past their farms everyday with binoculars and a telescope, so we were quite the spectacle. After we had identified and seen the birds to our content, we started back up the hill. We greeted the crowd “mwaramutse” (good morning), and they greeted us back. Ido pointed to the bird book and said “inyoni” (birds) to which the crowd exclaimed “inyoni!” and erupted into laughter. My guess is that to subsistence farmers who work hard on these pieces of land, the birds are just there, almost an afterthought, so it is absurd and funny that we would come to see them. We birdwatchers are indeed an absurd and funny lot!

Long walk home
The hike there was fairly easy as it was cool in the morning and downhill; the hike back was almost entirely uphill and in the hot approaching-midday sun. We did find several new birds on the way back, including a village indigobird, a bateleur on the wing (new to Michele and I), and a tawny-flanked prinia (new to Ido). We also spotted what appeared to be the same confounding bird of earlier. This time, after we saw it perched, it flew and we easily figured it out. It was an auger buzzard, but the dark morph of the bird, which is not pictured sitting in the book. Finally all the details matched. Glad to have figured out one of the tough identification puzzles of the day, we trekked on.
Dark morph auger buzzard, on the wing
We got to see how a lot of people live in this area of the world. There were rectangular huts made of bricks with open window holes or with wood slats blocking the windows. Peoples’ homes were made with what appeared to be very local materials, including the red clay-soil that blankets the region. For some, a cow or goat grazed outside the hut and all were surrounded by plants, including banana trees, cabbage, beans, and peas. Small children played in the yards without shoes and ran towards us as we passed. Everyone greets us as we go by or we greet them first. Bicycles, a couple motos, and one truck passed us on the red unpaved road as we approached Rubona, the area with the market. 

Jared and Ido reviewing birds, quenching thirst

We stopped in a small bar there, quenched our thirst with glass-bottled sodas, and discussed the birds of the day. At about 12:30pm, nearly seven hours and 12 km later, we returned to Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. Ido got 7 life birds, Michele got 14, and I got 11. Quite a day!

(PS Props to Michele for great photos of the day!)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Day 1: Murakaza neza! (Welcome!)

My first day in Africa, the first 24 hours in Rwanda, has been a feast of the senses:  the smell of burning wood fires, the sounds of birds, the buzz of flies, the burning heat of the equatorial sun. Distant hills are blanketed in rain but there are patches of blue in the sky above our hill. My day started a little before 5:30am as Michele and I exited the room quietly as not to wake the other people sleeping in bunks in the room. Breakfast started at 7:30am, which gave us about 2 hours of birding. With binoculars around our necks and the Birds of East Africa in hand, we began our search for bird number 1.

So many new birds!
Birds were in no short supply, but identifying them was a challenge. Our field guide describes and illustrates over 1300 species, and the region itself contains entire families of birds that are not represented in North America. The songs and calls were foreign, but at least the sounds alerted to the presence of birds. We found several birds that we could narrow down to the family, but it took nearly half an hour before we identified our first African sighting: a red-eyed dove. Soon after, the new species began to add up. Between our two hours in the morning, a tour around the village, and a 45-minute jaunt to the top of our hill, Michele and I identified 28 species of birds (not including about 8 species we did not fully ID). The birds included:

African firefinch
African pied wagtail
Auger buzzard
Black-headed heron
Black-lored babbler (nominate race)
Blue-spotted wood dove
Bronze mannakin
Common bulbul
Common fiscal
Common stonechat
Fawn-breasted waxbill
Green-backed pytilia
Grey-headed sparrow
Lesser striped swallow
Pied crow
Pin-tailed whydah
Red-billed quelea
Red-cheeked cordon bleu
Red-eyed dove
Scarlet-chested sunbird
Sooty chat
Speckled mousebird
Speckled pigeon
Variable sunbird
White-browed coucal
Yellow bishop
Yellow-backed weaver
Yellow-throated longclaw

It is always a good day when you see a new species, especially by your own research and effort. Today gave 27 new birds to our lists (all but the bulbul).

black-headed heron

After breakfast and during our first tour of the village, a village leader noticed our affinity for birds and suggested that we start a bird club. He said that we could find interested students and make a program out of learning to bird watch. Student members of the club could then take fellow students out to ID common birds. I was hoping that down the road I might bring this up, but he came up with the idea and did it so quickly that it gives me great hope that I will get to spend a lot of my time helping my new students learn about birds. Another leader in the village confessed he used to be a birdwatcher and might be into a few bird observation activities.

Pin-tailed Whydah
Later on, our volunteer group walked for about 15 minutes to reach a small marketplace outside of the village. They sold mostly bananas, cassava, mangoes, and other foods, but also some clothing on the streets. There were a few store fronts also. As we were leaving the market, two small children (maybe 8 or 9 years old) came up to me. It became clear that they spoke no English and since I only have learned a couple Kinyarwandan words, we reverted to non-verbal communication. They pointed at my binoculars. I demonstrated how to use them and let each kid look. They followed me as I tried to catch up with the other volunteers.  We saw a bird land on a tree and I stopped to let the kids take a look (as my group got further away). Never go anywhere in a hurry with a birdwatcher. As I slowly walked along the road, a third kid joined, then a fourth. Soon there were six kids walking with me, and we communicated the best we could, mostly with smiles and pointing at birds. Michele and some other volunteers noticed my absence and noted from afar that I had a herd of kids with me. Michele came back to join the crowd and then with her, we had two pairs of binoculars. The excitement reached new heights. Fourteen youth were soon around us, vying for a chance to look through the binoculars. One kid, who told us he was 15, and spoke the best English of any of them, told us that he “liked the materials around our neck.”  It occurred to me that most or all of these kids were probably using binoculars for the first time, and that they may not even know what the items were before today. We finally reached the village and said goodbye to our new acquaintances. Will my future students, who arrive at the village in just a few weeks for the school year, hold the same interest?

Red-cheeked cordon bleu
One of the other volunteers who arrived separately from the US group is a birdwatcher from Israel. We found out as we walked into breakfast, and he noticed our binoculars and field guide. He told us he has been birdwatching in East Africa for the last couple months. During the day, his experience  was a great help with some ID challenges. He has found us several new birds for our list, and we found him at least one (the pytilia). In fact, as I sat outside typing this post, he spotted an auger buzzard that landed in a nearby tree (and it turned out that there were two in the same tree!). With so many birds to see, the more eyes we have the better. Spectacular first day! 

At dinner, after the sun had disappeared, the power went out suddenly, and we ate rice, green beans, and bananas in the enormous dining hall lit by a single candle and the glow of fireflies. With the clouds blocking moon and stars, the walk home in darkness was quite beautiful. In something like 2 pages, that was a taste of my first day in Rwanda.

Almost There!

12/9/2010: We have just landed in Uganda. In just a short wait and 35 minute flight to Kigali, we will be in Rwanda. It is dark, but I could make out a few trees near the airport. So many birds are out there, but the first sighting will likely have to wait until tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

New York City!

Here we go! Michele and I are off to Rwanda today. We have been in New York City the past 6 days. This blog post is a tribute to this city and some of the experiences we had here.

We made a trip up to the Institute for Environmental Learning, the school I used to teach at in the Bronx,. As soon as we walked in, I saw a “Go Green” sign on the entrance to the school. 

I was thrilled to find out that the school is still recycling and has a good crew of students and a new sponsor of their efforts. I enjoyed catching up with many of my former students and colleagues. I even got to play a quick game of Frisbee with some 8th graders. Keep up the great work PS/MS 15!

On Saturday, Michele and I joined our good friend Rich in Central Park. After over an hour of searching, we finally saw a bird that was a new species for all three of us: a varied thrush. This is a species that lives on the west coast of North America. Birds in Canada and Alaska will migrate for the winter to the Pacific Northwest or California, but sometimes can get lost. This young bird (a juvenile) likely lost its way and ended up in Central Park, much to the delight of birders, but probably not so good for the individual bird. After two hours in the cold weather, we headed over to the American Museum of Natural History to survey the African birds on display in a couple exhibits. Previously, Michele and I have been learning about East African birds from books and from various zoos, but to study them with Rich at the museum was a real treat.

On Monday, at orientation for our upcoming year of service, I gave a presentation to fellow Jewish Service Corps members about birds in Rwanda and led a demonstration on using binoculars. I am amazed with everyone who is going on this trip (we met 8 of 11 of our group members so far); we all bring great perspectives and background experiences to the team.  I am looking forward to bird watching, hiking, and living in Rwanda for the next year with all of them (I will post links to their blogs in upcoming weeks).

I am ready… just a few more hours of orientation before we go to the airport. Here we go!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Welcome to Rwanda on the Wing!

I hope to chronicle the next year of my life on this blog, as it promises to be quite an adventure.  I will be working at a school in a village for young Rwandans. While there is much for me to learn and share, I will be concentrating on three of my passions:  birds, ecology, and sustainability.

Rwanda is about the size of Maryland. While Maryland has up to 429 species of birds in its territory, people in Rwanda have recorded anywhere from 675-720 species (depending on whose list you consult). I have seen in Israel some of the birds that migrate to Rwanda, but most are new species to me. In the next year, I hope to observe these birds perched in trees, singing in the bush, feeding in the lakes and wetlands, and flying overhead, or as you will hear me call out, “on the wing!”