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.

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