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!)

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