Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflecting on 2011, a big year in birds

Lesser flamingoes in Arusha National Park, Tanzania

365 days. 525,600 minutes. How does one measure a year in the life?*

Friday, December 30, 2011

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Welcome to Earth on the Wing!

Welcome to Earth on the Wing! This is a blog about my personal
experience with birds, ecology, and sustainability. Thanks for visiting
and I hope you fly with me again soon.

Earth on the Wing

Meyer's (brown) parrots (Poicephalus meyeri) on the left with a male
African orange-bellied parrot (Poicephalus rufiventris) on the right,
Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

Yellow-billed storks (Mycteria ibis) on the wing,
Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

White-crested helmet-shrike (Prionops plumatus), near Kibungo, Rwanda

Denham's bustards (Neotis denhami),
Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

African paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis),
Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

My final photograph in Africa. Although I am no longer in Rwanda,
you can read about my continuing experience with birds,
ecology, and sustainability at Earth on the Wing.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The crane they call Umusambi

Grey-crowned cranes (Balearica regulorum) live in Africa. In Rwanda,
this is the bird they call umusambi.

Grey-crowned cranes range from Uganda (where they are the national bird)
and Kenya down along the eastern half of sub-Saharan Africa nearly
to the tip of South Africa. 

Grey-crowned cranes are omnivores, and they often feed in grasslands, as
they are in this picture from Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania.

Adult cranes have a wingspan of almost two meters, In this picture, they
are flying above the plains of Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

Cranes fly around to find food but when they breed, they make nests
of broken grasses in shallow waters. They often find spots in wetlands
that have both shallow water and tall plants for seclusion and protection.

Both male and female cranes look similar. According to Animal Diversity 
Web, grey-crowned cranes are monogamous and may mate for life.
It takes a young bird about one year to look like its parents.

Sadly, the population of grey-crowned cranes is decreasing. Habitat loss
and capture from the wild have put serious pressure on the cranes. One
day in June, a man showed up with a baby crane and tried to sell it to
Michele and me. We declined.

People capture cranes for food, traditional practices, and the domestic and
international pet  markets. Taking a crane is illegal in Rwanda, but a payday
of 20,000  Rwandan Francs (about $33 USD) makes it an attractive crime.
As much as we wanted to buy the crane to let it go, we did not want to
give the man economic incentive to take this one or another one later.
My guess is this crane was taken to a bigger city for sale but if that failed,
it was probably eaten. Birdlife International lists this bird as vulnerable.

We could not save that umusambi. It was sad to witness it. Michele drew
this picture shortly after to try to put the bird back in its home.

Fly away, umusambi, fly away!!! Organizations that help to conserve crane
habitats and prevent their removal from the wild include:
Uganda Wildlife Education Center
Wildlife Conservation Society
International Crane Foundation

Works consulted

  • BirdLife International (2011) Species factsheet: Balearica regulorum. Downloaded from on 03/12/2011. 
  • Ryan, P. and Sinclair, I. Birds of Africa south of the Sahara. Struik Nature: Cape Town, 2003.
  • Thairu, M. 2011. "Balearica regulorum" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed December 02, 2011 at
  • "The Cranes: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan." 2006. U.S. Department of the Interior-U.S. Geological Survey. Accessed online December 2, 2011 at
  • "Ugandan Cranes Declining Due to 'Witch Doctors.'" National Geographic News. October 19, 2007. Accessed online December 2, 2011 at

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Rubona Sector Almanac

“There are some can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” Aldo Leopold, in the forward to A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold used basic interactions between plants, animals, soils, water, and weather on his farm in Wisconsin to illustrate the complex web of ecology in A Sand County Almanac. In homage to his most famous writing and my favorite book, I compiled a few brief observations over the past year from each month to celebrate a small piece of land in the Rwandan countryside. 

Leopold started with the awakening of a slumbering skunk in the first mid-winter-thaw in January and finished the month-by-month progression with the birds struggling to grapple with the colds of December. In Rwanda, which has a small temperature range all year round, the seasons are less clear. There is a distinctive dry season (June-August) and a distinctive wet season (September-November), but the rest of the time, it is just less wet and less dry. For those of you interested in the wild things in your backyard, this is a snapshot of a few wild things in my backyard this past year, a rural hillside in Rwanda.


You wake up in a fog. There are hills flowing over the earth’s crust in every direction but you might as well be anywhere. The birds are timid in the fog and you can get closer to them than usual, if only you could see them clearly. Unless rains come, the sun will bake off the fog within an hour. It feels hot by 8 AM, but the equatorial sun is mitigated by our elevation of 1,550 meters (about 1 mile). 


Ants are everywhere, making their trails above ground while the soil is soggy. Explosions of breeding termites would go unnoticed if it weren’t for the tens of thousands of wings that litter the ground in the morning. By afternoon,however, the bodies have been mostly eaten by birds or carried off by ants.

Blackcap warblers are feeding in the bushes. These little birds breed in Eurasia, but are paying a visit to our hill. The cold of Eurasia prevents a menu of insects at this time; fortunately, ants, termites, and all sorts of other invertebrates are the season's special in Rwanda.


The sun sets around 5:45 PM and rises at around 5:45 AM. Half of the day is lived in darkness, a time when owls fly over, snakes slither on the pathways, and frogs croak to announce their presence in lasting wet spots.

Few and fewer places get their light from the moon and stars at night. When the moon is not visible, it is dark. If there are no clouds, stars form long streams of shimmering white, what is called the Milky Way. When the lights are out, the electricity is down, or you walk far enough away from the lights, the sky is an explosion of stars. You also see the cycles of the moon, and their pattern becomes familiar with each passing month. 

Blackcap warblers continue until mid-month. I see them for the last time on February 15. The rains are unpredictable but sometimes last for several hours. 


European bee-eaters and barn swallows have begun to pass by in numbers. They look bright and sharp as they fly over from the south and presumably migrate north. They stop by and rest on power lines, feasting on bees and flies in their aerial assaults. Western Marsh Harriers, a European breeding bird, even flew over twice this month. These visitors are not nearly as visible as the residents. Birds like yellow bishops, green-winged pytilias, and yellow-backed weavers ignore humans passing as they continue to sing from the tops of grasses. Male pin-tailed whydahs chase every female in sight and will chase any other bird that gets close. 

Eastern portion of Lake Mugesera


Michele and I were walking toward Lake Mugesera, a long, deep lake with fingers that reach into every valley. Defying the clouds in the distance, we were going to look for birds that are specialists of the swamp and denizens of the lakeside. An hour into our walk it started pouring, and we took shelter under a tarp in the back of a house. A young couple operated a restaurant under this tarp, and the rain had driven a couple dozen travelers from the road to this sheltered spot. 

When you wait under a tarp watching the rain fall, you see two clear elements of life in the Rwandan countryside. First, perhaps obvious to state, water flows to the lowest elevation. This has tremendous implications for who gets water easily and what distance everyone else has to walk. Second, people live by the weather. When it rains you go inside and let the clouds water your crops. When it’s dry, you haul water from where it has previously gathered below. Three hours later, the rain stopped falling, and we made our way to the lake.


Flowers are blooming in all directions. Counts of bees returning with pollen are the highest they have been all year, and they seem ready to produce honey. A magnificent yellow blanket spreads across a section of as-of yet uncultivated hill. Rains continue until the late middle of the month but eventually, I notice that it hasn’t rained in days.


I noted male pin-tailed whydahs without their streaming tail feathers. They are starting their molt into a more conservative appearance; with nesting done for the time, there is no need to be showy. Southern red bishops are flitting around among the bushes, but they lack the red that alerted all to their presence. Only their drab plumages remain.

A period 3 straight days of rain mid-month surprised us as it has been dry for weeks. And then the dry returned.

Non-breeding male pin-tailed whydah


Small tornadoes of dust cycle in my direction. They lack the ferocity of bigger twisters, but the dust is not easy on the eyes, throat, or lenses. Walking down the road one notices a rust coating all plants within a meter or so. They are not unique variations of their species; red dirt kicked up from cars, trucks, motorcycles, and the wind layers upon the leaves. No rains fall; people without wells must walk down hill to the swamp and lake to fetch water. I suppose the birds do likewise.


The lesser striped swallows have abandoned their nests by the guesthouses; white-rumped swifts have moved into one of their empty mud tunnels. Several umuko trees are in full bloom. Their leaves have fallen, which seems to occur before they bloom. Their spindle-finger petals burn red against the green and brown backdrop of grasses and cultivated crops.

Towering clouds reign the sky in all directions. They are not emptying upon us in force yet, but as the month passes, small rain showers punctuate the days. The rainy season is imminent. 


The rain comes in waves. The wind hits you first, with dark cumulonimbus clouds in the distance. You can see it three hills away, then two, then it is nearly upon you.

Now is the time to plant. Farmers have spent the previous month forking the soil, waiting for the rain that will help them turn seeds into breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

Some species have begun their molt back to breeding plumage. The pin-tailed whydahs in particular are noticeable. Small flocks of 15 birds gather on the short grasses, but they are nearly all little brown dull ones. A male sometimes leaps up on to a flower stalk, displaying his blackening plumage and lengthening tail feathers.


Heavier rains have come.  It rained nearly every day until a stretch of five days without a drop. And then the clouds returned and poured upon us with vengeance. One day it hailed. 

The plants grow quickly even on a recently hoed trail due to the rain. Also, the flies have gotten thick and particularly aggressive. When I am working up in the park, they come for my face, landing on my nose, lips, and trying for the eyes. They do not seem to bite, but they are pesky.

Migrant birds are passing overhead, sometimes in large numbers. European bee-eaters fly over again for the first time since March. We had an excellent Eurasian Golden Oriole near the park one morning. Common kestrels have become a regular sight as well. There were a couple days they seemed to be everywhere, even on the roofs of houses. Still, the residents are most visible. A male white-browed scrub-robin sings his song atop a brush branch, then flies a short distance to repeat the process. Other male birds of various species are doing the same; they are announcing their territories to other males and inviting females to join them. Male yellow-backed weavers, pin-tailed whydahs, and yellow bishops are now in full, bright breeding plumage.


The heavy rains continue. Some days it rains nearly all day, all night. Some days it may not rain heavily but it spits at us all day. On the days where you don’t see too much sun it gets cold, or what feels like cold, though it is nothing like the colds of more temperate climates. You do need a jacket to stay warm. 

When the rain stops and the sun shines, the drama of open sky and towering clouds stretch over the hills. Thousands of clouds, thousands of hills, seeming to roll on as far as the eye can see. That is, if a morning fog doesn't block the view!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Visiting the relatives

We share around 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, according to the San Diego Zoo. In Kibale National Park, Uganda, these relatives rule the forest.

Chimpanzees construct nests to sleep on at night

We visited five different forests between Uganda and Rwanda that are known to support populations of chimpanzees. In our experience, they are not always easy to find and even when you do see them, it may only be a brief encounter. Most tracking hikes give you just a brief shot at observation in the wild. However, in Kibale, you have the unique option of tracking them for the whole day. On November 5, at 6 am still in the dark of morning, Michele and I jumped off the back of a motorcycle and began our search for Pan troglodytes.

Our guide had been a ranger in the park for many years. We started searching for a group of chimpanzees not-yet-used to people but discovered only smashed figs from a recent meal. We later found a lone mother and child collecting and eating fruits in a tall fig-like tree. We eventually followed a habituated group (used to human observation) as they wandered the forest. We counted 18 individuals in the group, but a few more could have been out of sight. Because they were used to humans, we could sit/stand around ten meters back observing them while they ate, groomed, played, climbed, and rested. We even saw a skirmish with olive baboons!

At around 2:30 pm, it started to rain. A flurry of excitement filled the chimpanzees, and our guide told us "the rain dance" was imminent. Male individuals ran back and forth on two legs and used their hands to shake and pull young trees (normally they walk on all fours using feet and knuckles). Other individuals crowded close to big trunks to avoid the bursts. We watched until every chimpanzee had seemingly ran off or vanished into the rain. 

Even though chimpanzees and humans appear very different from each other on the surface, consider that our cells are nearly identical in form and function, and we have nearly identical internal anatomies. Check out more similarities and differences between humans and chimpanzees

Humans are in such a different world than chimpanzees, but we share the same earth, the same biology, and a common history. Various populations of chimpanzees in Africa total up to two hundred thousand (200,000 chimpanzees). We are at a population of seven billion (7,000,000,000 humans). Our worlds collide as our demands on the forests of Africa grow. Is the earth big enough to support both species? Will we be able to visit our closest genetic relative in the future? I do not know the answer to these questions, but I hope the answer is yes. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Leave only footprints

Hippo prints, Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. Note the tire track
on the right came before the hippo passed.

Tracks from the past
Impressions in the mud
Here but now gone
Our footprints linger on

Leopard print, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

Take only memories
Leave only shapes
Elephants, hippos,
Leopards and apes

Chimpanzee foot and knuckle prints, Kibale National Park, Uganda

Casts left in African soil
As animals make their way
The stories mud could write
Of the details of the day

Elephant print, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

Rain falls heavy from the sky
Washing away yesterday’s marks
But leaving the dirt soft
For fresh footprints to start

Human footprints, Rwanda

Friday, November 11, 2011

Art and science collide!

Binoculars. Colored pencils. Early mornings. Rough drafts. In a world full of birds, art and science combine to make bird knowledge accessible.

Red-eyed dove - Streptopelia semitorquata) - Inumah

Agahozo-Shalom is rich in birds, and now its students can learn about them with a new poster illustrating more than 30 of the most common species.

The poster features drawings and the names of the birds in English, Latin (scientific), 
and Kinyarwanda. One of Rwanda's top bird guides (who is a native Kinyarwanda 
speaker) helped us to find the local names. A student artist completed 26 
of the species while Michele (the art teacher) completed 7 species. The poster is 
shown here in lower resolution because it is not yet ready for distribution.

Meet the artist: Rossi, a 9th grade student at ASYV, drew most the birds.
He was president of the student art club and spent his free time on
Saturdays and Sundays illustrating our feathered friends.

Cinnamon-chested bee-eater - Merops oreobates - Imisamanzuki

I used my field notes from over 100 bird walks at ASYV over the past year to determine which birds to include. All of the birds here are fairly easy to find and observe, although some of the visitors like African harrier hawk and black-headed heron are not always present. A few common birds such as tawny-flanked prinia, red-faced cisticola, and red-rumped swallow were excluded due to space constraints and/or difficulty of observation without binoculars. However, Michele and I donated a copy of Birds of East Africa (Stevenson and Fanshawe) to the library and several pairs of binoculars for anyone who wants to find out more information.

Speckled mousebird - Colius striatus - Umusure

Southern red bishop - Euplectes orix - Isawdi

The poster is in the science center and on an information sign at the nature park. Other groups who may see birds regularly (security and kitchen staff) have been given posters as well. The poster will hopefully be printed for display in other spots in Agahozo to help even more people learn about and enjoy the birds of Rwanda.