Thursday, January 6, 2011

Safari at Akagera

This past Sunday, our volunteer group headed out from the village for a safari at Akagera National Park. With over 1000 square kilometers, Akagera provides habitat for hundreds of species of animals, including large mammals such as hippo, giraffe, zebra, buffalo, lion, and elephant. Its bird list includes over 500 species, including the shoebill. With such potential, I could hardly sleep the night before, and I stayed up studying other peoples’ trip lists and the plates in the field guide for what could be a bonanza of new birds.

Akagera National Park

Only three of the nine people on the trip were birdwatchers so we agreed to try for a balanced safari with a mix of birds, mammals, plants, and any other wildlife we could find. Our chances for some animals were pretty slim due to the events of the past twenty years. Akagera has lost over half of its original space due to people settling and cultivating its lands (about 1500 square kilometers lost), and several of its big animals have been devastated by poaching. Still, it is a giant space… what did we see?

Once inside the park gate, interestingly enough, the first bird we saw was a red-necked spurfowl, and it gave great views. This was such a contrast to the experience with the spurfowl that I described in the last post (In Search of Inyoni). Whereas it took us days to get a good look at ASYV, the spurfowl were fairly easy to see throughout the day in Akagera. Soon after passing some impala (a type of antelope) but before even reaching the park headquarters, we found two excellent birds, the crowned hornbill and the African grey hornbill.

African grey hornbill (Tockus nasutus)

The park cost $30 for each person to enter, and you have to have a vehicle to enter the park (luckily we had a vehicle for the day). A guide, paid for in the entrance fees, accompanies visitors during the safari drive. Our guide was named Charles, and although he claimed his bird knowledge was just ok, he proved to be a great companion in helping identify difficult birds and in sharing his knowledge of the local ecology.

Nile Crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus)

At our first lookout point near Lake Ihema, we found Ruppell’s long-tailed starling, African open-billed storks, an African fish eagle, an African darter, glossy ibis, Egyptian geese, a pied kingfisher, and a woodland kingfisher. The spot seemed to be ripe for finding birds. We were not, however, permitted to stay long or wander away from the specific place we had stopped. One drawback to Akagera is that you are not allowed to leave the vehicle except at lookout points and then not allowed to stray from those points. This was a major challenge to finding birds.

Hippo (Hippopotamus amphibius)

As we drove through the park, we found two types of primates, the vervet monkey and olive baboons. Nearly all of the bodies of water contained hippos, and we saw a good number of Nile crocodiles too. Birds like African jacana, black-collared barbet, helmeted guineafowl, and bare-faced go-away birds impressed even the non-bird folk. A few warthogs darted in and out of the bush just long enough for us to see. As we approached the northern section of the park, the big mammals became more numerous. Impala, bushbuck, waterbuck, topi, and zebra grazed in the woodland that surrounded the road or even crossed it in front of our vehicle.

Common Zebra (Equus quagga)
African open-billed storks (Anastomus lamelligerus),
spur-winged goose (Plectropterus gambensis),
white-faced whistling duck (Dendrocygna viduata)

We stopped for a picnic lunch at a body of water called Lake Mihindi. The view was spectacular and made up for the simple lunch of bread and bananas. With hippos and crocodiles further out in the water, open-billed storks, spur-winged geese, white-faced whistling ducks, spur-winged lapwings, and water thick-knees populated the banks. Shortly after lunch, we passed a tree with a couple European bee-eaters. Michele and I had searched and searched for this species in Israel in August 2009 but we never found them; they had already migrated from the area for the year. No worries after all- we got them in Rwanda!

African buffalo (Syncerus caffer)
with yellow-billed oxpecker (Buphagus africanus)

Once we made it onto the plains, we found three additional very large mammals: the eland (largest antelope in the world), the African buffalo, and a single giraffe. These brought the mammal count to 11 for the day. As everyone took in the beauty of the open grassland and its wildlife, Ido spotted three grey crowned cranes far in the distance. A black-chested snake-eagle soared overhead, giving us a total of 54 species of birds on the day. The variety of life on the plains was a thrilling conclusion to our visit, and we soon reached the park exit.

Grey crowned cranes (Balearica regulorum)

Seeing 54 species of birds is a mere scratch of the surface of Akagera. I am eager to return and explore different parts of the park. I really want to find spots that allow for some out-of-the-car bird watching, such as trails, but they may not exist. Let me illustrate how few birds we saw, relatively speaking. On average, I see about 36 species each morning at ASYV in about two hours; ASYV is not a park nor does it contain a variety of habitats. In about nine hours at Akagera, which contains several habitat types, we saw 54 species. Covering so much ground on the safari and being limited to searching for birds from the car made this not so much a bird watching trip but a get-lucky-and-see-what-is-around-while-doing-other-things type of trip. The car had to keep moving on, or even if we did stop, the birds sometimes flew just out of sight from the car. I have read that the outskirts of the park are also quite good, and you are not bound to stay in a vehicle. The birdwatchers among us vowed to return to try to see some of the other roughly 475 species that live in or visit the area.

Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) with Homo sapiens Ido and Michele

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