Thursday, February 24, 2011

Safari at Akagera National Park, second visit

A visiting teacher to Agahozo from New York was interested in a safari and told me she was a “wannabe birdwatcher.” I jumped at the idea… let’s split the cost and go birdwatching at Akagera National Park!

A vervet monkey on the move! (Cercopithecus aethiops pygerythrus)

Our driver was an hour late to pick us up this past Sunday, but it did not matter much as it rained from around 6:30am to 10am. Dark grey clouds loomed in all directions, and it did not look like a promising day for birds or any sort of fun.

Hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius) are easy to see at Akagera

We got to the outskirts of the park around 8am in our 4x4 jeep. The road up to the park entrance goes through some rather flat woodland. From what we saw in the rain, I estimate that it would be some excellent birding on a sunny day. There were of course common birds like grey-headed sparrows, red-eyed doves, red-cheeked cordon-bleus, ring-necked doves, black-lored babblers, and white-browed robin-chats. We also picked up white-headed black chats, grey-backed fiscals, Ruppell’s long-tailed starlings, European bee-eaters, greater blue-eared starlings, and lilac-breasted rollers, which are all pretty nice looking birds. We were treated to some helmeted guineafowl along the side of the road, and three African grey hornbills rested all wet from the rain in a tree. We drove up a hill to reach the gate, as the rain still fell.

Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris)

At the entrance gate, we stopped at the welcome desk. We filled out a form, met our park ranger, and paid our $30/person entrance fee. As we were walking out the door, the receptionist noted that we were birding and that the fee would actually be $70/person. I could not find any extra services we would be offered for the higher fee so I informed her that we would not look at birds and would just stick with the $30 “game drive.” The guides are pretty good with their birds, but of the two I have had at Akagera, they do not always know the birds at the species level (bee-eaters are bee-eaters, starlings are starlings, etc.). Plus, birds are the easiest group of wildlife to see. If they expect to get a premium price from birders, they better up the services, because I can bird just as successfully for $30 as I can for $70.

Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi)

With our guide, we backtracked slightly to take the giraffe viewing road. We spotted one giraffe in the woodland, but the rain still poured. We picked up a neat mammal, a small antelope called a bush duiker, along the way. The only new birds we added were sooty chats and a lonely Senegal lapwing.

Olive baboon (Papio anubis)

The end of the giraffe road is back at the entrance gate, and I had our driver take us up to the Akagera Safari Lodge. I stopped in at the desk to get their most up-to-date contact information, as the Bradt guide and all the internet sources I have found were not current. Two olive baboons did show some interest in our car but quickly wandered off. We went to the lodge to look for the red-faced barbets that supposedly nests in a dead branch of a tree in the parking lot (I have seen in two sources, so I thought it was worth checking out). We found the ficus tree near the entrance to the parking lot that supposedly hosts the barbets, but the only dead branch had broken off and lay on the ground. We did get out and look around in the light rain, but did not find the barbets, which is a species endemic (found only) to the area west of Lake Victoria and in between the mountains separating Uganda/Rwanda/Burundi from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I had hoped to see this bird, but we missed it here and on the day overall.

Hildebrandt's Francolins (Francolinus hildebrandti)

As we descended a giant hill toward Lake Ihema (the biggest lake at Akagera), we saw two fairly large antelope, waterbucks,  foraging in the grass. We found hildebrandt’s francolins, emerald-spotted wood doves, white-browed coucals, and a soaring African fish eagle. As we reached the edge of the lake, a few vervet monkeys captured our attention; they are very cute, a mostly grey-furred monkey, with a black face surrounded by white. A woodland kingfisher, Egyptian geese, African open-billed storks, and squacco herons populated the banks and nearby vegetation. A lone hippopotamus swam in the waters offshore. And then, some stunning blue-cheeked bee-eaters landed in a bush not far away! These, according to the African Bird Club list for Rwanda and the Birds of East Africa, are migrants and do not breed in Rwanda. They were very pretty, and the rain was finally stopping enough for me to take a few pictures through my spotting scope.

Blue-cheeked Bee-Eaters (Merops persicus)

We continued along the lakeshore, picking up African jacana, marabou storks, spur-winged lapwings, and long-toed lapwings along the way. We drove past a fishing village and through some woodland to another much smaller lake called Shakani. Here we saw a great white egret (same as great egret In Americas but here it is a different subspecies), numerous cattle egrets (many in breeding plumage), one intermediate egret, two little egrets, glossy ibis (same species as in Americas), hadada ibis, some great cormorants, and a grey heron. We had one sandpiper, but we had a poor view and did not bother to identify it at the species level. The highlight of this lake was a single yellow-billed stork, which we had previously only seen from afar; this bird was close, and modeled for our cameras. A single Nile crocodile swam across the lake, showing just enough to be seen- if you are looking- but it posed a certain danger to any unsuspecting bird or mammal.

Yellow-billed Stork (Mycteria ibis)

On the road away from Shakani, we checked the mousebirds but only found speckled mousebirds (no blue-naped). A bare-faced go-away bird and an African green pigeon hung around on separate branches for some great views, and we added long-crested eagle, fork-tailed drongo, and white-winged black tit to our day’s list. We passed some bushbuck (a bovine mammal) and arrived at Lake Birengero. There is an area that you can get close to the lake and scan the papyrus along the shore of the opposite side for the shoebill, an absolutely unique and amazing bird. The shoebill is only found in Africa, is specialized to eat lungfish in mainly papyrus swamps, and is not easy to see. The rain had stopped and the sky was clearing so we stayed for around 40 minutes, scanning the shore, back and forth. We did not find the shoebill. This is a bird that Akagera and tour operators advertise, and it is frustrating how hard it is to access in “one of the most accessible shoebill haunts” (Bradt Guide). Much of the opposite shore is not visible, being blocked by trees, reeds, and papyrus that are on our side of the lake. The shore is far enough away that even if you did find the shoebill, it would not be a great view. It would be easy to put an observation tower here. While canopy towers in the rainforest might be expensive to construct (with trees 150-200 feet tall), the trees by Birengero are much shorter. A tower would be unobtrusive to the habitat of the shoebill and allow Akagera to actually show one of its top animals. If the shoebill were reliably seen here, I have no doubt that many more birders would come to this park. On Birengero itself, we found a single grey heron, a great cormorant, an African fish eagle, and one grey-crowned crane.  As we looked for the shoebill, a white-headed saw-wing whizzed around, common bulbuls sat in a tree, some common waxbills darted around the reeds, and a spectacular double-toothed barbet landed low in the vegetation to our left. The Fanshawe illustration in Birds of East Africa does not do this barbet species justice; it is so much prettier in person. No shoebill though. We moved on, sad to miss this species for the day (we did not see it in other marshes in the park).

Lake Birengero (the papyrus marshes are mainly
to the right across the lake, so are not shown in this picture,
but may hold resident shoebills)

We saw yellow-fronted longclaws, little bee-eaters, and a spot-flanked barbet on the way to our picnic spot on Lake Hago.African grey hornbills and lilac-breasted rollers were particularly showy here, and they looked sharper than in the rain earlier. Some hippos nearly joined us for lunch, as they exited the water down shore and eyed us cautiously. A few pied kingfishers rested on bare branches next to the lake and African wattled lapwings were also present. We ate our hard-boiled eggs, wheat rolls, amadazi (fried dough rolls), pineapple, and bananas while contemplating what we had seen and what we might see next. On the drive to our next spot, we found an immature black-chested snake eagle, Levaillant’s cuckoo, and one of the finds of the day, a black-bellied bustard standing atop a termite mound in the distance.  Our guide pointed out the bustard and much credit to him for the difficult spot. It would be the first of three black-bellied bustards we would see that day. And also, perhaps my favorite of Akagera’s mammals, the common warthogs trotted about, looking silly with their tails sticking straight up. We had good luck with warthogs after this and saw quite a few (no pictures though).

Black-bellied Bustard (Eupodotis melanogaster)
(the last bustard we saw- picture taken on the plains)
We arrived at Plage de Hippos (hippo beach) to look for ducks and waders. We saw hippos and basking crocs; we saw three white-faced whistling ducks, spur-winged geese, Egyptian geese, water thick-knees, and a malachite kingfisher. A large number of African open-bill storks were around, so many that they were actually blocking the views of most of the ducks and geese. A Eurasian marsh harrier flew by, but we turned up no other birds and decided to move on. A black-headed gonolek flew in front of the car, but other than me, no one got good looks at it.

Two crested barbets (Trachyphonus vaillantii)

On our drive to the plains, we spotted three great birds. The first, perhaps the find of the day, was a pair of crested barbets. They flew into a fruiting tree and snacked, only giving a great view at the end. The birds we saw had much more red faces than Fanshawe illustrates, but otherwise the drawing was accurate. Stevenson’s text notes that it has a red-speckled yellow face; it looked nearly all red to me. In any case, it is a spectacular-looking bird, and it was Michele’s favorite of the day. As we drove on, a Ross’s Turaco flew by and a green wood-hoopoe also flew by, showing its orange bill and spotted and lined wings.

A large topi (Damaliscus lunatus) looks at us
 with the much smaller Bohor reedbuck (Redunca redunca)
to the right in the grass

As we reached the plains, black-headed gonoleks gave much better views for all to see. We found some African buffalo with yellow-billed oxpeckers on their backs. Many topi (an antelope with a black face and leg patches) dotted the savanna and a Bohor reedbuck went sprinting by. We found many more buffalo and checked every oxpecker to see if we could pick out a red-billed, but they all were yellow-billed. Crowned lapwings, Senegal lapwings, and many African wattled lapwings surrounded the mud holes or scattered in the grasses. A single black-shouldered kite rode the otherwise empty sky. Two giraffe roamed a hillside in the distance. We found one European roller in a bush and finally got a good picture of the black-bellied bustard. The sun was nearly behind the hills, and it appeared that we might miss zebra altogether. We hoped our visiting friend would see this unique animal. As we left the plains, and drove toward the exit in the hills, common zebra finally showed themselves. We had some sacred ibis fly overhead, and two unidentified nightjars (with white-wing spots) flew in front of the car. We drove out of the park in the dark and started the 2-hour journey home.

Common zebra (Equus quagga) finally showed themselves
just before dark

Although we missed some birds we wanted to see (shoebill, red-faced barbet), we left the park having identified 73 species of birds and 13 species of mammal. Looking at the list of birds, it is heavily skewed toward larger birds. Entirely missed are many groups of smaller birds. We did see many of these birds, but from a moving car it is very difficult to ID them. Even if a small bird lands in open view, we must get the driver to stop, possibly back up, possibly get out of the car, and then look for the bird. This is not easy to do for every little bird, especially if you are trying to cover the whole park (we wanted our visitor to see the plains game in the north, and we also wanted to look for certain birds in the south). Numerous cisticolas, warblers, sunbirds, and two cuckoos did go by, but we did not get the chance to ID them. For future reference or for other birders, if you want to go for smaller birds or concentrate on certain species, you must cover less ground. For this trip, I am glad we did go the whole distance as two of our top birds (crested barbet, black-bellied bustard) all came from the north.

Sunset over savannah and wooded hills in Akagera

Olive Baboon
Vervet monkey
Common Zebra
Common Warthog
African Buffalo
Bush duiker
Bohor Reedbuck
+2 species of mongoose, but I am unsure which ones (one small, one larger)

Nile crocodile
Tortoise, unsure which species

Birds (73 species):
Great Cormorant
Cattle Egret
Squacco Heron
Little Egret
Great Egret
Intermediate Egret
Grey Heron
Yellow-billed Stork
African Openbill
Marabou Stork
Glossy Ibis
Hadada Ibis
Sacred Ibis
Egyptian Goose
Spur-winged Goose
White-faced Whistling-Duck
Black-shouldered kite
African Fish-Eagle
Black-chested Snake-Eagle
Western Marsh-Harrier
Long-crested Eagle
Helmeted Guineafowl
Hildebrandt's Francolin
Red-necked Spurfowl
African Jacana
Grey Crowned-Crane
Black-bellied Bustard
Long-toed Lapwing
Spur-winged Lapwing
African Wattled Lapwing
Senegal Lapwing
Crowned Lapwing
African Green-Pigeon
Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove
Ring-necked Dove
Red-eyed Dove
Ross's Turaco
Bare-faced Go-away-bird
Levaillant's Cuckoo
White-browed Coucal
Speckled Mousebird
Pied Kingfisher
Woodland Kingfisher
Malachite Kingfisher
Little Bee-eater
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
European Bee-eater
European Roller
Lilac-breasted Roller
Green Woodhoopoe
African Grey Hornbill
Spot-flanked Barbet
Double-toothed Barbet
Crested Barbet
Barn Swallow
White-headed Sawwing
Yellow-throated Longclaw
Common bulbul
White-browed Robin-Chat
African Thrush
Sooty Chat
White-headed Black-Chat
Black-lored Babbler
White-winged Black Tit
Grey-backed Fiscal
Black-headed Gonolek
Fork-tailed Drongo
Yellow-billed Oxpecker
Greater Blue-eared Starling
Ruppell's Long-tailed Starling
Village Weaver
Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu
Common Waxbill