Thursday, March 31, 2011

ASYV: Over 100 species and counting!

Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village is a good place to watch birds. Several visitors from the United States and Israel and about 20 of the Rwandan students have participated in bird walks so far. There are many birds to see, and part of my job is to keep track of them. 

Students at ASYV are using binoculars and
thinking critically about how to find and identify birds.

I have surveyed birds here from about 6am-8am on average about four days a week since early December, totaling just over 149 hours on 69 days. Although I love bird watching, it is not all fun and games. Surveying involves getting up regularly at 5:30 am before sunrise, getting bitten by ants at least once a week, soaking my shoes/sandals each day while walking through the thick morning dew, meticulously taking notes, and lugging a camera or computer around for documentation. I also have to transform my notes into electronic form.  Data entry is absolutely necessary for keeping an inventory, but it is the most boring part of the job.

The amazing Ross's Turaco! You can see the bright
yellow face and bill and the red mohawk well. You can
sort of see the bright blue/purplish color its body. What
you cannot see is the bright red patches on its wings,
only visible when in flight. I have seen this species 
(Musophaga rossae) at ASYV 6 times, only in the 
undeveloped area behind the school. 

So far, I have identified 115 species of birds that live on or have visited the 144 acres of ASYV property, with another 6 birds narrowed down but not to the species level. To put this in perspective, around 17% of the birds found in Rwanda or about 1% of the world’s birds can be seen right here in this small space.

The African yellow white-eye, Zosterops senegalensis, is a
delightful little bird.

About 87% of the 115 birds have been spotted at least twice; only 15 birds have only a single record. For example, I have found the violet-backed starling only once (although there were four individuals present that day, 1 male and 3 females). In contrast, I have seen the very-easy-to-see pin-tailed whydah on all 69 days.

A male violet-backed starling, Cinnyricinclus leucogaster,
was quite an exciting find!

Birds from 36 families have visited or live at ASYV (add to that families of two birds as-of-yet unidentified, woodpeckers and nightjars). Remember, a family is a grouping of organisms in the Domain-Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species taxonomic system. Among the families (which are in parentheses), there have been six species of sunbirds (Nectariniidae), 7 species of dove/pigeon (Columbidae), 9 species of martins/swallow (Hirundinidae), 10 species of waxbill (Estrildidae), 11 species of Accipitridae birds of prey (not including the two birds of prey from Falconidae), and 11 species of weavers (Ploceidae). 

This male scarlet-chested sunbirdNectarinia
, is as pretty as they get. The turquoise
on the head is not always seen and this is the only
photograph I have that captures the head color.
Visiting ASYV? You have a good chance of seeing it,
as I have recorded it more than 1 out of every 2 days.

Six species remain elusive: a woodpecker has been spotted twice, a swift that defies my dichotomous key, a female cuckoo that has only been around once, an Aquila species of eagle, a black-faced bird of prey, and a nightjar. Most of these birds have been visible for just a short glimpse, or I have yet to see the details I need to make an identification. I have also heard of an owl that people have seen, but it has not been reported in months and I have yet to see any trace of it. 

The spot-flanked barbet, Tricholaema lacrymosa, is one
of two species of barbets I have found at ASYV.
Neither species is common on the property; I have only
three records for this species.

Is all this information for the birds? Of course not. It is important for several reasons. First, it serves as a pool of data for student use. The sciences and mathematics are major fields in Rwanda; the analysis and the process of gathering the data provides students with hands-on experiences. It also allows students to learn the techniques and methods of finding and identifying birds. For future park rangers, tour guides, and biologists, they can gain skills they need to be competitive for good jobs. Second, it gives ASYV an important tool for attracting tourists. Rwanda has a lot of potential as a birding destination and having an established bird list (plus a lodge and proximity to Akagera National Park) will capture the attention of birders and tour operators. Third, it allows the students, staff, and visitors to appreciate the natural capital present at ASYV. Although many rural people here have a recognition of some of the birds, they have yet to see many of the wonders up close or understand their full ecological roles (this is based on my conversations and observations). Furthermore, people from cities who now live at ASYV have little recognition of the birds at all or their importance (much like America and probably everywhere else).

Cinnamon-chested bee-eatersMerops oreobates
live at ASYV and are a pretty regular bird
 in the undeveloped area behind the school. 
Yes, they do eat bees, and they catch them 
spectacularly while in flight.

In the coming months, I will devote posts to the most common birds, most unusual birds, the breeding birds, and peoples’ interaction with our feathered friends. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed pictures of some of my favorite birds at Agahozo. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Building the Future

One of the important tasks we have at Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village is preparing our students for life after high school. Some students will go to university while others will enter the workforce. In a country with many people and fewer jobs, skills are of utmost importance.

Two senior four (10th grade) students finish building shelves

Students entering the workforce without specialized skills may have to settle for a job with lower income. For example, in the construction industry, the lowest rung of employment is the porter. Porters make around 1000 RWF per day (about USD $1.68). A porter may do any number of things such as cut wood or haul stones; it is extremely hard work. A carpenter, however, may make 2500 RWF per day (about USD $4.20). Clearly, having specialized skills is an advantage to our students.

Students measure before they cut

At ASYV, outside of school, we have enrichment programs that seek to expose students to different fields and help them build skills. I teach the carpentry enrichment program for the equivalent of 9th and 10th grade students each Monday and Thursday.

Students work together to get their angles square

On the first day of my carpentry EP, I was waiting near the center of the village for my students to show up. I had no idea who was in my program, so I asked two boys who were heading over toward the shed and wood supply. They said they were not in carpentry, but as they came back from that area a few minutes later one boy told me, "Your students are over there, but there is a problem. They are all girls." It was a powerful way to start my EP because it made me realize that through carpentry I could offer my students- most of them female- more than just skills, but empowerment through building.

Our first set of tools rest on top of the first item that students built

We started with a partially-broken hammer, a box of nails, and a carpenter square from last year’s carpentry program; I added my small tree-limb saw, a 1.5 meter tape measure, and a pencil that I brought with me from the States. That first day, we covered the names of the tools and tool safety; each student got to practice using each tool. We built a small table that the students were quite proud of because they had not used most of the tools before the class.

Sawing at a 45 degree angle... nice form!

I took a bus to Kigali on the weekend and bought myself a nice collection of tools for my students to use. I bought 4 hammers, 4 hand saws, 4 carpenter squares, 4 tape measures, and several sheets of sandpaper. About a month later, we got a donation of tools from America that added wood rasps, several sizes of c-clamps, and safety goggles.

Enrichment year (9th grade) students with their finished shelf

In the past 6 weeks of carpentry, my 28 students have learned some of the basics of carpentry and have begun to apply their skills for village projects. Our first project was to build shoe shelves. We have built 9 shoe shelves for different houses. We built a projector stand for the computer lab. We are nearly finished with 4 benches and will build several more for use around the village. Upcoming projects include cabinets for the science center, shelves for the new computer labs, and tables for the canteen. By building items that the village needs, the students not only gain skills but get to see how their hard work benefits their community.

Enrichment year (9th grade) students pose with the projector
stand they built for the computer lab. 

My students are getting better each week at hammering, sawing, measuring, and ensuring their joints are square and flush. Some of them are even starting to design their own projects; perhaps they are future carpenters at work!

Before carpentry students built this shelf, the closet floor
was covered in shoes. It was a great first assignment
for beginners!

(PS: A shout-out to the people that helped me learn tool use over the years- I am happily passing it on to my students!)