Thursday, June 30, 2011

Where the Blue Monkeys climb: our journeys through the swamp

From the top of our hill, Lake Mugesera and the swamp appears to be just a short walk away. Six kilometers later, you look back, and realize that the six kilometers back are uphill. Fortunately, the wildlife is worth it.

Welcome to the swamp!

There are several routes one can take to reach the lake. Sometimes great birds are found along the way; sometimes hordes of children swarm a few meters behind you. Whatever the route, although it is only 5km to the lake as the crow flies, your path will wind at least 6km past farms, homes, and through swamp.

Swamp-jumping! We have yet to have a full fall-in. If that happens,
we'll definitely get pictures! 

The swamp that fringes Lake Mugesera is actually much better for spotting wildlife than the lake itself. We have seen only around four species on the lake water in five trips, but dozens live in the swamp.

The muck and water can past your knees. Expect to get a little wet.

Much of the swamp has been cleared and cultivated (rice is a major crop in former swamps). Local residents harvest the papyrus and use it to cover soil to prevent unwanted plants from growing. Still, some native vegetation remains.

Papyrus dominates the swamp. What lives inside is a mystery unless you
are lucky enough to have something pop out. 

Patience is required at the swamp. Some spots hardly even afford a view. The potential in a swamp is high, but at the same time, you may walk away with seeing only common species.

Hadada ibis (Bostrychia hagedesh) forage among the swamp grasses.
They are one of three ibis species found in Rwanda.

We have yet to find any of the regional papyrus-endemic species in our local swamp (endemic means that a species is unique to some area, whether it be a habitat type or region). However, if we do find one, it would be quite the treasure. Shoebills, papyrus gonoleks, papyrus canaries, Carruther's cisticolas, and white-winged warblers are all known to live in swamps in Rwanda.

Find the bittern! Clue: look for its outstretched neck.

The allure of the swamp is mainly different birds than we are used to seeing. Every once in a while, we find a species new to us. Our swamp is the only place we have seen little bitterns, cape wagtails, northern brown-throated weavers, and slender-billed weavers.

The little bittern (Ixobrychus sturmii) is spectacular bird, and we
believe there is a pair nesting in this piece of swamp (we have
seen them in the same spots over a three-month period).

There are plenty of butterflies and dragonflies that dazzle along. Sometimes frogs jump from the side and plop into the watery muck of the swamp. We have yet to see any snakes, but this is a habitat where several species could thrive. Locals say there are no crocodiles, and our observations confirm that. People have told us that hippos and elephants used to live here- can you imagine looking down from the hill and seeing elephants?

We found a troop of twelve gentile blue monkeys (Cercopithecus species)
traversing the swamp. They came out on the opposite side to raid
some banana trees.

If you are interested in seeing the swamp and the lake near where Michele and I live, plug in these coordinates to Google Earth or another similar program:  Latitude: 2° 4'13.31"S Longitude: 30°22'5.07"E. That spot is a small cove surrounded by swamp that is favored by both human residents for water and by birds for its prominent perches and abundant food. You can see the swamp (full of small squares that are now cultivated) going north until it forms the top of a "Y." Welcome to the local swamp!

The electric malachite kingfisher (Alcedo cristata) is great to see,
unless you are a fish, amphibian, or giant insect. It uses its long,
spear-like bill to snag its prey while in swooping down at the water.

The pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) is a widespread species that is very
easily seen at the swamp and hovering over the lake.

The blue-headed coucal (Centropus monchus) is a species that lives
primarily in swamps. Although it sometimes calls while resting in the open,
most of the time it is secretive as it forages among the swamp grasses.

The sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) stands here on some cropland
just outside the swamp. It is generally looks for macroinvertebrates
and snatches them with its long, curved bill.

Cape wagtails (Motacilla capensis) are reportedly common in southern
Africa,  but here in East Africa they are considered "local" residents that
can only be found near their territories. Indeed, at the swamp is the only
place Michele and I have seen them.

The black-headed gonolek (Laniarius erythrogaster) is a brilliant-looking
bird.  Jet black on the head, back and wings with a blood-red throat and
belly, it is always a pleasure to see. 

The swamp flycatcher (Muscicapa aquatica) is only found around,
you guessed it, swamps and lakeside vegetation.

Once we are satisfied or if rain clouds or darkness approach, it is time to turn our backs to the lake and begin the long walk climbing from 1335 meters above sea level to our house at 1538 meters above sea level. The lake and swamp is not for everyone; in fact, some might say it is for the birds! So it is, and also for bird lovers like us.

Swamp creatures!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Happy Environment Day from Agahozo!

This past Saturday, Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village celebrated Rwanda's Environment Day. The Environment Club and its two sponsors (a woman named Anne-Marie and myself) coordinated the day's events, which included tree plantings, speeches, and a movie. 

Two students and their housemother planted an acacia tree in their yard
 for Rwanda's Environment Day. When fully grown, this tree will be great
 for wildlife and for shade.

We started the day with over 50 people working on our new nature park and trail and gave the inaugural tour to some visiting donors (the park and trail will be covered in an upcoming post). Then we hosted an after-lunch event, where we screened a fun environmental film, heard from four speakers about water and trees, and explored environmental issues at an Idea Marketplace. This event attracted more than 250 village residents, including 220+ students and over 30 staff/volunteers. Finally, we planted 34 trees, including 11 acacia, 20 papaya, and 3 guava. Please enjoy the pictures of our version of Earth Day!

The theme of the day translates from Kinyarwanda to "Forests: Nature
is our service."

An Environmental Club member served as emcee for the event. Here she
introduced our film for the event, "Planet Earth: Freshwater." This film,
although it covers freshwater all over the planet, features an in-depth
look at the wetlands of the East African rift valley (where we are).

The Assistant Director of ASYV presented about our water challenges
at the village and how simple conservation steps can help us save water.

Three members of the ASYV Environment Club spoke about the importance of trees, how to plant them, and how
to take care of trees. The Environment Club sponsored a tree giveaway at the event so that each family could plant a
tree in their yard.
Volunteer Mike covered himself in mud to promote the Idea Marketplace
 that followed the movie and speeches. Nothing like a guy covered
 in mud to motivate you to attend something.

Students examined moths, flowers, seedpods, feathers, and honeycomb
 with magnifying glasses at the “Nature Up Close” table.

Students perused nature books that they can check out
from ASYV’s library at the “Nature’s Library” table.

Students learned about composting and how it can help the
environment with farm manager Solomon.

Students colored an informational poster at the “Art in the Park” table. 

The informational poster featured living things from Agahozo's new
nature park.

Environment Club members gave out trees to representatives from each
family. We selected a native acacia species (umunyinya), papaya (papay),
and guava (amapera) for planting in the village.

A boy and his housemother planted an acacia in their yard. 

Two girls and their housemother posed with their new papaya tree.

Three girls planted their new papaya tree. 
Happy Environment Day from Rwanda! 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Agahozo staff members learn to fly!

To understand another person's perspective, sometimes you have to step into their shoes. To understand the world of birds, you might just need to sprout some wings and fly. On June 8, I helped the staff of Agahozo-Shalom see our planet and our village from a bird's eye view.

Agahozo-Shalom staff and volunteers act the part of birds in the
migration challenge.

Each Wednesday morning from 8-10 am, the staff has a "learning community" session; many of the sessions are about topics that directly affect our work, such as first-aid or educational theory. I was asked to present about birds for a slight change in the topic schedule.

I was thrilled about the opportunity. I knew from my teaching days that if I really wanted the staff to learn, I could not just tell them about birds. I would need to show them, engage them, involve them. I developed my lesson plan and left no detail to chance- this might be the only time the staff ever focuses primarily on birds.

Each audience member became a migratory bird. All of these birds visit
Rwanda; some even visit Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. I used the
outline of the flying bird profiles from a field guide to trace, and hand-
made the cards so that everyone would get their own bird card.

Wednesday morning rolled around; Michele, Sam, and I arrived early to set up. I wore the nicest clothes I have in Rwanda: a button-down collared shirt I bought at a market for $3.35, a clean pair of my hiking pants, and my sandals. With great assistants and a solid plan, I was ready and excited for the clock to strike 8am.

The director of staff education introduced my presentation and handed the crowd of 51 of over to me. I began with a question, "What makes birds different?" I took notes on the whiteboard of what people thought. Answers ranged from, "they fly," to "they lay eggs," to "they can get sick," to even "they are noisy in the morning." I took about 12 suggestions before explaining that only one of these items makes birds truly different from all other living things. I went through each item and briefly described which other animals (including humans) fit the suggestions, except for the one I saved to address last, "they have feathers."

Counselors, now transformed into birds, follow their journey migrating
from breeding grounds in Eurasia to wintering grounds here in Africa.

Feathers are unique to birds, I announced. I passed around a copy from one of my field guides showing the different types of flight feathers and some flight feathers I have found while I described the three basic functions of feathers (flight, insulation and protection from outside, and social reasons (attracting a mate, etc.). I used the white board to list another three defining characteristics of birds. I drew pictures of bills and gave a few examples of how bills are adapted to what the bird eats. I wrote the term "sexual dimorphism" and explained that many male birds look different than female birds. And finally, I listed migration and said that means birds move around to find sources of food, some from continent to continent. But then I stopped. With the introduction, the discussion of my opening question, and my short lecture, it was just 8:25am. All of this was being translated into Kinyarwanda, so I kept whatever I was saying to the absolute minimum. I gave instructions that as they exited the room into the dining hall, each person would get a bird card and report to Michele for their first step in the "Migration: It's a Risky Journey" challenge.

At station 6 in the migration game, a scientists catches birds
and attaches a band to their wrist (with real birds, the band goes on the leg).
Banding birds is an important technique that allows researchers to study
individual birds as they move, breed, survive over time, and otherwise carry
out their lives. Using data about many individuals gives an account of how
the species is doing. Bird bands are generally made of metal, but for this
activity, our bands were made of long pieces of grass!

The Migration Challenge is an interactive learning game that I learned from a training in Van Cortlandt Park called, "Flying Wild," which is a curriculum developed by the Council for Environmental Education. Previously, I adapted this activity to a board game for my 32-student classrooms and conducted the actual game in University Woods park in the Bronx as part of a nature summer camp. The language level on the game is designed for young children so I found it appropriate for a group with mixed levels of English. Basically, the game allows a person to become a bird, follow its triumphs and challenges along migration, and either succeed/fail at reaching its wintering (or breeding) grounds. Not all birds make it in the game, but this is purposeful, as many birds do not survive migration.

The joy of flying!

People really seemed to like the game. Indeed, there was nearly 100% participation, and people were even waving their arms around as if they had wings! The game itself is quite targeted toward kinesthetic learning; sometimes participants must hop on one leg, twist in circles, rub their stomachs, or shiver. At 8:58 am, I called for everyone to finish their journey and fly back to the meeting room.

I presented 35 of Agahozo's most common birds, with a few unique
visiting birds thrown into the mix. When presenting, a message
must be adapted for an audience. Not only did I strive to present birds
in a fun and not-too-scientific context, but a translator
helped adapt it into the Kinyarwandan language. Several times,
the audience began excitedly discussing the birds in Kinyarwanda,
and although I am not sure what they said exactly, I am glad
they were thinking about birds in their cultural-linguistic context. 

I asked the audience what they had learned about birds from the activity. People shared their troubles along the way (domestic cats, predators, power lines, tall buildings, etc.), the things that helped them (protected areas, trees, etc.), and their outcomes as a bird. It appeared that the game was successful, and that instead of being bored by a lecture about the migration process, the staff learned by moving, being social, and taking the perspective of a migrating bird. I launched into a PowerPoint presentation I titled, "The Birds of Agahozo." Although fairly long at 40 slides, only two slides had text only. (one of them was the title page). Thirty-five slides were bird picture either Michele and I have taken at ASYV. Each slide had the English bird name and a percentage which indicated if it was easy to see (up to 100%) or hard to see (based on 80 days of birding on the property). I shared an interesting fact for each bird or imitated the bird's songs/calls when I could

Agahozo staff members use binoculars to scan for some
of our spectacular resident birds.

The two final slides showed people enjoying birds. One was a group of university students that I led on a bird walk here; I explained the importance of tourism in Rwanda and how Agahozo could grab a slice of that income through birds and eco-tourism. The final slide showed Agahozo students using binoculars to find birds. My concluding remarks were that Rwanda is rich in birds and that its people have much to celebrate with a wonderful natural heritage. I concluded at 9:37 am (again, remember everything is translated) and we had about 15 minutes of questions. I have led plenty of bird walks, so I was ready for the questions. One I almost always get, and someone asked it here as well, is how do birds reproduce and what do their reproductive parts look like. Ahh, the birds and the bees, literally! (If you want to know, you will have to ask me on a future bird walk!!!)

Agahozo staff examine feathers under a microscope.

I thanked my audience for their attention, interest, and participation. I reminded them that outside we have three activities waiting if they want to learn more. As the director of staff education concluded the learning community meeting, I went outside to make sure everything was ready. Sam was ready with the microscope table, Michele worked the field guide/specimen/art display, and I supervised the binocular station. It was an interactive finish that I hoped would inspire the audience to continue learning about birds.

I am not sure I had this presentation in mind when I purchased five
field guides before moving to Rwanda.  Totally worth it.

I got an overwhelmingly positive response. The next few days were peppered with compliments about my teaching and comments about how people had seen certain birds. I credit the success to my solid teacher training in New York (and it probably doesn't hurt that one of my parents is a teacher too); people respond well when they are given engaging opportunities to learn.

The importance of education is immense if your intent is conservation. Although birds are all around, they are often overlooked, dismissed, or even purposefully persecuted. Many bird populations are in decline, and habitat everywhere is shrinking. Beyond the sake of the birds themselves, this planet will be a sad place for humans without our feathered friends. Birds eat countless insects (and rodents and snakes too), they clean up dead animals, they spread seeds, they pollinate plants, they make up vital pieces of ecosystems, and they bring joy to a great many humans. I don't need everyone in the world to be a birder, but I hope that everyone may see the world from a bird's eye view. Maybe then they will decide that trees, wildflowers, parks, clean water, and healthy ecosystems are worth it after all.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Total Lunar Eclipse from Rwanda

The moon at 6:13 pm was pretty spectacular.

The moon at around 7pm. Clouds threatened, but fortunately never
blocked the view.
Just after 8:20 pm, the lunar eclipse began.

The total lunar eclipse in the center of the earth's shadow.

Just after midnight, around 12:05 am, the eclipse completed.

Even with my 2 megapixel camera, the spotting scope helps show the
moon's stunning dried lava fields and craters.

The full moon, nearly one hour after the end of the eclipse.