Monday, July 18, 2011

Cuckoo for Canaries!

Cuckoos and canaries have very little in common, other than a little alliteration. Both also have common cultural references (he's gone cuckoo, the canary in the coal mine) but I suspect that most people know little about them. Even as a birder, it took me a couple years to see my first cuckoo. Let's take a closer look at these "C" birds.

The brimstone canary (Serinus sulphuratus) is pretty common at ASYV.
It looks very similar to the bird in the picture below, but note that the
above species has a light grey malar stripe that goes to its bill (a
malar stripe is coloration below and behind the bill, above the throat).
It also has an all yellow back and rump.

Canaries eat seeds, and they roam around to find food, often doing so in flocks. It is not behaviors, however, that scientists use to classify most organisms. Structural, cellular, and genetic evidence is looked at to determine where a bird is classified in relation to other birds.

The yellow-fronted canary (Serinus mozambicus) can be distinguished
from the brimstone canary (above) by its black malar stripe that does not
make it all the way to the bill. Its yellow rump contrasts to its brownish
back in flight, and the bills of the two are also noticeably different. 

Canaries are part of a much larger family of birds called "Fringillidae." And although there are no canaries or even Serinus birds in North America, there are similar birds like the house finch, purple finch, and pine siskin, among others.

The Western Citril (Serinus frontalis) is a canary species that visits ASYV.
It, with the African citril and Southern citril, was recently considered
one species. When a body of scientists finds enough evidence, they
may "split" the species into respective species. This split
indicates that Western citrils do not breed with African or Southern
citrils. All three species look slightly different and have different ranges.

What makes a bird a Fringillid then?  According to Don Roberson's Bird Families of the World website, which is a go-to source for exploring bird diversity, birds of the family Fringillidae "have stout conical bills, strong skulls, large jaw muscles, and powerful gizzards. All have modified beaks for holding and shelling seeds. The seed is wedged in a special groove at the side of the palate and crushed by raising the lower jaw onto it."

Not all canaries are yellow. The streaky seedeater, Serinus striolatus, is
found in the highlands of Eastern Africa. "Canary" is an arbitrary
common name that gets its name from the Canary islands.

The differences in birds are one of the things that I love about seeing and studying them. Cuckoos are bigger than canaries, but a more important difference is the structure of their feet. All Passerines (an order of birds in the Domain-Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species classification system) which includes the canaries, warblers, flycatchers, sunbirds, hummingbirds, and more than half the world's bird species, have three toes pointing forward and one facing back. Cuckoos have two toes pointing forward and two facing back (which for this and other reasons, places them in a different order, Cuculiformes). This is perhaps something you don't see so well in the field, but it demonstrates how much is going on with birds if you look close enough.

We spotted this red-chested cuckoo, Cuculus solitarius, on a walk down
Lake Mugesera in March.

Cuckoos mainly eat insects. If you look at their bills, they are thin and sharp compared to the thick conical bills of the canaries. These bills are well-suited to snatching caterpillars, moths, and grasshoppers, among other bugs.

Levaillant's cuckoo (Clamator levaillantii) has visited ASYV several times. 

Many cuckoos are brood parasites (about 40% of species worldwide). If a cuckoo species is parasitic, the adult female lays her egg in the nest of another species. The owners of this nest, if they don't reject the egg by destroying it or abandoning the nest, incubate the eggs and then feed the young bird until it has fledged (basically, a fledges when it is able to leave the nest and is no longer dependent on the parents). Sometimes the young cuckoo, directly after hatching, knocks all other objects out of the nest; these other "objects" are either baby birds or other eggs.

A male dideric cuckoo, Chrysococcyx caprius, is electric green on its back
(although it doesn't show in the picture). This bird was feasting upon flying
insects at the edge of Akagera National Park in Rwanda.

Some cuckoos are host-specific, which means they target specific types of birds. Red-chested cuckoos lay their eggs in nests of scrub-robins and robin chats, Levaillant's cuckoos lay in babbler nests, diderik cuckoos lay in weaver nests, and African emerald cuckoos lay in nests of robins and small thrushes.

The African Emerald Cuckoo (Chrysococcyx cupreus) is bright green like
the above dideric cuckoo, but it also has a bright yellow stomach
and green throat. As colorful as it is, this bird was a tough bird
to spot in the highland forests of Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Despite their negative impacts on their host species, cuckoos make important contributions to the ecosystems. They eat insects (including many caterpillars that decimate leaves) and serve as meals for predators. Interactions between individual species may seem quite cruel, and perhaps they are, but I enjoy overall healthy ecosystems.

The white-browed coucal (Centropus superciliosus) is a different type
 of cuckoo than the previous four. I see this species about every other
day here at ASYV. It is not parasitic like the other cuckoos.
Nearby parent birds sigh relief...

Thanks for reading- I hope you are now cuckoo for canaries!

Works Cited

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Big cats and the endless plains of the Serengeti

A leopard rests in an acacia tree next to a stream.  At night, they stalk
their prey and pounce, but rarely chase. Leopards are widespread
throughout Africa, but this is the only one I have ever seen.

When grasses bloom, the herds follow. Lurking in places beneath the eye, the cats await their next feast. With muscles tensing, jaws opening, claws extending, they pounce!

Read on for lions, cheetahs, and the endless plains...

Sunrise over the Serengeti. Let the day begin...

In the Masaai language, according to our guide, "Serengeti" translates to "endless plains."  Filled with grasses and occasional trees, Serengeti National Park covers 1.5 million hectares. It stretches into other nearby parks in Tanzania and into the Masaai Mara of Kenya. To the human eye, it is indeed an endless plain.

The male African Lion, Panthera leo, lifts his head from rest. When prey
is plentiful, lions may sleep up to twenty hours a day. 

Although it can get warm in full sun, the Serengeti plains rise from around 1000 to nearly 2000 meters. I think where we stayed was around 1700 meters above sea level. With previous impressions of a dry and sun-filled landscape, I was surprised at how cool it was in the morning and as the sun set.

A pile of female and young male lions sleep nearby the previously-pictured

The availability of water is a major limiting factor in the growth of plants. Where there is not enough water for trees, grasses often blanket the land.

The spotted hyena, Crocuta crocuta, is a peculiar predator that is related
to cats. Although they have a reputation as scavengers, they actually hunt
most of their food. They have been widely killed by humans and often fight
over kills with lions. Find out more.

By streams and their adjoining marshes, trees find enough water to grow. Sometimes the only break in the flat plain is a line of trees following the river.

This spotted carnivore, Acinonyx jubatus, is the fastest land mammal.
Although it once roamed several continents, the cheetah is now endangered
and can only be found in northern Iran and sub-Saharan Africa. 

We found many animals near the water sources. Ducks and sandpipers were on the water, weavers constructed their nests on the branches of the nearby trees, and vultures sat atop the crowns waiting for the scent of flesh. 

The herd of African buffalo is tiny compared to the expanse of the plains,
even though each buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is 2-3 meters long and
on average weighs 700 kilograms.

There was never a dull moment in the Serengeti. Even when all animals seemed to disappear, the sounds of the wind rustling the grasses provided a soundtrack as heavy clouds pushed along the sky.

Hyenas and lions are the main predators of the buffalo.

Just look at what the hyenas are watching. A herd of Thomson's Gazelle
grazes, drawn to this predator-rich land by an even richer store of grasses.
High numbers of Thomson's gazelle, Grant's Gazelle, Zebra, Topi,
Bohor reedbuck, hartebeest, impala, wildebeest, buffalo, small mammals,
and even elephant provide opportunities for the Serengeti's predators.

So flat and big you can see an individual rainstorm start and stop.

The Serengeti ecosystem is protected by the Tanzanian government as a National Park and several other conservation-designated areas. Still, it is threatened by human activities and invasive species. Activities outside the park can affect the migratory animals that flow in and out of the park boundaries.

Panthera pardus is hunted for its skin and killed by cattle ranchers. 

All three of the big cats shown in this post are either endangered, vulnerable, or conservation-dependent. Places like the Serengeti are essential for their survival. As we humans exert so much influence, we must make choices about the kinds of impacts we make. Will the plains continue to support millions of wandering animals? Will lions, cheetahs, hyenas, and leopards have a home in the 21st century and beyond? Will we keep places like the Serengeti? 

Kopjes are small rocky hills that generally covered in trees and shrubs.
They provide habitat and cover for many creatures that venture out
into the grasses by day or night. Some animals even specialize in
staying at these rocky islands in the sea of grass.

Water holes and rivers are essential hydration spots for the animals of the
Serengeti. In the dry season, these are the easiest places to find a wealth
of big animals who need a drink. In the wet season, animals
spread out over the land.

There is so much in the Serengeti, but grass and sky dominate.
Hopefully this beautiful place will be "an endless plain" forever.

Works Cited

Harrington, E. and P. Myers. 2004. "Panthera leo" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 13, 2011

Hunt, A. and P. Myers. 2011. "Panthera pardus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 13, 2011 at

Law, J. and P. Myers. 2004. "Crocuta crocuta" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 13, 2011

Mulheisen, M. and N. Knibbe. 2001. "Acinonyx jubatus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 13, 2011

Newell, T. 2000. "Syncerus caffer" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 13, 2011

2011. "Serengeti National Park" (On-line). UNESCO World Heritage Centre.  Accessed July 13, 2011.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Welcome to Agahozo-Shalom Nature Park!

Murakaza neza ku Parike Y'Umutungo Kamere W'Agahozo! What in the world does that mean? It means that you are about to enter a brand new nature park.

The Environment Club poses by the sign marking the park. Students have
worked on every aspect of the park, including making these signs,
surveying flora and fauna, and removing invasive species. 

This will be the first of several posts about a special project: a student club has adopted a piece of land and turned it into the Parike Y'Umutungo Kamere W'Agahozo.

What is Parike Y'Umutungo Kamere W'Agahozo?

The name translates to Agahozo-Shalom Nature Park. At the very top of the hill we call home, which is part of ASYV's property, the Environment Club envisioned a place where people could protect and enjoy trees.

This map shows the trees of Parike W'Agahozo. Icons are color-coded for tree type and sized relative to the actual tree size. All of these species are native to East Africa except for the mango. As we explore and find new trees (sometimes hidden from view of the trail), we will add them to our map. Earlier this week, we found a second umusenge tree that we had not yet seen! 

The park features a 600 meter trail that surrounds the 1.72 hectare (4.26 acres) natural area. The mix of trees, tall grasses, and wildflowers provide a glimpse of what wild Rwanda looks like.

How did this park come to be?

Students of the Environment Club wanted to plant trees, teach others about nature, and help people appreciate the environment. In creating this park, the club can accomplish these aims at one beautiful place.

The park is a place for people to learn and enjoy. Here club members
survey the future park site for the first time (February). 

Site selection took several months. We had to identify an area that had desired natural features (such as native trees) but that also was not slated for some other use. On the master plan of Agahozo, there is a large area behind the school listed as a future reforestation site. Much of this land is now being cultivated, but the Environment Club successfully proposed that a small section of it be set aside for a park.

Students transport rocks to fill holes and set trail posts.

Every week, students participate in "Saturday Service" to help the village by working at the farm, in the kitchen, in their yards, or on special projects. In May, June, and July, over 200 students have worked on the park as a special village project. The Environment Club members have also spent several Saturdays working on the park and studying park management on Monday nights.

Students made the 600 meter trail that surrounds the park. The trail makes
it easy to see the whole of the park.

 How will the park be maintained?

The Environment Club is responsible for taking care of the park. Short-term projects include planting native trees, making interpretive signs, and completing a perimeter fence. This short wood fence lines the trail and helps protect the trees from grazing and trampling.

Students plant a native acacia tree in the park on Environment Day.

Long-term projects include removal of non-native invasive species (lantana, eucalyptus), monitoring the existing trees, and educating the village about the importance of conservation and native species. As students take care of the park, they will learn about botany, wildlife conservation, and eco-tourism.

What can be seen at Parike?

We have at least 8 species of native trees inside the park, and we are still trying to assess the other non-tree native plants we have.

The flower of the umuko tree, Erithrina abyssinica, inspired its English
name of "flame tree." Parike W'Agahozo has at least 7 of these native
East African trees. 

More than 100 species of birds have been seen inside the park boundaries, including some of ASYV's top birds, like Ross's Turaco, African Pygmy Kingfisher, and Bateleur eagle.

The native igicumucumu flower or Lion's Ear (Leonotis nepetifolia) is an
important source of nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies, and sunbirds.
They are generally cut as a weed, as most wildflowers are, but are given a
home inside the park.

Lizards and toads have been spotted, but we have yet to see a snake in the park. Yellow, white, red, green, and black butterflies and moths dazzle by as you walk the trail.

This colorful bird, the green-winged pytilia (Pytilia melba), is small
enough that it is easily overlooked, but it is common inside our park.

There are two Ichneumon mongooses that live either inside or just outside the park; they are the biggest mammal we have. Spotting the mongoose and its long tail with a fluffy tip is not easy, and we are still trying to understand their needs so we can protect them. 

Can I visit Parike Y'Umutungo Kamere W'Agahozo?

If you visit Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, you can visit our park! The trail is always open. Early mornings are great for birds, but walking the trail from 4-6 pm is also good for birds and provides excellent sunset views. Students are happy to give tours; they are proud of their project. 

Future professional guides? Environment Club members give the first
tour of the nature park on June 25 to visiting donors.

Thanks for visiting the park- see you on the trail!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Welcome to the jungle! Let's explore Nyungwe rainforest

Rainforests present a conundrum for visitors. They harbor as much biodiversity as any habitat on the planet, and yet you are unlikely to see most of their wonders.

The sun rises over the forested mountains... what lives in these
blankets of green? The pictures below show just a fraction of forest life.

Michele and I camped for three nights in Nyungwe Forest National Park here in Rwanda. As some of these pictures show less-than-clear views, you can imagine that birding in a rainforest can be a challenge. Sometimes the best view is hardly a view at all.

Nyungwe covers over 1,000 square kilometers. Before
massive deforestation in recent human history, the whole forest
stretched from Uganda through Burundi. The main patch left in Rwanda
is protected as Nyungwe Forest National Park. 

Mostly you see plants. Bugs are pretty common too, but at above 2000 meters, most of the nasty bugs are excluded from Nyungwe.

Angola pied colobus monkeys (Colobus angolensis) live in large groups
and spend most of their lives in trees.

Still, there is much to be seen in a rainforest; you might just have to be patient to see what you want to see. 

The great blue turaco (Corythaeola cristata) is large and blue with a
bright yellow bill and a black mohawk. It is a spectacular blue turaco
if you ask me! 

Out of 278 possible bird species, Michele and I saw 68 species in our three days there. For comparison, at Agahozo, a mostly agricultural spot in Eastern Rwanda, I have seen 65 species in one day. In Nyungwe, however, quality reigns over quantity. We saw 14 species of birds that are endemic to montane forests of the Albertine Rift (restricted in range and found no where else). One of them, the red-collared mountain babbler (Kupeornis rufocinctus) is apparently extremely hard to see anywhere else in the Albertine Rift. 

L'Hoest's mountain monkeys (Cercopithecus l'hoesti l'hoesti) prowl the
ground for fruits.

The best part about visiting is that the fees support conservation in Rwanda. Trail permits and camping at Nyungwe are not cheap, but paying for them provides a market for preserving the rainforest. Even if you do not see it all in Nyungwe, your entrance fee helps make sure the forest and its inhabitants are still there blanketing the hills.

A lizard hides in the brush. Most of Nyungwe's animal residents
are not seen easily, and this is generally characteristic of most
rainforest organisms, whichever forest you might be in.

Carruther's mountain squirrel (Funisciurus carruthersi) is one of five
squirrel species that patrols the trees of Nyungwe.

The strange weaver, Ploceus alienus, is another bird found
only in the mountains of the Albertine Rift. The Albertine Rift refers to
the divergent tectonic plate boundaries that shape this part
of Africa, giving rise to mountains, deep lakes, and volcanoes.

This black-and-white casqued hornbill (Bycanistes subcylindricus) is
one of the largest birds of the forest. Its name comes from the
bicolored keratin growth above its bill.

As bright as it is, the bar-tailed trogon (Apaloderma vittatum)
blends in quite well in the forest.

One of the nine species of snakes known to inhabit Nyungwe slithers
on a trail. I spotted it as our group walked right past it... don't worry,
this is not a venomous snake. In fact, there is only one venomous
snake species known to live in all of Nyungwe.

The olive-breasted mountain greenbul (Andropadus kikuyuensis) lives
only in highland forests of East Africa, mainly along the Alberitne Rift.

Can you find the Ruwenzori turaco (Gallirex johnstoni)? It is found only
in the mountains of the Albertine Rift, in Uganda,
Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although
it features blue, purple, red, and green feathers, its overall dark
appearance helps it blend into the shadows.

Crowned hornbills (Tockus alboterminatus) live in Nyungwe and
in many other African forests as well.

See anything besides leaves and branches?

A closer look: Sharpe's starling (Pholia sharpii) is an uncommon resident
of montane forests and is found only in East Africa.

The watersheds of two mighty rivers are divided
upon the ridge we stand in Nyungwe. One rain cloud
can empty into this area; some of its contents will
rush into the Atlantic Ocean out of Western Africa
and some will pour into the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt.