Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The ones you miss (Ballad of the Birding Blues)

Get ready for some heartache... as much as birds can cause.

First, think about basketball. You have to take shots to score. It is the only way to get points. Inevitably, you are going to miss some of those shots too.

If you want to see a wide variety of birds, you have to go out looking. To see new birds, you may have to travel and spend money/energy/time to find them. Sometimes you get the birds. Sometimes you don't.

Green-breasted pitta, painting at Kibale National Park headquarters.
Never saw it in the flesh (in the feather!)

There are plenty of birds we missed in East Africa. For example, we missed the endemic or localized birds of Kenya, Pemba Island, and Southern Tanzania, because we never made it to those areas. Missing those birds doesn't bother me so much. There are migratory birds that do occur nearby but just never flew my way. Again, they don't bother me much. It's the resident birds of Rwanda, Southern/Central Uganda, and Northern Tanzania that we spent money/time/energy to find that we truly missed.

At the end of this post, I will list birds that we hoped to see and missed, but I want to share stories about two birds we missed (called "dipping" in birding linguistics). 

Papyrus gonolek, illustrated in Birds of East Africa (Stevenson/

The papyrus gonolek is an insect-eating resident of papyrus swamps inhabiting just five countries: Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and western Kenya. Michele and I have gone looking for this bird numerous times, even visiting sites specifically because they are known to support a population. In Uganda, we spoke to several local guides who told us the only way people ever see it is by playing tape recordings which may draw a bird in (we don’t have the capability, though I don’t oppose the practice). This information never stopped us from standing or walking around papyrus swamps for a couple hours just in case it popped out.

Papyrus swamp, Lake Mugesera, Rwanda

We have heard the gonolek call, but we have never seen it. The last time we heard it, in Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary in Uganda last Friday, the fact of missing it set in, but it had long occurred to me that this would be a bird we would miss. I am sad not to see it but have grown used to the idea that we would not. Fortunately, we have seen the much more common black-headed gonolek many times. Both gonoleks are very similar birds, and so it is like missing a close relative of the same type of bird. 

Not all misses are so easy to swallow. As soon as I moved here, I made a list of the top 200 birds I wanted to find. Although that list would look very different knowing what I do now, at the time the African green broadbill was #23. Broadbills are classified into two families, and can be found in forests in tropical Asia and Africa. I have never seen any type of broadbill so this is not only a new species but a new family of bird I have no experience with (we also missed the African broadbill and rufous-sided broadbill, species of broadbills from the other family in East Africa. Both were also in that top 200). Observing such a diverse species is highly alluring to me.

Furthermore, the African green broadbill population numbers no more than an estimated 2,500-10,000 individuals and the species is only known from three sites in the world. Two areas are in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, in a war-torn, dangerous region with poorly developed tourist infrastructure. The other site is Bwindi Inpenetrable Forest, a national park in southwestern Uganda. If I didn't make it to that park, it would be easy to write this bird off because hey, I never got close. If only that were the case...

African green broadbill, painting at tourist information center, Kabala,

After an exciting experience in Kibale National Park in central-western Uganda this past weekend, Michele and I traveled over bumpy dirt roads in 5-person sedans packed with 9 passengers and a driver back to central-eastern Uganda (Mbarara). There were two species we wanted to chase: the green broadbill and the African finfoot. The finfoot is found all over sub-Saharan Africa but is difficult to see. It is rumored to be much easier to locate at Lake Mburo National Park, about 60 km from Mbarara. Theoretically, we could go to Lake Mburo, look for the finfoot, make our way south, and go for the broadbill before continuing further south back to Rwanda.

National parks are expensive, and we were exhausted from the previous days of traveling (and the past year of working). We could only afford to go for one of the species if we wanted to stay in our budget, and after much deliberating chose to bypass the chance at the finfoot to go for broadbill. We took a ridiculously slow 120 km public mini-bus down to Kabale, the nearest city to Bwindi, checked into a guesthouse, and got some rest. Several knowledgeable people we talked to told us we would have no problem showing up at the park, getting permits, and hiring a ranger.

We talked to the tourist information center in the town the next morning and of course the tour operator told us we should employ his bird guide. We considered it, but the guide wanted $100 USD for 1 day (in addition to transport costs, park fees, lodging, etc.). It would be great to have a guide, and we love employing local guides, but that is a lot of money. We opted to go without a guide. We tried to hitch on trucks without luck, and thus had to hire a private car to drive us the 50km to the park. Half the road was unpaved, muddy and holed up from the rains, but the forest was beautiful. Get the bird or not, it looked like we would have fun trying to find it the the lush greenery. The beauty of the forest, however, was the only enjoyable part of this trip.

Montane forest at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda

We arrived at the gate and inquired about paying fees and hiring a ranger for a walk. The man at the gate told us they do not allow afternoon walks because it would be dark soon. It was not yet 2pm, and since the sun sets at 7pm in Uganda, I suggested we could take a short walk on the trail. The man inquired why we wanted to walk in the forest (on a trail that has been there for years, mind you, this is no off-the-trail adventure). When we told him that we were looking for birds, he said we needed to have a bird guide. Though no bird guide is required he said, we should really hire one and come back. I politely told him that we could not hire an outside specialist and would only need the services of an escort. Finally, he agreed to call a ranger and have him meet us. Keep in mind, these are services we are buying, not favors they are doing for us; we pay every step of the way. A light rain hit but quickly the sky cleared, giving us perfect weather for searching.

We finally got a hold of the ranger in nearby Ruhija but he said there were elephants in this part of the forest and we could not take the trail. I respect that elephants are dangerous animals. But we had just come from hiking all day in Kibale where there were also elephants around (their dung was all over the place the ranger pointed out to us). We had hiked in the highland forests of Ngorongoro Conservation Area where elephants were very near. Rangers carry weapons for this very reason. We asked if we would be able to take the trail in the morning, but were told that the elephants may still be around. So, after paying to drive all the way, we faced two choices: leave now and cut our losses, or pay for lodging, pay for park fees, and maybe get to look for the bird the next day. We would have had only a chance of finding this difficult-to-see bird, and it seemed like we may not even get a shot. We decided to leave.

This is the part of the movie where Harold and Kumar realize that
White Castle is just out of reach, with no hang-glider to save the day

Seeing the bird is not the only fun part; the chase is pretty exciting too. There was no chase here, just getting close and being disappointed with no chance to even look.

As we were waiting for the Ruhija gate to open and let our driver take us back, we sat within meters of the best place in the world to see this rare bird. Meters from the trail, but worlds apart from the bird. I am now 50 kilometers from that trail as I write. Soon I will be back in Rwanda, hundreds of kilometers away, and quite soon thousands of kilometers away in the United States. I thoroughly enjoyed East Africa and would love to come back, but there are many other places I want to visit over my lifetime. Even if I do get back to East Africa (a region almost three times the size of Texas), I may never make it back to this spot.

It stings. It's not like seeing this bird is really important in the scheme of things. It's not like your sports team winning a national championship is that important either. In fact, that's exactly what this feels like. I remember a team I loved losing by a 3-point shot in the NCAA national championship game. They had the chance to tie it at the end, but the shot was blocked. End of game. I haven't forgotten that loss or what might have been if the shot went up, and I suspect I won't forget the time I missed out on looking for the African green broadbill either.

Bummer. Drag. Such are the birding blues. But we live to bird another day...

Narina trogon,
painting at Kibale
National Park

Birds we heard but did not see: Papyrus gonolek, Fischer's turaco, Afep pigeon, mountain sooty boubou, Usambara akalat, green-throated sunbird, yellow-billed barbet, yellow-spotted barbet, Nahan's francolin, red-chested flufftail, Neumann's (short-tailed) warbler, western green tinkerbird, chocolate-backed kingfisher,  standard-winged nightjar (all of these were in the presence of guides who knew the sounds)

Birds we hoped to see but never did, despite being in appropriate habitat: narina trogon, tacazze sunbird, yellow-eyed black flycatcher, white-winged warbler, spotted eagle-owl, green-breasted pitta, greater flamingo, all four crimsonwings, African pygmy goose, African finfoot, wooly-necked stork, abdim's stork, rufous-bellied heron, african skimmer, white-collared oliveback, and plenty of others!

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