Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Rubona Sector Almanac

“There are some can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.” Aldo Leopold, in the forward to A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold used basic interactions between plants, animals, soils, water, and weather on his farm in Wisconsin to illustrate the complex web of ecology in A Sand County Almanac. In homage to his most famous writing and my favorite book, I compiled a few brief observations over the past year from each month to celebrate a small piece of land in the Rwandan countryside. 

Leopold started with the awakening of a slumbering skunk in the first mid-winter-thaw in January and finished the month-by-month progression with the birds struggling to grapple with the colds of December. In Rwanda, which has a small temperature range all year round, the seasons are less clear. There is a distinctive dry season (June-August) and a distinctive wet season (September-November), but the rest of the time, it is just less wet and less dry. For those of you interested in the wild things in your backyard, this is a snapshot of a few wild things in my backyard this past year, a rural hillside in Rwanda.


You wake up in a fog. There are hills flowing over the earth’s crust in every direction but you might as well be anywhere. The birds are timid in the fog and you can get closer to them than usual, if only you could see them clearly. Unless rains come, the sun will bake off the fog within an hour. It feels hot by 8 AM, but the equatorial sun is mitigated by our elevation of 1,550 meters (about 1 mile). 


Ants are everywhere, making their trails above ground while the soil is soggy. Explosions of breeding termites would go unnoticed if it weren’t for the tens of thousands of wings that litter the ground in the morning. By afternoon,however, the bodies have been mostly eaten by birds or carried off by ants.

Blackcap warblers are feeding in the bushes. These little birds breed in Eurasia, but are paying a visit to our hill. The cold of Eurasia prevents a menu of insects at this time; fortunately, ants, termites, and all sorts of other invertebrates are the season's special in Rwanda.


The sun sets around 5:45 PM and rises at around 5:45 AM. Half of the day is lived in darkness, a time when owls fly over, snakes slither on the pathways, and frogs croak to announce their presence in lasting wet spots.

Few and fewer places get their light from the moon and stars at night. When the moon is not visible, it is dark. If there are no clouds, stars form long streams of shimmering white, what is called the Milky Way. When the lights are out, the electricity is down, or you walk far enough away from the lights, the sky is an explosion of stars. You also see the cycles of the moon, and their pattern becomes familiar with each passing month. 

Blackcap warblers continue until mid-month. I see them for the last time on February 15. The rains are unpredictable but sometimes last for several hours. 


European bee-eaters and barn swallows have begun to pass by in numbers. They look bright and sharp as they fly over from the south and presumably migrate north. They stop by and rest on power lines, feasting on bees and flies in their aerial assaults. Western Marsh Harriers, a European breeding bird, even flew over twice this month. These visitors are not nearly as visible as the residents. Birds like yellow bishops, green-winged pytilias, and yellow-backed weavers ignore humans passing as they continue to sing from the tops of grasses. Male pin-tailed whydahs chase every female in sight and will chase any other bird that gets close. 

Eastern portion of Lake Mugesera


Michele and I were walking toward Lake Mugesera, a long, deep lake with fingers that reach into every valley. Defying the clouds in the distance, we were going to look for birds that are specialists of the swamp and denizens of the lakeside. An hour into our walk it started pouring, and we took shelter under a tarp in the back of a house. A young couple operated a restaurant under this tarp, and the rain had driven a couple dozen travelers from the road to this sheltered spot. 

When you wait under a tarp watching the rain fall, you see two clear elements of life in the Rwandan countryside. First, perhaps obvious to state, water flows to the lowest elevation. This has tremendous implications for who gets water easily and what distance everyone else has to walk. Second, people live by the weather. When it rains you go inside and let the clouds water your crops. When it’s dry, you haul water from where it has previously gathered below. Three hours later, the rain stopped falling, and we made our way to the lake.


Flowers are blooming in all directions. Counts of bees returning with pollen are the highest they have been all year, and they seem ready to produce honey. A magnificent yellow blanket spreads across a section of as-of yet uncultivated hill. Rains continue until the late middle of the month but eventually, I notice that it hasn’t rained in days.


I noted male pin-tailed whydahs without their streaming tail feathers. They are starting their molt into a more conservative appearance; with nesting done for the time, there is no need to be showy. Southern red bishops are flitting around among the bushes, but they lack the red that alerted all to their presence. Only their drab plumages remain.

A period 3 straight days of rain mid-month surprised us as it has been dry for weeks. And then the dry returned.

Non-breeding male pin-tailed whydah


Small tornadoes of dust cycle in my direction. They lack the ferocity of bigger twisters, but the dust is not easy on the eyes, throat, or lenses. Walking down the road one notices a rust coating all plants within a meter or so. They are not unique variations of their species; red dirt kicked up from cars, trucks, motorcycles, and the wind layers upon the leaves. No rains fall; people without wells must walk down hill to the swamp and lake to fetch water. I suppose the birds do likewise.


The lesser striped swallows have abandoned their nests by the guesthouses; white-rumped swifts have moved into one of their empty mud tunnels. Several umuko trees are in full bloom. Their leaves have fallen, which seems to occur before they bloom. Their spindle-finger petals burn red against the green and brown backdrop of grasses and cultivated crops.

Towering clouds reign the sky in all directions. They are not emptying upon us in force yet, but as the month passes, small rain showers punctuate the days. The rainy season is imminent. 


The rain comes in waves. The wind hits you first, with dark cumulonimbus clouds in the distance. You can see it three hills away, then two, then it is nearly upon you.

Now is the time to plant. Farmers have spent the previous month forking the soil, waiting for the rain that will help them turn seeds into breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

Some species have begun their molt back to breeding plumage. The pin-tailed whydahs in particular are noticeable. Small flocks of 15 birds gather on the short grasses, but they are nearly all little brown dull ones. A male sometimes leaps up on to a flower stalk, displaying his blackening plumage and lengthening tail feathers.


Heavier rains have come.  It rained nearly every day until a stretch of five days without a drop. And then the clouds returned and poured upon us with vengeance. One day it hailed. 

The plants grow quickly even on a recently hoed trail due to the rain. Also, the flies have gotten thick and particularly aggressive. When I am working up in the park, they come for my face, landing on my nose, lips, and trying for the eyes. They do not seem to bite, but they are pesky.

Migrant birds are passing overhead, sometimes in large numbers. European bee-eaters fly over again for the first time since March. We had an excellent Eurasian Golden Oriole near the park one morning. Common kestrels have become a regular sight as well. There were a couple days they seemed to be everywhere, even on the roofs of houses. Still, the residents are most visible. A male white-browed scrub-robin sings his song atop a brush branch, then flies a short distance to repeat the process. Other male birds of various species are doing the same; they are announcing their territories to other males and inviting females to join them. Male yellow-backed weavers, pin-tailed whydahs, and yellow bishops are now in full, bright breeding plumage.


The heavy rains continue. Some days it rains nearly all day, all night. Some days it may not rain heavily but it spits at us all day. On the days where you don’t see too much sun it gets cold, or what feels like cold, though it is nothing like the colds of more temperate climates. You do need a jacket to stay warm. 

When the rain stops and the sun shines, the drama of open sky and towering clouds stretch over the hills. Thousands of clouds, thousands of hills, seeming to roll on as far as the eye can see. That is, if a morning fog doesn't block the view!

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