Bird-watching? What for? This is the sort of mentality with which I approached this particular assignment.
Someone from the local birding association would pick and then drive me to an upcountry location for a spot of bird-watching, after which I would describe my experience. Well, here it is:
For starters, this was the very first time I was paying a formal visit to the country’s rich and diverse avifauna. Yes, I had never gone bird-watching before this. No wonder, the first birding-related terminology I encountered and crammed in my head on that Monday morning was ‘avifauna’, a term that describes the diversity of birds in a particular region.
James Hogg, my guide for the trip is a man I was meeting in person for the first time. All I knew of him was that he is the vice president of the Rwanda Birding Association; and that he writes a weekly birding column in Sunday Times.
Hogg tried to get me to suggest a suitable location of my own, but seeing my ignorance about the whole thing, he simply drove to Bugesera District, in Eastern Province.
For seasoned Kigali birders, Bugesera seems the natural choice for a spot of bird-viewing after the famed Nyarutarama lake, near the Golf Course.
But birding is supposed to be the perfect excuse to go out in the bush and by the lakeside and savor nature’s sounds, and Nyarutarama is not the best candidate for this task. Besides, there is a marked variation in the bird species as found in the various natural habitats spread across the country. In Nyarutarama, you are likely to encounter species like the African Spoonbill, Grey-backed Fiscal, the Common Waxbill, Tropical Boubou, and the Great White Pelican, among others.
Getting to Bugesera
Driving through the expanse of intensely-farmed plots that define the district’s relatively flat topography, Hogg points me to the sky and exclaims: “That’s an African Harrier Hawk over there.”
I respond in the affirmative, but deep in my heart, I know that African Harrier Hawk means nothing to me, as I wouldn’t be in position to spot the bird in the next sighting. Anyway, the big bird is circling so high in the air that I can’t identify its defining features. We drive on.
Unlike me, Hogg’s eyes and ears are on the lookout for the next discovery.
At this point I start to realize that bird-watching is not all about eyes after all. The keen ear is just as good as the observant eye, in that with most birds having distinctive signature calls and sounds, one can tell a bird from hundreds of meters away, depending on the strength of the said sounds.
Like most other creatures, birds occur in diverse habitats, a fact that is usually pegged on factors like the nature of their food/prey. For instance, an African Fish Eagle is easy to spot around fresh water bodies for obvious reasons.
The good thing with Bugesera as a birders’ haven is that it has a bit of everything for the different bird species; there is bush and wooded land, there is lake, there is marsh and bog, natural springs and streams, there is even a bit of Savanna-like grassland.
We parked under a big tree by a tarmac road that cuts between the dry wooded uplands, and the conglomeration of water bodies and marshland.
The real trip had begun, and there was need for everyone to check their birding gear.
Talking of birding gear, there are quite a few, but the most central is the mandatory pair of binoculars. It is hard, if not impossible to imagine bird watching without this piece of technology.
The binoculars is a must-have because unlike domesticated birds, the ones in their natural habitats are more sensitive to human presence, and therefore are best viewed from a distance. Still, some birds spend most of their time embedded in tree canopies or hopping in the grass, making viewing difficult without ‘an extra pair of eyes.’
The other must-have gadget is a camera, and not just any other camera, but one with the zoom capabilities of the binoculars. The reason is simple: If you should need a powerful set of binoculars just to spot a bird from where it is perched in the bush or in the trees, so should you a camera with similar capabilities.
In that case, the small Samsung WB150F camera I held was rendered near-useless. Hogg had the real thing, a gizmo whose intimidating lenses stretched slightly longer than my entire fore-arm. I kept my own toy for taking selfies instead. With such a bulky camera, Hogg needed a small tripod which he carried around to facilitate difficult camera shots.
Away from the binoculars and camera, one needs a field guide of the avifauna in the particular area they are visiting.
With over 700 bird species reported in the country’s natural bird habitats, one would need to be a birding genius to memorize each of their physical shapes and vocal sounds. What you need is a book with basic descriptions and illustrations of the different bird species. In our case, my guide had carried along the book, Birds of East Africa, by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe. It is a comprehensive field guide that documents the birds of Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.
For easy identification, the birds that occur in Rwanda’s habitats have been highlighted, so I flip through.
One of the shining crowns of the country’s avifauna is the immensely elegant Pelican. This distinctively bulky and imposing bird is impossible to miss, whether it’s in flight, or at rest. They are known to soar and glide gracefully and easily, even as they plunge their beaks into the water to catch their prey. What we were able to spot around Bugesera’s wetlands were the Great White Pelican, and the Pink-backed Pelican.
After the Pelican, I spotted the Western Banded Snake Eagle, about which Hogg remarked: “They eat snakes, so they need some bush. You lose bush, you lose them.” With the aid of my binoculars, I saw a fierce-looking Woodland King Fisher, which I learnt takes insects and frogs for prey.
I saw a bird named the Laughing Dove, and another –the African Wattled Lap Wing. I saw two Cormorants, beautiful black and white water birds with slightly hooked bills. True elegance was when the couple stood to dry their wings after a dive in the water pool.
This is not to say that I really knew the birds already. On the contrary, whenever I spotted any bird, I turned to Hogg for reference. After revealing the name of a particular bird, he would open the field guide and look it up.
That is just a sample from a single birding trip. There are many more bird species spread over the country’s plains, hills, and valleys.
Rwanda boasts a bird list of over 700 species, and hosts seven Important Birding Areas (IBAs), including the three National Parks—Volcanoes, Akagera and Nyungwe, Rugezi Swamp, Akanyaru, Nyabarongo and Cyamudongo, according to the Rwanda Development Board website.
Bird calls and songs
One of the easier ways for the birding amateur to identify birds is through the sounds they make. This can be achieved either through listening to birds in the field, or to recordings of bird sounds.
For instance, the Eastern Nicator, which I was lucky to spot on a tree limb, is described as “extremely vocal, with a loud song that starts hesitantly with a yu-ik-wit-wer-trrr, and bubbles into a jumbled cho-chou-choou-chueeee”.
The song of the Little Egret goes something like … rrraaahhhh, while the sound, krowkrowkrowkrowkrow kroww has been attributed to the Goliath Heron. Meanwhile, Kekekeke is the sound emitted by the Hottentot Teal. The African Fish Eagle goes ahnk-ank-ank-ank, and the Hooded Vulture, Peei-u peei-u peei-u peei-u.