Monday, 27 February 2012

Rwanda: Akagera National Park.

Several decades ago, John Gooders wrote a book, on birding around the world. By today's standards, it wasn't a very good book, but I owned a copy and kept dipping into it, at every opportunity. Oh, to visit those magical, far flung places, just dripping in new birds. All of them waiting, just for me! There are certain birds with an iconic status, one of them being the Shoebill. This species is bizarre! It is five feet tall, slate blue, quite fat, with a bill that looks well, just like a shoe! I wanted, no needed, to see this species very badly! But it is rare, found in isolated and vast swamps, scattered over the remotest parts of Africa. A little bit tricky then! But, one of the places to see this bird, was here in Rwanda, not too far from the capital city of Kilgali - the Akagera National Park!

This park was established in 1934 and covers an area of swamp, bush and savanna habitats, that are found alongside the Akagera river. The place is huge, around 1,200 square kilometers - it is the largest area of swampland in central Africa. But it has been badly neglected. Poaching through the years, has taken its toll and the various armed groups that have rampaged through the country, in past decades, haven't helped either. I didn't know what to expect!

The rather modest entrance, to this national park.
We entered the park and slowly its delights unfolded around us. Vast lakes, surrounded by papyrus swamps, magnificent mountains, clothed in bush, isolated patches of woodland and beautiful grasslands. Best of all though, was the almost complete lack of other tourists - it was all ours to explore at will. And explore we did, on little winding, muddy trails, that criss-crossed the mosaic of habitats to be found here. This was wilderness Africa at its very best. I was in my element.

The southern sector of the park -looking east.

As you travel northwards,
the habitat gets more & more open.
As we proceeded, every so slowly northwards, the scenery got even better and the game sightings increased. It was a great day, with abundant birds and some nice mammals, including a loan Roan Antelope,  on a distant hillside. The bird log that evening as a long one and we all slept well, not knowing what the morning would bring.
Getting around in Akagera.
Remote, wonderful, savannas.

Topi's are common in the grasslands.
A fine male, Topi.
Defassa Waterbuck
Massai Giraffe -
a bit different from what I am used to!

 African Hawk Eagle.

Striped Kingfisher

Grey-backed Fiscal Shrike
The next day, was our last day birding. It was a shortened day, from dawn until around 2pm, as we had to drive back to the capital. This day we entered from the north and explored a tiny portion of the park. And what an inspired choice it turned out to be! Birds competed for our attention with the abundant mammals. Shutters on our cameras clicked rapidly. As we bounced around, on the back of our vehicle, every corner revealed new sightings. For me, it was the best day of the trip - it was just awesome!

Red-necked Francolin
Black-headed Gonalek.

Red-faced Barbet
Photo courtesy of Oscar Campbell.
Lesser Striped Swallow
African Moustached Warbler -
normally, secretive & difficult to see.
Photo courtesy of Oscar Campbell.

Spotted-backed Weaver - nest building.
A distant Shoebill - has to be bird of the trip!
Photo courtesy of Oscar Campbell.

Oscar then decided that the show needed a new star, and he found a distant Shoebill stood atop a raised mound, at the edge of the swamp! Both Oscar and I had seen Shoebill before in Uganda (on different trips) but we needed no extra invitation to enjoy this one as well! Graham and Mark, just beamed!

Our short trip, netted us over 300 species of birds and over 20 species of mammal. But, my abiding memory, will be of the two fabulous places that we visited: the wonderful montane forests of the east and the splendid scenery and wildlife of Akagera. I will be back - there is unfinished business here, a small matter of a few Gorillas to see!

Graham & I shared a room throughout this trip (as did Oscar & Mark). We stayed at one particular hotel for two nights. On the second night, I went into the bathroom & discovered a huge carton of vaseline, that hadn't been there the day before! Thoughtful or what? Maybe just a little too thoughtful?

Thanks guys for been such good fun and great company. Till the next time!

Mammal List:

Olive Baboon (Papio cynocephalus anubis)

Several troops seen in and around Nyungwe Forest & in Akagera National Park.

Grey-cheeked Mangabey (Cercocebus albigenia)

At least 8 seen along the roadside in Nyungwe National Park.

Black-faced Vervet (Green) Monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops)

A troop was always present in the Forest Lodge guest House at Nyungwe. Also small numbers seen in Akergera National Park.

Samango Monkey (Cercopithecus mitis)

Small gropus seen every day in Nyungwe Forest.

Please note, this species is known by a variety of names, including Blue & Syke’s Monkey.

L’Hoest’s Guenon (Cercopithecus l’hoesti)

Seen every day in Nyungwe Forest, sometimes in large groups. The commonest primate at this location.

Guereza (Abyssinian ) Black & White Colobus Monkey (Colobus guereza)

A large troop of between 20-25 individuals, seen by the side of the road in Nyungwe Forest.

Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes)

Groups were heard on two different days in Nyungwe Forest. Nests were also seen.

Plains (Burchell’s) Zebra (Equus burchelli)

Up to 70 animals a day seen in the northern part of Akagera National Park.

Warthog (Phacochoerus africanus)

Seen in good numbers (up to 30 animals each day) in Akagera National Park.

Bushpig (Potamochoerus larvatus)

Signs of this species, were noted every day, on the trails in Nyungwe National Park. No animals were actually seen.

Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibus)

A group of six, seen in Akagera National Park.

Maasai Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi)

Up to 25 seen in a day, in the norther section of Akagera National Park.

Buffalo (Syncerus caffer)

A large herd of over 100 animals and several smaller groups, seen in the northern section of Akagera National Park.

Bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus)

At least five noted, in the northern section of Akagera National Park.

Roan Antelope (Hippotragus equinus)

A lone animal, seen in the northern section of Akagera National Park.

Defassa Waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus defassa)

Up to 30 seen each day, in Akagera National Park.

Bohor Reedbuck (Reduncta redunca)

Seven seen, in the northern section of Akagera National Park.

Topi (Damaliscus lunatus jimela)

Over 200 a day, seen in the northern section of Akagera National Park. This is a significant population of this rare and scattered subspecies.

Impala (Aepyceros melampus)

Rather surprisingly, only small herds seen of this common and widespread species, in Akagera National Park.

Oribi (Ourebia ourebi)

One seen in Akagera National Park.

Golden (Common) Jackal (Canis aureus)

One seen at dawn, crossing the road, outside of Akagera National Park.

Dwarf Mongoose (Helogale parvula)

One seen in Akagera National Park. This species lives communaly and makes its home in termite mounds.

Aardvark (Orycteropus afer)

Aardvark holes were commonly seen in Akagera National Park.

Carruther’s Mountain Squirrel (Funisciurus carruthersi)

Up to ten animals a day, seen in Nyungwe National Park.

Boehm’s Squirrel (Paraxerus alexandri)

Common in Nyungwe National Park.

Ruwenzori Sun Squirrel (Heliosciurus ruwenzori)

Up to eight animals a day, seen in Nyungwe National Park.

Photos courtesy of Oscar Campbell.

As we were leaving to go to the airport, this minibus was in front of us. It is always nice to give the last word to the locals!

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Rwanda: the Albertine Montane Forest

There are some places on Earth, that in my lifetime, it just hasn’t been possible to visit. One of them is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As a general rule, any country which calls itself democratic, firstly isn’t and secondly, is usually a dammed dangerous place. The DRC fullfills all these requirements! And yet, I have always wanted to go. Vast tracts of lowland rainforest, verdant montane forests and some magnificant mammals, not to mention the birds!

The eastern part of the DRC is probably one of the most dangerous places on this planet. Warring factions have been fighting here since 1998, involving nine African nations and over twenty different armed groups. A peace accord was signed in 2003, but has had little effect, fighting still rages on today. It is an intermittent war, with innocent civilians being raped, multilated and killed with impunity. At the very core of this, is a battle for resources; rare minerals that we all use in our computers and mobile phones and of course, the valuable hard woods that we use for our furniture.

Nyungwe Forest looking west into the DRC.

Along the DRC’s eastern border, lies the small nation of Rwanda. A nation with its own troubled past, which climaxed in 1994, with the killing of between 800,000 and one million people, in around 100 days. The Rwandan genocide, certainly placed Rwanda on the world stage, but for all the wrong reasons. What is quite remarkable, is that this tiny nation state, seems to have recovered from this disaster. Today, it is peaceful, friendly and is trying hard to make its name, as a classic, African tourist destination. The magnificent Albertine Rift Valley straddles the border with Rwanda and the DRC. It is one of the largest blocks of montane forests in the world and many of the special birds of the DRC, can be seen in the Rwandan section. So, a birding team was assembled and Graham, Oscar, Mark and myself flew out to Kilgali via Nairobi.

The two areas visited were Nyungwe Forest
 & Akagera National Park.

Graham, Oscar & Mark in the Irish Pub,
 in Dubai Airport.

The last segment of this journey is a daytime flight and what a spectacular flight it is! One passes through the Kenyan and Tanzanian savannas, before the spectacular Great Rift Valley opens up before you. In the distance, are the snow covered heights of Mount Kilamanjaro on one side and the vast Lake Victoria on the other! Before you know it, you are over Burundi and the equally huge Lake Tanganika is below you. It is a great flight and before you want it to, the flight ends and  you are touching down at the relatively small airport, which marks the Rwandan capital Kigali.

The parched grasslands, just west of Nairobi.

Mount Kilamanjaro, with just a topping of snow,
 on the top.

A tiny part, of the immense, Lake Tanganika.

The first thing that struck me about Rwanda was the cleanliness. The whole place is spotless! Now, those of you who are used to travelling on the African continent will recognise that this is kind of unusual! The second thing was the people, courteous, smiling and very friendly. Remarkably, the dark, recent past, seems to be behind them and they are looking forward. to a more united future.
William, our Ugandan driver & very good, excellent,
all round guide.

 Our driver, William was there to meet us, having just driven over the border from Uganda and we set off on our journey to the far eastern border of Rwanda. Our destination was Nyungwe National Park, which straddles the border with the DRC.

Nyungwe National Park, one of the largest blocks
 of Afro-montane forests.
Nyungwe is famous for both the variety & numbers
of primates; as you can see from the photograph!

Rural Rwanda.

The journey was uneventful, with few bird sightings, as every inch of land seems to be taken over for small scale subsistence farming. But then you cross into the national park and the lanscape is transformed into a lush evergreen forest. This must have been the landscape for most of Rwanda a hundred years ago. The scenery is splendid and the views down to Lake Kivu are spectacular. We couldn't wait to get started!
Looking towards Lake Kivu & the DRC.
Our four night stay was based at the national park's Forest Lodge, a modest, but superbly situated little place. It is just outside the forest proper, surrounded by a tea estate and the garden has been planted with a variety of trees and shrubs.
Nyungwe Forest Lodge -
our home from home for a few nights.
White-bellied Blue Flycatcher -
what a stunning garden bird!
The next morning, birds were zipping about everywhere and one species in particular, the White bellied Blue Flycatcher gave us all stunning views-feeding young, on the garden fence. Welcome to birding Rwanda guys!
Chubb's Cisticola, was common in the gardens
 & open areas, surrounding the lodge.
We met up with our bird guide, Narcisis (yes, that is his real name)!The next four days were spent on a variety of trails, of various steep and slippyness! However, it was a pleasure to be there, exploring one of the world's great blocks of montane forest. Birds came thick and fast and the first day saw us tally 16 of the Albertine Rift Endemic species.

Narcisus! Yep, I know!
The British & Irish Lions bird touring team.
Fine specimens, every one of them!
The touring team in action!
Photo courtesy of Graham Talbot.

The forest trails were often steep and slippy.

 Oscar, wishing the trees weren't there
 so he can see the birds more easily!

Jilly, this is what happens to Oscar,
when you are not around!

Graham, did a fantastic job with the I-Pod all week,
despite, being handicapped by me!
Looking down towards the swamp.
Rwenzori Batis

A recently fledged Red-crested Alethe.
 The formidable, monkey-eating, Crowned Eagle.
Crowned Eagles specialise in killing all types of monkeys,
 including the large Blue Monkey.
They have also been known to prey upon small antelope species
 & their strength is legendary!

Be careful Oscar!
L'Hoest's Monkey (Guenon)
A rare, Congo basin restricted species.
One day we descended in the rain down to the swamp to try and see Red-chested Flufftail and Grauer's Swamp Warbler. Our apparent bad luck on the weather (it was now pouring down with rain) turned into a bit of a blessing, when we sheltered under the newly contructed look out point. We were now protected from the elements and could do a little bit of birding.

Mark, ready for action! The little flirt!

Hardwoods, like this Mahagony tree,
 are targets for illegal loggers.

Oscar & Mark, deliberating over an identification.

Great Blue Turaco - a spectacular bird!
Archer's Robin-chat.
Photo courtesy of Oscar Campell.

Regal Subird

Streaky-headed Seedeater
Photo courtesy of Oscar Campell.

We tried the flufftail tape and immediately one responded! Graham did us all proud with his running up and down, positioning the tape in the pouring rain, while the more fortunate (ie dry members of the party) smiled on! After around an hour, persistence paid off and between us we saw (glimpsed) 3 individuals including a stunning adult male. Smiles all round and we celebrated by eating dry, but very welcome biscuits! Oh, did I mention we also had great views of the swamp warbler as well? As the rain started to ease, we moved on around the circuit and eventually we were bathed in sunlight, on the valley floor. Great birds and stunning scenery. It really was a great morning's birding.

Dusk, settling across the forest.
The distant hills are in the DRC.

A farewell to this great forest!
Photos courtesy of Oscar Campell.
All too soon, we had to leave this magical place and start on our journey to Akagera National Park. But the forest wouldn't let go, it's hold on us and birds and mammals kept leaping into view and impeding our progress! Eventually, we just had to drive, but everyone kept looking back over their shoulder for one last glimpse of these superb evergreen forests. The first part of our trip had been a resounding success, but what about our next destination?
The papyrus swamp, near Kigali.

On the outskirts of the capital, is a marsh, of papyrus and reedlands. It holds some rare and threatened species, all of which have one thing in common- they are very difficult to see! Mid afternoon, is never a great time for birding in the countries that border the equator, but four pairs of eyes, steadily notched up the species. The couple of hours we spent here, were very rewarding, with everyone adding to their world tally.
Long-crested Eagles are a common sight
 along Rwandan roads.
Pink-backed Pelican, in the early morning mist.

Yellow-backed Weavers were common
breeders in the swamp.
The pretty, Grey-headed Sparrow
is the city sparrow, in Rwanda.
Mark and I, opted for a late lunch, while Graham and Oscar visited the genocide memorial. They found it informative and well done. I decided not to go, because if I do come back with Carol, then I know, she will want to go there.
The Kigali Genocide Memorial.
We drove for another hour and arrived at our hotel quite late. I was excited, because we were going to Akagera! I didn't sleep well.

The capital city, Kigali ,is spread over
 a number of rolling hills.