Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Birds and Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda

April 2010
(Bird and wildlife photos by Nancy Bell, text and scenic photos by Chuck Bell)

Baglafecht Weaver
Wednesday, April 21
After a final morning in Uganda on our Tropical Birding Megafari, we departed Entebbe on time, but we hit some serious turbulence in our small Dash-8 aircraft shortly after we crossed the south shore of Lake Victoria.  However, we landed on schedule in Kigali and were met by two drivers, Gaston and Arthur.  We were quite impressed with how clean and orderly Kigali was after Uganda.  The people all seem much better dressed and with places to go, in contrast to the throngs in Uganda.  The main highway south, which goes to Burundi, was in excellent condition. It was hard to believe that this place was wracked by civil strife to the point of genocide that left 800,000 dead less than 10 years ago.  We were also taken by how populous Rwanda is with every hillside layered with neat small brick homes and small farm plots.  Every last bit of native forest has disappeared to make way for humans, and the only tree stands we saw were eucalyptus.

It took us about 5 hours to drive to our accommodation in the Nyungwe Forest Reserve.  We stopped once at a restaurant and hotel in Butare for a bathroom break.  The last hour of driving was in the forest reserve.  It was very mountainous.  The road had many sharp curves and had deteriorated a lot, with dirt-patched potholes.  We got to the Gisakura Guesthouse at 7:30 pm, well after dark.  It was a very basic affair with shared bathrooms.  But if the birding turns out as good as expected, we won't mind it a bit.  We had a basic dinner served family style.  Chuck showered while the others did the bird list.  Nancy then showered, and we got to bed at 9:30 pm.

Thursday, April 22
What an incredible day!  We started out birding the main road, then cut down a farm road, and then a steep forest trail.  The lifers were coming fast and furious, most of them rare Albertine Rift endemics.  By lunch we had about 20 lifers.  And many of them were really cool species like the Many-colored Bush-shrike and the Violet-backed Hyliota, with its bright yellow breast.  There were also some wonderful sunbirds like the Regal and the Purple-banded.  At lunch Chuck accessed email and news via the wi-fi at the park office.  
Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher
We went back out in the afternoon and walked up an old gravel road.  We picked up two very rare and difficult birds, the Kungwe Apalis and an unusually obliging Short-tailed Warbler, or Neumann's Warbler.  It appears to be related to the tesias of Asia.  We also had a flyover of Ruwenzori Apalis.  Nancy saw the Sooty Boubou, and Chuck was the only one in the group to get Tullberg's Woodpecker.  On the way back down the mountain a Ruwenzori Nightjar flew over Keith's car.  They stopped, and we turned around to go back and see it too.  It flew over the road in front of us, when Keith played its call.  We returned to Kisagura at about 6:30, did the bird list, had dinner and turned in early.  Our totals of life birds for the day were some of the highest we have had in a very long time -- 29 lifers for Nancy and 28 for Chuck.  This was half of the 57 species we saw today.

Friday, April 23
We awoke at a very early 3:30 am for a 4 am breakfast.  We got on the road before 5 am to head down toward Lake Kivu to a remnant patch of forest that is home to a troupe of about 30 Chimpanzees.  We walked down a slippery trail, birding in the dawn light, heading toward the chimps.  They are under study and do not become alarmed at the presence of humans.  We observed about 5 or 6 different chimps feeding on figs, and the group photographed a few of them.  It was not really the kind of close-up sighting we had hoped for but was interesting nonetheless.  
Looking for Chimps
Nancy missed her best photo op when her lens fogged up in the very high humidity of the forest.  The forest is only about 5 square kilometers, and the chimps have periods without plentiful food.  They also are likely to become inbred due to the fact that they are a very long way from any other chimp populations.  But for the moment, they are protected and being studied by Rwanda National Parks with assistance from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.  After looking at the chimps, we birded some more.   The best thing we saw was a large group of Mona Monkeys. We returned to Gisakura about 11:30 am and took a welcome break after such an early morning.  We went back out at 3 pm and drove 45 minutes up the mountain to a trailhead.  We got into a strong thunderstorm on the way up, but it was completely dry up on our trail.  The birding was slow and difficult but we did manage excellent views of Doherty's Bush-shrike.  Chuck got a very fleeting view of Grauer's Warbler, and we watched four beautiful Black-billed Turacos glide across a valley, their red wings flashing in the evening light.  We had dinner at 7:30 pm, showered and went to bed.  So far in Rwanda we have seen 69 species, 33 of which were new.

Birding in the rain
Saturday, April 24
We got another fairly early start today and drove up over the crest in the road to the trailhead of the Bigugu trail, picking up our Parks guide, Claude, along the way.  The trail starts at above 9000 feet and goes almost straight up the mountain for the first 1/4 mile.  It was actually a beautiful trail once it leveled out.  The trail is the one accessible place to see the Red-collared Mountain Babbler, a rare Albertine Rift endemic.  It travels in small, noisy flocks fairly high up in the canopy.  We were not disappointed by it.  We saw two flocks of them and Nancy even managed to get photos of a few birds.  We also saw another lifer, the Chestnut-throated Apalis, and Chuck caught up to Nancy with a good sighting of Mountain Yellow Warbler.  We had lunch and a short break at the guest house, then headed back up the mountain in the afternoon.  But by now, it was raining very hard so we had to alter our plans.  We walked a short ways down a gravel and mud mountain road, where we had a very good sighting of Grauer's Warbler, of which we had had only quick views the previous day.  We saw Handsome Francolin getting ready to roost.  And for our last new bird of the day, we went to where Claude knew of a territory of the Red-throated Alethe.  With a few short playbacks, two alethes appeared very close to us.  Back at the guest house Chuck talked to a professor from George Mason University who was making a film on Rwanda for UN Environment Day.  Our totals so far in Rwanda are 91 species seen, 41 of them new.

Sunday, April 25
Today was a travel day.  We drove all morning back to Kigali.  We only stopped twice for brief birding at two marshes.  At the first, still in Nyungwe National Park, we saw Grauer's Scrub-warbler.  Then at the second, a big papyrus swamp on the southern outskirts of Kigali, we saw White-winged Warbler.  We had lunch at a very South African-style indoor mall, at a place called Bourbon Coffee.  We both had delicious coffee floats, and our meals were very good too.  Chuck had a chicken pesto sandwich.  In the afternoon, we drove through the high end residential district of Kigali and then went straight to the Volcans National Park.  We stayed at the rather basic Kinigi guest house.  During the drive, Nancy totalled up our lifers for the entire trip.  She got about 106 new birds, and Chuck got about 104.  In Rwanda, we have seen 131 species, 44 of them new.  Our birding was basically finished.

Monday, April 26
Today was our big day with Mountain Gorillas.  We headed out about 7 am and drove up to the park headquarters.  We waited around for awhile as all the day's gorilla trekkers gathered.  There are 7 troupes in Rwanda that are exposed to visitors and 8 that are only visited for research purposes.  Each tourist group is limited to 8 persons, and each one has a well-trained articulate guide, an armed ranger and at least two trackers.  The Rwanda gorillas were visited by 17,500 tourists last year, who paid over $9 million for the experience.  We were told that a good portion of the money goes to the communities around the park.  Our experience far surpassed our highest expectations.  We were given the troupe closest to the forest edge, but we still had a steep climb up into the bamboo forest where the gorillas had spent the night.  The trail, where it existed, was incredibly muddy and slippery but we all made it, filled with anticipation.  We came upon our first gorillas deep in the darkness of the bamboo forest.  There was one young adult and then a mother with a baby.   It was very dark for photos, but everyone tried because we didn't know if we would get any closer or see them in better light.  When the mother and baby moved on, we did too.  The gorillas were basically just descending from their nests, which they build fresh every night, even though it was already after 9 am.  We were led around the hillside in a path hacked out by the trackers.  Chuck was unaware that the group moved on, and he described what happened next, as follows:

"I was back taking pictures and when I looked up I realized the entire group had moved off without me, except for one tracker who stayed back to watch me.  He motioned for me to catch up to the group.  I saw where they were in the distance and I took a shortcut under some low bamboo.  As I was stooped down, the tracker started telling me in an urgent whisper "Quickly! Quickly!"  At that moment, a big hairy arm reached down from the bamboo clump and a big gray hand grabbed my upper arm.  I yanked it away and kept moving.  Only then did I realize I had ducked under the nest of a young blackback and, probably just curious or playful, he had reached out and grabbed me.  What an experience!  To be grabbed by a gorilla.  And the encounter was further enriched when several minutes later the young blackback descended from his nest and stole over to mate with a young female.  That could have been me!"  

We now found ourselves in a more open area where the gorillas were beginning to feed.  The light was much better for photography here and the rain had stopped, and we watched as several gorillas came ambling through, sometimes passing within a few feet of us.  The young male that grabbed Chuck's arm came out, went over to a young female and began to mate with her.  They were very quiet about it, probably so they didn't let the aging silverback, Guhonda, know what they were doing.  Nancy took lots of pictures, and Chuck got the full 2 1/2-minute coupling on video.  A little later, the troupe's younger silverback, who probably is in the process of displacing Guhonda as leader, mated with another female, then rolled over on his back afterward!  Guhonda was born in 1971 into a troupe that was under study by Diane Fossey.  At 39, he is in his old age.  Gorillas in the wild aren't known to live past age 43.  We spent more time out in the open watching the gorillas move around us and feed.  Many, many photographs were taken.  Eventually our guide Edouard said we had to leave.  He had given us nearly two hours with the troupe, when rules call for one hour only.  We walked back down the mountain, returned to the lodge for lunch and a free afternoon. 

Tuesday, April 27
We left Kinigi at 8:30 am and drove back to Kigali, arriving at noon.  As we approached Kigali, we came around a corner to see a huge semi on its side and its cargo strewn across the road, nearly blocking it completely.  Its wheels were still turning and people were just getting out of two minivans that had run off the road and nearly over a cliff to dodge the careening truck.  The truck driver appeared dazed and anguished but uninjured.  Apparently, his brakes failed as he came down this long, relatively steep hill.  We were lucky we weren't two minutes earlier.  When we got into Kigali, we found we were staying at a different hotel, a brand new establishment near the airport called the Beausejour Hotel.  Our room was lovely, with a private balcony overlooking the whole city.  We relaxed all afternoon, then joined Mary and Larry for dinner.  As usual, we had delightful conversation with them.  Larry said that between him and Mary, they had taken 32,000 images on the trip!  And Chuck thought Nancy takes too many pictures!

Wednesday, April 28
Though the hotel manager had told us the night before that breakfast was served at 6 am, when we went down the staff said breakfast began at 6:30, but they did a good job accommodating us, and Gaston was there on schedule to take us to Kigali's small airport.  We were the first ones to check in for our flight and chatted with the immigration and security officers.  It was a very relaxed, unbusy place.  There were only three passengers on the Rwandair Bombardier regional jet.  The airline is very new and has just begun purchasing its own aircraft.  We talked to our American pilot, and he said there are 16 Americans flying Rwandair's planes.  He is currently also the acting operations director.  The flight to Kilimanjaro was lovely and took only an hour.  This was a final cap to our very positive impressions of a country with such a tragic recent history.

A View Over Nyungwe National Park, Rwanda

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