Thursday, October 25, 2012

East Africa Trip Wrap-Up

The trip home from Kenya proved uneventful--two 9 hour flights changing in London.  The worst part was the sinus infection that I had developed the last few days of the trip because of all the red dust I had inhaled.  It finally cleared up within a week of being home in Chapel Hill.  I believe that it took me over a month after returning for my body's digestive process to return to normal as a result of having taken anti-malarial medicine for 45 days.

It was fun for me to relive this amazing trip thru the blog.  As I have said to many people since being back home, it was definitely the trip of a lifetime that I am thrilled to have done, and also don't need to do again.  31 out of 32 days of non-stop birding from dawn to dusk is challenging even for the most hard core birders.  Even Brian was more than ready for the trip to finish up.  I called my good friend, Marty, as soon as I got home to say I was glad he chose not to make the trip.  Being a casual birder, he would have been more than fried by the experience.

Some other take aways would be that a trip like this is definitely more in the "collecting" mode rather than the simply birding mode.  Some of my favorite times during the trip was when we were just seeing what was around the lodge where we were staying.  That said, seeing so many new and amazing birds plus all the animals was truly wonderful.

We drove over the 4+ weeks about 5000 KM which is a bit more than 3000 MI.  The roads were often very poor which made you feel worn out much more quickly than we are used to here in the U.S. We also flew within E. Africa about 1000 KM.

The food was mostly edible and generally we had plenty of it, but even the best meals were nothng to write home about.  Roast potatoes every day at both breakfast and dinner for a month gets quite old.  And as I have bemoaned, the bag lunches were in all but a couple of cases really poor.

The lodging varied with most simply being adequate with a few outstanding properties to a few you would never want to return to. Of course, if you wanted to increase the cost of the trip significantly, you could stay at only 4 Star places.

Bob, Stu and I really did not know each other, and fortunately we ended up traveling well together.  Brian also was unknown to us except by birding rep.  He proved to be as good a birder as I have ever met.  His knowledge of E. Africa, his encyclopedic memory for bird calls, and his desire to show us the birds were the reason we were able to see so many different bird species in just a month.

So what was our final bird species count?  For the entire trip, there were 807 different bird species seen, and 31 heard only for a trip total of 838.   About 1400 different bird species have been recorded in E. Africa. For myself, I felt only good about counting 797 seen and 24 heard only for a personal total of 821.  One of the birds, an Ayre's hawk-eagle, was not confirmed until after returning home from a photo Bob had taken in the W. Usambaras of a soaring raptor.

To put these numbers in perspective for predominantly U.S. birders, there are less than 100 living birders who have seen and/or heard over 800 different bird species in the ABA area, and many of these birders have been birding the ABA area for decades!  My own ABA area life list is somewhere between 750 and 775 birds seen and/or heard, and my own big year lower 48 states total in 2010 was 704.  The total number of bird species in the world is just over 10,000.

As for the birds we did see, there are so many different bird families in E. Africa that we do not have in the U.S.  The ones that really stand out for me are the sunbirds, hornbills, turacos, weavers, hoopoes, barbets,  bustards, bee-eaters, bushshrikes, greenbuls, robin-chats, cisticolas, whydahs, and waxbills.  Starlings, raptors, lapwings, storks, cuckoos, owls and owlets, kingfishers, and woodpeckers are families that we see here as well.  If I had to pick a bird family as my favorite on the trip, I would with great difficulty settle on sunbirds of which we saw 41 different species.

All the photos in today's post were taken by Bob who has been so helpful in sharing his photos with me to make the blog much more colorful and interesting. In order from top to bottom today: malachite sunbird, sooty boubou, tropical boubou, red-chested sunbird, scarlet-chested sunbird, straw-tailed whydah, and golden-winged sunbird (click on any photo to enlarge).

The total cost for this birding extravaganza including round trip airfare to Kenya ($2500), shots and meds ($500), visas ($300), and on the ground expenses--lodging, food, guide and driver, gorilla trek, park entrance fees, transportation and tips ($13,700)--came to $17,000.  As a reference point, my big year cost me $40,000 which meant I spent about $57/bird species seen while birding for about 260 days.  Each bird species on this trip cost only about $21 while birding for only 31 days.

It was truly an incredible birding adventure because of the birds and the location.  My main advice to others is that you should think twice about taking such a long trip.  If you can afford the extra airfare, I would suggest breaking a trip like this in half which should reduce the exhaustion/burnout factor, and probably make for even more birding enjoyment.  Also, we had tried to have a total of 6 birders on our trip which would have reduced the base trip cost by $2,000, but because of the length of the trip, we were unable to find 3 more birders to join us.

My next post will probably not be until early December after I return from the first ever gathering of the 700+ Club--those very few birders who saw 700 or more bird species in the ABA area during their big year.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Day 32--Nyungwe to Kigali to Nairobi

We awoke to another beautiful morning, had an ok breakfast and then started working our way back towards Kigali.  We stopped fairly quickly along the main road to listen for birds.  Brian heard a short-tailed warbler calling right next to the road.  We had only heard this bird over the past 2 days, so we walked into the forest maybe 30 ft to try to call it in.  It took 15 minutes before we all got reasonably good looks at this skulker.

At another place we flushed an immature red-throated alethe out of the ditch by the roadside.  We also saw a fine looking cinnamon-chested bee-eater (photo above taken by Bob-click on any photo to enlarge).

We saw again both a northern double collared sunbird, and a red-faced mountain-warbler (both photos taken by Bob) as we moved down the main road.

We decided to walk down the side road that we had so much success with yesterday afternoon.  We saw and heard several birds including an African stonechat (photo just above taken by Bob). Our first new bird of the day was a heard only Lagden's bushshrike.  Soon after we totally lucked out when we found a red-breasted owlet (photo just below taken by Bob).  We would not know until the end of the day that this would be our last new seen bird for the trip.

Since it was the last birding day of the trip we had to have a photo taken of the group (left to right--Bob, Brian, me and Stu). We also stopped at the wetland we had visited 2 days earlier in an effort to find our last possible new cisticola--the Carruther's.  It was a no show, but we did get to see the Grauer's rush warbler again.

Our last major stop was at a large wetland, mostly grown up with papyrus grass, just outside of Kigali.  We spent at least an hour here trying to see more heard only birds like papyrus gonolek, white-collared oliveback, and white-winged warbler.  We did finally get to hear Carruther's cisticola calling, but could never get it to come out in the open.  Our efforts to find these birds attracted a small group of young boys who at one point I let look thru my binos (photo taken by Bob).

About 3:30 after seeing a giant kingfisher, we finally gave up trying to coax the calling birds out of the papyrus, and made the short drive into Kigali.  Isaac took us to a coffee bar for some drinks, and then we met Catherine at 6 PM to have dinner at an Indian restaurant.  This turned out to be the very best meal of our entire trip.  Unfortunately we could not linger over it because we needed to get to the airport for our flight to Nairobi which then was late in departing. At the Kigali airport we said our farewells to Isaac who had been so much fun to have as our driver while in Rwanda.

We arrived in Nairobi about 11:30 PM where we met Ben, the owner of the ground operation in Kenya, who would take us to our night's lodging.  Brian was headed home from the airport, so we said our profuse thanks and good-byes there. After a 30 minute ride, we arrived at the Oak Place Hotel.  As we were checking in we heard a montane nightjar calling just outside the office.  This was a bird Brian had heard during the night at the end of week #2, but it was the first time the 3 of us had heard it call.  Ben confirmed that was what we were hearing, but by the time we went outside it had stopped.

We were in bed by 1 PM.  Bob would be heading out before sunrise to catch a flight to visit an old friend who lives near Mpala, Kenya.  Stu and I would be hanging around the hotel all day before catching a night flight to London, and then on to the States.  I will be doing a wrap up post next on this amazing trip.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Day 31--Nyungwe Forest Redux

We started our day with a so-so breakfast, and picked up our bag lunch that we found out at mid day we might as well not have bothered.  Our birding day was all about retracing our steps in the forest to find more new birds and hopefully see a few species that were on our heard only list.  Narcisse, a local guide, joined us for the day as well. 

Our first stop was to walk further down the side gravel road that we had spent a little time checking out yesterday afternoon.  It was a bit overcast which made it very comfortable for walking and birding.  Our first new trip bird was the yellow-eyed black flycatcher (all photos in today's post are by Bob except for the very last one--click on any photo to enlarge). We then heard the black-billed turaco calling, and this time one flew out in the open.

We walked by the spot from yesterday where we had seen a purple-breasted sunbird, and soon after we saw another one plus a beautiful blue-headed sunbird perched out in the open for us.  There was a lot of bird activity over the 4 hours that we traversed the road including 3 fly over Cassin's hawk-eagles, and several black kites. We kept hearing Doherty's bushshrike calling, but could not get it to come out in the open.  We did manage better views of the Grauer's warbler.

We finally pulled ourselves away from the road and drove to the visitor center to walk a trail which led eventually to a dirt road.  We found Elliot's and olive woodpeckers--both new trip birds--plus a blue yellowbill.

A little further along we picked up a white-browed crombec (photo just below) and chestnut throated apalis.  We also saw white-bellied crested-flycatcher, and gray-chested iladopsis.  Several stripe-breasted tits were working the top of a very large tree, but in the end we got good diagnostic looks at this small bird.

It took us about 3 hours to walk the trail and road.  All along the way we kept finding small feeding flocks.  We came across strange weavers (photo just above), and a dwarf honeyguide was a special pick up.  At the same spot we flushed a lemon dove off the road--another hard to find bird.  We had nice looks at white-headed woodhoopoes also.

It was getting pretty late in the day when we finished the hike, so we began driving back towards our evening lodging spot--the Top Hill View Hotel.  We stopped at the side road briefly to see if anything else was around, but found nothing new.

We arrived at dusk to find that thru some kind of misunderstanding with our ground operators in Rwanda, we only had 2 rooms reserved for the night instead of 3, and the hotel was full.  After some frustration being voiced, and some wrangling, the hotel put another bed in one of the rooms to solve the problem.  We then walked back down the hill in front of the hotel to listen for Rwenzori nightjars.  It was a windy evening and we came up short.

The dinner buffet was pretty good.  I had a very nice tomato and tuna salad, roasted potatoes, and curried beef over rice.  Dessert was fresh pineapple chunks and crepes.  The bird list update took our trip total past 830 different species seen and/or heard.  We would be birding our way back to Kigali tomorrow, arriving early evening for our flight back to Nairobi.  Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Day 30--Nyungwe Forest

We were up and out quickly because we still had to drive some distance to get to the edge of the Nyungwe Forest.  As we neared the forest entrance, we stopped at a wetland and got our first new trip bird for the day--Grauer's rush warbler.  Our second was a Handsome francolin that moved so quickly into the foliage that no photos were obtained. Soon after we saw our first regal sunbird (photo taken by Bob--click on any photo to enlarge).

By 9:30 we had stopped at the office to pay for our entrance pass.  There was a large tea plantation surrounding the office, and many women were walking by to begin picking the tea leaves.  We would spend the rest of our day working our way from east to west on the single road that passed thru the forest.  The road was generally in very good condition because the Chinese contractors, who seem to build most of the roads now in E. Africa, were making improvements.  We would pass several African work crews throughout the day.

One reason to visit the Nyungwe Forest is because of the endemics there, many of which are named for the Rwenzori mountains that are part of the Albertine Rift in Rwanda. As an example, in the photo just above taken by Bob you can see a Rwenzori apalis.  In Kenya we had seen its look alike cousin, the black-collared apalis. We also picked up the white-bellied robin-chat in the morning (photo taken by Bob).

The find of the day was a group of red-collared mountain babblers (photo just below taken by Bob).  Brian told us that he had missed this species on his last trip to the forest.

We stopped to check out a group of L'Hoest's monkeys that were crossing the road, and also found a Rwenzori turaco (photo taken by Bob)).

Our routine would be to stop at good habitat spots, and walk along the roadway.  This was generally productive in finding more birds, but also at times harrowing when medium size buses would come flying by us.  Isaac would wait with the landcruiser, often trying to get cell service including standing on top of the truck to do so.

As the day went along, we kept finding new trip birds such as white-tailed blue-flycatcher; barred long-tailed cuckoo; Grauer's, and red-faced mountain warblers; Archer's robin-chat; mountain masked apalis; mountain iladopsis; many-colored bushshrike; dusky crimson-wing; and mountain sooty and Willard's boubous--the latter being a newly accepted species.  We also found Rwenzori batis (photo taken by Bob).

Later in the afternoon, we walked a narrow gravel side road, and turned up more birds including our first purple-breasted sunbird, a calling red-chested flufftail that was a total surprise given the location, scarce swift, and fleeting glimpses of black-billed turaco.  I was able to get a photo in the waning light of 2 great blue turacos.

As the sun began to set we pulled into the ORTPN resthouse--a very modest place on the west side of the forest where we would spend the night.  Dinner was some kind of pureed vegetable soup, talapia, roast potatoes and rice with a sauce. We updated the trip bird list, adding 23 new birds which took us past 800 different species seen and/or heard.  What a mindboggling number given that we had only been birding for 30 days, and one day was really all about gorillas.  Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Day 29--Ruhengere to Butare

We were on the road by 8 AM to make the 6 hour drive down to Butare, passing back thru Kigali on the way. Bob got a nice photo of a cape robin-chat before we left the lodge.

On the other side of Kigali we would stop when Brian saw some habitat that might be promising.  Our first site was along a river where we spent about an hour looking and listening.  It was a nice morning, and even though we did not pick up any new trip birds there was a fair amount of bird activity to whet our appetite including a yellow bishop (photo taken by Bob--click on any photo to enlarge).

As we made our way south, it became apparent that Rwanda was the cleanest of the 4 countries we had visited in E. Africa.  Isaac told us that after the genocide in the mid 90's, the president passed a law that had all Rwandans on the same day each month clean up the trash.  Today it is a voluntary program, but you can clearly see the results. The land also is heavily cultivated, even the hillsides which is necessary since there is so little flat valley areas.

At another spot we wandered around in the grassy, reedy brush where we found a marsh tchagra (new trip bird), and had our best views of the trip of a black-capped yellow warbler.  Several different types of waxbills were feeding as well including fawn-breasted, black-crowned, common, Kandt's and black-faced (a new trip bird).  We heard but could not see a white-collared oliveback.

At a third spot we found wattled lapwing (photo just above) plus African firefinches, and black and white manikins--both new trip birds.

As we continued on our way we kept marveling at how much of the hillsides were in production in order for Rwanda to grow enough food.  Since I have a shortage of bird photos for this day, I have added just below a gray-headed negrofinch taken by Bob a few days earlier.

We arrived in Butare about 5 PM, and Isaac found our lodging, the Petite Prince Hotel, which was the best place available in Butare.  Unfortunately for us it was a huge let down after the quality we had experienced at the Gorilla Mountain View Lodge.  We sat down to eat at 7:30, and our food finally arrived at the table at 9:15 even though there was practically no one else eating.  And the quality was very poor.  While waiting for our dinner to arrive we drank beer, and chatted about what we might find over the last few days of birding in the Nyungwe forest.  Stay tuned!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Day 28--OMG! (Oh My Gorillas!)

We were up even earlier--3:45 AM--to get a quick bite before leaving at 4:30 to make the 2 hour drive up to Ruhengere for our gorilla trek.  We arrived at the organizing point to find a group of Rwandan drummers and dancers entertaining the 80 trekkers.  While we watched the performers, the drivers of each group met with the trek guides to determine who would be matched with whom.

Our trek leader, Bic, then had us circle up to meet each other and talk about the morning.  Besides the 3 of us, we were joined by a family of 4 from San Francisco--mother, father, son and daughter who were in E. Africa to celebrate the mother's 50th birthday--and a Florida State University grad student who was originally from Romania.  Bic told us we would be walking for 60-90 minutes to reach the 18 member Amahoro family group inside Volcanoes NP.

We set out about 7:45 with walking sticks provided to us, walking for 10-15 minutes thru lots of potato fields where locals were working.  It was an overcast but cool and dry morning.  We reached the stone wall that marked the edge of the park where we met our guard who was carrying a rifle in case of a water buffalo problem.

We slowly worked our way up into the forest, stopping every 10 minutes to catch our breath, and have Bic tell us more info about the gorillas and the park.  When Diane Fossey began her work 40 years ago the numbers were down to under 500. There are now almost 800 mountain gorillas as a result of the efforts in Rwanda, Uganda and the Congo to stop the poaching.  There are still poachers, but their impact has been greatly reduced. There are 10 gorilla families that are visited each day in Rwanda. A gorilla can live as long as 40 to 50 years in the wild.  A mother gorilla can have 5-6 babies over her lifetime.

The climb was not bad even though we were at 8-9,000 ft in elevation.  As we walked, we had to dodge stinging nettles that would still prick you thru thin nylon pants leaving a mild burning irritation.  We also had to pay attention to not stop in the middle of a group of ants to prevent getting bitten.  Bic was good about warning us about both the ants and the nettles.

Not long before reaching the gorilla family we passed thru a large bamboo grove, and then walked out to find a steep hillside covered with thick vegetation.  We soon saw 2 gorillas moving about, including one in a small tree.  The trackers met us to help get us up the last 200 yards to the gorillas.  We took only our cameras and binoculars.  No food or water is allowed, nor the walking sticks since they are seen as a threat by the gorillas.

The steepness and the vegetation made it very difficult to get a solid footing, but Bic and the 2 trackers helped us get right into the middle of the family.  I had wanted to do this trek for a long time after hearing how great it was from friends who had already done it, but I had no idea just how close to the gorillas we would be.  It was truly amazing to spend a hour, often within 10 feet of a gorilla.  The little guy above and in the next 2 photos below is 7 months old (click on any photo to enlarge).  We were told that sometimes the young ones will crawl on you, and you need to be passive because if the mothers think you are upset, then they may get upset.

The most unusual thing about the Amahora family group is that there are 4 silverback males.  A silverback male is at least 12 years old, and normally there would be only 1 silverback in each family group since the silverback is the dominant member of the family.  In the photo just below are 2 silverbacks, but not the dominant one.  One of these 2 had lost a hand to poachers. Not long after we settled into the family group, the dominant male, who was above us, decided to move down the hill.  He moved so quickly that the trackers could not respond fast enough to move him in a new direction.  As a result he rambled right thru our group and bumped the 16 year old girl as he went by her, bruising her thigh.  She squealed as he went on down the incline.

Maybe 15 minutes later, one of the juvenile males did a bluff charge towards us, but this time the trackers got in front of him which caused him to stop.  The trackers spend everyday with the family, and are treated like one of the family by the gorillas.  The trackers would regularly grunt at the gorillas to reassure them, and at times would try to get them to move either away from us, or towards us for photos.  It was ok to look the gorillas in the eye, but pointing or talking loudly was not a good idea.

The gorilla above is just 12 months old, and the one below is one of the mothers.

The dominant silverback kept moving around while we were with the family.  He probably weighed 500 pounds and was quite something to look at.

At one point 6 of the family slowly rumbled by us moving to another feeding spot.

Just before our time was up, a mother with her baby on her back came walking by us.

The trackers and Bic got us back down off the steep hillside, and onto the trail we had hiked up.  We met our guard who had the rest of our gear.  As we were loading up, a young male came down to the edge of a small lake.  He occasionally would pound on his chest, but we were far enough away that he never made any charges towards us.

The walk down took 1/2 as much time as our hike up.  Just as we reached the stone wall, it began to rain.  In the 10 minutes it took to walk back to the landcruiser we got pretty soaked.  Fortunately our lodging was close by.

The Mountain Gorilla View Lodge proved to be one of the very best of our trip. We stayed in large cottages that had woodburning fireplaces, large bathrooms, and a very nice sitting area.  We arrived in time to partake of the buffet lunch which proved quite good, and saw again the family we had trekked with.  Afterwards we walked the grounds some, and then we went to our cottages to take a break since the lodge has no power in the middle of the afternoon.  A staff member knocked on our door with a shovel full of hot coals, and proceeded to get our fire started.

After a nice hot shower, while sitting by the fire Bob and I decided to have some scotch that we had bought at the airport in Entebbe.  We then walked the grounds for a bit before heading into dinner.  We found a new trip bird, the Rwenzori sunbird (photo taken by Bob).  Dinner was enjoyable with some of the best tomatoes of our trip plus some very nice grilled lamb chops.  We did not do the bird list update since today had been all about the gorillas.  Tomorrow we would be heading to the Nyungwe forest in southwestern Rwanda to resume our birding.  Stay tuned!