You sometimes hear the expression “And the food was to die for”. I don’t think that means it was poisonous, or so fatty as to instantly clog your arteries. I think the suggestion is that having eaten such delicious food life is complete, nothing will ever match the experience again, you may as well die now. Birdwatching is evidently nothing like eating.
I had seen the Shoebill, I could never tick it again, but life goes on. There are other pebbles on the beach, fish in the sea, birds in the swamp. The Papyrus Gonolek would be nice.
It’s rare, has limited distribution, skulks in the papyrus and is a lot smaller than a Shoebill. And considerably prettier.
You can’t beat local knowledge, our guide for our couple of days in the Entebbe region was Nanyombi Proscovia. It would not be easy but she would do her best, she said, to find us the Gonolek.
So, Mabamba for the second morning, back into our boat and back into the swamp along with the local people going about their daily lives.
We nosed along, sometimes through narrow water ways, sometimes across more open expanses, mostly driven by outboard motor but where the vegetation was particularly dense the boatman resorted to pushing us along with a pole. It was surprising how close some of the birds would let us get.
Where’s its blue breast? It’s an immature bird, give it time and it will develop a neat blue collar.
The Intermediate Egret has a huge range. You can even find them in Australia but it’s not often we see them in their breeding finery.
What’s this flying past? Oh, I’ve seen them before …
A recent post, Game Drive, has been a big winner. With the tags travel and Africa it has attracted a lot of attention. Some posts are like that. This post is about a trip to the Entebbe Botanical Gardens, it’s a great destination, it gives you a chance to get at the shore of Lake Victoria, three species of monkey are well represented and there is also a fourth, it’s a great place to find birds in a big city but it really doesn’t lend itself to a sexy title.
And some of its denizens are certainly not sexy …
Others are way more attractive …
The squirrel stays close to its hole in a termite mound.
The three regular monkey species are Blue Monkey, Vervet Monkey and Colobus. There is a solitary Red-tailed Monkey as well, an escapee from the nearby zoo. The Vervets are adorable …
Just ask them.
What on earth does all this have to do with fish? Miracles and fish have a close relationship. It’s a miracle this Pied Kingfisher could catch and then fly with this fish. If you click on the first photo you can step through the process of swallowing it. First turn it around so that it’s head points down your throat …
Many years ago I went to a farewell dinner for a surgeon. Naturally he gave a speech. He was a surgeon who was retiring but he was no retiring surgeon. In the space of a few minutes he had mortally offended every catholic in the place and alienated every woman. Hospital managers, health insurance funds, nursing staff all got a serve. If he ever regretted his retirement there was little chance that he would be welcome back.
But his ultimate scorn was for birdwatchers. You could safely assume he would not be spending the twilight of his days bird watching.
I can understand that. Bird watchers are weird. They are socially awkward and compare sizes … of lists that is. Now, of course, this is a bird watcher’s blog but it’s not a birdwatching blog, if it were it would consist of endless lists and no sane person would read it. You can find such blogs.
Lists, though, are remarkably democratic. A House Sparrow, a feral pigeon and the rarest bird in the world all contribute just one to the list. But are they really all equal? Would a birder ever send a photo of some trash bird to a birding friend and say “Look what I just added to my life list”?
On the other hand if it were rare, limited in range, five feet tall and known to include crocodiles in its diet …
It was about an hour and a half’s drive from Entebbe to the papyrus swamp at Mabamba Bay. We had been advised that our chance of seeing Shoebill was about 70%. To improve our odds we would go twice.
Our transport awaited …
We sent a sharp pair of eyes up into the crow’s nest …
And after a couple of hours we found our quarry …
King of the whale heads. Just standing there looking down at us. Which is what they do for long periods, waiting for some unsuspecting lung fish or baby crocodile to swim within reach, or even a duck. Then it’s all action, it lunges into the water, engulfs a bill full, ejects everything that it’s not interested in swallowing before decapitating anything that it is interested in swallowing and then swallowing it. Or so they say, just finding one is hard enough, it would be a rare privilege to witness what The Handbook of the Birds of the World calls its “violent method of fishing”.
Where the Shoebill fits in the evolutionary bush is uncertain. It was once lumped with the storks, it shares some characteristics with the herons but it is more likely, though, that its nearest relatives are the pelicans. For the moment it is a single species in a unique genus in its very own family, the Balaenicipitidae.
Heads up, camera ready …
It strides to the water’s edge …
and plunges, eyes protected by a nictitating membrane …
Up it comes, spilling water. Then discards vegetation until after a few minutes working on the contents of its bill it discards everything left in its mouth. It seems to have been unsuccessful and flies off to find a better spot …
I wasted no time sending the photos to my birding friends around the world. They gnashed their teeth and howled in pain.
If you have been following my African adventure this far it may have crossed your mind that an Earthwatch expedition may be a good idea. It is not merely a good idea – it is a great idea. Put yourself in the picture above, surround yourself with beauty …
and meet interesting people.
There were five of us at Budongo. Two were PhD qualified professional biologists, one was a keen amateur with postgraduate qualifications in ornithology, one was a zoo keeper with a wealth of knowledge about primates in captivity and one was a banker.
Four out of five brought a great deal of biological knowledge with us, but it was the odd one out that proved you needed none of that to make a contribution. Five out of five took a great deal away with us.
The program was top class. It started with the trees themselves, from buds to ripe fruit. It moved on to the birds, the monkeys and the apes, the wildlife that depend on the forest. It reached into the surrounding farms to provide the human context that will determine the future of the forest.
Huge thank yous needs to go to Geoffrey Muhanguzi, the director, a quiet man of enormous authority and depth, to the effervescent Zephyr, facility manager, to Dr Caroline Asiimwe, Conservation Coordinator, to Moreen Uwimbabazi, bird bander extraordinaire and to all the field assistants and station staff that made our stay so rewarding.
What of the flagship research?
As food supplies decline, chimps in the Budongo Forest are raiding farmers’ crops. What is causing the decline in food? How can the area support both farmers and primate foragers?
The phenologists are keeping a close eye on forest productivity. We must take their word for it that, for now, productivity is declining. Our observations will do nothing to explain why that is the case.
Chimpanzees are raiding farmers’ crops. Well, it was probably always thus. More frequently now because of declining fruiting? The research model will not answer that, largely because the people asking the question have done a lot to improve conditions for the chimpanzees, numbers have increased and so has their health. As they tend towards the carrying capacity of their habitat they will look to take advantage of the crops next door, regardless of forest productivity.
Do the farmers care? Regarding chimpanzees – no. Their concern is the enormous amount of human time taken in guarding their fields. Losses are tolerable if the animals are promptly driven away. Losses are total if the crops are not guarded. So long as baboons, bush pigs and monkeys raid crops those crops must be guarded. Full time. Partial reduction of raiding will not reduce the time spent guarding by the farmer and their family.
So if our efforts as researchers did not break any new boundaries in science did we make any contribution at all?
Yes we did. If you want to maintain a research facility focused on chimpanzees that is available to undergraduate and postgraduate students you need people in the field to maintain habituation of the animals, you need accommodation and you need expertise. In other words you need money.
One way to get the money is to build a five star hotel and fill it with rubberneckers. That requires considerable capital input and entails a large commercial risk. If successful it might bring a host of new problems in its wake.
Alternatively a steady stream of interested and motivated visitors who will take one star accommodation in their stride and pay their way will bring in some of that much needed income. That was us … quiet and intelligent tourists who paid our money and in exchange were given an experience way more valuable than our meagre contribution.
We helped to support a facility that is doing a great job.
Could it be you?
It can and it should be you. There is almost certainly an Earthwatch expedition that will appeal. If it’s to be Budongo you need to be sure that:-
Our last full day as Earthwatch Researchers at Budongo would be spent on patrol looking for signs of illegal activity in the forest.
Hunting in the forest was once the legitimate pursuit of some families. They could eat or sell what they caught. What they have done honourably for many generations is now poaching.
There are six former hunters employed to police the forest. The leader of the group I went with was Ofen.
The other experienced set of eyes belonged to Dr Caroline Asiimwe, the Conservation Coordinator at Budongo.
Then there were three beginners.
Ofen has worked for Budongo for 18 years. He has a wealth of knowledge.
Traditionally a hunter had a patch to himself, he would set as many as 200 snares and walk around them every couple of days. In order to find them efficiently he made marks on the trees near where the snares were placed.
The main target animals were Duiker and Giant Rats. He would look for the regular trails that Duiker used, determine whether it was Red or Blue Duiker, find a place where the trail was narrow and a snare could be concealed and then set up his trap. The snare would be smaller and set a little lower for Blue Duiker than for Red.
For the rats the technique was different, a noose, a trigger mechanism and a bent sapling. Set at the entrance to its burrow. The unfortunate rodent would put its head through the noose as it released the trigger, the sapling straightens tightening the noose and hoisting the rat into the air.
If a hunter found an animal in someone else’s snare he took a leg. To take the whole animal would, according to tradition, cause the thief to die.
We started out by visiting an area which had recently been illegally logged. The loggers typically bring only beans and their logging equipment. They set traps to supplement their diet, mainly with Giant Rats. The pit sawing equipment had been destroyed by the Forest Authority and the area thoroughly searched by the Snare Patrollers. Our follow up visit found no evidence of renewed activity.
We then turned our attention to an area closer to the edge of the forest and Ofen found the first snare. To sharpen our eyes the rest of us were invited to find it as well. It took a while but helped develop a search pattern. Find the Duiker trail, look where it narrows, look very carefully in the foliage. Also look for a cut stick about two metres long, there isn’t always a sapling or tree conveniently placed where the snare is to be set. Even if the stick comes free from the ground it will soon get caught in a narrow place on the trail. No point these days looking for the traditional marks, the poachers know that the patrollers will find them all too easily.
I’m especially proud of this one …
because I found it all by myself.
By day’s end we had found 6 wire snares (these days made out of motorbike throttle cabling) and an old sapling and liana spring trap. None contained any animals.
Ofen spoke with pride about the work the team had done for their chimpanzees. When he started work around 2000 the team were finding 200 traps a day, sometimes as many as 300, the chimpanzees were fewer in number and many had limb injuries from snares.
Back at camp we were shown a shed full of “man traps”. These are very spiteful devices using car springs to close a pair of spiked jaws. One was set up for us. It took a man’s weight applied to the end of a stout lever to open the jaws which were then held open by a trigger mechanism …
dig enough of a hole to set it flush with the ground and cover with leaves…
An animal or human stepping on the plate seen to the left of the upper photo is in for a very nasty surprise.
With a local in the lead and Geoffrey bringing up the rear the mzungus trooped into the village. Some of the Research Station staff live here so we are not a total novelty. These young ladies are certainly very relaxed with Silvana …
The village is mainly wattle and daub huts spread out through the gardens. The odd solar panel adorns a roof here and there.
There are kids playing and women at work. Geoffrey expressed some sensitivity about publishing photos of the children so in deference I will not. Let me say that they were having a ball.
My destination is the plot of a 77 year old farmer at the forest edge. I have a clipboard, a questionnaire and an interpreter. I read a sentence, the interpreter talks for a paragraph, the farmer answers very succinctly, the interpreter takes a paragraph to tell me what he said. This is home turf in many ways having practised in Melbourne public hospitals where quite a few patients have no English.
I encourage the interpreter to stick strictly to the script and check the answers with follow up questions. We make much better progress.
I learn that this farmer grows sunflowers, sweet potatoes and beans on 1 acre right at the forest edge. The sunflowers are a cash crop, the family will eat the beans and sweet potatoes. He has no cassava but others around and about do, if he had more land that would be his next choice.
Crop raiding is an ever present threat. Baboons are the main problem, monkeys and bush pigs are also regular pirates. Chimpanzees don’t get a mention until I specifically ask, yes they come to a Mango tree in the village but otherwise not much.
The raiders eat the sweet potatoes and beans. Nothing eats the sunflowers although baboons do a little damage in passing through. Unless the crops are guarded day and night every day there will be nothing to eat. Guarding falls to all including the kids who miss some school as a consequence. Small shelters provide some protection from the elements for the guardians.
I thank him and shake hands. He is tall, slender, dignified. He has considerable ulnar deviation of his fingers which suggests rheumatoid arthritis. I think of the physical effort to prepare an acre by hand.
The forest is on the right and also behind me as I took the photograph, sunflowers are a good buffer crop, to the left the gardens likely to be raided and at top left a shelter for the watchers.
Through the Research Centre a lot of effort has gone into promoting buffer crops like sunflower and cabbage that are unattractive to the raiders. To deter poaching in the forest domestic animals have been promoted as protein sources and there are pigs, chickens and goats around. Goats have been given to the villagers and some free vet care is available to keep them worm free and thriving.
The field assistants in Budongo are mainly from this or other nearby villages. I often heard them talk about “our chimpanzees”. At our very first briefing it was obvious that the scientific staff, whilst attracted to working with chimpanzees, had realised and embraced the fact that success for the chimpanzees meant working with the people.