Working for birds in Africa

Birding Rwanda - in search of Red-collared Babbler Kupeornis rufocinctus, Albertine Rift endemics and more

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Red-collared Mountain Babbler
Nyungwe Forest, Rwanda
Red-collared Mountain Babbler
John Caddick

Observer les oiseaux au Rwanda - à la recherche du Phyllanthe à collier roux Kupeornis rufocinctus et les espèces endémiques du Rift albertin. Cet article présente deux des meilleurs sites pour observer
les oiseaux au Rwanda: la forêt de Nyungwe (où l’on peut trouver 25 des 35 espèces endémiques du Rift albertin) et le Parc National de l’Akagera (où 525 espèces d’oiseaux ont été recensées, dont le Bec-en-sabot du Nil Balaeniceps rex et plusieures espèces confinées au bassin du Lac Victoria).

The tiny country of Rwanda is perched on Central Africa’s Albertine Rift highlands, straddling the watershed between the continent’s two great rivers, the Nile and the Congo. It has been largely overlooked by birders, who instead are lured by the well-publicised bird diversity and tourist facilities boasted by its northern neighbour, Uganda. However, one of Africa’s most charismatic and enigmatic birds, the Red-collared Babbler Kupeornis rufocinctus, is only accessible in Rwanda, as is Albertine Owlet Glaucidium albertinum, and other species such as Red-faced Barbet Lybius rubrifacies, ‘Ruaha’ Chat Myrmecocichla (arnotti) collaris, Grauer’s Swamp Warbler Bradypterus graueri, Kungwe Apalis Apalis (rufogularis) argentea and Purple-breasted Sunbird Nectarinia purpureiventris are perhaps most accessibly found here.

This article focuses on the two top strategic birding areas, which are the largest remaining blocks of natural habitat in this densely cultivated country. Nyungwe National Park is the undoubted jewel in the crown and is covered in most detail here. One of the largest montane forests in Africa, it has more Albertine Rift endemic birds than any other site outside Congo-Kinshasa and is easily accessed by an excellent tarmac road. On the other side of the country, Akagera National Park offers a broad diversity of savannah and wetland birds, including Shoebill Balaeniceps rex and several species confined to the Lake Victoria basin.

Focusing on these areas, it is quite possible to record over 300 species in just ten days in Rwanda, less than half the country’s total list of almost 700 species. Most tourists visit during the main dry season in June - September, although the shorter December - January dry season may also prove to be a rewarding time to visit. With the 1994 genocide now firmly in the past, Rwanda is one of the most organised countries in Africa and is proactively rebuilding its infrastructure and promoting tourism. A bird atlas project has also recently been initiated.

Albertine Rift Endemics

The forests of the western or Albertine Rift support more endemic birds than any other Endemic Bird Area in Africa. Adding to their allure, some of Africa’s most enigmatic birds occur here: Congo Bay Owl Phodilus prigoginei, Prigogine’s Nightjar Caprimulgus prigoginei and Schouteden’s Swift Schoutedenapus schoutedeni are cumulatively known from fewer than ten specimens! Extending patchily through eastern Congo - Kinshasa, western Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, the Albertine Rift forests support at least 35 strict endemics. Many of these forests are under threat, especially due to clearance for agriculture, and the status of those forests in Congo - Kinshasa, which support the greatest diversity of endemics, is poorly known. In recent years, most birders ‘chasing’ the Albertine Rift specialties have visited Uganda’s Bwindi region, but this offers only a subset of the region’s endemics. Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park offers a greater diversity in a magnificent setting.

Nyungwe National Park

Nyungwe is one of Africa’s best forests for birding: an excellent road runs through the national park offering excellent vistas and chances for 25 of the 35 strict Albertine Rift endemics. Nyungwe harbours all of the Albertine Rift endemics recorded from Bwindi in Uganda with the exception of African Green Broadbill Pseudocalyptomena graueri (and given the broadbill’s unobtrusive nature, it may well occur, as large parts of Nyungwe seem superficially similar to Ruhiza in Bwindi where the broadbill occurs). When birding in Nyungwe one has a sense of exploration; that anything could appear over the next hill. For example, the rare Owl-faced Monkey Cercopithecus hamlyni was only discovered in Nyungwe in 1989. Chapin’s Flycatcher Muscicapa lendu and Rockefeller’s Sunbird Cinnyris rockefelleri have been claimed from Nyungwe, but their occurrence requires confirmation, and the secretive Congo Bay Owl Phodilus prigoginei may also occur.

Target birds - 25 Albertine Rift endemics including Albertine Owlet, Neumann’s Warbler Hemitesia neumanni, Grauer’s Swamp Warbler, Red-collared Babbler and Purple-breasted Sunbird. Habitats - Nyungwe encompasses almost 1,000 km2 of montane forest and heaths at 1,600 - 2,950 m elevation. Getting there - Situated in the south-west of the country on the border with Burundi, the park takes about 3–4 hours to reach on  mostly good tar roads from Kigali.

Top birding areas.

(1) Roadside birding - The main road between Butare and Cyangugu runs through the park for 55 km and the undulating terrain boasts spectacular scenery, with unbroken forest stretching into the hazy distance. It also facilitates birding, with opportunities to observe canopy species at eye-level on the steeper slopes. Soaring raptors to look for include African Cuckoo Hawk Aviceda cuculoides, African Harrier Hawk Polyboroides typus, African Goshawk Accipiter tachiro, Mountain Buzzard Buteo oreophilus, Cassin’s Spizaetus africanus and Ayres’s Hawk Eagles Hieraaetus ayresii and Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus.

A host of the commoner Albertine Rift endemics can be found in the roadside tangles at the forest edge including Ruwenzori Apalis ruwenzorii and Mountain Masked Apalises A. personata, Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher Melaenornis ardesiacus, Ruwenzori Batis Batis diops, and Blue-headed Cyanomitra alinae and Regal Sunbirds Cinnyris regius. One of the more interesting endemics is Grauer’s Warbler Graueria vittata, the sole member of its genus. This rather secretive, dull grey bird of dense tangles and creepers is best located by its soft trilling call, which is remarkably similar to that of a Scaly-throated Honeyguide Indicator variegatus. The sweet warbles of African Hill Babbler Pseudoalcippe abyssinica emanate from these tangles too. Tambourine Dove Turtur tympanistria, Olive Thrush Turdus olivaceus, Collared Sunbird Hedydipna collaris and African Yellow White-eye Zosterops senegalensis are common.

Great Blue Turaco Corythaeola cristata is commonly seen from the road and the forest rings to the raucous calls of Black-billed Turaco Tauraco schuettii. Nyungwe must be one of the best places to see the bizarre Ruwenzori Turaco Ruwenzorornis johnstoni, which possesses an atypical, squirrel-like call and is placed in its own genus. Also in the treetops are Waller’s Onychognathus walleri, Slender-billed O. tenuirostris, Stuhlmann’s Poeoptera stuhlmanni and Sharpe’s Starlings Pholia sharpii. Scan from the valley viewpoints for these species, as well as for African Olive Pigeon Columba arquatrix and Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill Bycanistes subcylindricus, whilst the calls of Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo Cercococcyx montanus and Yellow-rumped Pogoniulus bilineatus and Western Green Tinkerbirds P. coryphaeus ring out below.

Nyungwe is rich in bushshrikes, with Doherty’s Bushshrike Telophorus dohertyi and Mountain Sooty Boubou Laniarius poensis common in tangles throughout, and Lühder’s Bushshrike Laniarius luehderi at lower elevations. Higher in the tangles, watch out for the buff-breasted morph of Many-coloured Bushshrike Telophorus multicolor, which is confined to the southern Albertine Rift, and Yellowbill Ceuthmochares aereus. Look out too in these higher tangles and the canopy for Chestnut-throated Apalis porphyrolaema, Grey A. cinerea and Black-throated Apalises A. jacksoni.

Chubb’s Cisticola Cisticola chubbi, Yellow-bellied Estrilda quartinia and Black-headed Waxbills E. atricapilla and Streaky Seedeater Serinus striolatus are common in disturbed open areas along the roadsides, where Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater Merops oreobates, White-eyed Slaty Melaenornis fischeri and African Dusky Flycatchers Muscicapa adusta can be seen hawking and Black Saw-wing Psalidoprocne pristoptera is common. Most of the understorey ‘skulkers’ are most easily seen along the trails described later, but it might be worth noting that we have observed Grey-winged Robin Chat Cossypha polioptera along the main road at 02o48.672”S 29o13.373”E.

After dark, Ruwenzori Nightjar Caprimulgus ruwenzorii can be seen along the road, while African Wood Owl Strix woodfordii and, with some luck, Fraser’s Eagle Owl Bubo poensis can be heard.

(2) Uwinka (02o47.867”S 29o20.066”E; parking lot adjacent to the headquarters). - There is a wonderful network of trails through the forest, centred on the park headquarters at Uwinka. Canopy birding will be further enhanced with the construction of a canopy walkway at Uwinka due to be completed in late 2010, and plans are afoot to erect canopy towers at other strategic sites. The short walk from the parking to the reception can be a good area to spot commoner Albertine Rift endemics, including Red-faced Woodland Warbler Phylloscopus laetus and Ruwenzori Batis, and look out for Handsome Francolin Francolinus nobilis on the edges of the road at dawn and dusk (the francolin occurs widely throughout the forest but is more easily heard than seen). Red-collared Babbler actually occurs quite widely in Nyungwe and has been seen along the forest trails here too, but is more reliable on the Bigugu Trail (see below).

(3) Bigugu trail (02o47.362”S 29o23.964”E; start of the trail at the road). - The trail that leads to Mount Bigugu, the highest point in Nyungwe, is one of the best sites in the world for Red-collared Babbler. Nyungwe is the only forest outside Congo - Kinshasa where this gorgeous species occurs, and like White-throated Mountain Babbler Kupeornis gilberti of southwest Cameroon, it roves through the forest in small family groups, gleaning insects among epiphytes on large branches. Parties maintain contact with soft churrs, which can become a harsh babbler-like cacophony in excitement. The babblers are often associated with canopy flocks also comprising Narina’s Apaloderma narina and Bar-tailed Trogons A. vittatum, White-headed Woodhoopoe Phoeniculus bollei, Tullberg’s Woodpecker Campethera tullbergi, Grey Cuckooshrike Coracina caesia, Eastern Mountain Greenbul Andropadus nigriceps, Yellow-streaked Greenbul Phyllastrephus flavostriatus, Chinspot Batis Batis molitor (a canopy species in Nyungwe), Stripe-breasted Tit Parus fasciiventer, Lagden’s Bushshrike Malaconotus lagdeni and Montane Oriole Oriolus percivali. Denser tangles shelter Yellow-whiskered Greenbul Andropadus latirostris, White-browed Crombec Sylvietta leucophrys and Grauer’s Warbler.

Some of the most exciting species occur in the understorey: listen out for White-starred Robin Pogonocichla stellata, Equatorial Akalat Sheppardia aequatorialis, Archer’s Robin Chat Cossypha archeri (with its distinctive, tremulous call), Red-throated Alethe (the latter especially at ant swarms) and Mountain Illadopsis Illadopsis pyrrhoptera. Dusky Crimsonwing Cryptospiza jacksoni may flush from the forest path at the edges of clearings anywhere, but more luck is required to find its much more elusive relative, Shelley’s Crimsonwing C. shelleyi. Dense scrub at the edge of clearings is inhabited by the vocal Cinnamon Bracken Warbler Bradypterus cinnamomeus, Mountain Yellow Warbler Chloropeta similis and Banded Prinia Prinia bairdii. (4) Kamiranzovu Marsh (02o48.897”S 29o16.011”E; start of the trail, and 02o48.582”S 29o15.271”E; main marsh). - A trail leads down to this spectacular marsh, which extends over 13 km2 in a valley bottom and supports a large population of the localised and threatened Grauer’s Swamp Warbler. This rare warbler is easily seen here, drawing the attention by virtue of its low whirring display-flight. The picturesque forest surrounding the marsh literally drips with epiphytes and there have been several sightings of the almost mythical Albertine Owlet here. Listen too for Red-chested Owlet Glaucidium tephronotum, which is widespread at Nyungwe and often attracts mobbing groups of small birds. Some of Africa’s most desired understorey ‘skulkers’ occur here too: listen out for Kivu Ground Thrush Zoothera (piaggiae) tanganjicae, the unique Short-tailed Neumann’s Warbler and Grey-chested Illadopsis Kakamega poliothorax. Strange Weaver Ploceus alienus occurs in the tangles here (and elsewhere in the forest), noisily investigating clusters of leaves.

(5) Karamba area (02o47.882”S 29o11.168”E; start of trail). - This level trail leads through quite open forest and forest edge and has many of the roadside species mentioned earlier, although it is worth checking canopy flocks for Kungwe Apalis especially, and White-bellied Robin Chat Cossyphicula roberti can be found in the first patch of forest. The incredibly iridescent Purple-breasted Sunbird breeds at the forest edge here. Open areas are worth checking for Scarce Swift Schoutedenapus myoptilus and musing about the possibility of the very similar Schouteden’s Swift S. schoutedeni.

(6) Rangiro Road (02o47.672”S 29o20.590”E; start of the road, 02o47.577”S 29o20.732”E; huge Symphonia tree, and 02o47.672”S 29o20.590”E; start of lower altitude forest). - Much of the lower elevation forest has been replaced by tea plantations, but some remains below Uwinka and a rough but driveable road leads through these remnants. Near the start of the descent, a huge Symphonia tree (flowers reliably in July) attracts many sunbirds including regular Purple-breasted Sunbird. Dwarf Honeyguide Indicator pumilio has been recorded here too. In the lower forest patch, there is less of a montane ‘feel’ to the birding, and species include Elliott’s Woodpecker Dendropicos elliotii, Shelley’s Greenbul Andropadus masukuensis, Dusky Tit Parus funereus, White-breasted Negrofinch Nigrita fusconotus and Yellow-breasted Hyliota in the forest canopy. The shy Shelley’s Crimsonwing has been seen here, but can be found anywhere in the park.

(7) Uwasenkoko Marsh (02o52.857”S 29o35.297”E). - This small, high-altitude marsh spans the main road and is certainly the most accessible place to see Grauer’s Swamp Warbler. Red-chested Flufftail Sarothrura rufa can be heard ‘hooting’ from the dense grass. In the surrounding shrublands, Brown Woodland Warbler Phylloscopus umbrovirens and Ruwenzori Double-collared Sunbird occur. Don’t be misled by the smaller Northern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris reichenowi, which occurs throughout much of the park and is especially common around the guesthouse at Gisakura. Recommended guides include. - Claver Ntoyinka. Recommended accommodation. - More accommodation is planned, but for now there are two guesthouses at Gisakura (one on a private tea estate) and it is also possible to stay in one of the many hotels in Cyangugu, on the shores of Lake Kivu, and commute just over an hour to the forest. Camping is possible at Uwinka.

Akagera National Park

With some 525 species, Akagera formerly boasted one of the largest bird lists of any protected area in Africa. However, more than half the park was degazetted in 1997 to accommodate returning refugees, a pattern that is likely to be repeated more widely across Africa as other countries inevitably begin to experience the same phenomenal population densities and land pressures operating in Rwanda. However, the remaining area of park is still close to 1,100 km2 and offers great birding. Widespread savannah and wetland birds dominate the area’s avifauna, but there are a few more localised species, making the park a great compliment to the montane forest birding of Nyungwe. Top birds - Shoebill, Ring-necked Francolin Francolinus streptophorus, Red-faced Barbet, ‘Ruaha’ Chat, White-winged Swamp Warbler Bradypterus carpalis, Miombo Wren Warbler Calamonastes undosus, Tabora Cisticola Cisticola angusticauda, Papyrus Gonolek Laniarius mufumbiri. Habitats - A diversity of lowland habitats, ranging from vast swamps and lakes on the Akagera floodplain, through riparian thickets, dry forest and woodland, to grassy plains and rocky hills. Getting there - Situated on Rwanda’s eastern border with Tanzania, Akagera is a three-hour drive from Kigali (mostly on tarmac roads). Given the relatively rough tracks through much of the reserve, it requires several days to explore the more remote northern parts of the park.

Top birding areas. (1) Final section of dirt road before the park (01o97.869”S 30o58.030”E; ‘Ruaha’ Chat, and 01o96.255”S 30o58.981”E; river crossing).—Once you leave the tarmac road, numerous widespread savannah birds can be found in the degraded woodland and agricultural areas. Probably most interesting is the so-called ‘Ruaha’ Chat, the local taxon of White-headed Black Chat Myrmecocichla arnotti, which Glen et al. (in press) argue should be afforded species status due to its genetic distinctness and the diagnostic white cheeks and collar in the female. Unlike White-headed
Black Chat, which prefers natural miombo, this chat is common around small villages and breeds in the roofs of houses. Entering the more pristine grassy broadleaf woodlands of the park, it is replaced by Sooty Chat M. nigra. White-collared Oliveback Nesocharis ansorgei has been recorded at a river crossing and Miombo Wren Warbler in denser bush at the park entrance.

(2) Slopes below Akagera Lodge (01o87.922”S 30o70.960”E). - Akagera Lodge is sited atop a rocky ridge overlooking Lake Ihema and its grounds teem with many woodland birds. Red-faced Barbet can be seen in fruiting trees here, and should also be searched for in the grassy woodlands below the lodge. Rocky ridges support small numbers of the scarce and reclusive Ring-necked Francolin, which is best separated from the more widespread Shelley’s Francolinus shelleyi, Red-winged F. levaillantii and Coqui Francolins F. coqui, and Red-necked Spurfowl F. afer by its peculiar call. Tabora Cisticola, Souza’s Shrike Lanius souzae and Orange-winged Pytilia Pytilia afra have been recorded in these woodlands too. (3) Lake Ihema (01o88.228”S 30o73.823”E). - The shores of this vast lake support a huge diversity of birds, not only in the grassy edges but also the taller forest flanking the shores. (4) Papyrus swamp (01o82.885”S 30o74.336”E). - This is an excellent spot for White-winged Swamp Warbler, Carruther’s Cisticola Cisticola carruthersi and Papyrus Gonolek, all which skulk in the large papyrus swamps here (be mindful of African Buffalo Syncerus caffer). Papyrus Canary Serinus koliensis also occurs, but the curiously localised Papyrus Yellow Warbler Chloropeta gracilirostris is surprisingly absent from the park list. It is, however, found at other wetlands in Rwanda, including Rugezi Marsh in the north and at least two marshes south of Kigali.

(5) Shoebill scanning point at Lake Birengero (01o81.507”S 30o74.230”E). - The park has a small resident population of Shoebills, but access to their swamps is restricted to a few vantage points, and it is a matter of luck whether any are visible. We recommend scanning the far edges of the lake at this point. The area is apparently very difficult to reach by boat because the lake is too shallow. Recommended guides include. - James Muhizi. Recommended accommodation. - Options are limited, but Akagera Lodge offers upmarket and very well-sited accommodation.

Bibliography

Dowsett, R. J. (ed.) 1990. Survey of the Fauna and Flora of Nyungwe Forest, Rwanda. Tauraco Res. Rep. 3. Liège: Tauraco Press.

Glen, R., Bowie, R. C. K., Stolberger, S. & Voelker, G. in press. Geographically structured plumage variation among populations of White-headed Black Chat (Myrmecocichla arnotti) in Tanzania
confirms the race collaris to be a valid taxon. J. Ornithol.

Offut, K., Masozera, M. & Gill, E. undated. Nyungwe National Park Guide. Kigali: Nyungwe Forest Conservation Project & New York: Wildlife Conservation Society.

Plumptre, A. J., Masozera, M., Fashing, P. J., McNeilage, A., Ewango, C., Kaplin, B. A. & Liengola, I. 2002. Biodiversity Surveys of the Nyungwe Forest Reserve in S.W. Rwanda. WCS Working Papers 18. New York: Wildlife Conservation Society.

Stattersfield, A. J., Crosby, M. J., Long, A. J. & Wege, D. C. 1998. Endemic Bird Areas of the World: Priorities for Biodiversity Conservation. Cambridge, UK: BirdLife International.

Vande weghe, J. P. 1990. Akagera: Land of Water, Grass and Fire. Brussels: WWF.

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