The Beginner's Guide to Birding in Akagera!

Rich in biodiversity with jaw-dropping landscapes, Akagera National Park is one of Africa's best kept secrets. With lions reintroduced in 2015 and plans for the return of highly endangered black rhino, the Rwandan government are working hard at bringing back the area's big-five status.

Ornithologists and bird enthusiasts have long known about Rwanda's abundance of birds. The country boasts 728 species, with at least 525 of those residing in and around the lakes, woodlands, and savannas of Akagera.

Of that astounding number, there are a wide-variety of birds that come in all different colours, shapes, and sizes.  In this article, I have highlighted some of the most common species you might see on a one-day safari in Akagera. There are certainly other species -not least the highly elusive and prehistoric looking shoebill - that are equally if not more impressive than those on this list. But I've attempted to compile a guide to the species that the average tourist safari-goer has a 50% or greater chance of spotting.

African Fish Eagle

With its contrasting white/brown plumage, the African Fish Eagle is similar in appearance to the American Bald Eagle. This spectacular and aggressive fishing bird is perhaps the most commonly spotted eagle in Africa . The chances of observing this beautiful raptor are very high and expect to find pairs nesting close to water sources. They also have a very distinct call.


Village Weaver

Of all the birds on this list, the Village Weaver is the one species you're guaranteed to see. That's because you'll find many of these birds nesting in the trees in and around the visitor centre (where you will need to sign-in before entering the main park). Easily identified by their bright yellow colour, big red eyes, and black hood.


Lilac-breasted Roller

One of Akagera's most vibrantly coloured birds, the Lilac-breasted Roller will not go unnoticed. Despite its name, the Lilac-breasted Roller is most identifiable for the electric blue plumage it possesses on its under parts. Bold and beautiful, they drop onto ground prey from prominent perches such as roadside poles. This species, like all rollers, is renowned for its rolling flight display.


African Jacana

Widespread and common residents of freshwater ponds and lakes, the African Jacana is a long-legged, long-toed waterbird which walks and feeds on floating vegetation, especially water-lilies. Also known as the "Jesus Bird" for its seeming ability to walk on water, the African Jacana has a striking chestnut and white plumage with a powder-blue bill and frontal shield.


White-browed Coucal

Bulky, with a dark crown and face separated by a long white eyebrow with pale streaking extending onto a brown-rufous back. Often found around water in a wide range of rank vegetation, thickets, bushed and wooded grassland. A conspicuous bird and a cuckoo relative (though non-parasitic), the White-browed Coucal also has a variety of harsh kak notes.


Fork-tailed Drongo

A small and inconspicuous glossy-black bird with bright orange eyes. Best distinguished for its forked tail, this species of drongo is common and widespread at forest edge, open-wooded country, and semi-arid bush. As featured in David Attenborough's Africa series, the Fork-tailed Drongo has been made famous for its mischievous ability to mimic other animals including large birds of prey and meerkats.


Saddle-billed Stork

In contrast to the other stork on this list, one of the more aesthetically pleasing birds. The Saddle-billed Stork is a very large black and white wader with a long tri-coloured bill. The yellow part of the bill resembles a saddle, hence the name. Often solitary but sometimes found in pairs, this beautiful bird can be found mostly around Akagera's wetlands.


African Grey Hornbill

The most commonly spotted of all the hornbill family in Akagera. Pairs and groups are widespread and common residents in woodland, bushed and wooded grassland. Like most hornbill species, they exhibit dramatic courtship displays in which they rock on perches, point their bills skywards, and flick open their wings. Females have a purplish-red tip to their long curved bill.


Long-crested Eagle

Possibly the second most commonly spotted eagle in Akagera (after the African Fish Eagle), this bird is easily identified for its bright yellow eyes and long crest of feathers, which often wave around in the wind. You'll most likely spot the Long-crested Eagle perched at the top of roadside poles and trees, waiting to swoop on unsuspecting rodents.


White-faced Whistling Duck

A long-legged, long-necked duck that is well-named since they frequently attract attention with their loud far-carrying whistling. They appear largely dark in flight but it is easy to spot the chestnut coloured neck and distinct white face at a closer glance. The White-faced Whistling Duck is a gregarious species with small to large flocks gathering around Akagera's great lakes.


Woodland Kingfisher

A beautiful little bird with dove-grey, black, and bright blue plumage in addition to a striking red and black bill. Contrary to the latter part of its name, the Woodland Kingfisher is often found well away from water, frequenting wooded areas where it preys upon insects, lizards, and, on occasion, smaller birds. Singles and pairs are widespread and common.


Palm-nut Vulture

Along with the African Fish Eagle and Osprey, the Palm-nut Vulture is one of three fish-eating raptors that can be found in close proximity to Akagera's lakes. Very different in shape to other vulture species with a bold black and white plumage, it will often perch on tree branches with a hunched appearance. They have long bills for fishing and a large area of bare-pinkish skin around the eyes.


Cattle Egret

Not everyone's favourite but an interesting bird nonetheless. A short-legged heron with mostly white plumage and a buff-orange wash on the head, back and breast. The Cattle Egret is a classic game-hugging bird that is often seen hunting for small animals flushed out of the ground by larger mammals including elephant, hippopotamus, and buffalo. It is not uncommon to see one of these birds perched upon their symbiotic companions.


Little Bee-eater

Pretty little birds with mostly green plumage and a yellow throat. Little Bee-eaters have a short, narrow blue stripe just above the black eyemask and again over the throat patch. When perched, they sit in a fairly upright position with slowly wagging tail. They prey mostly on insects, snapping them up with an audible click. Pairs or family groups are common in bushed and wooded grassland.


Marabou Stork

Enormous stork and commonly thought of as the ugliest bird species not just in Rwanda, or Africa even, but the world! They're easily identified for their naked pink-reddish head and neck with scabby black spots. The Marabou Stork is massive in flight with one of the largest wingspans of all birds. They'll also eat just about anything from small mammals to carrion.


Grey-crowned Crane

An attractive and very conspicuous bird, the Grey Crowned Crane is the national bird of Uganda. This species is mostly grey with dark-chestnut, black and white wings, but is most notable for the bristly golden crown on its head. While this large crane will range well away from wetter areas to feed, the best chances of observing this impressive bird are around lakes and inundated grasslands.


Helmeted Guineafowl

The Helmeted Guineafowl is a distinctive spotted gamebird easily identified by an upright bony casque on top of the head with electric blue face and red-tipped wattles. This comical species has been known to stop traffic, with its stubbornness over making way for vehicles. Commonly spotted on the ground and in large flocks, they frequent a wide range of grassland, bush country and woodland.


Bare-faced Go-away Bird

These charismatic birds are the open country relatives of the vibrant turacos. The Bare-faced Go-away-bird is so named for its loud onomatopoeic calls. Quite slender with black face, white neck and breast and a tall grey crest, they are commonly found in pairs and often confide in open woodland and bush country. 


Goliath Heron

At 152cm (60") high, this is the world's largest heron and is a common resident of Akagera. Aside from its massive size, this leggy bird is easily recognizable for its spear like bill and warm chestnut head and hindneck. Singles and rarely small groups are widespread. Despite their size, they can remain relatively unnoticed to the inattentive eye.


Spur-winged Goose

Spur-winged Geese frequent mostly around freshwater sources and are easily distinguished by size and plumage. A large long-necked goose, but not particularly attractive with a bare warty red face. In their slow and laboured flight, they display a long white bar along the leading edge of the wing. Their flight call is a repeated variably rapid double wheezy note, almost like a hiccup.


Other commonly spotted species:

  • African Darter
  • African Wattled Lapwing
  • Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
  • Common Squacco Heron
  • Crowned Lapwing
  • Eastern Grey Plantain-eater
  • Great Egret
  • Grey-backed Fiscal
  • Hamerkop
  • Lappet-faced Vulture
  • Little Egret
  • Long-tailed Cormorant
  • Osprey
  • Pin-tailed Whydah
  • Red-billed Firefinch
  • White-backed Vulture

 

Big thanks to Shelly Anne Rosen and Paul Karemera of Intore Expeditions for sharing some of their beautiful photos for this blog post. Those without watermark are Copyright © Leigh Woods 2017 with all rights reserved.

Diving "White Death"

Great White Shark Diving

Sharks have always fascinated me and none more so than the infamous great white. Since first watching David Attenborough’s Wildlife on One, I’d envisioned one day experiencing a close up encounter with the most notorious of beasts that lurk the deep blue. Feared by most who step foot into the water, great white sharks have unjustifiably earned themselves a bad reputation through exaggerated media stories and, most notably, the blockbuster film Jaws

The great white shark is listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN red list, however, estimations made by leading shark biologists state there are fewer than 3,500 individuals, making them more vulnerable to extinction than the tiger. Some sources claim that their population is growing while others argue it is declining. In light of this, I felt it was high time I realised my dream of coming face-to-face with the sharks before it might be too late.

It was during my spell in South Africa that the time had come to bring my long awaited meeting with Carcharodon carcharias to fruitionI had been travelling along the picturesque Garden Route and chose to spend a few days in Hermanus, a quaint little town situated on a mountainous bay and one of the world’s hotspots for whale watching. Between May and September, southern right whales annually migrate from the Antarctic to give birth to their young in the warmer waters of South Africa’s coastline. The town is also situated about a 40-minute drive away from one of the most famous great white shark hotspots in the world, Gansbaai.

I entrusted White Shark Ecoventures to ensure that there would be no chance of disappointment. After a quick breakfast and an induction informing us on all of the safety regulations, we set off out to sea. My initial excitement quickly turned to apprehension as the realisation set in that I would soon be plunging into the water with a one-and-a-half-tonne fish that some call “White Death”. I began to play out disastrous scenarios in my head, asking myself questions such as “What if the cage detaches itself from the boat and we sink toward the seabed?”, and “What if the shark breaks through the cage and gobbles me up?”

Before I knew it, we had arrived at Shark Alley and the boat engines came to a halt. A pair of tuna heads coupled with a bucket full of chum were tossed into the surrounding water and then the wait began. Around half an hour of gazing into the grey/blue void had passed before a large silhouette emerged from the depths of the murky sea. I suspiciously squinted my eyes to block out the glare reflecting off the shimmering surface, and then I was certain. “Shark! shark!”, I excitedly called to the boat captain as the ten-foot-long adolescent male menacingly glided closer toward the starboard side of the boat. Without a moment’s hesitation, we were instructed to put on our snorkels and climb down into the steel cage. Still nervous about all of the potentially catastrophic situations that had been running through my mind, I cautiously lowered myself into the only thing that would separate me from the three sharks that were already circling the boat. Strangely, all of my worries filtered away and were replaced with serenity the moment I entered the water. There was something so tranquil about being alone with my thoughts beneath the ocean swell.

As the first shark gradually appeared from out of the shadows, I remember feeling completely at peace, entirely without fear as the apex predator gracefully edged closer. As he quietly swam by, I couldn’t help but stare intensely into his almost extraterrestrial jet black eyes. Though virtually impossible to distinguish exactly where a great white is directing its gaze, somehow I knew that he was looking at me, sussing me out.

Soon after, two more sharks began to encircle the boat and I found myself surrounded from all angles. I never felt threatened, not once. Sharing a few moments in the cold South African winter waters with the great whites helped me to understand that they had absolutely no interest in causing me any harm, despite a few heavy bumps against the cage. Each shark was only interested in the bait that had lured them into our vicinity in the first place.

It was only when the sharks surged for the glum looking tuna heads that I was reminded of the immense power and killer instinct that great whites possess. With the ability to accelerate from a leisurely swim to incredible speeds in the blink of an eye, each shark would dart toward the bait with eyes rolled back and jaws wide open. On a few occasions, some of the sharks would actually breach, thrashing their streamlined bodies around as they cleared the water surface entirely.

After spending around an hour in complete euphoria in the water, it was finally time to call it a day and we reluctantly headed back to the harbour. I spent the next few days totally in awe of the brief encounter I’d had with one of the greatest forces of nature to inhabit our planet.

Shark populations have been decimated over the past 100 years due to overfishing, trophy hunting, culling and finning. There are some that firmly believe that these atrocities are beneficial to mankind and that due to unprovoked attacks on humans, we would be better off in a world without them. I’d argue that stepping out of our natural environment and into theirs is to provoke a naturally curious animal and that as apex predators, sharks are undoubtedly essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems that we and many other species depend on. Furthermore, attacks on humans are extremely rare and are often a consequence of mistaken identity.

Since that significant day I spent in Shark Alley, thoughts have stirred in my mind about what it would be like to live in a world without great white sharks and how many more species would soon follow them into extinction. As custodians of our beautiful planet, I believe that it is our moral obligation to ensure that this very real possibility does not become a tragic reality.