Birds of Kigali

Recently, I wrote a blog post about commonly spotted bird species in Akagera National Park (A Beginners Guide to Birding in Akagera). The article proved rather popular, so I thought, why not write one on birdlife in Kigali?

As Rwanda's capital becomes increasingly metropolitan, it's hard to imagine such a place could be brimming with wildlife. From the bustling city centre streets to the serene wetland suburbs, Kigali is teeming with feathered friends. Nyaraturama lake is one place I'd highly recommend for birders. Here, you'll find all manner of aqua-happy species including white-faced whistling duck, red-billed teal, and even pygmy kingfisher!

However, this post contains a list of birds that city dwellers have good to high chances of spotting, even in their own back yard. If you don't have a garden of your own then don't despair! You're just as likely to see many of these birds while out running errands or perhaps dining al fresco.

Red-billed Firefinch

A common and widespread resident of Kigali, the Red-billed Firefinch is a petite red and brown bird of the Estrildidae family. As their name suggests, the bill is a pinkish-red colour. The female has a largely dull brown plumage with red markings on the sides of the face and rump. The male, however, is mostly red with brown plumage restricted mainly to the wings. Both sexes may show small, faint white spots at the sides of the breast.


Variable Sunbird

A dainty little nectar-feeder with the male easily recognizable for its shiny colourful plumage and long curved bill. Females are similar in shape but with dull brown/grey plumage. Sunbirds are often confused with hummingbirds, but the latter are restricted to the American continents, while the former are widespread across Africa and Asia. According to Wikipedia, Rwanda is home to 26 species of sunbird. The Variable Sunbird is probably the most common and widespread.


Yellow-billed Kite

Spend five minutes in Kigali, and I can guarantee you'll spot this medium-large sized raptor. They're most commonly observed in flight, and are distinguishable for their angled wings and long slightly forked tail. Yellow-billed Kites are considered a subspecies of Black Kites, but their plumage is mostly dark brown. It's not uncommon to spot these birds roosting in large flocks across many different habitats including towns, villages and open country.


Ross's Turaco

A striking deep-blue glossed bird that looks entirely out of place in the city. You'll know this bird when you see it. Easily distinguishable features include a bulbous bright-yellow bill and eye patch along with brilliant crimson crest and outer wings. The Ross's Turaco is a fruit-eating bird and in Kigali, has been spotted mainly in mature gardens containing trees that suit their dietary requirements. This spectacular species often duets with a series of musical growls.


Green-winged Pytilia

These plucky little characters are brightly coloured waxbills and very common residents of Kigali. They're usually found feeding on the ground in pairs or small groups. A sexually dimorphic species with males having a red face and breast band. Both sexes have a small red bill, olive green wings and a red tail. Green-winged Pytilia are a very vocal species, using a persistent series of chips, squeaks, and nasal notes.


Hamerkop

A surprisingly common yet extraordinary water bird that has its own taxonomical family. Easily identified from any other bird by its unique shape which includes a long crest and flattened bill that give off a hammerhead appearance. These medium-sized dull-brown waders build enormous tree nests and have been known to share them with other species including Grey Kestrel and Egyptian Goose.  They are considered magical or birds of ill omen by the superstitious.


Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater

You could be forgiven for mistaking this species with its smaller cousin, the Little Bee-eater. While they do look very similar, the Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater is quite a lot larger. They belong to a family of easily identifiable birds with signature long curved bills and black eye masks. This species has dark green upper parts and deeper rufous-cinnamon below. Pairs and small groups are quite common in gardens, where they generally perch high up in tree canopies.


Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu

Another small and attractive garden bird and a member of the waxbill family. Their plumage is mostly brown and powder blue and they're often spotted feeding on the ground in pairs or small groups. Like Green-winged Pytilia, the males and females possess non-identical plumage, but the difference is slightly more subtle in this species. Males have a small red patch on the cheek that the females do not exhibit. Their contact call is an often-repeated high-pitched siii siii...


Pied Crow

Many people think of crows as boring birds and even pests. While they do have a tendency to go through your garbage and make a total mess of your outdoor spaces, the corvids are some of the most intellectual animals on the planet. Like just about any species with "pied" in its name, this crow has a boldly marked and distinctive black and white plumage. Their variable calls include both long and short caws in flight, but while perched may utter a deeper call.


Tawny-flanked Prinia

In terms of plumage, the Tawny-flanked Prinia is relatively inconspicuous but they are busy little birds! A small warbler which frequently cock and wave their long tails from side to side. Typically, they are pale-brown/grey but have a distinctive black eyeline and obvious pale supercilium (the plumage feature some birds have which is a stripe running from the base of its beak and runs above the eye). Very common garden bird and often seen in pairs.


Photo by  servalpaul

Photo by servalpaul

Hadada Ibis

Ever been woken up in the early morning by an annoying and repetitive haa haa ha-aaa? This incredibly noisy bird is so named for its varying bugled and onomatopoeic calls. They are a stocky and predominately dark ibis with green/purple glossed wings and short legs. Pairs and flocks are common and widespread mainly around the suburbs, but it is not unusual to spot them perched in trees located close to the city centre.


Lesser-striped Swallow

Quite a large swallow and fairly common, this species is strongly marked and richly coloured with an extensive bright rufous cap and heavy black and white streaking on the underparts. Sexes are similar, but females tend to have shorter outer-tail streamers. Singing in flight is common, but they're most vocal when perched. These resourceful birds build bowl shaped mud nests on the undersides of suitable structures such as buildings, caves, and tree branches.


Pin-tailed Whydah

Beautiful little birds, but don't be fooled by their endearing nature! This species is a brood parasite, laying their eggs in the nests of a variety of waxbill species. Breeding males have a striking black and white plumage, a red bill and very long, narrow black tail. Non-breeding males are similar in appearance to females. They have a boldly patterned head but relatively bland colours on the lower body. This species is the commonest and most widespread of all whydahs in east Africa.


Brimstone Canary

A small finch with mostly greenish yellow and brown plumage. Easily confused with the Yellow-fronted Canary, but has a heavier pinkish horn bill. They also possess a far lighter malar (cheekbone) stripe than their canary cousins. The rump and mantle are both green with dark streaking. Pairs or singles are commonly spotted in city gardens and their songs vary from a fairly rapid high-pitched chirping, to sweeter, varied refrains.


Cardinal Woodpecker

Not necessarily the only woodpecker that inhabits Kigali, but certainly the most likely to be spotted. The Cardinal Woodpecker is one of the smaller species in the family and the most widespread across the eastern parts of the African continent. Males have a bright red cap whilst females sport a blackish-brown top to the head. Both sexes have lightly streaked sides to the face, well-streaked underparts, and spotted wings.


Cape Dove

The Cape (or Red-eyed) Dove is very similar in appearance to the Ring-necked Dove, but the latter is less prevalent in Kigali. Like the Ring-necked Dove, they possess a black half-collar on the hind of their necks. They have dark red eyes surrounded by a small diamond-shaped area of dull maroon skin. Their call is typically a very rhythmical oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo, which almost sounds like "I-am-red-eyed-dove!".


White-browed Robin-chat

A very boldly marked member of the thrush family with bright rufous orange below. The crown and sides of the face are entirely black with a long white supercilium. This species is the most widespread robin-chat in east Africa and is common across many areas of Rwanda. Their song is a simple refrain of three high notes, followed by two lower notes. One of those birds you're likely to spot anywhere in the city and now be able to say, "Oh look, there goes a White-browed Robin-chat!".


African Paradise Flycatcher

Stunning and highly variable, the African Paradise Flycatcher has two distinct colour morphs. A typical rufous male has a slightly crested black or blue-black head merging into grey underparts. The mantle, wings and tail are chestnut with very long central tail feathers. A typical white morph male's chestnut parts are replaced with white plumage. Adult females and immature birds don't possess the long tail feathers. This bird is fairly common in mature gardens.


Northern Fiscal (Common Fiscal)

The Northern Fiscal has been nicknamed "jackie hangman" and "butcher bird" for its rather gruesome eating habits. They use a kind of larder system where they impale their prey on acacia thorns to store for later consumption. Also known as the Fiscal Shrike, they are slim, narrow-tailed birds with white scapulars that form a very obvious "V" across the back. Sexes are very similar with black-and-white plumage, but the females have a small chestnut flank patch.


African Harrier-hawk (Gymnogene)

One of two raptors on the list, the African Harrier-hawk is a large, mostly grey bird with a relatively small slim head and bare yellow facial skin. In flight they have an easily recognisable single white bar across their broad black tail. Their underparts are densely barred black and white. These beautiful predatory birds can sometimes be spotted stealing young chicks from cavity nests using their long and flexible yellow legs.


Tropical Boubou

A black-and-white bird of the bush shrike family that sometimes displays a pinkish tinge on the lower breast extending toward the rump. They also exhibit long white wing stripes for easier identification. Like all boubous, this species is rather stocky and moves actively, but slowly. They are quite common in gardens and green spaces around Kigali. Pairs usually call a melodic wii-hoo wii-hoo duet, so perfectly timed as to sound like one bird.


African Pied Wagtail

Very common and widespread wagtail species that span across most of sub-Saharan Africa. Like all wagtails, they are slim and slender little birds that are often seen walking on the ground whilst constantly bobbing their long tails. As mentioned in the Pied Crow description, the name of the species indicates a black-and-white plumage. Sexes are alike with both having a broad black breast-band. They are also very tame and comfortable around human dwellings.


Dark-capped Bulbul

This species belongs to a group that are notoriously difficult to identify. However, the Dark-capped or "Common" Bulbul is one of east Africa's most widespread birds and is relatively easy to distinguish from its relatives. They are a slim brownish bird with an almost black head, pale belly and a bright yellow vent. Their heads are almost square in shape and their tails are ever so slightly forked. Often spotted in small groups feeding upon small fruits such as berries.


Bronze Sunbird

The second sunbird that made the list and probably the second most widespread of all 26 species in Rwanda. Far less colourful than the Variable Sunbird, this species is aptly named due to the males shiny bronze/green plumage around the head and upper breast. Like most species in this taxonomic family, the female is far more modestly coloured. They are one of the larger species in their family and have one of the loudest and most complex calls of all sunbirds.


Speckled Mousebird

Relatively inconspicuous with almost entirely light brown/grey plumage. They are most notable for their long tails and scruffy crest. Other distinguishing features include whitish cheeks and a blackish patch around the eye. Speckled Mousebirds feed mainly on leaves and shoots and can often be spotted roosting in groups where they'll buff up their feathers. They do this to allow more sunlight to hit their bodies which helps speed up the fermentation process.


Massive thanks to Melihat Veysal, Mihir Bhatt (Mihirmax Bhatt Photography), Obed Temba Tuyumvire, Paul Rushworth (servalpaul) ,and Shelly Anne Rosen of Intore Expeditions for contributing some of their amazing photos to this blog. If you're interested in birdlife in Rwanda, why not join the Facebook group Birding in Rwanda where you can find more fantastic images and updates!

Images without watermark or owner written in caption are Copyright © Leigh Woods 2017 with all rights reserved.

Around Sri Lanka in 18 Days

Asian Leopard

A little over a year ago, I backpacked around the beautiful Asian island of Sri Lanka. Since journeying to the small country formerly known as Ceylon, I have been asked for travel advice on numerous occasions by friends and family who plan a future visit. For this reason, I felt it would be helpful to blog about my own experience with hopes that it will serve as a rough guide to travelling around Sri Lanka on a budget.

Day 1 – Arrival/ Negombo

As my plane was to arrive in Colombo in the early hours of the morning, I decided to look out for accommodation located within close proximity to the airport. After reading a number of articles on the web, it seemed pretty conclusive that the best option was to stay in the seaside town of Negombo (which is actually closer to Colombo airport than the capital itself). I booked for two nights in a quaint little guest house named Serendib – located about five minutes’ walking distance from Negombo’s vast white sand beach. Milinda, the guest house manager was incredibly helpful, assisting with booking a driver who would chauffeur me around the Cultural Triangle in the forthcoming days. I usually wouldn’t endorse a particular business on my blog, but I strongly recommend this guest house to anyone looking for somewhere to stay on their first night or two in Sri Lanka. The rooms were modest yet comfortable and each morning a delicious breakfast is freshly cooked and served to guests in the tranquil garden. It was overall excellent value for money and the perfect way to relax and enjoy my first few days in Sri Lanka. Negombo itself wasn’t the most interesting of places but does offer a wide variety of shops, bars and restaurants.

Days 2, 3 & 4 – The Cultural Triangle

Early on my second morning in Sri Lanka, I met Supun, the man who would be driving me through the Cultural Triangle which comprises an abundance of ancient cities, temples and ruins. Hiring a private driver may not exactly seem befitting of a budget traveller's guide, however, the low price of $150 for three days was a bargain considering the lack of public transport options between each attraction. To some, three days may seem like a bit of a squeeze to fit in all of the cultural triangle’s attractions, but it turned out to be just about the right amount of time to satisfy my personal objectives. It would also be worth mentioning that limited time meant I had to make a decision between visiting Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. I chose the latter due to the fact that the site is more condensed and, therefore, less time-consuming.

Supun was a friendly family man who really made my experience through the cultural triangle a pleasurable one. He had excellent knowledge of Sri Lanka’s ancient and modern history, and as a wildlife enthusiast, I was thrilled that he was able to point out a wide variety of animals during the journey. On route to Sigiriya, we first stopped off at the Avukana Buddha – a 42ft high Buddha statue that was carved from granite rock in the 5th century.  Accompanying the impressive statue are a small stupa and a Bodhi tree decorated with prayer flags. The attraction was really interesting and made for some nice photos, but due to the lack of information on-site, it required no longer than one hour.

The Bodhi tree on the site of the Avukana Buddha

The Bodhi tree on the site of the Avukana Buddha

At around 3 pm on the same day, I arrived at the awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage Centre of Sigiriya. Referred by the locals as the 8th wonder of the world, Sigiriya is one of the most valuable historical monuments in Sri Lanka. Built by the parricidal King Kassapa I, the ruins of the ancient capital lie on the steep slopes and at the summit of the 180m high granite peak named the “Lions Rock“. The site boasts a series of ancient murals and graffiti to be marvelled at and those brave enough to the climb to the rock’s peak are rewarded with a breathtaking 360 ° panoramic view. After nearly three hours spent arduously climbing up and down the gargantuan rock in the hot April sun, I left Sigiriya and headed toward the chalet that I’d booked for the next two evenings.

I woke up early the next day and headed for Polonnaruwa – the second ancient capital after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993. Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Polonnaruwa bears witness to several civilisations including the conquering Cholas, disciples of Brahminism, and that of the Sinhalese sovereigns during the 12th and 13th centuries. The immense capital was created in the 12th century by megalomaniac sovereign Parakramabahu I and is renowned for its unusual dimensions and the special relationship of its buildings with their natural surroundings. Highlights among the many intriguing attractions include the well-preserved Polonnaruwa Vatadage, the mysterious Lankathilaka Image House, and the gigantic 180ft high Rankoth Vehera (the 4th largest stupa in Sri Lanka). It was on this sweltering hot day that I felt pleased with myself for opting to pay a little more for an air-conditioned vehicle. Exploring Polonnaruwa’s ruins along with visiting its well-presented museum was well worth the $25 USD fee, but was also quite tiring and consumed most of the day.

The Vatadage in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa

The Vatadage in the ancient city of Polonnaruwa

The following day, I left Sigiriya for Kandy with a few stops planned along the way. Another early start enabled me to visit yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site – The Dambulla Rock Temple. It comprises five different caves that have each been converted into shrines – all lavishly decorated with various religious paintings and artefacts. Together with the fantastic views of Sri Lanka’s forest rich lands, this attraction was somewhat of a photographer’s paradise. I spent around two hours exploring the caves before setting off toward Kandy via Nalanda Gedige – an ancient Hindu temple situated in the very centre of Sri Lanka, and Aluvihāra Rock Cave Temple – a picturesque little site filled with more Buddha statues and rather disturbing murals of demons torturing the unrighteous.

Day 5 – Kandy

After saying goodbye to Supun the previous day, I woke up in a rundown little hostel named Green Woods that lay nestled on a hillside overlooking the Udawatta Kele Sanctuary forest. Breakfast was very basic but dining on the terrace whilst listening to the forest birds’ morning chorus was an agreeable experience. The main attractions in Kandy’s centre are the picturesque Lake and the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. The golden-roofed temple houses Sri Lanka’s most important Buddhist relic – a tooth of the Buddha – which lies heavily guarded in a gold casket shaped like a stupa. All visitors to the temple must cover their knees before entering but for those who wish to wear shorts, shrouds are available to rent from one of the vendors located around the perimeter of the complex. To be quite honest, I felt there were many more impressive temples in Sri Lanka besides the Temple of the Sacred Tooth and was a little underwhelmed during my visit to Kandy. I’m sure that the city has plenty to offer but it just wasn’t to my personal interests. Those who enjoy a spot of shopping may find Kandy a little more interesting than I did.

Days 6, 7 & 8 – Tea Country

A trip to Sri Lanka would not be complete without a train ride through its famous tea country. Making the decision between staying in Nuwara Eliya and Ella was a difficult one, but I opted for the latter as Ella had marginally better reviews. The ride from Kandy toward either of these destinations is quite lengthy, so for a more comfortable, less stressful experience, ensure you book your seats in first class or the observation car well in advance. I arrived at Kandy train station early in the morning hoping to secure a seat in either of the cars but quickly found myself disappointed to learn there were none available. I managed to get lucky, though, as a train that would later arrive at Peradeniya Junction – a small station located just outside of Kandy – had a few spare seats in first class. I paid a small fee to get to Peradeniya via tuk-tuk, and after a few hours spent snapping shots of the photogenic little train station, I hopped aboard the train for Ella. The six-hour journey was made easy thanks to the abundance of jaw-dropping views and the quaint little colonial stations. As I arrived in Ella  I was met by Iran – the owner of Grand 39 Guest House – who transported me to my accommodation where I settled in for the evening.

The train that headed through Sri Lanka's beautiful tea country toward Ella

The train that headed through Sri Lanka's beautiful tea country toward Ella

Early the next morning I set off to climb Ella Rock – the larger of two mountains that flank either side of the small town. Many choose to hire a guide before embarking on the two-hour (each way) hike, but I decided to make it a bit of a personal challenge by trusting my own instincts. The journey begins with a 1.5km walk along the railway track, which twists and turns through the hillside tea plantations. Shortly after leaving the tracks, a dirt track emerges leading climbers to the summit where they are rewarded for their efforts with phenomenal views of the surrounding landscape. I found this experience extremely enjoyable yet absolutely exhausting. If you plan to climb the peak then take plenty of water with you.

On my last full day in Ella,  I climbed the smaller of the two mountains – Little Adam’s Peak. The mountain is named after its big brother, the holy Adam’s Peak due to its similar shape. This hike was far easier than Ella Rock yet offered equally impressive views.

Days 8, 9 & 10 – Tissamaharama/ Yala National Park

As public transport links between Ella and Tissamahrama are limited, and it also happened to be Sinhalese New Year, I travelled to my next destination via private taxi. It was relatively inexpensive and took around two hours from the guest house in Ella to the lakeside hotel in Tissamaharama.

The town of Tissamaharama didn’t have much going on, but I had ventured here for another reason – Yala National Park. Having spent months on safaris in Africa without seeing a single leopard, I felt my growing desire to spot the elusive cat would be satisfied in a park that boasts the highest concentration of leopards in the world. The hotel owners assisted me with booking a full-day safari with a personal friend of theirs, and I set off early the next morning in the hope of spotting one of mother nature’s most beautiful creations. I was not disappointed. Throughout the day I spent on safari, I spotted two leopards, a plethora of elephants and a variety of other mammals, birds and reptiles.

The next few days I spent exploring the relatively small town of Tissamaharama and relaxing by the lakeside. Other nearby parks that may interest travellers looking to squeeze a few more excursions in around this area include Udawalawe – boasting Sri Lanka’s largest population of elephants – and Bundala, which is famous for having a diverse range of bird species.

My first ever sighting of a wild Leopard. Yala National Park has the highest concentration of wild leopards in the world.

My first ever sighting of a wild Leopard. Yala National Park has the highest concentration of wild leopards in the world.

Days 11, 12 & 13- Mirissa

I arrived at the tropical beach town of Mirissa via an extremely overcrowded bus. I had journeyed here for two reasons. Firstly, because the area is a hotspot for Blue Whales, and secondly, to relax after the many days spent climbing all manner of ruins, temples and mountains. I booked a whale watching tour with an operator that was situated on Mirissa’s white sand beach and went to bed that evening full of excitement.

A tuk-tuk picked me up early in the morning and I headed for the harbour where a large boat half filled with fellow whale watchers was waiting for me. We set off after having a few snacks and spent around 3-4 hours without spotting anything but a few albatrosses and a single flying fish. Eventually, we did spot a Blue Whale which surfaced very close to our boat. It was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life but it quickly became overshadowed by the boat crew’s serious lack of consideration for the creatures’ welfare. In fact, pretty much all of the boats weren’t too fussed about harassing the whales which I felt was highly unethical. I later discovered that there is one operator named Raja & the Whales which apparently have greater respect for the whales and also use the tour as a chance to educate guests about their conservation. I cannot entirely vouch for this as I did not experience a tour with Raja & the Whales, but if like me you want to experience the euphoria of witnessing one of Earth’s greatest creations without compromising their welfare, this operator is probably your best bet. You can find out more about my Blue Whale watching in my previous blog post, A Colossal Pursuit.

The following days were spent relaxing on the beach, exploring rock pools and swimming in what was a consistently rough sea. If you are lucky, you may spot one of a wide variety of turtles species that come to Mirissa beach to lay their eggs. There is also a small turtle rescue and rehabilitation area on the beach front which is sandwiched between a handful of bars and restaurants.

Mirissa Harbour before heading out to sea to watch Blue whales

Mirissa Harbour before heading out to sea to watch Blue whales

Days 14 & 15 – Unawatuna

Unawatuna was not originally in my plans, but because it was a little closer to my final destination (Colombo), and I got an amazing deal to stay at the beautiful Dutch colonial Nooit Gedacht Heritage Hotel, I decided to take a bus westward toward the vibrant little seaside town. During my stay there, I moseyed about the small touristy area and also hiked through the Rumassala Sanctuaries Jungle toward the Jungle Beach. Though the hike was very enjoyable, the beach was disappointing as it was very heavily littered. Unawatuna didn’t have too much going on, but my hotel provided the peace and tranquillity I desired before heading off to Sri Lanka’s bustling capital city.

Days 16, 17 & 18 – Colombo

The last leg of my journey entailed exploring Sri Lanka’s largest city and capital – Colombo. I arrived there via train from Galle and walked from the station to the hostel where I would spend the next two nights. After reading numerous web-based reviews on Colombo, I didn’t have any great expectations of the city and therefore most of my time was spent sampling local food and visiting some of the small attractions such as Sri Kailawasanathan Swami Devasthanam Kovil – the oldest and largest Hindu temple in the city – and the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple.  The Old Dutch Hospital was also worth a look around for those interested in picking up last minute souvenirs before their departure. Perhaps there is more to Colombo than first meets the eye, but in the short time I spent there, I didn’t find too many things to occupy my time. In hindsight, I probably would have spent one less day here which could have been used to explore Anuradhapura earlier in my trip.