By Alexandria Simpson
Saraiya Ruano, who served as blog manager for The Eyrie between January 2009 and March 2011, spent a few months in Africa last year. I was curious about the time she spent there so I asked about her experiences. I figured other young birders might be curious as well. ~as
What other instructive, interesting, or funny stories could you tell us?
During my stay at the school I became close friends with another young person, and we often would walk together around the campus or sometimes in the bush behind the campus. One time we were walking at night and we saw an animal slinking down the road.
“Look at that! What is that!?” I whispered excitedly. I had my extra-bright Maglight with me and in my excitement pointed it right in the animal's face. I caught its eye shine as it turned to face us. My friend wanted to just keep walking or turn around. I think because we have a lot of stereotypes of how Africa is supposed to be, we assume everything is dangerous. But I was really curious about this small mammal Then it occured to me, it might just be a house cat. I made pishing and clicking sounds and it started to walk over. I finally agreed to stop summoning the animal and we turned around. I'm positive it was a house cat in retrospect. I can't imagine a wild animal walking over to pishing and clicking souinds.
Another time I woke up to pain in my head. It was like I was receiving dozens of little pinches on my scalp. I turned on the lights and saw ants covering the wall, and they were invading my bed. I shook my head and started scratching to get all the ants off. They were all over the floor and I ran to the bathroom, they were in the bathtub and...just everywhere! I found some spray but knew it was no use trying to spray them all, there were just too many. I decided to sleep on the living room couches, one place that was not invaded for some reason. When we woke up, all the ants were dead. There were globs of dead ants everywhere, even places where we hadn't sprayed at all (including the front step). It was just really bizarre. It had been raining that night and maybe that caused them to come inside.
What about birding by habitat? Were you able to master the potential species for the areas you birded most?
I don't think I can answer this question well. Most of the time I was in an eco-region called miombo woodlands. I saw birds briefly in wetlands and grasslands on bus rides, but those were brief experiences.
I wasn't able to master the birds for the miombo woodland eco-region. There are 700 plus birds in Zambia, and I have to say I was overwhelmed even with the common birds on the small patch I was birding in the most. But I kind of like how that panned out, I felt like I could never get bored. Every time I set foot outside I could find a new species.
Were you able to use birding by ear?
Yes, but it was a real challenge. I was only able to identify a handful of birds by sound. There were so many sounds, it was like sifting through the noise of an orchestra. Sometimes there were birds that stood out stark against the tapestry of sounds, like the frog croaks of the boubou (a species that makes numeorus other sounds) or the baby-like cries of Trumpeter Hornbills. But there were many sounds to which I could never pin a name.
You said you could bird and discover at a slower pace than you would taking a tour and you had no one to tell you what bird species you were looking at. Could you offer young birders any tips on what to look for and write down for field notes when birding solo in a new place?
Don't write anything down if the bird is still in front of you. Just be patient and use your observation, try to hold it in your memory. Our memories are great tools that, with practice, can hold a lot of information. When the bird is gone, make a sketch and jot down your observations immediately. Body structure is as important as color. It's okay to use quirky terms to describe what you see, words that help you recall the birds appearance. Is it a stocky or chunky bird? Is it sleek or slender? The beak is important; does it appear to be seed-eating, carcass-tearing, or nectar-sucking (as in sunbirds)? Sound wasn't too helpful because in any field guide, sound is poorly described and can be very subjective. So unless you have a CD of bird sounds, at least for me, appearance is more important for a first-time identification. If the bird does make a sound, watch it as it sings or calls because it may help you identify the bird in the future. Also, note where it's hanging out. Is it in the canopy top, lower in the tree, perched on a wire, foraging on the ground? All of that is extremely helpful.
Take time to study a little beforehand (using your field guide and the Internet), but remember: true learning happens in the field as you gain experience. Let yourself get frustrated and be open to letting some birds “get away,” because it's going to happen whether you like it or not.
Do you have any recommendations for young birders looking to bird in Africa, such as books, tips, etc?
I used Birds of Africa South of the Sahara by Ian Sinclair and Peter Ryan. It's a great field guide, but kind of thick for carrying in the field. I don't like to rely too much on a field guide. I suggest using it for first identifications and the basic information, but observe the species and make your own notes as you are in the field. The field guide you create in your memory is the best tool. A good notebook can also be a reference in the field to remind you of your previous observations and identifications.
What plans do you have for the future? Do you plan to go back to Africa on a study?
Unfortunately, I don't have the time or means to go back to Africa to study through any school program, as I have only one year left at Colorado College and its full of requirements for graduation. But I believe true education takes place everyday, inside and outside the academic sphere. It extends beyond graduation and into the realm of everyday experience. So from that point of view, I definitely will return to Africa some day and continue learning about the wildlife, the people, and all the aspects that makes life in any country so rich with learning. I'd really like to go back as an artist to focus on illustrating and sketching from life.