It was with such excitement a few weeks ago that we finally captured on camera the extremely shy African finfoot!
Our volunteer Louis had captured a rough headshot of the female finfoot one day when we had been away. He showed me the photo asking what bird it was. When I saw that head my heart skipped a beat, but I daren’t say anything till I’d doubled checked with the bird book. Sure enough, my initial thought was right, it was a female finfoot.
If you are not a birder it is understandable to question just why I was so excited about a, and I’ll admit it, not especially splendid looking bird. This bird features high on many birders list because of its shy nature. It quickly takes to cover when disturbed, so spotting it in the heavily vegetated lakeshore can be a tricky task. The boat trip on Lake Mburo is so popular with birders, primarily because of this particular species. Chances are high that one or two will be spotted. So with eveidence that they were around it was time to gather some more info.
We camera trapped the location where Louis had spotted the finfoot but after more than a week with nothing but black crakes, fighting black-crowned night herons, hippos and a terrapin we were losing heart a bit.
Luck changed when another volunteer Helen got a “feeling” she should put the camera up again in the same area but on a slightly different angle. She had been walking on the lakeside path and happened across a white-spotted flufftail. A bird, which up until now, we had only caught on the camera traps. Elated from this rare bird spot she got the feeling she should get the camera back up. Sure enough the finfoot came that very day, captured within the first 10 photos taken.
Now the next step is to figure out just where their preferred paths and fishing spots are and set up an observation hide where quiet birders and watch out for them. Fingers crossed we get to learn more about our friendly finfoots in the near future!
The vastly different experiences of tourists with wildlife, to those of a community living with wildlife have always stood out to me. The hundreds and thousands of dollars’ people will pay to see a leopard, a lion, an elephant, often stands in stark comparison to the costs this same wildlife inflict on local communities.
I remember years ago taking guests from a high-end lodge for a night drive outside the park, on privately owned land. As we drove I heard dogs start barking frantically on a hillside, a homestead I knew kept many dogs for security. Soon enough shouting reached our ears as people went to chase away the offending animal. In this case, it was hyenas, looking to snatch themselves a cow dinner. The excitement of the guests when I explained to them what was going on, almost eclipsed, that of the farmers shouting. While he was shouting from fear for his livelihood, they were overjoyed at the chance of spotting a hyena. It rang loud in my head that night, there must be a way to bring these extremes closer together.
This disparity was bought home again recently at the camp. Around 10:30pm I heard a goat start shouting, not a normal cry but of one under attack. Sure enough, the shouts of a farmer soon followed, torches were seen bobbing around and the yelling of the goat stopped. Shortly after, the whooping call of a hyena was heard close by. I assumed it had been a hyena who had attacked the goat but hearing our herdsman, Nshama, recount the night the next morning I was proved wrong. Apparently, the guilty culprit was a leopard. It didn’t end up killing the goat, having been chased off in time. The next-door farmer and Nshama spent hours following it and chasing it away until it fled in to our forest at the lakeside. Apparently, it was limping badly with a wound on its front leg, perhaps a reason it went for the easy pickings of a goat.
Tracks caught in soft mud
Lack of claws and a rounded paw print.
Myself and the two volunteers in residence, were excited about the possibility of a leopard and with a skip in our step we headed to the forest. We didn’t think we would see a leopard but went to set up camera traps galore to try capture a picture. The days after we expectantly checked the traps but no leopard could be seen. How disappointed we were. Again, it bought home to me the huge contrast that remains. Here we are excited the leopard is around and disappointed that it has moved off whereas the farmers are disappointed that it is around and happy when it moves off. But it is a sentiment I fully understand. If your children’s school fees, your family’s food, medical bills all depend on your herd of cows or goats then even a single loss impacts your ability to care for your family. Understanding this is something many “armchair” conservationists don’t comprehend. Reacting with outrage over some tragic poisonings, spearing or shooting of wildlife by local communities is easy to do when your livelihood is not directly affected. Having compassion for others situations, putting yourself in others shoes and working on solutions to reduce this conflict are a lot more efficient actions to help the problem.
Reducing this conflict is something we at the camp are dedicated to. Through our business we incorporate activities within the community, bringing benefits seen through cash in hand. It is also a reason why we have founded a Community Based Organisation “Lake Mburo Communities”. LMC’s work, run by members of the community, will be focused on sustainable social and environmental activities which aim to reduce poverty levels and improve the environment for both human and wildlife communities. Watch this space to see how LMC progresses with its work!
One thing which strikes many of our visitors, are the sounds of the camp, notably the birdsongs. There’s a constant chatter, be it the bickering weavers fighting over scraps of posho, the cooing of doves or a bubbling coucal call, there’s always a bird sound to hear. When we first moved to the land, before the camp was built, we camped at the top of the hill beneath two acacia trees. It was a fantastic spot, only abandoned when the cows took too much of a liking to the tent and there was the real threat of being trampled while we slept. Every morning at our hill top camp one bird would start its calling at 5am in the tree just above our head. Every morning. It was a mixed song, at once sounding mechanical and melodious. I couldn’t figure out who it was as every time I moved to look out, it would take flight out of fright. The mystery of our early riser remained until I eventually picked out its distinct call in the dawn chorus and found it sitting on a branch. A fork tailed drongo. Mystery solved.
The fork tailed drongo it seems is the most determined of songster, always getting its call out whenever possible. It’s the first call you hear in the morning, before the other birds chip in to produce a magnificent dawn chorus. On full moon nights, you find they don’t go to sleep, instead their mechanical warbling is heard when you go to bed, when you wake up and when you pop out the tent for that midnight pee.
The trilling cicsticola is another call which often rings around the land. From the uppermost branches of a bush it stands, beak open wide and throat vibrating with calls which, as the name suggests, trill. Their squawking alarm calls accompany all walks on the land, alerting everyone to your presence. One of the reasons why, for the best bird viewing, you should just sit still (the hide, forest platform and benches around the land are the best spots for that).
Arguably no call quite compares to that of the fish eagle. That gull-like cry evokes emotions in all who love Africa and to this day I will always stop what I’m doing to listen. They throw back their heads, seeming to raise their call from their belly, up in to the endless sky. Most magnificent is to watch as they play in the wind, which whips up the hill in the afternoon, soaring in circles and throwing their heads back in flight to call out. We have one pair of fish eagles on our land with other pairs on the neighbours either side. With six adults in close proximity our ears and that of our guests, are treated daily to this distinctive call of the wild.
So if you find yourself at our camp, take a moment, lie in bed in the morning and listen to the magnificent songsters. A delightful, natural chorus awaits your ears!
We’ve once again turned to recycling on our construction project, this time to protect our main area from wind and rain. Being situated by the lake there’s a strong breeze which blows through the main area. An absolute delight on those hot afternoons but it can get a bit much sometimes (especially if you’re trying to play a card game!). Add rain to that wind and the main area doesn’t afford much protection against the elements. We debated for a long while what material to use and how to make sure that, even when the flaps were down, there would still be enough light coming through.
One of our volunteers, after seeing our use already of old billboards, suggested also using that to make our flaps. It’s a material made for being out in the elements, we can get our hands on enough of it and we’ll be recycling as we go. Genius.
So we set to the task (when I say we, volunteers Isla and Timo did most of the grunt work here) of measuring out our flaps, cutting windows, sewing the edges and getting them prepped for hanging.
There in lay our next dilemma, how to hang them. We wanted them to roll up out of the way so they didn’t impede the view but that takes them to a height few can reach. Together with two other volunteers, Nuria & Aurelian, we made a homemade pulley system for the front and one side where we don’t have a half wall to help aid our rolling.
There were many design trials and fails until we reached our final product. Again, reusing, recycling and a lot of imagination were employed using leftover off cuts of piping from our plumbing and wood off cuts from construction.
Rear flaps rolled up.
Front flaps rolled up on the pulley system out of the way
We even got inventive with how to fix the grommets as we lacked the proper equipment. After many trials and many mangled grommets we perfected the method using a stack of washers and an old hammer head.
We’ve deployed the flaps a few times since their installation and they’ve been very effective. A few little tweaks here and there and it’ll be perfect. So, with a little (or a lot) of imagination we’ve reached our goal with minimal cost and environmental impact. A win-win in our books!
On June 1st I flew into Entebbe Airport, Uganda and one day later I made my way down to Kacheera Camp by Lake Mburo. I immediately fell in love with the beautiful location of the camp and the lush greenness of the land! I was made to feel very at home by Iddy, Nathan, baby Natasha, Juliana, Salongo and everyone else at the camp and started to prepare for the next 6 weeks.
Unlike many visitors to Kacheera Camp I hadn’t been drawn there by a particular interest in conservation, wildlife, birding or even to relax by lake. I had contacted camp founder, Iddy Farmer, in the hope of finding a placement where I could do some work experience related to my interests in International Development and Primary Education. I was in luck! Iddy has a close relationship with the local primary school, St. Steven’s Model School, the Director of which is her brother-in-law. She arranged for me to spend 6 weeks volunteering with them teaching English and doing various school administration tasks.
St. Steven’s Model School is a private primary school with classes P1-7, as well as 3 nursery classes. Despite being funded by the students’ school fees, the school has in the past been largely dependent on donations and funding from a couple of NGOs and private sponsors from the US and Europe, especially for large projects such as new classrooms. My work, besides teaching English lessons for the P5-P7 classes (the school was missing but advertising for a new English teacher when I arrived) was to regularly update these school sponsors on news from the school and the students. These communications, although crucial to the school receiving continued, and securing future, support projects from the donors were occurring in only a verylimited fashion before I arrived and this was causing some tensions between the school and its supporters. In order to make the work I had been doing sustainable and to continue benefitting the school after my placement ended, I created a Communications Plan and worked with one of the teachers to practise sending these updates in the hope that regular updates would continue to be sent to the sponsors after I left.
There are also 10 students at the school who are ‘sponsored’ and therefore their school fees are paid by individuals in the US. Part of my work was to work closely with these children to collect and send information about their schoolwork, hobbies, exam results etc. to the NGO which ran the sponsorship scheme in order for this information to be passed onto the sponsors. Providing regular information to the sponsors was crucial for these children to continue having their school fees paid and being able to attend the school.
My role as an English teacher for the oldest classes, however, was the work that consumed most of my time. With over a year’s experience of English teaching behind me, the teaching itself wasn’t a challenge, especially as the children were extremely well-behaved and would, almost without exception, sit quietly and do the work instructed. What was frustrating however, was working with the Ugandan curriculum which expected children to learn English as a second language through only rote-learning and copying from the blackboard. It was, in my opinion, inadequate in many ways. The children were not, through this system, developing good reading skills or spoken English, nor were they learning to think in a creative or critical way! In my time there I tried to inject some creativity into the curriculum, whilst adhering to it closely enough for the children to learn what they needed in order to pass their exams. We did some creative project work, short story writing and tried to make time each week to read the story books that had been donated to the school. Sadly however I know that this will not continue after I leave, the deficiencies lie within the Ugandan Curriculum and teaching system and thus it is from here that changes need to be made.
When I wasn’t at school during the week I was staying with a local family, the parents and nephew and niece of Steven, the director of the school. I was able to learn about the local way of life (livelihoods supported by cattle farming) and some of the local language, Runyankole. I was able to learn about the struggles local families face and some of the ways they find to overcome them. In the International Development line of work understanding the local culture and way of life are very important for implementing appropriate projects, systems and technologies. This made my experience of staying with a Ugandan family particularly valuable. At the weekends I would return to Kacheera camp to relax (watch the football World Cup) and help out with some work there; painting and completing the Main Area building! It was the perfect setup!
I have returned to Scotland now and already I am missing the school, the camp and all the lovely people I met! I am excited to return at some point and see more of this beautiful country.
We’re towards to end of the rainy season now, it’s been raining for a fair few months and we’re about to hit some of the driest months of the year. It is amazing to see how much the level of the lake has risen this rainy season.
Here is the main beach pictured in February this year (left) and just a few days ago. The water has risen to the grassy bank in the base of the Feb photo. (A floating bed of papyrus has floated across and partially blocked the beach in the right photo).
The lake is part of the River Rwizi catchment, a catchment of about 8,000km2, stretching across 10 districts. The river itself is about 55km long and its waters eventually drain in to Lake Victoria. Lake Kacheera is one of numerous lakes which make up the lower end of the catchment, others include Lake Mburo, Lake Nakivale and Lake Kijanebalola. These lakes are linked through numerous wetland systems and form the largest part of the catchment.
Over a heavy rainy season, as we have just experienced, a huge amount of water collects over this vast area and makes its way eastward. Hence why we see the impact late in the rainy season being almost at the end of this catchment. The lake level has been very low for the past year or two and it’s great to see the lake once more at levels akin to three years ago.
Above: Building our hide in April the beach was low, now it’s almost lapping at the base!
We’re now installing a measuring stick in our bay to record lake levels so we can see more accurately the rise and fall of the lake over the course of a year.
The lakeside path is a fun adventure as it’s completely underwater, wellies are now a must to reach the forest platform, either that or wet feet!
We’re lucky at the camp to play host to one of the largest mammals in Africa, the hippopotamus. We often joke that the hippos are the equivalent of camp ghosts, they’re often heard, at night people imagine them brushing their tents (usually students who like to wind each other up), their tracks are seen around the camp but they themselves are seldom seen. Their presence seems more like a rumour than a fact.
And why is it that they are so seldom seen? One reason is they stay put in the lake during the day and only move out at night to graze. A band of papyrus lines the lakes shoreline making it difficult to see in to the open water and spot their half submerged faces. This is something our new forest platform and beach hide hope to overcome. From the platform you can see over some papyrus, making it possible to spot a passing hippo. The hide is located just a few metres from their favourite hang out spot, the water is shallow and we hope they will be happy to pass by, unaware of watching visitors safely concealed behind the papyrus walled hide. If we were to wander around at night with a torch then they would definitely be spotted, however night time hippo watching on foot is not really recommended, they are after all one of the bigggest killers in Africa.
Another reason for their secrecy is their conflict with humans. Around the lake there are many farmers growing vegetables of all descriptions. These fields are located right down on the lakes shore, making it possible for small water pumps to irrigate the fields. Often at night you can hear the distant banging of a jerry can and the occasional whoop of a farmer as he attempts to chase of the hippos and protect his crops.
Our camera trapping provides us with a lot of information on the hippos movements and population. Last week we captured photos of a pod leaving and returning to the lake after grazing. Four adults and one calf were identified. When we get the camps boat up and running, we’ll get a better idea of the population in the lower half of the lake, the different pods and their territories.
So a natural behaviour of nocturnal grazing and day time wallowing combined with the human conflict of the area makes for few hippo sightings. We’re hoping the hippos come to learn the camps 35 acres are a safe place for them to roam and graze, free from banging jerry cans and hostile humans, even if Nathan and Nshama give the odd grumble about them eating the cows’ grass,.