An Unlikely Ornithological Hot Spot

There are many tragic legacies of Africa's colonial past, but none quite so absurd as the eighteen-hole golf courses that are still to be found at the center of many African cities. These country clubs, where they have survived, were nurtured, financed and protected from squatting post-colonial natives by lingering moneyed white elites clinging to their conception of civility as tightly as they held their gin tonics. In a later phase local potentates assumed control, playing golf on weekends the way Americans do, to seal business deals and cement their status; in a nation that cultivates every square inch of its rolling red earth what could better demonstrate power and wealth than to swing one's clubs the length of eighteen expansive frivolous fairways? In Zimbabwe, my friend L.... tells me, Harare has at least five golf courses virtually in the center of the city.

Seen from the ladies tee, the ochre Umubano Hotel looms in the distance above the eighth fairway. Labor is cheap, and so greenskeeping is done entirely by hand; the greens are picked over by women, while the fairways are cut by men with machetes, known here as pangas.

The Kigali Golf Club, Rwanda's only course, has survived both independence and genocide. Manicured and sprinkled, it occupies the greater part of the valley below the Umubano Hotel, which, perched atop what was once one of the city's outlying hills, is now almost centrally located in this rapidly expanding city. Strolling the fairways below, one sees in every direction on the surrounding hillsides the white stucco walls and red clay rooftops of fresh housing developments and condominium schemes. Perhaps it has survived as an island in a frenzy of real estate development because the wet bottoms between the hillsides where it is laid out are the least desirable; like Hollywoodians, Kigalians like living on the hilltops the best.

Kigali homes jostle for space above a man-made lake just beside the golf course. Developers hope to turn it into a "water-park," and on my recent visit the far shore was littered with recently unpacked Disneyesque foot-peddled boats in bright plastic colors; smiling blue dolphins, grinning rubber ducks and so on. This will doubtless have a negative impact on the birds to be found, but last week I found White Faced Whistling ducks, Spur Winged Geese, countless Pied Kingfishers and a Pink-Backed Pelican enjoying the waters. Here, if you look very closely along the shoreline, a Marabou Stork patrols the shallows.

Walking down to the links one begins on the same busy boulevard that houses the presidential palace, beside a new multi-story apartment complex where, at the corner of the hotel grounds, a dirt road descends through a cross-section of the Kigali economy. At the top are large houses hidden behind walls festooned with tropical flowers. Their tall sliding metal garage doors are attended by private security guards. The residents, many of them working for international NGOs, come and go in luxury SUVs blowing their horns impatiently outside their own homes to inspire the guardian to pull open the gate. Lower down the steep track the houses become more modest and the walls are not so high; security is left to the alert eyes of the neighborhood. Approaching the green fields one soon finds oneself in a warren of adobe houses, each blending into the next, roofs repaired with lengths of blue plastic sheeting. The steep, narrow passageways between the houses double as sewers when it rains. In this part of the neighborhood there is no plumbing, and many of the residents poach their H2O from the pipeline feeding the water hazards of the golf course. It is a surreal sight to see groups of women trudging down onto the course with their yellow twenty-liter plastic canteens as a foursome of golfers strides by in crisp pressed polo shirts, drivers extended over one shoulder.

The eighteenth tee is tucked back amongst the reeds in a particularly swampy bit of the course. Errant drives here are bound to result in lost balls buried deep in the heavy marsh growth. To the right of the tee is an impressive stand of bamboo, home to a colony of weaver-birds, a family of yellow, orange, cinnamon and black-plumaged birds like large brightly colored sparrows that reaches its highest diversity in central Africa. Most, but not all species are highly colonial, and weave nests near one another, like bird condominiums. The form of the weaving and the positioning of the entrance hole is unique to each species, so that the well-versed weaver-watcher can identify the species just by seeing the nest. Unfortunately I am not a well enough versed weaver-watcher to be able to tell you specifically who lived here.

That the golf course lives on is a happy circumstance for Kigali birdwatchers. Or at least for me, since I have never met another binocular-toting geek wandering around down there while I was dodging golf balls. The ersatz marshy areas, which anywhere else in Rwanda would be subjected to amateur draining efforts and opportunistic cultivation of corn, rice or maize, have stands of reeds and bullrushes full of weaver-birds, and there are several almost intact clumps of second-growth forest, with dense underbrush, where warblers lurk and sparrowhawks pounce. Over my five or six trips here at various times of year I have seen 118 different species of birds in the hedgerows and forest patches of the golf club or on the artificial lake next door. Most, of course, are the common garden birds of central Africa, but there are always surprises to be found; the water, the height of the trees, and the expansive green all act to attract, much as New York's Central Park, tucked amongst skyscrapers, is a renowned migrant trap.

Although we are only a degree below the equator, Rwanda in July is much like the United States in that, ornithologically speaking, bird movements are in part dictated by "post-breeding dispersal." The chicks of the spring and early summer breeding season are now grown and hungry and ready to forge out on their own. Often, however, they do not have the discerning eye for prime habitat of their elders, and so, in their search for new berries to eat and better bugs to gobble, in July they often end up in places they might not normally call home, like the Kigali Golf Club. In July, rarities and oddities can turn up almost anywhere. This is a female, possibly immature, Black Cuckooshrike. I have also been seeing many of them in the patchy scrub of the rural hillsides where we film, although on other trips at other times of year I found them to be scarce.

The pesticides, chemical fertilizers and other unnatural treatments that make most golf courses in the United States comparatively barren of birds do not seem to be in use here. On a recent walk I heard, coming from the spiky acacia trees shading the borders of the long grassy fairway of the thirteenth hole, the coarse screechings of the Gray-backed fiscal, a noisy and gregarious shrike that hunts for locusts, lizards and other small prey. Beyond the green, in a dense scrub that captures errant long balls, I have often seen the spectacular, skulking Crimson-breasted Gonolek, another shrike that keeps low and to the center of the shrubs. Today he doesn't seem to be there, but an array of sunbirds patrol the flowering trees for nectar and, hunting from an evergreen branch just beside the green, I see a bird I have never seen before in Rwanda, the Gray-headed kingfisher.

I need your help. Although I got close enough to take this and several other excellent photographs of this raptor, I was unable to conclusively identify it. You'll have to take my word for it that in flight it showed a single, broad white tail band. Largely because of the tail I suspect this is an immature Western Banded Snake Eagle, but this one seems awfully gray about the back, where, Stevenson and Fanshawe's Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa tells us, we should expect all brown. I don't have an awful lot of experience with Snake Eagles, and it has been almost ten years since I last saw one, so I just don't have that confidence. This is a probably another example of post-breeding dispersal, a young bird looking for new horizons.

The right hand edge of this fairway marks the boundary of the course, bordered by a tall hedge of umuyenzi, a succulent with spongy, tubular leaves often used to grow garden walls. The plant offers a natural defense against intruders because its sap is toxic, and caustic, but it is easy to slip through a well-worn shortcut and emerge unscathed on a pedestrian highway that crosses the valley here, at the foot of a recently constructed berm. The lake above the berm holds a great variety of water birds, and, in the northern winter, often has some waders marching in the shallows. The lake is home to literally dozens of Pied kingfishers. Two Gray-crowned cranes keep an eye on me. The ducks swim away from the shore-edge and concentrate in the middle of the lake while swirls of the huge and hideous scavenging Marabou Stork float on the warm thermals far overhead.

The closest thing Kigali has to a forest are these tropical patches of woodland tucked away on the golf course. They offer shelter to a surprising array of species. The other day I saw here a somewhat scruffy and battered immature female Narina Trogon, also doubtless in post-breeding dispersal. This is a species generally associated only with dense and relatively undisturbed quality forest. Gray Capped Warbler is resident in the undergrowth, and Mackinnon's Fiscal, a shy, solitary and retiring shrike, is often to be found hunting here.

Sunbirds are the African analog to South America's hummingbirds, glistening, iridescent nectar-eaters that flit quickly and aggressively from one cluster of flowers to the next. The males are brilliantly colored with shining throats of green, purple, scarlet, copper or gold, while the females tend to the drab and the annoyingly similar and difficult to identify. Still, I feel confident in telling you that this is a female Bronze Sunbird.

Back on the course, a quick walk to the eighth tee, where crossing a dirt road brings one to the farthest reaches of the course and dark corners of damp woodland not far from the clubhouse. Hanging about near the eighteenth is always profitable. I find a Klaas' cuckoo, one of Africa's small, glistening emerald-backed cuckoos, and get some decent photographs of a pair of Green-headed sunbirds. A party of golfers finishing out the seventeenth look at me quizzically, but return my wave. They stop short of inviting me to the nineteenth hole, however, and I slip silently back into the woods, headed back across the course towards the Umubano and home.

Those bird gluttons who really want to know more will find my complete species list for the Kigali Golf Club in the comments.


They say it's a cold world said...


little grebe
pink backed pelican
grey heron
black headed heron
great egret
little egret
squacco heron
cattle egret
yellow billed stork
marabou stork
sacred ibis
hadada ibis
african spoonbill
fulvous whistling duck
white faced whistling duck
spur winged goose
comb duck
yellow billed duck
red billed duck
hottentot teal
black kite / yellow billed kite
african harrier hawk / gymnogene
black sparrowhawk /great sparrowhawk
augur buzzard
long crested eagle
eurasian kestrel
lanner falcon
grey crowned crane
black crake
common moorhen
african jacana
black winged stilt
wattled lapwing / wattled plover
three banded plover
common greenshank
green sandpiper
wood sandpiper
common sandpiper
speckled pigeon
red eyed dove
blue spotted wood dove
tambourine dove
red chested cuckoo
klaas’ cuckoo
white browed coucal
speckled mousebird
narina trogon
malachite kingfisher
grey headed kingfisher
pied kingfisher
little bee eater
cinnamon chested bee eater
spot flanked barbet
wahlberg’s honeyguide
cardinal woodpecker
bank swallow / sand martin
barn swallow
angola swallow
wiretailed swallow
lesser striped swallow
house martin
african pied wagtail
cape wagtail
yellow throated longclaw
african pipit
black cuckoo shrike
common bulbul
yellow throated leaf love
trilling cisticola
winding cisticola
yellow breasted apalis
grey capped warbler
gray backed camaroptera
willow warbler
white eyed slaty flycatcher
african dusky flycatcher
white browed robin chat / heuglin’s robin
african paradise flycatcher
black lored babbler
arrow marked babbler
collared sunbird
green headed sunbird
scarlet chested sunbird
bronze sunbird
northern double collared sunbird
variable sunbird / yellow bellied sunbird
copper sunbird
gray backed fiscal
mackinnon’s shrike / mackinnon’s fiscal
black headed gonolek
tropical boubou
pied crow
rüeppell’s long tailed starling
grey headed sparrow
baglavecht weaver
spectacled weaver
black necked weaver
holub’s golden weaver
village weaver
black headed weaver
red headed weaver
southern red bishop
fan tailed widowbird
grosbeak weaver / thick billed weaver
white collared oliveback
green winged pytilia / melba finch
red billed firefinch
red cheeked cordonbleu
black crowned waxbill
black headed waxbill
bronze mannikin
pin tailed whydah
african citril
yellow fronted canary
golden breasted bunting

Anonymous said...

Looks like a Banded Snake Eagle. Good bird list!

Anonymous said...


Yes, good bird list. I had a look in the "SASOL Birds of Prey of Africa and its Islands" (Alan & Meg Kemp).

I agree with you Western Banded Snake Eagle. As for the colouring the above guide describes it as follows "Plain gre-brown above and below, including underwing coverts." The illustration here is actually very very close to your photo.

From my own experience the grey-brown is reasonably variable too.

Good photo too. I live in Ruhengeri and should clearly come and do some birding in Kigali too. Feel free to contact if you're interested to visit this area.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that your raptor does not have a suficiently heavy head to be of the Snake Eagle genus. Could this be a sub-adult African Harrier Hawk ? The general shape fits as do eye and bill colour. Also, there is an untidy patch of unmoulted coverts: the old feathers appear to be brown or pale brown with pale buff fringes which would fit an immature Harrier Hawk which is well-advanced into 2nd-year plumage. I am no expert and have only the same field guide with me here.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Western Banded Snake Eagle