February 17th – What A Difference A Day Makes!

African Fish-eagle

What a difference a day makes!

Early Wednesday morning, the sun just a pink hint below the eastern horizon, we set out on the only paved highway leading from Bangula, near the southern border of Malawi/Mozambique, to the airport in Blantyre. Despite the dark, rush hour was getting into full swing: the paved shoulders were filling up with pedestrians on their way to work or to till the fields in the early morning cool; bicycle taxis were busy taking others to work; goats and cattle were nonchalantly crossing the highway heading for greener pastures and seemed to be in no hurry to make way. The only part of the road that wasn’t busy was the actual space for vehicle traffic – just the odd matatu (van), used as minibuses, and work trucks; private cars are few and far between in rural Malawi and usually confined to “helping” organizations.

Once the sun cleared the horizon and we could see, roadside market stalls began to appear, selling everything from clothes to produce to nearly-bald tires. You could get pretty well anything, including barbecued rats and songbirds skewered for your convenience….ah, breakfast…..

And as the sun got up, so did the temperature. Although only in the high 20’s early on, it was forecast to shoot into the high 30’s and with the humidex……and it’s nearly always humid there.

I had just spent 23 days in the area of Bangula, a small town in southern Malawi. I did a little banding/ringing and a lot of birding – the Iris Africa orphanage I was staying at was at the juncture of 4 bird atlas squares and I wanted to make a significant contribution. I think it’s laudable that the country wants to inventory and locate its birds but my sense is that very few Malawians have the leisure or inclination to contribute to this exercise, especially in rural poor areas away from the cities – and Bangula is in a poor area. [In Kenya I also stayed in pretty poor areas but they were fairly well off when compared to Malawi. I used “public transportation” as my measure: in rural Kenya people with someplace to go would hire a bodaboda (motorbike) driver to take them there for a modest fee; in the Bangula area, travellers would hire a bicycle taxi – motorbikes were few and far between.]

On a typical day I would get up at 5, open my 2 nets and band for (usually) 2-3 hours. Then I would hike for 4-6 hours trying to cover parts of at least 2 atlas squares each time, counting everything I was able to identify. This would often take me into the heat of the day with temperatures reaching as much as 40. At this point it was a treat to get back to the base and out of the sun. (There is also a small swimming pool there which I used (thankfully!) to bring my metabolism back into some semblance of normalcy – rehydration salts are a must there!)

My banding “lab” – the top of a cistern.

Andy getting ready to take to flight – lined up on the “runway”, waiting for the OK from the tower……

And they’re off! What an amazing thing it is to float over the landscape at 1,000 feet!!!!

Every few days something special would go on: flights over the countryside in Andy Bremner’s ultralight (he used the road as a runway!); boat rides on the Shire River; excursions to Mwabvi Wildlife Refuge and to Kaombe Ranch – a private game park that is just being developed. [Interesting here….my guide, Robert Nyirenda took me to some very wild parts of the park, off the paths. A couple of times we were moving through grasses that towered over us and could smell wildebeest and then Cape buffalo – very close but couldn’t see them. On encountering the buffalo Robert wisely decided we should maybe take a different route.] But most days would find me hiking or cycling the dirt roads and trails, sometimes 10 kilometers or more from the base. At first I was considered (I think) as just an oddity when I passed through a village with the call of mizungu! mizungu! dogging my steps. But by the third time I went through a particular village or along a trail, people would come out to ask me just what I was doing, they couldn’t contain their curiousity any longer. I was more than happy to show them my guide book, let them try my binoculars (almost everyone thought the binoculars was a camera) and take a peek at the jottings in my notebook. As most could speak only a very little English and my Malawian was non-existent, it made for an interesting interchange. But by the end most folks got the idea and thanked me for the explanation. As I continued on my way I’m sure that more than a few were questioning my sanity – even more reason to work at the atlassing.

My guide/guard in Mwabvi Wildlife Refuge.

I spent a fair amount of time trying to speculate what the future might hold for these folks. I’m afraid my projections are pretty pessimistic unless they can curb their birth rate. I was struck by the huge proportion of young people there were; i.e., people under the age of 25 (I think, officially, it’s up around 75%). And of even more concern was the observation that almost every young woman (even down to the age of 13-14 in some cases) was carrying a baby and/or had young children with her. The population is growing ominously and I can’t see how it can continue without disastrous results. Folks need to eat; they need water; they need wood to cook with. These resources are limited now and the demand for them will only increase with a burgeoning population. On my travels every day I witnessed a steady stream of people carrying wood and/or charcoal from the countryside to be sold in Bangula’s markets. This wood was coming in from the wooded hills surrounding the town – many of these woodlands are “protected” areas and signs to “stop forest encroachment” were common but never heeded. This flow of wood was only one way – I never saw a single instance of a person carrying saplings in the other direction to be planted and thus ensure a fuel supply into the future. (And without trying to be overly cynical, the chances of a young sapling surviving anyway would be slim given the numerous goat herds that range everywhere and are stripping the land of every morsel they can get.) So where…or how…does it end?

These women may easily walk over 10 kilometers one-way to take their burdens to market. You don’t see many overweight people in rural Malawi.

Men usually carry their loads of wood on bicycles.

I spent 4 and a half hours flying from Blantyre to Adis Ababa and then another 16+ making the flight back to Toronto. Thus a day (and 8200 miles) later I walked out into -5 temperatures, a smattering of snow and ice and a different kind of rush hour – one much less forgiving of a mistake. I must say that I really like the cold….and the snow that goes with it. How else would you get to see Snow Buntings!?

Photo Gallery:

Barn Owls (and Spotted Eagle-owls) were common around the Iris base.

I chanced upon this Bataleur nest on my travels – maybe my favourite raptor.

A beetle…..of some kind……

Very colourful Black-winged (Fire-crowned) Bishop.

Bohm’s Bee-eater

Southern Carmine Bee-eater

Little Bee-eater

The student walked up to me and said: “Uncle, would you like to see a chameleon?”

Burchell’s Coucal

Actual dugouts are commonly in use on the Shire River – a throwback to the paleolithic.

The rains brought the giant grasshoppers (a much sought-after delicacy) and the hunters.

Deep-fried, these grasshoppers are a treat (not that I’ve actually tried them).

White eye and a mask: Lesser Masked Weaver/

Little Egret searching the shallows of the flooded Shire River.

Pink-backed Pelican on the Shire River.

Namaqua Dove.

Brilliant male Green-winged Pytilia.

Green-winged Pytilia.

Lilac-chested Roller

Male Spectacled Weaver.

Male Pin-tailed Whydah in breeding plumage.

Water taxi station on the Shire River. Many “commuters” take advantage of this service.

A very overloaded water taxi on the Shire River. Not much freeboard to protect you from the crocodiles!


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