Monday, August 30, 2010

A few more bird photos

I found one advantage to the grainy bird photos I'm taking: they are VERY fast to upload over this slow internet connection. But that's about it. I am seriously thinking of how I can have my nice camera sent over here from the States!

One thing that deserves mention is that at my house here in Bandjoun, I have a couple of resident Blue-shouldered Robin Chats. I think they're just gorgeous (black/rufous with a bit of sky blue on the shoulders), and not too shy either. One was just singing at dusk this evening from a wire, and then swooped in to land right in a yellow-flowering bush in front of me! In Bafia, I only saw them during early morning hours, and they did not sing at all. Here is one I photographed early morning near the building where we had Peace Corps training in Bafia. I have not been quick enough here in Bandjoun to get the photo, but I'm working on it!

Another species I did not see in Bafia but have a lot of here in Bandjoun is the Baglafecht Weaver. They are also a bit skittish, and the only photo I have taken is this rather blurry one. It doesn't look much like the field guide other than the black mask and yellow eye, but between my two books and process of elimination, I am fairly confident in this ID.

It has been overcast, so between that and my digital zoom, it has been challenging to get decent photos of birds!

(Many) thanks to Cristina, here are some of the African Gray Parrots that were hanging out by the lycee in Bafia. That morning, there were three in this Acacia tree on my street, and three in the treetops of another Acacia across the street, and this photos is about the best one that came out. At least, they look like parrots more than just blurry spots! You can *almost* make out the red tail on the one on the left.

On more work-related topics... today I managed to get one more computer in working order... ironically by removing the A/V software that was using 100% of the 32 MBs of memory! I shudder at just about every component of that sentence. I also got the server connecting to the internet, another outlet installed and a couple of UPSes working. Better than that, I managed to find a good/affordable electrician I will definitely use again.
I still have one more box to fix tomorrow, and a few more to scavenge after that. I need to try to piece together at least 4 more functioning computers out of 6 already-parted-out boxes: the 6 that are PIIIs (the best available in the pile of non-functioning stuff). I've been given the goal to have 30 functioning computers by the beginning of school on Monday, and I am only 50% there right now. There is a pending shipment of 10 new (donated) PCs that should come next week. So fingers crossed on that! I'm not sure what kind of miracle I can pull out from a pile of dusty computers with Windows 98 stickers on them.
On another note, I did finally break down and buy a gas canister for 30.000 CFA... Tonight, I enjoyed steamed rice with green beans/carrots/onions and sweet and sour sauce (made from mango juice). I made spaghetti with fresh tomato/onion sauce a few nights ago, and scrambled eggs and hash browns this morning. So I think it was worth it!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

More on birding in Batie

As mentioned in my previous post, I went birding Sunday morning for a few hours with Cristina, another Peace Corps volunteer in the nearby town of Batie. This was an amazing experience. We did not know where to begin, so we just took a dirt road leading behind Cristina's house. Yet it yielded 10 lifebirds in around 3 hours, and some wonderful looks at scenery and some exotic birdlife. We may have even heard monkeys in the distance at one point!

The beginning was very much like Bandjoun (or what little I've seen of the Western Province so far): Red-cheeked Cordon-Bleus, Common/Orange-cheeked/Black-crowned Waxbills, Village/Spectacled/Dark-backed/Baglafecht Weavers, Narrow-tailed Starlings and the ubiquitous Pied Crow. Cristina's neighbor Billy started to follow and point out these birds, and suddenly said there was a "red bird". This turned out to be a brilliant male Fire-crowned Bishop who scared up some Red-headed Queleas. We had seen those before. Yet following the bishop to the other side of the road, I noticed a pair of striking black and red birds in a treetop, sporting very reptilian-looking bills: Double-toothed Barbets! That was my first lifebird of the day.

The second came moments later when I spotted a few tiny black and white birds, which turned out to be White-bellied Tits.

Billy started trying to call us some perdri, or partridges. We did see a Double-spurred Francolin shortly after that, but I was more interested in a bright green and red bird that darted from tree to tree: I decided it had to be a trogon, but which one? I started to hear the call, and unsuccessfully called back to try to draw it out. But later upon listening to recordings, decided it must have been a Bar-tailed Trogon.

While doing that, we managed to scare up a Gray-green Bush Shrike, a striking bird in the native growth that peppered the cultivation in this area. By now, we were close to the bottom of a small valley in which there was a belt of riverine habitat. So the birds were getting better. This is where I first noticed a Green Turaco, quietly observing us from a treetop! Very exciting, especially when it flew from branch to branch, exposing the brilliant red wings.

The trail became more and more narrow and slippery, but we decided to push on when we found a Black-headed Tchagra, a handsome shrike that responded to my pishing near the stream! A few sunbirds, including the iridescent blue/green/red/purple Splendid Sunbird, even stayed long enough for us to admire them!

We were apprehensive about descending to the river, partially because of the treacherous trail but also out of fear of snakes... but we pushed on, tempted by all the bird songs we were hearing! After crossing, we managed to find a Senegal Coucal (very common), White-chinned Prinias (seen before), more sunbirds and some Black-and-white (or Bicolored) Mannakins... but we were finally rewarded when a brilliant blue bird landed at the top of a tree in the photo above: it was a Splendid Glossy Starling! Later, a few more joined. I was thrilled since as previously noted, I had come up short on colorful starlings to that point!

A bit later, I noticed a Gray-crowned Black Finch in the undergrowth by a small farm. It disappeared quickly, but was very striking by the gray crown and black underparts - most likely a female since it had very few spots on the underparts.

By this point we were hungry, so we turned around. But after crossing the stream again, we found two more Green Turacos, one which flew flashing its brilliant red wings, and a second that posed for us on a branch for a few moments just at eye level. At this point, we heard what we thought might have been monkeys in the distance.

As always, a few birds went unidentified. There was some sort of cuckoo-like call. A different low hooting (which started slow and accelerated a bit like a western screech owl) may have been something interesting, but the bird itself eluded us. There were a few nondescript brownish birds as well which may have been early migrants or juveniles of some sort. Two of the more distinctive ones I identified as a Leaflove and a Little Greenbul.

Many birds were gathering nesting material, and the whydahs (Pin-tailed, Red-collared, Yellow-shouldered) were showing enthusiastic mating behavior. The Pin-tailed Whydah in particular put on a great show, flying around and landing on banana leaves while pursuing a couple of females. Another great day of birding here in Cameroon!!

Birding in Batie

This picture does NOT do justice to this poor Green Turaco, who sat so patiently and let Cristina and I admire him for minutes on end today! The photo should should show a tail and wings of dark violet, a pale green head (you can barely make out the amazing green crown), and Cleopatra-like white eyelines.

Moments later, the bird took off, revealing bright red under the wings! He was life bird #2,082, one of 10 today.

Unfortunately, I did not get photographs of the others. Still, an excellent few hours of birding in Batie, a cute town just 20 minutes from Bandjoun.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

End of first week at Post

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not that of Peace Corps

Milestone! As of today, I have been at post here in Bandjoun for one full week. It has been a fun and interesting week as I've been able to furnish my house (more or less), hang out with other volunteers in the West, meet some of the people I'll be working with, and start getting the computer lab at the school in order. I don't have any new photos to post, but I wanted to get some initial impressions down.

First, the computer lab at the high school: I first saw it in early July when I just walked through and saw a huge pile of broken monitors in a corner, and 28 PCs all set up - 10 connected to a network. I thought that was great. Then on Tuesday, I returned to the school to meet the principal and find out my class schedule. The latter wasn't ready (though they told me I would be teaching 6, 5 and 2 - the equivalent of 6th, 7th and 10th grade in the US system), so the proviseur gave me the keys to the lab and wanted me to start putting it in order right away. So I briefly tried each machine and found that the vast majority had issues ranging from broken mice and/or keyboards to having bad hard drives or not booting. There was a printer in the server room that responded to a print request, but ejected a blank piece of paper. Toner was 0% on both cartridges! The modem that is supposed to connect the network to the internet did not respond at all. So I decided to return later and inventory the whole situation.

So that was Wednesday: over 8 hours, I managed to fix 15/28 of the computers to the point where they would at least start and run Word and Excel, in some cases scavenging parts from the other 13 broken boxes. The others I relegated to a pile sorted by make and model and plan to part them out later on. Today, I went to Bafoussam to try to get some RAM for a 16th machine that will not start or even run Windows setup because it only has 32 MB presently! I tried to find toner for the printer, but I may need to order it: the shop I went to didn't seem to have that particular type in stock, but there are more shops to check I suppose.

So... with around 11 days til school starts, I have some things in order, and a lot of work left to do. I haven't even started lesson planning yet, though I have already decided to spend a bit of time on keyboarding and security. Only one box has AV software (and thanks to it is too slow to be usable) and I also noticed that that free product didn't detect the viruses that are actually present in the lab(!!) Curses to whoever wrote Tazebama and its kin. t

Sadly, my USB key also got infected while I was using it to fix the lab machines. That gave me a scare, but thankfully the AV product I was using on my laptop caught the problems right away and I was able to fix them manually.


I've already been to Bafoussam probably 4 times in the last week. It's surprisingly easy to get around, as long as you're going between the center of Bandjoun and anywhere on the road to Marche A. You just grab a taxi in Bandjoun, and 10 minutes later you're in the market. My postmate was kind enough to show me around on Saturday so I could get some stuff in the "Frip" (not sure if that's the spelling), a more informal market area behind the main market in the center of town. You can get pretty much anything there, mostly used stuff, and all obtainable really cheap if you bargain aggressively.

Now that part is very hard: I got a guy down to 5,000 CFA for a blanket, but my postmate's reaction was so indignant ("more like 1,000!" she muttered at him), I just walked off and got a similar blanket for 3,000 across the way. They seem to start at least 4x the actual price, but there's also a "foreigner price" aspect you can't detect if you're new at this, as we all are. I still haven't quite figured out the bargaining thing. I just know you lowball, seem disinterested and be prepared to walk away. It's exactly like buying a car, only doing that exact dickering for every item you need in your life (other than most food) - ugh. At least you don't have to sign papers or talk to the manager.

Marche A is really impressive, especially after spending 11 weeks in the residential part of Bafia! It's almost like a mall in the sheer volume of people, stores and stuff you can get there. We walked through a hundred yards of shops selling electronics, then a long stretch of housewares, then clothing, then pagne, and it just goes on and on like that. Most of it is at least partially covered, though the passages between them are generally open-air.

Even neater than that is sitting in a sidewalk bar or restaurant, and the street vendors come up to you, one after another, selling any type of merchandise that can be carried. Here's a list of stuff I've seen sold by wandering vendors: men's suits, children's shoes, bras and panties (not kidding), screwdrivers and hammers, cigarettes, toilet paper, tissues, sunglasses, watches, jewelry, and many, many items of food: peanuts, popcorn, shish kebabs, cooked potatoes, fried plaintains, bread, beignets, "plums" (a meaty purple relative of avocadoes). Who needs to go out when you can drink a beer or a coke and the salesmen come to you??

Overall, tis has been a rewarding and fun experience already. How else can you have this type of adventure, other than being given a difficult job with limited means in an exotic country, with a tiny amount of money and a near-empty house to furnish?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Bandjoun photos (and a couple from Bafia)

DISCLAIMER 1: the views expressed are my own and not of Peace Corps
DISCLAIMER 2: apologies for the poor photo quality - my good camera is back in the states!

I thought I would post a couple of photos from Bafia of a couple of very common birds, especially since I haven't seen them here in Bandjoun yet. The Mosque Swallow (at left) looks and behaves like a large pale Barn Swallow, though in flight they are bulky and have red rumps. In Bafia, they were often hanging around treetops and utility wires. Other aerial birds I saw in the residential quarter included the blue-and-white Ethiopian Swallows, long-tailed Palm Swifts, white-rumped Little Swifts and all-black Square-tailed Sawwings. Here in Bandjoun, I have seen Little Swifts and Ethiopian Swallows so far, and a possible Banded Martin back in early July.

The Speckled Mousebird deserves mention also: they are common in Bafia, but reaaally cute. They often hung upside-down from branches, and seemed to curl up together. The kids in my environmental club called it the sauve-souris. Usually they are in medium-sized trees and banana plants, though this particular one was sitting on the stone wall next to my host house family's house, which was lined with broken glass... ouch!

I also saw this species in South Africa, so it seems very common and wide-spread on the continent.

Fiscal ShrikeFiscal Shrikes seem to be fairly common here in Bandjoun. This species was the first that I saw when I arrived for site visit: there were two on the wires right in my yard when we pulled up! Later, I saw a pair feeding a baby opposite the Hotel de Ville, and I just found this one this morning in a tree next to the house. I also heard its call for the first time, and it was a bit harsher than I expected.

This is not a great angle, but essentially they are elegant, average-sized black and white shrikes.

Moving on, I am still amazed by how many birds here in Cameroon are incredibly colorful and/or have spectacular tails. Many of the male whydahs have these long trains while the females are usually drab and brown! The photo below is of a male Red-collared Widowbird (or whydah) which I saw for the first time in my yard just yesterday!

There seems to be a pair hanging around, since I noticed the female on the road this morning.Red-collared Widowbird This male was kind enough to pose for a bit here around 9am on the 21st of August.

That's all for now. Hasta luego (pardon... a tout a l'heure)!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Greetings from Bandjoun

I don't have much to report yet, but I arrived at my house last night after a long day of travelling. All I managed to do was call my postmate, then laid down for a second and woke up suddenly this morning at 6:30! I went outside, and literally the first bird I saw today was the Fire-crowned Bishop here on the left! A very nice welcome.

I also saw a Black Widowbird, long tail streaming behind, a Baglafecht Weaver, and two Blue-shouldered Robin Chats (a lifebird for me!) The downside, no signal in the house. The upside, I got signal at the top of the hill (where I sat hunched over my laptop on a stool, and watched birds go by). Sadly, this averaged about 10 kbps. So I am very happy to report that this evening, signal strength is back to normal and I have 3 bars and 100 kbps.

Today, I met with my postmate and explored Bandjoun a bit. Then in the afternoon, I met a PCV the next town over and we shopped for a few things in nearby Bafoussam. We also managed to get money out of the bank, though it took I think 3 hours due to technical difficulties. No worries... they were understaffed and had computer problems. C'est la vie.

Lindsey did manage to buy a bed, so her community host called a driver to pick us up. Then on the way out of town, people started opening the doors and trying to get in the car. First he let one, then another in. Finally, he pulled Lindsey's mattress out of the trunk to let in 3 more! We ended up with 11 people in this tiny Toyota hatchback. On top of that, he even took us off road for some unknown reason, and negotiated some harrowing bumps and puddles. Then we got to Bandjoun and he actually looked disappointed that I was "only" paying the actual fare we had agreed. Wow. I mean, we had hired the whole car, and he let in 7 more people and almost rolled the car over with Lindsey's bed on top. And it's a non-tipping culture :-)

After all that, I still need to buy a gas canister for the stove and a blanket. We tried for hours to find a gas canister, and it appears that not only has the price recently gone up, but half the joints will not "consigne" you a cannister at all - you have to bring in an empty one. Those who did have them said there was a shortage of canisters (in spite of having huge piles of them sitting there - wtf) and they wanted 30-35,000 CFA (or $60-70 US). That's kinda out of my budget at the moment, especially when all I want to cook are eggs... and an omelette is only 150 CFA if someone else makes it. So there!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Au revoir, Bafia!

DISCLAIMER: the views expressed are my own and not that of Peace Corps.

Today, I wanted to take the opportunity to finally blog about the training, the people and the town of Bafia itself.

Bafia is a medium-sized town in the Central province of Cameroon, around 2-1/2 hours west of Yaounde. It has a busy central district and a rather rural residential quarter where we are holding our “Stage” or Peace Corps training. The picture on the left is a square close to the Prefecture and several other government buildings. This view is not really indicative of the town (though there are some really nice spots here, including an adorable bar/restaurant with wicker furniture, umbrellas and a palm-tree setting that would rival any vacation spot). This is a square recently built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cameroon's independence, and it's near the residential quarter.

Our Peace Corps training began in early June, and will finally end on Wednesday the 18th of August. That will be our swearing-in ceremony. For all intents and purposes, we are done with training as of Friday, but we are now packing and sorting out all the loose ends.

I am personally in the Education program, meaning in my case that I will be teaching Computer Literacy in a high school in Bandjoun. To prepare for that two-year assignment, I had French language training and 5 weeks of “model school” in which I taught IT classes in French to real Cameroonian students. The process was the same as for any other high school: I gave lectures as well as lab practice, gave and graded assignments, gave a final exam and final grades to the students. We had many technical sessions before this to prepare us for doing this. After model school finished, I participated in a lengthy process of filling out report cards and calculating the class averages, best in class, etc. The closing ceremony of model school a week later was attended by local officials and media, and small prizes were given to the top two students in each class. One of my students was interviewed on television since he won the top marks in every subject (in spite of being only 10 years old in the equivalent of an 8th grade class!)

During training, it was very important to start integrating with the community right away, and also to start using and practicing the local language. We all stayed with host families to help with the integration process. Since we were in a Francophone region, we were all initially encouraged to use French among ourselves and with our host families. My host family consisted of a retired couple and some of their grandchildren who are staying with them either permanently or temporarily. At one point I counted 9 individuals staying in the house besides me, yet it never felt crowded. The house was more spacious than it appears from the outside!

There was only one bathroom, however, and that consisted of an outdoor latrine with two entrances. The left was for the parents and me while the right was for everyone else. However, no one felt comfortable using one side if the other side was occupied. That made for some anxious waiting at times!

The father of the family held church services in his home four times per week. These were Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening (5-7) and Sunday morning (roughly 9:30-12). The services consisted of a lot of joyful singing and percussion accompaniment. At times, I chose to stay out later with other volunteers, and that was fairly easy to do. Our curfew was 7pm, the nearest bar/hangout was 10 minutes away, and that was approximately when it became too dark to see anymore!

My host father was also a retired school teacher. He was always very anxious and willing to help with my training projects and language training. For example, I interviewed him for a cross-cultural project on religion in which he shared with me that he had been Catholic and switched to a non-denominational faith because the Catholics discouraged reading the Bible and he felt much of the doctrine was created at the Council of Nicea long after the events happened. When asked what he thought of the proliferation of religions in Cameroon, he thought about it a while and then concluded that poverty was the reason. With the lack of public options for social security here, he felt that churches fill that role in this community.

At the end of June, following language assessment and an interview, we were assigned our posts. These were based on both our skills and preferences, compared with the needs of the post itself. Each of us then had the opportunity to see our posts first hand - very exciting to see the location where we'll be living for the next two years. First, we met our counterparts, host country nationals who are members of the community in which we will be staying, and who personally accompanied us to our posts and would be responsible for us during our visit. At left is the meeting in which we met our counterparts for the first time, and then had break-out sessions to brainstorm how to deal with cross-cultural challenges that would arise.

Afterwards, we got on a bus to Bafoussam, and after a short two hour ride I had the opportunity to see Bandjoun for the first time. It was quite different from what I had seen of Cameroon! Both Yaounde and Bafia are fairly tropical: humid, lush and full of interesting birds. Bandjoun was up in the mountains enough that the air was cooler and dryer, the forests consisted of eucalyptus trees (imported/planted of course), and the avifauna was a bit plainer. Fiscal Shrikes sat on the wires in place of the colorful Little Bee-eaters, for example. What I was able to see of the town was very nice: I saw my rental house, which sat atop a hill from which I could see some montane scenery and beautiful traditional houses in the distance.

The house itself had two bedrooms and two pieces of furniture: a bed and a dining room table. And wooden chairs also. My predecessor had lived there and left a lot of used clothes (many times to small for me) and books. I did appreciate the Simpsons book in French! The power was out frequently, and the water was not running the entire four days I was there, so reading the Simpsons book was a great diversion. Also, the town was only a 5-10 minute walk, and it had everything one would need other than perhaps a 7-11. Though there’s a wooden shack – no other way to describe it - on the corner that takes the place of a convenience store. You can get cigarettes, whiskey sachets (yes, plastic bags of whiskey for the equivalent of $0.20), fresh baguettes, chocolate spread, bleach, soap, and several other common household items.

My counterpart (whose name is Stella) is an English teacher at the high school. She was very helpful, taking me to meet officials and showing me the high school. She encouraged me to try the local cuisine also: beef foot soup (bouillon de patte de boeuf). When I ordered for myself the next today, I took the rice and meat, which is typically in a rich tomato-based sauce. That was delicious, though I was not a big fan of hoof soup.

Returning, I felt very comfortable in Bafia. Bandjoun was a bit cold, and I welcomed the warm humidity of the central region at that time. As the weather warms up at the end of the rainy season, I am now having doubts! I am now looking forward to cold rain (just like back home in Seattle…)

I should mention that my host family was awesome! That’s Alexia, a university student and granddaughter with her own baby at left. The family kept an extremely clean house. They had the meals out early for me, and reheated them if I was late. At various times without my asking they boiled my water, (re)did my laundry, filled large buckets from the well so I could do laundry, swept my room, and made my bed. I had to tell them to stop doing those things because I needed to practice doing them myself!

Only regret is that I could not practice cooking because they didn’t have a kitchen. They only had a fire pit over which they cooked everything. But I think I can handle cooking with the gas stove I have at post. Washing red mud out of my clothes by hand will be an interesting part of life in Bandjoun that I am probably not yet prepared for.

I also want to talk about the Peace Corps staff and other volunteers. The language trainers were very patient and helpful. Although the training at times seemed disorganized, it came together and I feel pretty well prepared for my two years.

I am also impressed with my colleagues, who are by and large mature, well-educated, socially-conscious and adventurous. In fact, it’s humorous for me to watch the interactions between these personalities and the Peace Corps admins, who struggle to get people to follow rules: a 7pm curfew, one beer per day (!), letting PC know every time you leave your house, etc. It sometimes seems like the idea of following rules would be opposed to the personality of someone who would sign up for Peace Corps. But I digress, and that is of course only my own viewpoint - by and large, everyone is conscientious and here to make a difference, not to make waves!

But here we go. Thursday I will start a two year assignment in Bandjoun. I’m about as ready as I’ll ever be, so bring it on.

Last (Bird-related) Post from Bafia (really!)

OK, I lied Sunday. Today is my near-last post from Bafia. Thie last one that is bird-related. I will post another one about training and the whole experience here in Bafia and with Peace Corps, and then I leave town on Thursday.

But priorities… I need to make a small correction: I saw Red-headed rather than Cardinal Queleas yesterday. I saw another flock near the lycée classique today, and looking them up to confirm, they were indeed Red-headed Queleas. I don’t even know where I came up with Cardinal Quelea (I always think “red-headed finch” when I see these guys, and those are no closer than Angola I think). IAC, here is a (grainy) shot of a male and female at the more suburban location.

We stagiaires had the morning off today, and since my camera is now working again, I took the opportunity to try to photograph a few more birds around Bafia. First, I looked for the African Gray Parrots again. Though I spotted one flying over my road, I was unable to locate any in their usual haunts (the acacia trees by the prefecture and sous-prefecture). I only was able to find an African Green Pigeon in these trees (and the many ubiquitous Red-eyed Doves). The shot is backlit and unfortunately did not turn out.

I then headed toward the lycée classique and found a few more birds along the way. I have been regretting leaving my nice camera home in the States (which I did for security reasons). I am using a lower-end point-and-shoot with digital zoom that does not respond very well. But it does the job decently enough if the bird cooperates. Here is a sample of shots taken today:

          A Pied Crow, an abundant bird here. I thought this was a nice picture of it though. The scenery of Bafia is in the background. The bird is also standing on a banana leaf, and was eyeing the beignet stand just to its right for any leftovers.

          A beautiful male Dark-backed Weaver, spotted in the backyard at my homestay.

          This nice male Pin-tailed Whydah posed nicely for me by the rock quarry next to the lycée classique. This bird often hangs around the buildings that we are using for Peace Corps training and even non-birders get a thrill when the male flies with its long tail trailing behind!

          This Double-spurred Francolin was calling from this rock by the side of the road. I heard many calling this morning, and one time a male was calling from the roof of an abandoned building!

          A very grainy shot of a beautiful bird: a Black-crowned Waxbill at a puddle near a swampy stream by the lycée classique. There are three common waxbill finches here: Orange-cheeked Waxbill are often in the area, and Bronze Mannakins are downright abundant here!

          One of many Village Weavers in Bafia! This was shot at the colony by the lycée classique. They have several trees absolutely covered with these nests woven from long blades of grass. The entrances are actually from the bottom, even though this male is sitting on the top of it. The females and juveniles are paler and lack the black head, though they all retain the red eye (very helpful for ID in the field!)

          A Yellow-shouldered Whydah down the road from the lycée. This one was checking out a field of corn and manioc for anything good to eat.

          A Tawny-flanked Prinia, a very loud and chattery species that usually is hidden in the cissongo grass at the side of the road. This one was kind enough to sing from a banana leaf here.

          A Black-bellied Seedcracker, very grainy shot taken at dusk in the backyard. Gorgeous bird, though normally very shy. One sight of the binoculars or camera, and they take off quickly. This one stayed for almost two minutes!

          An African Pygmy Kingfisher, across the street from the homestay Tuesday morning. Usually I see them flying quickly from one hidden spot to another, but this one was kind enough to land on a wire for me!

          A common Woodland Kingfisher on a wire on my street. These often hang around in the Acacia and Theque (teak) around the residential quarter, though they are just as often hunting lizards from the utility wires.

          No parrots unfortunately, but these birds were a great consolation prize!

          Honorable mention: I was finally able to see (not just hear) an owl last night. Due to our curfew, it’s been difficult to find nocturnal birds. But last night, we had a power outage, and since I had to go outside for (ahem) other reasons… I took the opportunity to stand and listen for things that go bump in the night. Almost immediately, a medium-sized owl flew by. It circled around for a bit, and then landed in the papaya tree next to me! A few minutes later, it took off, this time with my flashlight directly on it and saw it was bigger than I thought, and rather dark brown (not a Barn Owl!). Most likely an African Wood Owl! Very cool. Someone else saw one on a wire some weeks back (picked it out of my field guide). I was very excited since I had only found Barn Owls up to that point, and I had only heard them.

          Now, I was expecting to also see nightjars considering it’s the tropics, it’s Africa and there are just TONS of airborne insects here. But go figure, I have only seen one solitary individual flying at dusk. I decided it was a female and pretty much impossible to identify. But based on probability (from the two field guides I brought), it could have been a Pennant-winged Nightjar. It’s hard to tell since I only saw it that one time, and of course females lack the spectacular pennants. So maybe its wishful thinking.

          Other birds that have surprised me for their abundance or lack thereof:
          • Bee-eaters: These are some of my favorite birds, and African is famous for very colorful species. Yet I have only seen the relatively-unimpressive (though gorgeous) Little Bee-eaters, and only occasionally. Looking at the field guides, most of the species are further north in the savannah.
          • Rollers: Another colorful family, yet I have none so far. Most species are elsewhere, especially north.
          • Woodpeckers: One species only, the Gray Woodpecker. I have seen one female here in Bafia 2-3 times.
          • Shrikes: Ditto: I just checked my list, and I have Fiscal Shrikes in Bandjoun. There are many species here in Cameroon, and some very colorful which I hope to see in the north.
          • Touracos: These are most deep-woods species, and I was not expecting to see them. I was thrilled and surprised to find several Great Blue Turacos in the tops of some dead trees while on a bikeride! They even stayed long enough for me to pull out my binoculars.
          • Parrots: Two species so far, and I was impressed to find them in Bafia itself! African Gray Parrots (up to 11 at once) and Red-faced Lovebirds (up to 4 at once)
          • Starlings: None in Bafia! In Bandjoun, I saw the black and russet Narrow-tailed Starlings, but I was expecting at least one colorful starling species. The field guides seem to indicate shiny iridescent purple, green and/or blue species should be here in relative abundance.
          • Weavers: 8 species so far… amazing! Village, Spectacled, Black-necked, Vieillot’s Black, Compact, Baglafecht, Golden-backed, and Grosbeak Weaver. And 9 if you count Gray-headed Sparrow, similar to a House Sparrow (almost identical call in fact!) and a member of the weaver family. Usually there are several weaver species sharing the same habitat, which is really neat.

          Also, Cisticolas and Sunbirds have not disappointed: 6 species apiece!

          OK, done with birds… for a while.

          Sunday, August 15, 2010

          Last post from Bafia

          DISCLAIMER: views expressed are my own and not that of Peace Corps

          It's been a whirlwind ten weeks of training here in Bafia! I can't believe it's over. We have been so busy between lesson planning, cross-cultural projects and language training (among other things) that there was little time to think about doing anything else. Yet we closed model school on Friday, and swearing-in is Wednesday, and then we go to post after that. So now we wait!


          Start with birds of course. I'm going to be posted to Bandjoun in the Western province to teach ICT (computer literacy) at the lycee classique. That's basically a 7-year junior high/high school. I had the opportunity to visit the site in July, and during this brief visit, I noticed a few birds:

          - Eurasian Kestrels: a pair in a Eucylyptus by my house
          - Red-eyed Dove

          In the corn and flowering bushes:

          - Northern Double-collared Sunbirds (female in thumbnail image above, male spectacular iridescent green with red breast)
          - Black-capped Waxbills: red rumps that flash as they fly!
          - Yellow-fronted Canary: beautiful song
          - Baglafecht Weaver: cute little black and yellow tweeties

          On the road:

          - Red-cheeked Cordon-bleus!! Adorable little powder-blue guys with red spots on their cheeks

          On the wires:

          - Fiscal Shrikes. Handsome black-and-white shrikes; one was feeding a youngster on my visit in early July.


          Bafia has been spectacular for birds. I was fortunate to live behind the sous-prefecture, toward the end of a dirt road surrounded by lush agricultural land. There are African Gray Parrots and African Pied Hornbills that frequent the Acacia trees adjacent to that sous-prefecture. I was even able to show these parrots to Levis, a gentleman who is working on the Protect Parrot Project for the Cameroonian government. We did find 6 of them: 3 eating Acacia flowers in the treetops by the sous-prefecture and 3 doing the same at the prefecture across the street. This of course aroused the attention of the police who were wondering why we were staring at a government building with binoculars!!! Fortunately, Levis spoke to them and told them we were just birdwatching. This apparently was OK with them :)

          The African Pied Hornbills have made appearances even at the lycee bilingue! They came flying in one morning and swooped very low, calling loudly. Even non-birders were curious and fascinated. Ovambo Sparrowhawks, Striped and Woodland Kingfishers have also been conspicuous at the lycee, even though most questions are about the Village Weavers that have a Mangier completely indundated with their nests (and are still building even now!

          This morning (Sunday the 15th of August), Levis and I met at 7:00am to look for Red-faced Lovebirds that I had seen several times by the lycee classique. I was a bit worried since I hadn't seen them on a perch in a few weeks. They were usually flying away, and I couldn't relocate them. Then 4 of them flew directly overhead and out of sight. But then they circled back! And they landed in an Acacia right by the road! Spectacular experience, and two of them even carried on as in the photo, faithfully living up to their name.

          This was very good news: they are apparently not commonly seen in the area. We ran into a neighbor (the father of the host family of another Peace Corps volunteer) and he said he had seen African Gray Parrots but never lovebirds. Then 10 minutes later we saw four of them. Go figure!

          Other tidbits of interest: a pair of Spectacled Weavers also built a nest behind my host family's house in the Cissongo grass (these were a bit more interesting than the abundant Village Weavers that nest in practically EVERY tree!). They worked very hard, and impressively built it in 1-1/2 days. Yet I didn't see them after that except between 6-7pm when they seemed to come back to inspect the nest. Then about 2 weeks later, I spotted a huge Senegal Coucal also eying the nest. The parents were very upset, swooping and attacking it. Now, I have no information as to whether coucals eat bird eggs (they are HUGE and predatory after all) or whether there were any offspring in the nest: the nest itself disappeared completely the next day. Just reporting what I observed...

          All told, I was able to observe 115 species for Bafia in 2-1/2 months. That is pretty good, considering I had no mode of transportation other than the mountain bike, and I didn't go anywhere outside the residential quartier. Yet some other great sightings:

          - A Hammerkop, flying over a small stream

          - Cattle Egrets, hanging around actual African cattle. Interestingly, these have dark rather than yellow lets

          - African Palm-nut Vultures flying overhead in the northern part of Bafia

          - Gymnogene, several excellent looks near the lycee bilingue. There was an adult and a juvenile in the area.

          - Fire-crowned Bishops, and was able to observe them molt fully from juvenile to adult plumage (very handy considering it was a tentative ID at first!)

          - Viellot's Barbet. They appeared to be looking for a nesting site (in at a hole at the top of a utility pole), but I didn't see them after that time in mid-June.

          - African Paradise Flycatcher. Gorgeous, flying with such a long tail!

          - Cardinal Quelea. Just saw several today: beautiful red head

          I'll post more from Bandjoun, and should have more photos at that time.