My Childhood Encounter with Nature and the Bird Atlas Expedition to River Moshi, Borgu Game Reserve, Nigeria
I was born in Ilesha-Baruba, a Baatonum-speaking community in western Borgu, specifically Baruten LGA of Kwara State. Being a typical rural community, growing up there was fun because we directly interacted with nature — the plants, animals and their abiotic factors. Before moving to Ilorin to a high school, I had my early taste of education there in an LGEA primary school. Before sunrise, the sounds of insects, birds and toads woke us each morning. And the melodious songs of various birds accompanied us to school daily. The sounds of what I now know as “Common Bulbul” and “African thrush” still echo in my ears. The calls of the variety of doves too, can’t be forgotten in a hurry. I ignorantly observed the sunbirds as they interacted with plants, particularly the habitat features like flowers.
There was also one tree near our house that had a colony of village weavers. They made so much noise while building their nests. And ever since, I had admired the Village weaver’s intelligence and don’t see their noise as a disturbance. We mimicked the calls of the different doves around us in our local Baatonum dialect, and that has been truly rewarding to me today after picking an interest in conservation. Those memories helped me to identify any dove by its sounds even without seeing them when I started birdwatching, till today.
On weekends, while we walked to a farm owned by our parents, we interacted directly with nature. My childhood knowledge of many trees and shrubs has been helping me relate them with the animals they host, and it kept making fieldwork more interesting every time. As we mimicked some singing birds, we even talked to some of them directly and they listened and answered us. There was this particular amphibian or a mollusc that also responded to us, especially if we threatened that we would tell their mother if they don’t. We even tricked some of the little creatures that wouldn’t answer us that their mother was dead, and then they would suddenly answer – “waan” 🤣. I couldn’t figure out what kind of water creature it was, but it calls for research to unveil the myths we held. It was so many interesting episodes, growing up and interacting with nature. Today, those childhood experiences made some puzzles clearer to me in the wild, as a conservationist and a teacher of wildlife ecology.
As a citizen scientist of Nigerian Bird Atlas Project (NiBAP), I have participated in many birding expeditions in Northern Nigeria under the Arewa Atlas Team (AAT). And so far, it’s been exciting moments with many colleagues at different times on the field.
My expedition with Dickson to River Moshi in Kwara State and Kainji Lake National Park in Niger State in January 2022 was unique. This is partly because the entire landscape shares an International boundary with the Benin Republic, a West African country.
In preparing for the birding adventure, while I travelled to Ilorin from Zaria, Dickson travelled from Kaduna to Abuja where he earlier had an unavoidable scheduled meeting with some colleagues, to thereafter, join me in Ilorin. On that fateful day, the vehicle I boarded, took off from Zaria at about 7 O’clock in the morning but didn’t arrive in Ilorin until about 9 pm. This was due to several factors. First, the condition of the road was so bad and so, we couldn’t have a smooth ride. Secondly, the vehicle broke down on our way and had to wait for more than one hour to fix it. When it was eventually fixed, it couldn’t move faster than before and so it crawled till we arrived late. I had to wait for Dickson to arrive in Ilorin the next day before embarking on the trip to River Moshi via Ilesha-Baruba.
After waiting for so long to welcome him, he, at last, arrived around 6 pm and was already late for us to start the connecting trip to Ilesha-Baruba. When the day broke, we quickly got prepared and started the 3-4 hours journey at about 8 am. We reached Ilesha-Baruba at about 12 noon, washed up, refreshed and went ahead for the River Moshi trip with a bike which was arranged before our arrival. The trip lasted for about 3 hours and we were all covered with dust since it wasn’t a tarred road and only a few vehicles ply the road mostly on their market days.
The River Moshi is located before Moshi Village, so we had to cross the river to the nucleus of the village for our accommodation till the next day. We were lucky that it wasn’t rainy season, else, we would have boarded a canoe to transport ourselves to the other end of the river which is about 200 m – 300 m long. I actually boarded the canoe along with the bike man that carried me around September of the same year when I did a pre-atlas trip.
Since the trip was in the month of January, it was the peak of the harmattan cold and particularly, a riverine environment. Although we didn’t think so much about the cold since we have already adapted to the Zaria almighty cold that makes strong men and women shiver yearly. After our arrival, we had to go straight to the house of the Village head of Moshi, to register our arrival and seek permission for the next day’s birding exercise. We were attached to a kind man who provided us with accommodation and even entertained us with pounded yam and chicken. We rested well but I lost my voice the following morning due to the cold and dust, but I had to proceed with the business of the day.
We got to the site a few minutes before 6 am and at that time, the sun was about to rise. Immediately, the recording of bird species started with both transect and point count methods. The rich ecological site harbours different groups of birds. We filled our lists using the BirdLasser application with the Passerines — Common Bulbuls, African Thrushes, Yellow-crowned Gonolek, Black-crowned Tchagra, Kingfishers; Pygmy Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher and Blue-breasted Kingfisher. We also recorded Lizard Buzzard, Yellow-billed Kites, Violet Turaco, Northern Carmine Bee-eaters and a host of doves and sunbirds. Interestingly, we sighted a palearctic migrant – Garden Warbler, which migrated from Europe to Africa for resting and feeding since it was winter in its breeding quarters.
It was an exciting birding as we painted one pentad to the other even though we got thirsty and there was no water to drink at the time until we got to the edge of our third pentad where we reached a community called Gwedebereru and drank some water. Our fourth pentad that day took us back to Ilesha-Baruba where we rested peacefully since it’s my hometown. However, before bedtime, Dickson and I went to see the Emir of the town to notify him of our arrival and seek permission to explore his land for birding. Being a retired academic and a Professor to be precise, he listened and granted us permission to move around freely to record all bird species sighted and heard. I shouldn’t forget to mention that the ecologically friendly Emir once advised me to come and explore the area since he knows I am a wildlife ecologist. So, it was a fulfilment of one of his thoughts.
We rose up the next day and headed to the woodlands of a neighbouring community – Gwanara, where we atlased a number of bird species, including African grey Hornbill, Long-tailed Glossy Starlings, Yellow-fronted Canary and a host of doves and finches since the habitats were mainly woodland with much patches of grassland. We retired back to our lodge at Ilesha-Baruba after finishing four pentads for that day. The third day’s trip took us to Shinau and particularly explored the forest along Kenu road where we recorded for the first time the Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird and also saw two eggs in the nest of an incubating Red-eyed Dove which swiftly flew out of the nest on hearing our footsteps. We rounded up Kwara atlasing that day with a total of 12 pentads under the intense cold and hot sun.
The duo of Dickson and me took off an 8-hour trip to New Bussa the following day. It wasn’t an easy one because we were packed in the vehicle with no space to move our bodies but we hadn’t a choice, we must accomplish our dream. We eventually arrived New-Bussa at about 5pm and went straight to the pre-arranged guest house where we lodged for the night. A visit to the Kainji Dam was rewarding the next day because we recorded a number of water birds like the Spur-winged Lapwing, Squacco Heron and other birds like the Pin-tailed Whydah and Snowy-Crowned Robin Chats. We also recorded a large next of Hamerkop at the National Park among other species of birds.
At about 2 pm, we rounded up the expedition, went back to the lodge, washed up and prepared our luggage back to Zaria. On getting to the park, we realized that there was no vehicle going to Zaria at that time of the day. So, we resolved to board a vehicle to Minna and finally got there at about 8 pm. We housed ourselves in an apartment near a park and left very early the following morning and arrived in Kaduna around 12 noon where Dickson alighted, and I proceeded to Zaria and finally got back home at about 2 pm. Indeed, the entire atlas trip was an adventure to reckon with.
I wish to humbly acknowledge the trio of Prof. A. U. Ezealor, Prof. D. Tanko and Prof. I. M. K. Gadzama who have been my wildlife conservation teachers right from my undergraduate days till now. Special thanks to the current Director of A. P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (APLORI) whose interactions with me on avifauna conservation have been helpful. To our amiable manager, Nigerian Bird Atlas Project (NiBAP), Dr Talatu Tende, I appreciate your all-time kind words which have been extra-encouraging in recording successes on the field.
Dr Sam T. has been a good friend whose industrious advice helped shaped my thoughts when I finally made up my mind to study birds and my very first field guide was an awesome gift from him. Many thanks, Sam. I admire the workaholic nature of Mr Abubakar S. Ringim whose insights are duly acknowledged. I owe a debt of gratitude to Prof. Sidi Imad Cherkaoui and Dr Samuel Osunubi of Birdlife International (Africa) for donating the first set of binoculars we got for bird watching at Zaria Bird Club (ZBC). Finally, Gideon and Dickson have been of tremendous assistance to me and to them, I send my warm gratitude.
Written by Abdulhamid Ibrahim Saikpai
Edited by Nanchin Winifred Kazeh