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Birding or a taste of the Jungle: My first atlasing experience with the Arewa Atlas Team

"I'm going to have fun even though it is challenging, I will just go anyway" - me to my friends about the Arewa atlas expedition I was about to embark on in Gombe. The Arewa Atlas Team (AAT), is a regional atlas team under the Nigerian Bird Atlas Project (NiBAP) dedicated to mapping the distribution of birds in the northern parts of the country. It is worth noting that 19 out of the 36 states in Nigeria are in the north. Before this journey, I heard lots of talks about how 'formidable' the atlas exercise can be, meaning it is required that I would walk for many kilometres keenly searching for birds, from rock climbing to bike riding. That sounds super cool, right? It was hilarious that nobody added that you would have to swim across rivers, should you meet a water barrier!

 

On 23 March 2022, it was time to travel, and I do not have enough words to describe how agitated and scared I feel about the atlas exercise, the journey, the destination, and other fellow atlasers I will meet or work with. I was also wondering what I will look like after the atlas exercise, being already a slim individual. On arriving at the park, luckily, I met some atlasers and I felt love at first sight. These atlasers were Joseph, Doofan, Jalo and Ibrahim. These guys were cool, gentle, and lovely, and instantly, I was looking forward to an adventurous and educative atlas moment with them. And as expected, we had a fun bonding time as the journey gradually unfolds till we arrived safely in Gombe.

 

In all 24 atlasers signed up for the AAT outing, the Kaltungo atlas team comprised of seven atlasers namely Ibrahim, Jalo, Innocent, Isuwa, Joseph, Doofan and myself. I was delighted to know that I will be atlasing with almost all the team members as it was the tradition of the AAT to switch teammates for almost all the field days. What an opportunity to get to meet and learn from different atlasers!. On the first day of the atlas exercise, Jalo was assigned to atlas with me, and he was such a good birder, even though it was my first time to atlas, and I believed I could not get a better companion than he was. We had a wonderful and hitch-free atlas exercise, superseding all the teams...lol. We covered four pentads, a 9 km x 9 km grid cell, yes we did it!. You know what, I feel like I could cover more pentads because I was in an exuberant spirit. I enjoyed every bit of the day, the long rides on bikes due to the rocky and hilly landscape in Kaltungo. I admired the geography, the people, and the critters. I saw lots of birds including very colourful ones and I can still hear the tune of their lovely calls in my ears. What sight could be greater than looking at a beautifully coloured Abyssinian Roller, or a Malachite kingfisher and Lilac-breasted Roller. The records of these bird species on my BirdLasser app proved to me that atlasing is indeed fun.

Abyssinian Roller @JoeIzang

 

Muhammad Jalo, Joseph Izang and myself in the field @JoeIzang

As I continued to enjoy the fun atlasing experience,  I was assigned to a different atlaser on the second day to help me gain diverse experience. Apart from being an experience atlaser my teammate is fluent in Hausa language. And as we are set to cross many Hausa local communities, he will also serve as an excellent interpreter and guide in the field. It was amazing to have learned bird atlas is not just about birds, but the people that are found within the immediate bird environment. It is so sad that the prevailing security issue in Nigeria makes it very necessary to have a team that at least one atlaser should be able to communicate with the locals in their native language. Atlasing in some local communities could be challenging or graceful, but that's a story for another day, perhaps by someone else.

 

Ibrahim Danazumi and I with 'curious locals' in the field @AAT

It is worth mentioning that at some point the field became tough for mefrown. I had a second thought about going for the next atlas expedition. Why, because I had to deal with excessive hunger and thirst. The most challenging part was about having ‘unfamiliar food’ before you as the ‘only option’. While the food and water were not what I expected, I had to appreciate the generosity of a farmer that offered us some water that he dug from the ground…wow this is truly a field life exposure that we experience for the love of birds and nature. And for the records, it's all worth it!

Rocky and beautiful landscape in Kaltungo @AAT

Finally, the AAT atlas expedition concluded on 28 March 2022 and has opened a wonderful door for me to a new world of birds and nature. It is a sweet memory imprinted in me to appreciate what nature can offer, and what we ought to give nature in return through preservation and ethical use. As I share this piece with you, I am already missing the fellow atlasers and the field experience. I sincerely appreciate NiBAP for funding my atlas trip and thanks to all atlasers for sharing their bird knowledge and experiences with me. Some of the amazing bird species I spotted were the White-crested Helmet-Shrike, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Black-headed Heron, and African Silverbill among many other interesting species. I also heard calls of Mourning Collared Dove, which sounds amazingly weird...lol. I also sighted several finch species, particularly the Red-billed Firefinch and Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu. It is a great privilege to join the AAT and contribute to the first-ever citizen science project in West Africa-NiBAP.

 

Black-headed Heron @JoeIzang

Written by Sunday Ene and Abubakar Ringim