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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Dusty birding in Uganda, a short birding trip to Uganda, mainly with public transport (June 2006),
Between June and October 2006, we planned to do fieldwork in Taita Hills, Kenya. Unfortunately for our PhD projects, the fruits we wanted to study were not ripe yet; but this was the opportunity to visit the nearby Uganda. I hoped to see a lot of the birds depicted in the East-Africa bird guide, of which I could only dream during the 3 years we stayed in Kenya.
Quite unprepared, no bookings in advance, no real itinerary, no car… Only the “Uganda, the Bradt travel guide” (Briggs, 2003); “Where to watch birds in Uganda” of Rossouw and Sacchi (1998); the “Field guide to the Birds of East Africa” (Stevenson & Fanshawe, 2002) and a collection of bird sounds given by a friend some hours before we left Belgium. Of course, there were our wanted lists: Shoebill, African Green Broadbill, African Finfoot and the Semliki forest could become real highlights for me; gorilla and chimpanzees were high on Valéries list.
Since we had only 2,5 weeks, and we mostly wanted to use (sometimes infrequent) public means, we decided to visit only 4 sites: Lake Mburo NP, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Semliki NP + short trip to Ruwenzori foothills and Mabamba Swamp. Unfortunately, we had to skip highlights such as Murchison falls, Queen Elisabeth NP, Fox’s Weaver, …
Stevensons bird guide covers (almost) the whole avifauna of Uganda, but there are some shortcomings: most bird figures are too clean and the colours are not realistic. While birding in Kenya, I often found the illustrations in Zimmermans bird guide to Kenya and Northern Tanzania much better in colours and I think the Stevenson would have lead to misidentification. Especially for difficult groups such as the “brown-tailed greenbuls”, I think copies of the Handbook of the birds of Africa can offer some help with identification.
Although it was mainly a birding trip, I did not put a lot of effort to see bird I had seen in Kenya before. Afterwards, I realised this resulted in some missed “easy birds”. To be honest, I was not very strict in making the checklists at the end of a day, so you can guess what happened with the common birds… But anyway, I hope this report will still be useful for those who cannot or don’t want to spent several thousands of dollars on a car with private driver, expensive lodges, … Be aware that we could enter all national parks at East-African resident rate, and for non-residents, the entrance fees are double. If you know few words Swahili, it also helps in getting a fair price.
Itinerary, practical information and birding highlights
Transport Nairobi-Kampala: Akamba Bus; 19h30 reporting time, departure 20h30; 1300 KES
Around 5h30, we placed our first steps on Ugandan territory. After finishing the emigration and immigration formalities (visum: 30 dollar), we discovered our small backpack had disappeared: 2 binoculars, camera and bird guide were gone! You can imagine a better entrance in Uganda! The bag was taken by the costums officer, “by mistake”, and they even asked no bribe to clear these things. What a contrast with Kenya!
Around 12h, we arrived in Kampala, went to ATM (Barclays gives up to 2000000 USH with VISA card) and filled our stomach with much nicer food we are used to eat in Kenya.
Transport Kampala-Mbarara: S-B transporters CO.LTD; 13h30-19h00; 10000 USH p.p.
Arranged “special taxi” for next day at the bus stage to go to Mburo NP, 100000 USH for whole day including fuel, excluding cars and drivers entrance fee.
Night: Mayoba Inn; 14000 USH for double self-contained room
10-06-2006: Lake Mburo NP
Entrance fee: 10$ pp entrance fee, car 6$, driver 3000 USH; boat trip 10$ for two (price depends on total number of people)
Birding highlights: we missed all target-species (African Finfoot, Papyrus Yellow Warbler and Red-faced Barbet). Souza’s Shrike, Brown Babbler, Brown Parrot were seen along the road between Sanga and the gate. Red-necked Spurfowl, Bare-faced Go-away-bird, Black-and-white Cuckoo, Broad-billed Roller, Yellow –fronted Tinkerbird, Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrike, African Penduline Tit, Trilling Cisticola, White-winged Tit, Rüppell’s Long-tailed Starling
Night: Mayoba Inn
We waited from 8h onwards for bus to Butogota, but apparently, there is only one bus daily leaving Kampala early in the morning (around 6h), reaching Mbarara around 11h30. Only one highlight: a very close view of a Marabou feeding on rubbish dump revealed the small hair-like feathers on their naked neck and head… extremely ugly, these creatures!
Transport Mbarara-Butogota: 11h30 – 18h00, 12000 USH p.p.
Transport Butogota-Buhoma: pick-up shared with an American tourist, 24000 USH for 3
Night: Buhoma Community campsite, 4000USH per tent per night (?)
12-06-2006 till 14-06-2006 Buhoma (low altitude forest of Bwindi Impenetrable NP)
Entrance fee: Gorilla-tourists are prepared to pay extremely high prices to see these animals. The demand is high, and the number of permits is limited. This, in combination with a very arrogant and incorrect accountant resulted in quite frustrating situations. Entrance fee for the park: 25$ for more than three days. In addition to the entrance-fee, you have to pay activity fee (gorilla tracking: 340$ p.p. and this including entrance-fee; “guided walk” 10$, but without a decent guide). Bird guides who knows most of the songs charge another 50$ per day.
Since we had not booked any gorilla-tracking in advance, we had to arrange everything in Buhoma. At Buhoma, the management don’t (want to) know whether there are permits available, so we called Uganda Wildlife Authorities (UWA) in Kampala. They told us there were still permits available, and normally it would have been possible to buy these permits the day we called. But since we decided not to do the gorilla tracking the first day (I preferred to do birding and the two permits available were in different groups), the accountant seemed to be frustrated and did not want to give us further assistance with the gorilla-permits that day. Fortunately, Kampala did not sell the permits, so we could go for a gorilla track the last day.
For most tourists, gorilla tracking is one of the highlights of a trip to Uganda, but for us, it was a big disappointment! Our group was very close to the base-camp; the trackers and rangers do not hesitate to use their machetes and they make highways to enable even 80+ persons almost to touch the gorillas. I don’t think one of the UWA-staff in Buhoma is interested in the extremely high biological value of the Bwindi Impenetrable forest, but only in the rich tourists who come to see the primates. I really do question if this is sustainable…. After this disappointment, Valérie did not want to go for a Chimp tracking any more.
But anyway, although the gorilla tracking, 2 days “guided walk” and 1 day a walk with a bird guide made our wallet 840$ lighter, the Buhoma area is a superb birding place.
Birding highlights: Handsome Francolin, Western Bronze-naped Pigeon, Great Blue Turaco, Black-billed Turaco, Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo (Aud.), Bar-tailed Trogon, Black Bee-eater, White-headed Wood-hoopoe, Yellow-throated Tinkerbird, Speckled Tinkerbird, Yellow-spotted Barbet, Yellow-billed Barbet, Least Honeyguide, Willcock’s Honeyguide, Tullberg’s Woodpecker, Elliots Woodpecker, African Broadbill, Petit’s Cuckoo-shrike, Red-tailed Greenbul, Grey-winged Robin, White-bellied Robin-chat, Red-throated Alethe, Red-tailed Ant-thrush, White-tailed Ant-thrush, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, Green Hylia, Short-tailed Warbler (Aud.), Green Crombec, White-browed Crombec, Chubb’s Cisticola, Olive-green Camaroptera, Black-throated Apalis, Mountain Masked Apalis, Grey-throated Flycatcher, Dusky-blue Flycatcher, Sooty Flycatcher, Black-and-white Flycatcher, White-bellied Crested Flycatcher, White-tailed Blue flycatcher, Ruwenzori Batis, Chestnut Wattle-eye, Dusky Tit, Tit Hylia, Blue-throated Sunbird, Blue-headed Sunbird, Olive-bellied Sunbird, Tiny Sunbird, Green-throated Sunbird, Grey-headed Sunbird, Lüdher’s Bush-shrike, Sooty Boubou, Pink-footed Puffback, Many-coloured Bush-shrike (Aud.), Doherty’s Bush-shrike (Aud.), Velvet-mantled Drongo, Montane Oriole, Narrow-tailed Starling, Stuhlmann’s Starling, Waller’s Starling, Brown-capped Weaver, Black-billed Weaver, Maxwell’s Black Weaver, Red-headed Malimbe, Grey-headed Negrofinch, White-breasted Negrofinch, Magpie manikin, …
15-06-2006 Rugija (highland forest of Bwindi Impenetrable NP)
In the evening of 14th, we arranged private transport towards Rugija. A car costs around 100000 USH one way; we paid 60000 USH for a Suzuki motorcycle from Buhoma to Rugija and back to Butogota in the evening of the next day. Normally, this drive takes around two hours, but on the steepest slopes, three people plus two big backpacks was far too heavy for the motorcycle. We left Buhoma at 18h, and only arrived in Rugija at 22h! Since one of the rangers was on leave, we were allowed to sleep on our mattress in the rangers’ post.
In the morning of 15th, we still had to do all formalities and arrange the guided walk, which meant we could only start birding around 8h. Another 10$ p.p. for the guided walk, but this time it was worth it! The ranger (Peter) had not only a very good knowledge on bird and trees of the highland forest, he was also a nice person, was always joking and laughing and had not the attitude of milking money out of the rich gorilla-tourists! After some wonderful hours of birding, we left Rugija at 15h, so we would reach Butogota before dark.
Birding highlights: Cassin’s Hawk-eagle, Great Blue Turaco, African Green Broadbill around nest, Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Mountain Greenbul, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, White-starred Robin, Archer’s Robin-chat (Aud.), Grauer’s Rush Warbler, Grauer’s Warbler, Chestnut-throated Apalis, Collared Apalis, White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, Ruwenzori Batis, Stripe-breasted Tit, Regal Sunbird, Lagden’s Bush-shrike (Aud.), Doherty’s Bush-shrike (Aud.), Montane Oriole, Sharpe’s Starling, Waller’s Starling, Strange Weaver, Black-crowned Waxbill
On the way back to Butogota, we saw Red-headed Lovebird, raven sp. (completely black below, but did not look as thick-billed as White-napped raven), Cassin’s Grey Flycatcher at the river.
Night: Green Tea Hotel, 13000 USH for “self-contained” double room. After a long drive at the back of a motorcycle, it was a fantastic feeling to remove all dust from our bodies. Our hairs produced an extremely dark, chocolate-coloured juice, something we never had before, even not after several weeks of intensive fieldwork in Taita Hills. Unlike our hairs, we did not manage to make our shirts clean…
Transport Butogota-Rukungire: 6h – 9h, 5000 p.p.
Transport Rukungire-Kasese: in Rukungire, they promised us a direct vehicle up to Kasese with only 14 passengers in a shared taxi. Both things turned out to be lies: after waiting some hours, the vehicle left Rukungire with 18 passengers at 11h30, we had to change vehicle in a small town and were finally dropped around 14h at Ishaka, a small town between Rukungire and Kasese. Due to the cheating, we refused to pay for the first part. After a discussion of almost 1 hour with the driver and a police officer, we paid only 2000 USH p.p. (in stead of 4000) and entered a shared taxi towards Kasese (15h15 – 17h; 4000 USH p.p.).
Transport Kasese–Fort Portal: shared taxi, 17h – 19h30, 5000 USH p.p.
Night: Tourist guest house (?), 10000USH for double not self-contained.
17-06-2006 till 19-06-2006 Semliki National Park
According to the Bradt guide, there is very little transport from Fort Portal to Semliki and the book advised Kabarole Tours since they offer the cheapest private drives to Semliki. We believed so, decided not to waste extra time, and booked a vehicle with Kabarole tours up to Kirumia, with a stop at the Sempaya hot springs (booked at 8h30 for 170000 USH, left Fort Portal at 10h30, reached Sempaya around 13h). Afterwards, transport seemed not to be that uncommon, especially in the evening, with several pick-ups, shared taxis and even a bus direct from Kampala. The private vehicle could also be cheaper (80000 USH should be possible, see further).
We stayed some hours around Sempaya and birded 2 days along the Kirumia river trail (1st day very slowly, 2nd day a long walk up to the river and the fishermen camp). According to the rangers, it is not allowed to camp inside the forest, and the trail seemed very well maintained (in contrast with what’s written in the Where-to-watch guide). Unfortunately, I just had no bird songs for most of the Semliki species with me and was not able to find out all sounds…
Birding highlights: Yellowbill, Blue-headed Coucal, Black-throated Coucal (?, Aud.), Blue-breasted Kingfisher, White-throated Kingfisher, African Pied Hornbill, Piping Hornbill, Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill, Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill, White-thighed Hornbill, Black-casqued Wattled Hornbill, Yellow-throated Tinkerbird, Speckled Tinkerbird, Yellow-billed Barbet, Rufous-sided Broadbill (?, Aud.), Mosque Swallow, Rufous-chested Swallow, White-throated Blue Swallow, Western Nicator, Yellow-throated Nicator, Green-tailed Bristlebill, Red-tailed Greenbul, Eastern Bearded Greenbul, Yellow-throated Greenbul, Swamp Palm Bulbul (Aud.), Honeyguide Greenbul, Spotted Greenbul, Red-tailed Ant-thrush, Rufous Flycatcher-thrush, Brown-throated Wattle-eye, Chestnut Wattle-eye, Red-bellied Paradise-flycatcher, Green-headed Sunbird, Little Green Sunbird, Red-billed Helmet-shrike, Piapiac (road towards Sempaya), Montane Oriole, Splendid Starling, Purple-headed Starling, Orange Weaver, Vieillot’s Black Weaver, Maxwell’s Black Weaver, Crested Malimbe
Night: we pitched our tent with a family slightly outside the Kirumia village for 2 nights. We had the impression the villagers never saw “mzungu’s” (white people) before, and especially not on the market or in the very basic, small hotelli where they only served cold beans with matoke. More than 30 children were astonished to see how we could make a house out of a small bag… We gave 15000 USH and a mosquito net, quite a good price according to us, but the father seemed not to be happy with it…
20-06-2006 Ruwenzori foothills
The evening of 19th, we jumped on a very uncomfortable pick-up towards Bundibudyo (40 minutes, 1500 USH, overpriced?,). I was sitting high on some bags containing potatoes, and felt like the pope when all children and even adults started waving at me…
Entrance fee: for 20th, the idea was to have a walk to the forest, and to return to Bundibudyo in the evening. We informed where we could find the Bwamba Pass crossing the Ruwenzori foothills, and were finally sent to the office of “AMA Ruwenzori Mountaineering”. Remark that the Ruwenzori NP boundaries are not indicated well the Bradt guide. Since we were not sure whether we would reach the park boundary, we agreed to pay 40000 USH in the evening plus an additional 10$ p.p. entrance fee if we entered the park. We started our walk late (9h30) and we reached the forest edge around 12h. After entering the forest, the problems began… Two rangers of UWA asked us for the entrance permits, which we did not have. We tried to explain them what we agreed with the manager of AMA, but in vain: they took us to their base at the Kichwamba at other side of the mountains, where the let us pay the entrance fee (10$ p.p.) + the guiding fee (10$ p.p.). It was becoming late and that we were far from Bundibudyo: 4 hours by foot or 2 hours by car… Our luggage was still on the other side of the mountains and we wanted to leave for Kampala the next day. We were lucky we got the business card form the manager and called them to come and pick us. As we could expect, he refused to pick us, but he arranged a taxi from Fort Portal (again Kaberole tours, but this time for only 80000 USH). Since we thought AMA made serious mistakes, we asked AMA manager to come to our hotel to clear everything. After some phone calls and an almost 2nd encounter with the Uganda Police, I was surprised the manager did turn up in our hotel and even paid the taxi fee completely. We did not pay for the illegal guided walk at all.
In Bundibudyo, there is an office of UWA and if you want to cross the foothills, it’s best to arrange it with them! With porters, is would have been easy to cross the mountain with our entire luggage.
Birding highlights: I think the pass doesn’t go high enough to see Ruwenzori Turaco and Ruwenzori Double-collared Sunbird. In the forest, we had African Crowned Eagle, Great Blue Turaco, Black-billed Turaco, Mountain Greenbul, Regal Sunbird, Stripe-breasted Tit, Mountain Yellow Warbler and heard chimpanzees. Along the shamba: Mountain Wagtail, Splendid Sunbird, Copper Sunbird, Bronze Sunbird, Red-faced Crimsonwing, Black-crowned Waxbill, Yellow-bellied Waxbill. Also Blue-Headed tree agama (large reptile)
Night: Bundibudyo, Vanilla Hotel, 15000 USH for double not self-contained
Transport Bundibudyo-Kampala: 5h30 (left 6h30) – 14h15; 16000 USH??
Transport Kampala-Karanje: new taxi stage, 15h – 16h45, 2000 USH p.p.
Transport Karanje-Mabamba: 2 motor-cycles, 2000 USH p.p.
Night: “Mabamba Ecotourist Center”, free camping if you have own tent and go for guided tour with owner.
22-06-2006 and 23-06-2006: Mabamba swamp and surroundings
Entrance fee: The community charged 10000 USH entrance fee (“for maintaining the waterways”). We paid 40000 USH for the “Shoebill boat trip” of 3 hours with the man where we spend the night. Since we “missed” otter and Papyrus Gonolek, we decided to go for a second boat trip and a short visit to the island with an even better bird guide (25000 USH). On 23rd, we shortly stopped at the papyrus swamp between Karanje and Mpigi for White-winged Warbler and Blue Swallow.
Bird highlights: Squacco Heron, Shoebill (1 standing and preening at 20m), Yellow-billed Duck, Spur-winged Goose, African Marsh Harrier, White-winged Tern, African Jacana, Lesser Jacana, Grey Parrot, Red-faced Lovebird, Great Blue Turaco, Eastern Grey Plantain-eater, Blue-headed Coucal, Black Coucal, Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Madagascar Bee-eater, Broad-billed Roller, Plain-backed Pipit, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Grey-rumped Swallow, White-winged Warbler (Mpigi), Brown-backed Scrub-robin (Mpigi), Winding Cisticola, Carruther’s Cisticola, Swamp Flycatcher, Lead-coloured Flycatcher, Copper Sunbird, Red-chested Sunbird, Papyrus Gonolek (very common at Mpigi), Slender-billed Weaver, Yellow-backed Weaver, Northern Brown-thoated Weaver, Weyn’s Weaver, Vieillot’s Black Weaver, Red-headed Malimbe, Fan-tailed Widowbird.
Transport Mabamba-Mpigi: motorcycle, with 1hour stop at the Mpigi papyrus swamp, 4000 USH p.p.
Transport Mpigi-Kampala: shared taxi (very frequent), 1000 USH (?)
Transport Kampala-Nairobi: Akamba bus service, 16h – 5h, 25000USH (?)