Visit your favourite destinations
|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Uganda, August 1st to 17th 2005,
Calle Donostia-San Sebastián, 60
01010 Vitoria, Álava, SPAIN ( firstname.lastname@example.org )
Photo: Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill in Bugala Island (photo: Nerea Ruiz de Azua)
Uganda, formerly the Pearl of Africa, is still a paradise for birding, but as stated by some other trip reports in http://www.birdtours.co.uk, should be visited as soon as possible. The increasing human population and related pressures on the environment may have impacts which, in the medium-long term, can take the country to an ecological impoverishment. In rural areas, few forested patches remain, and cultivated lands extent to the top of the mountains, even at step slopes, where continuous fire clearings can be seen. Besides, extensive Eucalyptus plantations are managed for timber-cutting. Natural resources are exploited to the limit by people with no other living alternatives, so national parks preserve the remnants of once a rich wildlife. This was decimated by poachers and soldiers alike during civil unrest in the eighties, but currently the country enjoys more stable times.
As for birds, Uganda presents a list of more than a thousand species, one of the richest in the world. The most representative and interesting habitats, to me, are the extensive swamp, papyrus marshes and lake shores, in this truly lake country. Grassland and savannas are not so vast as in Kenya or Tanzania, and tropical forests seem to be restricted to certain parks and reserves. But Uganda holds them all, being like a bridge for life between Eastern plains and Central African woods, with the great advantage of a landscape not still spoiled by tourism. We didn’t find large numbers of tourists there, and that was a plus in our perception of the country.
In my experience, people are absolutely nice and friendly, even in small towns and villages, where poverty reaches absolute disaster for European standards. But for birders, two main problems arise. First, it’s very difficult to walk in rural areas without getting children companion, who in turn will offer help to reach any desired or undesired destination. And second, people will ask you to let them have a look with binoculars; I made in this way my own contribution to popularization of birdwatching among cheerful Ugandans. If practical advices are to be given, I would highlight the irregular state of roads, with many bumpy, slow driving sections and lots of dust in the dry season (presumable impractical in the rainy), and the importance of ordering meals in advance at restaurants (also not many variations to order).
The beauty of birdwatching in Africa is that birds are everywhere. And for instance, campsites are excellent places to enjoy, when each new species –no matter its status or rate for twitchers- is a celebration. Everywhere in the country you may find a particular poster showing pictures of the national list of birds, and that’s a remark about the estimation Ugandans have for their bird fauna, and the hope deposited on foreign birders as a tourist driving force. My own list is a quite short one, mainly because the trip was not mented for birding. But I’m reasonable proud of it, because my point is that the fun in watching birds and their behaviour -sparrows and shoebills alike- is to discover new things and enjoy nature, rather than the ticking sportive competition.
We travelled with East African Explorers Safaris (www.explorerssafaris.jazztel.es), a company based in Uganda but also operating in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. Our guide was Robert Byakutaga, and both him and the driver (David Habarugira) made a very pleasant and confident atmosphere, besides solving any inconveniences that could arise along the way. I must say this tour was not a specific birding one, but a tourist journey with general focus on wildlife. That means that national parks were to be visited, but no search for birds in particular was made. So, bird spotting was done while on game-drives, ferry boat-crossing, waterfalls visiting, canoeing, forest walking…
Books and references
I really recommend Where to Watch Birds in Uganda, by J. Rossouw & M. Sacchi and published on behalf of the Uganda Tourist Board, for anyone planning to visit the country with the intention of doing some birding. It includes maps and even detailed trails to follow about the 15 areas covered, with useful indications. Maybe the traveller using this book would thank more practical information about travelling, accommodation or facilities as provided in the first chapter, but indeed that’s not its aim, and there are some other travel guides devoted to. Certain bird-spotting-sites and remarks proved to be astonishingly precise for me, like the reference about Cassin’s Flycatcher in Ishasha river, about Rock Pratincole in Murchison Falls and some more, while others not so much; the 10 years period since the writing of the book may well explain these.
Anyway, I think any comments on this book should be reviewed in relation to expectations and identification knowledge of the particular birder. I myself, though familiarized with every European bird groups and most species, feel somewhat defenceless in the African ornithological environment, facing unknown bird families and having no previous knowledge about African avifauna (and I’m not referring just to those LBJ’s). I cannot recognize or think off many species’ names alone, so this means that nearly every bird I come into is new and fully attractive.
My main help in the hard task of identifying has been Birds of Africa South of the Sahara, by I. Sinclair and Peter Ryan. This is a most valuable and comprehensive book, which I presume being an editorial success among non-African birders, as is the only bird guide that can be found at every bookshop in airports. If your interest is, like mine, just identification, here you’ll find all you need; but hints on natural history would have been impossible to include in a manageable volume. I can only say that illustrations are not equally accurate across families and some range maps not completely precise, but these drawbacks are common even in European guides. If you’re only intending to visit Eastern Africa, the Birds of East Africa by T. Stevenson & J. Fanshawe is a sound election, because it shows complete descriptions, more plumages featuring females and juveniles, and more accurate maps.
Our route started in the Entebbe-Kampala area, to the north shore of great Lake Victoria. Apart from chaotic but really “african” Kampala, the Entebbe Wildlife Education Centre is worth visiting (and supporting its conservation goals in this country). First step was Murchison Falls National Park, where we spent one and a half days including a game-drive through Borassus palm savanna and Nile delta, a boat cruise and a trekking to the top of the falls. The road to Murchison Falls NP passes by Budongo Forest Reserve but unfortunately we didn’t stop there. Next birding stage was Semuliki National Park and its superb rainforest, western tip of the vast Congo Basin forests that stretches from the very Atlantic. We reached there by the winding road that holds the Rwenzori slopes from Fort Portal. Next, Queen Elizabeth National Park, where we made game-drives through Mweya and Kasenyi open grasslands, and the advisable launch trip in Kazinga Channel. We spent two days at Mweya, and next destination was the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth NP, a three hours drive on a bumpy dirt road. Here, nearly every birding was done in game-drives. Although we entered Rwanda via Kisoro to make a gorilla-trekking in Parc National des Virungas, I couldn’t manage to do any birding and concentrate all my energy on primates. After entering Uganda again, we visited Lake Bunyoni near Kabale, and then crossed Lake Victoria to the main Sesse Island (Bugala), with a tropical forested landscape and paradise-like beaches. The last place we visited was Jinja, the second Ugandan city, with the source of the Nile finally discovered to westerners by Speke.
Placemarks for our birdings sites in Uganda.