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A 25 Day Birding & Wildlife Trip To Uganda, Jan 12-Feb 6, 2004,
Every international birder wants to go to Africa, some time. Our turn came early in 2004. Naturally, no one country or region can be a true template for an entire continent with all its diversity. So we put a lot of thought into which country would, overall, be best to visit in keeping with our objectives and budget, and in case we do not get to go back. Uganda came out on top, fairly easily. Of course it is a terrific birding venue, as is now quite well known, with a huge number of species (>1000) packed into a very limited and mostly accessible land base. Uganda is juxtaposed between several biogeographic regions, providing a high diversity of major habitats that in turn support a rich species diversity. There is a good number of specialty and regionally restricted species (think Shoebill for starters), although only 1 true endemic. More than this, and highly important to us, it also offered the chance for an introduction to a nice cross-section of the wonderful Pleistocene mammals that Africa is so famous for. Not perhaps in the same diversity as in certain other countries, but extremely good all the same. The ecotourist infrastructure is now adequate to good (excellent in places), having recovered significantly from havoc created during serious civil strife of many years, but which is now, mercifully, largely history. And, Uganda (apparently) is still somewhat less expensive than countries with a longer and more stable history of catering to ecotourists. Then there is, arguably, the greatest attraction of all - the absolutely fabulous opportunity to hang out with a troop of Mountain Gorillas for an hour. Taken as a whole I do not think any other destination in Africa can offer quite the same breadth of wildlife. We thought that Uganda offered the Abest bang for the buck in Africa for us, and from the perspective of 2 months back home, we still do.
Our objectives (though not necessarily in order of priority, because we found this kept changing!):
1. Get a reasonable feel for the East African biotic region.2. See the Gorillas (and Chimpanzees); see Shoebill.3. See representatives of as many endemic African bird families as possible.4. See as many of the charismatic African mega-mammals as possible.5. Within the context of the above, try for a decent bird species list, with attention to targeted species where feasible. For example, I like waterfowl (Anseriformes) and had always drooled over the prospect of actually seeing a pygmy-goose or the Spur-winged Goose (and I did so).
Our objectives were met well, and we are satisfied with the trip. A question always remains as to how good an overview of a major biome spread over a large area one can get from a short trip to a single sub-region, but it is far better than not having gone at all.
PLANNING AND LOGISTICS:
To start with we read as many first hand birding trip reports as we could find on the internet to get a feel for sites and species distributions. As an aside, our sincere thanks go to all who take the trouble to inform others about their birding trips abroad - in my mind these reports are indispensable. I was not initially aware of Rossouw and Sacchi's Where To Watch Birds In Uganda. Once a copy was obtained (from the African Bird Club) it proved valuable in helping us decide on our itinerary. As always, changes have occurred since the book was published (in 1998). One somewhat peculiar example: I was delighted to read that White-backed Duck was probable for Kampala and its environs during a 2-3 day visit. Then when confirming a few particular target birds via E-mail with Hassan Mutebi (see below) he informed us that he had never seen this species! A few other discrepancies turned up, but still, I think the book is very worthwhile. In addition to specific bird information it sets the more general stage for each site quite well (non-bird wildlife, habitats, rough maps, facilities, and so on).
Equally important as deciding where to go is finding/selecting a good ground agent/guide. We decided immediately that we did not want to attempt to travel in Uganda on our own, for example by rental car. The best approach for us was to find someone who would make all our in-country bookings, supply transportation and ideally act as both general and birding guide. Further, where feasible we always prefer to engage a locally based person or firm in an attempt to focus our own ecotourist expenditures within the countries we visit. We contacted Hassan Mutebi (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Access Uganda Tours based solely on excellent testimonies in several trip reports (this should not be construed as indicating that we decided against other ground agents/guides for any reason at all, because it is apparent from trip reports I have read that other good alternatives do exist in Uganda). It was a pleasure to correspond with Hassan and Jaria in setting up the trip. After the itinerary was finalized we were quoted an all inclusive price per person, based on 4 people in our case. And in the event, almost everything went as planned. Jaria manned the base at Kampala while Hassan handled all daily on-the-ground arrangements, did all the driving, acted as a very good bird and mammal guide, prepared snacks, cleaned the vehicle, etc., etc. In short, he worked extremely hard (and indefatigably) for 12+ hours almost every day, for 25 straight days. Basically, he never stopped. And somehow he maintained his equanimity and good sense of humour throughout the whole thing. Candy and I have no hesitation whatsoever in adding our own heartfelt recommendation of Hassan and Jaria (www.accessugandatours.com).
Despite our building in extra time (see Itinerary below) aimed towards a less hectic day-to-day pace than that of most reports we'd read, we still felt rushed much of the time. There is just so much to see. I have no idea what the pace of a 14 day trip must be like, and I would not want to find out. Not infrequently we fell behind schedule, mainly by stopping for birds while travelling between important sites, especially the wonderful national parks (at the beginning it seemed we stopped for every raptor!). Certainly we saw good birds this way, but to Candy and I the herky-jerky progress sometimes became distracting. In general we preferred to move along to the parks where we could linger in a bit more relaxed manner over the spectacular birds and mammals. This might not be a problem for others, particularly more focused twitchers than we are. On occasion, in the rush of the moment, days unfolded somewhat differently than we had somehow expected, and than the itinerary seemed to indicate. In retrospect we should have made a point of discussing the following day's objectives, game plan and possible options in some detail each evening after completing the day's bird tally - more often than we did at any rate. This would have ensured regular information flow and set the stage clearly for the day ahead. These are largely niggling issues but they may be worth bearing in mind for travellers sharing our particular mind set.
Many specific points of a logistical nature appear in the daily log to follow. Other general topics of potential relevance to prospective travellers are covered very briefly in point form here:
Health: It is easy to find out the required and recommended inoculations at appropriate web sites. I will mention an oral vaccine called Dukoral here, evidently developed for cholera (in Sweden I think) that, as I understand it, also provides some protection against coliform toxins and hence helps prevent traveller's diarrhea. It just made its way to Canada and we bought it from a travel clinic (@$90C each). Might have helped me, apparently not Candy.
Accommodations: For the most part we stayed in good to excellent hotels and lodges. At Ruhiza in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park there are no commercial facilities within reasonable distance, and as is the norm, we used the distinctly rustic ITFC Guest House (Institute for Tropical Forest Conservation). It was no problem for us at all and had a significant upside in that we were right on site for birding in the morning. This was not the case at several other places (eg, Kibale, Semliki, Lake Mburo) where, because our accommodations were considerable distances away, we had to undertake time consuming commutes to get to the parks. We did not stay in any of the bandas within the parks (also usually described as rustic) but found ourselves wishing we had investigated this alternative beforehand. There is no substitute to being able to wake up in situ.
Food was fine, if undistinguished, although true African dishes did not always seem readily available to try. I loved the potato chips. Our normal snacks of bananas (of several types) and pineapples fresh off the plants were always delicious. Ironically the only place we had gastrointestinal problems was at the most plush lodge - Mwyea in Queen Elizabeth National Park. In Candy's case the problem lasted until well after she got home (3-4 weeks) but cleared up after taking a prescribed antibiotic. Some of us drank a fair bit of Nile Special beer and it really hit the spot in the evenings after hot days.
Insects/Pests: For Canadians who have lived in the subarctic (where mosquitoes and black flies can suck you dry in about 15 seconds flat) insects were insignificant to non-existent. None at all of the notorious chiggers that bedevil birders elsewhere. Just a few ant bites here and there. In short, a piece of cake!
Safety/Security: No problems whatever for us, but consult appropriate government travel web sites. Those in Canada and the US warned against travelling to nearly all the places we wanted to go! Apparently there is a (extremely small) risk of encountering insurgents of one type or another, and in most of the western parks we were accompanied into the field by up to 5 armed soldiers/rangers. In an E-mail the Ugandan embassy in Ottawa wryly observed that the travel advisories were Arather over cautionary@. As we had read, Ugandans we met were almost uniformly friendly, helpful and cheerful - delightful people.
Money: Unlike many other of our past destinations Ugandan currency is normally required for those few expenditures not covered in the package (eg, the Nile Specials). The big lodges and hotels will take credit cards or $US, but usually not the smaller establishments or individuals.
Guides: Local guides were included in our package costs, except for the famous Alfred Twinomusuni (Twitching in Bwindi with Alfred T says the sign outside his house at Buhoma) where we had to pay him ourselves, and it practically goes without saying that he is worth every cent - forest birding in particular can be very tough in Africa without a good guide. Some larger twitcher groups hire Alfred for their entire trips, and run up spectacular lists. That said, Hassan himself is now a very good and enthusiastic birder, and getting better all the time.
Travel: Hassan used his large van or mini bus that seats at least 8 passengers. Since there were 4 of us we had lots of space to sprawl out with all our gear which made for relatively comfortable travel. Best of all, the top can be easily elevated so that in the parks we could all stand up to see birds and game with virtually unimpeded sight lines. This is very important because for the vast majority of the time you are not allowed to get out of vehicles in the parks (I suppose because government officials must cover their rear-ends in case of surly elephants, lions and buffalos). I brought my spotting scope window mount, mostly on a whim, and it proved invaluable - it could be left mounted as we travelled along the game tracks, and quickly moved from side to side when we stopped. Top notch viewing!
Weather: We lost a couple of hours to rain on 2 separate days and that was about all, quite lucky I would think in the context of Uganda's tropical/equatorial setting. It did get rather hot at times, but nothing at all like I had anticipated. The altitude over much of the area we visited is just high enough to blunt really oppressive heat and humidity. Ruhiza (in Bwindi INP) had the highest elevation and Jaria warns you to bring a jacket and/or fleece type sweatshirt (but I didn't need either). Although not weather related I should mention that we lost the equivalent of perhaps a little more than half a day of birding time for repairs to the van and other delays. Hassan maintains his vehicles very well and some damage is almost guaranteed travelling the rough roads typical of most of Uganda.
Clothes: This was the only trip to the tropics for me so far that I actually wore shorts and sandals while birding - at least half the time and at most sites except in true forest. Rubber boots are always a nuisance but here they were required at some forest sites, most particularly at Semliki. Sun screen and a hat are essential, and lots of bottled water.
As noted above we wanted to go to the best birding places, but not at the expense of missing sites with good mammals, or which in other ways particularly typified east Africa. Happily, these objectives overlap broadly, and our itinerary did not depart markedly from a typical Ugandan birding safari. Nonetheless, we added extra days for Murchison Falls NP, Queen Elizabeth NP and Lake Mburo NP over and above time normally allotted for these areas in a 3 week itinerary. We also inserted 2 days for Semliki NP, which means the equivalent of a day was deducted, mostly at the expense of Kibale NP, to make a total of 25 days. We could easily have enjoyed another week or more (even all at Murchison Falls or Bwindi) but then this is nearly always the case on a trip to an exciting destination. About the only mainstream birding site we skipped was Lake Bisinia where many birders go for Fox's Weaver, Uganda's only true endemic. I wouldn't have minded seeing it of course, but it involves a fairly long drive and would have added significantly to the rush factor - too much hectic travel for us. So, we set out, following a counter-clockwise routing as follows (which can just as well be done clockwise if desired):
Day 1 - The road(s) between Entebbe, Mabamba Swamp and Kampala. Bird Mabamba Swamp by boat. Early PM: errands in Kampala. Late PM: drive from Kampala to Jinja. Lake Victoria is 1150m asl.
Day 2 - All day at Mabira Forest near Jinja, both sides of highway. Altitude: 1070-1340m.
Day 3 - Most of day in vicinity of Mabira Forest. In late PM travel to Kampala and overnight there.
Day 4 - Travel Kampala to Murchison Falls (MFNP) stopping frequently for raptors and for a walk in acacia woodland. From 17:30 bird in MFNP south of the Nile, to the falls area, and lastly a night drive back to Sambiya River Lodge. Altitude at MFNP: 619-1292m.
Day 5 - Return to falls, to bird the long, hot trail below the falls. Drive to ferry and cross to north bank of the Victoria Nile. Check into Paraa Lodge.
Day 6 - All day on game tracks in MFNP north of the Nile.
Day 7 - In AM birding mostly along Albert Nile. PM: boat trip on Victoria Nile not quite to base of falls.
Day 8 - Ferry back to south bank of Nile and drive to Kanyo Pabidi, still within MFNP but better considered part of Budongo Forest. To Masindi, check into hotel, bird a bit on grounds and locally. Budongo Forest is @ 700- 1270m asl.
Day 9 - Much of day birding the Royal Mile and nearby sub-sites, including a pond near Busingiro station of Budongo Forest.
Day 10 - Day trip from Masindi through the Butiaba escarpment area to Lake Albert and retrace route. Brief birding along road at Busingiro in Budongo Forest and finally to the same pond as on Day 9.
Day 11 - Travel Masindi to Ft Portal, stopping to bird at a Papyrus swamp south of Hoima. From 15:30 bird along highway through Kibale NP. Altitude at Kibale: 1110-1590m.
Day 12 - AM: Chimpanzee tracking in Kibale NP. PM: bird agricultural land and the Bigodi Swamp, both just outside park.
Day 13 - Travel Ft Portal to Semliki NP (late departure due to van repairs). Much of PM in park. 670-760m..
Day 14 - Most of day birding in Semliki NP. Late PM drive back to Ft Portal.
Day 15 - AM: travel Ft Portal to Queen Elizabeth NP (QENP) with roadside stop in acacias. PM to lakes Katwe and Munyanyange (in or just outside the park?). Elevations in QENP range from 900m at Lake Edward to 1845m.
Day 16 - AM: Kasenyi Track of QENP. PM: Launch trip along Kazinga Channel connecting lakes Edward and George.
Day 17 - AM: Kasenyi Track of QENP. PM: Back to Lake Katwe, and finally the track along the Kazinga Channel.
Day 18 - AM: Travel south through Ishasha sector of QENP. PM: Continue journey to Ruhiza section of Bwindi Impenetrable NP (BINP), stopping only briefly in the Neck. Bird along road at Ruhiza from @17:00. Ruhiza: to 2607m asl.
Day 19 - Bird Mubwindi Swamp trail at Ruhiza. Depart for Buhoma sector of BINP @ 16:00, and bird on the way down, pausing a little in the Neck area (1550m).
Day 20 - All day on Main Trail in Bwindi-Buhoma. Buhoma: 1550m.
Day 21 - AM: Repeat part of Main Trail. PM: Bird mostly cleared agricultural land just outside park.
Day 22 - AM: Gorilla tracking in BINP-Buhoma. PM: A bit of birding along entrance road at Buhoma.
Day 23 - Most of day travelling from Bwindi-Buhoma to Mbarara, near Lake Mburo NP (LMNP). Route is through Little Switzerland highlands in general vicinity of Kabale (@2134m). From @ 16:00 in LMNP.
Day 24 - All day in LMNP, including boat trip on lake in PM. Altitudes in LMNP: 1220-1828m.
Day 25 - Travel from Mbarara to Kampala, stopping to bird for perhaps 3 hours at Kaaku Swamp.
Day 26 - Depart Uganda.
Note: Most altitudes were taken from the Rossouw and Sacchi guide: Where To Watch Birds In Uganda.
All birds and other wildlife observed on the trip are listed and annotated in a separate trip list (in spreadsheet format). Classification and common names follow Clements, Birds Of The World: A Checklist. There is considerable, and very annoying, lack of agreement in common names between Clements and the best identification guide for Uganda - Field Guide To The Birds Of East Africa by Stevenson and Fanshawe . Where they differ I indicate the latter's terminology in parentheses. It is often difficult to decide all the species to include in a trip list because leaders inevitably see, more often hear, birds that are missed by participants not yet up to speed with local conditions and birds. It is frequently even hard to know which ones I personally should record as seen. For example, when a view of a distant flying bird, one that is partly obscured or is seen in bad light so that important field marks are not obvious becomes only a quick look/glimpse/blur; and finally, just some movement in the foliage! Especially in Uganda's forests.
But that is part of the fun, or exasperation, of finalizing one's observations. Two plus months after the trip and I am still finding Anew@ birds in field notes that somehow did not make it onto the daily checklist! Counting birds that at least 1 of the 4 paying participants saw, some 542 species were recorded, and the guides mentioned at least 17 more that I wrote down, but I expect there were actually quite a few more in that category. Consulting Clements, I think there are 13 endemic African bird families (not including Madagascar) of which we saw 9. Of the 4 we did not see we had no chance for 3 because Uganda is not within their respective ranges (Ostrich, Rockfowl and Sugarbirds). Thus the only miss was Secretary-bird, and Hassan warned us beforehand that although possible in MFNP we would be very lucky to see it. As mentioned, Uganda has but one true endemic. However, this is quite misleading. According to the Rossouw and Sacchi birder's guide, the mountainous western border area is home to 37 restricted range species, often termed Albertine Rift endemics (AREs), of which 26 occur in Uganda. We saw 19 of these (20 if 1 species heard by Alfred is counted). The diversity of some families was both awe inspiring and bewildering. A few examples: 41 birds of prey, 11 great plovers/lapwings, 10 each of kingfishers and bee-eaters, 18+ very confusing greenbuls (pretty much impossible for neophytes), 11 species from the genus Cisticola alone, 20 sunbirds, 14 bushshrikes + allies, 13 starlings, 30 weavers (Ploceidae) , and 21 estrildid finches (despite missing several). Great birding.
I have heard birders say that quite often the best bird of the day is a mammal, or a reptile. This happened a lot in Uganda, perhaps not too surprisingly. The mammalian fauna was truly fabulous, to put it mildly. Sometimes seeing an animal already well known from TV or coffee-table books borders on the anticlimactic. This wasn't the case in Uganda. Every sighting of a giraffe, elephant, lion or zebra was a treat, not even mentioning hanging out with the gorillas which many people describe as somehow life altering. And I think all of us did experience some kind of strange emotion when peering into those deep dark eyes. (Actually you are not supposed to do this because gorillas interpret staring as aggressive behavior - but none of the watched or watchers seemed uneasy.) The physical backdrop alone in most of the parks was wonderful. Magnificent tropical forest (even if birding was frustratingly difficult at times!). Stunning rolling vistas of acacia woodland and savannah, dotted with herds of ungulates. We saw 18 ungulate species, including 12 from the family Bovidae itself. Not many hoped-for mammals were missed, a notable exception being Giant Hog which we searched hard for in QENP but came up empty.
Hassan said we would be lucky to see maybe 1 snake on the entire trip. During the first acacia walk en route to MFNP we were therefore extremely lucky to find a large cobra out in the open between clumps of acacias. Still to follow were 2 gorgeous Green Mambas, one of which was living in a crack over the door to our room at Mweya Lodge in QENP, at least for the 3 nights we were there (but it remained on the outside - we think!).
More specific comments for each location are given in the daily log below, and all observations are summarized by geographical region in the separate trip list.
OVERVIEW OF LANDSCAPE AND HABITATS:
Information is readily available in travel books, the Uganda bird-finding guide, etc., so this is just a thumb-nail sketch to help readers visualize the scene, and I hope it doesn't strain reality too much. The overall aspect is of a fairly flattish to gently rolling landscape in the east around Lake Victoria (Kampala/Entebbe and Lake Mburo NP areas) and also in the northwest in the vicinity of Murchison Falls NP, to distinctly hilly or even mountainous along the Albertine rift border area of the western and southwestern sections of the country. Altitudes in birding locations ranged from 600 to 700m at Murchison Falls-Budongo Forest and Semliki NP to just over 2600m in the Ruhiza sector of Bwindi Impenetrable NP. The Rwenzori Mountains themselves rise to at least as high as 5100m, with snow on the peaks, but we did not really get into them. Although it does get hot, temperatures and humidity are significantly buffered by these altitudes, and for the most part we did not mind the heat that much at all. Just keep drinking water (and Nile Special when doing the evening checklist).
Certainly Uganda is blessed with a diversity of wildlife habitats. It is hard to know whether to be more impressed with the forests or the various combinations of bush/savannah/grassland. I don't think there is any true lowland forest in Uganda, the closest to this likely occurring in the Semliki River valley at Semliki NP, which apparently represents the easternmost limit of a vast band of equatorial forest stretching westwards across the continent. Most forest in the predominantly forested national parks of Kibale, Semliki and Bwindi, and the forest reserves of Mabira and Budongo are characterized as medium elevation or montane forest (Ruhiza), mostly moist, and most semi-deciduous (though this is not obvious). In places there may be swamp forest (eg, at Semliki NP). Also, even in drier habitats a kind of gallery woodland (ranging to thick, high bush) is found along the banks of many rivers, for example the Victoria Nile in MFNP. Within some parks and forest reserves, but particularly in the intervening, mostly agricultural, landscape there is much secondary woodland, semi-cleared forest and scrubby habitat of various kinds. Degraded forest interspersed with cleared land, such as along the road from Entebbe to Mabamba Swamp on Lake Victoria, could be very birdy and I was a little surprised to find species there that I had anticipated would be in more undisturbed habitat, such as Great Blue Turaco and Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill.
The terrific game parks of Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth and Lake Mburo each had their own particular variations on the general theme of mosaics of thick to sparse woodland or bush (ie, small trees/big shrubs, often acacias) grading to savannah where the woody vegetation is more spread out (at times quite sparsely) with a grass understorey; and sometimes you find you are in just grassland itself over fairly sizable areas. No doubt the picture at any given location is a reflection mostly of rainfall/soil moisture and such land management practices as use of fire. Quite large areas of MFNP south of the Nile had been recently burned when we were there (some areas were still burning) and we saw several bird species that tend to specialize on this habitat when available.
Both the forest and savannah parks usually also had aquatic habitats within or nearby, which in turn fostered a welcome diversity of birds and mammals. Normally these were rivers/streams or lakes (especially the large rift great lakes), and reed swamps or marshes, often with extensive closed beds of Papyrus interspersed with open water (and floating plants). In fewer places, such as at Mabira Forest, forest ponds or wooded swamps produced birds we would not have seen otherwise.
Hassan told us that Uganda has a higher proportion of its land base dedicated to national parks, forest reserves and the like than any other African country. A very good thing too, because nearly all the land in between the parks we visited has been largely converted to human uses. And Uganda has a very obviously burgeoning human population; suffice to say kids are everywhere! We were not naive enough to think that we were heading into deepest, darkest Africa, but the general character of much of the landscape was a bit surprising - in some ways not so very much different than highly urbanized/agriculturalized southern Ontario where Candy and I now live. Nor did it seem greatly different from India. This is not to say there was no wildlife in the countryside- edge birds were usually abundant - but, in our brief experience, mammals were scarce, and we saw none at all of the large showy species outside parks or forest reserves. So, may long live Uganda's great national parks!
A BRIEF DAILY LOG:
Days -2 and -1 (Jan 09, 10, 11 - To Uganda) - We left home for the airport in Toronto around 16:00 and arrived at Entebbe some 441/2 hours later. It was a long slog, by way of London-Heathrow and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, almost 2 days of travelling and spanning 3 calender days. And with just a couple of hours of fitful sleep on the planes and airport waiting areas. After our travel agent had messed up a much more direct routing at a significantly lower cost we decided to go the longer way via Dubai because it was a bit cheaper than remaining alternatives, and it offered a chance to stop over there on the way home to look for some good birds (eg, Crab Plover, Hypocolius). Thankfully, all flights were pretty well on schedule. Jaria and Hassan met us at the airport and before too long we were at Sophie's Motel (a good place) enjoying a delicious glass of fruit juice and catching up with Sandra and Laird, our travelling companions from British Columbia who sensibly had arrived a day earlier. We delivered a pair of Leica binoculars to a pleased and relieved Hassan that we'd purchased for him in North America because his pair had been stolen in Rwanda. Then, after repacking some unneeded clothes separately to leave at the office with Jaria until after the trip, to bed after midnight local time to try to catch up a little on much lost sleep.
Day 1 (Jan 12): To Mabamba Swamp - I didn't feel like I had really slept, but the adrenalin was pumping as we wolfed down some breakfast and boarded Hassan's vehicle @07:30 for the trip out to Mabamba Swamp. Birds seemed to be everywhere along the red-dirt road and we stopped frequently. Almost immediately we were looking at 2 of the showiest birds of the whole trip, which we would see many more times, nearly throughout: Great Blue Turaco and Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill. The former represented our first endemic African family, and a terrific one at that. Over the next 3+ weeks we were often struck at how turacos recalled guans and chachalacas of central and South America, not in plumage certainly, but in general body proportions and their manner of flying between, and then scrambling through the trees. Exciting new birds came thick and fast: Lizard Buzzard, Long-crested Eagle (henceforth to be a regular roadside acquaintance), African Green-Pigeon, Eastern Grey Plantain-Eater, Woodland and Striped Kingfishers, 30 Blue-breasted Bee-eaters, 15 Broad-billed Rollers, Double-toothed Barbet, Collared and Red-chested Sunbirds, the strange corvid Piapiac, Splendid Glossy-Starlings, 4 species of weavers, Red-billed Firefinch and so on. A fine introduction to Uganda's avifauna.
We got to the swamp at 09:30 and soon boarded vintage wooden boats for a human-powered excursion through the waterways bordered by dense stands of Papyrus, but also with frequent open-water areas. Tiny brilliant Malachite Kingfishers perched on the Papyrus stalks then buzzed off to another at the boat's approach. African Jacanas flushed from lower vegetation along the edges. Within 10 minutes all bins were on 4 African Pygmy-geese, a bird I had wanted to see very much. And not long after, another from the most-wanted list - Spur-winged Goose. As well as 5 Hamerkops, the only member of this endemic African family. Then the bird of the trip - Shoebill of course. At first an individual mostly hidden in the reeds, followed by 3 or 4 more, but all in the air, one quite low and others soaring higher overhead. (We would perhaps have gone home slightly disappointed with these views, but the best was to come later at MFNP.)
The Uganda Bird Guides Association has been instrumental in developing this site, enlisting and training local men as bird guides. Hassan himself contributed the land and funds to construct toilet facilities at the boat docking area. All in all a terrific venue.
Then it was off to Kampala for various errands, most importantly changing US dollars into the Ugandan schillings we needed for the remainder of the trip. As we ate lunch at an outdoor restaurant dozens of huge Marabou Storks soared over the city while others patrolled roof tops and ledges of downtown buildings like squads of special security personnel. Two massive birds hunched on the tops of small trees over the sidewalk just above our heads . Finally in late afternoon new tires had been installed on the van and we departed Kampala (fighting through quite fierce rush-hour traffic - and heavy smog) for the 1-2 hour drive east to Jinja, also situated on Lake Victoria, and basically at the source of the Nile River. As we checked into the hotel, right around dusk, many thousands of Straw-colored Fruit Bats were leaving their day roosts in palms bordering the streets and all around the hotel grounds. It is impossible to say how many there were, but it had to be in the high tens of thousands. Quite a sight.
Bird Of The Day - How can I say, having seen no fewer than 4 from my short list of targets already on Day 1!: Great- blue Turaco, African Pygmy-goose, Spur-winged Goose or the fabulous Shoebill?
Day 2: Mabira Forest - Thunder and lightning overnight, but although overcast this morning it was not raining. It took awhile to get breakfast and we departed a bit later than we might have wished. However, just as we were leaving Hassan spotted a Speckled Pigeon perched on the hotel, one of only two we were to see on the trip, and both were on buildings in towns! The drive to Mabira Forest, back in the direction of Kampala, was not long. Abraham (Ibrahim?) was waiting for us and soon we were walking slowly along the forest paths. It did not take long to realize that forest birding is tough here. Anyone without keen and well trained ears would find it very exasperating I think. As it was, Abraham, ever patient and meticulous, soon located two nice birds for us - Fire-crested Alethe and Forest Robin - both lurking in the deep shade of the forest floor. A small group of Black-headed (Red-bellied) Paradise-Flycatchers zoomed back and forth through the thick foliage. Visibility was somewhat less restricted on the wider trail or vehicle track. Two new families for me appeared in the form of (1) Brown-throated and Chestnut Wattle-eyes along with African Shrike-Flycatcher, and (2) Cassin's Honeyguide. Five African Grey Parrots passed overhead. We saw this species only twice more on the trip, unfortunately always flying. It was almost exactly the same story for Afep Pigeon. By contrast, a dazzling African Emerald Cuckoo perched in the open, fairly low, and we were able to study it at length in the scope - by far the best look of the trip, and one of the gaudiest birds one could hope to see. And there were 3 other cuckoos - Klass', Black and the Yellowbill. The first of a quite long trip list of drab, confusing Greenbuls, as well as Tinkerbirds, made their appearance.
Just after noon it began to rain and continued for about 2 hours. So we ate our packed lunch leisurely in the shelter of a circular gazebo type structure, and birded from there. It gave us a good chance to sort through some swallows, and we were pleased to see many White-headed Saw-wings. After a bit more afternoon birding we left for the hotel around 16:30 and ended the day with a good fish dinner.
Throughout the trip we noticed that the forests, although certainly of impressive stature and with complex vertical strata, appeared more orderly, somehow less cluttered than tropical forests, say, in South America. The difference seems to lie in a lower incidence of epiphytic plants (such as bromeliads) in most Ugandan forests. I am not aware of the explanation for this.
Bird Of The Day - Has to be the eye-dazzling African Emerald Cuckoo.
Day 3: Mabira Forest - All lights in the lobby and restaurant were still off when we came down for breakfast, so some birding from our balcony overlooking the Nile. Seven species of herons were in view and we saw 10 Darters flying up and down the river. Eventually we set off for Mabira Forest once more, in a steady rain. It was still coming down when we arrived, so we sat in the shelter again until, around 10:30, it cleared enough for us to start birding, this time along a road off the main highway. An early highlight was two Forest Woodhoopoes, representing another endemic African family. They stayed high in the canopy though, and kept moving (as we subsequently found most members of the family are prone to do), but we got decent looks and of course were pleased. Birding was by no means what could be even remotely termed hectic, but good new species did keep turning up: the lovely Black-billed Turaco, Crowned Hornbill, Greater Honeyguide, Grey-headed and White-breasted Negrofinches to name a few, and we also saw Grey-cheeked Mangabeys and several Red-tailed Monkeys. In keeping with Abraham's extremely patient approach to forest birding, we spent a long time waiting by a forest pool, where we eventually ate lunch. Birds remained scarce but in one of those coincidences that happen with birders, we became aware of some bright red and black estrildid finches building a nest on a small shrubby island in the pool. And there were others flitting about the vicinity, though staying hidden surprisingly well for such colorful birds. I only gradually clued in to the realization that there were, in fact, two species: Red-headed Bluebill and Black-bellied Seedcracker, both very beautiful, both keenly anticipated before the trip, and the only sightings we had for either species.
We were subjected to another hour of rain between 14:30 and 15:30. But after this we lost no more additional time to rain for the remainder of the trip. We now changed locations, heading off the track along a narrow forest trail. As we walked in we heard what must have been a true forest giant crashing to the ground off to our left. I thought to myself that I'd never before seen or heard a tree just keeling over like that on its own, and this was not to be the first time. Abraham was not fooled, and he set off cautiously through the forest in the direction of the sound. After a short while, he called out a few times excitedly, and Hassan set off in his direction on the run. Abraham had surprised three tree poachers and he shouted in different directions to make them think several other rangers were nearby. Soon, out came Abraham and Hassan carrying a beat-up old axe and a very long saw blade (with no handles at all) the men were about to use to saw the tree into planks to sell. They fled, but if they had been caught they apparently could have faced jail sentences of up to 20 years!
We then spent a little time calling White-spotted Flufftails by a tiny creek meandering through the forest. As always, the flufftail(s) answered. Incessantly! But seeing them is a whole different matter. Eventually I could see motion, something zipping back and forth through the thick ground layer of plants. And once I might even have seen some rufous and black color. But that was all for today.
Back to Kampala for the night, arriving in time for another nerve-jangling traffic hour. Hassan looks extremely even tempered, laid back, even jovial. But he is no shrinking violet in traffic! Without changing his expression one iota he turns the vehicle into any minuscule crack between cars, then just eases his way in. That is how it is done in Kampala. We are pleased not to hear any sound of metal crunching metal. We got to the hotel at 19:00, just in time for a power outage, though it was blessedly brief. The neatest thing here, in downtown Kampala, standing beside an unfinished concrete swimming pool (I think) with a bit of foul water near the bottom, was an adult Hadada Ibis. I crept up for the best look of the entire trip, when it took off with great wing-flapping, screaming like someone about to have his throat slit (they always do this).
Bird Of The Day - The Forest Woodhoopoes, though with strong honorable mentions to the Bluebill and Seedcracker.
Day 4: Kampala To Murchison Falls NP - We emerged from the lobby with our gear just as Hassan pulled up to fetch us, and so were away close to 08:00. More heavy traffic and smog, finally clearing Kampala about 08:45. By 10:45 the character of the countryside changed noticeably, becoming less treed until we were in partly open acacia bush dotted with huge clumps of Euphorbia, seemingly very similar to a potted plant we keep at home. By 11:30 we were into more rolling countryside. Traffic became soothingly sparse. We sailed through an army checkpoint, and a little later passed the rusting hulk of an old armoured tank by the roadside that Hassan said dated from the Amin years. We stopped often for raptors: Western Banded and Brown Snake-Eagles, Wahlberg's Eagle, Grasshopper Buzzard, the lovely little Grey Kestrel and strange Bataleur with its striking pattern and weird proportions (eg, no tail worth mentioning). A 20 minute walk in the acacias stretched into close to an hour and a half. We saw the spectacular White-crested Turaco and several Speckled Mousebirds, another endemic African family that I had been looking forward to. Also, Hassan spotted a Cobra meandering across some open ground. Thinking of the rather sluggish Python we had seen in India (but don't ask me why) I decided to step closer for a better look. This was a mistake for the Cobra shifted into high gear, racing into the nearest clump of acacias at a high rate of speed, thus ruining our viewing and Hassan's attempt to take video footage. I was totally amazed at how fast it could go. I recall reading that aggressive cobras in India actually chase people but I sort of discounted much potential for risk. Now I'm not so sure.
We were now behind schedule, compounded by a late, slow lunch at Masindi. It was then a mad dash into MFNP, passing at least 100 Olive Baboons on the way. Immediately past the park entrance on the road was of one of the top highlights of the entire trip, for me anyway - a pair of huge, gangly, homely Abyssinian Ground-Hornbills. One captured some sort of small creature, tossed it into the air with its massive bill, caught it in the back of its mouth, and then down the hatch it went with a big swallow. Real characters, big thrill. Looking far ahead we could see the brick-red road snaking through the rolling acacia bushland and savannah, up through a series of gentle hills or terraces and then disappearing into the hazy distance. It was a fine sight and it felt like we had really arrived in the east Africa of TV programs and picture books.
At 17:00 we left our baggage at the Sambiya River Lodge and set out for the falls. But it is impossible for a party of birders to rush through this fabulous park. Mega birds came one after the other: an impressively big and stolid Stanley (Denham's) Bustard, both Crested and Heuglin's Francolins, and yet two more families endemic to the African continent, represented by flocks of Helmeted Guineafowl racing along like mad in front of the van before finally flying or skittering off to the side, and the brilliant red and black Black-headed Gonolek just as we arrived at the falls, making it four for the day.
The light was already fading, and we had no hope of doing everything in the itinerary. Hassan quickly peeled and quartered a luscious pineapple to snack on as we studied Rock Pratincoles and a pair of Egyptian Geese on rock islands in the middle of the torrent. Two nice birds in a very picturesque setting. The geese seemed to be gleaning tidbits of algae growing on the rock. The falls are more like monstrous rapids through a solid rock gorge, not tremendously steep perhaps but with a huge amount of water surging through. We climbed to a vantage point above to await the bat spectacle but we were not the only observers. Soon a thin flying wedge emerged below us out of the cave(s) that within 15 seconds was transformed into a sky literally full of bats. Seemingly millions of wings propelled warm, dank, smelly air up the cliff face to where we stood. Then our fellow watchers swung into action - at least 7 species of raptors who had also been waiting patiently. In the pandemonium 4 species, at least, made captures, including a Palmnut Vulture! I missed a Bat Hawk in all the commotion. I am not sure how many species of bats were present, nor how many tens of thousands there were.
It had been a long, eventful day already, but we were not finished by a long shot. It was now almost dark, so we started slowly back to the lodge along the dirt road, spot lights at the ready. No nightjars initially, but we saw a few Uganda Grass-Hares and then a little, rotund, slow moving Rock Hyrax. It is hard to believe hyraxes are ungulates, let alone placed next to elephants in most phylogenetic sequences. The first flushing nightjars were Long-taileds. Then the lodestone - a nightjar in the headlights, breast-down on the track, and with curious dark spots behind and a bit off to each side of the bird, also lying on the road. When the nightjar flew the 2 dark objects also took to the air, trailing along behind and following the wings perfectly, but seemingly not attached although of course they were. In all we saw 3 of these terrific Standard-winged Nightjars - like something out of Believe it or not.
Bird Of The Day - It has to be the Ground-Hornbill but it wasn't getting any easier. In Uganda I don't think there is such a thing as a bird of the day.
Day 5: MFNP, South of the Nile - Away from the lodge by 07:30, we birded slowly back over the same ground as yesterday to the falls where we arrived about 10:30. Interesting birds included White-shouldered Black-Tit, Black-crowned Tchagra, Senegal and White-browed Coucals, Yellow-billed Shrike, and the common but lovely little Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu which I remember very well as a cage bird I kept as a young boy (although maybe I shouldn't admit to it). After a brief walkabout, and seeing a Spotted Mourning-Thrush at very close range, we trod the long, hot trail leading to the river bank below the falls. The riverine habitat was thick bushy scrub in some areas and taller, almost gallery forest in others, all of it quite dry. Birds here were tough to see well. I just managed a glimpse of the pretty Brown Twinspot. Finally we came to a treed ravine where a small stream joined the river valley at right angles and we set about carefully searching the largest trees for our main target bird of the day. We worked our way along the stream away from the Nile, without success. Part of the time we walked on broad dusty paths worn almost as smooth as pavement. Large numbers of Hippos have packed down these trails over time as they forage inland from the river every night. Just when my attention began to flag a bit 2 big very reddish birds flushed from a tree. A short follow-up stalk yielded a brief but satisfactory view of a Pel's Fishing-Owl perched in the bright sunshine. A great tick. Then the long walk back to the top of the falls, and to the lodge for a late lunch at 14:30.
Today as we drove along the tracks south of the Nile we could see that large areas of the park had been recently burned, I am assuming from fires set deliberately as a habitat management practice. Late this evening some were still glowing in the dark distance. In the morning it took me awhile to figure out what all the fine black debris floating in the swimming pool was! In many places the ground was still black while elsewhere rich new green grass had sprouted. Grazing mammals as well as birds obviously cue on these areas. Today and over the next two days we saw such burnt grassland specialists (or opportunists) as Temminck's Courser, Caspian Plover and 4 other lapwings: Senegal, African Wattled, Black-headed and Brown-chested , the latter known as a Lake Mburo specialty but we saw them quite well and with Senegals nearby for comparison. All very nice.
After checking out of Sambiya River Lodge we proceeded northwards to the ferry. Halfway across the Nile we spotted 4 African Clawless Otters (according to Hassan) swimming and diving their way upriver. On the north bank we checked into the comfortable Paraa Lodge just before dark. A second floor balcony dining area overlooking the Nile at sunset provided an extremely scenic and soothing end to another great day in Uganda.
Bird Of The Day - Perhaps a slightly easier choice today. Although no long intimate views: Pel's Fishing Owl.
Days 6 and 7: MFNP, North Of The Nile - We had two whole days to wander the game tracks of this wonderful park. North of the Nile the landscape has an even more spacious character, largely open savannah or was it sparsely treed grassland? We set out at 07:40 and immediately started running into new birds, in many cases ones we would not see elsewhere such as: a great perched Dark Chanting-Goshawk, Tawny and Steppe Eagles, Pied (Black-and-white) Cuckoo, Abyssinian Roller, Silverbird, Rufous Sparrow and Speckle-fronted and Northern Brown-throated Weavers. We ran into flocks of 100 Red-billed Queleas and added Mariqua and Beautiful Sunbirds. Numerous Flappet Larks jumped up beside the van, a Black-bellied Bustard skulked in dead grass, and we saw 3 species of Thick-knees: Senegal, Spotted and Water, the first two encountered only at MFNP. Green Woodhoopoes on both days were a treat.
Approaching the track bordering the Albert Nile we were lucky to see 3 Blue Quail scurry between clumps of acacia brush, then explode into the air when Hassan jumped out of the van and sprinted towards them. Not a great look, but a bird I had wanted to see. Wetland along the river's edge produced good water birds, including 4 stork species. In particular we got extended point-blank looks at 2 feeding Saddle-bills, certainly the gaudiest, most colorful stork I have seen to date. Goliath Herons were impressive (as the name would suggest), there were several attractive Black Crakes, and the first Sacred Ibises. And we were fortunate to view a staid Shoebill through the scope for a long time, standing as immobile as a garden statue in the Papyrus reeds. Both days here we found lovely Patas Monkeys in the bush a bit back from the river.
In many ways MFNP is almost more about charismatic African mammals. There is no hope of adequately summarizing all we saw. Giraffes are among the most quintessential, knock-out African beasts. We saw 150+ on Day 6, many of them in their characteristic stiff-legged, slow motion walk through the picturesque Borassus Palm savannah. Ugandan giraffes are of the Rothschild type which has particularly rich and bold dark chocolate brown markings. And with them came a bird we had expected, but very much wanted to see - Yellow-billed Oxpeckers rode on the backs of the giraffes and clung to their sides.
Elephants were another huge highlight. Perhaps the most interesting views for me were of a small group of 8 or so resting in the shade of acacias during mid day. Some occasionally reached up with trunks to gather in leaves and twigs, but mostly they just stood there, fussing restlessly. One foot always seemed lifted off the ground, swinging slowly back and forth; huge ears were more or less constantly in motion (cooling function?); and of course their trunks too, sniffing the air, taking up then blowing dust, groping their companions and so on. Rather than nervous behavior per se I assume this is just how elephants spend quiet time. Right in the middle, mostly hidden under a particularly huge belly, was a baby - who had lots of cool shade.
We saw at least 600 African (Cape) Buffalo on Day 6. On both Days 6 and 7 we estimated 500+ Kob, a lovely lithe and graceful antelope of warm fawn color, graceful horns, whitish spectacles and neat black and white markings on their lower legs. Shaggy Waterbucks were less abundant but widespread. They also have impressive horns, and with their thick-looking coats they would not have seemed out of place alongside White-tailed Deer in a snowy southern Ontario cattle pasture. The antelope type ungulates were rounded out by Bush (Common) Duiker, Oribi, a few Bushbuck, and up to 100 stately but somehow incongruous looking Kongoni (Hartebeest).
I would think everyone visiting Africa for the first time has Lions in mind. We certainly did, and we spent quite a long time looking for some. Eventually Chris, our armed guard, spotted a lone female lying on charred debris from a recent burn. Evidently there were cubs nearby, for she was clearly lactating. She lay there seemingly quite relaxed, but when we edged too close she got up, walked a few yards away, and plunked down beside a blackened termite hill, now determinedly facing in the opposite direction from us.
On the afternoon of Day 7 we boated part way up the Victoria Nile towards the falls, but did not make it quite there because of motor trouble. Just when we were well underway the heavens opened up and although there was a bit of an awning overhead, it was obviously meant to keep out the sun, not (torrential) rain. Everyone got drenched, but once it started to warm up again it felt rather refreshing. My notebook was soaked, but thankfully remained legible after drying out later at the lodge. Unfortunately the rain was near its peak when 4 Northern Carmine Bee-eaters were spotted, which would have been even more beautiful in sunlight. On the other hand a Giant Kingfisher held tight to its perch over the water as we inched by closer than 10m, and then for most of another even closer pass before it lost its nerve. Altogether on this day we saw upwards of 35 beautifully marked African Fish-Eagles, becoming a common but always impressive sight and sound.
A lone Elephant on shore chose the exact moment we were passing to reach up with its trunk and casually pull over a tree close to 15 cm in diameter. We could clearly hear the tree crack in two near the ground. I had read what seemed to be apocryphal stories about the size of Nile Crocodiles. They are not exaggerated - those things are huge! We saw about 50 along the shore. Typically they rushed down the bank from their resting places as the boat passed by, cannon-balling into the river with a great splash clearly audible over the motors. Hippos stretched along the entire shoreline, usually just humps projecting above the water, tiny erect ears pricked up, big bulbous eyes fixed on the boat and nostrils positioned right at the water line. At some apparently predetermined distance they disappear, straight down into the river (like darters do). Back at the docks a Hippo munched on short grass in a kind of park area beside the river, apparently not too concerned with the noise and activity of vehicles coming off the ferry, local people filling big yellow water containers from the river, and tourists (us) taking photos.
Birds Of The Days - Day 6: We saw Blue-naped Mousebirds better than Blue Quail.
Day 7: If I hold over Shoebill from Day 1, it now goes here - a seriously impressive standing bird. But the Giant Kingfisher was also great.
Day 8: MFNP to Kanyo Pabidi in Budongo Forest - An early departure from the lovely Paraa Lodge and to the ferry dock before 07:00, where the friendly Hippo was having breakfast. Two African Skimmers flew upriver as we waited. Across the river by 07:30 and on our way south. Bird activity was high, but we pressed on, arriving at Kanyo Pabidi at 08:45. As we passed into forested habitat from the more open bushland we came across a flock of lovely Crested Guineafowl on the road. They seem shyer than Helmeteds and prefer forest or at least thick bush. In a case of overlapping designations Kanyo Pabidi is within the (greater) Murchison Falls Conservation Area but functionally part of the Budongo Forest Reserve. Right on cue 2 drab Puvel's Illadopses responded to the tape, giving satisfactory views. This is its only known site in east Africa. We then set out on a trail, part of a grid of trails laid out at right angles to each other. Evidently Kanyo Pabidi has never been logged, and very impressive it was. But seeing birds was another matter. Once again it was impressed on us how difficult forest birding can be; tough going indeed without a really top notch guide. Eventually our enthusiasm waned and we returned to the compound to eat our packed lunch. Along the road here we saw our only Western Olive-Sunbird of the trip.
Leaving the forest we stopped along the road to buy lovely woven baskets from Ednah Byabau of the Boomu Women's Group. Then it was southwards perhaps 40-50 km along the single lane red dirt road to Masindi where we checked into the hotel. Hassan went off on some sort of lengthy errands, including arranging a guide for tomorrow. The rest of us birded casually on the hotel grounds and vicinity, without seeing a great deal. However, Meyer's (Brown) Parrots perched in trees in the courtyard, huge Marabous stalked the grounds, two pairs of Grey Woodpeckers displayed and we had leisure time to study Ruppell's and Lesser Blue-eared Glossy-Starlings on the lawn.
Bird Of The Day: I think Crested Guineafowl - a lovely representative of this endemic African family
Day 9: The Royal Mile of Budongo Forest - Away from the hotel at 06:30, arriving at the Royal Mile at 07:20 after picking up our guide Joshua. On our way we got perhaps our best look of the trip at the exotic looking African Paradise-Flycatcher as well as African Pygmy-Kingfisher. The famous Royal Mile is a broad path capable of accommodating a vehicle and running through magnificent broad-leaved forest. With the understorey trimmed back an additional few meters, visibility is, relatively speaking, good. There was a fair bit of foot and bicycle traffic, and a few pickup trucks. We started rather slowly, but in the end we saw many good forest birds, better by quite a bit than yesterday at Kanyo Pabidi. Two early highlights were the lovely Blue-breasted and Chocolate-backed Kingfishers. Although we could not entice it into view Nahan's Francolin called frequently, and close. And at one point several Crested Guineafowl called in alarm, with much fluttering and swaying of understorey vegetation - a predator nearby, but we could not see it. We got very nice looks at Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush and several Chestnut-capped Flycatchers (an interesting looking Monarch). White-thighed Hornbill was new, rivalling its close cousin Black-and-white Casqued, but seemingly far less common. Several true flycatchers along with Black-capped and Grey Apalis rounded out the morning for birds. We brought our list of monkeys to 7 with Gentle (Blue) and Vervet as well as very nice views of Guereza Colobus. It was becoming rather hot as we ate our box lunch, but just then 2 large Crowned Hawk-Eagles (African Crowned Eagle) cruised overhead.
We moved along to a woodland stream for 1-2 hours during the heat of the day. Sabine's Spinetails and Black Saw-wings were identified overhead. White-spotted Fufftails called continually, and after everyone else had given up Candy was finally rewarded with a great look at one climbing over the water plants clogging the stream.
Bird Of The Day: The Flufftail made it easy for Candy. For me, likely the delicately beautiful Blue-breasted Kingfisher.
Day 10: Butiaba Escarpment - Today we drove westwards from Masindi through mile upon mile of sugar cane, representing all stages from just-planted to fully mature, awaiting the torch before harvest. Only a very few small patches of remnant forest stuck out of the highly agriculturalized landscape. Presently we began to climb, the land becoming progressively drier and more sparsely vegetated with grass and acacia thickets, and in places rock outcrops projected from the hillsides. Lots of goats. Hassan knew where to stop for the specialties, for example 6 Foxy Cisticolas after a fair bit of rummaging over the hot, rough ground; 10 Cinnamon-breasted Rock-Buntings; tiny colorful Red-winged Pytilias; as many as 15 of the rather smart Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weavers; our only Western Violet-backed Sunbirds of the trip; and I happened upon a knock-out Violet-backed Starling in full sunlight. Somewhere along here was the only Brown-backed Woodpecker of the trip.
Then it was steeply down the escarpment for lunch at Butiaba village, spread over a narrow sandy peninsula jutting into Lake Albert. Obviously Butiaba is primarily a fishing village, for we saw what seemed like acres of fish, tiny to large, lying in the sun to dry. They sent up quite an aroma for those who like myself are not accustomed to the smell. Thus, I went easy on lunch today at a little restaurant-bar on the shore of the lake, where Hassan played pool with the locals, who, in turn, studied us closely, as we viewed the waders and terns.
We retraced our steps steeply up, then more gently back down the escarpment towards Masindi. We took another crack at the only bird of note we had dipped on in the morning. More scrambling over steep goat trails with loose stones. But it paid off when Hassan spotted 2 attractive Mocking Cliff-Chats on a rock outcrop below us in a very steep ravine. We got back to the Busingiro section of Budongo Forest in time for a short spurt of birding. A beautiful Nairina Trogon was a definite highlight and in the few minutes available we also added our only Spotted Greenbuls and Golden-crowned (Yellow-crested) Woodpecker. A kettle of 43 Eurasian (Common) Buzzards over Busingiro showed that hawk migration was already in progress.
Bird Of The Day: My turn for White-spotted Fufftail, at a small stream crossing at Busingiro. I'm not sure I ever quite saw the whole bird at once, but at different times I saw rich chestnut, and deep black with contrasting white spots.
Day 11: Masindi To Ft Portal and Kibale National Park - A fairly long travel day. We got away at 07:45 on an overcast, and therefore comfortable day. Not long into the journey we stopped for 25+ Pin-tailed Whydahs, and our last endemic African family (Viduidae). We passed through Hoima at 09:00 and some 20-30 km later stopped where the road traversed a huge Papyrus swamp. Several small creeks percolated through the reed bed and under the road. Hassan got the tape recorder in operation and soon we were on to 3 White-winged Warblers, one of the Papyrus specialties. Then a pair of fantastic Papyrus Gonoleks came into the tape: pale eyes peering through the canes, black backs, red underparts, yellow heads, and a few contrasting white highlights. We were also treated to a close-up rendition of their loud duetting song and impudent scolding call notes.
The still one-lane dirt road became a bit wet and slippery from light showers as we continued southwards, leaving scrub and starting to climb into forested hills. At noon we stopped at an agricultural college to buy several luscious pineapples and the always tasty small bananas for snacks. Black-and-white Shrike Flycatcher, Tropical Boubou and African Stonechat were seen along the road. At 13:45 near Kyenjojo we emerged onto an unexpected paved road and by 14:30 were in Ft Portal for a late but good lunch. We then checked into the scenic Rwenzori Guest House, like a small motel with family style dining. On the grounds we quickly saw Variable, Green-headed and Northern Double-collared Sunbirds in the flowering shrubbery.
Then it was out of town for some late afternoon birding along the highway through Kibale NP. We saw several species not yet encountered: Blue-throated Roller, Joyful Greenbul, Sooty Flycatcher, White-chinned Prinia and Luehder's Bushshrike, and we also added another new primate - 25 Central African Red Colobus monkeys seen at quite close quarters. We broke off at 19:00 and headed back to Ft Portal for dinner.
Bird Of The Day: No hesitation here - Papyrus Gonolek.
Day 12: Kibale NP and environs - Elevation at Ft Portal and Kibale NP is in the range of 1500-1800m, and the air definitely felt clearer and fresher here. We left the guest house at 06:30, but 10 minutes out of town we had to retrace our steps to fill up with petrol. To the park by 07:40, then a longish wait until we started our walk to look for Chimpanzees at 08:30. But we were able to study Black-headed (Yellow-backed) and nesting Black-necked Weavers around the buildings. We drove to a jump-off point and finally set off on foot along a dark damp trail through mature, tall, thick-canopied forest. Among other birds we were looking for pittas and as at most other forest sites it was tough-going. The only bird of any note we saw was Scaly-breasted Illadopsis. Much wandering to and fro, on and off various trails, and a lot of radio talk with another Chimp seeking group. At length we came to the spot where a group of 5 Chimps were very high in huge trees - 2 females with one youngster each, and a teenager. It was difficult to see much way up there through the thick foliage. At one point we had views of the 2 young animals engaged in a bit of rough-housing, hanging from branches perhaps 35 m above the ground and kicking their legs out at each other! From what we could see their mothers ignored this. Eventually the small troop moved on and we had momentary decent looks at them all.
Some good goat stew with rice along with the requisite Nile Specials for lunch at the small outdoor park restaurant. Then to some predominantly cleared agricultural land just outside the park with an eager and personable young guide named Benson Bamutura, who showed us some nice birds: White-headed Barbet, Yellow-whiskered Bulbul, African (Dark-capped) Yellow Warbler, African Penduline-Tit, the dark rich-toned Bronze Sunbird, Purple-banded Sunbird, Sulphur-breasted Bushshrike and Black-crowned Waxbill to name a few. The community-run Bigodi wetland was next on the agenda. Birds were all over along the road and the trail through fields and banana plantations to the swamp: Levaillant's Cuckoo, Gabon Woodpecker (although Benson said it did not occur here and must be a Speckle-breasted, but Hassan and I saw it quite well), Red-faced Cisticola, the loud Grey-capped Warbler, Snowy-crowned (headed) Robin-Chat, Brown-backed Scrub-Robin, Copper Sunbird and Brown-crowned Tchagra. Unfortunately, we ran out of daylight before we ran out of birds, and before we could walk along the board- walk into the Papyrus swamp.
We decided to stay at the park for a night walk. In the event we shone our spotlights at a lot of trees to little end, seeing no mammals at all. But finally there was an Owl, perched calmly on a moss-encrusted limb. Its identification was the subject of debate for days afterwards. Those who favoured African Wood-Owl over Red-chested Owlet (admittedly this sounds weird) were subsequently vindicated when we later saw both of these species, at Ruhiza and Buhoma in Bwindi INP, respectively. A startled Shikra was also spotlighted on its roost, but it stayed put. We continued spotlighting during the hour's drive back to Ft Portal, seeing 3 African Civets in the process. Supper and the list at 22:00, making for a long day, beginning at 06:30 and finally to bed at 00:00.
Bird Of The Day: Perhaps the strangely proportioned, big-eyed Black-and-white Shrike-Flycatcher.
Day 13: Ft Portal to Semliki NP - During planning stages we were uncertain whether to include Semliki in our itinerary, axing but then adding it again because the list of specialties seemed too good to miss. Although we left the guest house at a reasonable time events conspired against us. It turned out that a stabilizer bracket needed replacing on the van. None were in stock, but a facsimile was manufactured on the spot. We also had to wait until our box lunches were made, the van needed gas (the men rocking it to shake in every last drop), and there were other errands to take care of. Candy, Sandra and Laird went browsing in stores, and saw a pair of spectacular Ross' Turacos in a downtown tree! Finally we departed Ft Portal at 11:00, ticking Mosque Swallow at the edge of town, then crawling slowly west and north along a very rough road. Through hills supporting either naturally dry scrub or which were heavily deforested, or perhaps a bit of both, and arriving at the Sempaya station of the park at 13:10.
Following lunch we walked the trail to the hot springs, part of the way through wettish, dark swamp-like forest with numerous palms. Eventually we re-emerged on the main road where there was more typical mature, broad-leaved forest. We continued birding here until 17:30. The afternoon was close to a total washout. The only birds of note were Three-banded Plover at the foul sulfury-smelling, steaming hot springs, and Black-casqued (Wattled) and Piping Hornbills. With no accommodation nearby we commuted to Bundibugyo, taking almost an hour, where we eventually found the Vanilla Hotel, A tropical paradise in Bundibugyo town said the sign although it could be argued that this was perhaps a bit of an overstatement, despite our having the benefit of their executive suites. The menu was more goat stew, accompanied by Nile Specials.
Bird Of The Day: Since I saw neither Ross' Turaco nor Black-casqued Hornbill I don't know - maybe Three-banded Plover?
Day 14: Semliki NP - Away from the Vanilla at 07:20, arriving at the park at 08:10. In the morning we again walked to the hot springs. This time I did see Black-casqued Hornbill and we recorded 50 distant flying Rameron (Olive) Pigeons. At the hot springs themselves was a Mountain Wagtail. Upon walking back out on the road Hassan heard a Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill calling up the steep hill on the other side. We clambered upwards for perhaps half an hour without a glimpse. Instead I saw the very briefest flicker of a Red-capped Robin-Chat vacating its perch. Then as we walked back to Sempaya headquarters along the road we had decent looks at Yellow-throated Nicator, one of the Semliki specialties. Perhaps the best bird was an immature accipiter we saw not long after entering the hot springs trail. We saw it in flight and perched twice on quite open branches beneath the canopy. It was fairly large, about the size of a female Cooper's Hawk at home, and it should have been the Long-tailed Hawk. Hassan himself was convinced it was, but the rest of us were concerned that the tail was not long enough, nor with the correct graduated shape.
At 12:45 we set off on the Kirumia River trail. For anyone wanting a chance at Hartlaub's Duck, as I very much did, don't even bother to think about it unless you have at least a full day, preferably two, because it is a long way in to the river crossings. I think you pretty well have to camp out for a night. As it was, we slogged along for 5-6 hours, part of the way through mud and water, to very little effect indeed. We saw the normally gorgeous Black Bee-eater, but at a distance and in bad light so it was closer to a dark silhouette. There was Xavier's Greenbul, and at one point a francolin flushed just ahead which mercifully flew away from us along the trail rather than directly into the forest, so I could tell it was a female Forest Francolin. During lunch break I meandered around a bit and blundered into a Long-tailed Cuckoo which I took to be the Barred. There was not much more. Hassan saw a Blotched Genet dart across the trail, the rest of us saw its tracks. We walked back out and finally departed for Ft Portal at 18:10, arriving there at 20:10. This seemed more logical than going in the opposite direction to Bundibugyo then retracing our route in the morning and losing valuable time in the process. The Rwenzori Guest House was full but Hassan found suitable alternative accommodation for us.
No doubt Semliki was simply a case of bad luck for us. We saw very few from the long list of park specialties. Here more than at most sites the lack of on-site accommodation forced a long commute, and hence lost birding time. With the benefit of hindsight Candy and I would be tempted to try the bandas in the parks and forest reserves, where available. It might well be worth sacrificing some creature comforts for the extra birding time, especially in the critical early morning and evening hours, and we would have eagerly welcomed the chance for more night walks to look for nocturnal birds and mammals.
Bird Of The Day: Likely most would opt for Black Bee-eater, but I am tempted to go for Forest Francolin, despite the quick in-flight-only look.
Day 15: Ft Portal To Queen Elizabeth NP - We had been waiting quite a while for Hassan outside the hotel so the hostess decided to call him on her cell phone, to discover that he was having the van fixed again, this time a broken spring leaf had to be replaced. Repairs completed, we departed Ft Portal at 09:15, proceeding southwards. At 10:30 we stopped at some acacia for half an hour and picked up a new turaco in the form of several large and nicely marked Bare-faced Go-away-birds and we also saw Green-winged Pytilia here. KNP and QENP abut along an east-west line near Kasese. A road sign said it is only 102 km from Ft Portal to QENP but it was not until 12:20 that we arrived at the park, where we settled into the quite luxurious Mweya Safari Lodge. As we were signing in we casually studied a family of Swamp Flycatchers - in the lobby, where adults were feeding young perched on the backs of chairs and sofas in front of the fireplace! The staff's attitude was refreshing - they paid no attention, although the next day I did notice someone scrubbing out spots on the upholstery.
In the afternoon we drove to lakes Katwe and Munyanyange northwest of Mweya near the village of Katwe, apparently within the park. Hassan spotted a Little Bittern perched in the reeds where it proceeded to preen for some time. Next day a Black Heron (Egret) was there. Many Palaearctic migrant sandpipers waded amongst the huge-horned cattle grazing by the lake shore. A new shorebird for the trip was the neat Kittlitz's Plover. Best of all for me were 25 tiny and immaculate Hottentot Teal at the lake edge, and for good measure we saw a couple of Comb (Knob-billed) Ducks.
Bird Of The Day: Hottentot Teal made this easy today.
Days 16 and 17: Queen Elizabeth National Park - On both days we were away from the lodge at 06:20 and drove along the Kasenyi Track. On the second morning a pair of Verreaux's Eagle-Owls paused on the tops of some acacias as the red sun showed over the horizon. Herds of tawny-colored Kob glowed spectacularly in the soft early morning light now illuminating the savannah and grassland. Quite a distance off Hassan spotted a Leopard and very close to it, a Spotted Hyaena (and 1 or 2 others not far away). It was obvious that some sort of a not too friendly interaction was in progress. The Leopard alternately faced the Hyaena, its tail flicking irritably, then it would start to walk away. In tandem, the Hyaena would retreat a few steps then gambol forward to follow the Leopard. Finally the Leopard crouched low in the dead grass, only its twitching tail really showing. Then it charged the Hyaena. Unfortunately the chase proceeded out of view, behind a big clump of acacias. But the Hyaena howled and after a bit the Leopard reappeared, now walking sedately away, its tail in a graceful, relaxed curve, before finally disappearing into more acacias. The Hyaena also reappeared, limping quite badly. It now made no effort to follow the Leopard. On both mornings we saw a lioness with her 5 well-grown cubs in the same area. Mostly they lazed about, finally walking slowly off to get away from the attention.
QENP proved good for grassland birds: soaring White-headed and White-backed Vultures, numerous Red-necked Francolins (Spurfowl), Small (Common) Buttonquail running or flushing from the track edge as the van went by, 2 more Black-bellied Bustards, Rufous-naped and Red-capped Larks, Long-billed Pipit, displaying Wind-snapping Cisticolas, Red-backed (White-browed) Scrub-Robin (in dry scrub at the Katunguru Gate), our only Black Bishop of the trip, and African Firefinch at the air strip. In the afternoon of Day 16 we took a delightful launch ride along the Kazinga Channel (which connects lakes Edward and George). More tremendous looks at Hippos and Buffalos, with many Oxpeckers climbing about, and typical water birds. New birds included 4 African Spoonbills and about 20 Collared Pratincoles. Elephants seemed more abundant than in MFNP, though we did not spend much time with them. One somewhat curious thing was that primates were very inconspicuous wherever we went in QENP - we saw only 1 Guereza Colobus monkey during our entire stay.
The normal activity pattern for the humans was to return from the morning drive, eat a late breakfast or early lunch, or sometimes both, then catch a siesta or swim in the pool during the hottest hours (the equator runs right through the park just to the north of Mweya Lodge) before heading out again around 15:30 for another game drive. That did not mean there was no wildlife to see, however:
(1) I got to meet a well-mannered Warthog off our patio overlooking the Kazinga Channel this way, up close and personal. She cajoled me into scratching her ears, first standing quietly, then resting on her stomach, then rolling over flat on her side all the better to enjoy it. She had warts and caruncles and bristles projecting from all over her head (plus those sharp tusks!). The bony ridges around her eyes protruded perhaps a bit too much, and she had a good coating of dried mud from recent wallowing which made her a bit smelly. But she was lovable and attractive in her own way and we called her Miss Sweetiepie.
(2) At one of our late breakfasts we were visited by a mob of some 25+ Banded Mongooses. They seemed to appear from nowhere and were suddenly swarming all around the tables, investigating every single object on the patio, pushing into ruck sacks and so on. I found out that they very much liked bits of scrambled egg, up to five of them sitting in an upright semicircle and reaching out reasonably politely for tidbits from my hand. I also found that they test-nibbled everything that looked remotely edible, including toes sticking out of sandals and fingers offering food. In the absence of mongooses Slender-billed and Black-headed (Yellow-backed) Weavers normally scrounged crumbs around the outdoor dining tables.
(3) Walking back to our room for a nap I saw people standing in front of our room, gesticulating and talking excitedly while they photographed something just over the door. Here was a Green Mamba grasping a gecko it had just caught, gripping it sideways as the gecko struggled at first but then quietened down as the venom took effect. Very gradually the Mamba pulled its body over the gecko, and finally retreated to a less conspicuous place on a ledge over our doorway where the wall sill and roof beams meet. We saw it there for the next two days as we came and went. The Mamba was a brilliant green color with black scales in places, quite beautiful actually, and it did not try to bother us in the least.
(4) On the last evening when we returned from our game drive several people were milling outside the lodge entrance, peering into a garden area surrounded by hedges. We were told that a Warthog had been killed the night before by a Leopard (not Miss Sweetiepie I hope) and that the Leopard, accompanied by her 2 cubs, was currently in the garden area. Apparently the female had appeared at the opening twice, but retreated each time. Again, no one at the lodge seemed overly alarmed, although they did keep a close eye on the watchers. We hung around for a little while, but were tired and even hungrier. When we walked back to the lodge for dinner the crowd had drifted away. But next morning Hassan told us that he and Alfred saw the Leopard near dusk as it emerged from the garden and walked past their quarters out into the park. No sign of the cubs though.
Birds Of The Day: Day 17 - Black Heron, and, from a limited field on Day 18 Red-backed Scrub-Robin (or maybe it should be Wing-snapping Cisticola).
Day 18: QENP To Bwindi Impenetrable NP at Ruhiza - We set out at 06:38, continuing our journey southwards, now through the Ishasha portion of QENP, and with the superb bird guide Alfred T on board. In the half-light a few minutes from the lodge we saw an African Crake meandering along the track, and not long after a stop at a Papyrus swamp produced brief glimpses of a skulking Carruthers' Cisticola in the still murky light. By 07:30 we were driving through Ishasha, noting Winding Cisticolas on roadside reeds. We stopped to eat our box breakfast at one of the gates into Ishasha and had a nice little run of birds including long scope looks at a Pearl-spotted Owlet in a big acacia, Spot-flanked Barbet, Trilling Cisticola and Black-headed Oriole. We drove some of the game tracks and were soon stopped along side a pair of superb Martial Eagles. Other nice sightings were 2 dove-grey, and very raptor-like (in flight) African Cuckoos, 3 Common Scimitar-bills, Double-tooted Barbet, a White-tailed Lark flying up from the track and Lesser Masked-Weaver. For mammals we saw a lone lioness, but the star attraction was 6 beautifully marked Topi, similar in general body proportions to Kongoni (somehow appearing both stately and a bit awkward at the same time) and also coloring, but with a more intense glossy sheen to the purplish markings of the shoulder and hip areas.
We cleared Ishasha at 12:10 and continued towards the great birding mecca of Bwindi Impenetrable NP. By 14:30 we were climbing towards the Ruhiza ranger station. Gradually hot muggy air felt cooler and fresher. We stopped for a bit in The Neck. On the way up to Ruhiza and descending the next day we saw several nice raptors: African Goshawk, Black Goshawk (Great Sparrowhawk), Augur and Mountain Buzzards, and Ayres's Hawk-Eagle. The road was extremely rough making upwards progress slow but eventually we reached the Institute for Tropical Forest Conservation guest house in time to walk the road for an hour or so before dusk. It was a good initiation to the distinct highland bird community here. Right off we encountered new trip birds: Brown-necked Parrot, the lovely highland-only Cinnamon-breasted Bee-eater, Olive Thrush, White-starred Robin, Red-faced Woodland-Warbler, 4 attractive species of Apalis: Black-faced (Mountain Masked), Chestnut-throated, Black-throated, and Rwenzori (Collared), and, the colorful Regal Sunbird. We did the daily checklist by the dim light of a kerosene lantern (and so entering some ticks in the wrong places and missing others altogether). It must be admitted that the guest house is very basic, but the benefit of being right there in the forest more than makes up for any so-called inconveniences. I would have liked two nights. A short after-dark walk along the road produced good looks at African Wood-Owl and, although we did not see it, we heard Rwenzori Nightjar well. After a tasty meal prepared over a wood fire, to bed.
Bird Of The Day: I want to say Common Scimitar-bill, but the outstanding look at the 2 Martial Eagles tips the balance.
Day 19: Bwindi INP at Ruhiza, descent to Buhoma late in day - We woke to lovely cool temperatures, and soon a gorgeous mountain sunrise complete with welcome bird song, most obvious the Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo. After a good hearty breakfast we were off at 08:12 along the road to the Mubwindi Swamp trail-head. It was to be a long, in places steep and hard walk, but one where good birds appeared regularly, despite a few quiet periods from mid day through early afternoon. The elevation at Ruhiza is given as up to 2607m; Alfred said we covered roughly 1900-2300m during our hike today.
Close to 30 species were new; about 20 of these we would not see again. So, Bwindi is a must on any Ugandan birding itinerary. Albertine Rift endemics (AREs) were conspicuous and are treated below under Buhoma. A few other highlights were: Black Cuckoo, a tremendous close male Nairina Trogon, Tullberg's Woodpecker, Grey Cuckoo-Shrike, African Hill-Babbler, terrific views of Chubb's Cisticola and the gorgeous Doherty's Bushshrike. This is the best place for everybody's main higher elevation target, Grauer's (African Green) Broadbill, but for us it was not to be. Perhaps the star of the day was simply the forest - multiple vistas of steep mountain (big hill?) slopes smothered in a great tangle of multi-layered mature forest. It was good for the soul, even slogging our way back, now mostly uphill. Just as we approached the trail-head for the second time Alfred froze in front of me and I just caught a glimpse of a small, delicate Black-fronted Duiker before it timidly stepped off the trail and melted into the forest.
We got back to the guest house at 16:15 and by 16:35 were on our way down the long bumpy road to Buhoma. We stopped for awhile in the area of The Neck before continuing, finally pulling in to our lodge at @19:30.
Bird Of The Day: Although not an ARE the Doherty's Bushshrike was, briefly, a knockout. Regal Sunbird was nice too.
Days 20, 21 and 22: Bwindi INP at Buhoma - Buhoma is a bit lower than most of Ruhiza, around 1550 m. It too is thickly forested with lots of tree ferns, lianas and very dense shrubbery along the trail edge (hence impenetrable). It didn't appear noticeably different from Ruhiza, although no doubt a vegetation ecologist could point out many distinctions. Our first choice of trails was off limits this morning because gorillas were nearby, so we walked to the Main trail, a wide path leading to a village a few kilometers away. As we approached the entrance Alfred heard chimps call, and right off knew where they would cross the trail (he worked several years as a gorilla guide in the park). We set off at a run, pulling up to watch 4 large chimps cross in front of us, who turned their heads for a quick look in our direction before disappearing into the thick foliage.
Bwindi is reputedly one of the best forest birding sites in all of Africa, so not surprisingly new birds came at a steady clip nearly all day, and the next too when we retraced part of the same trail in the morning. In the order of 35+ predominantly forest species were new for the trip, quite a large number considering the amount of forest birding we had already done. Some of the best for me were: Handsome Francolin calling (like a frog?) then venturing onto the trail in response to the tape before flushing, Red-chested Cuckoo, Red-chested Owlet first calling then plainly in view after Alfred taped it closer, Bar-tailed Trogon, 6 more Black Bee-eaters, White-headed Woodhoopoe (4th member of the family for the trip), Yellow-spotted Barbet (a strikingly beautiful bird), African Broadbill (new family), Petit's Cuckoo-Shrike, Red-throated Alethe, Neumann's (Short-tailed Warbler) - a great look at a confirmed skulker, Equatorial Akalat, Mountain Illadopsis, 3 new starlings (Narrow-tailed, Stuhlmann's and Waller's), the curious and attractive Woodhouse's Antpecker (sure doesn't look like an estrildid), and an immature male Oriole Finch. Among mammals we added 10 lovely L'Hoest's Monkeys. Seven primates for Bwindi, 11 for the trip.
On the afternoon of Day 22 we went looking for open-country birds just outside the park, where we walked through some pasture land with scrubby and wet areas not far from Alfred's home. New birds here were Red-chested Fufftail (heard only despite it moving around the little marsh in response to Alfred's tape), 5 White-winged Black-Tits buzzing around a big spreading shade tree, and Strange and Holub's Golden-Weaver. A pleasant surprise for me was a pair of Bat Hawks at their nest - at MFNP I somehow missed the one that flew into the bat swarm at dusk. Also, while the others tried to catch a glimpse of a reluctant Greater Swamp- (Reed) Warbler in a small wetland Candy and I watched a male Grosbeak Weaver in the initial stages of nest building, ever so patiently trying to get things started by weaving thin threads of something onto a reed with its huge bill. Up till now we had only seen them in flight, each time over forest.
Day 22 was NOT a birding day, but it was the most anticipated, and memorable, of the trip. We gathered at the departure point for Mountain Gorilla trekking at 08:00 and after a nice welcome talk (in which all the very sensible do's and don'ts were explained, twice) we were divided among 3 groups corresponding to the 3 gorilla troops habituated to humans. In our case we drove a short distance, actually out of the park, to a jump-off point and finally 6 of us started walking at 08:53. The fit and lean soldiers and porters carrying lunch gave us a head start then came along behind. At first we walked on smooth wide paths up through a fairly gentle foothill zone, with steps carved into steeper places. Through banana groves and scattered clusters of huts, some mud, others brick; most with thatch roofs, a few of corrugated metal. The trail grew steeper, still traversing cleared ground, but without an obvious crop at the moment. All the land to our left was outside the park and was nearly totally cleared. We angled up and to our right where we could see the forest edge ahead, and thus the park boundary. I don't think I'm in that bad condition, but I got winded as we went upwards and I wondered if it really was that steep or if the excitement kept me from breathing properly. We ran out of trail, now following cut stems left by the trackers a couple of hours earlier, and finally we were crawling over and under creepers and branches, but only for a short distance before halting at 10:07.
The personable young guide sported a nearly constant and winning smile, but now, with a completely deadpan expression he informed us that we only had to go up another steep hill, down it, then up another until we came to the gorillas. It was a joke, but totally wasted because no one so much as flinched at this news - it didn't matter to anyone how far we had to go! The giveaway came when we were then told to put down our hiking staffs and get our cameras ready. At this point I would bet everyone else heard his/her heart start to thump too. The trackers were making soft low sounds that we realized afterwards must be a kind of reassuring or pacifying talk to the gorillas. Still we did not see any. Then the guide and trackers began to delicately push aside and cut a few leaves and branches around a particularly dense thicket, and at 10:08 I realized I was looking at a silverback, slouching with his back to a wall of thick shrubbery and pensively scratching his chin. For the next hour we sat with 10 gorillas, 5-10 m away from us. Just the one silverback, one female with a small but active toddler, and 7 more of various age, sex and size. They were in a lazy rest mode after having eaten breakfast. Some chewed on a few leaves or scraped bark off twigs with their teeth (noticeably yellow). Most just lay about, contentedly staring up at the canopy of leaves. The closest gorilla sleepily closed its eyes and drifted off into a nice relaxed nap. Two sat close together, grooming each other. Candy and I saw one pick at its nose, examine the result on its finger, then, yes, pop it into its mouth. At times a heavy pungent body odour wafted over us, no doubt augmented by fresh dung too.
Perhaps by coincidence the gorillas started to rouse themselves just as the guide murmured that time was up. They started to crawl past us on all fours under the thick tangled vegetation and up the slope. The young gorilla, however, could not resist having a better look. But there are rules about this sort of thing - for example, people and gorillas are not to move closer than 7m (although we already were, a bit). The youngster blithely disregarded this particular edict. It scrambled right up to Candy, looked her in the eye from less than 1m, then turned and followed the others. Without doubt the whole experience was one of those lasting thrills of a lifetime. When our trip ended in Kampala we had an enjoyable chat and refreshments at a golf club with the Ugandan Ambassador to Canada who was home on leave and the General Manager of the Uganda Tourist Board. The latter clearly was somewhat bemused when he related that some people apparently are moved to tears when they see the gorillas. Although no one said so for my part I can empathize with this - it was a very moving experience.
Going down was easier. Now descending back past the houses, young children had laid out their works of art for sale, virtually all of course depicting gorillas in one way or another. It would clearly be wrong to walk by without buying something (and also not to tip the guide, guards and porters at the end of the trek - but some people did not!). The importance of the local people's good will to the gorillas and other wildlife perhaps cannot be over-stressed. Candy bought a great silverback, in crayon. We were back at the vehicle at 12:30. Hassan was waiting but had taken the opportunity to have his own cat-nap. So the guide walked quietly to the open window, reached in and honked the horn, resulting in one of the best startled jumps I've ever seen.
We had the afternoon ahead of us but somehow no one was all that excited about birds, though of course this was only a temporary condition.
Birds Of The Days:
Day 20 - Tough one. I really enjoyed the Woodhouse's Antpecker. Yellow-spotted Barbet was gorgeous.
Day 21 - A great look at Neumann's Warbler, but I'll go for Bat Hawk or the nest-building Grosbeak Weaver.
Day 22 - Did we see any birds? Well, a few, and I remember 2 bulky Thick-billed Seedeaters late in the afternoon along the road near our lodge eating green Rubus fruit, then wiping sticky debris from their bills on the branches. To North Americans they looked and behaved like humungous female Purple Finches.
For Ruhiza and Buhoma combined we saw 19 restricted area Albertine Rift endemics (ARE) out of 26 known for Uganda (20 if we count the Kivu Ground-Thrush heard by Alfred), as follow: Handsome Francolin, Rwenzori Nightjar, Dwarf Honeyguide, Archer's Robin-Chat, Red-throated Alethe, Black-faced (Mountain Masked) Apalis, Rwenzori (Collared) Apalis, Grauer's Warbler, Grauer's Scrub- (Rush) Warbler, Neumann's (Short-tailed) Warbler, Red-faced Woodland-Warbler, Rwenzori Batis, Yellow-eyed Black-Flycatcher, Chapin's Flycatcher, Stripe-breasted Tit, Regal Sunbird, Blue-headed Sunbird, Strange Weaver and Dusky Crimsonwing.
Day 23: Bwindi-Buhoma Through Little Switzerland To Lake Mburo NP - Hassan cuts quite the dashing figure this morning as he waits at the van for us just after 07:00. He has bought a spiffy new wide-brimmed hat somewhere yesterday - in loud, bold, black-and-white Zebra patterns. Cool hat, and I am a little envious. We set off to the southeast on a normal single-lane dirt road through quite hilly countryside. A sign points towards Mgahinga NP and we wish we had time to visit. Another informs us that we are only 24 km from Rwanda. Just then we emerge onto a good paved road, near the town of Kabale. It becomes even hillier, and we are in Uganda's Little Switzerland. Hassan says we reached as high as about 2700m near here. Virtually all the native vegetation has been cleared and the land converted to crops (a lot of vegetable production) and cattle pasture. At @ 2500m two largish black birds on a tree over the road turn out to be White-necked Ravens - good tick. Luckily for me I also catch up with Yellow Bishop a nice bird I had missed previously. Best of all, we round a sharp corner and emerge into bright green pasture where a small stream crosses under the road, and there in among the cattle are maybe 20 Grey Crowned-Cranes. To date we have had only a few distant glimpses of flying birds, but today more than makes up for it. They are full of it, prancing around, pairs breaking into exaggerated mutual head-bobbing followed by jumping, wing-flapping dance routines. Males fly at each other and we can hear wings smacking together. The crests when backlit look like rows of shiny yellow bristles on a plastic broom. And now I know where the inspiration for a hair style currently in vogue among some teen-aged young ladies and men in Canada comes from. Absolutely one of the very top sights of the trip, and easy to understand why this species is Uganda's national bird.
At Kabale we swing to the NE, now onto the 6 to 3 o'clock segment of our counter-clockwise route. About 12:20 the landscape changes. No longer hilly, not so lush, more open, drier; and acacias start showing up. At 13:30 we arrive in Mbarara and check into the hotel. Unfortunately this is another site where we stay too far from the park; it takes almost an hour to reach the turn-off. LMNP is another of the lovely acacia dominated parks, and the winding, rolling road into the park through the bush/woodland and savannah is beautiful. Vegetation here seems a bit more closed, with noticeably less extensive open savannah or grassland than at MFNP or QENP. Here, as I understand it, affinities exist with the Serengeti ecosystems farther east while MFNP tends to share characteristics with the great savannah belt of the Sudan. We stop a few times for new birds: (African) Moustached Grass-Warbler, a fine look at a Croaking Cisticola and 2 Brubrus. Hassan parks the van for a short walk to a sandy dug-out cattle pond where we see a dozen Water Thick-knees. Best though are smallish chunky birds flitting around and perched on the seed heads of rank grass, finally holding still long enough to materialize into dazzling Red-headed Lovebirds. I have already missed this great bird 3 different days! They are brilliant in the strong sunlight, not only the vivid emerald backs but scarlet faces and bright turquoise-blue rump and tail areas with red highlights. They make the illustrations in the guide seem very drab.
It is sometimes hard to know for sure what turns one on to certain birds or other animals. For me a great favorite has always been the zebra. However, there have been times when finally meeting a sought after creature has turned out to be less of a thrill than anticipated. Happily this is not so for zebras. They are fantastic. We estimated @75 in several groups. A small herd trots away then mills together so that fronts, sides and rear-ends are moving and mixing. The black and white stripes continually twist, separate and merge into new abstract patterns, the effect almost psychedelic when zeroed right in through the scope. In my mind I can see big round rumps pointed towards me, heads out to the side and turned back to look at the van, ears erect and with a third central projection like a small horn, which of course are the bristly black manes poking up between the Zebras' ears. I wish we could have stayed longer with them.
As it was we got back to the hotel after dark, into one of those strange coincidences that happen once in a long while. We trudged into the lobby tired and hot when a nice looking young lady steps up to Candy and says AI see you are from Canada@ (she must have spotted a red maple leaf somewhere on a rucksack) and introduced herself - it is Charmaine Crooks, 5 time Olympic runner for Canada! Candy was still under the weather from the bug she picked up at QENP and did not cue in. However, when we came down to do our checklist in the bar there was Charmaine (with Canadian TV people). And also with the great skier Steve Podborski, former world champion down hiller (bronze metal Olympian at Sarajevo and I think the only non-European men's downhill world champion - hope I'm right about this). We went over and got them to sign our bird guides, and Hassan, as always, took video footage. The charitable mission they were on was called ARight to play@.
Bird Of The Day: Zebras don't fly, so I'll pick the fabulous Grey Crowned-Cranes (with special mention to the Lovebirds).
Day 24: Lake Mburo NP - Breakfast is not ready quite on schedule when we come down to the restaurant, followed shortly by Ms Crooks. She stands and surveys the scene briefly then marches into the kitchen area, disappearing within and we can hear Hello! Hello!. We don't get away until 07:30, minus Candy whose bad stomach keeps her in bed today. The entrance road produces excellent close looks at perched African Harrier-Hawk and Black-breasted Snake-Eagle (lucky for me because I missed the only other one of the trip at QENP), and we also finally tick Rueppell's Griffon overhead. It is good to see Crested and Red-necked Francolins again, and Helmeted Guineafowl. Green Woodhoopoes are seen for the third time and Nubian Woodpecker the second. I feel sorry for Candy when we pull up beside a pair of cranes right by the track. They are intent on feeding, extremely beautiful as ever, but no displays today. We take a rather long hot walk through the acacias, seeing very few birds other than Slate-colored Boubou. However, four ghostly Yellow-winged Bats fly around between acacias and are a real treat. Besides more terrific Zebras we see a few shy Elands at a distance, and lots of Impalas. To a neophyte the latter appear somewhat similar to Kobs, but finer and slimmer, maybe a bit more elegant and with very shapely horns. They have the peculiar habit, seemingly even when not unduly alarmed and for no other readily apparent reason, of making sudden long, arching leaps as they trot along.
Lunch is at a relaxing outdoor canteen beside Lake Mburo itself. Whole deep-fried Tilapia and great Ugandan chips for all. Before, during and after the meal Vervet Monkeys, including a female with a tiny infant clinging tight to her belly, continually edge closer to our table along the railing, apparently weighing their chances for a grab-and-run snack, but they are shooed off at frequent intervals. Then we hear a shout from somebody near the parking area and look out to see a monkey with a big armload of bananas emerge from an open window of the van. Hassan is up and gives vigorous chase, rapidly closing ground. The monkey leaves a trail of bananas as it hurries across the open area on its two rear legs towards some trees. After lunch, and some down time because it is quite hot, we take a boat ride on the lake specifically to look for African Finfoot. In this we are successful, finding 3 adults and a juvenile, all swimming in their characteristic herky-jerky manner along the water's edge under thick overhanging vegetation. As we leave the park through mixed acacia and grazing land we pick up 3 more trip birds: Plain-backed Pipit, Greater Blue-eared Glossy-Starling (a good example of common bird naming run berserk) and Black-cheeked Waxbill. Also on the way out of the park 2 mongooses streak across the track. They seem to have tufts at the tips of their tails, and therefore must be the Ichneumon or Egyptian Mongoose, bringing our trip total for mongooses to 3 species.
Bird Of The Day: I'm almost tempted to pick the spectacular Grey Crowned-Cranes again, but today its the Finfoots.
Day 25: LMNP To Kampala, birding Kaaku Swamp en route - We had time to watch Black-headed Weavers nest-building in a reedy area of the little lake (or big pond) by the hotel as we packed the van for the final time. Also 3 Little Grebes were diving and a Giant Kingfisher patrolling - somewhat improbably? - the hotel is well within the city. We set out at 08:05, retracing our route on the main road, past the LMNP cut-off. At close to 10:00 Hassan pulled off onto a dirt track skirting a Papyrus swamp with open water areas that we could approach on foot or scope from the road. Marsh (new) and Fan-tailed Widowbirds were in the reeds and we saw Winding Cisticola well. Laird pulled off a very nice double, pointing out Lesser Jacana for everyone then shortly afterwards Rufous-bellied Heron, both scarce Kaaku Swamp specialties. A few ducks were loafing on the ponds in the warm sun. I was very pleased to get close scope views of Yellow-billed Duck, having seen only distant flying birds to date, and also more pretty and diminutive Hottentot Teal. The only trip Purple Swamphens, and a single Common Moorhen showed, but no Lesser Moorhens. It was then onwards towards Kampala but we had time to stop for a great Brown Snake-Eagle beside the road, and, among the very last new ticks for the trip, two lovely Lilac-breasted Rollers on the wires.
We also made an obligatory stop at the equator. Every schoolchild knows that water swirls down the sink counter-clockwise in northern climes, and the opposite way in the south. But what happens when you are very close to the equator? We found out. A young man had a demonstration set up using water, buckets and a funnel, donations going to an AIDS care group. First we poured water down the funnel not thirty feet (<10m) north of the equator. I was somewhat amazed to see the water rotate down the hole, not only in the proper direction, but quite vigorously as well. Then 25 feet into the southern hemisphere the results were exactly reversed. Somehow I did not expect the opposing Coriolanus effects to be so potent only 50 feet apart. And right over the equator? Sure enough the water just kind of gurgled straight down the funnel! Maybe this just shows how easily I am entertained.
I don't know if Kampala is a perpetual traffic jam but our record is perfect. Once again Hassan played chicken with anyone who dared. We picked up Jaria waiting by a street corner and headed to a well manicured golf club where we were introduced to Mr Asaba Amooti-Winyi, Ugandan Ambassador to Canada and Mr James Bahinguza, General Manager of the Uganda Tourist Board. We had a nice chat and a refreshing drink of fruit juice. Birders will be birders, however, and Hassan spotted a Black Stork on one of the fairways, an eleventh hour new tick. For our part it was a great opportunity to relate our impressions of the country, and to try to reinforce what we thought was so great about Uganda - especially the irreplaceable parks and the wildlife.
More heavy traffic but now Jaria took over the navigation. She directed us down alleys and along dark little used back streets, and before too long we were back at Sophie's, dead tired, and the end of the trip.
Bird Of The Day: Of the two Kaaku specialties I take the Rufous-bellied Heron over Lesser Jacana by a hair.
Day 25 + 1 (Feb 6/04): Depart Uganda For Dubai, United Arab Emirates - But not quite the end. Our flight departed in late afternoon so we had a few hours to walk down to Lake Victoria. We actually saw a new trip bird (the common and widely distributed Black-headed Gull) and enjoyed watching several Marabous for the last time. And also a dour little Hamerkop who had found a big frog or toad and was trying very hard to subdue it by hammering @ it into the beach sand. Then it would attempt to swallow the poor animal, but each time in vain - too big and the Hamerkop could not seem to get it oriented correctly in its beak . Finally as we got a bit too close taking photos the heron dropped the frog/toad which was then able to hop into a drain pipe coming from the big resort here, and so to safety.
Back at the hotel we got word that poor Hassan was on his way there! I had left my daily checklist in the van last night, having taken it out of my luggage to check out a few question marks during the drive into Kampala. So, as was his daily custom, Hassan worked hard and diligently right up to, and past, any final obligations he might possibly have had to us. We can only thank him again, and Jaria, for such a great trip.
We would be more than happy to field any questions from anyone contemplating a trip to Uganda. I don't think you could go wrong.
Full trip list (Excel file - 160KB)