Trip Report, Uganda, July 28-August 10, 2011 – Gerard Savaresse and Katherine Herrmann,
Paul Tamwenya, Guide/Driver/Birding Specialist,
July 28 – Arrival in Entebbe International airport. Paul met us at the airport late in the evening on the 28th. He gave us brief introduction to Uganda and his company in the airport parking lot, then dropped us at our hotel for some much needed rest.
Day 1, July 29 – Mabamba Swamp to Lake Mburo
Having lost a day reserved for rest and orientation due to our cancelled flight, our safari began in earnest the next morning. After a leisurely breakfast, we packed up the truck and were off, but not before we ticked our first bird of the trip, a red-chested sunbird found on the hotel grounds. A great way to start! As we would later discover, Entebbe is chalk full of birds, and the botanical gardens provide an excellent introduction to the country’s avifauna.
Our first stop would be Mabamba Swamp, home to the spectacular (and odd) Shoebill stork. Uganda is one of the few places in the world where this bizarre bird can reliably be seen, and we were not disappointed. We launched out in the canoe in a light rain, but soon found the Shoebill actively hunting lungfish in open view on the edges of a stand of the feathery-topped papyrus. We spent about 10-15 minutes enjoying excellent views before we left the Shoebill and headed back to the car. Other birds seen at Mabamba included common wetland species like the Hammerkop, African jacana, Blue-headed coucal and the ubiquitous but delightful African pied wagtail.
Our next destination would be Lake Mburo National Park, a few hours to the South and west of Kampala. Many safaris stop at Mburo solely because it roughly marks the halfway point between Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Kampala, but we would find that Mburo held much more that that.
It should be noted here that, while many of the drives between destinations were long and exacerbated by poor or difficult road conditions, the time spent in the car seldom felt onerous or unpleasant. Uganda is remarkably beautiful country, and the scenes of daily life glimpsed through the car window are both tranquil and entertaining: men and women pedaling bicycles precariously balanced with loads of matoke; the rhythm of the roadside mowers’ arms as they swing their curved machetes back and forth; the playful children waving vigorously at each passing car.
It doesn’t hurt that Uganda is also thick with birds and other wildlife, and under Paul’s keen and watchful eyes, interesting species can be met just about anywhere. In point of fact, some of our birding highlights were found right along the road, including the stunning Great blue turaco Paul sighted just as we headed up out of Mabamba Swamp. While these birds are commonly seen, their beautiful blue plumage can hardly fail to impress. Later a quick stop for lunch produced more common, but beautiful birds like the Double-toothed barbet, Lesser striped swallow and Red-headed lovebird. Still later we enjoyed excellent views of the magnificent Grey-crowned crane, Uganda’s national bird, as well as the Blue-naped and more common Speckled mousebird, and the oddly named Bare-faced go-away-bird.
As we drove through the buffer zone around Lake Mburo, we encountered our first big game animals: Defasa waterbuck, warthog and later in the evening, zebra. We managed to get a few more goodies before the sun set, including the stunning black-headed gonolek and sulphur-breasted bush-shrike, as well as the colorful green-winged pytilia and tailless red-faced crombec.
Day 2, July 30 – Lake Mburo to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park
During breakfast, we discovered how beautiful African sunrises can be, particularly in wooded grassland country like Lake Mburo. The sun came up in earnest around 7:30, so we were able to take our time over breakfast, and then off for the first of several game/birding drives that we would enjoy throughout our time in Uganda. We saw many vervet monkeys and olive baboons, hippos, topi and cape buffalo. We birded our way down to the lake, picking up a number of weavers in the process, including the beautiful red-headed weaver. We also had both Black and Petit’s cuckoo-shrikes, and, although we missed the red-billed barbet, yellow-rumped tinkerbird and spot-flanked barbet were easily found, as well as a gorgeous Ross’s turaco just before we got to the lake.
A quick tour around the lake produced two of our target species, the African finfoot and a pair of white-backed night-herons, as well as a few other assorted birds. As we skirted around the many schools of hippos we encountered there, African fishing eagle were common, as were malachite, pied and woodland kingfisher. After the boat trip, we were off again on a long drive to Bwindi Impentrable Forest, and a date with the mountain gorillas that we couldn’t miss.
While many travel to the Buhoma sector of Bwindi to track gorillas, Paul had arranged for us to visit Ruhija, home to 23 of the 24 Albertine Rift Endemics that occur in Uganda. His judgment in this regard proved to be quite sound, as we encountered 14 of them in our brief time there, many seen along the road on our drive up. First up was the yellow-eyed black flycatcher from a reliable spot Paul knew just along the road. Stripe-backed tit and Rwenzori batis came shortly thereafter and the gorgeous regal sunbird further up the road. Brief glimpses of the Rwenzori turaco were a pleasant surprise, as was the blue-headed sunbird he spotted shortly before we checked in to our hotel for the evening, where our balcony gave us gorgeous views over the lush slopes of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
Day 3, July 31 – Gorilla Tracking, Bitakura Group
For many, tracking the mountain gorillas ranks as one of the greatest wildlife experiences remaining in the world. We were no exception. There are a mere 800 of these animals left in the world, and we set out for the ranger station with a level of elation and anticipation that would be difficult to convey. There are two habituated groups in the Ruhija sector, and it was our luck to track the Bitakura group, now consisting of 13 members. Groups of visitors are limited to eight members each to help manage the strain on the gorillas and the forest as a whole. As we waited for the formalities to be completed, we heard a Black-billed turaco calling down slope, and saw a gorgeous Golden-breasted bunting feeding on the ground as we had our orientation.
We set out on the trail shortly after 9 AM with high spirits and light hearts. The relatively late start gives the advance trackers, who set out much earlier in the morning, enough time to locate the group. We were encouraged to engage a porter for the hike, as tracking can be quite long and strenuous. It also helps to provide income for members of the local communities, and helps to integrate them into the conservation movement.
Tracking at Ruhija is rumored to be more difficult than at Buhoma, and we were warned that it could take upwards of 7 hours over extremely difficult terrain. So, we were somewhat surprised and relieved when the advance team radioed in not more than 15 minutes after we had started our hike to let our guide know that they had located the group. Our pace quickened noticeably, and the entire group shot up a difficult climb in no time at all. Some ten minutes later we were within earshot of a silverback pounding its chest, and we looked up to see a black back high up in a tree. Our first gorilla!
All told, we saw about 10 individuals, including the silverback and several adult males, females, two juveniles, and a four-month infant who was quickly spirited away on its mother’s back. Visits are limited to one hour, again to help minimize the strain on the groups, and visitors are expected to keep at least 7 meters distance from the apes. While we seemed to be witnessing normal group behavior, including feeding, attempted mating and even a squabble over females, of course, it is impossible to say exactly what effect our presence had on the gorillas.
Our magical hour seemed to pass so quickly, and soon it was time to head back up to the ranger station, a much more difficult hike than the previous one! Later, we were treated to a very sweet graduation ceremony, and each participant was given a certificate showing that they had successfully completed gorilla tracking. Then it was back to the hotel for some much needed rest. Later in the evening, Paul took us out for a light hike along the road, where we added several apalises, including the endemic Ruwenzori, or Collared apalis and the dapper Mountain masked apalis. Also of note was a Red-throated alethe, another endemic, and Luhder’s bushshrike.
Day 4, August 1 – Ruhija, Mubwinidi Swamp
As is typical at Ruhija, the morning was quite cold and very windy. The day was given over entirely to forest birding, with a special emphasis on the African green broadbill, another Albertine Rift Endemic, and one of the real specialties of the Ruhija sector. We had been advised by Paul the previous day, however, that the broadbill’s nest was destroyed by the wind and few weeks ago, and that this bird, always difficult to see, would be even more difficult to locate.
Paul had arranged, as he would at other locations, for another local birding guide, Fred, to join us for the day. Fred’s knowledge of the area and enthusiasm for birding, were certainly welcome. We were also joined by an armed ranger, something required whenever you travel on foot through one of Uganda’s National Parks. We set out in roughly the same direction as we had the day before when tracking the gorillas, but the hiking here was much more strenuous.
Our early morning efforts were dogged by the heavy wind, and birding was slow until 10 or so. Nevertheless, we managed to add another of the endemics to our list, with good looks at the Red-faced woodland warbler. Later, Fred had us stop at a spot just before the swamp, where he said he had often seen the broadbill. This small, leafy green bird is known to perch quite still in the upper canopy, and is therefore extremely difficult to locate. We stopped here for a good fifteen minutes with no success, and it seemed like the whole morning would be lost. We were just about to pack up the scope and head down when Paul, rather quickly and excitedly, said “Come, come, come.” He had the broadbill perching quite out in the open, where we had doubtless looked over it a dozen times without noticing it.
Our luck changed dramatically here, and within the next 30 minutes or so, we saw no less than 7 individuals of this highly uncommon bird. Since we already had the broadbill, we elected not to enter the swamp, which we were advised can be quite dangerous due to the aggressive forest elephants in the area. After a quick stop for lunch, we birded our way back up slope, adding more endemics and highland specialties like Archer’s robin-chat, Strange weaver, white-bellied crested-flycatcher and African broadbill, as well as the noisy White-headed and Forest wood-hoopoes and the striking Yellow-billed barbet .
The highlight for most, however, were the outstanding views of a black-billed turaco we enjoyed, a species known for its beauty and its shyness. On the way back to the hotel, we saw a large troop of black-and-white colobus monkeys grooming each other, as well as a few blue monkeys dashing across the road, and close-up looks at the endemic Regal sunbird and handsome Chinspot batis.
Day 5, August 2 – Ruhija to Queen Elizabeth National Park, via Ishasha
We had an early start for the long drive to Queen Elizabeth National Park. Bwindi is justly famous for the beauty of its vistas, the integrity of its forests, and of course, for the mountain gorillas. It is not, however, noted for the good quality of its roads. The route we took swung us just past the junction to Buhoma, and allowed us the opportunity to catch some of the lower elevation species that are not frequently seen around Ruhija. Fred, who is based out of Buhoma, joined us until we reached the junction.
We made a couple of stops along the way down, the most productive of which yielded close up looks at the Brown-throated wattle-eye, the stunning Black bee-eater, Bocage’s bushshrike, Hairy-breasted and Yellow-spotted barbets. Just as we were about to pile back into the car, Fred spotted an African emerald cuckoo high up in a tree, one of the most stunning members of its genus. While many of the cuckoos found in Uganda are fairly common, they are extremely difficult to see, and Fred did well to pick it out of its hiding place.
We left Fred and the turn-off to Buhoma, and continued down to the Ishasha sector of Queen Elizabeth, home to the famous tree-climbing lions. The transition from montane forests to arid woodland savannah was an abrupt one, and in no time at all, we were tracking elephants and the handsome Uganda kob. Coming from the chill and mist of Ruhija, the dry heat of Ishasha was quite a shock, and Paul’s seemingly endless supply of bottled water was of tremendous benefit here. In the afternoon heat, bird life was pretty quiet, with the highlight being a White-headed barbet from a reliable spot Paul knew on the road between Ishasha and Mweya, and a Brown-chested lapwing found just before we pulled into our hotel for the evening.
Day 6, August 3 – Queen Elizabeth National Park
Queen Elizabeth hosts over 600 species of bird, and one can see a good mix of forest, savannah and wetland species. While we did not encounter any rarities at QNP, we did add a good number of common savannah/grassland species that we had missed so far, like the Pin-tailed whydah, African firefinch, and both Northern red and Black-winged bishop. We also had excellent views of a number of wetland species on the boat tour along the Kazinga Channel, including goliath heron, African spoonbill and yellow-billed stork. Raptors made a good showing. The striking Long-crested eagle was common, as was the handsome Batteleur and the impressive Martial eagle. Black-bellied bustard became the first of its family for the trip, and later in the evening, we chanced upon two confiding African crakes.
The highlight of QNP was undoubtedly the large herds of game we encountered there, particularly at the mating grounds of the Uganda kob. Paul had a notion to stake out for lions at the mating ground just around sunset, and has prediction proved to be correct, as we saw a single male hunting in the tall grasses. Unfortunately, our experience was disturbed by another safari group who actually drove off the track to get a closer look at the lion. Not only is this against the rules, but it also disorganized the lion’s hunt, and the animal doubtless went hungry as a consequence of this highly unethical and selfish act. We drove back to the hotel in the darkness, and caught brief glimpses of a gennet cat, as well as a swamp nightjar flying across the road, our first nightjar of the trip.
Day 7, August 4, QNP to Kibbale Forest and Fort Portal
We set out at a leisurely pace this morning, and after a few quick snapshots at the equator sign in QNP, we headed north to Kibbale Forest, where Paul had booked us afternoon permits for chimp tracking. The drive up was relatively quiet,and we did not add any new species until we reached Kibbale proper. Here we made a quick stop at a small bridge where we added Cassin’s flycatcher, the stunning Giant kingfisher, Little green sunbird and Toro olive greenbul. While we were waiting for our lunch at the ranger station, we added Blue-shouldered robin-chat, Western nicator and Green crombec, as well as our first red-tailed monkey.
Chimp-tracking at Kibale Forest is another of those truly unforgettable wildlife experiences. Their wild, loud calls announce their presence and fill the forest in a way that can be felt throughout the entire body. While it may sound silly, it elicits an almost irresistible urge to call back in kind, and visitors are warned against making imitative calls. Unlike gorilla tracking, no advance team is sent out, and, due to their loud calls, no advance team is really necessary. While several groups commence tracking from different locations, it is not uncommon for them to converge on the same group, resulting in a fairly crowded experience.
We caught up with the chimps about half an hour or so after setting out, and had them to ourselves for a good ten minutes before the other groups arrived. While they remained high up in the trees, we still managed to get good views, all while witnessing some interesting behavior, including grooming, disputes over females, and nest-building. Throughout our experience with the chimps, their loud vocalizations filled the forest, and seemed to get at the heart of what the wilderness is.
While we hoped that some of the chimps would decide to come down out of the trees, in not time at all our hour with them was up, and we had to make our return. Unfortunately, a heavy rain dogged us all the way to Fort Portal, and disorganized the good birding that Kibbale Forest promises. We did manage to see a small group of African grey parrots on the road out of the forest, one of the species that we had missed in Entebbe. The lovely Variable sunbird seen from our hotel grounds in Fort Portal was also a welcome addition.
Day 8, August 5, Semuliki National Park
Semuliki National Park is one of the true birding gems in all of Uganda. As an extension of the Ituri Forest in the Congo Basin, it holds a number of species that can only be seen here, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With the exception of a few very basic cabanas in the park itself, there are no accommodations around the park, and birders must make an early start from Fort Portal. For those who wish to see the real rarities like the Nkulengu Rail, you must stay in the park itself, as the swamp where the rail is know to reside is at least 12km each way.
There is still plenty of excellent birding to be had at closer range, and we quickly added two of the “Western” hornbills to our list: Black-casqued wattled hornbill and the Piping hornbill. From the Kirumia Trail we quickly had two more Guinea-Congo specialties: Red-rumped tinkerbird, Western bronze-naped pigeon, and Simple greenbul, as well as the more common Red-crested malimbe. Birding in the forest here, although rewarding, can be quite challenging, as many of the most sought-after species seldom come down from the high canopy. Paul’s expertise was well-needed here, as Semliki presents a whole new assortment of birds, many of which are subtly marked.
Careful patience and strained necks resulted in glimpses of Yellow-throated nicator and blue-billed malimbe, while even more careful comparison revealed the Zenker’s honeyguide. Good looks at the Fire-crested alethe gleaning the dangerous safari ants off the trail was a nice treat, and while we were taking our lunch, a group of Red-billed dwarf hornbill flew into a nearby tree. While we missed many rarities, such as the Grant’s bluebill, we added many new birds to our list, including Splendid and Waller’s starlings, Blue-headed crested flycatcher, Chestnut wattle-eye, and the warbler-like Grey-headed sunbird. The drive back to Fort Portal was delayed due to heavy construction along the main road that links the region to the DRC.
Day 9, August 6, Fort Portal to Masindi
Easily the most difficult drive of the trip, the drive from Fort Portal to Masindi took upwards of 8 hours. Nevertheless, the day was not without its highlights, and an early morning stop on the edges of Kibbale Forest produced several nice species. Cuckoos were well represented, with Levaillant’s cuckoo, Olive long-tailed cuckoo and superb looks at another African emerald cuckoo. Numerous doves were seen, including our first looks at Afep pigeon, and finally, an Eastern grey plantain-eater, a common bird that we had inexplicably missed. We also had our first looks here at the Red-faced cisticola and Black-capped apalis.
As we continued north to Masindi, we made several stops along the road, adding Tiny sunbird, Bronzy sunbird, and in a stroke of good look, both male and female Red-headed bluebill. Pale-fronted and Grey-headed negrofinches were a treat, as were the striking Black bishop and Yellow-mantled widowbird. Of course we saw many other weavers along the way. No doubt one of the highlights of the trip was a Papyrus gonolek seen in one of the many papyrus swamps that dot the roads. We arrived in Masindi well after 5PM, and gave Paul a hardy pat on the back for handling such a long drive, while still finding us some excellent birds.
Day 10, August 7, Royal Mile
Paul had arranged for us to meet up with a local guide, David, to have an extra set of eyes and ears. David’s decades of experience birding in the area were certainly a welcome addition. Situated in the Budongo Forest Reserve, The Royal Mile offers some of the best forest birding in all of Uganda, offering the opportunity to see several West/Central African species at the extremity of their ranges. Before reaching the Royal Mile, however, we made a very productive stop in the active grasslands just outside the forest, adding Black-billed firefinch, Cardinal and Red-headed quelea, compact weaver, the gorgeous red-collared widowbird, and several cisticolas, including Whistling, Trilling and Siffling.
In the forest proper, our good luck continued at the guard post with Black-billed weaver and Blue-throated brown sunbird, and just past the gate we heard two Chocolate-backed kingfishers. However, after 20 minutes of careful searching, we still had not managed to get a look at them, and we had to abandon the quest to see this shy and elusive forest kingfisher. We did add a number of other specialties from the area like the Rufous-crowned eremomela, Grey longbill, Spotted greenbul, both Red-tailed and White-tailed ant-thrush, and a number of good flycatchers like Chestnut-capped, Grey tit-flycatcher, Fraser’s forest-flycatcher and African grey flycatcher.
Always on the lookout, Paul spotted medium-sized two birds feeding well into the forest. Two chocolate-backed kingfishers! Everyone enjoyed excellent views of this magnificent bird that we had nearly given up on. Along with the African dwarf and African pygmy kingfishers we added that same day, it brought us up to a total of 10 kingfishers for the trip, and impressive total. Our later attempt to add the Shining blue kingfisher sadly turned up empty-handed. On a sadder note, we spotted an orphaned bushbuck swimming in a nearby stream. Just on the way out we heard, but couldn’t find the White-spotted flufftail. While we were waiting for this forest resident to come pass, we were treated to excellent views of the Dusky long-tailed cuckoo, one of the more difficult cuckoos to see.
Day 11, August 8, Masindi to Murchisson Falls
From Masindi, the drive to Murchisson Falls is short and pleasant, and you must pass through good grassland habitat, where we had Kalss’s cuckoo, before reaching Budongo Forest and Murchisson Falls proper. There are chances in this part of Budongo for the rare Puvell’s Illadopsis, where it is known only from this site in all of East Africa. The lush forest at Budongo soon gives way to the beautiful woodland savannah that comprises the northern part of Murchisson, and which is so iconic of the East African safari experience. We also encountered our first tsetse flies here. They tend to follow moving objects, including cars, and it is wise to roll your windows up before stopping, as they will enter en masse and can give you a nasty pinch.
We spent a relaxing afternoon around the lodge, away from the heat and flies that are most intense around midday. Even so, we spotted a gorgeous Red-throated bee-eater just before lunch, as well as a Beautiful sunbird. Surprise rain storms would hinder much of our time at Murchisson, and our planned night dive in search of the Pennant-winged nightjar would have to be postponed. A trip to the top of Murchisson Falls, however, was well worth it, in spite of the rain. The sound of the Victoria Nile being squeezed through a narrow gorge is truly memorable, and ranks as one of the highlights of our trip.
Day 12, August 9, Murchisson Falls
We would spend the entire day on a safari drive in the northern portions of Murchisson Falls National Park. There is a small car ferry that takes you across the Nile, and into the big game country that is characteristic of this side of the park. While we did not sight any lions, many other groups did. Giraffe, elephant and the Jackson’s hartebeest were all common. We also saw two species of jackal, patas monkeys, and a whole new assortment of birds, including Vinaceous dove and several bee-eaters, including such beauties as Northern Carmine, Swallow-tailed and Little bee-eater. We added several weavers, White-winged widowbird, Silverbird, Brubru, Spotted palm-thrush, both Red-chested and Didric cuckoo all in quick succession. We also finally caught up with some more common species like the delightful Red-cheeked cordon-bleu and the Piapiac.
Easily our best game drive for birds, we elected to skip the boat tour to the bottom of the Falls, and turn in for some much needed rest and admin. A late afternoon rain validated our decision. Later Paul took us out for an evening drive in search of nightjars. We pulled over at a well-known spot, and waited as the sun went down on our last full day in Africa. Suddenly, the ghostly shape of Pennant-winged nightjar burst over the horizon overhead. These spectacular nightjars look as if they had passed through a Halloween shop, with long, tattered streamers trailing each of their wings. What a wonderful way to end the day, but nature would have one more surprise for us as Paul turned the car around and steered back to the hotel. Feeding in the road, the headlights, and then Paul’s trusty spotlight grazed an owl-like figure in the road. It was a Spotted eagle-owl, the first, last and only owl of the trip.
Day 13, August 10, Murchisson Falls to Entebbe
This final day was given over to the long drive back to Entebbe. With stops for birding, traffic and a stop for lunch, it would take the better part of 7 hours on the best paved road we would encounter in all of Uganda. Easily the highlight of the day was an evening stroll through the botanical gardens in Entebbe that Paul offered to take us on. The kindness he showed towards us can be shown through this act. Our tour was over, he had dropped us at the hotel, and yet he returned on his own time a few hours later to take us out for another adventure. Paul is not only an incredibly talented birder and naturalist, he is also an immensely good person, and we feel fortunate to have spent two weeks in his company.
For many, the botanical gardens at Entebbe serve as an introduction to the avifauna of Uganda. For us, it was an excellent recap of the wonderful things that we had seen along the way and we recommend any one doing a birding safari to Uganda should not miss out on it. Black-casqued hornbills, African grey parrots and Broad-billed rollers, you could almost make the gardens into a 2 or 3 day trip in itself. We added some new birds here as well, including the Superb sunbird and Crowned hornbill, and revisited a few other species that we had previously worked so hard in the field to get. Too soon, however, it was time to say goodbye, and a small flock of African grey parrots flying low across the setting sun was a parting gift that we were privileged to accept. We left with the high hopes of visiting this magnificent corner of the world some time soon.