My Uganda Preview Trip
January 11-20, 2013
The flight landed into Entebbe low over Lake Victoria - quite one of the most picturesque settings I have seen on a plane landing. The evening sun was setting on both the lake and the nearby dramatic cloud formations. It was warm and I was met by a representative from Bird Uganda Safaris, one of the foremost birding tour companies in this small East African country. With only a few short days to explore I had decided on hitting the high spots and the endemic rich area in SW Uganda, home to many of the Albertine Rift endemics and a "must visit" area of the world for any world birders!
Our first activity was to board a motorized canoe and set out into the papyrus fringed channels of Mabamba Marsh on the edge of Lake Victoria. This is now an East African IBA and effort has been made to enable the locals to take advantage of the marsh's famous inhabitant and ferry visitors into the marsh to watch and photograph the Shoebill. I was lucky enough to watch a pair of these stately, yet bizarre, birds and even watch catch and crush a struggling mudfish. I just sat in the canoe and enjoyed the very close views of this pair of incredible birds - wow! Other birds in the marsh included Hamerkop, both African and Lesser Jacanas, Saddle-billed Stork and the localized Papyrus Gonolek, a striking black and red shrike with a yellow crown.
After several hours of "African massage" roads, our next stop was the beautiful Lake Mburo National Park. This lake is set in a landscape of acacia scrub and grassland, so I also had the chance for some game viewing. Common Zebra, Impala and Defassa Waterbuck all fed alongside the road and the elegant Bushbuck was a common sight even on the lawns of Arcadia Cottages, my home for the night. African Fish-Eagles called overhead and I disturbed a small flock of Water Thick-knees that were spending the day roosting under some thorn-scrub. Their loud calls rang out as the evening began to fade. A splashing Hippo was waiting for me to leave before he came out onto the grass to feed so I wisely decided that he was a lot larger than I was so slowly walked back up the hill towards the lodge. Apparently a Leopard also frequents the wooded lodge grounds so, much as would love to see one, I decided that being alone as daylight fell was not the best thing to do.
We left the next morning bound for the Uganda's Western border with Rwanda and Congo, but not before birding our way out of Mburo. A Bearded Woodpecker fed in a dead tree and a nearby acacia held Chin-spot Batis, Black Cuckoo-shrike and a wintering European Spotted Flycatcher. A stop in Echuya Forest Preserve later in the afternoon gave me my first Albertine Rift endemics as several Regal Sunbirds fed in the flowering vines and a Strange Weaver carried nesting material towards its nearby nest. Other birds nearby included a small flock of Black-headed Waxbills and a beautiful White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, the latter spreading its expressive tail as if flittered in the branches over my head. With 2 under the belt We drove into the town of Kisoro ready for a cold beer, a good meal and a comfortable night at the Traveler's Rest Hotel as the next morning we were planning to climb high into the forests of Mgahinga National Park, a portion of the beautiful Virunga Volcanos that Uganda shared with Rwanda and the DRC.
Along with an armed guard from the National Park (in case we ran into a Buffalo!), Jude, and Fred (our excellent local birding guide) we started the hike up through scrub forest, bamboo and eventually montane forest as we searched for birds. This 8km hike was not one I was planning to repeat with guests, but they decided that I could manage it as we searched for more Albertine endemics. The beautiful Ruwenzori Turaco proved to be very shy but we did manage to get outstanding views of this elusive resident of the mountain forests. We also found Western Tinkerbird, Ruwenzori Apalis, Red-faced Woodland-Warbler, Archer's Robin-Chat, Ruwenzori Batis, Stripe-breasted Tit and the beautiful Dusky Crimsonwing- all in all a very successful day out. Yes we were tired at the end of the day and thankfully we did not see any Buffalo!
Our next stop was the superbly named Bwindi-Inpenetrable National Park; a large area of thick forest on the Congolese border. The border of the park is easily seen from a distance as intensive agriculture abruptly stops as the park begins. Thank goodness for some far sighted conservation issues that now protect several families of Mountain Gorillas, as well as many other mammals and birds- many endemic to the region. On our way to our accommodation (Gorilla Mist Camp!) in Ruhija, we were lucky enough to see both Blue Monkey and Black-and-white Colobus along the roadside. Afternoon birding along the road produced Black-billed Trace, Mountain Masked Apalis, Grauer's Warbler and White-browed Crombec, as well as the exquisite Purple-breasted Sunbird, several of which were feeding in a flowering tree near the road. The cabins at Gorilla Mist Camp are rustically built, but delightful and all overlook valleys of thick forest and adjacent agriculture. It's easy to sit on the porch and just take in the view that extends as far south as the Virunga Volcanos that are often shrouded in the mist or cloud. As my time was very limited I had decided not to do any gorilla tracking and just concentrate on the birding (yes, you can call me myopic!) so our trusty group began our hike down to Mubwindi Swamp - a round trip hike of about 8 km or so. Yes this a mountainous region and the trails seemed to either head straight down or disappear high into the forest. The only level walk was the marshy edges of the aforementioned swamp where we successfully found Yellow-eyed Black-Flycatcher as well as the rare Grauer's Rush-warbler that was calling from the dense marsh grass. Alas we did not see the African Green Broadbill which Fred (and I) had our minds set upon and even had a large mixed flock that did not include our little green quest! BUT we did get a bonus when a large Silverback Mountain Gorilla walked out of the undergrowth and up the trail towards us! Talk of surprised... we certainly were and had to back up the trail slowly keeping our eyes on the gorillas at all times. They are not renowned to be dangerous but we still had to make "gorilla grunting noises" to let them know that we were friendly! Then we noticed that the trackers were behind the group making sure they could locate them for the paying clients who were not far behind us up the trail. Discretion was the better part of valor so we left the scene and continued our birding and our search for the Broadbill. We ran into the same group later in the day when the tourists had already returned back to their hotels.
The next day was a little more relaxed as we set out to get the chance of Handsome Francolin along the road in the early morning. Thankfully 1 of this Albertine Rift endemic decided to show itself before the walkers and motorcycles drove them back into the forest. We spent the rest of the morning again searching for the dreaded AFG and again with no luck at all. Fred seems to think that they are quiet or even absent outside of the breeding season. Thankfully we did get several other good birds including Red-throated Alethe and excellent views of Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo (a great change from the fleeting views obtained on our Ghana tour last year).
The next morning we descended about 1000 meters for my last 2 nights and the superb forest birding in the Buhoma area. The drive was along some very muddy roads that were probably not passable during the major part of the rainy season. Birding through the "neck" of Bwindi National Park was excellent with a whole range of new species for the trip. Black Bee-eaters fed along the river and the forest rang with the loud calls of several cuckoos, including both Dusky and Olive Long-tailed Cuckoos, both of which acted as they always tend to and stayed well out of sight! A late afternoon walk along the entry road into the forest was again excellent with Fred encouraging out a very skulking Blue-shouldered Robin-Chat that crept into a window in the vegetation allowing for some great views. A pair of Green-backed Twinspots had a nest of grass and moss about 15 feet up in some vine tangles and both parents were busy tending (and being hounded by) 4 well grown chicks and several Vanga Flycatchers caught insects from exposed perches above the canopy.
We had an all day hike through Primary Forest on our last Day in Bwindi. Like all forest birding, we had quiet times as well as occasions when birds seemed to be in every vine and tangle. The emphasis always tends to be on quality rather than quantity, so we slowly picked our way along the trail looking for (and listening to) every movement and call note. A nice surprise was a Red-fronted (Woodhouse's) Antpecker (an unusual finch) collecting moss for its nest and also a pair a little farther along the trail as well. Both White-bellied and Grey-winged Robin-Chats sang from the thickets and Grey-headed Sunbirds fed feverishly in clusters of dead leaves. A specialty of this forest is the Short-tailed or Neumann's Warbler and we must have spent at least 2 hours stalking this little guy through the wet forest without even seeing a leaf move. At least we got to learn its little song very well! We also worked on that tricky rainforest family, Greenbuls. All are various shades of olive, grey and cream, but thankfully they do tend to have fairly distinctive songs. We finished the day with 8 species although a couple continued to evade us. Maybe next time. A nice surprise was another family group of Mountain Gorillas that crossed the trail behind us- really good luck indeed. To have 2 troops of these wonderful animals on the trip was a real bonus as I had not planned to do any Gorilla tracking at all, but leave it to the trip when we plan that, but at least I know now how wonderful the experience with the big apes is going to be.
It was an all-day drive back to Entebbe and a welcome shower at the hotel before heading to the airport for the late flight to Amsterdam. I finished the preview trip with just over 300 species, including 20 of the Albertine Rift endemics, of which 24 occur in Western Uganda. I also a pretty good selection of mammals with the stars of the show being the superb Mountain Gorillas. We will be certainly planning a tour back to Uganda in the near future.