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Birdlife in Uganda

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Crested Crane in UgandaThis tour was held on exactly the same dates as the previous tour, and yet the climatic difference between the two years was quite incredible.

During our stay clouds and rain were the order of the day, and peeks at the sun became a noticed event. The country had received insufficient rainfall prior to our arrival, lake levels were well down, the hydro dams could not produce enough electricity, and the country was suffering from lengthy power cuts.

Uganda BirdsYet, in spite of this, everyone agreed that Uganda was a magically beautiful and captivating country far exceeding any literature that they had read.

The friendly Ugandan people were gentle and accommodating and were there to welcome us and assist us throughout the entire tour.

Breeding was already in progress in all the forested areas we visited, and all through the tour we witnessed nesting and the feeding of fully-fledged young.

While this sounds like an attraction, it actually meant that birds were singing only half-heartedly, if at all.

And so, a great deal of the birding had to be visual – although many species called enough to announce that they were still in the area!

Regal Sunbird in UgandaDuring our nineteen days in the country we still managed to record an impressive 546 species - nearly all resident, as the palaearctic migrants so numerous towards the end of the year do not boost the overall totals.

Favourites included of course Shoebill, but also the two active African Green Broadbill nests and the flurries of Pennant-winged Nightjars. The award for most-dazzling tour bird probably goes to Regal Sunbird (though it might be added that there was considerable competition).

The 50 species of mammals identified (some only to group level) included wonderful experiences with Eastern Lowland Gorillas and Chimpanzees as well as ten other primate species. The combination of birds and mammals, as well as a parade of reptiles, amphibians, butterflies and other insects, made this tour a very varied and thorough experience. Capped with the warmest of people encountered throughout the adventure, Uganda showed itself to be something very special.

Shoebill in UgandaThe weather was cool to mild throughout, the only hot days being in Murchison Falls National Park. Overcast conditions that prevailed in the mornings kept the climate comfortable - a great contrast to the remainder of the year, when hot and humid is the order of the day. Nevertheless, we did have our share of sunshine, breathtaking vistas, comfortable accommodation and good food.

All but two participants arrived early in Entebbe, and so there was an early excursion into the nearby Entebbe Botanical Gardens. Here such impressive species as yodelling fish-eagles, raucous black and white Casqued Hornbills, crimson-winged Ross's Turaco, and fluorescent azure Woodland Kingfisher were seen, with flaming Orange Weavers nesting along the shoreline. We would encounter all of the species recorded that morning during the remainder of the tour, but the diminutive Sharp-nosed Reed Frog was never met with again.

The next morning we collected our last two members and, after another visit to the gardens, we were off on our journey northwards to Masindi with Ben, our very capable driver and more-than-competent birding companion throughout the tour.

Brief stops revealed a nice group of Black-headed Batis and nasal Marsh Widowbirds in as boring a plumage as could be imagined, but thankfully still vocal.

Yellow Mantled Widowbird in UgandaNearer to Masindi we found a very attractive area of swamp, with plenty of dancing Northern Red Bishops and Yellow-mantled Widowbirds, Bruce's Green Pigeon flying over, and colourful African Golden Oriole, probably a visitor from the southern part of the continent.

Several Levaillant's Cuckoos were putting on a fine display whilst Whistling Cisticolas led us on a bit of a chase. We were treated that evening to the magical experience of full-plumaged Pennant-winged Nightjars dancing in the air all around us.

After an early breakfast we arrived at Budongo, and a quick look at a small hill near the forest provided us with the colourful Cabanis's Bunting and Black Bishops. Just as we got to the forest it started raining, and we sat in the vehicle our first twenty minutes waiting for it to stop, which it did for the remainder of the day.

Among the forest species found were Blue-throated Roller, Dwarf Kingfisher, Yellow-browed Camaroptera and Chestnut-capped Flycatcher, plus specialities such as Crested Malimbe and Lemon-bellied Crombec.

Crested Malimbe in UgandaIn the evening we walked around in the neighbouring gardens, locating many Brown Twinspots, Compact Weavers and a nice pair of Magpie Mannikins. Next morning we visited the Busingiro part of the forest and further discovered Ituri Batis, stunning Superb Sunbird and, not surprisingly, some more rain.

Leaving early the next morning we took the road toward Murchison Falls National Park, and roadside birding provided Eastern Grey Plantain-eaters and White-crested Turacos. At Kaniyo Pabidi we easily located Puvel’s Illadopsis and found a more co-operative pair of Nahan's Francolins.

After dropping off our luggage we visited the impressive “Top of the Falls,” where the Nile River is forced to plummet over a ten-metre gap into the broiling waters below.

At the falls we witnessed the emergence of bats roosting in a hidden cave and a Bat Hawk putting on a fine show, although it seemed only to be playing with the bats rather than catching them.

Little Bittern Female in UgandaDriving back from the falls we had exceptional close encounters with several Bunyoro Rabbits, which now have to live with the mundane name Uganda Grass Hare!

The following morning we drove to the river at Paraa, seeing Vinaceous and Black-billed Wood-Doves and Senegal Coucals, but we were anxious to get on the river for our trip toward the Albert Delta.

For most the Shoebill was the star of the boat-ride, but a female Little Bittern was a most obliging individual posing quite openly, and an Allen's Gallinule resting on top of a reed clump gave exceptional views.

The papyrus specialities were very loath to reveal themselves, but the Hippos put on a fine display all along the river. We arrived back at the jetty just in time to catch the scheduled launch to the foot of the falls.

Red Throated Bee Eater in UgandaHere we chugged past psychedelic Red-throated Bee-eaters, ponderous gargantuan crocodiles and skittish elephants. The rarest find of the tour was here, as a pair of White-crowned Plovers screamed at us from the banks.

This was a new bird for Uganda, with the nearest populations being far to the west where the Congo serpentines through steamy jungles and sandy islands. The launch was attacked by this pair, and they even mated in front of us. We later learned that they already had two chicks.

As we left the plovers and continued on to the falls, a female Finfoot was found sitting on top of a boulder under an overhang. Delighted with this we chugged our way back, and near the jetty we were treated to some very responsive Red-winged Grey Warblers and dowdy White-rumped Seedeaters.

Because all of our boating had been completed on the first day at Murchison, our next day was a full-day game drive. Near Paraa we located a pair of Brown-rumped Buntings and a family party of Shelley's Sparrows. In a burnt depression were a number of Rothschild's Giraffes and Jackson's Hartebeestes, whilst Oribi were abundant throughout. We found a sleepy Lion, but the best mammal for the drive either went to a large male Patas Monkey or the three Side-striped Jackals licking termites off their mound. Birds included equally stately Denham's Bustards and Abyssinian Ground-Hornbills, dainty Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters and some confusing small cisticolas out of breeding plumage, including Wing-snapping and Black-backed.

Red-winged Pytilia in UgandaFrom Murchison we left speedily for Butiaba Escarpment. We had done so extraordinarily well in the park that, apart from a lethargic Banded Snake-Eagle on the drive out, there was nothing else to stop for. We traversed the grasslands in search of the special species that live there, including numerous Foxy Cisticolas and Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weavers. The only buttonquail for the entire expedition was flushed underfoot, but we had to leave with no sign of Red-winged Pytilia. Continuing our journey to Fort Portal, there was little stopping along this lengthy and extremely dusty portion of our tour, apart from light shopping in Hoima.

The next morning we visited the Bigodi Swamp Walk, a wetlands and woodlands area protected by resident landowners who realise the benefits of eco-tourism and have left the area intact. Here we were treated to numerous wonderful sightings including our first Grey Parrots, which flew over a group of Narrow-tailed Starlings nesting in a dead tree. We actually called out a Papyrus Gonolek from the swamp and had it hurling insults at us from a tree above our heads. Blue Flycatchers danced in the eucalypts in the garden areas whilst Red Colobus and Grey-cheeked Mangabys were quite indifferent to our presence as we followed the perimeter of the entire protected area.

Our lunch was probably the most interesting food experienced on the tour, a traditional buffet taken in a hut on the floor, whilst the food items were explained by a local elder. This was quite a highlight for everyone…but then it was back to work! Back for our afternoon Chimp trek, we set off into the forest where birds were now very quiet. We located a large male Chimpanzee, a female and a baby, but it was an eleventh-hour find (for some it felt every bit of eleven hours). It was a pleasant way to wind up a very nice day.

The following day we left the lower forest for higher elevations by the roadside. The birds were numerous and not too secretive, with such desired species as Many-coloured Bush-Shrike, Joyful Greenbul, Masked Apalis and the very dark short-tailed Schoutedenapus swifts – almost positively Schouteden's Swift, an eastern Congo species not reported since first collected. A few photos were taken for future examination. Our next venue was Mwea Lodge in Queen Elizabeth National Park for lunch. In the afternoon it was quite dark and gloomy as we drove the tracks, flushing several African Crakes and a Black Coucal, and having some close encounters with Black-headed Gonoleks and fish-eagles.

The next morning we searched the eastern side of the park and found Brown-chested Plovers in their winter quarters away from West Africa, as well as diminutive Black-chinned Quailfinch. The latter were coming down to drink at one of the last swampy patches with numerous other species, and as we watched, the list of thirsty visitors grew longer. Stately and confiding Saddle-billed Storks searched diligently for frogs, and the short-grass plains were littered with various cisticolas and Flappet Larks. Whilst driving, a nightjar was observed sitting on fairly open ground, and on investigation was found to be an incubating Square-tailed (Gabon) Nightjar.

After lunch we went on the scheduled Kazinga Channel launch. It was an amazing experience to be on the boat surrounded by the numerous Pied Kingfishers wheeling gracefully below us as Water Dikkops blinked at us from the banks, elephants and hippos approached closely, numerous heron species fished in the shallows, and lines of Great Cormorants, both species of pelicans, various storks, terns, and Grey-headed Gulls roosted on the sand-spit. In the evening we had a short game drive, which produced a number of bird species and also a nice group of Giant Forest Hogs.

Early next morning as we drove amongst the craters we induced a Pearl-spotted Owlet into view, found good-plumaged Black Coucals and diminutive Wing-snapping Cisticolas. Two African Skimmers put in an appearance after breakfast, as well as a pair of rather promiscuous Banded Mongooses. Stopping at the Kazinga Crossing, we coaxed White-winged Warblers and Papyrus Gonoleks out of their dank retreats. In intermittent heavy rain we continued our way south through Ishasha, eventually arriving at Buhoma in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Although it was a very sombre, threatening evening, there was still time for a walk around our lodge, where White-tailed Blue Flycatchers bounced around in the shrubs, Chubb's Cisticolas duetted from the dense secondary cover and African Firefinches trilled sweetly from the cover they knew concealed them so well.

Next morning was a gorilla trek. Whilst waiting for the group to return from their hike, Brian was entertained by a rather tame Madagascar Lesser Cuckoo that was picking up caterpillars from the rangers’ lawn. After lunch back at the lodge, we had a walk into the lowland forest. This was not planned, but because of the close proximity of the gorillas in the morning, the afternoon was now free. We were to do the same walk all of the following day, eating our picnic lunch whilst in the forest. Some nice birds showed themselves, many of the species Albertine endemics, and amongst these we found Red-throated Alethe, Mountain Masked Apalis, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, Blue-headed Sunbird and Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher.

The Short-tailed Warbler was a tease for most of the group, but the other local prizes such as White-bellied Robin-Chat, Chapin's Flycatcher and Black Bee-eaters were more co-operative.

Leaving the lowlands we paid a visit to another eco-friendly local, who was also benefiting from the birders visiting his land - as of course were the pair of Bat Hawks who had successfully raised their young and left with them the previous afternoon! An inquisitive Red-chested Flufftail was probably the star, and indignant Mackinnon's Fiscals scolded from the bordering shrubbery. Nearby, we teased a pair of Red-throated Wrynecks. Then it was time to start our climb to the upper elevations of this region, and on the way we saw a delightful pair of Brown-backed Scrub-Robins displaying on a low stump.

At the "Neck" we paused for our lunch break, finding unusually extraverted Red-tailed Greenbuls and sprightly Cassin's Grey Flycatchers. It was here that the Giant African Swallowtail came gliding down out of the forest and, after flying around us, disappeared again. After further climbing we stopped at the roadside, successfully finding Dusky Twin spots, dapper Western Green Tinker bird and trilling Chestnut-throated Apalis. The group was also treated here to wonderful views of Doherty's Bush-Shrikes.

In spite of being more rustic, our accommodation at Ruhija was so comfortable and the hostel staff top-notch. The beds were complete with hot-water bottles, and the open log fire ensured a high degree of comfort. The food was of very high standard, even more so when the remoteness of the location is considered. After checking in we looked down a nearby road and found our first agitated Collared Apalis, raspy Stripe-breasted Tit, and a pair of purring Grauer's Warblers.

The descent to the Mubwindi Swamp makes for a fairly arduous day, and then there is always the ascent that must follow, back to the 8,000-foot level of the road-head. It had rained all through the night as we were comfortable in our beds, and was still raining as we ate our wholesome breakfast. In these miserable conditions we embarked on this road, with porters, guards, and our walking sticks, which were cut to size on the spot. Little was actually found on the descent and the rain fell all through the hike, but Rwenzori Batis and Sharpe's Starling did put in an appearance.

The highlight of this expedition (if not the tour) was a pair of African Green Broadbills at their nest containing two young. This was being monitored by a Ugandan researcher, who was taking copious notes throughout daylight hours (except for an hour for lunch, when there must have been a mutual arrangement with the birds that all activity should cease!). It is very encouraging to see the enthusiasm of the local birders, for it is in their hands only that the future of this and many other species rests.

The rain started to ease whilst we watched the comings and goings of the adult birds, and it turned into quite a pleasant early afternoon. Some porters had brought out lunch for us, but the best part of this was hot tea and coffee! Over lunch the Grauer's Rush Warblers were reticent but finally capitulated, and Carruther's Cisticolas frequently exploded over the reeds, so much easier to see here than in their normal papyrus habitat. With the clemency of the weather, birds hitherto frustrated by the inundation of the morning became active, and Dusky Crimsonwing and Rwenzori Hill-Babbler were amongst these. Stopping at a second Green Broadbill nest where birds were taking turns at incubating, Archer's Robin-Chat put on a splendid show, and a Grey-chested Illadopsis was initially obliging in the same place. The climb back up was quite birdy with only the very intermittent shower, and the group arrived safely back on the road-head and returned to the lodgings.

Before dinner it was decided that, being such a nice evening, we would have a drive for nocturnal things. There was not a squeak from a nightjar, and distant Wood Owls hooted feebly. Demidoff's Galagos were so active that the group saw nothing but their flaming-coal orange eyes as big as saucers. It was on trying to return that disaster struck , as we managed to get the vehicle very seriously stuck. No amount of pushing and shoving would move it back onto the road, and even with fifteen people it could not be nudged. The group trudged back for a rather late dinner. That night, in a snug bed again, our tired bodies repaired the aches and pains of the day.

In the meantime, Ben, the rangers and the hostel staff had been very active. Ben had gone for a pick-up in Kabale, and the hostel called up a minibus from Buhoma. We bade farewell to our friends at the camp and drove to where the vehicle was still firmly implanted. From here we began walking out, birding along the road. In the meantime, Ben came by followed by a pick-up armed with a big hook and strong looking winch. A few new species appeared, amongst them Strange Weaver, Mountain Yellow Warbler, White-starred Robin and White-tailed Crested Flycatcher. The vehicle was soon free, and after eating our lunch we set off for Kabale. About eight years ago, Brian had discovered some unusual swifts nesting in road cuttings in this area, and they were busy preparing the sites as we passed. We stopped, the differences from all known species of swifts were pointed out to the group, and a dozen photographs were taken of these mysterious creatures for follow up. We arrived at Mbarara at dusk, just in time to see our only Little Grebes for the tour.

The next day we were on our way to Lake Mburo National Park. We stopped at a small roadside dam to watch a Greater Painted-snipe! Lake Mburu is quite unlike any other of the National Parks we visited; it has Common Zebra, Impala and Topi for a start. The fairly dry lakeside savannah peppered with emergent Euphorbias provides a habitat unique to the country. Certain species are in Uganda only in this small corner, the most important being the Red-faced Barbet, sharing the range where Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda meet. One posed for us on top of a euphorbia. Other specialities also found included Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, White-shouldered Tit and African Scimitarbill.

Mabira Forest was to be our final birding destination, and a fairly bright morning was heralded by a good variety of birds gathering in the canopy trees. This provided not only new species for the tour, but enabled good views for members who had up to now only had the scantest of sightings of some species. Our full day there rewarded us with views of White-spotted Flufftail, a pair of Forest Wood-Hoopoes, reeling Grey Longbills, pulsating Sooty Boubous, and adventures with Safari Ants. These made seeing normally secretive species like Red and Green-tailed Bristlebills or Fire-crested and Brown-chested Alethes very easy indeed.

Our final morning was all too short, with rain having fallen all night and still persisting at dawn. The overcast and wet conditions kept the birds quiet. With the help of Ibrahim, hitherto elusive species such as Jameson's Wattle-eye and Grey-headed Sunbird were added to the list. The return to Entebbe was smooth, with traffic jams once again circumnavigated, leaving ample time for packing and relaxing.

We have so many people to thank for this tour: the staff who were there for us, serving and preparing breakfasts, when under normal circumstances they would still have been in bed; the numerous guides who provided services in all of the protected areas; all those involved in the setting up and running of the tour. But foremost thanks go to Ben, our ever-faithful, punctual, polite, professional and - most of all - safe driver, who started out with us and escorted us in good stead right through to our departure from the "Pearl of Africa.

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