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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Uganda: Shoebills to Gorillas

2021 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The year 2021 will be remembered in the history books as the second full year of the COVID-19 plague that debilitated the entire world. But it will also be remembered as a time when, with mankind in confinement, much of the natural history world flourished and the planet was able to repair some of the damage thrust upon it over the last century.

With a continuing learning of how to combat the scourge, and with taking the right precautions, it is still possible to safely experience the environment, and one British and five American visitors opted to visit Uganda for a bird tour of just under three weeks in the cool months of June and July, and experience the superb birding and wildlife viewing it has to offer with the outgoing hospitality of the people. 

IN DETAIL:All participants arrived one day earlier than the official start of the tour, and with the availability of Paul Tamwenya and Brian Finch on the rest day, it was turned into an introductory walk around the “Papyrus Lodge” environs in Entebbe where we were based, and an afternoon stroll in the Entebbe Botanical Gardens. As casual as this extra day was, it still netted five species not recorded on the main tour with nesting African Hobbys, African Pied Hornbill, African Wood Owls roosting in the garden, Barn Owl noisy at night, and the delightful Orange Weaver, which is very local in Uganda. With close to the first 100 species “under our belt” we were all refreshed to start the official tour the following day.

The first venture was to Mabamba Wetlands to the west of the Entebbe Peninsula. The continuing rising waters of Lake Victoria, which as we had seen completely flooded the foreshore of the Botanical Gardens, were also affecting this area, however the prize bird posed close to us whilst we and other visitors drank in its magnificence. This was the day’s most desired species, the enigmatic Shoebill, whose life history in the depths of the inundated papyrus and reed swamps is still being unravelled with current opinion favouring it being more allied to pelicans than storks. Other birds here included many African Marsh Harriers, the trip’s only Purple Swamphen, and a good variety of herons and marshland birds.

We now undertook the long drive to Masindi on smooth paved roads. It might be mentioned here that all major connecting roads we travelled were paved, with the exception of the SW corner detour to the Bwindi-Impenetrable Forest, which is still dirt but well maintained. We saw so much during the tour that I know as I write this that I will be thinking “Oh! I had better mention this,” and making numerous insertions throughout. In the twenty days we recorded 558 species, and yet only ten of this number were “heard only” birds, the rest were all seen by at least one member of the group, but as with all deep forest birding it was easy to miss something that appears fleetingly. Paul was unerring in his use of the laser pointer and many birds would have been missed were it not for this and his amazing eyesight. In addition, he was also the organizer, trouble-shooter, driver, and guide for this incredible trip.

On our way to Masindi we had many nice sightings including Saddle-billed Stork, Western Banded Snake-Eagle and the very local Hartlaub’s Marsh Widowbird. We spent the night in the Masindi Hotel, famed for being the oldest established hotel in Uganda. The next day saw us leaving for Kaniyo Pabidi for a stop for the so very local Puvel’s Illadopsis which gave us a major run around and few saw it as it skulked in thick undergrowth, when in the past it used to climb openly into leafless scrub for a better view of the visitor! As every birder visiting Uganda searches for the same individuals, it’s not surprising that the birds treat people with indifference! On the way in the field of crops, we picked up our first of many White-tailed Hornbills, Black and Northern Red Bishops, the all-blackish race concolor of Red-collared Widowbird which has no trace of red whatsoever, Compact Weavers, and the scarce Grey-headed Oliveback.

On arrival at the top of the Murchison Falls we viewed the Nile burgeoning, as the already overextended Lake Victoria sends its record water levels crashing through the 10m wide gap. It was an amazing sight, and displaced White-collared Pratincoles searched for places to land. Here we also had three distant birds in the top of a dead tree. Whilst we had a telescope for use on such occasions, we were loath to use it, as the eye-piece is a potential COVID transmitter and could pass any infections amongst the group with the virus easily entering through the eye. So, we used the instrument very rarely. Lightning-fast reactions with cameras brought in birds as well as any telescope and we were able to see that the birds were a pair of Cassin’s Hawk-Eagles (presumably from Kaniyo Pabidi), and an adult African Cuckoo-Hawk - both the only sightings on the trip.

After a few more birds on the way out of Murchison Falls NP, we moved in to the incomparable (on reflection there were several incomparables!), Kabalega Wilderness Lodge perched on the top of the bank with a magnificent vista of the Victoria Nile River.

The next morning, we left for our full day exploring the north side of the National Park. When I was last there three years ago, we had to ride on the ferry across the river. In the meantime, a bridge had been built across the mighty river, though this was soon lost to the rising water levels and the river now flows over the road surface, so a new and much higher bridge has been constructed and is open although not finished as yet, and we soared over the waters to the other side where we had an incredible day’s birding and mammal viewing. How to select just a few interesting species out of all that we saw, the most magnificent: 17 Abyssinian Ground Hornbills, the most elegant: Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, the most beautiful: Red-throated Bee-eater. The most surprising is that people who know this area well will recall that on the boat trip to the foot of the falls there was anything up to 1000 Pied Kingfishers breeding in large colonies and feeding in flocks all along the river. The rise of the water has inundated the colonies and the sum total of Pied Kingfishers on the journey there and back was…!!! After our boat excursion we paid a visit to some friendly Red-winged Grey Warblers then back to the lodge for a very welcome dinner preluded with an attempt for nightjars nearby, which netted a Yellow-winged Bat and a black-tailed white cat!

Farewelling Kabalega (Murchison Falls) National Park next morning we set off for the Butiaba Escarpment seeing a number of good birds on the way, the most extraordinary sight being in an area flooded by rising Lake Albert. It was under normal circumstances a patch of acacia savannah in short grassland with two piles of discarded material, now it was a shallow pond and on each of the two artificial piles sat displaced Shoebills!

Other interesting species along here included twenty African Black Swifts, rarely recorded in Uganda, and some Cut-throats in the same place as they were three years previously. On the Butiaba Escarpment we gazed out in both horror and fascination at the fishing town of Butiaba inundated and the waters lapping all around the walls of the now out-of-commission Fish Factory. All homes were likewise islands. Around us on dry land we enjoyed species like Foxy Cisticola, Green-backed Eremomela and Cabanis’s Bunting. After a short walk along the road in the Busingiro side of Budongo Forest we continued to the Masindi Hotel once more, as the serious forest birding would start tomorrow…. and it did!

Leaving the Hotel after an early breakfast (all breakfasts were early), we looked at a few things along the way and met up with our resident guide at the entrance to the Royal Mile. This is a broad avenue of trees running through the forest, and there is a regular grid of very narrow paths alongside for the use of the Chimpanzee researchers, but not for birders. This was a typical high forest birding day in equatorial Africa, meaning that the day starts with many birds calling that remain unseen and it is only through perseverance that the birds are gradually observed, and we did very well with the specialities of the area such as Chocolate-backed and Dwarf Kingfishers, Willcock’s Honeyguide, Forest and Chestnut-capped Flycatcher’s, Spotted Greenbuls, Brown-crowned Eremomelas, Lemon-bellied Crombec and a host more. A nearby pond had Shining-blue Kingfisher but the biggest shock here was a Mottled Spinetail that came in twice to drink from the surface with its obviously all blackish underparts. 

The following day was spent in gardens in the area and the afternoon back in the Busingiro sector, picking up a number of additions which included Nahan’s Francolin (a New World Quail in spite of its name), Ituri Batis, Uganda Woodland Warbler, and Grey Longbill amongst others.

After our final night at Masindi Hotel we started our return southwards with a few stops and rewards en route to Hoima, and after a lunch stop, arriving in the afternoon at the highest parts of Kibale Forest north of Fort Portal. The trip’s only Joyful Greenbul, Masked Apalis and Tiny Sunbirds were here. Our night was at another outstanding establishment, Chimpanzee Lodge set back from a crater lake and a very birdy garden (although only ever experienced at lunch time)!

The next morning after a very early breakfast we arrived as pre-planned with our guide Moses for a pre-dawn walk in the forest to the area where Green-breasted Pittas were now caring for a free-flying but dependent young bird. Just after it got light, we heard the weird call of the bird and located it sitting on a horizontal bare branch, from which it leapt up, fully spreading the wings exposing the white marks in the primaries. After the initial meeting we later had good views of all three birds as they foraged for the young bird’s breakfast. Here we had a mild encounter with Safari Ants as well! It was really quiet in the forest once the Pitta had finished calling and we struggled to find birds, however on the road back to the lodge for lunch we ran into a good mixed flock, which introduced us to the likes of Afep Pigeon, Black Bee-eater, Cassin’s Honeybird, Narrow-tailed Starling, Petit’s Cuckoos-shrike, and a few others like Sabine’s- the last of the three Spinetail species. After lunch was the group’s Chimpanzee trek, which means no birds, and we had another roadside walk in the afternoon.

After our second night at Chimpanzee Lodge we set out for Bigodi Wetlands, a scrubby forest surrounding a papyrus swamp. With Josiah as our very efficient guide we enjoyed views of White-spotted Flufftail, Speckle-breasted Woodpecker and point-blank views of a Bocage’s Bush-Shrike family. It was very birdy- much of what we had seen before, we were now seeing better as not every bird seen for the first time will be anything like the views that come later, and that’s typical birding. On the way back for lunch we found our elusive Blue-throated Roller and left for Queen Elizabeth National Park.

We stayed at Mweya Lodge on the Kazinga Channel, which links small Lake George to extensive Lake Edward. Sitting in the illuminated dining room having our dinner in comfort, the well-lit windows were attracting moths. The moths attracted large numbers of Free-tailed Bats which plucked them off the windows. After this light entertainment and a good meal, we retired to the reception area where Swamp Flycatchers have become nocturnal and chase insects attracted by the chandelier lights, using them as perches from which to launch out, or seatbacks if they are unoccupied. It’s hard to believe that they obtain more food from a lit interior at night than they would from the daylight exterior, but obviously it is worth the switch in their working hours. Prior to all this, however, some of us had been waiting in the courtyard next to the life-size metal sculpture of an adult Elephant. The idea was to see if any wintering Pennant-winged Nightjars would come into the lights, and a female did do a circuit, and soon after she left, what must be thousands of Tomb Bats came pouring out of the Elephant’s mouth and ears, and a Bat Hawk came in twice to sample them.

The next morning after fortification we set off for our busy birding day finding many highlights making the drive worthwhile, a major one being Giant Forest Hogs. So many new species came thick and fast, and up to now our only Lark species had been Flappet, but here we added Rufous-naped, White-tailed and Red-capped as well as superlative views of Harlequin Quail and Common Buttonquail in the same area. A few African Crakes appeared and amongst an assortment of grassland birds were cisticolas, including Wing-snapping. We returned for lunch, and following this had a boat trip on the Kazinga Channel having close-up encounters with numerous waterbirds, including a large flock of African Skimmers. That evening we were all standing around the Elephant watching in fascination as thousands of bats literally spewed out of the mouth, however nothing else appeared and dinner was pursued, leaving one participant to wait a bit longer and be rewarded with a Bat Hawk paying a visit. This excellent meal was followed by the list with attendant flycatchers. 

We left Mweya, birding our way out and finding new additions to our swelling list, but lost an hour waiting for some bridge repair work on the Kazinga Channel crossing. Then we continued our way on to the Ishasha Road a little later than planned. We stopped at the first bridge along that road; it was the site where I spent some hours with a group back in September 2011 during a previous bridge repair! I found a pair of Simple Greenbuls here and called them up successfully for the group. It was the first time they had been recorded anywhere in Uganda away from the Semuliki Forest. So, on this occasion we tried playing Simple Greenbul but this time no answer. In 2011 we then had lunch by a school, and whilst eating I could hear what I was sure was a Lowland Sooty Boubou, which would have been ridiculous as it is only known from a lowland forest around Lake Victoria, and the even lower Semuliki Forest but not from anywhere else in the country. All through lunch the calls were coming from dense cover by the river, and after eating I played recordings of the species. It took twenty minutes of persistence, but we coaxed the pair into more open scrub where we had excellent views. Returning to 2021, whilst we were birding from the bridge finding some nice birds which included Golden-tailed Woodpecker, which was unexpected and the third record ever from Uganda, I thought I heard a single low call of Lowland Sooty Boubou. I had not heard of any subsequent sightings from the area since the previous discoveries, so we played the call. It responded with several of its calls, but no amount of playing would bring it into view and we had to leave it as we had far to go. It was good to know that the species is still in the area, however. Even with no sighting the group was very happy with the rediscovery. Shortly before leaving the Park we found a Lion loafing in a tree, then headed off to our top lodge, (at least in its 500ft elevation above the main road)! Our three nights in Silverback Lodge went very quickly.

The first day was spent Gorilla Trekking, and was a great success. We had a short walk along the road in the evening, but it was the following day we had to put our all into a full day’s birding along the Buhoma trail. The birds were kind to us, and the local niceties were on view. Our new birds included Western Bronze-naped Pigeon, Scarce Swift, Bar-tailed Trogon, Elliott’s Woodpecker, African Broadbill, Ansorge’s Greenbul, White-bellied Robin-Chat, Grey-throated and Chapin’s Flycatcher, Pink-footed Puffback, Willard’s Sooty Boubou (long and staggering views of a displaying bird), Purple-breasted and Blue-headed Sunbirds, diminutive Neumann’s Warbler, and others.

We finished up with a short look at the start of the trail on the morning of departure, successfully finding Many-coloured Bush-shrike and up-to-then elusive White-tailed Ant-Thrush and Black-billed Weaver. It was now time to go upstairs to the high elevation and have a few stops on the way to the narrow connecting wildlife corridor known as “the Neck.” Here was our only Cassin’s Grey Flycatcher of the trip and the first Banded Prinias. After lunch at this spot, we stopped at the first patch of highland forest, finding Mountain and Chestnut-throated Apalises below eye-level, and in a tiny patch of grass scrub in a sea of open fields on a very steep hill, our persistence found a pair of much desired but always challenging Dusky Twinspots.

Our residence now was Bakiga Lodge, which is a community project development to assist the local people by providing readily accessible and safe drinking water. It was quite an amazing place, the cabins on stilts on a very steep slope, with a faraway vista. We stayed for three nights. The first day was devoted to the easy decent, but punishing climb, from the bottom of a very steep sided valley to the swamp and return the same way.

Thankfully most birds are seen on the way down, and lunch is at the swamp for a partial recovery prior to the ascent. On this day we added many locally endemic species which included Dwarf Honeyguide, a pair of African Green Broadbills at their nest, Archer’s Robin-Chat, Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher, Rwenzori (Collared) Apalis, Grauer’s Rush Warbler, Stripe-breasted Tit, Rwenzori Batis, Albertine Sooty Boubou, Lagden’s Bush-shrike, Regal Sunbird, Strange Weaver, and Dusky Crimsonwing. Other more widespread eastern montane species were also found.

The second day we birded along the road still finding new Albertine specialities like Western Green Tinkerbird, but although there are exceptions, at the highest levels the endemics appear to give way to more widespread high montane species, and we found Mountain Buzzard, Black-billed Turaco, White-headed Wood-hoopoe, White-starred Robin, Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, White-browed Crombec, Doherty’s Bush-shrike, Slender-billed Starling, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Thick-billed Seedeater, and Western Citril. That evening we had a successful Rwenzori Nightjar event with two close on the path fully illuminated and rather indifferent to us.

After a full meal and a good night’s sleep we farewelled the staff at Bakiga and set off for our long trip to Lake Mburo. On the way out of the forest we found most obliging Handsome Spurfowl- first a pair, then a single bird. A few birds came along such as African Stonechat and the long-awaited White-necked Raven. The road journey was broken with a lunch stop by a swampy depression, although nothing new was added here, and we arrived on the entry road to Lake Mburo National Park in the late afternoon. Immediately there were new birds for the tour, but not exactly global rarities, but with curiously confined distributions in Uganda. These included Common Moorhen, Crowned Plover, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Bare-faced Go-Away Bird and Lilac-breasted Roller. Leaving the main road we had a pair of fully adult Brown-chested Plover- a highly sought-after species that breeds in West Africa and migrates eastwards. Our home for the next two nights was Rwakobo Lodge, situated on a smooth granite hill overlooking the plains. At night there were Square-tailed and Black-shouldered Nightjars calling for a short while, whilst some saw the latter.

After breakfast we went out for a full morning game drive, finding a host of new trip birds such as Lappet-faced Vulture, Pearl-spotted Owlet, African Scimitarbill, Crested and Black-collared Barbets, Bearded Woodpecker, Mosque Swallow, Tabora Cisticola, Red-faced Crombec, Dark-eyed Black Tit, African Penduline-tit, Slate-coloured Boubou, Red-headed Weaver, and Lesser Masked Weaver. Also, a good selection of game animals were enjoyed as a constant backdrop. After having returned for lunch, we set off in the afternoon for a boat trip on the lake. Always known for its African Finfoot reliability and a good chance with White-backed Night-Heron, it did not disappoint with either. After the boat we went to a special plain good for nightjars and tried our luck, with another success with staggering views of up to ten Pennant-winged- mainly males and already some with full pennants, also a couple of Black-shouldered but no sign of Square-tailed. There was no moon at all, and this might have made a difference at least to lack of vocalisations. Our last meal as a group was excellent as always, and we retired for the night.

After breakfast we had a look around the lodge for our missing Red-faced Barbets, almost the flagship species for Lake Mburo. We did find a very obliging pair coming into the fig-trees, but a walk on the rocks also gave us a single Freckled and two Square-tailed Nightjars, but rarer than any of them was a very handsome Striped Pipit running around on the rocks and posing on the bungalows next to the rocks. This bird was only recently found in Uganda in the past few years, and one record came from this very site, but that was back in May 2017, though it appears that a pair of birds has been resident here since then and maybe both are still here. On the drive out we found another pair of Brown-chested Plovers in a different spot, and the final new bird Lake Mburo offered up was a pair of Black-faced Waxbills.

After doing the tourist thing and stopping at the Equator, we continued on. Closer to Kampala we stopped for a shy Greater Swamp Warbler and that closed the book on new birds for the trip. We arrived in Entebbe in the late afternoon and refreshed at the Papyrus Guesthouse before transferring to the airport for our various flights.

First thanks have to go to such a compatible and game group, with long days, lengthy journeys, early starts and quite a bit of waking not always on flat terrain. With such enthusiasm and sharp eyes in all directions it is no surprise that so little got away!

A major part of the group was Paul who safely guided us around the country, and in so many cases guided us to the birds, as well as handling the administration expertly. Leading such a tour during a COVID lockdown presents problems never before experienced on such an expedition and in this we were breaking new ground.

Next thanks go to all the local guides, all of which were not only experts in their home territories, but showed such eagerness and skill in ensuring that all participants had the best views possible of all that was there to see.

But it took more people than that to make this tour so successful and a boundless thanks must also go to all of the staff in the lodges, who showed so much hospitality and professionalism ensuring that the pleasures of our brief stays we maximised, and this applied to every location. Also, that the COVID-prevention hygiene was taken extremely seriously and every precaution in place.

The final bird tally was 558 species recorded on the tour, of which only ten species were just heard only, in itself a remarkable result from forest birding!

                                                                                                                                                                      – Brian Finch, 2021

Created: 23 September 2021