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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Uganda: Shoebills to Gorillas

2018 Narrative

IN BRIEF: This was the first Wings/Sunbird tour to Uganda for some time, and it was a great success if measured by total species recorded in the short time we were there, or if we left our indelible mark on the bird fauna for Uganda, which we did.

The success has to be measured by incredible views of the incomparable Shoebill, and global rarity values such as African Green Broadbill and Oberlander’s Ground-Thrush – both of which only a few individuals are known to exist and both are inconspicuous and cryptic. The mark we left was in fact three (and a half). The best being the first Ugandan Caspian Gull, in fact the first East African, first sub-Saharan African and the first Southern Hemisphere record! Images have since been verified by the gull expertise of the world and confirmed as that species. There was not just one bird but three, but this counts as one mark, there are two others. They were the second Ugandan record of Southern Black Flycatcher, and the fifth only record for Striped Crake which was a pair, and after we let the word out other groups were able to enjoy the birds and found three! Now the “half”, in past tours we found both the first and second records of Southern Carmine Bee-eater for Uganda, there have been several subsequent records and to this we add one more. In the sixteen days, of which several were spent mainly travelling we recorded 516 species, of which 23 were heard only, which is to be expected when dealing with tropical forest.

Additionally we saw all ten available diurnal primates including of course the desired Mountain Gorillas and Chimpanzees, as well as a good assortment of other mammals including also Leopard and Lions.

IN DETAIL: Everyone arrived on either the evening of 22nd or the morning of the 23rd. Although the tour wasn’t officially starting until 6.00pm that evening, rather than sit around in the hotel waiting for the scheduled meeting, we did exactly that on the morning of 23rd, birding from the restaurant there was an amazingly varied array of spectacular birds to entertain us. Including a resident Shikra that kept the local avifauna on its toes, comical Eastern Grey Plantain-eaters giving a not-too-bad, shortened Kookaburra imitations. But the in-colour was red, and such dazzling reds they were, with Double-toothed Barbet, Black-headed Gonolek, Red-chested Sunbird, White-browed Robin-Chat and Red-billed Firefinches. About 11.00am having had a surprisingly good introduction to the Ugandan avifauna we went for a stroll down a couple of lanes not far from the hotel. We picked up a few new birds of course, but we were also able to admire some attractive butterflies on the roadside flowers. A few reptiles basking on walls included a showy Finch’s Agama, a species that means something special to me and not recorded in Entebbe before, there is a possibility of an introduction of course. We returned to the hotel for lunch and met up with the last two participants for the trip.

In the afternoon everyone went to the Entebbe Botanical Gardens, again very birdy but many species we had not seen in the morning. Showy Great Blue Turacos, dazzling Emerald Cuckoo, a pair of nesting Grey Parrots and amongst the weavers present, a pair of Orange Weavers and the only species that we did not encounter again on the tour. We were also entertained briefly by a pair of Spotted-necked Otters along the shore of the immense Lake Victoria.

On the 24th, now following the itinerary having had a bonus day and already seasoned to Uganda birding, we departed for Mbamba in the hopes of finding Shoebill. With this major goal awaiting we were still distracted considerably trying to get there! It seemed we were stopping every few minutes for something special, and the species were adding up fast with Ross’s Turaco, African Pied Hornbill, and smaller attractive species like African Blue Flycatcher and White-headed Saw-wing. But we made it, and our guide and three boats were ready and waiting for us and soon we were quietly motoring, (this is not an oxymoron – the engines just purred), heading out for the bizarre Shoebill. There were several African Marsh Harriers, which are always good to see. This is now considered Africa’s most endangered raptor as most of its breeding habitat has been drained, it has all but disappeared from neighbouring Kenya with barely a reported sighting each year but the papyrus beds of Lake Victoria remain a major stronghold in Uganda. Other waterbirds including attractive Yellow-billed Ducks and tame African Jacanas. Birds at this site are so used to boats that they are quite indifferent to close approach, and this is also the case with the Shoebill, we had the bird in the open on a floating vegetation island where it was waiting patiently for lungfish to reveal their presence, all this happening just 8 metres away from us. Whilst we were sitting peacefully with the bird a pair of Weyn’s Weavers flew around the boats and just as speedily….gone. We sought out other swamp birds with outrageous views of Papyrus Gonolek, quaint Blue-breasted Bee-eaters and aggressive nesting Grey-headed Gulls. We continued on to our destination of Lake Mburo but not before finding a roadside Shoebill!

Lake Mburo on 25th was a very different days birding, we started searching out species in the savannah woodland, when we stumbled on the Southern Black Flycatcher, so many other species seen included Crested Barbets, Tabora Cisticola, after lunch we had a boat trip with incomparable exposure to African Finfoot and eye-to-eye contact with a pair of White-backed Night-Herons with their two chicks and much else to entertain us on this very professionally run and magical cruise. We finished up the day with staggering views of Pennant-winged and Black-shouldered Nightjars on an open vlei (seasonal shallow lake), and a Gabon Nightjar on the drive back to the Lodge. It was a very full day and a good night sleep soon ensued.

On the morning of 26th we had a final scout around the park for Red-faced Barbet but none were to be found. We still added more species but this, the most desired in consideration of its minute range of just Lake Mburo and into a tiny portion of Rwanda, seemed not to be. We searched a place that they recently frequented for some time just outside of the park, and sadly departed the area driving back to the main road. The front car spotted a rallid run for cover on an inundation in the bushy savannah, but it disappeared into cover. We stopped and tried playback for two possibilities that it might have been, but no response. Then a bird walked out and was not at all what was suspected, for this was the most elusive of the rallids, a Striped Crake. Numerous photos and video were taken of this very obliging bird, then another appeared! We watched them and a car pulled up with birders aboard and they stayed a while but the birds unfortunately were not now on show. They said they had been watching Red-faced Barbets where we had been looking for them. We returned and found a beautiful pair, then back to the swamp where we learnt that our friends were not lucky, and decided to have our picnic there and whilst we ate they came out again for another showing. We were now running fairly late, as we had to be at Ruhija that evening so we had to limit our stopping rather drastically but it had all been most worthwhile.

The 27th saw us taking breakfast at Gorilla Mist Lodge, but the day’s outing was to look for the African Green Broadbill which requires the whole day with a picnic for the long descent and the obligatory longer ascent! We birded our way down finding a number of Albertine endemics like Rwenzori Batis, Rwenzori Apalis, Red-faced Woodland Warbler and an amazing Archer’s Robin Chat, which just wanted to sing to us, and perched openly which is unusual for this skulking species. On the last part of the descent we were shown a Broadbill nest with two adults in attendance and two well-grown young birds peering out the nest very soon to fledge. As in the past squirrels have destroyed nests, to see this pair with full-grown young was most heart-warming. We had our picnic by the Mubwindi Swamp where Grauer’s Rush Warblers were tormenting, and after eating we braced ourselves for the return. We were not staying in the highlands again and continued down to lowland Buhoma.

Awakening at the amazing Silverback Lodge on 28th, we had an early breakfast for this was the day for the Gorilla Trek. The entire day is dedicated to finding these impressive residents and spending an unforgettable hour with them. It was not an easy walk, and for those that had done the Ruhija trek the previous day, gave a good dosage of exercise but at least had the rest of the tour to relax, as everything after this seemed a doddle! In the late afternoon we had a walk around the area, towards the forest entrance.

Another comfortable night at Silverback, and another early breakfast on 29th got us ready for a walk on the relatively flat forest track. We found many good species, with Western Bronze-naped Pigeon, Black Bee-eater, only recently discovered as new for Uganda, Ansorge’s Greenbul, Red-throated Alethe, White-bellied Robin-Chat and the near mythical Oberlander’s Ground-Thrush.

On the 30th, we took a sad departure from this incredible location but more excitement waited for us as now we were bound for Queen Elizabeth National Park. This park has the highest bird total in Africa with an impressive 630 species and little did we know we were going to add to this total. We had lunch with Hippos that were actually in DR Congo, but could have been in Uganda in just a fraction of a minute, then continued northwards birding as we went. We were seeing many savannah species again but it was a very large Leopard ambling across the road that stole the show. It was in the early evening that we made our way into Mweya Lodge.

Another full day was waiting for us on 1st July, and yes an early breakfast before we set off on a day’s adventure. Before we left though, the sunrise from our table was just molten and quite unbelievable reflections in the water below us. It was a pleasant morning though dusty and cool; we birded our way out towards the Uganda Kob lekking grounds. Finding a great variety, of which several African Crakes, Black Coucal, and Black-chinned Quail-Finch were desired, then returned for lunch being visited by a Speckle-lipped Skink. In the afternoon we had an excursion in our own boat on the Kazinga Channel, firstly stopping at a sandy spit where we were surrounded by some three-hundred African Skimmers, picking up numerous waterbirds as we headed to the fishing village at the end of the channel overlooking immense Lake Edward. Here there were some fifty Lesser Black-backed Gulls that had not gone back to the north to breed, but amongst them were three birds that looked like Caspian Gulls (the excitement of which is contained in the opening paragraph of this report).

On 2nd we had a slightly later breakfast and farewelled QEP for a not-so-long journey to Kibale Forest. The journey was not without its rewards with dazzling Southern Red, Black-winged Red and Black Bishops along the roadside, we arrived at Chimpanzee Guest Lodge and had our picnic on the lawn. There were many birds around the gardens including nesting Double-toothed Barbets and a very relaxed Great Blue Turaco. In the afternoon we visited Bigodi Swamp Trail run expertly by the local community and some roadside birding back to the lodge. Here we picked up a few new forest species such as Sabine’s Spinetail, Blue-throated Roller and Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo. Also having very good views of Red Colobus and Grey-cheeked Mangabey.

Now the 3rd, we were searching for the Green–breasted Pittas, but as they had not been seen or heard for a couple of weeks we were not surprised not to find them. The birding in the tall forest was difficult; shady coupled with overcast conditions it was hard to see much detail and birds seem to like the highest canopy and it really is high. On the roadside we were rewarded with good views of Afep Pigeons and nesting Narrow-tailed Starlings. We did a walk back in the forest in the afternoon to look for Chimps and had close views. Because of some mix-up at Chimpanzee Guest Lodge they had double-booked space and we had to transfer to Crater Lodge, which certainly had a much better view.

On the 4th, we departed Kibale for a long days drive broken up with birding stops. An impromptu stop was in Fort Portal where we had very good views of Highland Rush Warbler; this race has been split off from the more southern Little Rush Warbler, which it is called in the regional field-guides. Our first proper stop was at the highest part of Kibale Forest on the other side of Fort Portal. It was a rewarding walk, though the heavy traffic was trying, it did give us a nice pair of African Black Ducks, which is a very under-rated attractive bird, Cassin’s Honeybird, the very local Mountain Masked Apalis and Yellow-mantled Weaver. After Hoima we came to an abrupt stop, as there was a flock of White-thighed Hornbills in dead roadside trees. These can usually be difficult to see in thick forest so the views were exceptional; also here we found a flock of Red-headed Lovebirds equally in the open. Finally arriving at Masindi Hotel, the least favourite accommodation of the whole tour, unchanged for thirty years apart from having Wi-Fi! Some may call it quaint or rustic but the truth is it’s Spartan. The staff are friendly and outgoing however.

Our entire day for the 5th was to be spent in Budongo Forest, and so we took a picnic with us. After meeting our guide we were soon birding with Grey-headed Oliveback and a Cabanis’ Bunting near the forest entrance. Inside the forest the gloom of the exterior was amplified in the shade of the colossal trees. The sun never emerged all the time we were there, but at least it didn’t rain. Consequently birding was difficult but with persistence we picked up some local specialities such as Chestnut-capped Flycatcher, Lemon-bellied Crombec and Chocolate-backed Kingfisher. Other species were Cassin’s Eagle, Blue-breasted Kingfisher, Brown-crowned Eremomela and Yellow-browed Camaroptera.

After breakfast at Masindi Lodge on 6th, we set off to Murchison Falls National Park via the Butiaba Escarpment. Stopping at a small patch of papyrus, we had a White-winged Warbler singing on the edge of the vegetation in full view, and also a Blue-headed Coucal here. We passed another part of Budongo Forest and walked along the road in the sunshine, which made a nice change. There were some good birds with better views of both Brown-crowned Eremomela and Lemon-bellied Crombec, and a pair of Dwarf Kingfishers. A detour for Shining-blue Kingfisher was successful but only a few actually saw the bird as it nearly hit them! By the end of the day, although two were heard only (but seen the previous day), we ended with ten species of Kingfishers; there can’t be many places where you can do that! Butiaba was rewarding with Black-billed Barbet, Green-backed Eremomela, and Foxy Cisticola. The drive up to Murchison was also very birdy, numerous arresting Northern Red Bishops were common, but a nice surprise was finding five Cut-throats (rare but spreading in Uganda) with a party of Shelley’s Sparrows. There were many stops for birds along the way, which numbered Dark Chanting Goshawk, Red-winged Grey Warbler and Western Violet-backed Sunbird. Closer to the Kabalega Guest Cottages our destination for the evening we found a pair of White-rumped Seedeaters.

We had had a very comfortable night at Kabalega GC, and arrived on 7th, for an early breakfast. Today was going to be very full with a start of crossing the Albert Nile by ferry and driving to the delta area where the Nile spills out into Lake Albert. It was a very interesting circuit, and we picked up such nice things as seven Red-necked Falcons, Heuglin’s Francolins, Vinaceous and Black-billed Wood-Doves, Swallow-tailed, Red-throated, and a single Southern Carmine associating with a flock of Northern Carmine Bee-eaters, Black Scimitarbill, Abyssinian Ground-Hornbills, both White-browed and Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weavers and Bar-breasted Firefinch. Whilst in the mammal line we had a group of Lions and a pack of some forty attractive Patas Monkeys. In the afternoon we had a private (bordering on luxury… it had canapes even!), launch to the foot of the falls. There were many birds along the river, and mammals coming down to drink. Senegal Thick-knees were along the bank or sheltering under bushes, and a pair of White-collared Pratincoles waited for us where we viewed the spectacular Murchison Falls, where the entire Victoria Nile is tumbling through a gap less than ten metres wide. After the launch we went for a drive on the south side and fed some tsetse flies. In the evening we stopped at an opening in the scrub where three Pennant-winged and a couple of Swamp Nightjars were feeding and nearby a Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl was sitting in the road. Then returning to a delicious meal at Kabalega GC.

The 8th was everyone’s departure day; we arrived for breakfast a little later than usual. There was quite a lot of bird movement along the river, which was a distraction, and we farewelled, the staff and set off for our return to Entebbe. On the way out we stopped along the road near Kaniyo Pabidi finding visible Chestnut Wattle-eyes at last, and a male White-fronted Black Chat perched high on a roadside tree. The remainder of the trip back was comfortable and we reached the environs of Kampala in the late afternoon, easily recognisable by the traffic, but our drivers avoided this and got us onto the bypass for Entebbe and this took no time at all. After repacking all were ready to leave this delightful country, albeit on different flights.

Our thanks go to Paul who as well as organising the tour as the ground-agent, and driving the lead vehicle, managed to magically spot seemingly invisible birds in the shadiest of places, Eriab in charge of the second vehicle was an excellent driver with astounding eyesight also, and a very keen “L” birder but obviously enjoys it to the fullest. Further thanks to all of the numerous resident Guides who worked their hardest to ensure we saw the birds we were looking for, the staff of the accommodations where we stayed who provided comfort, security and good food.

Uganda is a land of the friendliest people, stunning scenery, comfortable climate, good infrastructure, and some of the world’s most impressive mammals and birds. In addition we must congratulate ourselves, it was an extremely compatible, good-humoured, interesting and punctual group that was a pleasure to be a part of, and hopefully everyone has some cherished memories of the experience that they will always hang on to.

-Brian Finch

Created: 02 August 2018