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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Uganda: Shoebills to Gorillas

2023 Narrative

IN BRIEF: The year 2023 will be remembered in the history books as the first full year of a fairly rapid recovery after the three years of ravages by the COVID-19 plague that debilitated the entire world. It had played a major destructive role in the tourist sector from which some enterprises never recovered, but those that have, have used the down time for improvement of their products and travelling through the Ugandan countryside, this can be seen. All accommodations visited on the 2023 tour were in a superb state although the return of the tourism still lacks the former numbers. Much of the country has not changed much but some places have degraded with so much of the former Lake Mburu National Park being annexed and handed over to individuals for livestock and crop farming, and the sorry sight of the Busingiro section of Budongo National Forest being irreversibly destroyed by ambitious road “improvements.”  Whilst any forest not part of the National Park or Forests protection has either gone or has little chance of surviving, the National Parks at least have demonstrated their dedication to protecting the environment. It is so encouraging that in every corner we visited, there are guides eager to share their vast knowledge of the regional avifauna, and that thanks to these people they are able to provide the visitor with sightings of species that the visitor would not be able to obtain without their assistance. Those that have retired have passed their knowledge on to the next generation of conservationists.

The 2023 group arrived to experience the environment and unique wildlife of Uganda, and consisted of two Canadians, two Americans, and one Briton opting to visit Uganda for a bird and mammal 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 together with the outgoing hospitality of the people.

IN DETAIL: All participants arrived at least one day earlier than the official start of the tour, and with the availability of 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 a morning stroll in the Entebbe Botanical Gardens. As casual as this extra day was, it still netted three species not recorded on the main tour with Crowned Hornbill, African Wood Owls roosting in the garden, and the attractive Golden-backed Weavers at their nest. 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 now abating waters of Lake Victoria, which still completely flood the foreshore of the Botanical Gardens, were also still affecting this area, however the prize bird posed close to us whilst we were alone drinking in its magnificence. But this was better than just appreciating the adult, as at its feet was its chick which spent most of the time fast asleep but occasionally had a quick look around before another doze. 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. Another species here included another inconspicuous swamp denizen with two Lesser Jacanas, a few African Marsh Harriers quartered the marshland, and we had impressive Purple Swamphen, as well as a good variety of herons and marshland birds.

After a lunch stop in Kampala, we were ready to undertake 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 via the main north-south road through Queen Elizabeth NP 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 531 species, of which 25 were “heard only” birds, the rest were all seen by most members 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 as few saw it as it skulked in a thick dome of mid-story growth, 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! Before arrival in the fields of crops, we picked up our first White-tailed Hornbills in roadside trees, Black, Black-winged Red and Northern Red Bishops, the all-blackish race concolor of Red-collared Widowbird which has no trace of red whatsoever, Compact Weavers, and the scarcer Grey-headed Oliveback. This was but a fraction of the different seed-eating species enjoying this cultivation.

On arrival at the top of the Murchison Falls we viewed the Nile bursting over its narrow outlet, crashing through the 10m wide gap. It was an amazing sight, and a few displaced White-collared Pratincoles searched for places to land. Whilst having our picnic lunch we were entertained by few smart velvety-black and red Finch’s Agamas. From here we birded our way to Kabalega Wilderness Lodge beautifully located on the bank of the Victoria Nile. The group opted to have a quiet time in the afternoon and each relaxed in their own private garden. Whilst in his own room Brian was working on the computer listening to birds calling from the very dense scrub outside and there was a call that he had never heard before, but also a species he had never seen before but recognised it as belonging to Dusky Babbler. Having a recording of the species on his iPad he set the call on “infinity” and left it running on the porch. The birds came in to investigate but stayed hidden, now and again the birds would cross a clearing or even pose for a micro-second in a short tree before dashing back into concealment. This was enough to confirm the identity although the call was sufficient, but not enough to get desired video or images. However using the camera on video with the lens-cap on it was possible to take some very close recordings of the birds vocalisations which was later downloaded as a wav. file. Calling Paul to announce this exciting finding the two continued to have frustratingly brief but very open views and decided this would be the first target for the group the following morning, when the birds behaved a little better but views were brief.

After chasing the babblers, we left for our full day exploring the north side of the National Park. An impressive bridge now spans the river, giving good views of a variety of marsh species on the northern side, and after “soaring” over the waters to the other side, we had an incredible day’s birding and mammal viewing. How to select just a few interesting species out of all that we saw, ranging from the majestic dozen Abyssinian Ground Hornbills to the miniscule and modest Foxy Cisticola.  For elegance it was hard to top the Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, whilst for outrageous coloration it was hard to look past the Red-throated Bee-eaters. In the afternoon we had a private boat taking us down to the foot of Murchison Falls. On our previous visit in 2021, we remarked on the drowned forest lining the river towards the foot of the falls, and how the skeletal drowned trees were a depressing sight, but now with the fall in the water level, new growth is appearing amongst the tree carcasses, and the Pied Kingfisher and Red-throated Bee-eater breeding cliffs are once again above the water and being utilised. So the mysterious rising waters of the Albertine Rift lakes inclusive of Lake Victoria basin are slowly releasing some shoreline. After our boat excursion we paid a visit to some usually friendly Red-winged Grey Warblers, then returned back to the lodge for a very welcome dinner accompanied by a very habituated Yellow-winged Bat which was a local “pet,” and completely tolerated, enabling extraordinary fully illuminated views of this attractive aerial mammal.

Farewelling Kabalega (Murchison Falls) National Park next morning we set off for the Butiaba Escarpment seeing a number of good birds on the way. It was a rich journey with so many interesting species, but perhaps the stand-out observation was a confiding adult Baudouin’s Snake-Eagle sitting right next to the road, which after appreciating the bird for some time, we drove off and left still in the same place. On the previous visit from 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. It was encouraging now to see that the Fish Factory was being rebuilt, and the village was again on dry land. Around us we enjoyed species like  Green-backed Eremomela and demonstrative Cliff Chats. It was however horrific to see the damage that the widening of the road in the Busingiro side of Budongo Forest was causing and with no-where to stop 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 well before the forest for a look in the cultivation. Whilst walking through the tracks around various crop species we had an amazing time with the variety of estrildid finches. Highlights were such good views of Brown Twinspots and dazzling Orange-breasted Waxbills. We also located Cabanis’s Bunting holding a large territory amongst a host of other seedeaters, then continued to 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 list of desired birds is slowly whittled away, 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, Uganda Woodland Warbler, Lemon-bellied Crombec, Grey Longbill, Ituri Batis, and a host more.

The following day was another visit to “The Royal Mile,” searching out species that were not performing yesterday, and again we were well rewarded with highlights of close encounters of Nahan’s Partridge and outrageous views of a posing Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo.

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 and Tiny Sunbirds were here.

Our accommodation in Kibale was the very attractive and comfortable Guereza Canopy Lodge with well-spaced very well-appointed bungalows offering individual privacy and excellent meals. From this base we explored the local area, keeping our appointment pre-dawn the first morning listening to the Green-breasted Pitta, although the bird was highly mobile and frustrating as far as prolonged views were concerned. Not confiding as in previous visits. In the afternoon we had an amazing Chimpanzee experience, being so surrounded by terrestrial chimps of all ages, it was like we were part of their group, and they were on a human trek to see us! Like all thick forests birding had its frustrations and many species were loath to show themselves. However we did encounter a few nice mixed parties, and a highlight was the Bigodi swamp walk, where the organisers now have pairs of wellington boots for their clients. The reason for this becomes obvious when crossing the board walks, and much of the construction is now under water. Nevertheless we enjoyed a whole host of nice birds which included White-spotted Flufftail, Shining-blue Kingfisher, Speckle-breasted Woodpecker and Magpie Mannikins as well as six diurnal primate species.

We stayed at Mweya Safari 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 a few 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 long adapted to a nocturnal life-style, 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.

The next morning after fortification we set off for our busy birding day finding many highlights making the drive worthwhile. 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 excellent views of African Crakes, and a number of new Cisticola species also appeared amongst an assortment of grassland birds. A Bat Hawk entertained us as it flew around and around us being pursued by an angry Black-winged Kite, and neither were going to give way. The numerous plains game were largely Uganda Kob, and not surprisingly attracting Lions and we saw one group that had edged itself partially under a vehicle so that it was unable to move for fear of running over the animals, and the tourists were going to stay there a while! We returned for lunch, and following this had a boat trip on the Kazinga Channel having close-up encounters with numerous waterbirds, starting well with a pair of the African race payesii Little Bitterns which posed on top of the reeds on the jetty. There were huge gatherings of Pied Kingfishers (the only sociable species in the entire family), but accompanying one such flock was a leucistic individual, largely snow white but with strongly contrasting black primaries. It was another couple of birds associating with another group of kingfishers that were the most unusual species on this boat ride, and these appeared in the form of a pair of Crested Barbets. This bird from south of Uganda had for some time been a breeding resident in Lake Mburo National Park close to the Rwandese border, but even though they were increasing there, no birds had ever been found this far north before. The lodge’s 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, and saw some tree-climbing lions near Ishasha in the extreme south of Queen Elizabeth NP. From here we started our climb towards Buhoma. Our new accommodation was “Ride 4 A Woman,” which was a charity to empower women with a sense of pride and a means of income.  It was a very happy establishment, but more than this the rooms were superb with enormous beds bedecked in attractive materials that were adorned by skillful seamstresses on site. The food and service was second to none, and the group enjoyed all of their stay at this establishment.

The first day was spent Gorilla Trekking, and was a great success and the fortune of having a close family as their allocation. The group were all back by 10:30am having had their hour with the gorillas and had the rest of the morning to enjoy where we were staying. In the afternoon we had a birding walk along the road. The following day the entire time was spent in the forest at Buhoma with lunch brought into the forest by the lodge, and we exited close to 6pm, so it was a very full day and full of birds. It is difficult to know what were the best birds, as there was so much to choose from all through the day. Of all the specialities of this area, the best were probably the restricted range Willard’s Boubou, the increasingly difficult to see Neumann’s Warbler which displayed for us in full view on a fallen trunk, and often returning to the same spot. Or maybe the spectacular though widespread Western Bar-tailed Trogon and African Broadbill, or secretive forest species such as Chapin’s Flycatcher, White-breasted Robin-Chat or Red-throated Alethe.  It might have been Western Bronze-naped Pigeon, Elliott’s Woodpecker, Blue-throated Roller, Ansorge’s Greenbul, Grey-throated or Dusky-blue Flycatchers, Pink-footed Puffback, Blue-headed Sunbirds or 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 Snowy-headed Robin-Chat 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 were our only Cassin’s Grey Flycatchers of the trip and the first Toro Olive and Honeyguide Greenbuls and Banded Prinias. 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. After checking into our rooms we had an optional first look along the “School Road.” The first of a number of local specialities such as Mountain Masked, Rwenzori and Chestnut-throated Apalises, and Regal Sunbird, soon revealed themselves, but the prize here went to the prolonged views of an adult Cassin’s Eagle.

After a comfortable night and fortifying breakfast, most of the team set off for the Mubwindi Swamp Walk. This is the hardest part of the entire tour (with the exception of un-cooperative gorillas leading trekkers a merry dance), it starts off higher than 8,000 feet in altitude and drops steeply to just over 6,000 feet and of course the only way back is the way you came. The birds were very obliging with the trio of birds named after the ornithologist Grauer: the Broadbill, of which we had a pair constructing a nest and another pair with three recently fledged young, the Rush-Warbler obliging with some five birds on the edge of the Mubwindi Swamp, and the usually highly secretive and ventriloquial Grauer’s Warbler. There were numerous other species that kept the group completely occupied on the descent with extraordinary views of an extravert Lagden’s Bush-shrike, White-headed Wood-hoopoes that would not leave us, and the Albertine endemics Archer’s Robin-Chat, Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, Stripe-breasted Tit, Rwenzori Batis, White-bellied Crested Flycatcher, Albertine Sooty Boubou, Strange Weaver and Dusky Crimsonwing. At the swamp we additionally found African Water Rails, but a Red-chested Flufftail just remained a voice in the mire. It was on the return that there was a fortunate encounter with a group of habituated Gorillas that just happened to be next to the track.

Thankfully most birds are seen on the way down, and lunch is at the swamp for a partial recovery prior to the ascent. Other more widespread eastern montane species were also found, but whilst there were very many Slender-billed Starlings, a solitary Chestnut-winged Starling came as a complete surprise.

The second day we birded along the road still finding new local 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-starred Robin, Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, White-browed Crombec, Doherty’s Bush-shrike, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Thick-billed Seedeater, and Western Citril. That evening we had a successful Rwenzori Nightjar event with two close fly-bys but no co-operative birds on the track. Prior to this we had been checking out an area of cultivation, where there was just small clumps of grass habitat. We were looking for the elusive Dusky Twinspot, which is an Albertine endemic, only has a weak voice and its preference is being buried in the vegetation. We had been in the area for about an hour and were walking back towards the vehicle when one started to call. It was easy enough to spot as it was near our trail, just a little ahead of us and displaying and calling away from cover on a wooden fencepost! Needless to say this bird in full view was duly photographed and videoed.

After a full meal and a good night’s sleep followed by an excellent breakfast, we farewelled the staff at Bakiga and set off for our long trip to Lake Mburo. On the way out of the forest we located two territories of noisy Handsome Spurfowl but no amount of enticing was going to coax them into view. A few birds came along such as African Stonechat and the long-awaited White-necked Ravens.

The road journey was broken with a lunch stop en route and we arrived on the entry road to Lake Mburo National Park in the late afternoon. Immediately there were new birds for the tour at a pond, the prize being a Madagascar Pond Heron, but a party of Rufous-bellied Herons were a nice addition. For the first time we met up with a few species that in Uganda are amazingly local with curiously confined distributions. These included Common Moorhen, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Bare-faced Go-Away Bird and Lilac-breasted Roller.  Our home for the next two nights was Rwakobo Lodge, situated on a smooth granite hill overlooking the plains. At night there were Freckled, Square-tailed and Black-shouldered Nightjars calling for a short while, whilst the last named was shown to us at its daytime roost on our final morning. 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, Black-collared and the highly localized Red-faced Barbets. A real surprise was hearing a Golden-tailed Woodpecker and having it respond remarkably to a recording that it came in and posed and called enabling numerous images and video of the bird. The race it relates to (kavirondensis), has not been reported in Uganda before, although found not so far away on the Rwandese side of the border. Lead-coloured Flycatcher, Tabora Cisticola, and Dark-eyed Black Tit, were some of the mornings additions. 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. Apart from a single male Finfoot, we also had a pair with two large young, and the pair of White-backed Night-Herons also had two large young. A nice fly-by here was the trip’s only African Cuckoo-Hawk. 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 three male Pennant-winged- mainly males and already some with impressive pennants, also a couple of Square-tailed Nightjars. There was no moon at all, and this might have made a difference at least to lack of vocalisations.

Perhaps our last day of the tour will be remembered equally for a certain mammal species. In the morning we had a Leopard out strolling alongside us, in the afternoon we found a leopard in a different place in the Park, and on our nightjar quest, creeping around in the grass in the dark was our third leopard of the day! 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 (believe it or not)…  Brown-throated Wattle-eye, Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrike, Red-faced Crombec and White-browed Scrub-Robin with success with all four, however the sporadically singing Striped Pipits completely eluded us and yet were singing from the rocks prior to breakfast then completely shut up! Stopping at what looked like a new wetland on the return we picked up a number of new species for the trip with Little Grebe, Blue-billed Teal, what appeared to be an oversummering Eurasian Marsh Harrier, and Highland Rush Warbler. There were also more African Water Rails in the same place.

After doing the tourist thing and stopping at the Equator, we continued on. Closer to Kampala we stopped for a last chance with Blue-breasted Bee-eater, and were fortunate to find three birds in a Papyrus basin…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 with all the group overnighting for flights the following day, but Brian had to leave soon after our return.

First thanks have to go to such a compatible and game group, with some long days, a number of lengthy journeys, early starts and quite a bit of waking not always on flat terrain.

A major part of the group was Paul Tamwenya who safely guided us around the country, and in so many cases guided us to the birds, as well as handling the administration expertly.

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 were maximised, and this applied to every location.

                                                                                                                                                                                      - Brian Finch

Created: 11 October 2023