Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Birding in Uganda

April 2010
(Bird and wildlife photos by Nancy Bell, text and scenic photos by Chuck Bell)

Friday, April 16
We arrived from the Tanzania portion of our Tropical Birding Megafari last night with our leader Keith Barnes and overnighted in an Entebbe hotel.  We were up at 5 am for a 5:30 am breakfast.  Then we waited for our driver, Hassan, who was almost a half-hour late.  Not a good way to start a trip.  We drove through Kampala to get to the Mabamba Swamp.  It has been raining here a lot over the past few days, and it was raining hard this morning.  We got to the end of a long muddy road about 9 am and boarded a couple of long, narrow swamp boats and set out in search of the Shoebill.  We paddled through the rushes, sedges and papyrus for 3 hours but no sign of the Shoebill at all.  We did get two lifers, a bad view of a small flock of Weyn's Weavers and a good view of a bright yellow Papyrus Canary.  
We were very disappointed to have missed the Shoebill.  Keith said we have two more chances for it on this trip.  We will also try again for the Papyrus Gonolek, which we tried for unsuccessfully as well.  

So far, the Ugandan roads have been awful.  And the people here are very poor, with abysmal living conditions. The rain and mud make things look a lot worse for these folks than it would appear in the dry season.  We drove into Kampala with its notoriously awful traffic and finally had lunch at 4 pm at a sidewalk cafe-restaurant.  We decided that it would be dinner too, so Nancy had fajitas and Chuck had fish & chips.  Our drive to Masindi took a little over three hours, most of it in darkness.  We came upon a huge termite hatch.  All the villagers were out in force catching bucketfulls of big termites to toast and eat.  They consider it a real delicacy and a highlight event of the year.  The Masindi Hotel staff was waiting for us.  It is one of the oldest hotels in Uganda and has beautiful hardwood floors and ceilings.  Our room was basic but fine.

Saturday, April 17
We headed out be 7 am and went straight to the Bodongo Forest to bird The Royal Mile.  It is a road through the forest that was used by the local tribal king to conduct traditional ceremonies out of sight of the British colonial masters.  There were lots of birds but most were very high in the canopy and hard to see.  It was very frustrating birding.  We did get a great view of the Dwarf Kingfisher and a partial view of the head and bill of the Chocolate-backed Kingfisher.  The masses of butterflies on the track were more captivating than the birds.  We drove to another spot in the forest and stopped on the road to eat our very good box lunches which came from an Indian restaurant in Masindi.  We then headed down to the plain of Lake Albert, stopping a couple of times along the way to bird some scrubby hills in the blazing hot hills.  The views over the lake were nice.  We still had a long way to go over dirt roads in rough condition and set off for Muchison Falls National Park.  We drove for more than two hours when we took a back road to Nile Safari Camp.  About 3 km from the camp, we encountered endless piles of dirt dumped in the middle of the track where repairs were underway.  But no road closure sign had been posted.   We had to turn around, and then Hassan got the vehicle stuck.  It took a half hour to get it out. We had attracted a crowd of local spectators and a watching woman finally gave our driver a hoe which was the tool that finally helped us get the vehicle out of the mud.  We then had to take the long way around and got to the camp at 7 pm instead of 5 pm as Keith had hoped.  The camp was perched right on the banks of the Nile and was rustic but nice.  The staff filled the outdoor shower tank with warm water at Nancy's request. We had a large cabin with screens that allowed the breeze to come through.  It also had a lovely large deck overlooking the Nile.  We dined to traditional music and dancing performed by local kids, did the bird list and went to bed.  So far we have seen 142 birds in Uganda, 13 of them new.

Sunday, April 18
We had breakfast at 6 am and birded around the lodge for a bit before boarding a Park Service boat to search for the Shoebill.  The boat was long and white, holding 14 passengers.  It had a big outboard motor.  We headed down the Nile toward the papyrus estuary where it flows into Lake Albert.  The river was full of hippos, one of the largest concentrations Chuck had ever seen.  One made a half-hearted charge at our boat.  Once we reached the estuary, we turned up a channel where the Shoebill had been seen 2 days ago.  It was still there at the end of the channel.  The boat driver managed to get around a pod of hippos to get close enough for good photos.  It was an incredible sight, a huge gray prehistoric-looking bird.  It was skittish and flew a couple of times but we were able to follow it for further views.  We were absolutely thrilled with this sighting.  
We began heading up river back to the lodge.  We stopped a bit to photograph a large Pied Kingfisher colony.  It nests in holes in the riverbank like the Carmine Bee-eater.  We also stopped to photograph Crowned Cranes and a Palm-nut Vulture, the only vulture that is a vegetarian.  The cook, who has a flair for Indian cooking, did excellent lamb chops with interesting spices for lunch.  Chuck then took a nap, and Nancy photographed the Vervet monkeys around the lodge and enjoyed the view out over the Nile.  When she came to our room, she left the door open and a Pygmy Kingfisher flew came in.  She caught it and held it for photographs before releasing it.  

Standard-wing Nightjar
We went to Murchison Falls in the afternoon.  The Nile, coming in from Lake Victoria, is compressed to a channel only 7 meters wide.  It falls 45 meters in swift steep rapids.  It was very dramatic and we just watched the water pouring over the falls for a little while.  The area used to be a maintained park but it has sadly fallen into disrepair. We picked up a couple of lifers in the afternoon, and we drove back to the lodge in the dark, finding 4 nightjars with Keith's new spotlight which we had brought out for him.  One of them was new for us, the Standard-wing.  Hassan caught it and we examined it to determine its species.  It turned out to be a young female, and we figured out what it was by its length.  

Monday, April 19
We were up again at 5 am, enjoyed our Starbucks Via, had breakfast at 6 am and went to leave right afterward when someone noticed a low tire on the vehicle.  We waited while the guys changed it.  We drove through the park, picking up a few birds along the way.  But we were in a hurry to get to Kaniyo Pabidi in the Budongo Forest Reserve.  Another flat tire waylaid us again.  It was already hot when we got to the forest, and the birding was slow.  We did see the Yellow Longbill, the Fire-crested Alethe and the White-throated Greenbul, and Chuck got the briefest of glimpses of the Puvel's Illadopsis.  But overall, the birding was much less than we expected for such a beautiful forest.  We heard Chimpanzees not far away, but our guide explained it would cost us $45 per person to go see them.  We declined.  As we were walking out, Nancy, who was near the front of the line, let out a scream.  A Green Mamba had shot out from under a big root she was stepping over, leaped up a tree and dropped into a hole in the trunk.  Our local guide and Mary also saw it but it was down the hole before anyone else could see it.  Nancy said it was about 4 feet long.  Once she recovered from her fright, we went back to the forest lodge, where we ate our excellent box lunches.  Nancy had three brochettes, and Chuck had tasty pieces of breaded chicken.  

Historic Masindi Hotel
We then drove to Masindi, checked into the hotel, and waited out the heat of the day, which was not quite as bad as yesterday but was still near 90 degrees.  We went back out at 4 pm to a scrub forest along the paved road.  A storm was threatening, which reduced bird activity.  But we did see a beautiful pair of White-crested Turacos and a displaying Brown-backed Scrub-robin.  A small mob of White Helmetshrikes was zooming around like naughty teenagers.  We dodged the rain and welcomed the cooler air it brought to the area.  We returned to the Masindi Hotel and did the checklist and had a delicious, authentic chicken curry for dinner.  We then showered and turned in.  So far in Uganda we have seen 229 species, 29 of them new.

Tuesday, April 20
We spent the first part of the morning birding roadside scrub on the edge of the Budongo Forest.  In terms of lifers, it was one of the most productive hours on the trip.  We got 5 or 6, mostly smaller seed eaters but also the Compact Weaver.  We then went into the forest walking along the dirt road.  Ugandan drivers tend to be extremely fast, reckless and discourteous.  One car intentionally swerved toward Chuck who was well off the road, trying to make him jump out of the way.  He stood his ground, wishing only for a large rock.  We heard a White-spotted Flufftail very close, and we all creeped into the forest to try to see it.  But it obviously was aware of us and did not come in to Keith's tape.  Then the heat of the day became really intense and the birds stopped moving and calling.  We returned to the Masindi Hotel for lunch.  We again had Indian food.  We loaded the car and headed for Kampala.  We drove straight through and arrived at the brand new lovely Golf Course Hotel at around 6 pm.  The facility was wonderful but the staff training was inadequate.  The staff tried hard to please but was very uncertain about what to do.  We had a very ordinary dinner in the cafe.  The hotel also had wireless so we had email contact with the family and checked the news, particularly about the status of air travel in Europe in the wake of the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

Black-and-white Casqued Hornbill
Wednesday, April 21
We had breakfast at 6 am, loaded the car with our luggage and were on the road by 7 am.  On the way out of Kampala in rush hour traffic we saw a pedestrian get hit by a car illegally passing on the wrong side of the road.  The man survived but appeared to have broken leg and arm.  Hassan said the driver would automatically get 60 days in jail, the minimum for hitting a pedestrian under any circumstances.  We did see the car moving over to stop.  We went to a small forest patch near Entebbe which was part of a malarial research station. We were not bothered by any mosquitos, fortunately.  We looked at edge birds, and the photographers in our group enjoyed taking pictures of a pair of Black-and-white Casqued Hornbills snuggling on a tree limb.  We went on to the Botanical Gardens for another hour's birding and photographing.  Then we went on to the airport and checked in for our flight.  Chuck went to the Rwandair office and paid for our Kigali-Kilimanjaro flight at the end of our trip.  We had lunch at the airport.  Nancy had chicken and chips, and Chuck had 5 delicious samoosas. 

Our totals for Uganda were 260 species seen, with 37 of them new.  This was well short of what we had hoped for in the way of new birds.  We hoped we would do better in Rwanda.  Our driver was supposed to be one of the best birders in the country but he had some sort of serious burn wound on his leg from a few weeks earlier that he had neglected and it now bothered him greatly, to the point of rarely leaving the car.  It appeared he thought driving tourists was beneath him and he complained and sulked much of the time.  We were very surprised when Keith told us he owned the company supplying drivers and vehicles.

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