Peter and Helga did an exploratory tour of Uganda, a most outstanding destination for birders and wildlife enthusiasts. This tour was organised by the Uganda Tourism Board and together with 8 other participants we were shown the natural highlights of this country. Uganda is known as the ‘Pearl of Africa’ and it did not disappoint! It was an unforgettable wildlife and birding experience; not only does it offer the prehistoric looking Shoebill, African Finfoot, many raptors, Bee-eater and Kingfisher species ( including the Giant Kingfisher) and a host of Albertine Rift Endemics, but it also has a multitude of primates including the critically endangered Mountain Gorilla and Chimpanzee. During our reconnaissance trip we recorded over 420 species of birds and 40 mammal species! To join our 10-day tour in March 2021 please visit www.bellbirdtours.com
Day 0: After arriving in Entebbe Int’l Airport and a short transfer to our hotel, we went for a walk in the leafy streets and gardens of Entebbe. Birdlife was prolific and after an hour and a half we had 30 species, including highlights such as the colourful Ross’ Turacao, the aptly named Splendid Starling, a Wahlberg’s Eagle flying over and the colourful yet skulking White-browed Robin-chat (pictured). A lively welcome dinner was enjoyed by all participants, and anticipation for the upcoming trip was high!
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Day 1. The group, consisting of representatives from bird- and nature related organisations around the world, met for an early breakfast and then headed off to the swamps of Mabamba in search of the highly anticipated Shoebill! This enigmatic bird inhabits dense papyrus and reed swamps. Dugout canoes were employed to crisscross the swamp, and after about half an hour a Shoebill was located much to the delight of everyone! This unique bird is in its own family, and was in the past regarded as a bad omen by fishermen but nowadays attracts birdwatchers from around the world to Uganda. The bird provided good photo and video opportunities and after some time, it departed, leaving us awestruck. Further birding in the swamp and the nearby rural landscape resulted in no less than 65 species just for the morning! Highlights were hard to choose… African Jacana, close-up views of Malachite Kingfisher, 3 species of Weaver, a Tinkerbird, a Palm-nut Vulture, and a Black-and-White Casqued Hornbill come to mind! After lunch we drove through the rural landscape to Masindi, our base for the next few days’ of exploring, with sightings of Marabou Storks, Hadada Ibis and Hooded Vulture along the way, finishing off with a great sighting of Ugandas national bird: 4 Grey-crowned Cranes!
Day 2. We drove from Masindi town to Budongo Forest. A birding stop along the way in the rural landscape proved very productive, with great views of Red Bishop, Black-bellied Firefinch, Marsh Tchagra and many others. Once in the forest proper, we birded the ‘Royal Mile’ – a mile long forest road where the last Ugandan King walked to escape. We spent all morning and the first part of the afternoon just slowly birding along this track, and saw no less than 50 species in the forest! Highlights included Great Blue Turacao, Crowned Eagle, 4 species of Kingfisher including Chocolate-backed, Chestnut Wattle-eye, nesting Lemon-bellied Crombecs, nesting Superb Sunbird and Red-tailed Bristlebill… and many more. Red-tailed, Tantalus and Blue Monkeys entertained us while another awesome sighting was a family of 5 Chimpanzees! What a great forest and definitely recommended to visiting birders and naturalists.
Day 3. We departed Masindi in the fog after some overnight rain, but the weather soon cleared up. Some roadside birding stops in the rural landscaped proved rather productive with finger-licking species like Wahlberg’s Eagle, African Grey Hornbill, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Spot-flanked Barbet and Red Bishop, just to know a few. We then headed to Murchison NP in the far west of Uganda. This fantastic mix of dense forests, semi-open to open savannah, lakes and rivers is home to a rich variety of birds and literally thousands of mammals. In the forests we saw Black-and White Colobus monkeys, Olive Baboons, Guerza’s Mantled Monkeys and Tantalus Monkeys. After birding the forests (Brown-throated Wattle-eye, Green Crombec, Silverbird, Spotted Morningthrush, Brown Twinspot) we stopped at the magnificent Murchison Falls, the most powerful waterfalls in the world, where the waters of the Nile flow through a narrow gorge of only 7 m (23 ft) wide before plunging 43 metres!. After a picnic lunch we crossed the Nile on a ramshackle vehicle ferry from which we had good views of Hippopotamus. We then started traversing the park in our customised safari vehicle where we had fantastic closeup views of many Rothschild’s Giraffes – we counted at least 30 of these magnificent beast. We were even lucky enough to witness a dispute between two males over a female. These plains were teeming with Waterbuck, Kobs, Oribis, Warthog and more. Birdlife was prolific with Ground Hornbill, Piapiac, Heuglin’s Francolin, Black-billed Wood-dove, Bateleur Eagle, Lappet-faced Vultue and many more birds not only seen but also providing great photographic opportunities. Arriving at the Pakuba Safari Lodge, our home for the next 2 nights, it didn’t stop – while watching the sunset over Lake Albert a herd of some 20 African Elephants came casually wandering up towards the lodge’s grounds…!
Day 4. The entire day was spent in Murchison’s NP: an unbelievable experience followed. The sheer variety and numbers of mammals were unparalleled. Many Rothschild’s Giraffes, a few herds of African Elephants (including a mating pair), dozens of Hartebeest, Waterbuck, Oribis and other small game; while birds such as Short-toed Snake-eagle, Northern Carmine Bee-eater, Oxpeckers on African Buffaloes, many species of Weavers, Senegal Coucal, 3 species of Lapwing, Denhim’s Bustards, an African Snipe, the subtly-coloured Cordonbleu finches, Greycrowned Cranes with a young and many more were not only seen well but also provided great photographic opportunities! The afternoon was spent cruising the Nile river to the bottom of the Murchisons Falls, allowing multiple and close-up sightings of Hippopotamus, the cute Rock Pratincoles, a nesting colony of Red-throated Beeeaters and we counted no less than 98 Pied Kingfishers! After dinner back at our lodge we went for a night drive and saw the amazing sight of our light reflecing in the eyes of thousands of animals congregrated for the night. A Leopard was seen crossing the road and stalking this huge herd, and we were also lucky enough to spot a Sidestriped Jackal.
Day 5. An early departure as we reluctantly left Murchison’s NP behind, with 2 great sightings of Spotted Hyena (in addition to the usual herds of game and Giraffes), and birds such as Eurasian Hoopoe, Helmeted Guineafowl, Grey Kestrel and Black-headed Gonolek along the way. We then spent most of the day driving to the Primate Lodge in Kibale National Park. Along the way we picked up interesting species such as Northern Masked Weaver, Marico Sunbird, Orange-breasted Bush-shrike and African Hawk-eagle. We checked in and had a tasty dinner at the Primate Lodge, located in the middle of the Kibale forest, overlooking the bird-rich gardens.
Day 6. The Kibale forest is home to over 40 groups of Chimpanzees and we were lucky enough to spend the morning tracking one of these groups under the guidance of an experienced local Chimp tracker. We trekked through the dense forest on narrow elephant-trails, and in the process saw the beautiful Tambourine Dove and heard the African Emerald Cuckoo. After some time, we encountered a small number of Chimpanzees, feeding high up in a fig tree. We observed their antics for a while, then six more Chimps turned up walking straight past us! They walked in single file on the ground through the dense undergrowth and then rapidly climbed the surrounding trees to join the others in the large fig tree. We learned about the fascinating social structure, hierarchy, politics and mating behaviour of the Chimpanzees as told by our tracker before returning back to the lodge for a well-earned lunch. The afternoon was spent birding a nearby rural area consisting of a mixture of small rural plots, grassy fields, remnant forests and streams, through which a birdwatching trail had been constructed. This area was indeed very rich in birds and we quickly notched up over 30 species! It was also here where Bellbird’s Peter Waanders saw his 4000th lifer, the unassuming but uncommon Lesser Honeyguide. High-fives all around and then it was time to return to the Primate Lodge for dinner, capping off yet another day full of amazing experiences!
Day 7. Kibale NP protects over 8000 square km of hill forests, with a pleasantly mild climate. Birding on foot from the main road through the park proved an enjoyable and productive way to spend the morning hours. Over 30 species were seen including such gems as Dusky Tit, Purple-banded Sunbird, Cassin’s Flycatcher, Violet-backed Starling, Little Greenbul, Western Nictator, Chestnut Wattle-eye, Speckled Tinkerbird and many others. Lunch was had at an establishment surrounded by bird-rich gardens in the tea plantations that covered the hills outside the park, where White-winged Saw-wing and Bronzy Sunbird provided great views, among others. We spent the afternoon driving to Queen Elizabeth NP, in the far south-west of the country. Upon arriving at our lodge (perched
atop a ridge overlooking the park) we birded the grounds and nearby areas on foot. We found the equator here, and interesting bird species such as Arrow-marked Babbler, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Crowned Hornbill, Scarletchested Sunbird and Pin-tailed Wydah. Dinner was had from the verandah of the lodge while watching the sun set over the lakes an plains of the African savannah.
Day 8. We spent the entire day in Queen Elizabeth NP which straddles the equator. As a light fog rose over the savannah and made way for a beautiful morning, we explored the plains with scattered Euphorbia trees. Wildlife was prolific and included Waterbuck, Bushbuck, Kob, Spotted Hyena, Warthog and African Elephant. Flocks of Yellow Wagtails, residents of the northern hemisphere who spend the northern winter months here, were interspersed with various species of local Larks and Pipits. There were many raptors, including White-backed and Palmnut Vultures, Grey Kestrel, African Fish Eagle and the Long-crested Eagle with its weird ‘hair-do’. Lunch was had on a hill in between Lake Edward and Lake George, which lie in the Rift Valley. The lakes are connected by a natural waterway, the Kazinga channel, and during the afternoon we explored this area by boat. An amazing variety of wildlife awaited us: 8 African Elephants (2 of them bathing), dozens of Hippopotami, herds of African Water Buffalo and a few lurking Nile Crocodiles. Birdlife was equally impressive: small muddy islands were literally covered in birds, with African Skimmer and Great Cormorant making up the large numbers, while hundreds if not thousands of Barn Swallows were hawking over the surface of the water. They too spend the northern winter here, as does the Willow Warbler, of which we saw one, singing its cute little song. There were flocks of pelicans: both Pink-backed and Great White Pelican, while Hamerkops were abundant. Two Black Crakes, many shorebirds including the migratory Little Stint and Three-banded Plover, a Saddle-billed Stork and dozens of Water Thickknees were just a few of the many other species present here. At the end of the day we returned to our very comfortable lodge where dinner was enjoyed on the verandah, while a Spotted Eagle-owl was watching over us from atop one of the cottages!
Day 9. We left Queen Elizabeth NP early for the drive to our next destination, Bwindi Imprenetable Forest NP. Birding along the way proved very productive, with highlights being good sightings of Papyrus Gonolek, Whitewinged and Grey-capped Warbler, Black-lored Babbler, Double-toothed Barbet and more. Upon arrival at the park, we birded the entrance track, which proved to be extremely bird-rich. Small flocks of birds and individuals were foraging in the lush trees – it seemed like every minute another new bird would appear and this resulted in a list of 51 species for the afternoon! Highlights included African Wood-owl, Pink-footed Puffback, African Paradiseflycatcher, Dusky Blue Flycather, 7 species of Greenbul, 5 species of Sunbird, Red-headed Malimbe, Goldenbreasted Bunting…. and more!
Day 10. Today our small group, all consisting of experienced birding and wildlife travellers, encountered what we all agred was without exaggeration our most amazing wildlife experience ever. After an early drive deep into the forest-clad hills of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest NP, we donned our trekking gear, and set off on foot – accompanied by what seemed like a small army of porters and trackers – down and up steep narrow trails, our guide hacking away vines and thorny branches with his machete, until suddenly and without warning, we were in the presence of a small group of Mountain Gorillas. We spent over an hour with these magnificent creatures. Words cannot do justice to describe this experience. There was a mother and father gorilla with a young; a few individual gorillas; and the leader of the pack, an old silverback. They quietly went about their way, undisturbed by our presence – in fact, a few times we had to jump out of the way as a Gorilla barged straight past us, brushing
one person’s leg with its arm. Mostly they laid about resting, feeding, scratching their heads, while the playful young Gorilla clambered about in the vines and smaller trees. At one stage, the old silverback and his wife went for a walk, and we followed him to a new feeding place. After over an hour, it was time to leave the group in peace and we hacked our way back to the road, awestruck by this incredible experience. There are only 1000 of these formidable beast left in the jungles of this part of the world – the area where Uganda, Rwanda and Congo meet – and the park wardens gave us an overview of their behaviour, conservation issues and the way ecotourism contributes to not only the conservation of the gorillas but also benefits the local community, so they are more likely to protect the forest and its inhabitants.
The afternoon was spent birding our way back to the lodge. Many new species were observed and added to the trip list, with highlights being White-naped Pigeon, Great Sparrowhawk, White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, Stripebreasted Tit, Red-headed Malimbe, Mountain Masked Apalis, Streaky Seedeater and a wintering Blackcap from Europe. At the end of the day, the heavens opened and we retreated to the lodge to watch birds from the veranda: Pin-tailed Whydah, Snowy-crowned Robin-chat and Bronze Sunbird put on a nice showing.
Day 11. It had rained most of the night and was still raining as we departed the lodge, but it didn’t matter, as today was mostly a driving day. The dirt roads in this remote corner of the country doubled in function as small, fast-flowing streams and the actual proper streams we crossed over numerous bridges had swollen into raging torrents. Partway through the morning the rain stopped and we made a few birding stops, which yielded interesting sightings of Uganda’s national bird: Grey-crowned Cranes, as well as small flocks of Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters, a pair of Double-toothed Barbets, a Rufous-necked Wryneck, Golden Weavers, African Firefinches and Village Indigobirds. As we travelled through the mostly rural landscape the roads improved from bumpy dirt roads to a smooth highway and we arrived at our hotel in Mbara in time to do some birding around the gardens and surrounding fields. A heronry of Black-headed Herons right outside our room was a pleasant surprise!
Day 12. Mburo NP was our destination for the day, and we spent the whole day in the park. It did not disappoint…! This national park of around 260 km2 protects semi-open savannah, papyrus swamps and Lake Mburo, home to the rare African Finfoot. During a boat-ride on the lake, we were lucky enough to see a pair of these unique waterbirds, sitting preening on a branch just above the water. They allowed great photo opportunities as the boatman skilfully managed to approach them to just a few meters! We also had cracking close-up views of a Giant Kingfisher, dozens of African Pied Kingfishers and quite a few of the impressive African Fish-eagle. The lake was home to good numbers of Hippopotami and a few Nile Crocodiles. The rest of the day was spent exploring the park by means of our safari-jeep and resulted in great sightings of mammals such as Zebras, Giraffes, Impalas, cute Dwarf Mongooses, mud-bathing African Buffalos, cheeky Grivet Monkeys and more. Bird-wise we weren’t disappointed either, with Crested Francolin, Bare-faced Go-away Bird, Water Thickknee, White-backed Night-heron, Common Scimitar-bill, Green-backed Woodpecker, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Compact Weaver and many more: the total number of birds seen during this relaxed day was 105!
Day 13. Today was mostly spent travelling back to leafy Entebbe, with some birding stops along the way. A swamp / rice-growing area had large numbers of waterbirds, including Yellow-billed Duck, Egyptian Goose, African Openbill Stork and a few White-backed Swallows. Lunch was had in a small restaurant right on the equator, where Red-billed Firefinches, Bronze Mannikins and Red-chested Sunbirds flittered about in the bushes. After arriving in
Entebbe and checking into the hotel, we set off to explore the extensive botanical gardens. Located on the shore of Lake Victoria, the gardens proved rich in birds and we quickly racked up almost 50 species. Highlights were Klaas’s Cuckoo, Great Blue Turacao, Black-and-white Casqued Hornbill, African Hobby, Orange Weaver and good numbers of wintering Yellow Wagtails. We also found Uganda’s first Pectoral Sandpiper, an amazing and unexpected record!
Day 14. Before our final departure we returned to the Botanical Gardens as we felt there were still more birds hiding that we hadn’t seen yet, and this proved true: we added Blue-headed Coucal, Red-bellied Paradiseflycatcher, Black Crake, Black-crowned Night-heron and a flock of no less than 50 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. It was then time to pack up and leave this wonderful country: we counted up our final checklists and discovered that the trip tally was 421! Join us next year.