Thursday, October 22, 2015

Birding Trip to Uganda - 2 July to 16 July 2015

I went on a two week birding tour of Uganda from 2 July 2015 to 16 July 2015. The tour was organized and guided by Muhumuza Deogratius [ ] of Uganda Eco Tours. Although the details of the particular tour that I went are no longer available at the Uganda Eco Tours website, it was similar to this one: 
A trip report of an earlier similar tour is available here: 

First of all, Deo is not only an excellent birder, very knowledgeable, but also a great guy, very easy to get along with. The co-leader that Deo brought in as a driver, I know him only as Luke, was also very knowledgeable and a very good field birder and excellent travel companion. Thus there was a good ratio of leaders and participants and good vibes all around which made for a very enjoyable trip.

The lodging was very good, not luxurious but comfortable, clean and attractive (with one exception) to people interested in nature.  Food varied from OK to good albeit a bit repetitive, specially breakfast that tended to vary between edible and OK. We had only one bad experience with food, a lunch stop in Hoima, where, despite the good appearance of the place, the food was barely edible. There were only two road stops for lunch in the whole trip (aside from packed lunches eaten on the field), in the first one the food was good and the place was comfortable and welcoming, the second place was also comfortable and welcoming but the food was a disaster (referring to preparation, nobody got sick from it)!

We spent a lot of time driving and, in terms of comfort, the vehicle was barely adequate. We had a Toyota van with a pop-up roof (which allowed for everybody to stand up and look around, a good feature) that nominally sat 10 people: 3 in front seat (one squeezed between driver and left-side passenger), 4 captain seats in the middle and 3 seats in a row in the back. But we always felt very cramped inside the vehicle and the backseat was a special torture when combined with rough unpaved roads (the row of seats was on top of the rear axle). It was specially bad for me as I am a bit on the tall side (6ft1in) and leg room was a problem. Moreover the AC was not working which was an aggravation when we had to close the windows because of thick red dust from the road. Thus the drives were always cramped, hot, dusty and uncomfortable. Part of it was just the nature of the type of travel we were doing but most of it was due to the vehicle used. Evidently a larger and more comfortable vehicle would have changed the cost of this trip considerably.

I travelled using Delta, flying from Gainesville to Atlanta, Atlanta to Amsterdam and from there to Entebbe (a KLM flight). I got to Entebbe late in the evening of July 1st and stayed at the Lake Victoria View Guesthouse (there is a good write up about it in Trip Advisor) where everybody else was staying. Some birds were around and we spent most of the next day birding from the varanda, resting and going downtown to exchange currency. Around 4pm, after the last participant had arrived, Deo took us to the Entebbe Botanical Garden. Very pleasant and birdy, we saw more than 50 species in about 2.5 hours of birding.
Lake Victoria View Guesthouse:

Rondavels at the guesthouse:

The "view" at the guesthouse, an arm of the enormous Lake Victoria:

Ross's Turaco at the Botanical Garden:

Guereza Monkeys at the Botanical Garden:

Next day  (7/3) we left early in the morning with our destination being Lake Mburo NP. The major intermediary stop was at Mabamba Bay for a boat trip through an extensive marsh to see Shoebills. The only Shoebill we saw was found in this boat trip. We had a good view but from some distance and closer views when the bird flushed and flew over our heads. Mabamba Bay is west of Entebbe International Airport across an arm of Lake Victoria. Saw a number of other species during a two hour boat trip, most widespread species. 
Shoebill at Mabamba Bay:

After seeing the Shoebill:

Had a couple of other short stops, combination of pit and birding stops. We got at our lodge just outside of the LMNP early evening, just with time to freshen up and have dinner. Next day had an early bird walk in the savanna (Red-faced Barbet, Tambora and Trilling Cisticolas, African (Water) Rail) and then a boat trip in Lake Mburo (African Finfoot, White-backed Night-Heron, Lesser Moorhen).  Later in the day a drive through the savannah and then the only night drive (Galago, Slender-tailed Nightjar, Square-tailed Nightjar) of the whole trip (we were charged extra for the night game drive and this was, realistically, the only opportunity we had for a night drive). Next day was one time when we did some early morning birding before starting on some long drive. We birded the savanna outside the gate of LMNP which was very birdy although had a number of widespread species. Highlight here was a bird that currently is not in the Uganda list, the Miombo Wren Warbler, a little grey job, well seen, photographed (not by me), recorded and videoed.  The only Blue-naped Mousebirds that we saw were seen in this area.
Topis in Lake Mburu National Park:

The rest of (7/5) was taken by the long drive to the Ruhija sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, BINP.
Just outside BINP:

As we approached our lodge we got out of the van around 5:30pm and birded on foot for about an hour till was about to get dark. Checked in, ate dinner and early up next morning for an all day hike visiting a high elevation marsh [ Mubwindi Swamp ] for Grauer’s Rush Warbler (which we saw very briefly) and many other birds along the way (including African Broadbill at a nest). The only Sittatungas (antelope) that we saw were in that marsh. Next morning we had an early start towards the Buhoma sector of BINP (we were scheduled to go see the Mountain Gorillas from there). This decision to use prime birding hours to start a long drive did not sit well with me or Toby (an experienced British birder). We felt that since we were already inside very good forest habitat the first couple of hours of light in the morning should be used for additional birding in the forest. After all the Shoebill and forest birding are the main reasons that birders come to Uganda. While the forest birds are not Ugandan endemics they tend to have their center of distribution in the DRC which is a much tougher birding proposition than Uganda (as Uganda is not really tough, at least under current conditions). Deo stuck to his original plan in this and in subsequent occasions. Deo’s plan probably maximized the total number of species seen during the trip but, in mine and Toby’s opinion, shortchanged our chances for the more elusive forest birds.
View of BINP on the way to Mubwindi Swamp:

Leaving Ruhija in BINP:

The rest of (7/7) was taken by the drive to the Buhoma sector of BINP with several birding stops along the way, some along the “Neck”, a ribbon of forest connecting the two sectors. We got there around 5pm and went for a short bird walk along the road that crosses the park here. Next day in the morning we went to see the gorillas. Thanks to a mix of elderly (myself, Martine and Max, all over 65) and disabled people (Max is missing the lower part of his left leg) our group got to go visit a gorilla group that was relatively close (after a long car drive just an hour walk from the road). Highly recommended, both for the chance to see those creatures as well as for the financial contribution to the park and the surrounding communities that benefits both people and gorillas. The downside is that it is clearly an invasion of those animals private space and it is clear that they don’t like it. Late afternoon, after the gorilla hike, we birded again along the road through the park, on foot from our lodge. We were up again early in the morning and started another long drive, after protests from I and Toby about the misuse of prime birding time.
The Mountain Gorillas:

Most of 7/9 was taken by the drive towards our next lodge. We drove through Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) birding along the way and then made a long detour to visit a wetland near Deo’s hometown. This wetland is the focus of a conservation project spearheaded by Deo and some of his local friends. Valuable work but I don’t think it was proper use of our scarce time to visit this wetland in the middle of the afternoon, no matter how dear to Deo’s heart this conservation project is. This was a detour that consumed some 3 hours which could have been employed birding Buhoma in the early morning hours from our lodge. Eventually we made our way to our next lodge, the Bush Camp on the banks of the Kazinga Channel in QENP. Of the places that we stayed this was the only one where we didn’t have en suite bathroom facilities. This was a well designed and kept camp with very clean bathrooms. The only inconvenience was walking in the middle of the night from the tent to the toilet hearing the Hippos that had come out of the water to feed in the nearby vegetation. The camp had escorts with flashlights available all night making sure the campers were safe. We left the camp early next morning, birded a swamp’s edge near the highway (Papyrus Gonolek) and then crossed over the Kazinga Channel and birded the savannas of QENP, birds plus Elephant, Buffalo, Lion and other smaller animals. Had packed lunch which we ate by the roadside inside QENP.
Savanna at QENP:

Lionesses at QENP:

A boat ride in the channel was the next activity. Toby and I wanted to go back to the savanna which was harboring a good number of pipits and larks. At this point some miscommunication ensued. We thought that by skipping the boat trip we could go back to the savanna but it turned out that there was not enough time to do so, which we found out only after taking off with Luke (the driver) instead of going in the boat trip. A mistake on our part compounded by a miscommunication with Deo. We were keen in looking for Short-tailed Pipit but alas it was not possible to do as there was no time to get to proper habitat during the two hours when the others were in the boat trip. The boaters saw some birds that were seen only during this boat trip but nothing that I had not seen before, in particular there were no opportunities for Shoebill in that trip. Then we started the drive to Fort Portal. Saw one soda lake on an old crater on the way, which was full of Lesser Flamingos. Then we crossed the Equator going north and around dusk arrived at Fort Portal where we stayed in a hotel in town as we couldn’t get places at the Chimpanzee Forest Lodge.
Martial Eagle in QENP:

Next day, 7/11, we started early and drove to Semulik National Park to bird the famous Semiliki valley. We spent all day there and birding was hard work as it usually is in a tropical forest.
Red-biled Dwarf Hornbill in Semulik NP:

Great Blue Turaco in Semulik NP:

Next day, 7/12, we started at 7:30am in a marsh in Fort Portal then drove to Chimpanzee Forest Lodge for lunch with birding stops along the way and birding around the lodge in the middle of Kibale Forest National Park. After lunch we went to the community owned Bigodi wetlands were we birded for the rest of the day. Again had dinner at the delightful, but situated in a very noisy area, Garden Cafe in Fort Portal. Next day, 7/13 we were at the forest in KFNP at 6:30am, still dark, listening to the display sounds of the Green Pitta, eventually our guide found two of them together and we had good views of these skulking birds of the forest floor. We birded that forest for the rest of the morning then checked in and had lunch at the Chimpanzee Forest Lodge and went for the Chimpanzee tracking in the afternoon. This was a longer walk than had been the case with the gorillas but the terrain was much friendlier without big elevation changes. We saw several members of what we were told is a very large group with 120 individual Chimps in it that defend a territory of almost 30 square miles (contrary to the gorillas who defend no territory and are nomads, constantly on the move). This was also a not to be missed experience and the temperament differences between these apes were very clear. While the gorillas seemed very laid back the chimps are intense with penetrating gazes. Spent the night at the Chimpanzee Forest Lodge, one of the highlights here was seeing 2 White-spotted Flufftails on the lodge grounds.
Chimpanzee in Kibale National Park:

One is a 100% Chimp, the other only 98.7%:

On 7/14 we left the Chimpanzee Forest Lodge, drove towards Fort Portal and then onwards to Masindi, birding along the way. It was on the drive to Masindi that we had the road stop with inedible food! Masindi was our base to explore Budongo Forest Preserve and bird the so-called Royal Mile. This preserve was once a private forest of the king of Budongo, an area in NW Uganda. Thus the mile long stretch of road through the forest is known as the Royal Mile. On 7/15 we were on the Royal Mile by 8 am due to the longish drive from town. We birded there till 4pm. Then back in Masindi had dinner again at the Masindi Hotel (we were staying at another hotel,  the Masing Kolping House Hotel). The Masindi Hotel wouldn’t be out of place in the movie “Out of Africa”, had been built in 1923 by the “Uganda and Kenya Railways and Harbours”. Although I suspect the quality of services and offerings has declined somewhat since its heyday. Next day, 7/16, we started early in our long drive back to Entebbe. Had one stop at a large marshy area and one at Makerere University in Kampala to see a staked-out African Wood Owl. Then the trip was over at the Lake Victoria View Guesthouse where I got a room for the few hours before my flight back home.
African Wood Owl at Makerere University:

Royal Gate in Kampala:

I saw 350 bird species of which 274 were lifers and 27 mammal species of which 17 were lifers. I don’t have the trip total, which was around 420 bird species. I had a hard time getting on birds found by others and I didn’t fully understood why. I guess my reflexes and vision are not what they used to be but there were some other factors. One thing that made it a bit difficult to follow other birders was the fact that I was considerably taller than everybody else so more often than not I would find myself at some untenable viewing position when trying to mimic the others. Another factor was that I had a hard time understanding everybody else: the two Ugandans with their peculiar accent, one Briton, one New Zealander, one Swiss with a South African accent and two French Canadian women that barely spoke English. Given that American English is my second language (I am from Brazil originally) and that my hearing is in trouble (I wear a hearing device in one of my ears) I was in a bit of a pickle language wise! Overall a great trip.  Also an interesting part of the world, grinding poverty but many good things happening.

eBird Checklists of Birds Seen (only birds that I saw):

July 16: Masindi , Marsh near Kakoge , Campus of Makerere University , Ssese Gateway Beach .