Uganda birding extravaganza

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Dr Rob Little from the FitzPatrick Institute at the University of Cape Town travelled to Uganda for a birding extravaganza and was amazed at the number of unique birds added to his life list…

Five facts

Dr Rob Little
poses at the equator in Uganda.

• Between Kampala and the Queen Elizabeth National Park you can stop at the little town of Kayabwe to stand with each foot on a different side of the equator.

• Uganda’s extensive water bodies cover 26% of the land surface.

• The source of the Nile River, the longest river in Africa, is in Uganda.

• Half of the world’s mountain gorilla population is found in Uganda, and it has more chimpanzees than any other East African country.

• The Ishasha Plains in Queen Elizabeth National Park is home to the renowned tree-climbing lion.

Although I have birded in five West African and three East African countries, having never been to Uganda, our 10-day Escape to the Wild birding tour was an overdose of lifers. We had done a lot of homework on what we could expect to see at the different places on the trip and – as expected – it was inevitably a case of ‘bring it on’ and let’s revel in whatever presents itself.

We arrived at Entebbe in July and spent the first two nights at the Lake Victoria View Guest House. We searched for birds in the Mabamba Swamp and in the Nkima Forest.

 

A shoebill. Photo: Maans Booysen

The Mabamba Swamp west of Entebbe on the north shore of Lake Victoria is an extensive marshland of papyrus, water lilies and other wetland grasses, which hosts over 300 bird species. This Important Bird and Biodiversity Area is one of the best sites for shoebills. This was confirmed when within half an hour we were calmly viewing a very obliging shoebill from our wooden swamp boat.

Other exciting birds that we found in the swamp were long-toed lapwing, blue-headed coucal, blue-breasted bee-eater, swamp flycatcher, papyrus gonalek, black-bellied firefinch as well as slender-billed and northern brown-throated weavers.

The relatively small Nkima Forest on Nansubuga Hill overlooking the Mabamba Wetlands offered good views of Madagascar olive bee-eater, little greenbul, sooty chat, black-and-white vanga flycatcher, blue malkoha, olive-bellied sunbird and exciting African lifers for me that included red-shouldered cuckooshrike and the elusive white-spotted flufftail. The route between the swamp and the forest also produced black-and-white-casqued hornbill, great blue turaco, splendid starling and Cassin’s honeyguide.

Each day, before and after these birding outings, we were amazed by the superb birdlife in the gardens of

Ross’s turaco in Entebbe. Photo: Maans Booysen

the guest house with appearances of African hobby, eastern grey plantain-eater, Ross’s turaco, black-headed gonalek and red-chested sunbird.

 

The Kalinzu Forest is a great birding destination. Photo: Sybrand van Niekerk

Having thoroughly enjoyed the birding around Entebbe, we headed to Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP), which boasts over 500 bird species. We spent three nights at the Queen Elizabeth Park View Tourist Lodge and spent a great deal of time at the Lake Edward floodplain and the Kalinzu Forest. However, even the road to QENP was eventful, with occasional stops to stretch our legs producing white-headed saw-wing, black-billed wood dove, double-toothed barbet and Weyn’s weaver.

A small flooded crater near the end of the road surprised us further with red-headed lovebird, Elliot’s woodpecker and the golden-backed weaver.

We also visited the Kalinzu Forest, home to more than 414 tree species as well as chimpanzees and other primates. The forest proved to be the bumper birding day of our trip. I recorded no less than 16 African lifers, which included black bee-eater, yellow-throated tinkerbird, yellow-spotted barbet, joyful and toro olive greenbuls, Lühder’s bushshrike, Fraser’s forest and also dusky crested flycatchers.

A full day within the grassy savannah flood plain and surrounding crater hills of the park treated us with Rüppell’s griffon vulture, grey kestrel, blue-naped mousebird, black scimitarbill, spot-flanked and white-headed barbets, marsh tchagra and the Cranch’s spurfowl. This bird was recently elevated from a

Maans Booysen, Rob Little and Karen Kearns spends time at the Mabamba Swamp. Photo: Sybrand van Niekerk

subspecies of red-necked spurfowl.

 

Red-headed lovebird near the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Photo: Maans Booysen.

After Queen Elizabeth National Park, we headed north to the Murchison Falls National Park where we spent three nights at the Bwana Tembo Safari Lodge. The lodge had comfortable chalets and a bird-friendly bushveld edged camp area.

Again, while stopping for comfort breaks along the long road we picked up special birds such as Petit’s cuckooshrike, Piapiac, bare-faced go-away-bird, lesser blue-eared starling and green-throated sunbird.
When arriving at the park gate after a long day’s drive we realised we had a flat tyre, which further extended our day to experience dusk at the gate.

This was richly rewarded with several broad-billed rollers and at least four pennant-winged nightjars hawking above our heads, which was surreal and somewhat like sitting in a fish tank with coral reef fish floating around us.

On the first day in the north we headed off to bird in the Budongo Forest, the biggest mahogany forest in East Africa. This also includes the infamous ‘Royal Mile of Birding’, which has a checklist of over 360 birds. Sixty of these are considered western or central African birds.

Vehicle repairs and a downpour delayed the start to our day as we entered the forest. However, even with

Black-headed gonolek. Photo: Maans Booysen,

our time contracted we managed to enjoy special birds such as Sabine’s spinetail, hairy-breasted barbet, narrow-tailed starling, blue-throated brown sunbird and crested malimbe.

On our second day we wandered through the park to the top of the Murchison Falls, which is on the Victoria Nile between Lake Kyoga and Lake Albert. The grassy plains with scattered palm trees produced Heuglin’s spurfowl, northern (Abyssinian) ground hornbill, black-billed barbet, speckle-fronted weaver, stout cisticola as well as red-throated bee-eater at the northern loading site where you cross the Victoria Nile on a ferry. The falls are very impressive, with rock pratincoles hawking overhead and loafing on the rocks at the top of the falls.

With a Southern Africa life list of 864 species and having visited 16 countries in Africa, I was impressed to add 273 bird species to my list and to garner 57 new lifers for Africa during our trip to Uganda.

Our birding trip to Uganda with Escape to the Wild was an absolute treat. For more information visit
www.escapetothewild.co.za

Abyssinian ground-hornbill. Photo: Maans Booysen.

 

Written by Dr Rob Little

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