Galavantin Round Uganda
Although the setting is as serene as serene can be, there’s a tangible anxiety pervading the scorching hot air. I am on a canoe being paddled down ever decreasing channels in a vast marsh looking for an iconic bird. Saddle-billed Storks, White-backed Ducks, Garganeys, Winding Cisticolas, charismatic Hamerkops, beautiful lilac water lilies and delicate white parasitic orchids are all very nice but time is running out to find ‘The Big One’.
We navigate a bend and are confronted with a couple of other canoes. I glance in the direction the passengers and their cameras are all facing and can see nothing but tall reeds and a large grey mound of vegetation. I then realise the big grey blob is the prize: Shoebill stork!
Disappointment turns to elation as we glide closer to this sought-after bird. It turns its massive head to face the new arrivals and flashes its ridiculously long eyelashes in my direction in a flirty manner (that’s how I remember it anyway!). And that enormous, clog-like bill: WOW!
I am in Mabamba Swamp, Uganda, an area of marshland protected by local people who paddle birders out in boats to see ‘their’ bird. Shoebill is restricted in range to East Africa, from Sudan to Zambia, (though Uganda is the ‘easiest’ place to see it) and is listed by BirdLife International as Vulnerable.
It says everything about the friendliness of Ugandans that our Press Trip kept fifty or so visitors – including a Government Minister – waiting for an hour or more at the opening of the African Birding Expo – while guides strived to show us a Shoebill. The VIPs’ only concern was “did you see one”, followed by a beaming smile and pat on the back when answered in the affirmative, not “how dare you keep us waiting in this heat?”!
A GOOD START
Any birding trip to Uganda will start in Entebbe. Several hotels can be found adjacent to the Botanical Gardens, on the banks of Lake Victoria, just a thirty minute drive from the international airport. The gardens provide at least a day’s birdwatching, where you can ‘get your eye in’ with some African bird families you may not be familiar with. Astonishing creatures such as Great Blue Turacos, Black-and-white-casqued Hornbills, Wahlberg’s Eagles, and African Grey Parrots are easily seen to get your holiday off to an exciting start. It is also probably the only place you’ll find Orange Weaver during your stay in the country.
Happily, it was also the venue for the 2016 Birding Expo, where as well as visiting the stalls, one keen group of birders managed to record 109 species of birds in a day!
Our itinerary then took us south west, where we visited Lake Mburo National Park about half a day’s drive from Entebbe. This is where we encountered our first Big Game; a new and thrilling experience for some of the trip’s participants.
Although this was primarily a birding trip, while watching soaring White-backed Vultures, Bataleur, African Fish-Eagles and skulking Crested and Red-necked Spurfowl, Levaillant’s Cuckoos, weavers and whydahs with many species of brightly-coloured lapwings, bee-eaters and sunbirds to distract you, you cannot help but see large beasts such as Topis, Zebras, Warthogs, antelopes and mongooses feeding on the savannah!
There is an option of a boat trip on Mburo Lake, where birds and animals can be seen at close range including the sought-after but elusive African Finfoot. kingfishers such as African-Pygmy, Pied, Malachite, and Striped can all be seen well from the boat too.
Any trip to Uganda must surely include time to take in a bit of Mountain Gorilla or Chimpanzee trekking (or both!). Even hardened birders surely cannot pass up the chance of an encounter with our closest relatives?
Southwest of Mburo NP, on the border with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, lies the wonderfully-named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and the lesser known Mgahinga National Park. Mgahinga offers the chance to see many Albertine rift endemic bird species such as Ruwenzori Turaco, Archer’s Robin-chat, Ruwenzori Double-collared Sunbird, Regal Sunbird, and Ruwenzori Hill-Babbler, as well as endangered mammals such as Mountain Gorillas and Golden Monkeys.
Mountain Gorillas are perhaps best seen on a guided tour in the Ruhija area. Several whoops (the collective noun for a group of gorillas!) have been habituated by dedicated rangers in Bwindi Forest and eco-tourists are led by local guides to see them. It may be expensive but all proceeds help protect the forest – otherwise under threat from clearance – and provides jobs for indigenous people. My mesmerising hour in the presence of this most gentle of ape species ranks very highly on my ‘Wildlife Experience Highlights’ List!
Kibale (pronounced ‘Chibali’) Forest National Park can be found north of Bwindi and offers wildlife enthusiasts the chance to see Chimpanzees. We saw four Chimps in the thick forest, again led by local guides who had spent many hours gaining the trust of family parties over many years.
The Chimps are a bonus at Kibale but birdwatchers shouldn’t feel neglected. The thick jungle is home to a dazzling, skulking jewel known as Green-breasted Pitta. In Uganda, the pitta is only found in forests at altitudes between 1,100 and 1,400 meters. Blue-throated Brown Sunbird, Western (Black-headed) Oriole and Willcock’s Honeyguide were further, range-restricted stand-outs during our day in Kibale Forest, as well as five species of primate.
GOD SAVE THE QUEEN
Equidistant between Bwindi and Kibale National Parks is Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). QENP is the most visited National Park in Uganda and boasts over 600 bird species and 95 species of mammals. To put that in context, the whole of Britain has just recorded its 605th bird species!
This 764 square mile reserve is quintessential Africa. As well as the huge bird list, the Acacia savannah of the park protects almost every African mammal you have dreamed of seeing while watching nature programmes on TV.
The Ishasha part of the park is famously home to black-maned, tree-climbing lions. We didn’t see any, though we did see lions elsewhere in the park: a mating pair by the side of a main track. Unlike many African destinations I have been to, vehicles must remain on park tracks to view wildlife. I remember feeling a bit uneasy in Kenya when everyone drove across the savannah to get closer to Big Game; who knows what small mammals and birds’ nests were being destroyed?!
My full day in QENP started well. Dwarf Bittern, Lesser Flamingos, and a huge Martial Eagle were seen before we even reached park grounds! The partially-hidden eagle was sat in a tree right by the main road, nonchalantly scratching itself with its massive talons.
By the end of the morning’s safari I had notched up 96 species of birds book-ended by the Martial Eagle in the morning and a Leopard hiding in long grass around lunchtime (it wasn’t lunchtime for the Leopard: the nervous Lelwel Hartebeests and Uganda Kobs were alert to the hidden danger, so the big cat gave up and wandered off with his tail held high, rather like a giant lemur, trying not to look too disappointed). I particularly enjoyed seeing large flocks of some familiar birds such as Yellow Wagtails and swallows, no doubt freshly arrived for the winter from breeding grounds in Europe.
While in the QENP, I can highly recommend the boat trip along the Kazinga Channel of Lake Edward. Birds and animals seemingly pay no attention to people on boats, even though this is quite a large one full of tourists.
The muddy banks are teeming with wildlife and I quickly lost count of the number of Pied Kingfishers over and around the channel: hundreds! Hippos lazily submerged as our vessel cruised past, African Fish-Eagles whistled from their waterside perches, herons, egrets, waders, and storks (including the massive and very ugly Marabou) graced the banks and dazzling bee-eaters sallied forth from exposed branches. Buffaloes, Nile Crocodiles, African Elephants, Warthogs, antelopes, and waterbucks all vied for attention. I really didn’t know where to look next!
A full day’s drive on bumpy roads brought us to Murchison Falls National Park. Despite being a long day ‘in the saddle’, I still managed to see 61 species of birds along the way – including nine new for the trip – and a beautiful Puff Adder struggling across a track. I say struggling because the adder looked like it had just had a rather large meal!
Another morning, another game drive but each is completely different to the last. More familiar birds came in the shape of Willow Warbler, Whitethroat, Whinchat, Wheatear, Red-backed Shrikes, and Sand Martin, mixed in with exotica such as Abyssinian Ground-Hornbills, Northern Carmine Bee-eaters, Rueppell’s Glossy Starlings, a Silverbird, and Palm-nut Vultures to name a few.
Like true bird freaks the world over, we were targeting grassland species too; many of them LBJs which love to hide in tall vegetation. Shelley’s Rufous Sparrow, Speckle-fronted Weaver, Foxy Cisticola, Red-billed Quelea – the most numerous bird species on the planet – and Red-eyed Doves certainly couldn’t compete with the more colourful avian delights on offer but were interesting to see nonetheless.
As we rounded a bend in the brick-red-dusty track, all thoughts of LBJs vanished. There, causing a road block of a couple of safari vans ahead was a herd of Rothchild’s Giraffes stood on the track. A quick scan of the surrounding prickly Acacia bushes revealed that we were surrounded by them. Not all the herd was visible at once but heads popped into view to take a peek at us at regular intervals before disappearing again into the vegetation. These amazing animals were seemingly everywhere!
When the road block had decided to move on, we continued on our way past Grey-crowned Cranes, Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, and buffaloes with Yellow-billed Oxpeckers in attendance. The bush opened out to savannah and we screeched to a halt once more. Before us, spread across the vast grasslands, were hundreds of giraffes in small groups interspersed with Oribis (small antelopes), Uganda Kobs, African Elephants, and Lelwel Hartebeests. Despite the exotic scene, swallows flying against the African ‘Big Sky’, swooping over the fantastical beasts lent a strangely familiar air to proceedings: could these swallows be the same ones that perform aerobatics over my local cattle and sheep back in decidedly mundane Nottingham?
If you haven’t experienced a wildlife trip to Africa, then Uganda has most things you could wish for. If you have been to Africa before, Uganda will offer you the best of everything you have already seen and much more. Just be prepared to have your senses overwhelmed.
Route Map: https://goo.gl/dZPKpo
Neil Glenn travelled courtesy of the Ugandan Tourism Board