Uganda Highlights Jul 01—18, 2015

Posted by Dion Hobcroft

Hobcroftdion

Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 160) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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We were successful in our primary quest to see Chimpanzees, Shoebills, and Gorillas in the wild. We had fabulous encounters with all three of these iconic species. We found both a Leopard hunting at night and two prides of Lions; enjoyed Giraffe and Zebra amongst a variety and abundance of African hoofed mammals; observed all of the monkey species possible on this tour; and racked up an impressive 460 species of birds in this fantastic country. All of our logistics went smoothly, and we had no rain—it was fabulous!

It was great to meet up as a group in the gardens of our comfortable hotel in Entebbe to be entertained by the antics of that most value-added bird—the Great Blue Turaco. As we talked about the next day’s activities, an African Openbill sailed over, Eastern Gray Plantain-eaters cackled, the crimson-breasted Black-headed Gonolek fed on the lawn (!), and the Hadada Ibis let out its dulcet bugle. What an extraordinary country.

Shoebill

Shoebill— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our first day of the tour saw us at Mabamba Swamp for “Operation Shoebill.” Into our boats and into the papyrus swamp with beautiful flowering lilies in abundance, lots of birds were soon being observed. These included the scarce Blue-breasted Bee-eater and a huge highlight in the form of at least two Blue Swallows, one an adult in perfect breeding plumage. Despite hours of patient searching, we could not find a Shoebill, and things were not looking good. At the last minute we made a breakthrough, and with a Herculean effort on behalf of our local boatmen, we were rewarded with stellar views of this most extraordinary bird, a real Ugandan specialty. Big smiles all around and a sigh of relief from Crammy and myself! There were a lot more birds sighted including several African Marsh-Harriers, the scarce Brown Twinspot, beautiful Red-chested Sunbird, and a surprise Montane Side-striped Chameleon. A bit behind schedule, we drove through to Kaku Swamp, a lively location full of big, glamorous birds ranging from Saddle-billed Stork, Pink-backed Pelican, Gray Crowned-Crane, Spur-winged Goose, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, African Purple Swamphen, Meyer’s Parrot, Lilac-breasted Roller, and Southern Red Bishop. In the late afternoon we entered Lake Mburo National Park and began to see a lot of mammals including our first Zebra, Eland, Topi, Impala, Olive Baboons, Vervet Monkeys, and Warthogs. Set up in our beautiful tented camp on a full moon night with Jupiter converging on Venus, it was off to bed.    

Our full day at Lake Mburo started with a morning boat trip. Hippopotamuses snorted at us as we searched successfully for the scarce African Finfoot, two males showing well. We spent the later morning and afternoon doing safari drives, picking up some excellent birds like the sparse endemic Red-faced Barbet, Sulphur-breasted Bushshrike, Levaillant’s Cuckoo, White-winged Tit, and Common Scimitarbill, and had a good experience with an obstreperous bachelor Cape Buffalo enjoying a mud wallow. In the evening we did a night drive and hit the jackpot with a fine close view of a Leopard. After this we spotted an African Scops-Owl that was remarkably tame, a Black-shouldered Nightjar, and had a sneaky view of a Blotched Genet.

African Finfoot

African Finfoot— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

The following day we birded our way out of the park enjoying a lot of birds and mammals like Nubian Woodpecker, a dazzling pair of Red-faced Lovebirds, Red-chested Cuckoo, Golden-backed Weaver, and perched Lappet-faced Vultures. We said farewell to the Zebra and made the drive through to Ruhija, gaining altitude and picking up birds like Western Banded Snake-Eagle, Augur Buzzard, Mackinnon’s Shrike, and Black-lored Babbler. Once at the gate to the forest of Bwindi, we started to pick up some excellent species including a lovely Bar-tailed Trogon, Mountain Buzzard, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, Pink-footed Puffback, and a very cooperative White-browed Crombec. L’Hoest’s Monkey and Blue Monkey made good appearances. It was time for bed, as tomorrow was to be a day for trying to see the Mountain Gorilla in the wild—no easy feat.

The six people opting for the “Gorilla Trek” met at 8 am for a briefing. Blue skies prevailed. Several people hired a porter— a good idea if it is, as it may be, an onerous hike in steep terrain. This looked like it might be the case; however, luck was on our side, and the Bitukala group crossed the road into an easier location, requiring only a thirty-minute cross-country walk through jungle. Where we located the group (several of which were feeding in fruiting trees and snapping off thick branches to send down to their colleagues on the ground) was quite steep. With patience we enjoyed extraordinary views of these fantastic primates feeding, resting, and playing— toddlers, mums, and silverbacks. It is without peer to be in such close proximity to these powerful, beautiful hominids—an evolutionary insight that takes your breath away.

Eastern Gorilla

Eastern Gorilla— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Other folks spent the morning birding in the Ruhija Community Forest. This is where we all spent the afternoon, and the birding was rich. Amongst the highlights were Cassin’s Hawk-Eagle, Narina Trogon, Willcock’s Honeyguide, Regal Sunbird, Rwenzori Batis, the unusual Grauer’s Warbler, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, and Mountain Masked Apalis to mention a few.

With much still to offer, we birded along the main road in the forest the following morning, enjoying a run of good bird sightings ranging from Mountain Illadopsis, “Rwenzori” Hill Babbler, and White-headed Wood-Hoopoe to African Olive Pigeon. Moving lower in altitude to the “Neck” we scoped several stunning Black Bee-eaters and encountered two excellent mixed flocks that kept us quite busy. Later in the afternoon, after we had set up in our comfortable hotel, we birded the forest around the park gate at Buhoma. Here we scoped the elusive Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo and enjoyed an array of glittering sunbirds and weavers.

The following day was spent exploring deeper into the stunning mountain rainforests here. Some folks opted for a half-day hike while others went for the full day, an option easily catered for. Birds were sighted consistently through the day and “Oh wow” was heard when we lined up a cooperative Black-billed Turaco. Before we managed this though, we had cracking views of both Rufous-headed and Gray-winged Robin-Chats; a singing Black-faced Rufous-Warbler exposing its blue throat skin; Yellow-spotted Barbet; Yellow-throated Tinkerbird;  Stuhlmann’s Starling; Equatorial Akalat; Sooty Mountain Boubou; and a male Honeyguide Greenbul. Our first Red-tailed Monkeys were a big hit.

African Emerald Cuckoo

African Emerald Cuckoo— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

A final morning birding around Buhoma was highlighted by a stunning male African Emerald Cuckoo, the endemic Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher, Luehder’s Bush-shrike, White-breasted Nigrita, and a Black-fronted Duiker. We then made the drive through the Ishasha section of Queen Elizabeth National Park. We found the scarce Blue-throated Roller and displaying Broad-tailed Grassbird, and began to encounter more big mammals, none larger than the African Elephant of which two herds gave excellent encounters. We settled into our luxury hotel for two nights.

The following morning was spent exploring the grasslands rich in mammals including herds of Uganda Kob at a lekking ground. At an alkaline crater lake we scoped a small flock of Lesser Flamingos whilst the grasslands were rich in larks and raptors. Good birds included an excellent view of Small Buttonquail, flocks of Collared Pratincoles, White-tailed Lark, Black-breasted Snake-Eagle, and a Martial Eagle. An afternoon boat trip on the Kazinga Channel was not to be missed. Giant bull African Elephants, herds of buffalo, and schools of hippopotamuses (complete with Yellow-billed Oxpeckers) were joined by large Nile Crocodiles. In between the megafauna were a ton of birds including some early returning migrants like a single Ruddy Turnstone. It’s not often you imagine this Arctic breeding species rubbing shoulders with hippos and crocs! More typical were Kittlitz’s and Three-banded plovers, African Spoonbills, Great White and Pink-backed pelicans, and an unusual leucistic Malachite Kingfisher. A planned night drive had to be abandoned after a matriarch elephant blocked the road, protective of the calf in its care. After a patient wait she returned once again when both she and the calf had moved away from the road to prevent us from passing and sending the bus into reverse. For those that had not experienced elephant behavior like this, it was an interesting experience.

Little Bittern

Little Bittern— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Before leaving Queen Elizabeth NP we stopped in a wetland to catch up with the spectacular Papyrus Gonolek that performed well, as a trio had a territorial sing-off. A male Little Bittern climbed up out of the reed bed right under our noses, giving a great view. Reluctantly we left QENP, recrossed the Equator, and in the afternoon found ourselves on the edge of the Kibale Forest, best known for the Chimpanzee with some 3,000 making this forest their home.

We gave the Green-breasted Pitta an early morning attempt and had two individuals giving their frog-like display calls just on dawn. Unfortunately, despite getting so close the birds went quiet, and despite a concerted effort by all we could not make the breakthrough with this difficult bird. We turned our attention to forest birding and picked up some good flocks that included Narina Trogon, Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush, and Brown-chested Alethe. Then we turned our attention to tracking Chimpanzee. First we found a female and infant in a nest, which were later joined by a large male foraging in a fruiting fig tree. We then walked further and deeper into the forest and came across a group of five, part of a larger band. This included the alpha male and his deputy. At one stage the alpha sparked up when two participants came a bit too close for his liking.  A hasty retreat ensued. Several folks commented they had not realized how large a Chimpanzee is when you are so close! The afternoon was spent either resting around the gardens of the hotel, which produced African Gray Parrots foraging in a palm tree for those enjoying a gin and tonic at the bar, or enjoying some roadside birding. The roadside birding proved profitable with excellent views of Cassin’s Honeybird, Chestnut-winged Starling, and Crowned Hornbill to mention a few.

Chimpanzee

Chimpanzee— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Before we left Kibale we spent more time birding in a couple of nearby sites. We had a superb pair of Giant Kingfishers in one location and great luck in another spot as several Crowned Guineafowl, Black Goshawk, Golden-mantled Weaver, Sabine’s Spinetail, and Green Sunbird all made appearances. We had to make the lengthy drive on a dirt road to the northwest of the country. We had an excellent stop at a couple of roadside pools that attracted a bunch of drinking weavers and finches. Glittering Olive-bellied, Purple-banded, and Variable sunbirds fed in the lantana flowers. A herd of Ankole Cattle made an appearance amongst the ladies, sparking the infamous “human shield” incident! We made it to Masindi and settled into our comfortable hotel.

We were able to spend several hours birding the next day in the Budongo Forest. We had an amazing session as we enjoyed such difficult and localized birds as the Ituri Batis, Chocolate-backed Kingfisher, and White-thighed Hornbill in the telescope. Driving through to Butiaba, the birds kept on coming (some 138 species for the day) including excellent views of Greater Painted-Snipe. By late afternoon we had crossed the Nile River and set up in our luxury hotel in Murchison National Park. This is the largest protected area in Uganda.

Our safari the next morning was outstanding. First Giraffes, Llewel Hartebeests, and Sudan Oribi were joined by Patas Monkeys and Abyssinian Ground-Hornbills. A lioness crossed the road ahead of us unseen, but following behind were two small cubs who dawdled right past us. A Beaudouin’s Snake-Eagle gave a rare good view along with a trio of Denham’s Bustard, a display-flying Black-bellied Bustard, and dozens of stunning Northern Carmine Bee-eaters before we found another pride of Lions, this time five teenagers! It had been a lucky morning. In the afternoon we cruised upstream along the Nile until we reached as close as is safe to Murchison Falls. Here the Nile is constricted into a narrow gorge some ten meters wide (reputedly crossed by King Kabalega as he fled the British) that creates an exceptionally powerful turbid series of rapids and the falls. Rock Pratincoles loafed on boulders amongst the rapids. Away from the current lay unbelievably large Nile Crocodiles, hordes of hippos, and some enormous tusker bull elephants.

Lion cubs

Lion cubs— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The following day we started with a boat trip downstream along the Nile to its delta at Lake Albert. Against a backdrop of constant hippos, elephants, and crocodiles, we once again connected with the fabulous Shoebill, sighting three birds in total. It was a superb way to explore the national park and observe the prolific wildlife. After lunch we visited the Murchison Falls from the top. The furious current of the constricted river produces a violent flow, and now, up-close and personal, there is no way you would want to accidentally fall in there! Birding on the drive in is largely restricted to the air-conditioned bus, as the heavily vegetated savanna in this stretch is a haven for tsetse flies. Although harmless, they carry a bite to remember. We enjoyed the Yellow-mantled Widowbird, Western Black-headed Batis, Chestnut-capped Sparrow-Weaver, and a beautiful White-crested Turaco.

Our time in Uganda was coming to an end. We made the return drive to Entebbe, the avian highlight being a flock of Hooded Vultures. Transfers and flights all left on time and now we could edit our photos and revisit our memories of this truly wonderful African nation. We appreciated all of the help from the many friendly Ugandans who helped us along the way, with special thanks to the wonderful Crammy and Dennis; local guides Raymond, Mathew, Jessica, and Gerard; and behind the scenes, Herbert, for helping to deliver a first-class tour.