Uganda Highlights Jun 08—27, 2016

Posted by Dion Hobcroft

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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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Once again we were successful in our primary goal of seeing wild Chimpanzees, Gorillas, and the superb Shoebill. We sighted more than 450 species of birds, more than 40 species of mammals, and had a lot of fun on our East African adventure.

Our tour started with a great morning at Mabamba Swamp. Within an hour of searching by pirogue in the beautiful wetlands we had an adult Shoebill in perfect light ahead of us. We watched it unsuccessfully lunge forward to seize an unseen fish. It briefly lifted and sailed another hundred yards further of its own volition. Enjoying this spectacle for half an hour, there was no going backwards. Further on we found a pair of the scarce Papyrus Canary, taped in a crimson-chested, gold-capped Papyrus Gonolek, and were besieged by great numbers of a tremendous diversity of birds. This is weaver country, and we could watch breeding-plumaged males of several species (Village, Northern Brown-throated, Slender-billed, Yellow-backed, Vieillot’s Black) strutting their stuff. Best was a single male Weyn’s Weaver, an unusual nomadic species. A pair of Blue-breasted Bee-eaters was located at the last minute, and we had flight views of the difficult Lesser Jacana, amongst good numbers of African Jacana, Long-toed Lapwing, White-faced Whistling-Duck, Gray-hooded Gull, and even a small flock of White-winged Black Terns—a truly great start. After a siesta, we spent a profitable couple of hours in the Entebbe Botanic Gardens. A pair of African Hobbies behaved in a restless fashion and jumped about in the crown of one of the giant trees here, the male doing some display flights. A pair of African Gray Parrots demolished seed pods, a perfect view in the scope. On the shoreline of Lake Victoria we found two male Orange Weavers building and contesting a nest in the largely diminished reed bed. There were tons of birds, Woodland and African Pygmy kingfishers, Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat, and Red-bellied Paradise-Flycatcher to mention a few, with great numbers of Black-and-white-casqued Hornbills. We watched two males of this species in a fearsome showdown, jousting and snapping their powerful mandibles until one gave way. The false mounting of Hamerkops was also an interesting behavioral sight.

Shoebill

Shoebill— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

We started birding the following day at Mpanga Forest where local guide Prossie showed the benefit of Herbert’s program of enabling female birding guides to find work in this ecotourism business. She did a great job. The edge of the forest was alive with birds, and we picked up some elusive species like Purple Starling, Magpie Mannikin, Black-throated Seedeater, White-winged Black-Tit, and African Pied Hornbill. In the forest interior, it was the usual process of patiently trying to squeeze some sightings out of the undergrowth; our patience was rewarded by a superb White-spotted Flufftail. Our first big troop of Red-tailed Monkeys was a big hit, and they were attended by the uncommon Velvet-mantled Drongo and toucan-like Crowned Hornbill hoping for insects flushed by the busy primates. We continued south to Lake Mburo where, once in the park, we encountered lots of hoofed mammals like Boehm’s Zebra, Warthog, Impala, and a large herd of Eland. The birds could not be more different in this classic East African Acacia woodland from those we had experienced in the morning. Red-necked Spurfowl, Crested Francolin, Bare-faced Go-away-bird, and Lilac-breasted Roller led the charge. At our comfortable safari camp we zipped our tents to a background of various nightjars, owls, and snorting Hippos.

The main focus of our morning was a boat trip on Lake Mburo itself. With boatman Ben at the helm, we were soon artfully dodging through schools of Hippopotamus, some gaping their cavernous jaws and setting quite a wake with their submersed surges. A female African Finfoot showed well, and the views of the exquisite White-backed Night-Heron were the best ever. A Goliath Heron was a good scoop. Back on safari we picked up Cape Buffalo, Topi, Defassa Waterbuck, and Dwarf Mongoose. Birds were good too, with Little Bee-eater, Sulphur-breasted Bushshrike, and many more. After dinner we took a night drive and enjoyed considerable success with the spectacular Pennant-winged Nightjar, finding four birds including three males with full pennants. We also had views of both Black-shouldered and Square-tailed nightjars. Another big highlight was spotting two Greater Galagos or Bushbabies. One animal in particular gave repeated unobstructed views. A pair of White-tailed Mongooses, aptly named with their showy white tails, was spotted in the grassland.

Pennant-winged Nightjar

Pennant-winged Nightjar— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

The following morning started with a game drive through the savannah meadows. The main event involved finding a pair of Crested Barbets. These spectacular birds just reach the northern edge of their range in Uganda and are decidedly sparse. Levaillant’s Cuckoo was another good sighting. Eventually we tore ourselves out of the park, said farewell to the Zebra and Impala, and started the drive through to Ruhija. The contrast in habitats could not have been more extreme as we left the Zambesian savannah biome and moved into the montane rainforests of the Albertine Rift. We went to bed early, as the day to come was possibly the most anticipated of the trip—gorilla trekking.

At our briefing before we headed out under clear blue skies, the ranger from the Uganda Wildlife Authority coined it succinctly when he said, “Perhaps you have been dreaming of this day for a long time. Last week a lady said she had wanted to go gorilla trekking when she was 14, but this day arrived when she was 45.” It was fair to say some of our group were suffering from “pre-gorilla anxiety.” Fortunately there was no need for this, as our professional team of trackers, guards, and porters moved our group deeper into the forest after fully explaining our limitations and behavioral insights needed. Then we encountered the Bitukura group of the Mountain Gorillas led by the massive silverback “Ndahura,” which means “Fighter” in the local language. The group consists of 15 individuals including two retired silverbacks, an upcoming patriarch, and two youngsters, the youngest being seven months of age. The group were actively foraging, moving quite frequently, but stopping to harvest celery and nettles, indulge in some playful wrestling and vocalizing, and even chest-slapping occasionally. The light for photography was good when they emerged into sunny glades. It could not have been a better result. After our good hour of gorilla watching we had lunch. Here Crammy twigged to the subtle call of the rare Dwarf Honeyguide, and a quick bit of playback brought this elusive bird into view. We also enjoyed a good view of Mountain Buzzards perched and good sightings of the Black-fronted Duiker, a small, largely chestnut forest antelope. The remainder of the day was spent (after a lengthy siesta) birding in the Ruhija community forest. It was a lively session with good views of Grauer’s Warbler, Regal Sunbird, and Rwenzori Batis amongst an excellent cross-section of montane rainforest birds. In the evening we toasted our wonderful day.

There is a reason why Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is voted the number one birding location in Africa by African birders. It is a bottomless pit of “megabirds,” and today would underline the reasons why it is so appreciated. The first stop produced good views of the furtive Mountain Illadopsis and White-browed Crombec. Then we lured a Cinnamon Bracken-Warbler across a gap, while the elusive Dusky Crimsonwing made some decent appearances.

Eastern Gorilla and seven-month-old toddler

Eastern Gorilla and seven-month-old toddler— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

A Handsome Francolin, thanks to a tip-off from David (as we were distracted by nesting Strange Weavers, White-starred Robin, and Archer’s Robin-Chat), strode into view and would not leave us alone. A Black-billed Turaco gave a fine view, as did the Yellow-eyed Black-Flycatcher, while the ultra-shy Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo performed very well. It was hard to tear ourselves away, but we did and proceeded lower down to “The Neck,” checking out an unusual Ankole Root Rat on the way. This site was a hive of bird activity and provided great views of the much anticipated Black Bee-eater; an incredibly tame performance from the African Black Duck; the torrent specialist Cassin’s Gray Flycatcher; and superb Yellowbill. We stopped to see a pair of African Wood-Owls lurking in a thick vine tangle. Fantastic birds are these. We made it through in good time to our comfortable hotel at Mahogany Springs where the gardens held Klaas’s Cuckoo and Bronzed Sunbird, while nearby fields turned up Woolly-necked Storks, Gray Crowned-Crane, and a fine Ross’s Turaco.

A day of hiking (or half-day if preferred) into the old growth rainforests at Buhoma will always produce a bounty of memorable sightings. Here we were joined by Matthew, and I was able to give him a new pair of binoculars to help him in his birding career. He described them as being “super.” We started with two beautiful forest weavers, the Chestnut-capped Weaver and Red-headed Malimbe, both branch-feeding specialists that behave a bit like nuthatches. Bocage’s and Luehder’s Bushshrikes plus Mountain Sooty Boubou all made appearances. In fact, it was a procession of great forest birds like Yellow-spotted Barbet, Golden-crowned Woodpecker, African Broadbill, Red-tailed Bristlebill, Equatorial Akalat, White-tailed Ant-thrush, White-bellied Robin-Chat, and Black-faced Rufous-Warbler to mention some. As we began our return walk, a thunderstorm began to brew, and we were able to keep just ahead of it, making it back to the bus just in time.

The following morning was a washout at Buhoma so we fare-welled Matthew and drove into the Queen Elizabeth National Park in the section called Ishasha. The cool overcast conditions were perfect for us. We found our first bull African Elephant, a magnificent tusker, at close range, its back decorated in grass. This tropical woodland and grassland was heaving with birds; it was difficult not to stop every few meters for a different species.  These included Western Banded Snake-Eagle, Sabine’s Spinetail, Madagascar Bee-eater, White-headed Barbet, Marsh Tchagra, Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike, Moustached Grass-Warbler, African Yellow-Warbler, Fan-tailed Grassbird, Parasitic Weaver, and the beautiful African Firefinch. At one stop we could hear a Chimpanzee screaming away, hidden in the low stature forest. Mention should also be made of the incredible biomass of butterflies, tens of millions of them, truly spectacular. We settled into our comfortable lodge.

African Elephant

African Elephant— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Heavy overnight rain was going to make this day a challenge as we headed out into the black soil grassland of QENP. Fortunately the bus had four-wheel-drive, but it was still tough going, especially for our trusty driver Alex, as we crabbed and skated along the tracks trying as best as possible to avoid the perilous quagmire of the ditches. At times we were doing about one kilometer per hour as the wheels swam through the mud. The first bird of the day was a Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, Africa’s largest owl, with its outrageous pink eye shadow. The conditions were good for birds, with a number of grassland species being located—with the highly elusive African Crake a standout with four sightings. We also had a beautiful pair of Temminck’s Coursers before the inevitable happened and we became stuck. Luckily, after about half-an-hour we jinked the bus by hitting a plate of angled metal that lifted it out of the ditch, and we were operational again. At our turnaround point, we scoped a small flock of Lesser Flamingos. There were a lot of mammals including herds of Uganda Kob, Hippopotamus, African Elephant, Warthog, Cape Buffalo, and Defassa Waterbuck. The return to the lodge was complicated by a convoy of bogged vehicles including a giant bus with a school group. Alex excelled himself as he swam the bus past the roadblock! Lunch was good. The afternoon, by contrast, was a relaxing boat trip on the Kazinga Channel. We found our first Red-throated Bee-eaters and our only African Spoonbill of the trip; watched small flocks of Gull-billed and White-winged Black terns; and discovered a lone Lesser Black-backed Gull, a few Kittlitz’s Plovers, and large flocks of the African population of Great Cormorant amongst good numbers of Pink-backed Pelicans. Again, plenty of ungulates and a few odd things including a pure white Malachite Kingfisher and a Red-throated Bee-eater with a bright yellow throat and not a juvenile. 

The tracks were drying out the next day. We took care of a bit of un-finished business with Carruther’s Cisticola in the papyrus and, while fueling up, jagged a pair of White-necked Ravens. We made good time to yet another delightful guest house near Kibale Forest set in an extensive tea plantation. We spent the afternoon at Bigodi Swamp, a community-run ecotourism project. It was a fairly quiet afternoon overall, but it was impossible not to be enthralled with the incredible antics of perhaps the world’s most ridiculous bird, the Great Blue Turaco. What a beast. Lesser Honeyguide was a good sighting, and we had great views of the Central African Red Colobus. The numbers of a butterfly species, Sevenia occidentalium, were like Passenger Pigeons. It is hard to describe the sheer abundance.

Great Blue Turaco

Great Blue Turaco— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

Our day of tracking the Chimpanzee began with a predawn search for the exceptionally rare and beautiful Green-breasted Pitta. This species is only known from this forest, the Kibale Forest, and does a curious display as it croaks like a frog and jumps up in the air on a lateral branch in thick forest very early in the morning. Unfortunately it did not work out, as the only person who spotted it was the leader. The pitta departed as soon as directions were being issued and, despite a good effort, was never found again. Damned bird! So we moved onto looking for Chimpanzee with our excellent guide Bosco. With this we had considerable success, as we encountered a troop of about 20 individuals scattered about in fruiting trees with one individual called “Byezingire” loafing low down close to us and giving excellent photographic opportunities. There was considerable interaction between the chimps and a big party of Olive Baboons, with much screaming and some chasing as a stand-off ensued. It was very insightful as Bosco pointed out different individuals including one male about 50 years old with a cataract and a female in oestrous, and identified the fruits the chimps were attracted to. We spotted a Narina Trogon and a very cooperative Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush. In the afternoon some folks relaxed while others went roadside birding, which was profitable.

A lengthy travel day on the road between Kibale and Masindi was punctuated with some very handy stops. At Kibale Bridge we had great success with the elusive Masked Apalis. Later in the day near Hoima a Dusky Twinspot disappeared and then re-appeared, thank goodness; it is a tough but beautifully patterned small finch. We were entertained by the sonorous calling of African Bullfrogs with their blue vocal sacs. The best was yet to come though, when we made one last stop to try for the Gray-headed Oliveback, one of Uganda’s scarcest finches. Amazingly, we spotted a pair feeding in tall grasses, buried in the waving stems, but it was difficult to give precise directions. Like the Brown Twinspot, the Olivebacks re-appeared giving good views for all—very beautiful little gems. We made it to the Masindi Hotel, convened at the Hemingway Bar to do the list, and found a Side-striped Montane Chameleon snoozing in a palm tree at the bar. We said farewell to Crammy and were joined by Herbert.

Chimpanzee

Chimpanzee— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

A birding walk along the Royal Mile in the Budongo Forest could not have commenced in better fashion when they scooped a White-thighed Hornbill before we had even arrived. In fact, it was to be our only sighting of this largely Congo special. We met up with Raymond, a local guide, whom I was able to give another pair of binoculars, a gift from one of last year’s tour participants. Thank you Janene! Raymond was thrilled. We had an outstanding walk, and we barely covered half-a-mile as one great bird led us to the next. Nesting Chestnut Wattle-eye; a male Jameson’s Wattle-eye; the scarce Lemon-bellied Crombec; fantastic views of Dwarf, Chocolate-backed, and Blue-breasted kingfishers; a skittish Ituri Batis; superb Forest Flycatchers; Chestnut-crowned Flycatchers; the usual high in the trees Uganda Wood-Warbler (where just trying to spot it is a major achievement); Western Nicator; Spotted Greenbul; Brown Illadopsis; and a shy Green-backed Twinspot were all sighted. Primates were diverse; we found some more Chimpanzees and watched Guereza Colobus unusually galloping down the track, looking like skunk horses! The most chance mammal sighting was a pair of Western Tree Hyrax scoped in a strangler fig. These African endemic mammals are truly unusual. Rabbit-sized, with four thick toes and explosive vocalizations, they are rarely encountered. It was a great day. As a storm developed, we left for the comfort of the hotel to find that our chameleon had moved along.

It was time for us to move along as well, this time to the famous Murchison National Park, home to the powerful falls where the Victoria Nile squeezes through a seven-meter-wide incredibly turbulent gap. This is safari country with herds of mammals in parts of the park that rival the Serengeti. Before we reached this area though, we birded along the Butiaba Escarpment, a different habitat from that which we had previously worked in. Jeannie was fixated on the Foxy Cisticola. As luck would have it, we found a pair so intently amorous that they fell out of an Acacia into the grass! Herbert pulled out a great sighting of a female Brown-backed Woodpecker, a rare species. New birds came thick and fast all day, ranging from Red-cheeked Cordonbleu to the glowing Northern Red Bishop, and by the time the day list was called we had racked up 120 species. We crossed the Victoria Nile by ferry.

White-thighed Hornbill

White-thighed Hornbill— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

A safari drive with charismatic ranger and gifted storyteller George was always going to be a tour highlight. Soon we were watching herds of Giraffe, African Elephant, Jackson’s Hartebeest, Oribi, and lekking Uganda Kob. Searching produced good sightings of scarcer antelopes like Bohor Reedbuck and Gray Duiker. Birds were excellent with one memorable double whammy: stopping for a fine pair of Red-headed Falcons only to realize that a pair of Denham’s Bustards (the first of nine) were foraging in the grassland below. We walked out of the bus, escorted by George with his AK-47, to photograph some spectacular Northern Carmine Bee-eaters. George commented that he thought he could see a lioness in a thicket about a hundred meters away. The inanimate object certainly looked like a lion, but it was hard to be certain, so we reboarded the bus and Alex drove us closer. Sure enough the ear flicked and then another lioness walked into view; it appeared there were several Lions in this thicket. Well-spotted George! It was difficult to get good photos, but participant David managed the best. Every few meters we would stop to look at something new—Black-headed Lapwing, Black-bellied Bustard, Greater Painted-Snipe, Rueppell’s Griffon, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, and flocks of Piapiacs riding on the backs of Warthogs. Lunch was shared with a juvenile Greater Honeyguide.

The afternoon was dedicated to a boat trip to the bottom of the falls, stopping to look at an abundance of large mammals, giant Nile Crocodiles, and plenty of birds including several Goliath Herons and a female Little Bittern feeding two chicks. We spotted a real rarity, the bizarre White-crowned Lapwing, with its pendulous yellow wattles and scimitar-like spurs on the fold of the wing. This is the only known record from Uganda; it may be the same bird that has been seen intermittently for nearly nine years! At the falls proper, where it is safe to navigate to, we found a lovely pair of Rock Pratincoles.

Saddle-billed Stork

Saddle-billed Stork— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

 

We had one last full day in the field, and it was put to good use. We started with a boat trip to the delta of the Victoria Nile where it enters Lake Albert. It was spectacular. Two Shoebills (!!) were located, and ridiculously tame Saddle-billed Storks foraged next to us. Aggregations of Comb Ducks and Spur-winged Geese frequented the swamps. Hippopotamus, herds of elephants, the largest Nile Crocodiles possible—the lenses were swinging this way and that. We found some great birds starting with a shy but repeatedly responsive pair of White-crested Turacos that put us onto a shy pair of Dusky Babblers. A Lesser Moorhen flew across a channel and froze briefly. Blue-headed Coucals perched up in the Papyrus. A female Giant Kingfisher was as tame as could be. One last scan produced a solitary African Skimmer that lifted up, flew around us, and returned to loafing on the shore. It was great. Later in the afternoon, after a siesta, we returned to the park and made the hoped-for breakthrough with both Heuglin’s Francolin and Shelley’s Rufous Sparrow. The main action centered on trying to get everyone onto an enormous female Spotted Hyena that spooked a portion of a giant herd of Buffalo. Luckily it was relocated and, after a wait, it leapt up and gave a decent view of this most unusual carnivore.

As we crossed the Nile in the morning, a small flock of skimmers came past. Today was to be a travel day as we had to return to Entebbe as folks began to fly home. We had one last hurrah when Herbert spotted a Bush Pig, a genuinely elusive mammal. It was unconcerned and gave some good views. We toured the top of Murchison Falls to get up close to this extraordinary phenomenon of the most violent stretch of freshwater on the planet. There would be no coming back if you went in, that is for sure. We made it back to Entebbe for a farewell dinner. It had been a great tour with a great bunch of folks, with special thanks to our wonderful team of Ugandan guides: Herbert, Crammy, Matthew, Prossie, Raymond, George, and Bosco, plus many others who made our trip so successful.