Murchison Falls National Park: November 5-6, 2016

I wondered whether my previous visit to Murchison Falls National Park would be my last. I have visited the region, including Budongo Forest Reserve, nine times over the last year. With only a few months left in Uganda, I need to explore other regions to find new birds for my country list. Kidepo National Park ranks high on my wish list of sites to visit, and trips to Semliki, Mt. Elgon, and Mgahinga National Parks would also help me reach my target of 600 species seen. Still, just a few weeks later I found myself back at Murchison for yet another weekend of birding.

Murchison is an especially rewarding park for birders. The habitat is remarkably diverse, including large tracts of savanna, bush, woodland, marsh, and semi-deciduous forest. The northern section of the park in particular evokes the Sudan region, with vast expanses of Borassus palm savanna. There are a handful of northern specialties, more typical of the Sudanian Savanna as well as the Sahel, that are most easily found at Murchison than anywhere else in the country. Despite the popularity of the park, there are plenty areas off the beaten track that offer opportunities for undisturbed birding.

Even after multiple visits to the region, I still have a considerable list of target birds. Whether due to oversight, bad luck, or scarcity, I have yet to record Bruce's Green Pigeon, Horus Swift, Pel's Fishing Owl, Egyptian Plover, White-Crested Turaco, and Green-Backed Eremola, just to name a few. Before this trip, I sorted the list by habitat, cross-checked it with specific destinations within the park, and planned out my route in order to maximize my chances for ticking new birds. This level of organization is not uncommon among birders, especially goal-oriented ones with limited time and resources.

Of course, there are other factors in Uganda that can affect the execution of a trip. I remembered this at my first stop on early Saturday morning at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, where I had planned to look for White-Crested Turaco. This spectacular turaco, perhaps the most beautiful of this African family of birds, is widespread in Uganda but somewhat localized. Although there were only a handful of other visitors at the sanctuary, I was told there were no guides available to walk me through the riverine forest there. Shrugging off this initial disappointment, I realized the weekend would be more enjoyable if I scrapped my plan for a guided walk, boat ride, and multiple ferry crossings and simply did my own thing.

The trip proved unexpectedly successful. I spent all of my time in the northern section of the park, driving in and out through the Tangi gate. I birded mainly Borassus palm savanna, semi-arid bush, marsh, and dry woodland. Although I didn't see any of my target species, I recorded a few new migratory species, such as Common Snipe, Black-and-White Cuckoo, and Red-Backed Shrike. I also spotted a Short-Toed Snake-Eagle, which is not recorded often in Uganda. I had good opportunities to photograph Chestnut-Crowned Sparrow Weaver, Northern Red Bishop, and Denham's Bustard. Plus, I briefly encountered a leopard after dusk on the road to the campsite.

Over a month later, it's difficult for me now to provide a full narrative of this trip to Murchison. Shortly afterwards, Aimee and I went on vacation to South Africa for three weeks, spending most of our time in the Cape region. In effect, this buried the details of a trip to a familiar site under the weighty impressions of an entirely new, and spectacular, region. I saw dozens of new birds in South Africa, which you can imagine overshadowed the same old birds I recorded on mundane trip to Murchison. There were a few highlights that I still recall, though.

Perhaps most remarkable was coming across a dead python along the stretch of road between Karuma and Pakwatch. It was early on Saturday morning, and the road was deserted. I was cruising along too fast to stop in advance of the python, but I turned around to marvel at its incredible size. The African rock python can grow over six meters in length. It is non-venomous and kills it prey by constriction. It's hard to believe that a skittish antelope would fall victim to the slow death grip of a python, but it happens regularly. This python was near six meters in length and had recently been run over by a truck or bus. Despite it being obviously dead, I was hesitant to approach it.

Another highlight was visiting the bird hide towards the end of the Buligi Track. Actually, the bird hide is defunct and filled with bats, but the area where it is located is great for waders and other water-associated birds. I've recorded Shoebill there, too. This time I found dozens of Common Snipe, some feeding among the water hyacinth in shallow water and a few others nearby in seasonal pools. One stood boldly in the open, preening in the morning light to reveal its distinctive rufous tail feathers. Long-Toed Lapwing was also common is the flooded areas, although my photographs of this species always seem to get overexposed.

On Saturday evening, I took my time returning from the delta to the campsite. It's a long drive, and I wanted to do much of it in the dark in hopes of spotting nightjars in the road. There were a few other vehicles on safari, and they might have scared off the nightjars in advance of my passage; however, I did spot a diminutive leopard loping alongside the road, practically illuminated by the taillights of the car in front of me. At first, I thought it was a lion cub, not being able to distinguish its spots from a distance in my headlights. Looking through my binoculars revealed a small but immaculately patterned leopard, which soon disappeared into the tall grass. The final stretch to the campsite yielded great looks at Long-Tailed Nightjar.

On Sunday morning, I left the campsite before dawn on a game drive. Along the Queen's Track, I spotted a medium-sized raptor perched upright on a tree in the growing light. Approaching cautiously in my car, I recognized the distinctive outline of a snake-eagle. Unlike the Black-Chested Snake-Eagle, which also has a dark upper breast, this individual had light barring on its underparts. The distribution map in Stevenson and Fanshawe's Birds of East Africa shows only a few isolated records for this species in northern Uganda and northwest Kenya. I watched as the snake-eagle flew off to perch in a more distant tree and was even more convinced in my identification.

Safari isn't easy, and being rigid about an itinerary is unwise. If I had fought to maintain my original plans, I likely would have enjoyed myself much less on this trip and perhaps even recorded fewer new birds. Instead, I adopted a flexible approach, trusted my instincts, and was rewarded with unexpected sightings of birds, reptiles, and mammals. I was still hot and sunburned, bitten by ticks and hounded by tsetse flies, and annoyed by other vehicles on game drive. Driving in and out of the park was perilous, too, as I twice had to ford a flooded road beyond Tangi Gate. But if this trip proves to be my last visit to Murchison, then it will stand as a testament to compromise.

Notable birds seen: African Darter, Common Squacco Heron, Little Egret, Goliath Heron, Purple Heron, Grey Heron, Black-Headed Heron, Hamerkop, Woolly-Necked Stork, Saddle-Billed Stork, Marabou Stork, Egyptian Goose, White-Faced Whistling-Duck, African Fish Eagle, Palm-Nut Vulture, Ruppell's Griffon Vulture, Short-Toed Snake-Eagle, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Pallid Harrier, Eastern Chanting-Goshawk, Lizard Buzzard, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Long-Crested Eagle, Grey Kestrel, Eurasian Hobby, Helmeted Guineafowl, Heuglin's Francolin, Crested Francolin, Black Crake, African Jacana, Grey Crowned Crane, Denham's Bustard, Black-Bellied Bustard, Spotted Thick-Knee, Senegal Thick-Knee, Spur-Winged Lapwing, Long-Toed Lapwing, African Wattled Lapwing, Black-Headed Lapwing, Common Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint, Common Snipe, Blue-Spotted Wood-Dove, Black-Billed Wood-Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, African Mourning Dove, Brown Parrot, Great-Blue Turaco, Black-and-White Cuckoo, Diederik Cuckoo, White-Browed Coucal, Senegal Coucal, Long-Tailed Nightjar, African Palm Swift, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, Red-Throated Bee-Eater, Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, Broad Billed Roller, European Roller, Green Wood-Hoopoe, African Hoopoe, Black Scimitarbill, African Grey Hornbill, Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird (h), Yellow-Fronted Tinkerbird (h), Spot-Flanked Barbet, Flappet Lark, Angola Swallow, African Pied Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, African Thrush, Sooty Chat, Whinchat, Spotted Morning-Thrush, Sedge Warbler, Olivaceous Warbler, Northern Crombec, Zitting Cisticola, Rattling Cisticola, Winding Cisticola, Siffling Cisticola, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Pale Flycatcher, Swamp Flycatcher, Black-Headed Batis, Silverbird, Marico Sunbird, Beautiful Sunbird, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Isabelline Shrike, Red-Backed Shrike, Black-Headed Gonolek, Black-Crowned Tchagra, Fork-Tailed Drongo, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Lesser Blue-Eared Starling, Ruppell's Long-Tailed Starling, Rufous Sparrow, Speckle-Fronted Weaver, Chestnut-Crowned Sparrow-Weaver, Vitelline Masked Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Red-Billed Quelea, Red-Headed Weaver, Yellow-Mantled Widowbird, Northern Red Bishop, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Red-Billed Firefinch, Common Waxbill, Black-Rumped Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin, Pin-Tailed Whydah.

Murchison Falls National Park: October 22-23, 2016

With Aimee out of town, I was on my own again this weekend. Rather than relax in Kampala, I hit the road in northern Uganda to tick a few more remaining dry country specialties. With the help of Where to Watch Birds in Uganda, a dated but still useful bird-finding guide, I had identified several gaps in my country list, including Green-Backed Eremola, Red-Winged Grey-Warbler, and White-Rumped Seed-Eater, among others. These are small and unassuming birds do not typically impress, but this is the work of an independent birding developing his knowledge of the local avifauna and building his country list: making repeated trips to obscure sites, often in search of a small handful of target birds.

I was hoping to build on the success of my trip a few weeks ago to Budongo Forest Reserve, where I added nearly twenty new birds in the forest itself and the surrounding areas. This included an excursion to Lake Albert, where I birded the escarpment overlooking the Albertine Rift Valley. Standouts from that weekend included Brown Twinspot, Foxy Cisticola, Black-Bellied Seedcracker, and Lemon-Bellied Crombec. On this trip, I planned to revisit the escarpment and then continue on to the southern section of Murchison Falls National Park, where I would search an area of moist woodland for White-Crested Turaco, Bruce's Green Pigeon, Yellow-Bellied Hyliota, White-Breasted Cuckoo-Shrike, and Purple Starling.

I reached the escarpment around mid-morning on Saturday. The birds weren't nearly as active as they had been in the early afternoon a few weeks ago, but within an hour I had found a few targets, including pairs of Brown-Backed Woodpeckers and Eastern Violet-Backed Sunbirds. Cliff Chat and Cinnamon-Breasted Rock-Bunting are easy to find here, and I have seen Foxy Cisticola both times, a tiny Old World warbler that feeds on the ground. The Silverbird is one of my favorites of East Africa. It is relatively easy to spot in dry country areas in northern Uganda, especially north of the Victoria Nile in Murchison Falls National Park. Oddly, it skittish of cars and has proven challenging to photograph.

From the base of the escarpment, the murram roads heads north through Bugungu Wildlife Reserve. From the looks of it, the Uganda Wildlife Authority has a small footprint here, and I passed dozens of people brazenly hauling wood. In the more arid stretches along the road, I found several groups of White-Rumped Seedeater. Beautiful Sunbird, Black-Bellied Firefinch, and Rattling Cisticola were also common. Despite the tall seeding grass, I didn't encounter any waxbill flocks until I had approached Murchison Falls National Park. The weather was beautifully clear and free of haze, and I found driving this alternate route to the park thoroughly enjoyable. Unlike the more direct route from Masindi to Paraa through the park, there are no tsetse flies here, and you are free to explore on foot.

I stopped for a few hours at Nile Safari Lodge, where I considered staying at their scenic campsite overlooking the Victoria Nile. The dry bush and riverine woodland here is great for birding. Although they no longer regularly record Shoebill from the lookout, the camp is a great place to stay and an upgrade from the basic campsites inside the park. Visitors are free to bird on their own without fear of being attacked by a lion or trampled by an elephant. I had a beer and chatted with the manager about the fruiting ficus tree overlooking the river. When was the last time someone saw a Shoebill? Had he seen White-Crested Turaco before? Did he know of any roosts of owls or nightjars? Unfortunately, the manager wasn't much of a birder, and I didn't collect any reliable intelligence. Moving on to the park itself, I finally ticked Fawn-Breasted Waxbill.

My plan was to spend the night at the campsite near the top of Murchison Falls. I have camped here half a dozen times, usually arriving in darkness after searching for nightjars along the access road. With another hour left of daylight, I loitered around the ferry crossing in Paraa, looking for Red-Winged Grey-Warbler, which I found responsive to playback. I realized that on previous visits had mistakenly played recordings of Red-Winged Warbler, yet another bird I haven't seen. I also checked in with the guides at Wild Frontiers, which operates boat trips up the river to the base of the falls. The guide who had just returned reported seeing a Pel's Fishing Owl perched in the open. Feeling rather gripped off, I started the journey to the falls, hoping for a Standard-Winged Nightjar or two as consolation.

At dusk I pulled up to an obstinate Common Buzzard sitting in the middle of road. The buzzard didn't budge as I photographed it at close range, and I had to swerve around it as I moved on. I drove slowly in the darkness along the final ten kilometers to the falls. The road is famous for nightjars, with birders reporting seeing dozens of spectacular nightjars in breeding plumage, such as Pennant-Winged Nightar. I haven't had much luck here recently myself. I encountered a solitary Square-Tailed Nightjar alongside the road, flushing it before noticing it resting on the ground. The campsite was vacant, and I quickly set up my tent, had dinner, and went to sleep, eschewing a fire. I had briefly considering hiking the trail down to the base of the falls before dawn to look for Pel's Fishing Owl, but the notion seemed risky, and I was exhausted.

In the morning, I put on my tsetse fly armor and set out on foot. Noting Red-Winged Grey-Warbler, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, Grey-Headed Negrofinch, Blue-Breasted Kingfisher, and Yellowbill, among others, I arrive at the top of the falls. African Pied Wagtail, Common Sandpiper, and Rock Pratincole were feeding from boulders in the rushing river and along the rocky banks. Swifts, martins, and swallows swirled overhead. Admittedly, I am not adept at identifying individual species of each of these families and genera.  Sure, I can tell the difference between a saw-wing and a spinetail, but it seems impossible to distinguish a Little Swift from a Horus Swift in flight. How can you get familiar with these intensely aerial birds, if you never see them well? Before any other tourists arrived, I took in the magnificent scene, perhaps for the last time.

I decided to skip the final site I had planned to visit and headed home instead. Originally, I wanted to bird along the access road to the Rabongo Forest in the eastern side of the park, where I could search for my remaining target species in moist woodland.  According to Where to Watch Birds in Uganda, there is also a chance for African Finfoot and Shining Blue Kingfisher along a forested stream. Nearing the turnoff, though, there were hordes of tsetse flies outside my car, smashing themselves into the windows. Regardless of how many layers of clothing I wear, they attack relentlessly and invariably find a weakness in my armor. Nevertheless, it had been a productive trip, having added eight new birds to my country list.

Notable birds seen: African Darter, Goliath Heron, Black-Headed Heron, Hamerkop, Wolly-Necked Stork, African Fish Eagle, Western-Banded Snake-Eagle, Eastern Chanting-Goshawk, Shikra, Common Buzzard, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Long-Crested Eagle, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Francolin, Rock Pratincole, African Wattled Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, Blue-Spotted Wood-Dove, Black-Billed Wood-Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, Laughing Dove, Red-Headed Lovebird, Yellowbill, White-Browed Coucal, Square-Tailed Nightjar, African Palm Swift, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Grey-Hooded Kingfisher, Giant Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, Blue-Breasted Kingfisher (h), African Pygmy Kingfisher, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Red-Throated Bee-Eater, African Grey Hornbill, Crowned Hornbill, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Yellow-Fronted Tinkerbird, Spot-Flanked Barbet, Greater Honeyguide, Nubian Woodpecker, Brown-Backed Woodpecker, Wire-Tailed Swallow, African Pied Wagtail, White-Browed Robin-Chat, Red-Capped Robin-Chat, Sooty Chat, Cliff Chat, Buff-Bellied Warbler, Willow Warbler, Green Crombec, Rattling Cisticola, Winding Cisticola (h), Red-Faced Cisticola, Whistling Cisticola, Foxy Cisticola, Red-Winged Grey Warbler, Tawny-Flanked Prinia, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Spotted Flycatcher, Black-Headed Batis, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, Silverbird, Brown Babbler, Black-Lored Babbler, Yellow White-Eye, Green-Headed Sunbird, Olive-Bellied Sunbird, Marico Sunbird, Beautiful Sunbird, Eastern Violet-Backed Sunbird, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Black-Headed Gonolek, Black-Crowned Tchagra, Fork-Tailed Drongo, Lesser Blue-Eared Starling, White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, Chestnut-Crowned Sparrow-Weaver, Spectacled Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Compact Weaver, Red-Collared Widowbird, Fan-Tailed Widowbird, Northern Red Bishop, Black-Winged Bishop, Grey-Headed Negrofinch (h), Green-Backed Twinspot, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Black-Bellied Firefinch, Fawn-Breasted Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin, Pin-Tailed Whydah, White-Rumped Seedeater, African Golden-Breasted Bunting, Cinnamon-Breasted Rock-Bunting.

Budongo Forest Reserve: October 9-10, 2016

A three-week birding trip to Uganda should yield about five hundred species seen. Some of these will be among Africa's finest and most sought-after, including Shoebill, African Finfoot, Pel's Fishing Owl, Green-Breasted Pitta, and African Green Broadbill. I've lived in Uganda, birding in my leisure time, for over a year, and I only recently reached this milestone myself. The issue, as most independent birders are aware, is whether to rely on guides to deliver the birds. I have always preferred to go it alone. Having lived in some of the world's birdiest countries, such as Brazil and Ecuador, I have been able to revisit sites and develop an understanding of the avifauna myself. If I blitzed sites with expert guides during my first few months in every new country, then I wouldn't have much left to see over the following several years.

Still, it's humbling to consider that many short-term visitors have seen more birds in Uganda than I have. And when counting up their life list, few birders qualify whether their records were assisted. We don't care how many birds Jon Hornbuckle has seen on his own, just than he has seen more birds than anyone else. So, with the clock ticking on my time left in country, I understood that it was time for me, too, to start ticking as many new birds as possible. With these issues in mind, I planned a clean-up trip to northwestern Uganda over the Columbus Day weekend. First, I would contract a local guide to find birds I had missed during my two previous trips to Budongo Forest Reserve. Then, I would spend time birding along the escarpment overlooking Lake Albert, habitat similar to the dry country bush at Murchison Falls National Park but without the tsetse flies.

With over thirty target species, this trip was likely to boost my country list significantly. I set out early on Sunday morning, reaching Busingiro in three hours. The National Forest Authority has taken over the management of the station from the Jane Goodall Institute. I have had uneven experiences with NFA at different reserves, but the team there welcomed me to bird the area on my own and camp that night. Having gone more than a month without birding, I felt rusty and out of sync as I birded the short loop trail behind the station. Three hours of patient stalking yielded a few backlit photographs of Jameson's Wattle-Eye and fleeting looks at Forest Robin, White-Throated Greenbul, and Red-Headed Bluebill. The access road through the reserve offered easier birding, but by then it was already midday, and I noted little more than Honeyguide Greenbul, Rufous-Crowned Eremola, and Yellow-Crested Woodpecker.

On the drive out west to the escarpment, I passed through the town of Biso, where thousands of people had gathered for the local Independence Day celebration. Not surprisingly in Uganda, which is a small but diverse country composed of many different tribes and historical kingdoms, Independence Day is a complicated holiday. In addition, the political opposition party, which lost the presidency badly in a problematic election last February, had plans this weekend to celebrate its own Independence Day as a gesture of protest. With these complications in mind, I didn't linger long in Biso and bounced along the murram road towards Lake Albert. A kilometer before the edge of the escarpment, the small farms and agricultural fields end, and the natural bush habitat resumes. A few scattered acacia trees mark the rocky hillsides overlooking the lake below and the mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo beyond.

Despite the heat of the afternoon, I charged around the lip of the escarpment searching for dry country specialties of northern Uganda. A pair of Cliff Chat is resident among the ruins at the beginning of the road's steep descent. This area also yielded Red-Winged Pytilia, Cinnamon-Breasted Rock-Bunting, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, Yellow-Fronted Tinkerbird, Chestnut-Crowned Sparro-Weaver, and Black-Bellied Firefinch. Across the road, I walked a trail leading up the hill, where Foxy Cisticola responded nicely to playback while overhead an Osprey soared towards Lake Albert. It was blazing hot in the full equatorial sun, and I felt overexposed as dozens of taxis and motorcycles streamed uphill towards Biso for the Independence Day celebration. With several new birds seen, I decided to descend the escarpment and check out the lakeshore for waders.

Butiaba was once a thriving port, and the town has a rich history marked by several notable figures, including Ernest Hemingway. Since the destructive flood of 1961, the town has experienced a drastic decline in importance as a hub for trade and tourism. Now, there is little more to see than mud huts set among the ruins. There is a picturesque spit at the edge of town jutting into the lake, where fisherman and trash pickers make their living. The reeds along the lake edge offered Slender-Billed Weaver, African Jacana, and Winding Cisticola. Black-Winged Stilt, Lesser Sandplover, and Green Sandpiper searched for prey along the water's edge, while Pink-Backed Pelican, White-Winged Tern, and Pied Kingfisher wheeled above. The spit is dotted with Borassus, and leaving town I noted a Red-Necked Falcon diving from a cluster of palm towards its prey on the ground.

Nearing sunset, the open areas along the escarpment road were busy with birdlife. Huge groups of Rufous Sparrow, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Cinnamon-Breasted Rock Bunting, and various species of weaver and firefinch carpeted the open areas. I stopped again at the top of the escarpment to look around for Green-Backed Eremola and a few remaining targets. It was well after dark when I finally reached Busingiro for the night. I was exhausted from the heat, and my back felt tweaked after carrying around my camera gear all day. I set up camp and went to bed quickly after a few beers. I was so tired that I wasn't even bothered by the terrifying calls of the nocturnal Tree Hyrax. I've camped all over Uganda, and Busingiro has by far the highest population density of these rodents. It is incredible to hear these cute little buggers roar like dragons at each other all night long.

I met my guide the following morning near Nyabyeya Forestry College near Budongo Forest Reserve. Raymond was recommended to me by Gerald, one of the expert bird guides whom I have worked with at Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary near Kibale National Park. Although I had been frustrated by logistics on my previous two visits, with Raymond's help arranging a visit to the Royal Mile was straightforward. I paid 20 USD at the NFA office for a half-day of birding in the forest, plus 30 USD for Raymond's guiding service for the whole day (we also planned to bird the cultivated fields along the access road). The NFA staff was waiting for us, the guard at the entrance gate didn't give us a hard time, and we could bird free and easy along the Royal Mile. Although I had successfully gained access to the Royal Mile twice before while birding on my own, it hadn't been easy or pleasant.

Raymond and I spent our first hour together birding the cultivated areas. At first glance, these overgrown fields of maize, cassava, ground nuts, and sweet potato don't look like hotbeds of bird diversity, but we found some key dry country species of northern Uganda, including Brown Twinspot and Cabanis's Bunting. I also ticked new species that are more widespread, such as Dark-Capped Yellow Warbler, Singing and Whistling Cisticolas, and Zebra Waxbill. Other notable birds seen here were Cassin's Hawk-Eagle, Wahlberg's Eagle, African Moustached Warbler, Compact Weaver, Black Bishop, Red-Collared Widowbird, and Black-Winged Red Bishop. We also kicked up a group of Tree Pipits, a common migrant that Raymond had never seen before. In order to see these birds well, we walked deep into the fields following along the edges of patches of cultivation. The local farmers didn't seem to mind, but their reaction might have been different had I been alone.

On the Royal Mile, we encountered a good mixed flock with several site specialties, including Ituri Batis, Lemon-Bellied Crombec, and Chestnut-Capped Flycatcher. Raymond didn't have audio equipment, but he has clearly mastered the bird calls and songs of the area and was able to identify  the source of every bit of bird noise. With a variety of whistles and pishing sounds he elicited responses from Grey Longbill, Chocolate-Backed Kingfisher, Yellow-Browed Camaroptera, Jameson's Wattle-Eye, Green-Backed Twinspot, and many others. We heard Nahan's Francolin earlier in the morning calling spontaneously from another patch of forest, but it did not respond to Raymond's imitation along the Royal Mile. We also missed Yellow Longbill, Blue-Shouldered Robin-Chat, Black-Capped Apalis, and Uganda Woodland Warbler, all birds I was hoping to tick for the first time.

We encountered a few surprises along the road, including a solitary chimpanzee searching for fruit at the base of a fig tree. At the end of the Royal Mile, the road crosses a small stream where we searched for Shining-Blue Kingfisher. Suddenly, a male Black-Bellied Seedcracker emerged in the gloom of the understory to take a few sips of water before retreating back into the forest. All morning an adult African Crowned Eagle wheeled overhead, calling loudly. This looming threat kept the monkeys from disturbing our birding with too much activity. It's not unusual at Budongo for monkeys to inadvertently scare off a bird you've been stalking patiently for fifteen minutes, as they bound from tree to tree in the canopy high overhead. We did not find an African Dwarf Kingfisher among the many African Pygmy Kingfishers, nor did we spot either spinetail species soaring overhead.

By the time we left the forest at mid-afternoon, bird activity had dropped off dramatically. We spent another hour looking for dry country species again, including Grey-Headed Olive-Back. Raymond sees this localized and erratic species regularly in his yard, but we were unsuccessful. Eventually, I had to cut my losses and return to Kampala in order to arrive before dark. Admittedly, it was a pleasure birding with Raymond, and without his expert knowledge I would have only seen a few new species. It's likely that I wouldn't have been able to access the Royal Mile on my own, considering that technically the NFA requires a guide to enter the forest. You can contact Raymond directly by phone or SMS to set up a guided excursion (0752930065). He charges 50 USD per day for a group and 30 USD per for an individual. If you're only going to visit the Royal Mile once, I would recommend you maximize your visit to one of Uganda's best birding sites by hiring a guide.

Albertine Rift Valley Escarpment and Lake Albert

Notable birds seen: Pink-Backed Pelican, Common Squacco Heron, Little Egret, Black-Headed Heron, Hamerkop, Osprey, Lizard Buzzard, Wahlberg's Eagle, Cassin's Hawk-Eagle, Long-Crested Eagle, Red-Necked Falcon, Helmeted Guineafowl, African Jacana, Black-Winged Stilt, Lesser Sandplover, Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, White-Winged Tern, Blue-Spotted Wood-Dove, Laughing Dove, Red-Headed Lovebird, White-Browed Coucal, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, Red-Throated Bee-Eater, Speckled Tinkerbird, Yellow-Fronted Tinkerbird, Double-Toothed Barbet, Barn Swallow, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Plain-Backed Pipit, Tree Pipit, Cliff Chat, Sooty Chat, Whinchat, Brown-Backed Scrub-Robin, Dark-Capped Yellow-Warbler, African Moustached Warbler, Zitting Cisticola, Rattling Cisticola, Singing Cisticola, Red-Faced Cisticola, Whistling Cisticola, Foxy Cisticola, Tawny-Flanked Prinia, Swamp Flycatcher, Black-Headed Batis, African Paradise Flycatcher, Silverbird, Brown Babbler, Copper Sunbird, Marico Sunbird, Beautiful Sunbird, Common Fiscal, Black-Headed Gonolek, Black-Crowned Tchagra, Brown-Crowned Tchagra, Piapiac, Lesser Blue-Eared Starling, Rufous Sparrow, White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, Chestnut-Crowned Sparrow-Weaver, Slender-Billed Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Compact Weaver, Red-Collared Widowbird, Black Bishop, Black-Winged Red Bishop, Red-Winged Pytilia, Brown Twinspot, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Red-Billed Firefinch, African Firefinch, Black-Bellied Firefinch, Black-Crowned Waxbill, Zebra Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin, Black-and-White Mannikin, Pin-Tailed Whydah, Yellow-Fronted Canary, Cinnamon-Breasted Rock Bunting, Cabanis's Bunting.

Budongo Forest Reserve

Notable birds seen: African Crowned Eagle, Nahan's Francolin (h), White-Spotted Flufftail (h), Klaas's Cuckoo, Yellowbill, Narina Trogon, Blue-Breasted Kingfisher (h), Chocolate-Backed Kingfisher (h), African Pygmy Kingfisher, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, Yellow-Throated Tinkerbird, Speckled Tinkerbird, Yellow-Spotted Barbet, Yellow-Billed Barbet (h), Brown-Eared Woodpecker, Yellow-Crested Woodpecker, White-Headed Saw-Wing, Western Nicator, Little Greenbul, Slender-Billed Greenbul, Red-Tailed Bristlebill (h), Icterine Greenbul, White-Throated Greenbul, Spotted Greenbul, Honeyguide Greenbul, Forest Robin, Fire-Crested Alethe (h), Red-Capped Robin-Chat (h), Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush, Green Hylia, Lemon-Bellied Crombec, Green Crombec, Grey Longbill, Rufous-Crowned Eremola, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Yellow-Browed Camaroptera, Buff-Throated Apalis, Pale Flycatcher, Grey-Throated Flycatcher, Ituri Batis, Chestnut Wattle-Eye, Jameson's Wattle-Eye, Red-Bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Chestnut-Capped Flycatcher, Pale-Breasted Illadopsis, Brown Illadopsis, Olive Sunbird, Little Green Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Western Black-Headed Oriole, Purple-Headed Starling, Grosbeak Weaver, Vieillot's Black Weaver, Red-Headed Malimbe, Grey-Headed Negrofinch (h), White-Breasted Negrofinch, Green-Backed Twinspot, Red-Headed Bluebill, Black-Bellied Seedcracker.

Grey-Winged Robin-Chat

The Grey-Winged Robin-Chat, or Cossypha polioptera, is one of the many confusing robin-chats, akalats, and alethes found in the region. The bird's distribution is baffling, with small populations scattered in West Africa, the Great Lakes Region, and as far south as Angola and Zambia. There has been debate whether it is even a robin-chat and not an akalat (admittedly, the distinction doesn't mean much to me yet). Not only are all these birds similarly voluble and dynamic songsters, they frequently mimic the calls and songs of other birds. I once heard a Blue-Shouldered Robin-Chat respond to playback of another that was imitating the call of a Black-Shoulderd Nightjar. Most are also denizens of humid forest and dense vegetation, and unless you have an amazing ear, you never really know what bird is singing in the shadows until it appears. At Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, our guide summoned this Grey-Winged Robin-Chat from a well-known territory. Surprisingly, it then darted out into a neighboring field to join a mob of birds harassing a snake.

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