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.

Kibale National Park: September 3-5, 2016

For wildlife enthusiasts, Kibale National Park is famous for its remarkable number of primate species, chimpanzee tracking being the obvious highlight. For hardcore birders, Kibale is the only reliable site in Africa for Green-Breasted Pitta, at least during its breeding season from June through August. But if you have already seen chimpanzees, and it is out of season for the pitta, then exploring the park is an expensive proposition. Instead of paying the entrance and steep activity fees (150 USD for chimpanzee tracking and 30 USD for birding), it is possible to enjoy the fringes of the park and support community-based ecotourism instead. Several lodges are set in secondary forest bordering Kibale, and Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary nearby offers an exceptional, and economical, guided experience. Using this approach, birders will likely tick more species outside than inside park.

The landscape south of Fort Portal is also renowned for its crater lakes. I had visited Kibale twice before without stopping here to admire the scenery. The road that bisects the national park does pass by one large crater lake, but beyond there is a vast network of smaller crater lakes. Guidebooks extol the area for offering low-key, independent tourism, and encourage visitors to stay at one of the many lodges or campsites and simply explore on foot or bicycle. Indeed, there is no game driving, bungee jumping, or white-water rafting to be done here. Aimee is unfamiliar with the Kibale area, and in conceiving this weekend trip. I had planned for us to do a bit of birding, relaxing, and meandering ourselves. Although I prefer to stay closer to the national park, I pledged to tour the crater lake region, just fifteen minutes away from Kanyanchu Gate, by car.

Chimps' Nest was originally recommended to me by the owner of Bwindi Cuckooland, which is the only other lodge I have stayed at in Uganda. With my own camping gear, I have mostly stuck to my resolution to explore Uganda on a low budget, saving most of my money for fuel and fees. Cuckooland is an exceptional place though, and I trust the judgement of its owner, who has a similar mindset about getting good value for his money. On my previous visit to Kibale, I had decided to stay at Chimps' Nest after being quoted 14 dollars a night to camp at Kanyanchu (a nearby lodge manages this basic campsite for UWA). The lodge is nestled in secondary forest adjacent to the national park. The lodge offers a range of accommodation, including a block of budget rooms (15 dollars for a single and 20 dollars for a double). The staff are capable, the restaurant serves vegetarian food, and the birding around the grounds is excellent.

We arrived at Chimps' Nest on Friday evening, and Aimee was immediately pleased with the setting. As during my previous two-night stay, we were the only guests. The block of budget rooms is set in an overgrown glade that is chock full of birds, including Green Crombec, White-Chinned Prinia, Bocage's Bush-Shrike, Yellowbill, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, Little Greenbul, and many others. Two trails fork down from the common area towards the forest past a series of private cabins. Here, I have seen African Blue-Flycatcher, Brown Illadopsis, White-Tailed Ant-Thrush, Red-Bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Red-Capped Robin-Chat, and African Emerald Cuckoo, among others. A derelict trail also heads off into the forest below the cabins. I haven't birded here extensively, nor is it permitted without a guide, but the swampy area immediately inside the forest is good for White-Spotted Flufftail.

To make arrangements for Saturday morning, I had stopped briefly at Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary before checking in at Chimps' Nest. Ben, the guide I worked with previously, greeted me warmly, and we discussed my targets for the following morning. Another guide, Jerod, was available and happy to help me look for a few key species, and we agreed to meet at 7:30 a.m. the following morning. The Kibale Association for Rural and Environmental Development (KAFRED), a community-based organization, operates the sanctuary, and the entrance fees (50,000 UGX for foreign non residents) help support several projects in the local community, including Bigodi Secondary School. KAFRED has twice received the UN Development Programme's Equator Prize, which recognizes communities for reducing poverty through biodiversity conservation. In 2015, it also became Uganda's only winner of the Silver Award as Best Destination for Responsible Tourism in Africa.

These awards are no joke, and most visitors to Kibale National Park also stop here for a quick circuit around the trail in search of the sanctuary's eight primate species. I am not alone in singing the praises of the reserve as an exceptional birding site. Phillip Briggs, author of the Bradt Guide to Uganda and an avid birder himself, notes that the experience at Bigodi is unique in all of East Africa. Most of Uganda's forest reserves are managed by UWA or the National Forest Authority, which consider nature walks and bird watching to be separate activities, to be charged in addition to the entrance fee. At Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary, there is no additional charge for bird watching, and expert guiding services are included. Visitors just need to be clear about their interests and offer advance notice, if possible. Although the reserve is modest in size, and the bird list is far shorter than those of the national parks, Briggs explains that the emphasis is on quality over quantity.

Our walk with Jerod was slow-paced and productive. We spent five hours completing the circuit around the swamp forest and through a bed of papyrus, stopping frequently to search through mixed flocks or to lure difficult birds out of their territories with playback. Our efforts for Grey-Winged Robin-Chat and Joyful Greenbul were rewarded, although we missed out on a few other skulkers, including White-Spotted Flufftail, White-Winged Warbler, and Blue-Shouldered Robin-Chat. The clear highlight was seeing a mating pair of Yellow-Billed Barbets, as they nested in a tree cavity just off the trail. I have seen this spectacular bird several times but never imagined I would photograph it up close. We also encountered an angry mob of birds, including the hefty Double-Toothed Barbet, in a bush along the trail. The Grey-Winged Robin-Chat we had called out of the swamp forest joined the action, as the group harassed what was likely a snake.

Jerod and I swapped stories about seeing his favorite bird, the Green-Breasted Pitta, in Kibale National Park. He shared that he had once seen African Pitta at a lodge a few kilometers down the road. I also quizzed him about rare or unusual birds at Bigodi, and he revealed that he spotted an African Finfoot along the swamp walk just a few weeks ago. Afterwards, Aimee and I returned to Chimps' Nest for lunch and some well-deserved down time. I roamed the grounds off and on until dark, siting out a few rain squalls on our veranda. At one point in the afternoon, there was a long sustained earthquake that woke Aimee from her nap. The tremor was centered across the border in Tanzania, and there was significant destruction in Rakai District. Saturday night proved to be much quieter than Friday, when African Wood Owl and Black-Shouldered Nightjar called intermittently until dawn.

I woke up early on Sunday morning to try again photographing the White-Spotted Flufftail. My new Nikon D500 continues to impress, with the auto focus capability probably being the most significant improvement from my old D5100. I have been shooting in aperture priority mode, keeping my ISO and white balance settings on automatic. The results have been a big improvement, although I'm still shocked to see ISO values above 30,000 producing manageable noise levels. I had to employ a few tricks to stake out the flufftail, but within fifteen minutes I had passable photos of one poking about the swampy forest floor. I haven't been entirely pleased with the auto white balance setting, and I've had to use more fill flash than I would like. It's likely a good time for me to start shooting in RAW format and using appropriate image processing software.

We left Chimps' Nest at 9:00 a.m. and stopped by the park station to check a well-known spot briefly for Blue-Shouldered Robin-Chat. On my first visit to Kibale, I camped here and enjoyed birding in the area around the park station on my own. Before the road project began, visitors could even peacefully bird right through the heart of the park for free. This time, the UWA staff cooly received us and rebuffed our inquiry to look for my target bird. This officiousness was in stark contrast to Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary, where the guides know the bird well and are happy to show it to you. They even have have their own audio equipment to try calling it in at several different territories. I'm not sure what the issue was with the UWA staff I interacted with, but in general a community-based organization should not be outperforming a national park service.

We spent the next few hours driving around the Ndali-Kasenda crater lakes. Most of the area is under cultivation, but some of the lakes are still fringed by native vegetation. African Black Duck and Pygmy Goose are possible here, although I only noted the former. Most of the farms in the area are small mixed banana and coffee plantations, and there are some larger tea estates. If the birding wasn't so good nearby, I would be happy to spend the weekend exploring the area on my mountain bike. Before returning to Kampala, I stopped at Sebitoli Gate to Kibale National Park. Although there are no reports of Green-Breasted Pitta from the north side of the park, I have considered camping here several times. There are several bandas and two areas for camping, one that is set back from the station in the forest. Again, the UWA staff were skeptical of my presence and answered my questions hesitantly, but I'll likely try camping there sometime soon, if only to enjoy the local colony of Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eaters.

Notable birds seen: Little Grebe, Open-Billed Stork, African Black Duck, Palm Nut Vulture, African Goshawk, Great Sparrowhawk, Long-Crested Eagle, Scaly Francolin, White-Spotted Flufftail, Grey Crowned Crane, African Green Pigeon, Blue-Spotted Wood-Dove, Great Blue Turaco, Red-Chested Cuckoo (h), Klaas's Cuckoo, Yellowbill (h), African Wood Owl (h), Black-Shouldered Nightjar (h), Alpine Swift, Speckled Mousebird, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Crowned Hornbill, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, Yellow-Throated Tinkerbird, Speckled Tinkerbird, Grey-Throated Barbet, Yellow-Spotted Barbet, Hairy-Breasted Barbet, Double-Toothed Barbet, Yellow-Billed Barbet, Greater Honeyguide, Lesser Honeyguide, Yellow-Crested Woodpecker, African Pied Wagtail, Red-Shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike, Western Nicator (h), Little Greenbul, Slender-Billed Greenbul, Toro Olive Greenbul (h), Little Grey Greenbul, Cameroon Sombre Greenbul, Joyful Greenbul, Grey-Winged Robin-Chat, Red-Capped Robin-Chat, Olive Thrush, White-Tailed Ant-Thrush, White-Winged Warbler (h), Green Hylia, Green Crombec, Red-Faced Cisticola, Tawny-Flanked Prinia, White-Chinned Prinia, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Yellow-Breasted Apalis, Ashy Flycatcher, Lead-Coloured Flycatcher, Dusky-Blue Flycatcher, Black-and-White Shrike-Flycatcher, Red-Bellied Flycatcher, African Blue-Flycatcher, Brown Illadopsis, Yellow White-Eye, Bronze Sunbird, Green-Headed Sunbird, Olive-Bellied Sunbird, Green-Throated Sunbird, Olive Sunbird, Copper Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Northern Puffback (h), Bocage's Bush-Shrike, Purple-Headed Starling, Black-Necked Weaver, Grosbeak Weaver, Vieillot's Black Weaver, Grey-Headed Negrofinch, White-Breasted Negrofinch, African Firefinch, Black-Crowned Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin, Black-and-White Mannikin.

Double-Toothed Barbet

The Double-Toothed Barbet, or Lybius bidenatus, was the first spectacular bird I ticked in Uganda. I recall being struck both by its size and color when spotting it from my backyard shortly after we arrived in Kampala. It is one of Africa's largest barbet species, and despite its common status along the equator in both West and East Africa, it never fails to impress. The field markings are unmistakable at any distance, but the double-toothed bill warrants close inspection. Barbets are not entirely frugivorous, but many have strong ridged bills that are perfect for tearing into thick-skinned fruit. I photographed this individual at Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary near Kibale National Park. It descended from the canopy into a bush to join a frantic group of birds mobbing what was likely a snake. I am still learning the nuances of my new Nikon D500, but with fast and accurate auto focus shooting at ten frames per second, it is difficult to miss a good shot.

Yellow-Billed Barbet

The Yellow-Billed Barbet, or Trachyphonus purpuratus, is surely one of Uganda's most spectacular birds. Remarkable for the bill and bare yellow skin around its eyes, the plumage of the Yellow-Billed Barbet also rewards close inspection. Note the dark maroon breast finely flecked with silver and the yellow belly mottled black. Relatively common in a variety of forest habitats, the barbet can be fairly difficult to see well as it keeps to thick tangles. On a recent trip to Kibale National Park, we observed a mating pair at Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary, where they were nesting in a tree cavity near the trail. Most delightful was to watch the effort with which the barbet emits its monotonous hooping call. Whereas many barbets and tinkerbirds project upwards as they call, the Yellow-Billed Barbet belches towards the forest floor.

Queen Elizabeth National Park: August 5-7, 2016

Queen Elizabeth National Park is a sprawling and diverse reserve, and it would be difficult to explore all of the park's attractions in a week. Most visitors focus on the obvious highlights: the Ugandan Kob breeding grounds of the Kasenyi Plains, the tree-climbing lions of Ishasha, and the boat cruise along the Kazinga Channel, which connects Lakes Edward and George. On our first trip in December, we aimed for these and a few other activities, including tracking chimpanzees in the Kyambura Gorge and birding the Maramagambo Forest, but we quickly realized that we would need several additional days for this ambitious itinerary. Having now completed our second visit to the park, and learned about even more about the area, I can say that Queen Elizabeth merits at least three or four trips.

Like all of Uganda's national parks, except for Kidepo, Queen Elizabeth is within reach of Kampala for a three-day weekend. There are two possible routes, through Fort Portal or Mbarara. Although the distances are similar, the road conditions are far from equal. The stretch of road between Mbarara and Ishaka, as well as the final leg to the northern section of the park, is riddled with potholes, making this route frustratingly long and unpleasant. On the other hand, the road between Fort Portal and Kasese winds through the densely populated foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains and poses a seemingly endless series of brutal speed bumps. Although the journey could take less than six hours, it is not a cruise like the trip to Murchison Falls.

In planning this trip, I targeting seeing as many new birds as possible. Although this is true for most of my trips, I wanted to make sure that on this weekend I finally surpassed 500 birds seen in Uganda. Ticking shorebirds is an easy way to accomplish this goal, and there are many lakes, ponds, and marshes to visit in area; however, I wanted to make sure that my milestone bird was a significant regional one. I would rather register Harlequin Quail as my five hundredth bird seen in Uganda than Common Greenshank, for example. To this end, I planned to balance our time between the short grass plans, acacia woodland, and crater lakes of the park. Hopefully, the timing would work out well, just like it did for me in Ecuador, where my thousandth bird seen was Andean Potoo, a rare nocturnal bird of montane forests.

Our first stop in the park on Saturday was Kyambura Gorge. The entrance road passes through extensive savanna with a few scattered trees, where a variety of warblers, cisticolas, weavers, and waxbills are found. In the midday heat, it wasn't likely to hear Broad-Tailed or African Moustached Warblers calling, but I did see Compact Weaver, Copper Sunbird, African Blue-Flycatcher, and Cardinal Woodpecker. There is a covered lookout over the gorge, and we relaxed in the shade for an hour after the long drive. I took some time to get familiar with my new camera, the Nikon D500. It's a major upgrade to my old D5100, of which the shutter was constantly sticking. The camera is more compatible with my telephoto lens as well, and the combination worked nicely as I photographed a few Brimstone Canaries.

Afterwards, we drove up the escarpment to Kyambura Village and towards Flamingo Lake, located about 10 km east of the main road. This area of the national park is well off the beaten path. Although it offers the same excellent savanna habitat as other parts of the park, we did not see any game except for a few bathing elephants and hippopotamus. First, we passed a deep crater lake, where we noted Little Grebe and a nesting Striated Heron. Further on at Flamingo Lake, we found a tight cluster of Lesser Flamingos. I walked downhill towards the shore and disturbed a mixed group of birds, including Sulphur-Breasted Bush-Shrike, Black Headed Gonolek, and Zitting Cisticola. Meanwhile a territorial African Fish Eagle whooped and whirled overhead.

By this time it was later in the afternoon, and Aimee and I were all too aware that we had spent most of the day in the car. We decided to stretch our legs around Mweya Peninsula, where the UWA park headquarters are located. At Katunguru Gate, I learned that the latest possible entry is 7:00 p.m., which is late enough to accommodate an evening game drive on the Kasenyi Plains (it is necessary to exit and reenter the park, going from Mweya to Kasenyi). The views from the peninsula over the Kazinga Channel and Lake Edward are spectacular, and we enjoyed them from the Information Center as well as from Tembo Restaurant. There is a village-like atmosphere to the peninsula, and the birds are habituated to human presence. I was able to approach and photograph a wide variety of species at close range, including Swamp Flycatcher, Black-Headed Gonolek, Nubian Woodpecker, Red-Billed Firefinch, and Red-Chested Sunbird.

Similar to our first visit, Aimee and I chose to camp at Campsite 1 along the channel. This idyllic spot is a few kilometers from the peninsula, and we found plenty of wood already stacked at our favorite site overlooking the water. I spent the last hour of the day birding on foot, noting Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, White-Browed Robin-Chat, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Black-Headed Batis, Brown Babbler, and Black-Crowned Tchagra. Looking down into the marshy fringe of the channel, I spotted a group of Black Crakes and several large crocodiles. Across the channel, an African Spoonbill worked along the shallows. At dusk I waited patiently for nightjars but didn't hear any until the following morning. While I was making coffee, a Slender-Tailed Nightjar briefly called from a clearing nearby before fluttering into a bush. Approaching cautiously on foot, I accidentally flushed it but had a clear look at its distinctive tail in flight.

I was a few birds away from my target as we headed out to the Kasenyi Plains early that morning. The short grass plains are excellent for seeing a variety of cisticolas, larks, plovers, and pipits. This area is also famous for lions, which stick close to the Ugandan Kob that gather here by the thousands to breed. On a busy morning, there are dozens of cars racing around to locate the lions, which disturbs the birding, if not the birds. It was relatively quiet this morning, and Aimee and I spotted Rufous-Naped and Red-Capped Larks, Grassland Pipit, Collared Pratincole, Senegal Lapwing, and Kittlitz's Plover, among others. Then, we stopped briefly as the track headed into bushed grassland. In the dry grass along the track, I noticed some movement and watched as an African Crake darted across the road and into a dense clump of bushes. I shook my head in amazement at this excellent, and unexpected, five hundredth bird seen in Uganda.

No other vehicles we encountered had found any lions by midday, and we decided to visit a different section of the park. The Crater Drive starts at the Queen Elizabeth Pavilion and stretches for 27 km past dozens of explosion craters, each one distinctly spectacular. Only 8,000 to 10,000 years old, some of the craters are sparsely or densely vegetated, others are filled with water, shallow or deep. The rocky dirt road winds through acacia woodland, edging along one steep crater rim after another. It's perhaps the most scenic place in Uganda that I've visited, and only a wide-angle lens would do the landscape justice. The tsetse flies are nuisance here, but we still managed to see Common Button-Quail, Madagascar Bee-Eater, Martial Eagle, Lesser Flamingo, Peregrine Falcon, African Golden-Breasted Bunting, and others. Strangely, we saw no game in this section of the park, but I would happily revisit it for the scenery alone.

In the afternoon, we drove outside the national park to the small town of Katwe. There are two shallow lakes nearby, which have a great reputation for migratory shorebirds. The first one was completely dry, and we did not see a single bird around its perimeter. Cresting the hill on the approach to the second, we stopped in shock at the spectacle before us. Lake Katwe has been used for centuries to harvest salt, and much of the lake's original surface has been converted to small salt evaporation ponds. Across the tableau, there were hundreds of people covered in mud and working in the blazing equatorial sun, whether preparing ponds to be flooded or separating and bagging the salt. Along the fringes of the lake there were narrow strips of natural habitat, where dozens of Greater Flamingos and other waders were going about their usual business. I approached the lake on foot and made a few ticks, including a pair of Pied Avocet.

Driving back to Mweya through Katwe, we could better appreciate why the town was deserted. Unlike most trading centers and small towns in Uganda, where people are either doing business or hanging around idly, nearly everyone was busy down at the lake. A herd of elephants were blocking our path down at the edge of the town. They had marched down to Lake Edward for a drink and a bath, seemingly undisturbed by the presence of people in the area. One younger elephant was playing gleefully with a large rag using its trunk, tossing the rag and chasing it around. Meanwhile, a baby elephant trumpeted with panic, as it scrambled to catch up with the rest of its family group. By now, most people are aware of the results of an extensive census of African elephants taken in 18 countries from 2007 to 2014, which found that the population had declined 30 percent over that time period. In just three years, 144,000 African elephants died or were killed. The illegal ivory trade is proving difficult to counter, despite the creation of reserves and the destruction of ivory stockpiles.

The areas surveyed in Uganda indicate that country's elephant population is either stable or increasing. Uganda remains a transit country for wildlife trafficking, though. Ivory is routinely smuggled across the borders from South Sudan, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo and then flown out from the Entebbe airport, where controls are lax. In the rare bust, members of security forces or government officials are often implicated; however, the punishment for wildlife trafficking are relatively light. Unless there is consistent enforcement, and steep penalties for getting caught, the illegal ivory trade is lucrative enough to be worth the risk. With these thoughts in our minds, we returned to the Mweya peninsula to recapture the romantic image of the wilderness of East Africa. Aimee relaxed for an hour at Tembo restaurant while I strolled around the area, which is a kin to a bird photographer's studio at the right hour of the day.

After another peaceful night at Campsite 1, we revisited the Kasenyi Plains to roll the dice for lions again. I also wanted to photograph Temminck's Courser, a vaguely lapwing-like bird of short grass and burned areas. When we finally found a pair, they were too far from the track to photograph effectively. Since we didn't see many other vehicles, it's likely that someone had located the lions in the bushed grassland section of the plains. Before we knew it, the clock had reached 9:30 a.m., our agreed hour of departure. After a trip, Aimee and I prefer to arrive at home in the early afternoon. It's unsafe to drive in Uganda after dark, and traffic in Kampala during the afternoon on a weekday can be miserable. The Queen Elizabeth area had proven again to be a rich and rewarding destination, and on the long drive back I was already planning my next trip.

Notable birds seen: Little Grebe, Great Cormorant, Long-Tailed Cormorant, Common Squacco Heron, Striated Heron, Intermediate Egret, Goliath Heron, Black-Headed Heron, Hamerkop, Yellow-Billed Stork, African Open-Billed Stork, Marabou Stork, Hadada Ibis, African Spoonbill, Lesser Flamingo, Egyptian Goose, African Fish Eagle, Palm-Nut Vulture, Brown Snake-Eagle, African Harrier Hawk, Bateleur, Long-Crested Eagle, Martial Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Crested Francolin, Red-Necked Spurfowl, Common Button-Quail, African Crake, Black Crake, African Jacana, Black-Bellied Bustard, Black-Winged Stilt, Pied Avocet, Water Thick-Knee, Temminck's Courser, Collared Pratincole, Spur-Winged Plover, African Wattled Lapwing, Crowned Lapwing, Senegal Lapwing, Kittlitz's Plover, Caspian Plover, Ruff, Marsh Sandpiper, Little Stint, African Green Pigeon, Blue-Spotted Wood-Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, Laughing Dove, Red-Headed Lovebird, Great-Blue Turaco, Ross's Turaco, White-Browed Coucal, Slender-Tailed Nightjar, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater, Madagascar Bee-Eater, Common Scimitarbill, Crowned Hornbill, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, Yellow-Fronted Tinkerbird, Nubian Woodpecker, Cardinal Woodpecker, Rufous-Naped Lark, White-Tailed Lark, Flappet Lark, Red-Capped Lark, Rock Martin, Rufous-Chested Swallow, Angola Swallow, White-Headed Saw-Wing, African Pied Wagtail, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Grassland Pipit, White-Browed Robin-Chat, African Thrush, Sooty Chat, Willow Warbler, Zitting Cisticola, Stout Cisticola, Croaking Cisticola, Trilling Cisticola, Northern Black Flycatcher, Swamp Flycatcher, Black-Headed Batis, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, African Blue Flycatcher, Brown Babbler, Bronze Sunbird, Copper Sunbird, Scarlet-Chested Sunbird, Red-Chested Sunbird, Common Fiscal, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Black-Headed Gonolek, Black-Crowned Tchagra, Sulphur-Breasted Bush-Shrike, Fork-Tailed Drongo, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Ruppell's Long-Tailed Starling, Wattled Starling, Black-Headed Weaver, Slender-Billed Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Compact Weaver, Vieillot's Black Weaver, Red-Billed Quelea, Fan-Tailed Widowbird, Red-Billed Firefinch, Pin-Tailed Whydah, Brimstone Canary, Yellow-Fronted Canary, African Golden-Breasted Bunting.

Lake Mburo National Park: August 12-14, 2016

Having dipped on Pennant-Winged Nightjar a few weeks ago in Murchison Falls National Park, I hoped to try again at Lake Mburo National Park. Aimee had work commitments in Kampala for much of the weekend, and so I opted to light out for the territory and revisit my search for crepuscular birds. My plan was to camp both Friday and Saturday nights inside the park, thoroughly searching a variety of habitats for different nightjar species.  Then, I would pass the daylight hours relaxing and looking for a few key species, including Red-Faced Barbet, Green-Capped Eremola, and several papyrus-associated birds that I hadn't seen yet. I also wanted to check out Kaku Swamp, an unprotected wetlands between Masaka and Mbarara that is referenced in several birding trip reports. It would be a solitary, focused weekend of birding, and I was looking forward to pushing my country list up to 500 species seen.

Remarkably, I slipped out of Kampala on Friday afternoon without much delay. Traffic is generally unpredictable in the city, and the chances of both leaving work on time and arriving at your destination before dark are slim. The few times I have risked it, however, I have been successful, and nothing beats sneaking in an hour of birding at the end of a long week of work. The road to Masaka from Kampala has recently become notorious for fatal car accidents. Seemingly every week, there are horrible reports and gruesome photographs of head-on collisions, and dozens of people have died on this road during the last few months. The road itself is generally straight and in good condition, complete with passing lanes on uphill sections. The problems are poorly maintained vehicles, lack of road safety and driver's education, and bad judgement. To address these issues, the police are staffing a series of roadblocks, the efficacy of which is yet to be determined.

I arrived at the park entrance a few hours before dark. The landscape was brown and parched, and the contrast from my last visit to the park in April was stark. The Uganda Wildlife Authority manages the environment at most savanna game parks, such as Lake Mburo, Murchison Falls, and Queen Elizabeth, by doing controlled burns each year. This practice preserves open grasslands, which are vital for supporting populations of grazing animals, and keeps the parks from becoming overgrown. I saw that large swaths of bush and grassland had recently been cleared and burned, and the park hardly felt pristine. For a birder, though, recently burned areas are of great interest, attracting bird specialists and opportunists that feast on insects and other arthropods that no longer have the benefit of cover. Plus, visibility is vastly improved, and scanning burned fields for birds is akin to shooting fish in a barrel.

After ticking a few common open-country birds, including Striped Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Grassland Pipit, and Yellow-Throated Longclaw, I headed out along the Ruroko Track. There is a scenic picnic spot in a remote rocky area along the track, called Ruroko Kopje. Although it is not technically a campsite, there is a small parking area and pit latrine. A sign implies that campfires are permitted, and there is a small informal fire pit against the rocks. I judged that this would be an ideal spot for seeing Freckled Nightjar, and I vowed to keep my footprint small, just sleeping at the site and not making a fire. I set up my camping chair overlooking the woodland and watched the sky fade into darkness. A half moon illuminated the rocky cliff, and I heard several Black-Shouldered Nightjars calling steadily below. After not finding anything of note on a short game drive, I returned to the site, where a Freckled Nightjar was calling among the rocks.

Instead of heading out on an early morning game drive, I spent several hours birding from the kopje. I had chased the Freckled Nightjar around the rocks the night before, and it had called steadily until dawn before finally flying off to roost in another location. Fruiting trees nearby attracted Ross's Turaco, African Green-Pigeon, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, and Greater Honeyguide. I was particularly excited to see the latter, which was profiled in a recent New York Times article about humans and honeyguides in Mozambique. The Greater Honeyguide is reportedly common in East Africa, but I have only seen it a few times and generally struggle with honeyguide identification. In the dense vegetation at the base of the cliff were Yellow-Throated Greenbul, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Black-Headed Gonolek, and Collared Sunbird. A troop of vervet monkeys started vocalizing noisily in the area, and the rocks were spotted with their excrement. Instead of waiting to see what would transpire next, I decided to move on.

Back in the car, I weighed my options and resolved to head towards park headquarters along the Zebra Track. A freshly burned area was already baking hot in the morning sun, and the heat was distorting the air just above the ground. I spied a pair of Senegal Lapwing probing the dirt in the distance. As they slowly approached the car, their subtle plumage grew more attractive with each dash in my direction. Further down the track, a lightly wooded area with scattered bushes, as of yet not burned, held Long-Tailed Cisticola, Buff-Bellied Warbler, Sooty Chat, and African Black-Headed Oriole. Eventually, I reached the park headquarters and paid the camping fee for two nights. The main campsite is down at the lake, adjacent to a basic restaurant and the dock where boat rides depart and return. The views are beautiful, but the parking lot is relatively busy. Combined with the abundance of trash, this campsite is not an appealing place to spend the night. In the lakeside vegetation, I found Grey-Capped Warbler, Spot-Flanked Barbet, and Common Wattle-Eye.

There is another, more secluded campsite about 5km down the Lakeside Track. I decided to camp there for the night and explore the fringes of the lake at different points along the Lakeside Track and Kigambira Loop. With the weather being so dry, it was possible to approach the papyrus swamp on foot without having to worry about an aggressive hippopotamus or crocodile. In general, birding papyrus swamps is difficult and mostly involves playback to call out warblers that reside deep inside. Ideally, you would maintain a slightly elevated position about the papyrus, in order to scan for swallows, weavers, and canaries, and be on site early in the morning when the skulking birds are vocalizing naturally. Papyrus Gonolek, Carruther's Cisticola, White-Winged Warbler, and a few others are considered to be specialists that only inhabit papyrus swamps in the Great Lakes region. While stalking around in the mud that afternoon, I flushed a Rufous-Bellied Heron, an unexpected lifer, and early the next morning, I would reel in a Greater Swamp Warbler.

On the drive around Kigambira Loop, I noted African Harrier-Hawk, Common Button-Quail, Common Scimitarbill, and Red-Headed Weaver, among others. Then, I made for the Kazuma Lookout, a sweet spot that looks out over the different lakes and rolling hills of the park. The evening breeze cooled me off as I relaxed in the shade with a book. NoViolet Bulawayo's "We Need New Names" is an imaginative retelling of the collapse of Zimbawe through the eyes of a ten-year old girl. Eventually, the protagonist immigrates to the United States to join her aunt, and the story follows an arc vaguely akin to Chimamanda Adichie's "Americanah." Where Adichie exercises her intellect and socio-cultural commentary, Bulawayo employs poetic language and original metaphors. At dusk, I was engrossed in a scene in which the protagonist is caught in the middle of a repossession incident that is veering towards violence. Suddenly, a Square-Tailed Nightjar broke my focus. It was calling in full force from a perch just on the other side of my car. I recorded some video and followed it around the hill. In the darkness, I slowly returned to the lakeside campsite using my spotlight to locate Pearl-Spotted Owlet and a calling African Scops-Owl.

Early the following morning, I revisited a point along the papyrus-lined shore for an hour. It's interesting to note how other birds utilize this habitat, including Nubian Woodpecker, Common Bulbul, and Ruppell's Long-Tailed Starling, for example. I didn't stop for much on the way out of the park, except for a lone Lesser Honeyguide in a wooded area. Before returning to Kampala, I stopped at Kaku Swamp along the Mbarara-Masake Road. These wetlands are located 40km before the turnoff to Nshara Gate, on the south side of the road. I followed a narrow dirt track down towards the shore and along the margins of the wetlands. The area is not protected, and the people living in the area actively fish, harvest papyrus and reeds, and cultivate the land bordering the wetlands. I had reasoned this might be a good site for the seasonal Blue Swallow, but I hardly saw any Hirundinidae, perhaps because it was still early. I did record some common herons and other waterbirds, as well as a group of Hottentot Teal. A walk around the wetlands would have no doubt been worthwhile and yielded many more birds, but I was concerned about leaving my car unattended. Plus, I was filthy, and it was time to go home.

Notable birds seen: Long-Tailed Cormorant, Striated Heron, Rufous-Bellied Heron, Little Egret, Great Egret, Hamerkop, African Open-Billed Stork, Sacred Ibis, Hottentot Teal, Yellow-Billed Duck, Black-Shouldered Kite, African Fish Eagle, Palm-Nut Vulture, African White-Backed Vulture, African Harrier-Hawk, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Long-Crested Eagle, Grey Kestrel, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Francolin, Red-Necked Spurfowl, Common Button-Quail, White-Spotted Flufftail (h), Black Crake, African Jacana, Grey Crowned Crane, Black-Bellied Bustard, Water Thick-Knee (h), Long-Toed Lapwing, African Wattled Lapwing, Senegal Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, African Green-Pigeon, Emerald-Spotted Wood-Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, Brown Parrot, Ross's Turaco, Bare-Faced Go-Away-Bird, White-Browed Coucal, Blue-Headed Coucal, African Scops-Owl, Pearl-Spotted Owlet, Square-Tailed Nightjar, Black-Shouldered Nightjar (h), Freckled Nightjar, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Broad-Billed Roller, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Common Scimitarbill, African Grey Hornbill, Crowned Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Spot-Flanked Barbet, Greater Honeyguide, Lesser Honeyguide, Nubian Woodpecker, Cardinal Woodpecker, Rufous-Chested Swallow, Angola Swallow, White-Headed Saw-Wing, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Grassland Pipit, Plain-Backed Pipit, Red-Shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike, Little Greenbul, Yellow-Throated Greenbul, White-Browed Robin-Chat (h), Sooty Chat, Greater Swamp Warbler, Buff-Bellied Warbler, Red-Faced Crombec, Trilling Cisticola, Long-Tailed Cisticola, Tawny-Flanked Prinia, Grey-Capped Warbler, Northern Black Flycatcher, Lead-Coloured Flycatcher, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Marico Sunbird, Red-Chested Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Black-Headed Gonolek, Papyrus Gonolek (h), Fork-Tailed Drongo, African Black-Headed Oriole, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Ruppell's Long-Tailed Starling, Violet-Backed Starling, Spectacled Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Red-Headed Weaver, African Golden-Breasted Bunting.
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