Mpanga Forest Reserve: October 17, 2015

The National Forest Authority administers two forest reserves within reach of Kampala for a day trip.  In ornithological circles, Mabira is certainly the more hallowed site. Over 300 species have been recorded in reserve’s 300 square kilometers, including Tit Hylia, Nahan’s Francolin, and Forest Wood-Hoopoe. In comparison, Mpanga Forest Reserve is a modest 45 square kilometers in size with fewer than 200 species. The numbers certainly bear out Mabira's popularity, but from the perspective of an independent birder I find Mpanga more accessible, less expensive, and equally interesting. 

Mpanga Forest Reserve is located a mere 36 kilometers southwest of Kampala. The day-use fee for foreigners is Ush10,000, which is less than three dollars, and visitors are free to explore the trails without a guide. During my previous visit, one of the park rangers encouraged me to show up as early as I wanted and to use the trails even if the reception wasn’t open yet. In contrast, at Mabira birders must pay Ush100,000 and be accompanied by a guide. Traffic along the busy Kampala-Jinja road can also be nightmarish, especially on the return trip. Of course, I would like to explore Mabira in more depth, but until I’ve seen all two hundred species at Mpanga, there is not much motivation to do so.

I first checked out Mpanga on September 20 after visiting Mabamba swamp to search for the Shoebill, perhaps Uganda's most sought-after bird. The forest reserve is just a few kilometers beyond Mpigi, which is where the dirt road to Mabamba leaves the Masaka road. The turnoff to Mpanga is clearly marked, and the access road, really just a dirt track, is a only a few hundred meters long. On my first visit that afternoon, I scouted the entrance fee and the trails and concluded that the site had potential to become my birding patch, a site relatively close to home where I could bird regularly and without much hassle. When I lived in Ecuador, Yanacocha Reserve on the northwestern slopes of the Andes just outside Quito served the same purpose.

This morning was hopefully my first of many weekend days spent birding at Mpanga. I left Kampala at six, just as the sky was lightening. I escaped the city via the Northern Bypass Road and arrived shortly after seven, accompanied by a light drizzle. Instead of plunging into the forest, where I knew bird activity would be low, I birded the access road, focusing on scrub and cultivated areas. One flowering tree in particular was a magnet for birds, and I staked it out from a few covered positions nearby. Brown-Crowned Tchagra, Red-Headed Malimbe, Double-Toothed Barbet, Weyn’s Weaver, Sulphur-Breasted Bush-Shrike were just some of the standout birds attracted to the brilliant red blossoms.

Eventually the local kids spotted me in a cassava patch, and the farmer who had planted the crop emerged from his house to invite me to leave. I had made sure not to trample any plants with my rubber boots, but I agreed that it was time to move on. Returning to the reserve and entering the forest itself, I passed the campsite and turned right down the main trail, following the forest edge. With the weather being poor, the birds were quiet, and I only recorded a few species during the morning hours, and none of them easily, including Red-Chested Cuckoo, Red-Capped Robin-Chat, Red-Tailed Greenbul, Lead-Coloured Flycatcher, and Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush.

Before exploring the main trail in the opposite direction, I returned to the car to rejuvenate with a few cups of tea. In terms of bird activity, it was pretty dead around the forest edge near the reception. After admiring a spirited pair of African Pied Wagtail in the parking area, I set off again in my rubber boots. The main trail is five meters wide and runs up and down rolling hills for three kilometers, passing over several creeks and ending at a papyrus swamp.  Mature trees are incredibly tall, and mixed canopy flocks are extremely difficult to see in poor light. Instead of craning my neck, I focused my attention on the understory, which slowly came alive with birds as the weather improved.

I lived in Tanzania for a year and spent a fair amount of time birding in acacia woodland and savanna habitats, but I am still pretty unfamiliar with East African forest birding. Western Nicator, Chestnut Wattle-Eye, and Olive Sunbird were fairly straightforward identifications, but it took me several sightings to determine the noisiest and most common understory bird, the White-Throated Greenbul. There was no sign of the Blue-Breasted Kingfisher, which is supposedly common at Mpanga and Mabira, but I noted a few interesting birds overhead, including Black-Billed Turaco.

The final hundred meters of the trail before the swamp was relatively busy with birds, including Great Blue Turaco and Grosbeak Weaver, but I was focused on a tiny pair of birds feeding along the trail. Despite my caution, they always keeping about twenty meters ahead of me, which was too far to appreciate their delicately patterned plumage. Eventually, I realized that these were Green-Backed Twinspot, and I was finally able to admire them from below once they ran out of trail and fled up into the canopy. Another puzzling bird here was a confiding Illadopsis species that popped up just off the trail to my left.  Judging from the distributions in the field guide, it was likely a Pale- or Scaly-Breasted, but I need to become more familiar with this genus.

This morning I neglected to bring my iPhone, which has a handy Birds of East Africa application, a digitized field guide with hundreds of bird calls on file; however, it would not have been much use later in the afternoon as waves of music drifted through the forest. First, from across the papyrus swamp, I could hear the steady rhythm of traditional drumming, which was actually quite nice. Then, as I returned to the trailhead, recorded popular music started blasting, overwhelming even the raucous crowing of the Black-and-White Casqued Hornbills. When I reached the reception, I encountered a large group of revelers, all men, standing around drinking beer. Sadly, they had erected huge speakers and pointed them directly into the forest. Perhaps Mabira is the better birding site after all.

Notable birds seen:  Long-Crested Eagle, Helmeted Guineafowl, Grey Parrot, Great Blue Turaco, Black-Billed Turaco, Eastern Grey Plantain-Eater, Red-Chested Cuckoo, White-Browed Coucal, African Palm Swift, Speckled Mousebird, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Broad-Billed Roller, African Pied Hornbill, Crowned Hornbill, Black-and-White Casqued Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Double-Toothed Barbet, African Pied Wagtail, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Western Nicator, Little Greenbul, White-Throated Greenbul, Red-Tailed Greenbul, Red-Capped Robin-Chat, African Thrush, Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush, White-Browed Scrub-Robin, Northern Black Flycatcher, Lead-Coloured Flycatcher, Chestnut Wattle-Eye, Illadopsis species, Yellow White-Eye, Olive Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Brown-Crowned Tchagra, Sulphur-Breasted Bush-Shrike, Grosbeak Weaver, Yellow-Mantled Weaver, Weyn’s Weaver, Red-Headed Malimbe, Green-Backed Twinspot, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Bronze Mannikin, Yellow-Fronted Canary.

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