Budongo Forest Reserve: December 5-6, 12-13, 2015

Located adjacent to Murchison Falls National Park in Northwest Uganda, Budongo is one of the largest and most important forest reserves in East Africa. It is nearly 800 square kilometers in size, composed mostly of moist semi-deciduous forest but also encompassing some savanna and woodland habitat.  Over 360 bird species have been recorded in Budongo, including a handful from the Guinea-Congo forest biome. These specialties, including Grey Ground-Thrush, Ituri Batis, and Lemon-Bellied Crombec, can otherwise only be found in Uganda at Semiliki National Park. The reserve is also home to a population of chimpanzees. Visits are controlled from two points: Kaniyo Pabidi is on the southern access road to Murchison, and Busingiro is on the road from Masindi to Butiaba on the shores of Lake Albert. Kaniyo Pabidi is a popular and economic stopover for chimpanzee tracking, while Busingiro is likely only to be of interest to hardcore birders who are attracted to the promise of the Royal Mile, a hallowed birding site nearby.

With Aimee out of town for a few weeks, I planned to take advantage of her absence to do some forest birding. As I have explained before, forest birding in East Africa can be tough and tedious, and the reward of seeing a single Grey-Throated Flycatcher, for example, for a full hour of midmorning effort is too paltry for most. Myself, I enjoy spending hours parsing subtle field marks and ticking obscure birds, knowing that eventually something spectacular will come along. For a weekend trip, Busingiro is reasonably close to Kampala and has the added attraction of being low-cost and amenable to independent birding. I was confident that I could camp there safely and bird the trails, or at least the road, without having to pay for a guide. Having visited Murchison the previous weekend, I also had a good sense of the drive to Masindi, including the likely road conditions, length of the journey, and locations for a rest stop.
I ended up birding Budongo Forest Reserve for two consecutive weekends, following the same basic routine.  I would take a nap on Friday afternoon after work and leave before dawn on Saturday morning.  Since it takes three to four hours to arrive at Busingiro from Kampala, I would arrive in the field between eight and nine, early enough to enjoy the morning bird activity. Camping at Busingiro on Saturday night, I would bird on Sunday until about noon, returning to Kampala by the late afternoon. The first weekend, I stuck to Busingiro, birding the short trail network as well as the Masindi-Butiaba road, which passes directly through the forest.  The second weekend, I spent Saturday morning birding the Royal Mile.  This is another road-birding experience, although access to this road is tightly controlled by the National Forest Authority; consequently, the forest is in much better condition, and birding is as close to primary-forest birding as a visitor could hope to expect at Budongo. While driving to Masindi three weekends in a row was a grind, it was certainly helpful to visit the same sight multiple days in a row.

The three key texts for birding in Uganda are the Princeton University Press Birds of East Africa, Bradt Uganda, and Where to Watch Birds in Uganda. It’s also been useful to have an updated road map of Uganda. An independent birder should be able to look for any bird at any site in the country with these resources, although information can still go out of date quickly. Busingiro is definitely an example of this phenomenon. Where to Watch Birds in Uganda was published in 1998 and notes that there are good lodging facilities as well as chimpanzee tracking at Busingiro. Bradt Uganda Edition 7 was published in 2013 and explains there is no longer accommodation, nor chimpanzees, at Busingiro. I am happy to report that camping at Busingiro is again an option, if an informal one. There is an operational conservation center, basic latrines, and well-maintained grounds.  While several thatched roof huts, or bandas, are in various states of disrepair, there is a current USAID project that is improving facilities and control at the station. In fact, workers erected a communications antenna during my visit.

I ended up informally paying to camp and bird the trails. Generally, I find this arrangement to be unethical, as it encourages corruption and doesn’t benefit the infrastructure. The conservationist explained though that as the situation at Busingiro was in flux, they weren’t formally receiving visitors. In a few months, when the USAID project was complete and access was formalized again, I would pay for an entrance ticket, guiding, camping, etc. I negotiated 10,000 UGX to camp and offered to give the night watchman a few hundred shillings. This seemed fair, as camping at Murchison cost 15,000 UGX and includes better facilities, including firewood. Arman, the conservationist at Busingiro, knows his birds and teaches conservation periodically to local teachers and students. He seemed pleased to have me around, and we had several interesting conversations about the local state of affairs. I offered to bring him some educational resources on my next visit, whether a used copy of Birds of East Africa or a birds of Uganda poster. As usual, my goal in our interactions was to generate good will towards independent travelers, especially birders.

The forest edge birding around the station was good, and I noted Chestnut-Capped Flycatcher, White-Chinned Prinia, African Pygmy Kingfisher, and African Shrike Flycatcher. Even though it only passes through secondary forest, the short loop trail is definitely worth exploring at length. Dawn and dusk circuits were especially productive, yielding shy and retiring birds such as Red-Tailed Bristlebill, Forest Robin, and Brown-Chested Alethe. Moving at an extremely slow and careful pace on the trails, I also surprised several Green-Backed Twinspot and Red-Headed Bluebill, exquisitely colored birds that are difficult to see well. The forest undergrowth here is thick and tangled, which is perfect habitat for illadopses species, and I saw both Brown and Scaly-Breasted Illadopses well. Judging from its frequent vocalizations, White-Spotted Flufftail is also common here. The loop was also good for Jameson’s and Chestnut Wattle-Eyes, as well as multiple greenbul species, although these were easily seen along the road and the Royal Mile.

I am ambivalent about birding the Masindi-Butiaba road through Budongo Forest Reserve. On the positive side, it’s free and access is good, as it runs through several kilometers of forest. Traffic is also light, and aside from a periodic convoy of trucks, which were apparently transporting hazardous waste from Butiaba to Nakasangoloa, there was only the occasional motorcycle or bicycle. The downside is the condition of the forest, which is quickly deteriorating due to the harvest of deadwood. Poverty is high in Uganda, especially in rural areas, and the country is home to nearly half a million refugees. Many of these refugees are from nearby Democratic Republic of Congo, and their only livelihood is charcoal production and the sale of firewood. From dawn to dusk, women and children were busy chopping and hauling wood on their heads back to their villages. They worked along the roadside or on the many side trails branching off from the road, and the forest was filled with their shouts and strikes of the machete. There was even an organized work crew of men sawing freshly fallen trees into boards.

Is all of this activity part of a forestry management policy or simply a lack of oversight? Arman explained to me that the National Forest Authority had actually hired the work crew to clear the road of fallen trees and harvest the wood. His permissive attitude towards the women and children picking the forest clean of deadwood was troubling, though. They aren’t cutting down any new trees, he explained. Obviously, fallen trees serve an important ecological role in a tropical forest. Aside from creating gaps in the canopy, which are critical to forest regeneration and lead to increased biodiversity, fallen trees provide habitat for all sorts of other specialized plants, fungi, insects, and animals. From a mathematical perspective, it doesn’t make sense either. If there is only a fixed quantity of biomass in a forest, each dead tree becomes the biomass for a new one. The steady removal of dead trees is like a leak in a reservoir, and eventually Budongo will run dry.

Bird activity in the afternoon was good along the road, especially high in the canopy. The remaining trees in the forest are enormous, and scanning the canopy for diminutive birds like Buff-Throated Apalis, Superb Sunbird, and Rufous-Crowned Eremola is physically taxing. I’ve developed a technique where I support the back of my head with my left hand and hold my binoculars with my right, but it’s not an ideal posture. In the past, I’ve sometimes lain on the ground to scan a canopy flock overhead, but I didn’t feel comfortable drawing even more attention to myself. It’s almost needless to say that the villagers were attracted to all of the expensive gear I was lugging around. With luck, I was also able to pick out the Ituri Batis, even snapping a few ambiguous record shots of this extremely localized bird of Uganda.  Other highlights here included Brown-Eared, Buff-Spotted, and Yellow-Crested Woodpeckers, Yellow-Whiskered, Cameroon Sombre, and Slender-Billed Greenbuls, Yellow-Spotted Barbet, Chestnut-Capped Flycatcher, and Western Black-Headed Oriole. In some mid-story vines on a side trail, I also tracked a group of three tiny birds that might have been Chestnut-Breasted Negrofinch, but the lighting was terrible.

The Royal Mile is a road that stretches, likely for a mile, through beautiful primary forest. The canopy over the road is intact, and the understory has been cleared for several meters on either side, creating a cathedral-like effect. The birding is similar but different to that at Busingiro, where the forest is more disturbed and has a secondary quality. I mentioned earlier that access is also controlled more tightly than at Busingiro. The entrance fee is relatively high, guides are mandatory, and birding is specifically charged as an additional activity. Unfortunately, all of these restrictions have an adverse effect on ecotourism, and the site is rarely visited by independent travelers. As a foreign birder, I believe I am exactly the type of person who can appreciate what the Royal Mile has to offer, but I was hardly made to feel welcome. The National Forest Authority office nearby was unstaffed, the guard at the gate was suspicious of my presence, and I was later asked to pay the entrance and guiding fees without being issued an entrance ticket, or a guide. Clearly, the forest is in better shape here because villagers cannot freely access the forest, but the policy of all or nothing at all is unenlightened.

I was certainly happy with the birding during my four-hour visit and barely made it a few hundred yards down the Royal Mile before having to turn back at 1pm (you can imagine how I cringed when I was informed that it costs 15USD for half a day of birding and 30USD for the full day). There was regular mid-story and canopy flock activity, as well as a few interesting birds in the road, including African Dwarf Flycatcher and Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush. A pair of African Crowned Eagles gliding above the canopy was a brief but spectacular highlight. I also quickly glimpsed a spinetail overhead through a break in the canopy, but the look wasn’t long enough to determine whether it was a Cassin’s or Sabine’s Spinetail. Surprisingly, I only saw a few new birds here that I hadn’t also seen at Busingiro, such as Olive-Green Camaroptera, Forest Flycatcher, and Red-Bellied Paradise-Flycatcher, but with an earlier start and more time I am confident that I would have seen more. Nahan’s Francolin, Spotted Greenbul, and Black-Capped Apalis are just a few of the goodies to be found, and I am still waiting to hear my first Chocolate-Backed Kingfisher.

On my way out, the guard asked me to pay the 15USD fee, but I politely declined unless he could provide an entrance ticket. I am aware this sounds hypocritical, as I was willing to pay off the staff at Busingiro for 10,000UGX, which is about 3USD, but the fee is simply too high relative to the local economy. Fifteen dollars in the pocket of an uneducated and unreasonable guard is only going to do harm to the next visitor. Three dollars to a local conservationist acknowledges him for his work without creating unrealistic expectations of the next visitor. Again, this likely sounds inconsistent, or that I am being ethical only when it is convenient; however, in both situations I was willing to pay the fee as long as it was formally collected and a receipt was issued. To resolve the situation, we called the Sector Manager, who appreciated the situation and offered to excuse me from paying the fee. When I insisted on paying the fee formally, in part because I wanted to come back the next day, he said the staff member who was supposed to be at the nearby NFA office wouldn’t return until the following week.

Where to Watch Birds in Uganda praises the habitat adjacent to the forest for harboring all sorts of open and dry country species, including Brown Twinspot, Marsh Tchagra, and Black-Bellied Firefinch. Again, I imagine that this information is significantly out of date. On my approach to Busingiro, I did make a few interesting observations, including a fruiting tree filled with dozens of Black-and-White-Casqued and White-Thighed Hornbills, but I didn’t waste a lot of time exploring the small plots of maize and cassava. On Sunday before returning to Kampala, I also opted to drive the extra dozen or so kilometers out to the edge of the Albertine Rift escarpment, which overlooks Lake Albert and even further the Democratic Republic of Congo. The air quality was hazy, and I could barely see the lake, but the views were still spectacular. The climate is certainly drier here than at Budongo, and the natural habitat is dry bush and acacia woodland. I imagine the birding is still similar to what Where to Watch Birds describes; however, it was midday and blazing hot when I was there.

Notable birds seen: Black-Headed Heron, Hamerkop, Black-Shouldered Kite, African White-Backed Vulture, Lizard Buzzard, Tawny Eagle, Long-Crested Eagle, African Jacana, White-Spotted Flufftail (h), Tambourine Dove, Yellowbill, Senegal Coucal, Spinetail (sp), Grey-Headed Kingfisher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Broad-Billed Roller, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, White-Thighed Hornbill, African Grey Hornbill, Yellow-Throated Tinkerbird, Yellow-Spotted Barbet, Buff-Spotted Woodpecker, Brown-Eared Woodpecker, Yellow-Crested Woodpecker, Plain-Backed Pipit, White-Headed Saw-Wing, African Pied Wagtail, Western Nicator, Yellow-Whiskered Greenbul, Little Greenbul, Slender-Billed Greenbul, Cameroon Sombre Greenbul, Icterine Greenbul, Red-Tailed Bristelbill, Red-Tailed Greenbul, White-Throated Greenbul, Brown-Chested Alethe, Forest Robin, Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush, Garden Warbler, Wood Warbler, Green Hylia, Longbill (sp), Rufous-Crowned Eremomela, White-Chinned Prinia, Olive-Green Camaroptera, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Grey Apalis, Buff-Throated Apalis, Ashy Flycatcher, Grey-Throated Flycatcher, Forest Flycatcher, Sooty Flycatcher, Ituri Batis, African Shrike Flycatcher, Jameson’s Wattle-Eye, Chestnut Wattle-Eye, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Red-Bellied Paradise-Flycatcher, Chestnut-Capped Flycatcher, Brown Illadopsis, Pale-Breasted Illadopsis, Scaly-Breasted Illadopsis, Green-Headed Sunbird, Green Sunbird, Olive-Bellied Sunbird, Grey-Headed Sunbird, Olive Sunbird, Superb Sunbird, Little-Green Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Black-Headed Gonolek, Piapiac, Western Black-Headed Oriole, White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, Black-Necked Weaver, Grosbeak Weaver, White-Breasted Negrofinch, Green-Backed Twinspot, Red-Headed Bluebill.

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