Murchison Falls National Park: November 27-29, 2015

Murchison Falls National Park is one of the classic East African game reserves. Remote, picturesque, and historic, it is certainly one of Uganda’s top tourist destinations. The centerpiece of the reserve is where the Victoria Nile squeezes through a narrow chasm only 7m wide and plunges down a 43m drop. In addition, the park encompasses riverine forest, papyrus swamp, bush, woodland, humid forest, and expansive savanna, the latter of which is home to densely concentrated game. With approximately 450 bird species, a handful of which are restricted to Northwestern Uganda, Murchison is a mandatory stop on the country’s birding circuit.

Aimee and I have already been in country for three months. Although we had both traveled for work, we had yet to have an adventure of our own in Uganda. Of course, there are decent options closer to Kampala, but we decided to go big and visit Murchison over Thanksgiving weekend. Ideally, visitors would have at least three full days to explore the park.  Leaving on Friday morning and returning by Sunday afternoon, we would have only one. Still, we would overcome our inertia by seeing some of the best scenery and wildlife that Uganda has to offer. Hopefully, this trip would only be the first of many to Murchison and Uganda’s other nine national parks.

Despite the rain, the journey from Kampala to Masindi was smooth. The road is in excellent condition, and there was very little traffic beyond Luwero. A few kilometers before the road forks to the left to Masindi, there is a roadside café, Kabelga Diner, where they serve decent coffee and deluxe rolex, a Spanish omelet rolled up in a chapatti. Heading north from Masindi, the road to Murchison is unsealed but graded. Depending on your vehicle and level of temerity, speeds from 40 to 60kph are possible. I would generally describe my own driving as aggressive but safe; however, this was my first long trip with my car, and I wanted to take it easy. As a result, it took us three hours to reach Masindi and another three to arrive at Paraa.

When Aimee and I lived in Tanzania, we didn’t have our own camping equipment. Typically, we stayed in tented camps or high-end lodges while on safari, which was a lot of fun but frighteningly expensive. Now, with our own gear, we’re motivated save money by sleeping on the ground and self-catering. There is a high degree of romance to camping in East Africa. Camping is permitted within national parks, where game and birdlife is abundant, and there are no restrictions on campfires. Sometimes, tour groups will use public campsites, especially in the Serengeti, but in less trafficked parks they’re often empty. While setting up camp, building a fire, and cooking are time consuming, and leave less time for birding, the experience roots you firmly in the environment.

On this trip, I had researched a few sites for camping but made no reservations.  We ended up staying one night at Shoebill Camp, managed by Nile Safari Lodge, and another at the public campsite near the viewpoint above Murchison Falls. Both offered spectacular views and terrific birding. Supposedly, there is a resident pair of Shoebill on the opposite side of the Victoria Nile that is seen regularly from Shoebill Camp. There is also a productive trail from the campsite to the lodge itself, where campers can access the bar and restaurant. The roar of the falls is clearly audible from the public campsite, where, according to Where to Watch Birds in Uganda, Brown Twinspot, White-Rumped Seedeater, and Red-Winged Warbler are easily seen.

The boat trip to the base of Murchison Falls is a true pleasure for birders. UWA as well as two private companies offer the trip for about 30USD per person, which takes from two to three hours. Boats leave at 8:30 and 2:30 from Paraa and generally follow the northern riverbank, along which the vegetation is more open and there is more wildlife. Hippos abound, and we also spotted several elephants as well as large numbers of warthog, bushbuck, and waterbuck. Our guide quickly caught on that we were interested in birds, and the driver was particularly accommodating, circling back several times so I could get better photographs.

Apparently, Shoebill is only infrequently spotted on this section of the Nile and is much more commonly seen downstream from Paraa. Having seen Shoebill well in Mbamba Swamp near Kampala, I was not as concerned with this target bird as other visitors. Fortunately, there were plenty of other, more modest, highlights: a pair of Rock Pratincoles was perched, fittingly, on a boulder in the middle of the Nile near the base of the falls; a colony of Red-Throated Bee-Eaters was nesting in an exposed cliff on the riverbank, joyfully swooping over the water to catch insects; a Giant Kingfisher loomed threateningly in the shadows over the water, its heavy bill poised to spear perch.

The falls are impressive to behold, although the experience is a touch anticlimactic. Visitors should not expect to recreate the climactic scene from African Queen. For safety reasons, the boats keep their distance from the tumult, and depending on the lighting and amount of mist in the air, the falls can seem to be a kilometer away. Several passengers had arranged in advance to disembark at this point and hike up to the viewpoint above the falls in the company of a ranger. Their car would then meet them at the viewpoint. This is a great option for visitors on a guided tour to Murchison.

On our only full day in the park, Aimee and I crossed the Victoria Nile on a ferry in the morning and spent much of the day driving around. The northern side of Murchison National Park, especially the delta region where the Victoria Nile and Albert Nile rivers converge, is principally open savanna habitat dotted picturesquely with Borassus palms. This area has the highest concentration of game, including giraffe, elephant, water buffalo, Ugandan kob, Jackson’s hartebeest, bushbuck, waterbuck, and warthogs. Although we didn’t see any large cats ourselves, there is also a healthy population of lions and leopards.

Four dirt tracks in the delta region form the traditional safari circuit: Buligi, Victoria, Queen’s, and Albert. For current information on their condition, it’s best to ask UWA rangers or drivers who work for the private safari companies. We primarily stuck to the Queen’s track, as it appeared to be in the best condition and was the most popular. Near the airstrip the grasslands are wide open and filled with game, while the shallow valleys that follow contain bush and woodland habitat. Once we arrived at the water’s edge, we explored smaller tracks more freely, searching out interesting birds and scanning the papyrus swamps for Shoebill.

Where to Watch Birds in Uganda provides detailed information about which birds to look for in each habitat. Given our late start and appreciation for mammals, Aimee and I barely scratched the surface, ticking only a few of the target species, such as Black-Billed Barbet, Silverbird, Black-Headed Batis, and Rufous Sparrow. We were also pleased to see several troops of patas monkey, a terrestrial monkey that in habits the savannas of West and parts of East Africa.

To ensure a productive game drive, it makes sense to stay on the north side of the Victoria Nile or cross the river on the 7am ferry. There are several high-end lodges as well as a nice public campsite, from which you could get an early start and increase the chances of encountering active lions and leopards. The last ferry returns at 7pm, which would allow for twelve hours exploring the delta. It’s also worth taking a few hours to drive east to the Nayamusika Cliffs.  A beautiful viewpoint overlooks the sandy banks of a shallow river, where game come to drink and migratory shorebirds, including the Egyptian Plover, have been recorded.

Visitors to Murchison should be prepared for tsetse flies, especially in bush, or wooded areas. These nasty flies are the scourge of Sub-Saharan Africa, transmitting diseases to animals and humans alike through very painful bites. Areas infested with tsetse flies cannot practically be farmed using domestic animals, which gradually weaken and succumb to trypanosomosis, commonly known as sleeping sickness. As a result, nearly 10 million square kilometers of fertile land in 37 different African countries are uncultivated, creating widespread hunger, poverty, and underdevelopment.

Tsetse flies are apparently attracted to movement and dark colors, especially black and blue. Driving in an open vehicle through woodland in Murchison National Park on the south side of the Victoria Nile is a sure way to be exposed to tsetse flies. Being seasoned safari travelers, Aimee and I were informed enough to keep our windows up and the air conditioning on.  Still, we were horrified by the swarms of flies that either rested on the car or smashed into the windows, sounding like heavy raindrops in a storm.

I’ve already documented my disastrous experiences with tsetse flies in Tanzania. Despite my precautions on this trip, I was still bitten twice through several layers of clothing, leaving swollen and itchy sores on my ankle and hip that have persisted for nearly a week. On one occasion, I was actually on a boat riding up the Nile towards Murchison Falls when a tsetse fly bit appeared out of nowhere to bite me through a thick hiking sock exposed under my heavy canvas pant leg. Amazingly, the other passengers wearing shorts and sandals were unscathed.

Fortunately, tsetse flies are diurnal, allowing birders to search for nightjars and owls in peace. According to Where to Watch Birds in Uganda, Murchison is one of best sites to see the fabulous Caprimulgidae of the region, including Pennant-Winged, Standard-Winged, and Long-Tailed Nightjars. Within the park, night drives must be accompanied by a ranger at the cost of $100 for four hours; however, UWA informed us that we were allowed to exit the park after closing time at 7pm. It was easy to rationalize a bit of nighttime driving after a late afternoon safari on the north side of the Nile.

Crossing on the 6pm ferry, we gradually headed towards the public campsite near the viewpoint at the top of the falls. Stopping a few places to look for birds, and to kill time until dusk, we finally reached the turnoff at nightfall. I drove the 10km to the campsite at a glacial pace, creeping up on a Senegal Thick-Knee, Plain Nightjar, and several Long-Tailed Nightjars. The productive areas were where the road crossed through clearings and more open grassland; we did not encounter any nightjars in more wooded sections.

We were on the lookout for male Pennant-Winged Nightjars, which are in breeding plumage during this period; the breeding season for Standard-Winged Nightjars is earlier in the year. These are among the most bizarre and spectacular birds on the continent, and finding one would have easily been the highlight of the trip. Photographing a Long-Tailed Nightjar at close range was no small consolation. With a proper spotlight and a better understanding of the logistics, I am encouraged to try again on another visit, perhaps later this month.

Notable birds seen: African Darter, Black-Crowned Night-Heron, Common Squacco Heron, Little Egret, Intermediate Egret, Goliath Heron, Black-Headed Heron, Grey Heron, Hamerkop, Black Stork, Woolly-Necked Stork, Marabou Stork, Hadada Ibis, Egyptian Goose, Spur-Winged Goose, White-Faced Whistling-Duck, African Fish Eagle, Palm-Nut Vulture, African White-Backed Vulture, Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Eastern Chanting-Goshawk, African Harrier-Hawk, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Long-Crested Eagle, Common Kestrel, Grey Kestrel, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Francolin, Quail (sp), African Jacana, Grey Crowned Crane, Senegal Thick-Knee, Rock Pratincole, Spur-Winged Lapwing, African Wattled Lapwing, Kittlitz’s Plover, Common Sandpiper, White-Winged Tern, Black-Billed Wood-Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, Vinaceous Dove, Brown Parrot, Red-Headed Lovebird, Diederik Cuckoo, Yellowbill, White-Browed Coucal, Long-Tailed Nightjar, Plain Nightjar, African Palm Swift, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Giant Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Red-Throated Bee-Eater, European Roller, African Grey Hornbill, Abyssinian Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Black-Billed Barbet, Cardinal Woodpecker, Rufous-Naped Lark, Wire-Tailed Swallow, African Pied Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Sooty Chat, Whinchat, Northern Wheatear, African Marsh Warbler, Yellow-Breasted Apalis, Pale Flycatcher, Black-Headed Batis, Silverbird, Bronze Sunbird, Purple-Banded Sunbird, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Isabelline Shrike, Black-Headed Gonolek, Brown-Crowned Tchagra, Sulphur-Breasted Bush-Shrike, Piapiac, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Bronze-Tailed Starling, Ruppell’s Long-Tailed Starling, Rufous Sparrow, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Northern Red Bishop, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Bar-Breasted Firefinch, Pin-Tailed Whydah.

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