Lake Mburu National Park: January 16-17, 2016

The safari cognoscenti in Uganda describe Lake Mburo National Park as a hidden gem. Located roughly four hours away from Kampala along the route to Bwindi and Queen Elizabeth National Parks, Lake Mburo is typically passed over by tourists in a rush to see the Mountain Gorillas and tree-climbing lions of Southwestern Uganda. With its scenic lakes and rolling landscape of savanna and acacia woodland, the area definitely merits more attention. Day visitors from Mbarara can enjoy boat rides on the lake, and the park is ideal for weekend trips from the capital. In particular, Lake Mburo offers birders a chance to spot a handful of southern savanna species, including the Red-Faced Barbet; papyrus specialties, such as the Papyrus Gonolek, Carruthers’ Cisticola, and Papyrus Yellow Warbler; as well as a few mega birds, namely the Shoebill and African Finfoot.

Aimee and I were long overdue to make our first trip to the park, and we set out early from Kampala one Saturday morning, per our routine for weekend camping trips. There are a few tourist-friendly caf├ęs at the equator that make for a convenient rest stop, but we sped along the highway towards Mbarara without taking a break. Coming from Kampala, it makes sense to access the park through the Nshara Gate to the northwest. The access road is unpaved but recently graded, and most of the tracks inside the park do not require a 4x4 vehicle. Despite the tranquil setting, I would advise keeping the windows rolled up when passing through bush and woodland, as hundreds of tsetse flies swarmed our car in the midday heat. Apparently, it is permitted to ride a bicycle in the park, likely because of the absence of elephant and lion, but I wouldn’t want to brave the tsetse flies myself.

Bird activity was low, but we noted plenty of ungulates out baking in the heat. Lake Mburo is one of the few sites in Uganda for zebra and impala, and we also spotted several small groups of topi. These ungainly animals look strongly like a melanistic Jackson’s Hartebeest, with the same thick horns and odd-shaped head. Other common game seen in the park included bushbuck, waterbuck, warthog, buffalo, oribi, and common duiker. After checking in at the park headquarters, where we inquired about the boat ride schedule, we made our way down to the lake itself. Despite its size, and the broad swaths of bordering marsh, there appears to be no obvious access to papyrus habitat, at least from land. In theory, the boat ride could include a quick stop at the edge of the marsh, but it typically hugs the forest-lined shore in the opposite direction. We made reservations for a private boat ride the following morning (normally $15 per person, or $60 minimum in total).

Along the Lakeside Track, there is a picturesque and secluded campsite with basic facilities. The authors of Where to Watch Birds in Uganda note that this exact site is likely the best place in Uganda to spot an African Finfoot as it emerges from lakeside vegetation at dusk and dawn. Despite the tsetse flies, I was sold on the location. We made it clear to the pod of hippopotamus just offshore that we would be staying the night and then headed back out on another game drive. Kazuma Lookout is a beautiful spot overlooking four smaller lakes to the south. From the shady picnic table, you can appreciate the subtle transitions in the landscape, from lake to marsh to savanna to woodland. It is also a great site for spotting raptors, and we marvelled at a Tawny Eagle soaring high on thermals and suddenly diving after prey below. Technically, you could camp here, as there is a decrepit latrine nearby, but the hilltops appear to be favored by large herds of buffalo.

Back at the campsite towards dusk, I diligently scanned the lakeside vegetation. An African Finfoot didn’t materialize, but I spotted a few Black Crakes and a nice variety of kingfishers. Meanwhile, Aimee constructed a massive pyramid of kindling in preparation for our campfire that night. I had convinced her to take a quick game drive after dark, and before lighting the fire. We made a quick trip back towards the Kazuma Lookout, finding plenty of game as well as Water Thick-Knee and Black-Shouldered Nightjar in the road. Back at the campsite, another Black-Shouldered Nightjar continued to call for an hour as we relaxed by the fire. Although mosquitos replace the tsetse flies at night, long sleeved clothing and a touch of repellant provide adequate protection. The hippos proved to be a more insurmountable nuisance, though, and we eventually repositioned our tent under a protected concrete shelter, parking our car directly alongside.

Would a territorial hippopotamus actually plow through a tent and trample people sleeping inside? It’s not very likely, but the move proved to be fortuitous, as a terrific storm blew through after midnight. We stayed dry; however, our private boat ride was rained out the following morning. Instead, we headed out on a mid-morning game drive with the intention of exploring the Ruroko Track and then linking up with the Zebra Track on our way out of the park. With all the rain, the driving conditions were tricky, and I skittishly maneuvered the car through patches of black cotton soil. Eventually, I lost track of the main Ruroko Track followed another side track blindly through the bush. Although the drive was a bit tense, we saw a nice variety of birds as the weather gradually improved, including a roosting Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl. In the end, we did link up with the Zebra Track, although in a different way than expected, and headed back to Kampala with intentions to return shortly.

Notable birds seen: Long-Tailed Cormorant, Black-Crowned Night-Heron, Common Squacco Heron, Little Egret, Hamerkop, African Fish Eagle, African Harrier-Hawk, Tawny Eagle, Long-Crested Eagle, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Francolin, Red-Necked Spurfowl, Black Crake, African Jacana, Black-Bellied Bustard, Water Thick-Knee, African Wattled Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, African Green Pigeon, Emerald-Spotted Wood-Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, Brown Parrot, Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Diederik Cuckoo, White-Browed Coucal, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, Black-Shouldered Nightjar, White-Headed Mousebird, Striped Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Broad-Billed Roller, European Roller, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Common Scimitarbill, African Grey Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Spot-Flanked Barbet, Grey Woodpecker, Rufous-Chested Swallow, Lesser Striped Swallow, African Pied Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Grassland Pipit, Plain-Backed Pipit, White-Browed Robin-Chat, Sooty Chat, Zitting Cisticola, Brown Babbler, Scarlet-Chested Sunbird, Red-Chested Sunbird, Common Fiscal, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Black-Headed Gonolek, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Greater Blue-Eared Starling, Ruppell’s Long-Tailed Starling, Grey-Headed Sparrow, Spectacled Weaver, Fan-Tailed Widowbird, Red-Billed Firefinch, Common Waxbill, Village Indigobird, Black-Throated Seedeater.   

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