Murchison Falls National Park: January 1-3, 2016

Our previous three-day trip to Murchison Falls was an excellent introduction to the national park, but from a birder’s perspective we barely scratched the surface. It can take multiple visits to master the simplest of birding sites, and Murchison is a vast reserve that encompasses a wide variety of habitats. Last time, we covered the obvious highlights of the park, including a boat cruise on the Victoria Nile, a game drive through the delta region, and a visit to the top of the falls. With a better understanding of the park’s layout and the logistics of a visit, I could design a more strategic program to target specific birds, such as Shoebill, Egyptian Plover, and Standard-Winged Nightjar. Although we succeeded in expanding our personal bird list on this most recent trip, I am happy to report that it will require many more visits before we finally exhaust the park’s potential.

After an early departure from Kampala, we reached the park headquarters at Paraa just after noon. Unfortunately, we had just missed the midday ferry across the Victoria Nile and would have to wait two hours to reach the delta, the park’s prime area for game drives. UWA manages the quick and reliable ferry, which runs at 7:00am, 9:00, 11:00, 12:00pm,2:00, 4:00, 6:00, 7:00. While Aimee rested in the shade, I inquired with Wild Frontiers about the schedule for boat cruises. Like Queen Elizabeth National Park the previous weekend, Murchison was relatively crowded this holiday weekend, and there wasn’t space available on the afternoon cruise, which departs at 2:00pm. Although we had done the same cruise a month ago, I was eager to try again in hopes of finding Shoebill, Egyptian Plover, or Pell’s Fishing Owl. I reserved two seats for the following afternoon, planning to spend the next 24 hours on the north side of the Nile.

Aimee and I have yet to stay at a lodge while on safari in Uganda, but there is a good range of accommodation options at most national parks. For example, Red Chili Hideaway at Murchison is a popular, reasonably priced option within the park just a few minutes away from Paraa. Since we have our own camping gear and high-clearance 4x4 vehicle, staying at a lodge wouldn’t add much value to the experience, unless we’re looking to be pampered. There is a public campsite on the north side, far away enough from the park reception to feel secluded and sufficiently remote. We checked it out before embarking on our afternoon game drive. The area was strewn with trash, but it was devoid of other campers, and there was a huge stack of driftwood for campfires. Apparently, all the overnight visitors to the park had opted to stay at one of the lodges, and we crossed our fingers that an Overland Expedition with a busload of rowdy gap-year students wouldn’t show up later.

We drove out to the delta in the full heat of the afternoon. The drive to the airstrip, where the road branches into four game tracks, first passes through whistling thorn acacia and then extensive Borassus palm savanna. New birds seen in these areas for us included Grasshopper Buzzard, Woodchat Shrike, and Northern Carmine Bee-Eater. Since we explored the Queen’s Track on our last trip, this time we opted to head down the Buligi Track, a longer track that passes through extensive whistling thorn acacia and woodland. Where to Watch Birds in Uganda notes that the Buligi Track was closed in 1998. While it’s a bit overgrown in parts, the track is certainly open as we witnessed a variety of private vehicles from lodges and safari companies. Here we ticked Black-Billed Barbet, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, Speckle-Fronted Weaver, and Rufous Sparrow before the road opened out onto the grassy delta.

Several texts note that this is a prime spot for Shoebill, as it’s possible to scan a wide expanse of papyrus from shore. There is also a sign indicating a nearby bird hide, but this attraction is likely defunct. One of the UWA rangers who is based there said he often sees a Shoebill when he comes down to the river each morning to fill jerry cans with water. Unsurprisingly, we struck in the heat of the afternoon, but the Buligi Track is a good option for birders who want a decent chance at seeing a Shoebill but don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a boat cruise. Continuing around the delta, we searched for plovers in sandy areas interspersed with short tufts of grass. An aggressive Red-Necked Falcon flushed a field of Kittlitz’s Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Caspian Plover, and others shorebirds. Looking sated, it sat in the middle of the track until we approached in the car to within a few meters. Shortly afterwards, we found a pair of confiding Black-Headed Lapwing, another new tick.

Aimee had been nodding off periodically throughout the day, likely due to lack of sleep but also perhaps because of car sickness. As we headed back towards the airstrip along the Queen’s Track, she appeared fast asleep, and I slowed the car down to a crawl in order not to disturb her. Where the road passes through woodland, Aimee casually opened her eyes, glanced out the window, and spotted a leopard. I immediately braked and looked to the left, where a leopard was sitting in the open under a tree, just a few meters back from the road. We had about five seconds of intimate face time before the leopard started slinking away into the grass. Remarkably, though, it lingered in the area for nearly ten minutes, and it could be seen occasionally through the grass as it lifted its head. By this time, a half dozen other safari vehicles had stopped around us, and dozens of tourists were hanging outside the windows and talking excitedly. The moment was clearly over, and we smugly moved on.

Back at the campsite, we found that another Mzungu couple had set up camp in an obvious site overlooking the Nile. The views from there are terrific, but it’s too close to the fringes of the river, where dozens of hippopotamus live. At night hippos leave the water to feed, often ranging far from shore, and I was worried that they might track through the campsite and potentially crash through our tent. We decided to set up camp in a more protected area and prepared wood for our campfire until around dusk. Aimee and I are getting more ambitious about seeing nightjars and owls, and one of our target birds on this trip was the Standard-Winged Nightjar. Judging from the field guide and photos online, the adult male in breeding plumage is an amazing sight: the bird has two large flags, or standards, at the end of elongated feather shafts of second primary feathers. This is a bird we simply had to see, and we were willing to drive around for hours at night to find one along the road.

Not having registered yet to camp, though, I was worried that the UWA rangers would hassle us for night driving. The campsite is close to park headquarters, and there is a mandatory $100 fee for a ranger to accompany vehicles on formal game drives at night. I feared that it would invite trouble to drive around in the park at night with our car’s high beams on, with me waving around my new spotlight as if I were a poacher looking for elephants. A better option would be to return late from an evening game drive on the delta. At least then I would have a viable excuse for driving at night. After fifteen minutes, and no nightjars, I decided to return to camp and enjoy the rest of the evening by the fire. The following night at the Murchison Falls campsite, if all went according to plan, would be a better time and place to make a concerted effort to see the Standard-Winged Nightjar.

Despite the heat, Aimee had built a massive campfire, and we were forced to cool off by quaffing a few beers from the ice chest. There was still half a moon remaining from the previous weekend, and we kicked back in our camping chairs and toasted to the New Year. Later that night, I was disturbed by an animal grunting and stomping around the campsite, but it was likely just a baboon. Judging from our encounter the previous afternoon, it almost certainly wasn’t a leopard, as they are masters of stealth and surprise. Regardless, I was a rattled by the commotion and didn’t sleep well afterwards. I was up predawn, and before the sun had appeared above the horizon, I had made coffee, broken down camp, and warmed up the car.

Aimee and I raced back out towards the delta down the Queen’s Track. We had a distant glimpse of a pride of lions near the airstrip. Unlike the leopard sighting, this time we relied on others. Basic safari wisdom is to be out in the field at first light and simply follow the herd. A cluster of Landcruisers is the best indication that a lion is nearby. Experienced drivers and guides know the individual lion prides and where they typically hunt and rest during the day. The grass plains around the airstrip is choked with game, including giraffe, water buffalo, Jackson’s Hartebeest, and Ugandan Kob, making this an ideal area to locate lions. It’s also great for birds of prey, and we spotted Grey Kestrel, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Tawny Eagle, Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture, and Bateleur. A highlight was watching two vultures at close range battle over the bloody skull of an ungulate.

We returned to the delta region to look for Shoebill, missing our target yet again (we ticked it last September at Mbamba Swamp, another reliable site near Kampala). An adult male Patas Monkey was a good find, and we also spotted a pair of Chestnut-Crowned Sparrow-Weaver, another Murchison specialty. After a long morning of driving, we opted to return via the Albert Track, which passes along the northern side of the delta through woodland. Here, there were good opportunities for photography, and I briefly drove while hanging out the window, with my foot on the brake and knee on the steering wheel. These photographs of Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eaters, which were on the opposite side of the car, were definitely worth the risk. Sightings of Black Scimitarbill also made this detour especially worthwhile.

At this point, Aimee and I had to decide whether we were going to take the boat cruise that afternoon or continue on with our game drive. Our first cruise to the base of Murchison Falls was great, but we were worried that this cruise could be unpleasant given the crowds. Our experience at Queen Elizabeth had scarred us, and instead of risking being trapped on a boat again for hours with loud, inebriated tourists, we opted against the boat cruise. Ironically, I later learned that not only had passengers on the boat seen a leopard in a tree along the river, but one of the guides had also spotted a Pell’s Fishing Owl roosting in the open! To put a positive spin on it, at least we have a few new birds left to look for on our next visit to the park.

We pushed on towards the Nyamsika Cliffs in the early afternoon. This site overlooks a winding seasonal river and offers commanding views of woodland and riverine forest below. Where to Watch Birds also notes the site’s excellent potential for Egyptian Plover. Despite the view, the Nyamsika Cliffs are far off the traditional safari circuit, and we were likely the first car to pass down the side track since the last time we visited the site, about a month ago. There were several giraffe and waterbuck drinking down at the river, and bird activity was decent. We recorded Spot-Flanked Barbet, Nubian Woodpecker, and Diederik Cuckoo, among others. Heading towards Gulu along the main road, we recorded several pairs of the spectacular Abyssinian Roller, first in Borassus palm savanna and then at the edge of woodland. We returned to the Paraa in the evening for the 6pm ferry crossing.

Murchison Falls viewpoint is about 45 minutes away driving at a normal speed. Instead, we took several hours and didn’t arrive until nearly 9pm. Moving at a crawl, I scanned the roadsides and adjacent bush with my spotlight looking for owls and nightjars. Along the main road, a few cars occasionally passed us, likely disturbing any birds that were resting on the road ahead. We did flush a few Square-Tailed Nightjars from the banks along the sides of the road, but there was no sign of our target, the Standard-Winged Nightjar. Our technique for locating nightjars is rudimentary but has proven effective: drive slowly, use high beams, and stare intently for bright points of reflected light. Nightjars generally have cryptic plumage, and it’s helpful to get as close as possible to make an identification.

Branching off from the main road, there is a 10km track heading to the viewpoint, which likely hadn’t seen another car since dusk. Just after the turnoff, there is a stretch of relatively open bush, where we found Plain Nightjar on the side of the road. The bird appeared stunned by all of the light, and we drove past without flushing it. Rounding a bend, we then surprised a hulking Spotted Eagle-Owl in the middle of the road, but it fled before we could admire it. Midway along the track, we had our first encounter with an adult male Standard-Winged Nightjar; however, we failed to spot it in the roadside bush before it darted away from the road. I slowed the car down to a gentle roll, but again we flushed another adult male. This time at least I was ready with the spotlight and tracked it as it raced ahead in flight. As the field guide describes, the standards are so extravagant that the nightjar in flight looks like it is being chased by two smaller birds.

Just before reaching the campsite, we came across three Long-Tailed Nightjars resting in the road. This time, I got out from the car to photograph them at eyelevel, approaching so close that I actually had to back away in order to use my telephoto lens. If only the Standard-Winged Nightjars had been so cooperative! We slipped into the campsite undetected by park rangers, and set up camp in a different location than before, as it was occupied. Fortunately, I had planned ahead and taken some kindling and firewood from the other campsite, which is typically much better stocked. With fifteen minutes, we had set up camp and started a fire, and could kick back and enjoy the sounds of the Victoria Nile, as it narrows dramatically to seven meters and plunges 43 meters below.

The following morning I was up at dawn to search for a few more site specialties, including Red-Winged Warbler, Green-Backed Eremomela, and Brown Twinspot. I didn’t find any of these species but did note Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, Black-Headed Gonolek, Yellow-Breasted Apalis, and Northern Puffback around the campsite. Down by the falls, Aimee and I spotted four pairs of Rock Pratincole on boulders in the middle of the rapids, in addition to African Pied Wagtail and Common Sandpiper. There were dozens of swifts hawking insects in the mist above the falls, but I struggled to identify any of them. Murchison Falls is definitely the park’s centerpiece and one of the most spectacular sites in Uganda. I would highly recommend enjoying the site before other visitors arrive from the lodges and park entrance. An early arrival will help you beat the tsetse flies, too.

Notable birds seen: Great White Pelican, Pink-Backed Pelican, African Darter, Common Squacco Heron, Little Egret, Intermediate Egret, Goliath Heron, Black-Headed Heron, Grey Heron, Hamerkop, African Open-Billed Stork, Marabou Stork, Sacred Ibis, Hadada Ibis, Spur-Winged Goose, White-Faced Whistling Duck, African Fish Eagle, Palm-Nut Vulture, Osprey, African White-Backed Vulture, Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, African Harrier-Hawk, Grasshopper Buzzard, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Grey Kestrel, Red-Necked Falcon, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Guineafowl, Crested Francolin, Purple Swamphen, African Jacana, Grey Crowned Crane, Black-Bellied Bustard, Rock Pratincole, Spur-Winged Lapwing, Long-Toed Lapwing, African Wattled Lapwing, Black-Headed Lapwing, Kittlitz’s Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Caspian Plover, Common Sandpiper, White-Winged Tern, Black-Billed Wood-Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, Diederik Cuckoo, White-Browed Coucal, Senegal Coucal, Spotted Eagle-Owl, Square-Tailed Nightjar, Plain Nightjar, Long-Tailed Nightjar, Standard-Winged Nightjar, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater, Red-Throated Bee-Eater, Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, Abyssinian Roller, African Hoopoe, Black Scimitarbill, African Grey Hornbill, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Spot-Flanked Barbet, Black-Billed Barbet, Double-Toothed Barbet, Nubian Woodpecker, Flappet Lark, Wire-Tailed Swallow, African Pied Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, White-Browed Robin-Chat, African Thrush, Sooty Chat, Whinchat, Northern Wheatear, Buff-Bellied Warbler, Garden Warbler, Northern Crombec, Zitting Cisticola, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Yellow-Breasted Apalis, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, Silverbird, Common Fiscal, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Woodchat Shrike, Black-Headed Gonolek, Northern Puffback, Fork-Tailed Drongo, Piapiac, Lesser Blue-Eared Starling, Ruppell’s Long-Tailed Starling, Splendid Starling, Rufous Sparrow, Speckle-Fronted Weaver, Chestnut-Crowned Sparrow-Weaver, Spectacled Weaver, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, African Firefinch.

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