Murchison Falls National Park: February 13-14, 2016

Aimee and I scored big on our last trip to Murchison Falls National Park. In addition to finding target birds like the Standard-Winged Nightjar and Abyssinian Roller, we had an incredible encounter with a leopard, as well as seeing a pride of lions. For this trip, we had no specific goals aside from simply getting out of town for a few days. On February 18, Uganda is holding national elections for the presidency and seats in parliament, and campaigning during the final week will be focused in Kampala. With demonstrations possible and noise pollution guaranteed, it was preferable to sweat it out in the bush than spend a crazy weekend in the capital. 

My preferred routine at Murchison is to camp at the public sites, the first night on the northern side of the Victoria Nile and the second on the southern side at the falls viewpoint. This positions us for an early morning game drive through the delta and an afternoon boat ride, on either day, to the base of the falls. We’ve also taken advantage of this arrangement to spend the first hour of darkness on the road, returning late from a game drive while spotlighting for nightjars and owls (technically, night game drives must be accompanied by a park ranger, at the cost of $100). While luck is always a factor in seeing wildlife, this routine has proven effective and inexpensive.

We arrived at Paraa just after 11am, with ample time to investigate our options for a boat ride and make the 12pm ferry crossing over the Victoria Nile. Ever since our bad experience at Queen Elizabeth National Park, I have been hesitant to pull the trigger on another boat ride, but we made a reservation with Wild Frontiers, a private company, for the following afternoon ($32 per person). UWA also offers the trip for slightly less ($30 per person), but with fewer frills. One good option for tourists with a private safari company is to take the boat to the base of the falls and hike to the lookout about the falls, where their safari vehicle can pick them up and drive them to their lodgings for the night. We’re thinking about this option ourselves when we return next month with a visiting friend (I’ll likely provide the transportation). 

After crossing the river, we stopped at the campsite to stake to set up our tent and organize firewood for the evening. The basic campsite is quite large with good views over the river. There is an obvious platform site closest to the river, but Aimee and I prefer to camp in a smaller sheltered area to the left. We then set off towards the delta, following the Queen’s Track and then heading back along the Buligi Track. We stopped often to look for birds and admire game, including elephant, giraffe, Ugandan Kob, Jackson’s Hartebeest, and warthog. The landscape is considerably more dry than just a month ago, and much of the savanna on the northern side of the delta has been burned, likely in a controlled fire. Given the dry conditions, most of the game was concentrated down by the water.

We stopped for an hour at the bird hide located in the delta area off the Buligi Track. I had noticed a sign for this during our previous visit, but I assumed it was defunct or off limits to visitors without a guide. While the hide itself is a claustrophobic mess, strewn with bat droppings, the site itself is excellent for waterbirds. Setting up the car a few dozen meters closer to the action, we ticked a few new birds here for our country list, including Knob-Billed Duck and Collared Pratincole. Scanning the papyrus-dominated islands for Shoebill was unsuccessful, but we enjoyed watching pairs of Black Crake exploring out in the open, Grey Crowned Crane stalk the mudflats, and Caspian Plovers looking smart in their breeding plumage. In the rainy season, the bird hide is likely more useful, although I hope the park rangers clean it periodically. 

I consider myself a birder, and not a photographer, but having a blog has driven my interest in photography and my motivation to produce decent photographs. I couldn’t imagine posting only record shots of birds taken with a point-and-shoot camera or, even worse, an all-text birding blog. Sadly, I noticed on my last trip to Lake Mburo National Park that the sensor on my Nikon D5100 was failing: every other photograph was either all black or had serious defects. After researching my options for an upgrade, I have decided to revert back to my D80 until the new D500 becomes available and the D7200 is discounted. Long-time users of DSLR cameras will agree how much the technology has improved over ten years, although I’m not sure the quality of these photos is very different.

The Buligi Track passes through thick bush and woodland, and we drove slowly in the late afternoon, looking for leopards. Black-Billed Barbet, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, and Black-Crowned Tchagra were nice finds, and we surprised a Lizard Buzzard tearing into a Ring-Necked Dove it had caught moments before. We watched the sunset from a bluff overlooking the savanna. A Heuglin’s Francolin emerged from the grass cautiously, in the narrow window of time between the reign of diurnal harriers and nocturnal owls. Once it grew dark we returned slowly to the campsite, spotlighting the road and adjacent fields of short grass. Square-Tailed Nightjars swooped about in the gloomy distance, and I tried photographing a Plain Nightjar in the road (the inferior performance of the D80 was most obvious here).

Aimee and I were both exhausted the following morning, and we had a relatively late start on our game drive. We returned to the Buligi Track, swept a wide arc through the delta, and returned along the Prince Albert Track. Again, we didn’t encounter any leopards or lions, but enjoyed a variety of interesting bird sightings, including thousands of Abdim’s Stork along the Albert Nile. We came across several animals that appeared to be the victim of drought or disease instead of a predator. Although we didn’t see many vultures about, near the delta lookout an immature Bateleur was busy ripping apart the carcass of a female Ugandan Kob. 

Despite crossing paths were very few safari vehicles, when Aimee and returned to Paraa that afternoon for the boat ride to the base of the falls, the large pontoon boat was already packed with tourists. I felt bad about canceling (this was my second time backing out of a boat ride at the last minute), but I simply couldn’t stomach the crowd. Without this afternoon activity, Aimee and I found ourselves without much to do in the heat of the day. Either we could head to the falls, where there isn’t much game, or we could return to Kampala a day early. Considering both of us would be on the road for work the following week, it made sense to go home and rest up. Although we missed out on another night of nightjar hunting, the decision helped me realize that Murchison is also a reasonable destination for a short weekend trip, being just four hours from the capital.

Notable birds seen: Long-Tailed Cormorant, Great White Pelican, Common Squacco Heron, Little Egret, Black Egret, Intermediate Egret, Goliath Heron, Grey Heron, Hamerkop, Abdim’s Stork, African Open-Billed Stork, Marabou Stork, Sacred Ibis, Hadada Ibis, Egyptian Goose, Spur-Winged Goose, Knob-Billed Duck, White-Faced Whistling Duck, African Fish Eagle, Palm-Nut Vulture, Brown Snake-Eagle, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Pallid Harrier, Eastern Chanting-Goshawk, Lizard Buzzard, Gabar Goshawk, Grasshopper Buzzard, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Long-Crested Eagle, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Francolin, Heuglin’s Francolin, Black Crake, African Jacana, Grey Crowned Crane, Black-Bellied Bustard, Black-Winged Stilt, Senegal Thick-Knee, Collared Pratincole, Spur-Winged Lapwing, Long-Toed Lapwing, African Wattled Lapwing, Little Ringed Plover, Caspian Plover, Common Sandpiper, White-Winged Tern, African Green Pigeon, Black-Billed Wood-Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, Diederik Cuckoo, White-Browed Coucal, Square-Tailed Nightjar, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater, Red-Throated Bee-Eater, Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, Green Wood-Hoopoe, African Grey Hornbill, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill, Black-Billed Barbet, Wire-Tailed Swallow, White-Headed Saw-Wing, African Pied Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Grassland Pipit, White-Browed Robin-Chat, Sooty Chat, Whinchat, Northern Wheatear, Spotted Morning-Thrush, Zitting Cisticola, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Silverbird, Beautiful Sunbird, Common Fiscal, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Woodchat Shrike, Black-Headed Gonolek, Black-Crowned Tchagra, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Piapiac, Ruppell’s Long-Tailed Starling, Splendid Starling, Speckle-Fronted Weaver, Chestnut-Crowned Sparrow-Weaver, Red-Billed Quelea, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Common Waxbill, Bronze Manakin. 

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