Budongo Forest Reserve: February 27-28, 2016

When Aimee is out of town, Budongo Forest Reserve is my top choice for a weekend trip of forest birding. Located just three hours from Kampala, the site is relatively close, inexpensive, and loaded with potential. A careful study of bird distributions in the field guide will reveal that more than a few birds of East Africa are only found in the forests of far Western Uganda, primarily at two sites: Budongo and Semliki National Park. With a complex avifauna, and the possibility of finding rare or unique birds to East Africa, Budongo definitely rewards multiple visits. Unfortunately, access to the reserve is less formal than at the country’s national parks, and the infrastructure to support bird tourism, especially independent birders, is lacking. I’ve had success so far simply winging it on my previous trips, but I’ve never felt completely welcome in the area - another reason why I only visit the site when Aimee is out of town.



Budongo Forest Reserve is adjacent to Murchison Falls National Park. The Jane Goodall Institute manages an excellent access point to the reserve from within the park borders. Kaniyo Pabidi is only a few kilometers from the southern entrance to the park, but visiting Budongo from this point requires paying both the national park and forest reserve entrance fees. Plus, it is only possible to bird the trails in the company of a guide, which is yet another $30 fee. On the other hand, birding Budongo from Busingiro is free if you stick to the road, which passes directly through the forest on its way from Masindi to Butiaba. To be clear, I don’t mind paying a few dollars for the privilege of accessing Uganda’s largest natural forest, but I’d rather not hassle with a guide or the bureaucracy of entering multiple reserves. When I refer to Budongo, then, I am talking about birding the area around Busingiro, including the Royal Mile.

Busingiro is also managed by the Jane Goodall Institute, but to considerably less success. There is a modest conservation center at the site, but accommodation is decrepit and no longer in use. One staff member is assigned to Busingiro, and while he is friendly and passionate about conservation, he does not have the resources to handle regular independent visitors. On my previous visits, I have informally arranged with him to park my car and camp in the clearing overnight for a few dollars. On this trip, I also brought him several bird and animal posters that he could use in the center, where he occasionally teaches local students about conservation. In return, I have received permission to bird the short loop trail around the conservation center by myself, and he doesn’t give me a hard time about birding the Royal Mile if I somehow gain access.

The Royal Mile is one of Uganda’s most celebrated birding sites. Aptly named, this wide road runs straight through primary forest for about a mile. Access to the Royal Mile is managed from Busingiro, which is over 10km away, and visitors must be accompanied by a guide. There is only one person staffing Busingiro, though, and he can’t guide and staff the conservation center at the same time. Theoretically, then, it’s not possible for independent birders to show up and bird the Royal Mile. Still, I’ve somehow managed to do it twice: the first time, the guard at the entrance gate let me pass, and on my second visit the entrance gate was unmanned and left open all day. If all this sounds confusing or contradictory, then I have described the situation clearly. Birding Budongo independently requires resourcefulness, flexibility, and a bit of opportunism.





I showed up at the Royal Mile at 8:30am on Saturday morning, found the entrance gate open and unmanned, and drove the road until it meets the boundary of the Budongo Conservation Field Center. Access beyond this point is off-limits to visitors, with or without a guide, and the area is dedicated to scientific research. I nervously suspected my time on the Royal Mile would be short and started birding immediately. Throughout the day I came across multiple researchers and staff members from the field center, but no one minded that I was birding the Royal Mile by myself. I also encountered a few local people from neighboring villages, who are allowed to harvest wood and plants, but they were friendly and unconcerned about my presence. One young European volunteer driving by on a motorcycle did express her surprise to see me, but after I explained my situation, she wished me well.

I ended up spending all day at the Royal Mile, and the birding was tremendous. One of the first birds I tracked down was the Chocolate-Backed Kingfisher, a magnificent forest kingfisher of West Africa that I had looked for in Ghana and Nigeria without success. This sighting was quickly followed by those of Forest Robin, Grey-Throated Flycatcher, Forest Flycatcher, and Dusky Long-Tailed Cuckoo. At the boundary of the Budongo Conservation Field Center, there is a well-shaded stream, perfect habitat for the Shining-Blue Kingfisher. Throughout the day, I saw one dart by multiple times here; White-Headed Saw-Wings were also regularly seen drinking or hawking insects above the stream. A tight grid of trails transects the forest along the Royal Mile, and it’s easy to step off the road and follow up on bird calls. On one of these short excursions, I spotted a juvenile African Crowned Eagle perched in a tree above. On another foray, I located Green-Backed Twinspot, Red-Headed Bluebill, and Scaly-Breasted Illadopsis in the undergrowth.

Slowly making my way back towards the entrance gate in the afternoon, I recorded a nesting pair of Chestnut Wattle-Eye, Sabine’s Spinetail and Blue-Throated Roller overhead, and African Dwarf Kingfisher in the undergrowth along the road. A few mixed flocks yielded Rufous-Crowned Eremola, Buff-Throated Apalis, and Red-Bellied Paradise Flycatcher. When it started to rain around 4pm, I decided to move on to Busingiro and make arrangements for the night. Tired but elated with my success, I switched on the radio and drove back down the Royal Mile, vaguely aware of some primate activity in my peripheral vision (Olive Baboons are common in all forest reserves). Finally, I became aware of screams and hoots above the roar of my car engine and hit the brakes. Dumbstruck, I gazed out of the car and saw dozens of chimpanzees scattered along the road. Switching off the car engine, I watched them engage in variety of fascinating behavior over the next hour, including group grooming, feeding on canopy fruits, and communicating by pounding on trees.






Exiting the gate, which was still open and unmanned, I was shocked to find an entire village of people living just a few hundred meters from where I had seen the chimpanzees. Like many reserves in this region, Budongo Forest ends abruptly, and there is no buffer zone between the natural environment and human settlements. Local villagers in Budongo are almost certainly in direct contact with primates through hunting and the consumption of bush meat. Although I doubt that chimpanzees are being specifically targeted, it’s likely that they fall victim to hunting snares meant for small antelopes and rodents. These ecological boundaries are exactly where infectious diseases like HIV, the Zika Virus, and others have jumped from primates to humans, and vice versa. Birders have always sought out these fascinating intersections in the tropics, where the natural world can be accessed quickly and inexpensively, but seeing humans and primates live in such proximity gave me pause.

Camping that night at Busingiro, which also lies at the boundary between Budongo and human settlement, I was rudely awakened several times. Drunken revelers were returning home from Saturday night festivities in the village, and in the dark my imagination was difficult to control. I’ve already chronicled my concerns about the way the forest is managed in this area, and the easy access illegal loggers and poachers enjoy. The New Vision, one of Uganda’s top newspapers, reported similar concerns in an article in 2014. Ecotourism is still a foreign concept in Busingiro, and it’s hard not to feel vulnerable camping in the open without company or the protection of a guard. Perhaps if Busingiro had more resources and attracted more visitors, then the local people would appreciate more the value of conservation. Until then, the occasional independent birder like me will always feel like a bit of an interloper . 

Early the next morning, I was back out on the loop trail behind the conservation center. Although it is short and only passes through degraded forest and forest edge, the trail has proven very productive for birding and a single circuit can take me several hours. This morning, Chocolate-Backed and Blue-Breasted Kingfishers were both vocalizing regularly. My best sightings included Forest Robin, Green-Backed Twinspot, Fire-Crested Alethe, Brown Illadopsis, Chestnut-Capped Flycatcher, and Jameson’s Wattle-Eye, but it was a white morph African Paradise-Flycatcher that stole the show as it flitted about ghost-like in the canopy. Satisfied, I left for Kampala midmorning after another improvised but successful trip. Forest birding is what makes Uganda unique among East African countries, and, despite its shortcomings, Budongo continues to be my preferred site to develop acumen and test mettle. 





Notable birds seen: Abdim’s Stork, Bateleur, African Crowned Eagle, White-Spotted Flufftail (h), Tambourine Dove, Grey Parrot, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Dusky Long-Tailed Cuckoo, Sabine’s Spinetail, Chocolate-Backed Flycatcher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, African Dwarf Kingfisher, Shining-Blue Kingfisher, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Blue-Throated Roller, African Pied Hornbill, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, Yellow-Throated Tinkerbird, Speckled Tinkerbird, Yellow-Spotted Barbet (h), Yellow-Billed Barbet (h), White-Headed Saw-Wing, Yellow-Whiskered Greenbul, Little Greenbul, Slender-Billed Greenbul, Red-Tailed Bristlebill (h), White-Throated Greenbul, Forest Robin, Fire-Crested Alethe, Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush, Wood Warbler, Green Hylia (h), Yellow Longbill, Rufous-Crowned Eremomela, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Buff-Throated Apalis, Grey-Throated Flycatcher, Forest Flycatcher, Sooty Flycatcher, Jameson’s Wattle-Eye, Chestnut Wattle-Eye, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Red-Bellied Paradise-Flycatcher, Chestnut-Capped Flycatcher, Brown Illadopsis, Scaly-Breasted Illadopsis, Green Sunbird, Olive Sunbird, Superb Sunbird, Little-Green Sunbird, Black-Headed Gonolek, Piapiac, Western Black-Headed Oriole, Grosbeak Weaver, White-Breasted Negrofinch, Green-Backed Twinspot, Red-Headed Bluebill.

1 comment:

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