Bwindi Impenetrable National Park: March 25-27, 2016

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is the best site in Uganda for montane forest birding. Thanks to its mountain gorilla population, the park is in a remarkable state of conservation, tourist infrastructure is well developed, and different altitude ranges are easily accessible. Bwindi is also the premier site to see the majority of endemic bird species of the Albertine Rift Mountains, an area that spans Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We just visited Bwindi earlier this month, but I didn’t have the opportunity to do much serious birding. Based at Ruhija on the eastern side of the park, we saw the mountain gorillas, relaxed at the excellent Cuckooland lodge, and enjoyed the birds in the garden and adjacent forest. When Aimee opted to stay at home this holiday weekend, I jumped at the chance to return for a low-budget, high bird-count trip.

With recent improvements to the roads in Southwest Uganda, Bwindi has never been so accessible from Kampala. Depending on the number of rest stops, and your temerity behind the wheel, it should take between six and seven hours to reach the park from the capital. My plan for the trip was simple: I would stay in Ruhija and bird the road along the eastern edge of the park at an altitude range of 1500 to 2500 meters. Depending on my luck, I could then explore a different sector of the park or move on to another birding site in the region, such as Echuya Forest Reserve. Birding within the park on the forest trails is another option, but it’s more economical to bird the same habitat for free along the road. The trail down to Mubwindi Swamp is a good opportunity to look for interior forest birds, and the swamp itself is reliable for Grauer’s Rush Warbler. In recent years, local guides have also found a nesting pair of African Green Broadbill along the trail. 

I left before dawn on Friday and was birding the Bamboo Zone shortly after midday. My first stop along the road yielded a pair of nesting Masked Mountain Apalis, an Albertine Rift Endemic (ARE) that I had missed during my first visit. The road winds steeply up through forest and regenerating clearings, likely caused by landslides. The clearings provide good visibility over the canopy and along the forest edge, but they offer good birding themselves, and the bracken and flowering plants contained Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Banded Prinia, Chubb’s Cisticola, Northern Double-Collared Sunbird, and Black-Headed Waxbill. I remain convinced that I also saw the ARE Rwenzori Double-Collared Sunbird here, although it differs from the common Northern Double-Collared Sunbird only in size. Handsome Francolin, another ARE, will sometimes stray from the bracken into the road, and I surprised along the way.

After checking in with the park rangers at Ruhija, I drove into the village to search for accommodation. Just after the Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation (ITFC) is the Ruhija Community Rest Camp, an excellent low-budget option with self-contained rooms set amidst a lovely garden. For ten dollars, the manager let me camp on the porch of one of the rooms with a beautiful view overlooking the forested hillsides of the park. With another hour of daylight left, I set out on foot from Ruhija. The School Trail is a wide footpath running westwards through increasingly degraded forest. In fifteen breathless minutes, I saw no less than six ARE species: Rwenzori Batis, Stripe-Breasted Tit, Mountain Masked Apalis, Regal Sunbird, Strange Weaver, and Dusky Crimsonwing. Among this remarkable series of birds were five lifers. Creeping up on the latter was an especially tense moment, as crimsonwings are shy and quick to scare.  

I had difficulty sleeping that night due to altitude, and I was up well before I had set my alarm. I figured this was a good reason to get an early start and decided to look for owls and nightjars along the road. My main target was the ARE Rwenzori Nightjar, but an hour of spotlighting along the road was fruitless. My host at Ruhija Community Rest Camp claimed that the nightjar can sometimes be heard calling in the garden. Although I heard African Wood Owl calling the following night, I had neither sight nor sound of the Rwenzori Nightjar at Bwindi, despite multiple attempts. Judging from trip reports, it’s just as often seen in adjacent agricultural areas as within highland forest. Hopefully, I will find it on a future trip to Bwindi or perhaps at Mgahinga or Rwenzori National Parks.

To start the day, I spent several hours birding along the road. After the dawn chorus, bird activity dropped off dramatically and then increased slowly until peaking midmorning. My first bird of the day was the ARE Red-Faced Woodland Warbler, a relatively common leaf warbler in the area. It took me a while to learn the calls of the Chestnut-Throated, Collared, and Masked Mountain Apalis, but by midday I had mastered the differences. Near the junction to Ruhija I found several active groups of ARE Stripe-Breasted Tit. The ITFC has installed dozens of nest boxes around Ruhija, apparently for the tits, which I observed regularly dropping off arthropods at various boxes during my visit. I mistakenly revisited the School Trail in search of two ARE forest interior birds, Archer’s Robin-Chat and Red-Throated Alethe, coming up empty.

In the afternoon, I drove down to Kitahurira Ranger Station. Here, a narrow strip of forest connecting the southern and northern sectors of the park is bisected by the road. Visiting “the Neck” is a cheap and easy place to access montane forest at 1500 meters. I have only birded the road in the afternoon, but both times yielded some good birds, including African Black Duck, Black Bee-Eater, Cassin’s Grey Flycatcher, Montane Wagtail, Petit’s Cuckoo-Shrike, and Dusky-Blue Flycatcher. Currently, the road is undergoing improvements, and traffic was a bit disruptive. I still managed to spot a White-Browed Crombec sneaking into its nest under a fern along the roadside. The bridge over the stream is also a great spot to look for Black-Faced Rufous Warbler, which surfaced briefly from the streamside vegetation in response to playback.

I definitely slept better the second night at Ruhija Community Rest Camp, even though I went to bed without having a hot meal all day. Considering my success relative to my previous trip to Bwindi, I decided to return to Kampala at midday. Birding my way out of the park along the road, I spent hours in the Bamboo Zone, hoping in vain to spot the rare Shelley’s Crimsonwing, perhaps the most elusive ARE. Notable observations this morning included Handsome Francolin, Black-Billed Turaco, African Hill Babbler, Black-Throated Apalis, and Dusky Crimsonwing. Finally, on my way out of the park I stopped the car suddenly in front of a perched rufous colored bird with a white-striped black cap. Although it had its back to me, I recognized the Red-Throated Alethe immediately. Within minutes, I also heard Archer’s Robin-Chat calling and lured it in with playback. As a bonus, a White-Starred Robin dashed across the road, an exciting conclusion to a highly productive trip.

To follow up on the issue of ARE species, I’m still missing some key birds, including Rwenzori Nightjar, Dwarf Honeyguide, African Green Broadbill, Grauer’s Rush Warbler, Grauer’s Warbler, Short-Tailed Warbler, Kivu Ground-Thrush, Chapin’s Flycatcher, Blue-Headed Sunbird, and Shelley’s Crimsonwing. Many of these species are rare, including African Green Broadbill, Dwarf Honeyguide, and Shelley’s Crimsonwing, or just difficult, such as Grauer’s Warbler and Chapin’s Flycatcher. In reference to the latter, I have puzzled over many dingy African Dusky Flycatchers, wondering if they weren’t slightly larger or more bicolored than they appeared. I’m confident in the right season, I’ll find Grauer’s Rush Warbler and African Green Broadbill on the Mubwindi Trail. Buhoma sounds like the best site for Kivu Ground-Thrush and Short-Tailed Warbler, and for some reason I simply haven’t seen Blue-Headed Sunbird yet.

Notable Birds Seen: African Black Duck, African Harrier-Hawk, Augur Buzzard, Handsome Francolin, Olive Pigeon, Great Blue Turaco, Black-Billed Turaco, Barred Long-Tailed Cuckoo (h), African Emerald Cuckoo (h), African Wood Owl (h), Speckled Mousebird, Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater, Black Bee-Eater, Crowned Hornbill, White-Thighed Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Western Green Tinkerbird, Speckled Tinkerbird, Grey-Throated Barbet, Yellow-Spotted Barbet, Olive Woodpecker, Black Saw-Wing, African Pied Wagtail, Petit’s Cuckoo-Shrike, Grey Cuckoo-Shrike, Slender-Billed Greenbul, Mountain Greenbul, Red-Tailed Greenbul, Yellow-Streaked Greenbul, White-Starred Robin, Red-Throated Alethe, Archer’s Robin-Chat, Olive Thrush, Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Red-Faced Woodland Warbler, White-Browed Crombec, Black-Faced Rufous Warbler, Chubb’s Cisticola, Banded Prinia, White-Chinned Prinia, Grey-Capped Warbler, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Grey Apalis, Chestnut-Throated Apalis, Buff-Throated Apalis, Collared Apalis, Black-Throated Apalis, Mountain Masked Apalis, White-Eyed Slaty-Flycatcher, Ashy Flycatcher, African Dusky Flycatcher, Cassin’s Grey Flycatcher, Dusky-Blue Flycatcher, Chin-Spot Batis, Rwenzori Batis, African Paradise-Flycatchers, Red-Bellied Flycatcher, White-Tailed Blue-Flycatcher, Scaly-Breasted Illadopsis (h), African Hill-Babbler, Stripe-Breasted Tit, Yellow White-Eye, Green-Headed Sunbird, Northern Double-Collared Sunbird, Rwenzori Double-Collared Sunbird, Regal Sunbird, Green Sunbird, Variable Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Ludher’s Bush-Shrike, Northern Puffback, Black-Crowned Tchagra, White-Naped Raven, Montane Oriole, Slender-Billed Starling, Baglafecht Weaver, Grosbeak Weaver, Strange Weaver, Dusky Crimsonwing, Black-Crowned Waxbill, Black-Headed Waxbill, Thick-Billed Seedeater, Streaky Seedeater.  


  1. I went to the google to look up the Dusky Crimsonwing. It's totally adorable. I'm definitely enjoying the blog posts!

  2. Thanks for your comment. I do have a few record shots, but I hesitate to post them. It's not an easy bird to photograph!


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