Lake Mburo National Park: April 9-10, 2016

One of Uganda’s distinguishing features as a birding destination in East Africa is the quality and accessibility of forest birding. Kibale and Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks are two of Africa’s premier forest birding destinations. Semliki, Mgahinga, and Mt. Elgon National Parks are less popular but equally rewarding. In addition, the National Forest Authority manages a second tier of forest reserves, including Budongo Forest Reserve, which is adjacent to Murchison Falls National Park, and Mabira and Mpanga Forest Reserves, both located closer to Kampala. It would be easy to construct a two-week itinerary birding only the different forests of Uganda, from riverine to montane and semi-deciduous to rainforest.

Of course, Uganda offers a wide diversity of habitat. Savanna, acacia bush, woodland, and semi-desert scrub host vastly different avifauna compared to Uganda's forests. Within Murchison, Queen Elizabeth, and Kidepo National Parks, you'll find classic East Africa safari landscapes with game densely scattered over expansive grassy plains. In my enthusiasm for the challenges of forest birding, I sometimes overlook opportunities in these other easier habitats. After reviewing my country bird list, I realized that I should focus more on visiting a diversity of habitats and spend less time birding in forests. To make good on this resolution, I decided to revisit Lake Mburo National Park, a convenient site for accessing birds of a more arid climate.

I have visited Lake Mburo twice before on overnight trips, getting rained out both times. Ironically, in Uganda I have experienced more rain on birding trips to arid regions than to moist forests. Lake Mburo is an infrequently visited national park, located only three hours away from Kampala. The predominant habitats are savanna, acacia bush, woodland, and marsh, including papyrus swamps. Wildlife viewing opportunities include game drives on the well-maintained tracks, boat rides on Lake Mburo, and guided walks. There is no big game remaining in the park, and it is apparently permissible to get out of the car and look for birds on occasion. Key birds include Shoebill, African Finfoot, and White-Backed Night-Heron on the lake fringes. More obscure targets include birds from the Southern Africa region at the northern limit of their range.

Leaving Kampala before shortly before dawn, I arrived at Nshara Gate early enough to catch the park guards away from their post. Admittedly, I was overexcited after an intense drive and too much coffee and took a few minutes to decompress before unpacking my gear. Birding along the entrance road is excellent, and there is no reason to rush into the center of the park. Taking my time at each stop, I spent at least fifteen minutes outside the car scanning for birds, following up on calls, and slowly matching sounds with sights of birds. Building knowledge this way can be painstaking but very satisfying. In fact, I almost enjoy identifying birds by ear as much as I appreciate seeing them.

I slowly made my way over to a picnic area along the Ruroko Track. Along the way I picked up a number of new birds for my country list, including Violet-Backed Starling, Emerald Spotted Wood-Dove, and Green-Throated Sunbird. Composed of a rocky outcrop overlooking rolling hills, Ruroko Kopje would make a great campsite, and I saw evidence of a campfire. In the fruiting trees below, I spied several African Green-Pigeon as well as a Ross's Turaco. I also walked around the area hoping to flush a Freckled Nightjar roosting in the bushes along the boulders. Moving along towards Kazuma Lookout, I picked up several more new birds, including Long-Tailed Cisticola, Holub's Golden Weaver, and Marico Sunbird. With the sun high overhead, bird activity had declined, but the weather was fine, and I was enjoying the view to the south. Briefly, I considered walking down to the edge of a nearby papyrus swamp, but this foolish idea passed quickly.

Later in the afternoon, I prepared my campsite down at the edge of the lake. Where to Watch Birds in Uganda praises this site as the country's best to spot an African Finfoot. This secretive and unique bird is relatively easy to see on an early morning boat ride, but I had yet to see one from shore. To my surprise, I spotted a male-female pair casually ducking in and out of the vegetation overhanging the water. I am still using my old Nikon D80 as a backup camera, and considering the glare my photos didn't turn out well. After setting up my tent and gathering some firewood, I relocated to a nearby site along the Lakeside Track that provides visual access to a patch of papyrus swamp. There is a huge colony of weavers here, including Black-Headed and Yellow Backed Weavers.  I also noted Black Crake, Spur-Winged Goose, and Swamp Flycatcher, but White-Spotted Flufftail and Papyrus Gonolek were heard only.

I spent an hour or so driving at night through bush and savanna. My spotlight revealed a Pearl-Spotted Owlet and a roosting African Fish Eagle. Swamp Nightjar should be fairly easy to find in the damp, grassy areas, but I was unsuccessful. I imagine there are plenty of leopard in the park, but coming across one of these stealthy, nocturnal hunters is always a long shot. It was a quiet night at the campsite. Usually, there is a pod of hippopotamus just offshore that make aggressive noises all night. As a protective measure, I typically box my tent in between my car and dense vegetation, but I certainly wouldn't mind have a platform on top of my car for sleeping. Aimee and I have seen many Landcruisers in East Africa and Western Australia outfitted with these rooftop camping kits.

The following morning I focused my attention first on more open savanna along Kazuma Track. Lake Mburo is the only site in Uganda for the localized Red-Faced Barbet, but I have yet to cross paths with this bird. Instead, I recorded a pair of Crested Barbets, which hasn't been recorded much in Uganda. Green-Winged Pytilia was another new addition to my country list. Heading towards the Zebra Track, I briefly caught sight of a juvenile Martial Eagle taking flight, another first for me in Uganda. Other new ticks in this area included African Golden-Breasted Bunting and Golden-Backed Weaver. There is a patch of woodland along the Zebra Track, where I stopped for an hour to dig out a few final birds. White-Winged Tit, African Penduline Tit, and Little Weaver were good finds here. I also came tantalizingly close to ticking a Green-Capped Eremola, but couldn't finalize the identification before the bird darted away.

Reviewing my bird list for the trip, I am surprised at the number of new birds I added to my country list, which now stands at 434 bird species seen. Although this total is probably less than what a birding tour could accomplish in a three-week trip to Uganda, I am proud to have amassed it on my own. Since this trip to Lake Mburo it has been a month since I have been out in the field. This is partly due to car problems, but also a function of the rainy season. Once I fix the suspension on my car, I look forward to pushing my list even higher over the next few months. New destinations like Semliki, Mt. Elgon, and Kidepo National Parks await.

Notable birds seen: African Finfoot, Common Squacco Heron, Hamerkop, Spur-Winged Goose, African Fish Eagle, African White-Backed Vulture, Martial Eagle, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Francolin, Red-Necked Spurfowl, White-Spotted Flufftail (h), Black Crake, African Jacana, Grey Crowned Crane, Water Thick-Knee, African Wattled Lapwing, Long-Toed Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, African Green-Pigeon, Emerald-Spotted Wood-Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, Brown Parrot, Ross’s Turaco, Bare-Faced Go-Away-Bird, White-Browed Scrub-Robin, Pearl-Spotted Owlet, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Broad-Billed Roller, Lilac-Breasted Roller, African Grey Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Spot-Flanked Barbet, White-Headed Barbet, Crested Barbet, Nubian Woodpecker, Cardinal Woodpecker, Flappet Lark, Rufous-Chested Swallow, Barn Swallow, White-Headed Saw-Wing, Yellow Wagtail, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Plain-Backed Pipit, White-Browed Robin-Chat, African Thrush, Sooty Chat, White-Browed Scrub-Robin, Zitting Cisticola, Trilling Cisticola, Long-Tailed Cisticola, Tawny-Flanked Prinia, Grey-Capped Warbler, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Yellow-Breasted Apalis, Northern Black Flycatcher, Ashy Flycatcher, Swamp Flycatcher, Chin-Spot Batis, African Paradise-Flycatcher, White-Winged Tit, African Penduline-Tit, Green-Throated Sunbird, Marico Sunbird, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Black-Headed Gonolek, Sulphur-Breasted Bush-Shrike, Fork-Tailed Drongo, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Ruppell’s Long-Tailed Starling, Violet-Backed Starling, Black-Headed Weaver, Little Weaver, Golden-Backed Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Holub’s Golden Weaver, Red-Billed Quelea, Fan-Tailed Widowbird, Green-Winged Pytilia, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Red-Billed Firefinch, Common Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin, Pin-Tailed Whydah, African Golden-Breasted Bunting. 

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