Bwindi Impenetrable National Park: June 3-5, 2016

My recent trip to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park was a twitch in the truest sense. I had already visited the park twice in March this year and recorded a not insignificant list of birds seen, including many Albertine Rift endemic (ARE) species. But when I recently heard the news that the Uganda Wildlife Authority park rangers had found an active nest of the African Green Broadbill, I simply had to return. One of the continent's rarest birds, the African Green Broadbill, also known as Grauer's Broadbill, is perhaps the most sought-after of the AREs and is only known from two sites, Bwindi and the Itombwe Mountains in the Democratic Republic of Congo. From what I have read in birding trip reports, the broadbill is only rarely recorded outside of its breeding season, and then found only by chance in mixed species flocks. I reasoned that if I was ever going to see this bird, now was the time.

Although Uganda is a relatively small country, driving from Kampala to Bwindi takes the better part of a day. In addition, the nest itself is located in the Ruhija sector of the national park, towards the bottom of the steep trail down to Mubwindi Swamp, which takes at least six hours to complete. Fortunately, I was facing a three-day holiday weekend and would have just enough time to drive to Bwidni, hike to the nest, and return to Kampala. Aimee opted to join me on this twitch, making the journey more bearable than in late March when I made a solo trip to Ruhija determined to see as many AREs as possible. We opted to stay at Bwindi Cuckooland, a lovely tented camp located halfway between Ruhija and the Buhoma sector of the park. We had stayed here on our first trip to Bwindi in early March, when we had tracked mountain gorillas. The camp is a bit out of the way, but it is perched right on the edge of the park, making for outstanding birding right from your tent.

To break up the long drive, we stopped for lunch outside of Kabale at Lake Bunyoni, a picturesque lake in the highlands dotted with small islands. The Virunga Mountains loom ominously above the lake, but the area is densely inhabited, and there is little natural habitat left. Along the drive from the park entrance to Bwindi Cuckooland, I only stopped a times to look for birds. It is free to bird here, and visual access is much better than you experience along the narrow trails within the park. It is not unusual to find Handsome Francolin and Dusky Crimsonwing along the roadside, for example, and there is a decent chance to cross paths with mountain gorillas or chimpanzees. On one of our brief stops, I ticked a Doherty's Bush-shrike, a spectacular skulker and one of my top targets for this trip. We also noted Augur Buzzard, Grey-Throated Barbet, and Regal Sunbird before arriving at our final destination.

During my few hours of leisure at Bwindi Cuckooland, I regularly patrolled the gardens and walked the boundary trail with the park a few times. Notable birds seen include Black-Billed Turaco, Petit's Cuckoo-Shrike, Honeyguide Greenbul, Mountain Masked Apalis, Black-and-White Shrike Flycatcher, Ludher's Bush-Shrike, Pink-Footed Puffback, Bocage's Bush-Shrike, Stuhlmann's Starling, Narrow-Tailed Starling, Black-Billed Weaver, Grey-Headed Negrofinch, White-Breasted Negrofinch, and Dusky Crimsonwing. The camp owner is a keen birder himself and is eager to compare notes. There are also a few informal trails leading down the steep hillside towards a small river, but technically these are off limits without the company of a park ranger. Birders could easily enjoy a full day at the camp, and photographers in particular will enjoy some unusually close encounters with normally shy birds as they move through the exuberant gardens.

On Saturday morning, I awoke early and drove back uphill to Ruhija to make arrangements for the day's hike. UWA charges a $30 activity fee for birdwatching, and I would need to be accompanied by an armed ranger for security. Despite its steep topography and dense forest, Bwindi is home to a healthy population of elephants that have been known to be aggressive, particularly in the rainy season. If an elephant were to charge us suddenly from out of the forest, the ranger could fire his gun into the air to scare it off. The ranger assigned to me wasn't familiar with the location of the nest; however, a birding guide and his client had shown up that morning for the same purpose, and they generously offered me to tag along. We would bird together down to Mubwindi Swamp where the nest was located, and then I could make my own way back uphill along with my ranger. This arrangement was agreeable to all parties, and we set off shortly after 8 am.

The bird guide was expert, but we moved laboriously downhill as he trolled for different key species using playback. The wind was gusting through the trees overhead, and bird activity was generally low. Barred Long-Tailed Cuckoo, Olive Long-Tailed Cuckoo, Mountain Sooty Boubou, White-Browed Crombec, Grey-Chested Illadopsis, and Mountain Yellow Warbler were among the many birds we tried for while spending long intervals standing around waiting for a response. I had seen most of these birds already and was getting antsy as the morning grew longer. What if the African Green Broadbill wasn't active at the nest after midday? In addition, the trail was very steep, and I could feel my feet and legs cramping with the exertion of walking straight downhill in gum boots. What if I didn't even make it down to Mubwindi Swamp? It is not uncommon for tourists tracking mountain gorillas to have to be carried out of the forest.

Finally, we reached the site of the nest at the bottom of a steep valley. Almost immediately, we located two pairs of African Green Broadbills twittering overhead. Nearly the same size and color of a small leaf, the birds proved challenging to find at first, and one pair quickly moved on. The other pair approached the nest in fits and starts, remaining perched and immobile for nearly a minute at a time. The nest itself was a small and obscure patch of moss, blending perfectly into the crook of a branch. Eventually, one of the birds settled into the nest and could be seen poking its head out cautiously. The other bird ventured off occasionally to bring back small bits of nesting material. Unclear from its representation in the field guide, the broadbill has a light blue vent in addition to a light blue breast. In appearance and behavior, the bird seemed more like a flycatcher than a member of the broadbill family, although taxonomically it is considered monotypic with its genus.

Eventually, we moved on to Mubwindi Swamp itself, home to Grauer's Rush Warbler, another sought-after ARE. Moving across the valley floor, which was sheltered from the wind, we encountered an uptick in bird activity, noting Yellow-Eyed Black Flycatcher, Olive Woodpecker, Dusky Tit, Blue-Headed Sunbird, Brown-Capped Weaver, and several starling species. At the edge of the swamp, we quickly recorded Grauer's Rush Warbler, as it did a brief display flight up from the tall grass. Unsatisfied, we worked the swamp edge further hoping for better looks. We witnessed a few more display flights but never saw more than brief flashes of the bird. The guide also noted Carruther's Cisticola and Evergreen Forest Warbler calling nearby, but we were unable to lure in these birds with playback. After half an hour at the swamp edge, my companions broke for lunch, and I resolved to head back to Ruhija. The return hike was grueling, and I had little time or energy left for birding along the way.

Back at Bwindi Cuckooland, I reunited with Aimee and did some lazy birding from the porch of our tent platform, which overlooked the forest. Bird activity was decent, and I had to put down my beer a few times to admire Black-Billed Weaver, Mountain Masked Apalis, White-Breasted Negrofinch, and African Paradise Flycatcher, among others. The following morning, I spent a few more hours birding the gardens of the camp and walking along the forest edge, finding a few more good birds, including Dusky Crimsonwing, Black-Billed Turaco, Petit's Cuckoo-Shrike, Pink-Footed Puffback, and Ludher's Bush-Shrike. These sightings would have to tide me over for the long drive back to Kampala, which proved even longer than expected. Aimee and I would end up sitting in traffic for several hours upon reaching the capital, as families returned from up country with their children for the start of the next school term on the following day.

Notable birds seen: Augur Buzzard, Long-Crested Eagle, Handsome Francolin, Olive Pigeon, Tambourine Dove, Red-Eyed Dove, Black-Billed Turaco, Red-Chested Cuckoo (h), Barred Long-Tailed Cuckoo, African Emerald Cuckoo (h), Speckled Mousebird, Narina Trogon (h), Bar-Tailed Trogon (h), Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater, White-Headed Wood-Hoopoe, Crowned Hornbill, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Grey-Throated Barbet, Cardinal Woodpecker, Olive Woodpecker, African Green Broadbill, Black Saw-Wing, Angola Swallow, African Pied Wagtail, Mountain Wagtail, Petit's Cuckoo-Shrike, Yellow-Whiskered Greenbul, Slender-Billed Greenbul, Mountain Greenbul, Yellow-Streaked Greenbul, Little Grey Greenbul, White-Throated Greenbul, Honeyguide Greenbul, Archer's Robin-Chat (h), Olive Thrush, Mountain Yellow Warbler, Evergreen Forest Warbler (h), Grauer's Rush Warbler, Carruther's Cisticola (h), Chubb's Cisticola, Banded Prinia, White-Chinned Prinia, Grey-Capped Warbler, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Grey Apalis, Chestnut-Throated Apalis (h), Collared Apalis, Mountain Masked Apalis, White-Eyed Slaty Flycatcher, Yellow-Eyed Black Flycatcher, Pale Flycatcher, African Dusky Flycatcher, Dusky-Blue Flycatcher, Chin-Spot Batis, Rwenzori Batis, Black-and-White Shrike Flycatcher, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, African Paradise Flycatcher, White-Bellied Crested-Flycatcher, White-Tailed Blue-Flycatcher, Grey-Chested Illadopsis (h), Pale-Breasted Illadopsis (h), African Hill-Babbler, Dusky Tit, Stripe-Breasted Tit, Yellow White-Eye, Bronze Sunbird, Blue-Headed Sunbird, Northern Double-Collared Sunbird, Regal Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Mackinnon's Fiscal, Tropical Boubou (h), Ludher's Bush-Shrike, Pink-Footed Puffback, Black-Backed Puffback, Brown-Crowned Tchagra, Doherty's Bush-Shrike, Bocage's Bush-Shrike, Stuhlmann's Starling, Narrow-Tailed Starling, Waller's Starling, Slender-Billed Starling, Black-Necked Weaver, Strange Weaver, Brown-Capped Weaver, Black-Billed Weaver, Grey-Headed Negrofinch, White-Breasted Negrofinch, Dusky Crimsonwing, Black-Crowned Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin, Thick-Billed Seedeater, Streaky Seedeater.

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