Lake Mburo National Park: August 12-14, 2016

Having dipped on Pennant-Winged Nightjar a few weeks ago in Murchison Falls National Park, I hoped to try again at Lake Mburo National Park. Aimee had work commitments in Kampala for much of the weekend, and so I opted to light out for the territory and revisit my search for crepuscular birds. My plan was to camp both Friday and Saturday nights inside the park, thoroughly searching a variety of habitats for different nightjar species.  Then, I would pass the daylight hours relaxing and looking for a few key species, including Red-Faced Barbet, Green-Capped Eremola, and several papyrus-associated birds that I hadn't seen yet. I also wanted to check out Kaku Swamp, an unprotected wetlands between Masaka and Mbarara that is referenced in several birding trip reports. It would be a solitary, focused weekend of birding, and I was looking forward to pushing my country list up to 500 species seen.

Remarkably, I slipped out of Kampala on Friday afternoon without much delay. Traffic is generally unpredictable in the city, and the chances of both leaving work on time and arriving at your destination before dark are slim. The few times I have risked it, however, I have been successful, and nothing beats sneaking in an hour of birding at the end of a long week of work. The road to Masaka from Kampala has recently become notorious for fatal car accidents. Seemingly every week, there are horrible reports and gruesome photographs of head-on collisions, and dozens of people have died on this road during the last few months. The road itself is generally straight and in good condition, complete with passing lanes on uphill sections. The problems are poorly maintained vehicles, lack of road safety and driver's education, and bad judgement. To address these issues, the police are staffing a series of roadblocks, the efficacy of which is yet to be determined.

I arrived at the park entrance a few hours before dark. The landscape was brown and parched, and the contrast from my last visit to the park in April was stark. The Uganda Wildlife Authority manages the environment at most savanna game parks, such as Lake Mburo, Murchison Falls, and Queen Elizabeth, by doing controlled burns each year. This practice preserves open grasslands, which are vital for supporting populations of grazing animals, and keeps the parks from becoming overgrown. I saw that large swaths of bush and grassland had recently been cleared and burned, and the park hardly felt pristine. For a birder, though, recently burned areas are of great interest, attracting bird specialists and opportunists that feast on insects and other arthropods that no longer have the benefit of cover. Plus, visibility is vastly improved, and scanning burned fields for birds is akin to shooting fish in a barrel.

After ticking a few common open-country birds, including Striped Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Grassland Pipit, and Yellow-Throated Longclaw, I headed out along the Ruroko Track. There is a scenic picnic spot in a remote rocky area along the track, called Ruroko Kopje. Although it is not technically a campsite, there is a small parking area and pit latrine. A sign implies that campfires are permitted, and there is a small informal fire pit against the rocks. I judged that this would be an ideal spot for seeing Freckled Nightjar, and I vowed to keep my footprint small, just sleeping at the site and not making a fire. I set up my camping chair overlooking the woodland and watched the sky fade into darkness. A half moon illuminated the rocky cliff, and I heard several Black-Shouldered Nightjars calling steadily below. After not finding anything of note on a short game drive, I returned to the site, where a Freckled Nightjar was calling among the rocks.

Instead of heading out on an early morning game drive, I spent several hours birding from the kopje. I had chased the Freckled Nightjar around the rocks the night before, and it had called steadily until dawn before finally flying off to roost in another location. Fruiting trees nearby attracted Ross's Turaco, African Green-Pigeon, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, and Greater Honeyguide. I was particularly excited to see the latter, which was profiled in a recent New York Times article about humans and honeyguides in Mozambique. The Greater Honeyguide is reportedly common in East Africa, but I have only seen it a few times and generally struggle with honeyguide identification. In the dense vegetation at the base of the cliff were Yellow-Throated Greenbul, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Black-Headed Gonolek, and Collared Sunbird. A troop of vervet monkeys started vocalizing noisily in the area, and the rocks were spotted with their excrement. Instead of waiting to see what would transpire next, I decided to move on.

Back in the car, I weighed my options and resolved to head towards park headquarters along the Zebra Track. A freshly burned area was already baking hot in the morning sun, and the heat was distorting the air just above the ground. I spied a pair of Senegal Lapwing probing the dirt in the distance. As they slowly approached the car, their subtle plumage grew more attractive with each dash in my direction. Further down the track, a lightly wooded area with scattered bushes, as of yet not burned, held Long-Tailed Cisticola, Buff-Bellied Warbler, Sooty Chat, and African Black-Headed Oriole. Eventually, I reached the park headquarters and paid the camping fee for two nights. The main campsite is down at the lake, adjacent to a basic restaurant and the dock where boat rides depart and return. The views are beautiful, but the parking lot is relatively busy. Combined with the abundance of trash, this campsite is not an appealing place to spend the night. In the lakeside vegetation, I found Grey-Capped Warbler, Spot-Flanked Barbet, and Common Wattle-Eye.

There is another, more secluded campsite about 5km down the Lakeside Track. I decided to camp there for the night and explore the fringes of the lake at different points along the Lakeside Track and Kigambira Loop. With the weather being so dry, it was possible to approach the papyrus swamp on foot without having to worry about an aggressive hippopotamus or crocodile. In general, birding papyrus swamps is difficult and mostly involves playback to call out warblers that reside deep inside. Ideally, you would maintain a slightly elevated position about the papyrus, in order to scan for swallows, weavers, and canaries, and be on site early in the morning when the skulking birds are vocalizing naturally. Papyrus Gonolek, Carruther's Cisticola, White-Winged Warbler, and a few others are considered to be specialists that only inhabit papyrus swamps in the Great Lakes region. While stalking around in the mud that afternoon, I flushed a Rufous-Bellied Heron, an unexpected lifer, and early the next morning, I would reel in a Greater Swamp Warbler.

On the drive around Kigambira Loop, I noted African Harrier-Hawk, Common Button-Quail, Common Scimitarbill, and Red-Headed Weaver, among others. Then, I made for the Kazuma Lookout, a sweet spot that looks out over the different lakes and rolling hills of the park. The evening breeze cooled me off as I relaxed in the shade with a book. NoViolet Bulawayo's "We Need New Names" is an imaginative retelling of the collapse of Zimbawe through the eyes of a ten-year old girl. Eventually, the protagonist immigrates to the United States to join her aunt, and the story follows an arc vaguely akin to Chimamanda Adichie's "Americanah." Where Adichie exercises her intellect and socio-cultural commentary, Bulawayo employs poetic language and original metaphors. At dusk, I was engrossed in a scene in which the protagonist is caught in the middle of a repossession incident that is veering towards violence. Suddenly, a Square-Tailed Nightjar broke my focus. It was calling in full force from a perch just on the other side of my car. I recorded some video and followed it around the hill. In the darkness, I slowly returned to the lakeside campsite using my spotlight to locate Pearl-Spotted Owlet and a calling African Scops-Owl.

Early the following morning, I revisited a point along the papyrus-lined shore for an hour. It's interesting to note how other birds utilize this habitat, including Nubian Woodpecker, Common Bulbul, and Ruppell's Long-Tailed Starling, for example. I didn't stop for much on the way out of the park, except for a lone Lesser Honeyguide in a wooded area. Before returning to Kampala, I stopped at Kaku Swamp along the Mbarara-Masake Road. These wetlands are located 40km before the turnoff to Nshara Gate, on the south side of the road. I followed a narrow dirt track down towards the shore and along the margins of the wetlands. The area is not protected, and the people living in the area actively fish, harvest papyrus and reeds, and cultivate the land bordering the wetlands. I had reasoned this might be a good site for the seasonal Blue Swallow, but I hardly saw any Hirundinidae, perhaps because it was still early. I did record some common herons and other waterbirds, as well as a group of Hottentot Teal. A walk around the wetlands would have no doubt been worthwhile and yielded many more birds, but I was concerned about leaving my car unattended. Plus, I was filthy, and it was time to go home.

Notable birds seen: Long-Tailed Cormorant, Striated Heron, Rufous-Bellied Heron, Little Egret, Great Egret, Hamerkop, African Open-Billed Stork, Sacred Ibis, Hottentot Teal, Yellow-Billed Duck, Black-Shouldered Kite, African Fish Eagle, Palm-Nut Vulture, African White-Backed Vulture, African Harrier-Hawk, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Long-Crested Eagle, Grey Kestrel, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Francolin, Red-Necked Spurfowl, Common Button-Quail, White-Spotted Flufftail (h), Black Crake, African Jacana, Grey Crowned Crane, Black-Bellied Bustard, Water Thick-Knee (h), Long-Toed Lapwing, African Wattled Lapwing, Senegal 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 Coucal, Blue-Headed Coucal, African Scops-Owl, Pearl-Spotted Owlet, Square-Tailed Nightjar, Black-Shouldered Nightjar (h), Freckled Nightjar, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Broad-Billed Roller, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Common Scimitarbill, African Grey Hornbill, Crowned Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Spot-Flanked Barbet, Greater Honeyguide, Lesser Honeyguide, Nubian Woodpecker, Cardinal Woodpecker, Rufous-Chested Swallow, Angola Swallow, White-Headed Saw-Wing, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Grassland Pipit, Plain-Backed Pipit, Red-Shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike, Little Greenbul, Yellow-Throated Greenbul, White-Browed Robin-Chat (h), Sooty Chat, Greater Swamp Warbler, Buff-Bellied Warbler, Red-Faced Crombec, Trilling Cisticola, Long-Tailed Cisticola, Tawny-Flanked Prinia, Grey-Capped Warbler, Northern Black Flycatcher, Lead-Coloured Flycatcher, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Marico Sunbird, Red-Chested Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Black-Headed Gonolek, Papyrus Gonolek (h), Fork-Tailed Drongo, African Black-Headed Oriole, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Ruppell's Long-Tailed Starling, Violet-Backed Starling, Spectacled Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Red-Headed Weaver, African Golden-Breasted Bunting.

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