Queen Elizabeth National Park: August 5-7, 2016

Queen Elizabeth National Park is a sprawling and diverse reserve, and it would be difficult to explore all of the park's attractions in a week. Most visitors focus on the obvious highlights: the Ugandan Kob breeding grounds of the Kasenyi Plains, the tree-climbing lions of Ishasha, and the boat cruise along the Kazinga Channel, which connects Lakes Edward and George. On our first trip in December, we aimed for these and a few other activities, including tracking chimpanzees in the Kyambura Gorge and birding the Maramagambo Forest, but we quickly realized that we would need several additional days for this ambitious itinerary. Having now completed our second visit to the park, and learned about even more about the area, I can say that Queen Elizabeth merits at least three or four trips.

Like all of Uganda's national parks, except for Kidepo, Queen Elizabeth is within reach of Kampala for a three-day weekend. There are two possible routes, through Fort Portal or Mbarara. Although the distances are similar, the road conditions are far from equal. The stretch of road between Mbarara and Ishaka, as well as the final leg to the northern section of the park, is riddled with potholes, making this route frustratingly long and unpleasant. On the other hand, the road between Fort Portal and Kasese winds through the densely populated foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains and poses a seemingly endless series of brutal speed bumps. Although the journey could take less than six hours, it is not a cruise like the trip to Murchison Falls.

In planning this trip, I targeting seeing as many new birds as possible. Although this is true for most of my trips, I wanted to make sure that on this weekend I finally surpassed 500 birds seen in Uganda. Ticking shorebirds is an easy way to accomplish this goal, and there are many lakes, ponds, and marshes to visit in area; however, I wanted to make sure that my milestone bird was a significant regional one. I would rather register Harlequin Quail as my five hundredth bird seen in Uganda than Common Greenshank, for example. To this end, I planned to balance our time between the short grass plans, acacia woodland, and crater lakes of the park. Hopefully, the timing would work out well, just like it did for me in Ecuador, where my thousandth bird seen was Andean Potoo, a rare nocturnal bird of montane forests.

Our first stop in the park on Saturday was Kyambura Gorge. The entrance road passes through extensive savanna with a few scattered trees, where a variety of warblers, cisticolas, weavers, and waxbills are found. In the midday heat, it wasn't likely to hear Broad-Tailed or African Moustached Warblers calling, but I did see Compact Weaver, Copper Sunbird, African Blue-Flycatcher, and Cardinal Woodpecker. There is a covered lookout over the gorge, and we relaxed in the shade for an hour after the long drive. I took some time to get familiar with my new camera, the Nikon D500. It's a major upgrade to my old D5100, of which the shutter was constantly sticking. The camera is more compatible with my telephoto lens as well, and the combination worked nicely as I photographed a few Brimstone Canaries.

Afterwards, we drove up the escarpment to Kyambura Village and towards Flamingo Lake, located about 10 km east of the main road. This area of the national park is well off the beaten path. Although it offers the same excellent savanna habitat as other parts of the park, we did not see any game except for a few bathing elephants and hippopotamus. First, we passed a deep crater lake, where we noted Little Grebe and a nesting Striated Heron. Further on at Flamingo Lake, we found a tight cluster of Lesser Flamingos. I walked downhill towards the shore and disturbed a mixed group of birds, including Sulphur-Breasted Bush-Shrike, Black Headed Gonolek, and Zitting Cisticola. Meanwhile a territorial African Fish Eagle whooped and whirled overhead.

By this time it was later in the afternoon, and Aimee and I were all too aware that we had spent most of the day in the car. We decided to stretch our legs around Mweya Peninsula, where the UWA park headquarters are located. At Katunguru Gate, I learned that the latest possible entry is 7:00 p.m., which is late enough to accommodate an evening game drive on the Kasenyi Plains (it is necessary to exit and reenter the park, going from Mweya to Kasenyi). The views from the peninsula over the Kazinga Channel and Lake Edward are spectacular, and we enjoyed them from the Information Center as well as from Tembo Restaurant. There is a village-like atmosphere to the peninsula, and the birds are habituated to human presence. I was able to approach and photograph a wide variety of species at close range, including Swamp Flycatcher, Black-Headed Gonolek, Nubian Woodpecker, Red-Billed Firefinch, and Red-Chested Sunbird.

Similar to our first visit, Aimee and I chose to camp at Campsite 1 along the channel. This idyllic spot is a few kilometers from the peninsula, and we found plenty of wood already stacked at our favorite site overlooking the water. I spent the last hour of the day birding on foot, noting Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, White-Browed Robin-Chat, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Black-Headed Batis, Brown Babbler, and Black-Crowned Tchagra. Looking down into the marshy fringe of the channel, I spotted a group of Black Crakes and several large crocodiles. Across the channel, an African Spoonbill worked along the shallows. At dusk I waited patiently for nightjars but didn't hear any until the following morning. While I was making coffee, a Slender-Tailed Nightjar briefly called from a clearing nearby before fluttering into a bush. Approaching cautiously on foot, I accidentally flushed it but had a clear look at its distinctive tail in flight.

I was a few birds away from my target as we headed out to the Kasenyi Plains early that morning. The short grass plains are excellent for seeing a variety of cisticolas, larks, plovers, and pipits. This area is also famous for lions, which stick close to the Ugandan Kob that gather here by the thousands to breed. On a busy morning, there are dozens of cars racing around to locate the lions, which disturbs the birding, if not the birds. It was relatively quiet this morning, and Aimee and I spotted Rufous-Naped and Red-Capped Larks, Grassland Pipit, Collared Pratincole, Senegal Lapwing, and Kittlitz's Plover, among others. Then, we stopped briefly as the track headed into bushed grassland. In the dry grass along the track, I noticed some movement and watched as an African Crake darted across the road and into a dense clump of bushes. I shook my head in amazement at this excellent, and unexpected, five hundredth bird seen in Uganda.

No other vehicles we encountered had found any lions by midday, and we decided to visit a different section of the park. The Crater Drive starts at the Queen Elizabeth Pavilion and stretches for 27 km past dozens of explosion craters, each one distinctly spectacular. Only 8,000 to 10,000 years old, some of the craters are sparsely or densely vegetated, others are filled with water, shallow or deep. The rocky dirt road winds through acacia woodland, edging along one steep crater rim after another. It's perhaps the most scenic place in Uganda that I've visited, and only a wide-angle lens would do the landscape justice. The tsetse flies are nuisance here, but we still managed to see Common Button-Quail, Madagascar Bee-Eater, Martial Eagle, Lesser Flamingo, Peregrine Falcon, African Golden-Breasted Bunting, and others. Strangely, we saw no game in this section of the park, but I would happily revisit it for the scenery alone.

In the afternoon, we drove outside the national park to the small town of Katwe. There are two shallow lakes nearby, which have a great reputation for migratory shorebirds. The first one was completely dry, and we did not see a single bird around its perimeter. Cresting the hill on the approach to the second, we stopped in shock at the spectacle before us. Lake Katwe has been used for centuries to harvest salt, and much of the lake's original surface has been converted to small salt evaporation ponds. Across the tableau, there were hundreds of people covered in mud and working in the blazing equatorial sun, whether preparing ponds to be flooded or separating and bagging the salt. Along the fringes of the lake there were narrow strips of natural habitat, where dozens of Greater Flamingos and other waders were going about their usual business. I approached the lake on foot and made a few ticks, including a pair of Pied Avocet.

Driving back to Mweya through Katwe, we could better appreciate why the town was deserted. Unlike most trading centers and small towns in Uganda, where people are either doing business or hanging around idly, nearly everyone was busy down at the lake. A herd of elephants were blocking our path down at the edge of the town. They had marched down to Lake Edward for a drink and a bath, seemingly undisturbed by the presence of people in the area. One younger elephant was playing gleefully with a large rag using its trunk, tossing the rag and chasing it around. Meanwhile, a baby elephant trumpeted with panic, as it scrambled to catch up with the rest of its family group. By now, most people are aware of the results of an extensive census of African elephants taken in 18 countries from 2007 to 2014, which found that the population had declined 30 percent over that time period. In just three years, 144,000 African elephants died or were killed. The illegal ivory trade is proving difficult to counter, despite the creation of reserves and the destruction of ivory stockpiles.

The areas surveyed in Uganda indicate that country's elephant population is either stable or increasing. Uganda remains a transit country for wildlife trafficking, though. Ivory is routinely smuggled across the borders from South Sudan, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo and then flown out from the Entebbe airport, where controls are lax. In the rare bust, members of security forces or government officials are often implicated; however, the punishment for wildlife trafficking are relatively light. Unless there is consistent enforcement, and steep penalties for getting caught, the illegal ivory trade is lucrative enough to be worth the risk. With these thoughts in our minds, we returned to the Mweya peninsula to recapture the romantic image of the wilderness of East Africa. Aimee relaxed for an hour at Tembo restaurant while I strolled around the area, which is a kin to a bird photographer's studio at the right hour of the day.

After another peaceful night at Campsite 1, we revisited the Kasenyi Plains to roll the dice for lions again. I also wanted to photograph Temminck's Courser, a vaguely lapwing-like bird of short grass and burned areas. When we finally found a pair, they were too far from the track to photograph effectively. Since we didn't see many other vehicles, it's likely that someone had located the lions in the bushed grassland section of the plains. Before we knew it, the clock had reached 9:30 a.m., our agreed hour of departure. After a trip, Aimee and I prefer to arrive at home in the early afternoon. It's unsafe to drive in Uganda after dark, and traffic in Kampala during the afternoon on a weekday can be miserable. The Queen Elizabeth area had proven again to be a rich and rewarding destination, and on the long drive back I was already planning my next trip.

Notable birds seen: Little Grebe, Great Cormorant, Long-Tailed Cormorant, Common Squacco Heron, Striated Heron, Intermediate Egret, Goliath Heron, Black-Headed Heron, Hamerkop, Yellow-Billed Stork, African Open-Billed Stork, Marabou Stork, Hadada Ibis, African Spoonbill, Lesser Flamingo, Egyptian Goose, African Fish Eagle, Palm-Nut Vulture, Brown Snake-Eagle, African Harrier Hawk, Bateleur, Long-Crested Eagle, Martial Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Crested Francolin, Red-Necked Spurfowl, Common Button-Quail, African Crake, Black Crake, African Jacana, Black-Bellied Bustard, Black-Winged Stilt, Pied Avocet, Water Thick-Knee, Temminck's Courser, Collared Pratincole, Spur-Winged Plover, African Wattled Lapwing, Crowned Lapwing, Senegal Lapwing, Kittlitz's Plover, Caspian Plover, Ruff, Marsh Sandpiper, Little Stint, African Green Pigeon, Blue-Spotted Wood-Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, Laughing Dove, Red-Headed Lovebird, Great-Blue Turaco, Ross's Turaco, White-Browed Coucal, Slender-Tailed Nightjar, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater, Madagascar Bee-Eater, Common Scimitarbill, Crowned Hornbill, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, Yellow-Fronted Tinkerbird, Nubian Woodpecker, Cardinal Woodpecker, Rufous-Naped Lark, White-Tailed Lark, Flappet Lark, Red-Capped Lark, Rock Martin, Rufous-Chested Swallow, Angola Swallow, White-Headed Saw-Wing, African Pied Wagtail, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Grassland Pipit, White-Browed Robin-Chat, African Thrush, Sooty Chat, Willow Warbler, Zitting Cisticola, Stout Cisticola, Croaking Cisticola, Trilling Cisticola, Northern Black Flycatcher, Swamp Flycatcher, Black-Headed Batis, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, African Blue Flycatcher, Brown Babbler, Bronze Sunbird, Copper Sunbird, Scarlet-Chested Sunbird, Red-Chested Sunbird, Common Fiscal, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Black-Headed Gonolek, Black-Crowned Tchagra, Sulphur-Breasted Bush-Shrike, Fork-Tailed Drongo, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Ruppell's Long-Tailed Starling, Wattled Starling, Black-Headed Weaver, Slender-Billed Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Compact Weaver, Vieillot's Black Weaver, Red-Billed Quelea, Fan-Tailed Widowbird, Red-Billed Firefinch, Pin-Tailed Whydah, Brimstone Canary, Yellow-Fronted Canary, African Golden-Breasted Bunting.

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