Murchison Falls National Park: October 22-23, 2016

With Aimee out of town, I was on my own again this weekend. Rather than relax in Kampala, I hit the road in northern Uganda to tick a few more remaining dry country specialties. With the help of Where to Watch Birds in Uganda, a dated but still useful bird-finding guide, I had identified several gaps in my country list, including Green-Backed Eremola, Red-Winged Grey-Warbler, and White-Rumped Seed-Eater, among others. These are small and unassuming birds do not typically impress, but this is the work of an independent birding developing his knowledge of the local avifauna and building his country list: making repeated trips to obscure sites, often in search of a small handful of target birds.



I was hoping to build on the success of my trip a few weeks ago to Budongo Forest Reserve, where I added nearly twenty new birds in the forest itself and the surrounding areas. This included an excursion to Lake Albert, where I birded the escarpment overlooking the Albertine Rift Valley. Standouts from that weekend included Brown Twinspot, Foxy Cisticola, Black-Bellied Seedcracker, and Lemon-Bellied Crombec. On this trip, I planned to revisit the escarpment and then continue on to the southern section of Murchison Falls National Park, where I would search an area of moist woodland for White-Crested Turaco, Bruce's Green Pigeon, Yellow-Bellied Hyliota, White-Breasted Cuckoo-Shrike, and Purple Starling.

I reached the escarpment around mid-morning on Saturday. The birds weren't nearly as active as they had been in the early afternoon a few weeks ago, but within an hour I had found a few targets, including pairs of Brown-Backed Woodpeckers and Eastern Violet-Backed Sunbirds. Cliff Chat and Cinnamon-Breasted Rock-Bunting are easy to find here, and I have seen Foxy Cisticola both times, a tiny Old World warbler that feeds on the ground. The Silverbird is one of my favorites of East Africa. It is relatively easy to spot in dry country areas in northern Uganda, especially north of the Victoria Nile in Murchison Falls National Park. Oddly, it skittish of cars and has proven challenging to photograph.




From the base of the escarpment, the murram roads heads north through Bugungu Wildlife Reserve. From the looks of it, the Uganda Wildlife Authority has a small footprint here, and I passed dozens of people brazenly hauling wood. In the more arid stretches along the road, I found several groups of White-Rumped Seedeater. Beautiful Sunbird, Black-Bellied Firefinch, and Rattling Cisticola were also common. Despite the tall seeding grass, I didn't encounter any waxbill flocks until I had approached Murchison Falls National Park. The weather was beautifully clear and free of haze, and I found driving this alternate route to the park thoroughly enjoyable. Unlike the more direct route from Masindi to Paraa through the park, there are no tsetse flies here, and you are free to explore on foot.

I stopped for a few hours at Nile Safari Lodge, where I considered staying at their scenic campsite overlooking the Victoria Nile. The dry bush and riverine woodland here is great for birding. Although they no longer regularly record Shoebill from the lookout, the camp is a great place to stay and an upgrade from the basic campsites inside the park. Visitors are free to bird on their own without fear of being attacked by a lion or trampled by an elephant. I had a beer and chatted with the manager about the fruiting ficus tree overlooking the river. When was the last time someone saw a Shoebill? Had he seen White-Crested Turaco before? Did he know of any roosts of owls or nightjars? Unfortunately, the manager wasn't much of a birder, and I didn't collect any reliable intelligence. Moving on to the park itself, I finally ticked Fawn-Breasted Waxbill.

My plan was to spend the night at the campsite near the top of Murchison Falls. I have camped here half a dozen times, usually arriving in darkness after searching for nightjars along the access road. With another hour left of daylight, I loitered around the ferry crossing in Paraa, looking for Red-Winged Grey-Warbler, which I found responsive to playback. I realized that on previous visits had mistakenly played recordings of Red-Winged Warbler, yet another bird I haven't seen. I also checked in with the guides at Wild Frontiers, which operates boat trips up the river to the base of the falls. The guide who had just returned reported seeing a Pel's Fishing Owl perched in the open. Feeling rather gripped off, I started the journey to the falls, hoping for a Standard-Winged Nightjar or two as consolation.




At dusk I pulled up to an obstinate Common Buzzard sitting in the middle of road. The buzzard didn't budge as I photographed it at close range, and I had to swerve around it as I moved on. I drove slowly in the darkness along the final ten kilometers to the falls. The road is famous for nightjars, with birders reporting seeing dozens of spectacular nightjars in breeding plumage, such as Pennant-Winged Nightar. I haven't had much luck here recently myself. I encountered a solitary Square-Tailed Nightjar alongside the road, flushing it before noticing it resting on the ground. The campsite was vacant, and I quickly set up my tent, had dinner, and went to sleep, eschewing a fire. I had briefly considering hiking the trail down to the base of the falls before dawn to look for Pel's Fishing Owl, but the notion seemed risky, and I was exhausted.

In the morning, I put on my tsetse fly armor and set out on foot. Noting Red-Winged Grey-Warbler, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, Grey-Headed Negrofinch, Blue-Breasted Kingfisher, and Yellowbill, among others, I arrive at the top of the falls. African Pied Wagtail, Common Sandpiper, and Rock Pratincole were feeding from boulders in the rushing river and along the rocky banks. Swifts, martins, and swallows swirled overhead. Admittedly, I am not adept at identifying individual species of each of these families and genera.  Sure, I can tell the difference between a saw-wing and a spinetail, but it seems impossible to distinguish a Little Swift from a Horus Swift in flight. How can you get familiar with these intensely aerial birds, if you never see them well? Before any other tourists arrived, I took in the magnificent scene, perhaps for the last time.




I decided to skip the final site I had planned to visit and headed home instead. Originally, I wanted to bird along the access road to the Rabongo Forest in the eastern side of the park, where I could search for my remaining target species in moist woodland.  According to Where to Watch Birds in Uganda, there is also a chance for African Finfoot and Shining Blue Kingfisher along a forested stream. Nearing the turnoff, though, there were hordes of tsetse flies outside my car, smashing themselves into the windows. Regardless of how many layers of clothing I wear, they attack relentlessly and invariably find a weakness in my armor. Nevertheless, it had been a productive trip, having added eight new birds to my country list.

Notable birds seen: African Darter, Goliath Heron, Black-Headed Heron, Hamerkop, Wolly-Necked Stork, African Fish Eagle, Western-Banded Snake-Eagle, Eastern Chanting-Goshawk, Shikra, Common Buzzard, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Long-Crested Eagle, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Francolin, Rock Pratincole, African Wattled Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, Blue-Spotted Wood-Dove, Black-Billed Wood-Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, Laughing Dove, Red-Headed Lovebird, Yellowbill, White-Browed Coucal, Square-Tailed Nightjar, African Palm Swift, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Grey-Hooded Kingfisher, Giant Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, Blue-Breasted Kingfisher (h), African Pygmy Kingfisher, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Red-Throated Bee-Eater, African Grey Hornbill, Crowned Hornbill, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Yellow-Fronted Tinkerbird, Spot-Flanked Barbet, Greater Honeyguide, Nubian Woodpecker, Brown-Backed Woodpecker, Wire-Tailed Swallow, African Pied Wagtail, White-Browed Robin-Chat, Red-Capped Robin-Chat, Sooty Chat, Cliff Chat, Buff-Bellied Warbler, Willow Warbler, Green Crombec, Rattling Cisticola, Winding Cisticola (h), Red-Faced Cisticola, Whistling Cisticola, Foxy Cisticola, Red-Winged Grey Warbler, Tawny-Flanked Prinia, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Spotted Flycatcher, Black-Headed Batis, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, Silverbird, Brown Babbler, Black-Lored Babbler, Yellow White-Eye, Green-Headed Sunbird, Olive-Bellied Sunbird, Marico Sunbird, Beautiful Sunbird, Eastern Violet-Backed Sunbird, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Black-Headed Gonolek, Black-Crowned Tchagra, Fork-Tailed Drongo, Lesser Blue-Eared Starling, White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, Chestnut-Crowned Sparrow-Weaver, Spectacled Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Compact Weaver, Red-Collared Widowbird, Fan-Tailed Widowbird, Northern Red Bishop, Black-Winged Bishop, Grey-Headed Negrofinch (h), Green-Backed Twinspot, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Black-Bellied Firefinch, Fawn-Breasted Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin, Pin-Tailed Whydah, White-Rumped Seedeater, African Golden-Breasted Bunting, Cinnamon-Breasted Rock-Bunting.

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