Murchison Falls National Park: November 5-6, 2016

I wondered whether my previous visit to Murchison Falls National Park would be my last. I have visited the region, including Budongo Forest Reserve, nine times over the last year. With only a few months left in Uganda, I need to explore other regions to find new birds for my country list. Kidepo National Park ranks high on my wish list of sites to visit, and trips to Semliki, Mt. Elgon, and Mgahinga National Parks would also help me reach my target of 600 species seen. Still, just a few weeks later I found myself back at Murchison for yet another weekend of birding.

Murchison is an especially rewarding park for birders. The habitat is remarkably diverse, including large tracts of savanna, bush, woodland, marsh, and semi-deciduous forest. The northern section of the park in particular evokes the Sudan region, with vast expanses of Borassus palm savanna. There are a handful of northern specialties, more typical of the Sudanian Savanna as well as the Sahel, that are most easily found at Murchison than anywhere else in the country. Despite the popularity of the park, there are plenty areas off the beaten track that offer opportunities for undisturbed birding.

Even after multiple visits to the region, I still have a considerable list of target birds. Whether due to oversight, bad luck, or scarcity, I have yet to record Bruce's Green Pigeon, Horus Swift, Pel's Fishing Owl, Egyptian Plover, White-Crested Turaco, and Green-Backed Eremola, just to name a few. Before this trip, I sorted the list by habitat, cross-checked it with specific destinations within the park, and planned out my route in order to maximize my chances for ticking new birds. This level of organization is not uncommon among birders, especially goal-oriented ones with limited time and resources.

Of course, there are other factors in Uganda that can affect the execution of a trip. I remembered this at my first stop on early Saturday morning at Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, where I had planned to look for White-Crested Turaco. This spectacular turaco, perhaps the most beautiful of this African family of birds, is widespread in Uganda but somewhat localized. Although there were only a handful of other visitors at the sanctuary, I was told there were no guides available to walk me through the riverine forest there. Shrugging off this initial disappointment, I realized the weekend would be more enjoyable if I scrapped my plan for a guided walk, boat ride, and multiple ferry crossings and simply did my own thing.

The trip proved unexpectedly successful. I spent all of my time in the northern section of the park, driving in and out through the Tangi gate. I birded mainly Borassus palm savanna, semi-arid bush, marsh, and dry woodland. Although I didn't see any of my target species, I recorded a few new migratory species, such as Common Snipe, Black-and-White Cuckoo, and Red-Backed Shrike. I also spotted a Short-Toed Snake-Eagle, which is not recorded often in Uganda. I had good opportunities to photograph Chestnut-Crowned Sparrow Weaver, Northern Red Bishop, and Denham's Bustard. Plus, I briefly encountered a leopard after dusk on the road to the campsite.

Over a month later, it's difficult for me now to provide a full narrative of this trip to Murchison. Shortly afterwards, Aimee and I went on vacation to South Africa for three weeks, spending most of our time in the Cape region. In effect, this buried the details of a trip to a familiar site under the weighty impressions of an entirely new, and spectacular, region. I saw dozens of new birds in South Africa, which you can imagine overshadowed the same old birds I recorded on mundane trip to Murchison. There were a few highlights that I still recall, though.

Perhaps most remarkable was coming across a dead python along the stretch of road between Karuma and Pakwatch. It was early on Saturday morning, and the road was deserted. I was cruising along too fast to stop in advance of the python, but I turned around to marvel at its incredible size. The African rock python can grow over six meters in length. It is non-venomous and kills it prey by constriction. It's hard to believe that a skittish antelope would fall victim to the slow death grip of a python, but it happens regularly. This python was near six meters in length and had recently been run over by a truck or bus. Despite it being obviously dead, I was hesitant to approach it.

Another highlight was visiting the bird hide towards the end of the Buligi Track. Actually, the bird hide is defunct and filled with bats, but the area where it is located is great for waders and other water-associated birds. I've recorded Shoebill there, too. This time I found dozens of Common Snipe, some feeding among the water hyacinth in shallow water and a few others nearby in seasonal pools. One stood boldly in the open, preening in the morning light to reveal its distinctive rufous tail feathers. Long-Toed Lapwing was also common is the flooded areas, although my photographs of this species always seem to get overexposed.

On Saturday evening, I took my time returning from the delta to the campsite. It's a long drive, and I wanted to do much of it in the dark in hopes of spotting nightjars in the road. There were a few other vehicles on safari, and they might have scared off the nightjars in advance of my passage; however, I did spot a diminutive leopard loping alongside the road, practically illuminated by the taillights of the car in front of me. At first, I thought it was a lion cub, not being able to distinguish its spots from a distance in my headlights. Looking through my binoculars revealed a small but immaculately patterned leopard, which soon disappeared into the tall grass. The final stretch to the campsite yielded great looks at Long-Tailed Nightjar.

On Sunday morning, I left the campsite before dawn on a game drive. Along the Queen's Track, I spotted a medium-sized raptor perched upright on a tree in the growing light. Approaching cautiously in my car, I recognized the distinctive outline of a snake-eagle. Unlike the Black-Chested Snake-Eagle, which also has a dark upper breast, this individual had light barring on its underparts. The distribution map in Stevenson and Fanshawe's Birds of East Africa shows only a few isolated records for this species in northern Uganda and northwest Kenya. I watched as the snake-eagle flew off to perch in a more distant tree and was even more convinced in my identification.

Safari isn't easy, and being rigid about an itinerary is unwise. If I had fought to maintain my original plans, I likely would have enjoyed myself much less on this trip and perhaps even recorded fewer new birds. Instead, I adopted a flexible approach, trusted my instincts, and was rewarded with unexpected sightings of birds, reptiles, and mammals. I was still hot and sunburned, bitten by ticks and hounded by tsetse flies, and annoyed by other vehicles on game drive. Driving in and out of the park was perilous, too, as I twice had to ford a flooded road beyond Tangi Gate. But if this trip proves to be my last visit to Murchison, then it will stand as a testament to compromise.

Notable birds seen: African Darter, Common Squacco Heron, Little Egret, Goliath Heron, Purple Heron, Grey Heron, Black-Headed Heron, Hamerkop, Woolly-Necked Stork, Saddle-Billed Stork, Marabou Stork, Egyptian Goose, White-Faced Whistling-Duck, African Fish Eagle, Palm-Nut Vulture, Ruppell's Griffon Vulture, Short-Toed Snake-Eagle, Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Pallid Harrier, Eastern Chanting-Goshawk, Lizard Buzzard, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Long-Crested Eagle, Grey Kestrel, Eurasian Hobby, Helmeted Guineafowl, Heuglin's Francolin, Crested Francolin, Black Crake, African Jacana, Grey Crowned Crane, Denham's Bustard, Black-Bellied Bustard, Spotted Thick-Knee, Senegal Thick-Knee, Spur-Winged Lapwing, Long-Toed Lapwing, African Wattled Lapwing, Black-Headed Lapwing, Common Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint, Common Snipe, Blue-Spotted Wood-Dove, Black-Billed Wood-Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, African Mourning Dove, Brown Parrot, Great-Blue Turaco, Black-and-White Cuckoo, Diederik Cuckoo, White-Browed Coucal, Senegal Coucal, Long-Tailed Nightjar, African Palm Swift, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, Red-Throated Bee-Eater, Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, Broad Billed Roller, European Roller, Green Wood-Hoopoe, African Hoopoe, Black Scimitarbill, African Grey Hornbill, Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird (h), Yellow-Fronted Tinkerbird (h), Spot-Flanked Barbet, Flappet Lark, Angola Swallow, African Pied Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, African Thrush, Sooty Chat, Whinchat, Spotted Morning-Thrush, Sedge Warbler, Olivaceous Warbler, Northern Crombec, Zitting Cisticola, Rattling Cisticola, Winding Cisticola, Siffling Cisticola, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Pale Flycatcher, Swamp Flycatcher, Black-Headed Batis, Silverbird, Marico Sunbird, Beautiful Sunbird, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Isabelline Shrike, Red-Backed Shrike, Black-Headed Gonolek, Black-Crowned Tchagra, Fork-Tailed Drongo, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Lesser Blue-Eared Starling, Ruppell's Long-Tailed Starling, Rufous Sparrow, Speckle-Fronted Weaver, Chestnut-Crowned Sparrow-Weaver, Vitelline Masked Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Red-Billed Quelea, Red-Headed Weaver, Yellow-Mantled Widowbird, Northern Red Bishop, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Red-Billed Firefinch, Common Waxbill, Black-Rumped Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin, Pin-Tailed Whydah.

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