My Top Ten Birds Seen in Uganda

Lists of the best birds of Uganda are bound to all be similar. Although the avian diversity in country is tremendous, Uganda's bird list is top heavy, and megabirds, such as the Shoebill, Green-Breasted Pitta, and African Green Broadbill, are indisputable highlights. In crafting my own top ten list, I've tried not to overlook the obvious while still including my personal favorites.

Shoebill, Balaeniceps rex


One of Africa's most unique and sought after birds, the Shoebill is an uncommon denizen of Uganda's vast papyrus swamps. Huge and prehistoric looking, the Whale-Headed Stork, as it's also known, is frequently cited as the top tick on birding trips to Uganda. I was lucky to see Shoebills several times along the marshy shores of Lake Victoria, as well as at Lake Albert, both at Semliki Wildlife Reserve and Murchison Falls National Park. The Shoebill is fascinating to observe, whether it's stalking its prey or in flight. Boat excursions to find them, successful or not, are always rewarding, as there are plenty of other birds of interest along Uganda's lake shores.

Black Bee-Eater, Merops gularis


I was delighted to see my first Black Bee-Eater. It's a small but spectacular forest bee-eater with brilliant turquoise and scarlet plumage offsetting its otherwise jet black color. In fact, I would nominate the Black Bee-Eater as Uganda's most beautiful bird. A pair had burrowed a nest into the walls of a drainage ditch near the entrance to Kibale National Park, and I was able to observe them intermittently throughout the day. Each time, they were blithely wagging their tails and communicating with each other in their high, harsh calls. I also found Black Bee-Eaters regularly at Bwindi National Park, in the area known as the Neck.

Chocolate-Backed Kingfisher, Halcyon badia


I missed seeing the Chocolate-Backed Kingfisher on a quick trip to Ghana a few years ago, and it was high on my list of target birds when I arrived in Uganda. I had visited Budongo Forest Reserve, where the Chocolate-Backed Kingfisher is resident, several times without finding it. One morning at the Royal Mile, I finally heard one calling just as I got out of my car. They can be difficult to find, as they call sporadically from high in the canopy without moving. Luckily, this one was perched nearby and relatively low, and I was able to locate it quickly. The Chocolate-Backed Kingfisher is a beautiful bird with a mournful call, and I watched it for nearly an hour before leaving it right where I found it.

African Finfoot, Podica senegalensis


Lake Mburo National Park is perhaps the best place to find African Finfoot on the continent. Since the park is relatively close to Kampala, I passed more than a few weekends there, ticking the African Finfoot on three different trips. The easiest way to see it is to take a boat ride along the densely vegetated shore of the lake. The UWA boat drivers know exactly where to find it, and they'll also point out a pair of resident White-Backed Night-Herons. To see one of Africa's more sought-after birds, the Lake Mburo experience is refreshingly tranquil and stress free, although the background to this photograph involves a bit of drama. A thunderstorm was looming overhead, and immediately after this shot the boat driver sped back to the dock so we could take shelter from the storm.

Green-Breasted Pitta, Pitta reichenowi


Birding can be so unpredictable. We like to think that the outcome of a birding trip is the result of planning, preparation, knowledge, and skill. Too often, though, I wonder if luck is actually the most important factor. I visited Kibale National Park repeatedly in search of the Green-Breasted Pitta. Each time, I worked with a guide to position ourselves in the forest well before dawn, listening intently for the bird's unique whirrup of a call. Then, we searched through the undergrowth for hours trying to find one feeding along the forest floor. We finally walked the trails hoping desperately to flush one by chance. Ultimately, I was able to observe a pair of Green-Breasted Pitta for nearly an hour, but it took multiple trips and more luck than I would like to admit.

African Green Broadbill, Pseudocalyptomena graueri


Tiny, leaf green, and quiet, this enigmatic Albertine Rift Endemic is easy to overlook. The African Green Broadbill is seen in Uganda only in Bwindi National Park. Recently, UWA rangers each summer have located the nest of a breeding pair, making the broadbill a consistently observed rare bird. Visitors to the Ruhija sector of the park still have to work hard to see it though, making the long and steep trek down to the Mubwindi Swamp. Although Uganda and Rwanda have done an excellent job preserving montane forest in the Albertine Rift region, where the African Green Broadbill resides, there is little these countries can do to offset changes in climate. I wouldn't be surprised if this species disappears in the next few decades despite the best efforts of conservationists.

White-Crested Turaco, Tauraco leucolophus, and Black-Breasted Barbet, Lybius rolleti


My last birding trip in Uganda resulted in a deluge of new ticks for my country list. I had put off visiting the arid northeast region until the end of my time in country. Our four-day exploration of Kidepo National Park yielded nearly 40 new bird species, pushing me well past my goal of seeing 600 in Uganda. There were many highlights, but the two top birds were Black-Breasted Barbet and White-Crested Turaco. Black-Breasted Barbet is a magnificent bird in its own right and much more localized, but the White-Crested Turaco is perhaps the most beautiful of all the turacos, a bird family endemic to Africa. After days of searching, Aimee and I finally found a pair of White-Crested Turacos exactly where they were supposed to be, in a strip of dense woodland along a dry stream bed.  
Purple-Breasted Sunbird, Nectarinia purpureiventris


I did almost all of my birding in Bwindi by road, except on the morning where Aimee and I went mountain gorilla tracking. We hiked the steep hills of the park for hours and eventually had the encounter of a lifetime with one of our closest mammalian relatives. A birder at heart, I remember most, not our interactions with the gorillas, but having extended looks at one of the most spectacular Albertine Rift endemics, the Purple-Breasted Sunbird. By chance, I spotted a male preening near a stream, its dark plumage iridescent in the sunlight. Dazzled, I ogled it for too long, missing my chance to get a photograph. We found the same bird in the canopy higher up the ridge, terribly backlit. At least my mountain gorilla photographs turned out alright.

Pennant-Winged Nightjar, Caprimulgus vexillarius, and Standard-Winged Nightjar, Caprimulgus longipennis


It's impossible to choose between these two spectacular nightjars. Adult breeding males of both species have extraordinarily elongated primary feathers, shaped either as pennants or standards. They are stunning in flight and at rest. I came across this Pennant-Winged Nightjar early one morning at Murchison Falls National Park. It had been perched on the road when it was struck by a safari vehicle just ahead of us. Murchison is a good place to find both species, although they're present in the park at different times of year. Some birding trip reports describe seeing these nightjars at Murchison in huge quantities; however, Aimee and I were not so lucky, despite spending many hours after dark in search of both birds.

Papyrus Gonolek, Laniarius mufumbiri


This Great Lakes endemic is a classic. The Papyrus Gonolek is common enough in Uganda but restricted to the papyrus swamps of the region. Similar in sight and sound to the widespread Black Gonolek, the Papyrus Gonolek is mostly unique for it's yellow crown among a few other subtle differences. Papyrus birding is actually more difficult then you would think, and the Papyrus Gonolek is a true skulker, despite its flashy colors. I've had most success seeing them shortly after dawn, and then only with playback. Although they can call throughout the day, it takes patience and luck to real them in for good views. 

Honorable Mention:  White-Backed Night-Heron, Grey Crowned Crane, Hartlaub's Duck, Secretary Bird, Rock Pratincole, White-Spotted Flufftail, Handsome Francolin, Yellow-Throated Cuckoo, African Emerald Cuckoo, Black-Casqued Wattled Hornbill, Yellow-Billed Barbet, Abyssinian Roller, Red-Throated Bee-Eater, Forest Robin, Doherty's Bush-Shrike, Red-Billed Helmet-Shrike, Jameson's Wattle-Eye, Ituri Batis, Foxy Cisticola, Chestnut-Capped Flycatcher, Blue-Headed Crested-Flycatcher, White-Winged Warbler, Red-Winged Grey Warbler, Brown Twinspot, Black-Bellied Seedcracker

2 comments:

  1. You have such a beautifully written blog and the pictures!Just so pretty! I am Ugandan and resettling to Tanzania in the near future. I always took for granted all the birds, growing up, and I am glad I can now identify a few thanks to you.Thanks for sharing.

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