Kibale National Park: January 23-24, 2016

Although the literature doesn’t make this clear, Kibale National Park is the best site in Africa for the Green-Breasted Pitta, one of the continent’s most beautiful and enigmatic birds. In his memoir The Jewel Hunter, an account of a year spent tracking down all the pitta species of the world, Chris Gooddie remarks with amazement how easily he saw, and photographed, the Green-Breasted Pitta in Uganda. Compared with his adventurous search in Zambia for the African Pitta, for example, locating the Green-Breasted Pitta in the depths of Kibale Forest was a piece of cake. Chris stayed in a comfortable lodge the night before, hired a ranger to take him to a reliable site in the forest, and spent hours watching several pittas displaying and feeding. I, too, could reasonably accomplish this feat in a weekend trip from Kampala.

At 766 square kilometers in size, Kibale is a huge forest block that begins on the south side of the Kampala-Fort Portal road and connects to Queen Elizabeth National Park. The park protects mostly rainforest spanning 1,110 to 1,590m in altitude but is interspersed with grassland and swamp. Popular with tourists primarily for its chimpanzee tracking, Kibale is home to 13 primate species and over 60 mammal species. Ornithologists have recorded 335 bird species here, most of which are also found in Semiliki National Park and Budongo Forest Reserve. The main point of access is at Kanyanchu Camp, located about 35km from Fort Portal on the road to Kamwenge, but there is another ranger station at Sebitoli Camp, just off the Kampala-Fort Portal road. Guided forest walks are available at both sites, and there are also community-based tourism activities possible nearby, including Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary near Kanyanchu and Kihingami Wetlands near Sebitoli. 

Like most of my weekend trips so far, I opted to leave Kampala early Saturday morning instead of late Friday afternoon. Friday traffic can be brutal, and it’s nice to spend the night in my own bed rather than sleeping on the ground. The drive to Kanyanchu took about five hours, but conditions were good and there were hardly any other cars on the road. I was warmly greeted at the camp, where they invited me to make use of the campsite and bird the grounds on my own. I made arrangements for a guided forest walk the following morning ($30 per person for foreign residents of East Africa). I should note that the Uganda Wildlife Authority has implemented a new payment scheme that uses special debit cards instead of cash. It’s possible to purchase these at the Kibale National Park headquarters along the Fort Portal-Kamwenge road; however, often the system is down, and I was able to pay in cash this time.

I birded the clearing around the campsite until midday, as it was teeming with birds of all variety. Nearly every tree, bush, and vine appeared to be flowering or in fruit, and the weather was cool and overcast. Right off the bat, I bagged several barbets at foraging at eye level, including Yellow-Spotted, Hairy-Breasted, and Yellow-Billed Barbets, as well as Specked and Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbirds. A female Chestnut Wattle-Eye and an exquisite female Red-Headed Bluebill also surfaced from the thicket to join the activity. In the canopy, I noted Buff-Throated Apalis, White-Breasted Negrofinch, Superb Sunbird, and dozens of Vieillot’s Black Weaver. I briefly tracked a lovely Grey-Headed Negrofinch as it foraged in some tangled vines. High-pitched calls then turned my attention towards some exposed branches, where a stunning pair of Black Bee-Eater was sallying for insects. After several hours, the campsite finally cleared of birds. Winded and starved, I took a break and had lunch.

I had planned to bird the Fort Portal-Kamwenge road in the afternoon, which runs directly through the forest for over 5km. Reporting in 1998, the authors of Where to Watch Birds in Uganda describes this as a “quiet, wide road that runs through beautiful rainforest.” As it’s a public road, visitors are free to explore it without a guide or paying the park entrance fee. Unfortunately, the entire road is currently under construction, and trucks hauling debris and heavy equipment are constantly rumbling through the forest. To make matters worse, the World Bank recently pulled its $265 million investment in this road and other infrastructure projects in response to concerns about their social and environmental impact. Specifically, there are serious allegations that road workers have been sexual harrassing female employees and having sexual relations with minors from the nearby communities, including Bigodi, just a few kilometers down the road from Kanyanchu.

Birding along this road proved to be anything but a tranquil experience, and I was regularly interrupted by roaring trucks and shouting construction workers. Regardless, I pushed on towards the bridge over the Dura River, where birders often report finding the brilliant Shining Blue Kingfisher, which inhabits forest streams. I found a few interesting birds along the way, including a pair of Black-Billed Turaco and a puzzling dark passerine in the middle level of the forest, perhaps the White-Bellied Crested Flycatcher. In a lull between passing trucks, I was surprised by a small herd of elephants emerging from the forest 20m ahead to cross the road. I’ve encountered elephants many times but usually from the safety of my car. This time, I was on foot and terrified that one of the adults might chase after me, especially considering there were several baby elephants in the herd. I backed up hastily, firing a few photographs in retreat.

I never did make it all the way to the bridge, which seemed a considerably longer walk than a kilometer, which is what one of the park guards claimed. On my way out of the park the next day, I would stop at the bridge and catch a fleeting glimpse of the Shining-Blue Kingfisher as it darted upstream; it had been perched on a rock in the shade underneath the bridge. Back at Kanyanchu Camp, I met Jerod, my guide for the next morning, and we discussed our strategy for finding the Green-Breasted Pitta. We would meet well before dawn, drive to the network of trails where chimpanzees are tracked, and be at a well-known display site by 6:30am. It might take all morning, but we would have a 50 percent chance to see a pitta, whether displaying or foraging in the leaf litter on the ground. Jerod admitted he wasn’t the most knowledgeable bird guide, but he answered my queries reasonably well and gave the impression that he knew what he as doing. 

In the late afternoon, I continued to bird Kanyanchu Camp, exploring the short road up to Kibale Primate Lodge, which supposedly manages the campsite (no one from the lodge ever checked in with me, offered to bring firewood, or collected a camping fee). This area was once open grassland and regularly burned before the park was established in 1993, but it has quickly regenerated into secondary forest. Similar to the morning, bird activity was tremendous, and I continued to find interesting birds until dusk, including Western Nicator, African Shrike-Flycatcher, and Yellowbill. Even better, I managed to relocate the two Black Bee-Eaters from earlier in the day, even finding where the pair had burrowed into the embankment of a drainage ditch. Although the shutter on my Nikon D5100 is failing regularly, I still captured a few decent photographs of this gorgeous and unique bee-eater, certainly one of Uganda’s finest birds. 

The next morning worked out just as planned, although savvy readers of this blog will have already surmised that I didn’t see a Green-Breasted Pitta. Jerod was an excellent guide, both experienced and determined, and we were in the right places at the right times. The pitta simply didn’t materialize for us. Apparently another ranger tracking chimpanzees with a group of French tourists said he flushed a pitta from the undergrowth along one of the trails; however, we neither saw nor heard one ourselves, despite spending six hours searching. Happily, we still found a variety of other good birds, including White-Tailed Ant-Thrush, Narina Trogon, Brown-Chested Alethe, Black-and-White Shrike-Flycatcher, Purple-Headed Starling, Brown Illadopsis, and Western Black-Headed Oriole. Blue-Breasted Kingfisher, African Emerald Cuckoo, and White-Spotted Flufftail, among others, called throughout the morning. The forest itself is magnificent, resounding with hooting of chimpanzees and the calls of other monkeys. Afterwards, Jerod and I exchanged numbers, and he promised to text me the next time he sees a pitta regularly.

Notable birds seen: White-Spotted Flufftail (h), Grey-Crowned Crane, Tambourine Dove, Red-Eyed Dove, Grey Parrot (h), Great Blue Turaco (h), Black-Billed Turaco, African Emerald Cuckoo (h), Yellowbill, Narina Trogon, Blue-Breasted Kingfisher (h), Shining-Blue Kingfisher, Black Bee-Eater, Crowned Hornbill,  Black-and-White Casqued Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Speckled Tinkerbird, Yellow-Spotted Barbet, Hairy-Breasted Barbet, Yellow-Billed Barbet, Buff-Spotted Woodpecker, Yellow-Crested Woodpecker, Western Nicator, Little Greenbul, Slender-Billed Greenbul, White-Throated Greenbul, Brown-Chested Alethe, White-Tailed Ant-Thrush, Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush (h), Green Hylia, Green Crombec, Buff-Throated Apalis, White-Chinned Prinia, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Black-and-White Shrike-Flycatcher, African Shrike-Flycatcher, Chestnut Wattle-Eye, Brown Illadopsis, Scaly-Breasted Illadopsis (h), Dusky Tit, Olive-Bellied Sunbird, Olive Sunbird, Little Green Sunbird, Superb Sunbird, Velvet-Mantled Drongo, Western Black-Headed Oriole, Purple-Headed Starling, Grosbeak Weaver, Vieillot’s Black Weaver, Grey-Headed Negrofinch, White-Breasted Negrofinch, Red-Headed Bluebill.   

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