Bwindi Impenetrable National Park: March 5-7, 2016

I have been waiting to bird Bwindi Impenetrable National Park for six months, basically ever since I arrived in Uganda. Bwindi is the premier montane forest birding site in East Africa. The park protects over 320 square kilometers ranging from lowland swamps to steep forested mountains, spanning an elevation from 1,160 to 2,600 meters above sea level. What it lacks in unpredictability (you never know what West African birds may turn up at Semliki or Budongo), Bwindi makes up for with endemic species. No less than twenty-three Albertine Rift endemics can be found in Bwindi, including some of the rarest birds of the continent, such as African Green Broadbill and Shelley’s Crimsonwing. Moreover, Bwindi is home to nearly half the world’s remaining population of mountain gorillas. If it didn’t take over eight hours to get there from Kampala, I would visit Bwindi at least once a month.

With a friend in town from the States, Aimee and I decided it was finally time to make our way down to far Southwest Uganda. We had four days to get there and back and had saved enough money to pay for gorilla tracking (just one hour with the gorillas costs $500 per foreign resident and $600 per non resident). In our downtime, I hoped to do some birding but hadn’t planned any serious expeditions into the forest. There are multiple of options for visiting Bwindi, and gorilla tracking can be done at all four access points to the park. I chose Ruhija instead of Buhoma because accommodation is less expensive and the park station is situated at 2300 meters, near the high-altitude Bamboo Zone. Initially, I had decided to camp at Ruhija Community Rest Camp, but I changed my mind a few days before the trip, opting for a much richer lodging experience at Cuckooland.

Cuckooland is a comfortable tented camp located thirty minutes past Ruhija along the road to Buhoma. While some might object that the lodge is a bit far from Ruhija, to me that’s a large part of its charm. The ten acre grounds are set right on the edge of the national park, and all four platform tents look out spectacularly over pristine montane forest.  As the name suggests, Cuckooland offers amazing birding, boasting a growing bird list of over two hundred species, including six Albertine Rift endemics. The owner is a keen birder himself and has smartly planted flowering bushes and fruiting trees among the gardens and regenerating forest. Apart from the few birds I saw on our gorilla tracking experience, and a short afternoon of birding down the road at Kitahurira, known as “The Neck,” my trip list entirely consists of birds I saw at Cuckooland. 

Given that we had company, and our primary objective was gorilla tracking, I knew that I wasn’t going to see many birds on my first trip to Bwindi. In retrospect, though, I could have spent an hour birding the Bamboo Zone on our way into the park. While we did see a pair of Handsome Francolin on the road, this was my only chance to bird at high altitude, and I didn’t take advantage of it. I’m kicking myself now about a fleeting look at an unidentified crimsonwing - why didn’t I stop the car and follow up on foot? What was the rush?  In the excitement to explore a new birding site, it’s easy to head straight to the heart of the matter and overlook opportunities at the fringe. Road birding between the park entrance and Ruhija is free and easy. Fortunately, I live in Uganda and have the opportunity to return to Bwindi several times over the next year and a half.

After checking in with the park rangers about gorilla tracking the following morning, we completed the last leg of the journey to Cuckooland. I recognized the birding potential immediately as we were settling in, and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening birding the grounds of the lodge while the ladies were resting. The birding was terrific, and I saw several new species, including White-Tailed Blue-Flycatcher, Northern Double-Collared Sunbird, Black-Billed Weaver, Luhder’s Bush-Shrike, and Bocage’s Bush-Shrike. Exhausted after a long day of driving, I finally called it a day at 7pm. The food is delicious at Cuckooland, and the temperature was delightfully cool, certainly the coldest I have been in Uganda so far. 

Mountain gorilla tracking the following morning did not disappoint. The Uganda Wildlife Authority manages the experience very well, minimizing the impact on the gorillas while making tourists feel like they got their money’s worth. Since mountain gorillas only range a kilometer per day, finding them is only a matter of time and sightings are practically guaranteed. We were assigned to track the Oruzogo family and lucky to be in our own three-person group. The hiking itself was surprisingly strenuous, and we descended and ascended very steep trails, most of which were narrow and overgrown. After an hour and a half, we arrived at the scene where approximately twenty mountain gorillas were resting, feeding, grooming, or climbing trees. Photography is difficult, given the low-light conditions and visual obstructions, but I captured a few decent shots.

The mountain gorillas have been habituated to human presence and allow for close approach. In fact, when we passed within several meters of a silverback, he didn’t once glance in our direction. The younger males were the only gorillas that responded significantly to our presence, and several charged at us playfully while beating their chests with their fists. An acrobatic baby gorilla stole the show, climbing precariously up vines and tangles and falling back to the forest floor. After an hour or so, we retreated back down the hill to rest at a small stream. I took advantage of our downtime here to look for birds. Earlier that morning near the same spot, we had marvelled over the Purple-Breasted Sunbird, a gorgeous Albertine Rift Endemic. In a brief fifteen minutes, I tracked down Black-Faced Rufous-Warbler, White-Starred Robin, Montane Oriole, and Yellow-Eyed Black Flycatcher before having to move on.

After we had returned to the road at midday, we wished our guides well and relaxed in the shade. Within minutes children from the neighboring village had found us and were showing us a large chameleon they had captured. Of course, they also asked for a handout or at least an item from our box lunch. Although Bwindi itself is in an excellent state of preservation, the people inhabiting the surrounding area have clearly been affected by the influx of high-end tourism. Mountain gorilla tracking is one of the most exclusive wildlife experiences in the world, and tourists can spend over a thousand dollars per day. Clearly, more than a few of them have been handing out money, food, and gifts to the local children. As we drove along the park boundaries, kids would consistently run out to the road with their hands out. I have yet to see this behavior anywhere else in Uganda.

Our group was game to do some birding down the road at “The Neck,” where the road to Buhoma crosses through a narrow strip of the park. The elevation here is significantly lower than at Ruhija, but at 1500m there are still a good number of Albertine Rift endemics to be seen. From the bridge crossing the Ihihizo River, I spotted Mountain Wagtail and Cassin’s Grey Flycatcher, and along the road near the bridge we saw Dusky-Blue Flycatcher and Red-Tailed Greenbul. Further down the road, which deteriorates in quality, we found African Black Duck in a marshy area and several pair of Black Bee-Eater. I considered returning early the following morning, but the owner of Cuckooland persuaded me to bird the grounds of the lodge instead. The other option was to return to Ruhija and take the trail down to Mubwindi Swamp, a lengthy expedition with the potential of seeing Grauer’s Rush Warbler and African Green Broadbill, among others. I would save this activity for my next visit, timed to coincide with the broadbill’s breeding season in June-July. 

The following morning was cool and clear. The garden was bursting with birds, including Grey-Throated Barbet, Brown-Crowned Tchagra, White-Eyed Slaty Flycatcher, White-Chinned Prinia, Chubb’s Cisticola, and hoards of Speckled Mousebird. Exploring a trail on the boundary of the park, I saw Elliot’s Woodpecker, African Emerald Cuckoo, Barred Long-Tailed Cuckoo, Petit’s Cuckoo-Shrike, and White-Browed Crombec, among others. After breakfast it was time to being the long trip back to Kampala, which we planned to break up with a night camping at Lake Mburo National Park. Although it was frustrating to leave Bwindi having only scratched the surface of the park’s birding potential, I know I’ll be back soon.

Notable birds seen: African Black Duck, Forest Francolin (h), Handsome Francolin, Tambourine Dove, Blue-Spotted Wood-Dove, Black-Billed Turaco (h), Barred Long-Tailed Cuckoo, Dusky Long-Tailed Cuckoo (h), African Emerald Cuckoo, Speckled Mousebird, Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater, Black Bee-Eater, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Grey-Throated Barbet, Yellow-Spotted Barbet (h), Yellow-Billed Barbet (h), Elliot’s Woodpecker, Black Saw-Wing, Mountain Wagtail, Petit’s Cuckoo-Shrike, Grey Cuckoo-Shrike, Yellow-Whiskered Greenbul, Little Greenbul, Mountain Greenbul, Little Grey Greenbul, Red-Tailed Greenbul, White-Throated Greenbul, White-Starred Robin, White-Browed Robin-Chat, Common Stonechat, White-Browed Crombec, Black-Faced Rufous-Warbler, Chubb’s Cisticola, White-Chinned Prinia, Grey-Capped Warbler, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Grey Apalis, White-Eyed Slaty Flycatcher, Yellow-Eyed Black Flycatcher, African Dusky Flycatcher, Cassin’s Grey Flycatcher, Dusky-Blue Flycatcher, Chin-Spot Batis, Black-and-White Shrike-Flycatcher, African Paradise-Flycatcher, White-Tailed Blue-Flycatcher, Scaly-Breasted Illadopsis (h), Yellow White-Eye, Bronze Sunbird, Purple-Breasted Sunbird, Green-Headed Sunbird, Northern Double-Collared Sunbird, Olive-Bellied Sunbird, Olive Sunbird, Scarlet-Chested Sunbird, Mackinnon’s Fiscal, Luhder’s Bush-Shrike, Tropical Boubou (h), Brown-Crowned Tchagra, Bocage’s Bush-Shrike, Fork-Tailed Drongo, Montane Oriole, Black-Necked Weaver, Baglafecht Weaver, Grosbeak Weaver, Black-Billed Weaver, Yellow Bishop, Grey-Headed Negrofinch, Black-Crowned Waxbill, Streaky Seedeater.

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