Kibale National Park: June 25-26

My first trip to Kibale National Park in January was relatively uninformed, but I stumbled my way into a successful trip nevertheless. I camped at the park headquarters without hassle and enjoyed high levels of bird activity in the immediate area. Although I didn't see the Green-Breasted Pitta on my formal walk through the forest, I added dozens of new birds to my country list. I certainly didn't take advantage of all the birding the park has to offer, though. For example, I didn't visit the Bigodi Wetlands, nor did I bird the transition habitat around the borders of the park. Despite having a lot of new territory left to explore, I had waited to return until the summer months, when I knew I would have a better chance of seeing the Green-Breasted Pitta. When my UWA contact reported that he was hearing and seeing the pitta regularly, it was finally time to visit Kibale again.

I left Kampala early on Friday afternoon, risking that the traffic would be light leaving the city. Remarkably, I arrived at Fort Portal within four hours, stopping briefly at a gas station to have a nail removed. It was too late to do any birding by the time I arrive at Kanyanchu Camp, where the UWA office is located, but I spent the last moments of daylight setting up my tent and collecting firewood. Unlike my previous visit, the UWA guards pressured me to check in with Primate Lodge, the nearby lodge that now manages the campsite. When management informed me that it would cost fourteen dollars to camp in the clearing by the road, I gruffly informed them that I would be taking my business elsewhere. I pulled up to Chimp's Nest, another lodge in the area, well after dark. I was greeted warmly and shown to my budget room, which included a comfortable bed, mosquito net, and a hot shower for only one dollar more. The birding on site later proved excellent as well.

I had arranged to look for the Green-Breasted Pitta early the following morning. My guide was a ranger with the Uganda Wildlife Association named Jerod, an older but hardworking guide with a decent grasp of the birds of the area. Jerod and I had worked together in January, and I had been impressed with his persistence. We spent seven grueling hours bushwhacking through the forest understory in the slight hopes of flushing a pitta. Although we were unsuccessful, he clearly enjoyed the pursuit and shared detailed information about his observations of the bird. This time around, Jerod was more optimistic about our chances, and we set out confidently on foot from the UWA office just after six in the morning. We stopped and started waiting at a site where one of his colleagues had heard a pitta calling the previous morning. It was still before first light, and only an African Wood Owl could be heard calling.

A little later than expected, a pitta finally called nearby. The Green-Breasted Pitta emits a short but powerful burst of sound at long intervals, usually from a tree branch about 5 meters above the forest floor. I have heard that it will often jump or quickly flash its wings while emitting its call, but it was no doubt too dark to observe this display. We hustled over in the direction from where we thought we heard the bird calling and waited nervously. Another call helped us refine our approach, and I briefly saw a pitta silhouetted almost at eye level, its small patches of iridescent blue plumage somehow visible in the faint light. Before I could raise my binoculars, the pitta darted off to begin the search again. There were clearly two birds in the area, and we were able to locate an individual once more before they stopped calling for the day. Although I could now certainly tick the Green-Breasted Pitta on my life list, I was well short of being satisfied.

Having confirmed that there was a pair of pitta in the area, we spent the next two hours carefully searching for them in the leaf litter. I had never seen a pitta species before, but I am more than familiar with their distant cousins, the antpittas of Central and South America. Regardless of how the taxonomists care to define the relationship, pittas and antpittas are very similar in appearance, behavior, and habitat. The one major difference is the spectacular, brilliant plumage of many pitta species. Although almost all antpittas are weakly patterned and dull colored, pittas are some of the most extravagantly colored birds in the world. It's remarkable to consider how such shy, forest-dwelling birds have evolved to become so bold in appearance. Despite my unfamiliarity with pittas, I knew what to look for, and how to look, and it was fitting that I was the one who finally found them hopping around on the forest floor.

By the time Jerod figured out what I was up to, I had watched the pair of Green-Breasted Pitta for fifteen minutes and captured some passable photographs. They were up ahead about fifteen meters, moving slowly but abruptly through the relatively open understory. Jerod had explained earlier that the Green-Breasted Pitta prefers more open areas within the forest and doesn't inhabit dense thickets. I wouldn't be surprised if this conclusion was only based on his observations; it's more likely to see a pitta in open areas than dense ones, and so it would be reasonable to conclude they are only in open areas of the forest. We managed to follow them downslope for the next hour, keeping a respectful distance without flushing them. One was slightly larger and more deeply colored than the other, but their interaction was slight. I thought I observed one jump from the forest floor, as if quickly displaying for the other, but Jerod had missed it.

Finally, we let them go and took a few minutes to relax and reflect. There are several dozen pitta species in Asia and Australia, and birders have long admired these jewels of the forest. This experience was just my first taste of a fascinating and highly alluring family of birds, for which I could end up spending the rest of my life searching. Compared to what I have read in trip reports, seeing the Green-Breasted Pitta in Uganda is comparatively easy to finding other pitta species in less accommodating countries. For example, Chris Gooddie in the Jewel Hunter, his hilarious account of a year spent chasing every one of the pitta species, describes how he risked life and limb to see the Red-Bellied Pitta on an ambitious expedition in the Philippines. After a terrible fall, he delays a trip to the hospital to repair a huge gash in his arm in order to spend a few more hours looking for his prey. During the right time of year, seeing a Green-Breasted Pitta can be a comparatively pedestrian experience.

Amazingly, we didn't see much else of note during the rest of the morning. I heard a few familiar birds calling from the forest canopy, including Black Cuckoo, Western Black-Headed Oriole, Yellow-Spotted Barbet, and Blue-Breasted Kingfisher, but bird activity was generally low. Back at Chimp's Nest, however, birds were actively throughout the grounds of the lodge, and I recorded African Emerald Cuckoo, African Blue Flycatcher, Lead-Coloured Flycatcher, and Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, among others. I suspect the massive colony of Viellot's Black Weavers that inhabit a large tree above the lodge contributed to cause all the avian commotion in the area. While exploring the swampy forest that borders the western edge of the lodge, I also briefly saw two male White-Spotted Flufftail chasing each other through the dense undergrowth.

I had arranged to bird Bigodi Wetlands on Sunday morning with Ben, one of the expert local guides. I had a long list of target species, including Blue-Shouldered, Grey-Winged, and Cape Robin-Chats, that would mostly go unseen. Still, it was an enjoyable morning of birding, and I added a few new birds, including Toro Olive Greenbul and Marsh Tchagra, to my country list. The long walk passed along the edge of swamp forest, over a boardwalk through papyrus swamp, and across lightly wooded pasture. Highlights included Brown-Eared Woodpecker, Red-Headed Bluebill, Red-Headed Malimbe, Snowy-Headed Robin-Chat, Brown Illadopsis, and Black-and-White and African Shrike-Flycatchers. Not surprisingly, I recorded significantly more species on this excursion than during the previous day within the forest itself.

Notable birds seen: Black-Shouldered Kite, Lizard Buzzard (h), African Harrier-Hawk, Long-Crested Eagle, White-Spotted Flufftail, Grey Crowned Crane, African Green Pigeon, Blue-Spotted Wood-Dove, Tambourine Dove, Red-Eyed Dove, Grey Parrot, Great Blue Turaco, Ross's Turaco, Red-Chested Cuckoo (h), Black Cuckoo (h), Dusky Long-Tailed Cuckoo (h), Diederik Cuckoo (h), African Emerald Cuckoo, Yellowbill (h), White-Browed Coucal (h), Senegal Coucal, African Wood Owl (h), Narina Trogon (h), Speckled Mousebird, Woodland Kingfisher (h), Blue-Breasted Kingfisher (h), Shining-Blue Kingfisher (h), African Pygmy Kingfisher, Crowned Hornbill, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Yellow-Throated Tinkerbird (h), Speckled Tinkerbird, Yellow-Spotted Barbet (h), Hairy-Breasted Barbet, Yellow-Billed Barbet, Honeyguide (sp), Brown-Eared Woodpecker, Yellow-Crested Woodpecker, Green-Breasted Pitta, Western Nicator, Little Greenbul, Slender-Billed Greenbul, Toro Olive Greenbul, Cameroon Sombre Greenbul (h), Red-Tailed Bristlebill, White-Throated Greenbul, Brown-Chested Alethe, Snowy-Headed Robin-Chat, African Thrush, White-Tailed Ant-Thrush (h), Red-Tailed Ant-Thrush, Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush, White-Winged Warbler (h), Green Hylia, Green Crombec, White-Chinned Prinia, Grey-Capped Warbler (h), Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Buff-Throated Apalis, Lead-Coloured Flycatcher, Grey-Throated Flycatcher, Black-and-White Shrike-Flycatcher, African Shrike-Flycatcher, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, Chestnut Wattle-Eye, Red-Bellied Paradise-Flycatcher, African Blue-Flycatcher, Brown Illadopsis, Green-Headed Sunbird, Olive-Bellied Sunbird, Green-Throated Sunbird, Papyrus Gonolek (h), Marsh Tchagra, Bocage's Bush-Shrike, Velvet-Mantled Drongo, Western Black-Headed Oriole (h), Purple-Headed Starling, Violet-Backed Starling, Black-Headed Weaver, Black-Necked Weaver, Grosbeak Weaver, Vieillot's Black Weaver, Red-Headed Malimbe, Southern Red Bishop, Grey-Headed Negrofinch, Red-Headed Bluebill, Black-and-White Mannikin.

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