Murchison Falls National Park: July 30-August 1, 2016

It is hard to tire of Murchison Falls National Park, but it is not hard to get tired there. A two-night trip wears me out, especially the way Aimee and I prefer to explore the park: driving our own car, camping in the bush, and searching for birds and game all day, sometimes into the night. All this activity follows the stress of a week of work and the exasperation of bouncing around Kampala every day. The heat and insects add additional layers of exhaustion and uncomfortability to the experience. Despite the hardship, it is easy to explain why: to mingle with pride of lions, stalk a Shoebill, or contemplate the Nile, and to do these things independently, inexpensively, and often in solitude. In my brief year in Uganda, I have not surpassed the Murchison experience at any other park or reserve.

Our impetus for this particular trip was to see the Pennant-Winged Nightjar, one of the world's most spectacular nocturnal birds. The adult male's breeding plumage includes two extraordinarily long primary feathers, which give the wings an elongated flag-like appearance in flight. Although several sources state that the nightjar breeds further south on the continent from August to March, there is apparently enough variation that adult males in breeding plumage are regularly seen in Uganda from March to September. Aside from this primary target, I had a long list of regional specialties that I hoped to see, including White-Rumped Seedeater, Red-Winged Grey Warbler, White-Breasted Cuckoo-Shrike, Foxy Cisticola, Green-Backed Eremola, and many others. Murchison is also the mostly likely site in Uganda for two of Africa's best birds, Egyptian Plover and Pel's Fishing-Owl, neither of which I have seen.

Instead of entering the park from the south, as we had on our previous four trips, I decided to drive around the park and enter from the north. The area south of the Victoria Nile has noticeably less game, and although the park entrance is significantly closer to Kampala, another 80 km remain before you reach the ferry crossing. The ferry itself runs on a limited schedule and breaks down occasionally. Conversely, we arrived at Tangi Gate in just over five hours, and by then we had already seen an elephant and a few interesting birds, including an adult Martial Eagle perched near the road. In addition, the route crosses near Karuma Falls, upriver from Murchison Falls. Although they lack the power of Murchison, Karuma Falls are no less grand especially in the rainy season when the surrounding vegetation is verdant. Beyond Karuma, the road branches to the west into the notorious West Nile region, long racked by conflict and poverty.

Even inside the northern park entrance, the remnants of decades of war are still visible. Aimee and I drove by the ruins of the old Pakuba Lodge, which rebels destroyed in the late 1980s. In fact, almost all of the tourist lodges and park infrastructure from Paraa northwards had to be restored or rebuilt once the conflict with the Lord's Resistance Army started to wind down over ten years ago. The ruins of Pakuba Lodge are located in a lovely spot on a hill overlooking the Albert Nile as it begins its long journey to the Mediterranean Sea. Bright bougainvillea flowers now cloak the charred bones of the lodge. Although the region is now probably as safe for tourism as any other in Uganda, the West Nile will likely carry negative connotations for a long time, whether recalling the place of origin of the West Nile Virus or Uganda's notorious dictator Idi Amin.

On our way towards the delta, we drove through miles of woodland choked with game, passing only one other vehicle, which oddly enough contained one of our colleagues from work. There were very few tsetse flies, and I was able to stop the car several times to do some birding on foot in the vicinity of the car. After parsing a few cisticolas, including Rattling and Siffling, I spotted an unfamiliar bird overhead, which proved to be a Red-Winged Pytilia after a little research. Admittedly, I haven't studied the field guide as regularly as I should, but I am familiar enough with the birds of Africa to recognize a pytilia when I see one. Several times over the next two days, I would trip over the names of common birds. What is the difference between an immature Ruppell's Griffon Vulture and an African White-Backed Vulture? Was that a Wattled Lapwing or an African Wattled Lapwing?

Further along the Albert Track, Aimee and I encountered the largest herd of elephants either of us had ever seen in East Africa. Over one hundred elephants of all sizes were ambling towards the delta, stopping occasionally to graze on thorn bushes and other unpalatable looking vegetation. Several individuals were missing trunks, perhaps due to hunting snares or lion attacks. Just ahead, we found a female lion resting on an exposed tree branch in the heat of the day. The lion was panting terrifically, as if it had just tried to chase down prey, but we quickly realized it was just trying to cool off. Throughout the trip, we found animals and birds with their mouths or beaks open hoping to shed a little thermal energy while going about their business. As the herd of elephants blindly approached, we wondered if a kill was imminent, but the lion suddenly abandoned her perch and scooted into the bush out of sight.

Instead of cruising the delta, Aimee and I headed back along the Queen's Track in the late afternoon. A pair of Denham's Bustard stalked through the tall grass along with hundreds of oribi and Ugandan kob. Perhaps a few of these antelopes would fall prey later that night to a lion, leopard, hyena, jackal, or other nocturnal predator. Perhaps we would finally see a kill the following morning. I had hoped to search for nightjars this evening along the Buligi Track, but we both realized that we were exhausted and would be better served by setting up camp before dark. Our usual camping site in the designated area a few kilometers from the ferry was vacant but swarming with tsetse flies. Eventually, it filled up with people too, as a crowded carload of tourists pulled up at sunset. Spoiling the mood, they yucked it up all night until we were all ready to go to sleep.

I checked around the campsite early the following morning for birds, finding Black-Headed Gonolek, Violet-Backed Starling, White-Browed Scrub-Robin, and Red-Throated Bee-Eater, among others. Breaking camp and driving back towards the airstrip for a game drive, I stopped the car suddenly in the middle of the road. In front of us was a feathery bit of roadkill, a bird likely struck a few minutes previous by a vehicle dashing out for a safari. Expecting to see a Black-Billed Wood-Dove, I was shocked to find the very bird I was hoping to see that weekend. I carefully pieced the Pennant-Winged Nightjar back together and admired its lifeless form at close range. The white streamers were relatively short and uneven in length, but together the wing feathers were a beautiful contrast of black and white. The rest of the bird's plumage provides excellent camouflage as it perches motionless on the ground during the day; however, the wings of an adult male in flight are unmistakable signs to a female.

Our colleague had mentioned that they found some lions on the Victoria Track the previous morning, and I decided to search for evidence that they were still in the area. In principle, the Uganda Wildlife Authority strictly prohibits driving off track, imposing a fine of 150 USD. Tourist vehicles commonly do it anyway, especially when there is a UWA ranger inside. Tire tracks in the sand indicating a U-turn or an abrupt turn are reliable signs that there is something worth seeing nearby. It didn't require the powers of Sherlock Holmes to realize the lions were still north of the Victoria Track, and we saw half a dozen vehicles circling in the distance. Waiting for the traffic to clear, I picked my moment and dashed off track to approach a pride of seven lions frolicking in the grass. We spent five hurried minutes in their magnificent presence before returning to the track unnoticed.

Further along the Victoria Track, we encountered a dead buffalo and dozens of Ruppell's Griffon Vultures waiting their turn to disembowel the carcass. I have witnessed vultures picking over carrion many times but never so freshly or graphically as this morning. The buffalo was entirely intact except for one small hole in its belly, into which vultures would take turns plunging their head and neck deep inside. This revolting maneuver would leave them vulnerable to attack from rivals, and the scene was utter mayhem as adult vultures swooped in from all sides to violently jump the line, blood and entrails flying everywhere. Meanwhile, immature vultures stood around and waited, stretching their wings into a sepulchral pose, perhaps to intimidate others or dry their feathers. We could have watched the disgusting spectacle for hours, and it would likely be days before the carcass was picked clean.

The Victoria Track ends at the delta where the Victoria Nile meets Lake Albert. The marshy area includes large patches of papyrus and is supposedly home to a few individual Shoebill. On our previous visits to Murchison, Aimee and I had stopped here to scan the fringes of the river and lake, but without success. Alternatively, you can hire a boat at Paraa to explore the delta, increasing your chances greatly of seeing one of Africa's most sought-after birds. Nearby, there is a short track leading to a bird hide, where it is possible to find other waders and waterbirds. Here we found an impressive Saddle-Billed Stork, but in general there were fewer birds present than on previous visits. I went off on foot to poke around in the bushes at one point, and upon returning to the car I was floored to see a Shoebill swooping in for a landing overhead. Once it landed, we were able to relocate it nearby after a short drive along the marsh. Unsatisfied with the spot, it took to the wing again, swirling up on a thermal only to be bombed by a territorial African Fish Eagle. 

The highlight of the afternoon was a colony of Northern Carmine Bee-Eaters. A bird of such stunning color, it is perhaps gaudy to some eyes. Usually, we see one or two solitary individuals hawking insects in flight from the top of a bush or tree in open areas. Bee-eaters are extraordinarily agile in flight, dive bombing after bees, wasps, and other insects in blinding flashes of color. This time we encountered dozens of bee-eaters resting on the sandy banks of the road. These vivid pools of pink and green in the dirt were puzzling at first. Why would birds in the heat of the day expose themselves to the full power of the sun, not to mention to predators circling above? Research reveals their behavior to be a form of pest control. Because bee-eaters typically nest in holes in the earth, they are more exposed to parasites that can damage their finely-tuned feathers. Bee-eaters already spend a lot of time preening every day, and the heat of the sun makes parasites more active and hence easier to remove.

Originally, I had hoped to visit the Nayamusika Cliffs this afternoon to search for the Egyptian Plover, which prefers broad sandy river banks. No doubt it is found in other areas in Uganda too, but I love returning to the peace and solitude of the cliffs each time I visit Murchison. Having run out of time, we crossed over the Victoria Nile on the 4pm ferry and drove an hour to the campsite overlooking the falls. Happily, there was no one here, and the tourists that had bothered us the previous evening were clearly following a different schedule. After checking in and setting up camp, Aimee and I relaxed for a few minutes overlooking the rapids above the falls. This area is notorious for tsetse flies, and we were both over dressed for protection. Recently, UWA has invested in tsetse fly traps, which are little more than small blue and black tents that have been treated with insecticide. Judging from our experience, they are working somewhat, and the flies seemed more manageable than before.

Towards sunset, we drove out on the recently reopened Honeymoon Track in preparation for an hour of night birding after dark. There are no tsetse fly traps along this track, and the car was covered ominously in flies. UWA recently introduced giraffes on the south side of the Victoria Nile, and I have also read recent accounts of tourists seeing lions and leopards in this area of the park. We did not encounter any game. Just before dark, someone opened the door briefly, and our car was suddenly filled with dozens of ravenous tsetse flies. Aimee and I used our guide books, including Where to Watch Birds in Uganda, to smash the nearly indestructible flies against the windows. To add insult to injury, we only saw two nightjars briefly on the return trip to camp despite ample use of the spotlight. Perhaps it was because of the rain that followed later that night, or maybe we were simply unlucky. Regardless, we will have to return to Murchison sometime soon to see a live Pennant-Winged Nightjar.

Notable birds seen: Pink-Backed Pelican, Long-Tailed Cormorant, Intermediate Egret, Purple Heron, Woolly-Necked Stork, Saddle-Billed Stork, Shoebill, Egyptian Goose, White-Faced Whistling-Duck, African Fish Eagle, Palm-Nut Vulture, Ruppell's Griffon Vulture, Eastern Chanting-Goshawk, Bateleur, Martial Eagle, Grey Kestrel, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Guineafowl, Heuglin's Francolin, Black Crake, African Jacana, Grey Crowned Crane, Denham's Bustard, Spotted Thick-Knee, Senegal Thick-Knee, Spur-Winged Lapwing, Long-Toed Lapwing, African Wattled Lapwing, Black-Headed Lapwing, Brown-Chested Lapwing, Black-Billed Lapwing, Tambourine Dove, African Mourning Dove, Diederik Cuckoo, White-Browed Coucal, Square-Tailed Nightjar, Pennant-Winged Nightjar, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, Red-Throated Bee-Eater, Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, Broad-Billed Roller, Green Wood-Hoopoe, African Grey Hornbill, Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Grey Woodpecker, Wire-Tailed Swallow, White-Headed Saw-Wing, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Grassland Pipit, Black Cuckoo-Shrike, White-Browed Robin-Chat, Sooty Chat, White-Browed Scrub-Robin, Spotted Morning-Thrush, Zitting Cisticola, Rattling Cisticola, Siffling Cisticola, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Silverbird, Brown Babbler, Beautiful Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Tropical Boubou, Black-Headed Gonolek, Northern Puffback, Black-Crowned Tchagra, White-Crested Helmet-Shrike, Piapiac, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Ruppell's Long-Tailed Starling, Violet-Backed Starling, Rufous Sparrow, Speckle-Fronted Weaver, White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, Vitelline Masked Weaver, Little Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Red-Billed Quelea, Cardinal Quelea, Yellow-Mantled Widowbird, Northern Red Bishop, Red-Winged Pytilia, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Pin-Tailed Whydah.

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