Kibale National Park: September 3-5, 2016

For wildlife enthusiasts, Kibale National Park is famous for its remarkable number of primate species, chimpanzee tracking being the obvious highlight. For hardcore birders, Kibale is the only reliable site in Africa for Green-Breasted Pitta, at least during its breeding season from June through August. But if you have already seen chimpanzees, and it is out of season for the pitta, then exploring the park is an expensive proposition. Instead of paying the entrance and steep activity fees (150 USD for chimpanzee tracking and 30 USD for birding), it is possible to enjoy the fringes of the park and support community-based ecotourism instead. Several lodges are set in secondary forest bordering Kibale, and Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary nearby offers an exceptional, and economical, guided experience. Using this approach, birders will likely tick more species outside than inside park.

The landscape south of Fort Portal is also renowned for its crater lakes. I had visited Kibale twice before without stopping here to admire the scenery. The road that bisects the national park does pass by one large crater lake, but beyond there is a vast network of smaller crater lakes. Guidebooks extol the area for offering low-key, independent tourism, and encourage visitors to stay at one of the many lodges or campsites and simply explore on foot or bicycle. Indeed, there is no game driving, bungee jumping, or white-water rafting to be done here. Aimee is unfamiliar with the Kibale area, and in conceiving this weekend trip. I had planned for us to do a bit of birding, relaxing, and meandering ourselves. Although I prefer to stay closer to the national park, I pledged to tour the crater lake region, just fifteen minutes away from Kanyanchu Gate, by car.

Chimps' Nest was originally recommended to me by the owner of Bwindi Cuckooland, which is the only other lodge I have stayed at in Uganda. With my own camping gear, I have mostly stuck to my resolution to explore Uganda on a low budget, saving most of my money for fuel and fees. Cuckooland is an exceptional place though, and I trust the judgement of its owner, who has a similar mindset about getting good value for his money. On my previous visit to Kibale, I had decided to stay at Chimps' Nest after being quoted 14 dollars a night to camp at Kanyanchu (a nearby lodge manages this basic campsite for UWA). The lodge is nestled in secondary forest adjacent to the national park. The lodge offers a range of accommodation, including a block of budget rooms (15 dollars for a single and 20 dollars for a double). The staff are capable, the restaurant serves vegetarian food, and the birding around the grounds is excellent.

We arrived at Chimps' Nest on Friday evening, and Aimee was immediately pleased with the setting. As during my previous two-night stay, we were the only guests. The block of budget rooms is set in an overgrown glade that is chock full of birds, including Green Crombec, White-Chinned Prinia, Bocage's Bush-Shrike, Yellowbill, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, Little Greenbul, and many others. Two trails fork down from the common area towards the forest past a series of private cabins. Here, I have seen African Blue-Flycatcher, Brown Illadopsis, White-Tailed Ant-Thrush, Red-Bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Red-Capped Robin-Chat, and African Emerald Cuckoo, among others. A derelict trail also heads off into the forest below the cabins. I haven't birded here extensively, nor is it permitted without a guide, but the swampy area immediately inside the forest is good for White-Spotted Flufftail.

To make arrangements for Saturday morning, I had stopped briefly at Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary before checking in at Chimps' Nest. Ben, the guide I worked with previously, greeted me warmly, and we discussed my targets for the following morning. Another guide, Jerod, was available and happy to help me look for a few key species, and we agreed to meet at 7:30 a.m. the following morning. The Kibale Association for Rural and Environmental Development (KAFRED), a community-based organization, operates the sanctuary, and the entrance fees (50,000 UGX for foreign non residents) help support several projects in the local community, including Bigodi Secondary School. KAFRED has twice received the UN Development Programme's Equator Prize, which recognizes communities for reducing poverty through biodiversity conservation. In 2015, it also became Uganda's only winner of the Silver Award as Best Destination for Responsible Tourism in Africa.

These awards are no joke, and most visitors to Kibale National Park also stop here for a quick circuit around the trail in search of the sanctuary's eight primate species. I am not alone in singing the praises of the reserve as an exceptional birding site. Phillip Briggs, author of the Bradt Guide to Uganda and an avid birder himself, notes that the experience at Bigodi is unique in all of East Africa. Most of Uganda's forest reserves are managed by UWA or the National Forest Authority, which consider nature walks and bird watching to be separate activities, to be charged in addition to the entrance fee. At Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary, there is no additional charge for bird watching, and expert guiding services are included. Visitors just need to be clear about their interests and offer advance notice, if possible. Although the reserve is modest in size, and the bird list is far shorter than those of the national parks, Briggs explains that the emphasis is on quality over quantity.

Our walk with Jerod was slow-paced and productive. We spent five hours completing the circuit around the swamp forest and through a bed of papyrus, stopping frequently to search through mixed flocks or to lure difficult birds out of their territories with playback. Our efforts for Grey-Winged Robin-Chat and Joyful Greenbul were rewarded, although we missed out on a few other skulkers, including White-Spotted Flufftail, White-Winged Warbler, and Blue-Shouldered Robin-Chat. The clear highlight was seeing a mating pair of Yellow-Billed Barbets, as they nested in a tree cavity just off the trail. I have seen this spectacular bird several times but never imagined I would photograph it up close. We also encountered an angry mob of birds, including the hefty Double-Toothed Barbet, in a bush along the trail. The Grey-Winged Robin-Chat we had called out of the swamp forest joined the action, as the group harassed what was likely a snake.

Jerod and I swapped stories about seeing his favorite bird, the Green-Breasted Pitta, in Kibale National Park. He shared that he had once seen African Pitta at a lodge a few kilometers down the road. I also quizzed him about rare or unusual birds at Bigodi, and he revealed that he spotted an African Finfoot along the swamp walk just a few weeks ago. Afterwards, Aimee and I returned to Chimps' Nest for lunch and some well-deserved down time. I roamed the grounds off and on until dark, siting out a few rain squalls on our veranda. At one point in the afternoon, there was a long sustained earthquake that woke Aimee from her nap. The tremor was centered across the border in Tanzania, and there was significant destruction in Rakai District. Saturday night proved to be much quieter than Friday, when African Wood Owl and Black-Shouldered Nightjar called intermittently until dawn.

I woke up early on Sunday morning to try again photographing the White-Spotted Flufftail. My new Nikon D500 continues to impress, with the auto focus capability probably being the most significant improvement from my old D5100. I have been shooting in aperture priority mode, keeping my ISO and white balance settings on automatic. The results have been a big improvement, although I'm still shocked to see ISO values above 30,000 producing manageable noise levels. I had to employ a few tricks to stake out the flufftail, but within fifteen minutes I had passable photos of one poking about the swampy forest floor. I haven't been entirely pleased with the auto white balance setting, and I've had to use more fill flash than I would like. It's likely a good time for me to start shooting in RAW format and using appropriate image processing software.

We left Chimps' Nest at 9:00 a.m. and stopped by the park station to check a well-known spot briefly for Blue-Shouldered Robin-Chat. On my first visit to Kibale, I camped here and enjoyed birding in the area around the park station on my own. Before the road project began, visitors could even peacefully bird right through the heart of the park for free. This time, the UWA staff cooly received us and rebuffed our inquiry to look for my target bird. This officiousness was in stark contrast to Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary, where the guides know the bird well and are happy to show it to you. They even have have their own audio equipment to try calling it in at several different territories. I'm not sure what the issue was with the UWA staff I interacted with, but in general a community-based organization should not be outperforming a national park service.

We spent the next few hours driving around the Ndali-Kasenda crater lakes. Most of the area is under cultivation, but some of the lakes are still fringed by native vegetation. African Black Duck and Pygmy Goose are possible here, although I only noted the former. Most of the farms in the area are small mixed banana and coffee plantations, and there are some larger tea estates. If the birding wasn't so good nearby, I would be happy to spend the weekend exploring the area on my mountain bike. Before returning to Kampala, I stopped at Sebitoli Gate to Kibale National Park. Although there are no reports of Green-Breasted Pitta from the north side of the park, I have considered camping here several times. There are several bandas and two areas for camping, one that is set back from the station in the forest. Again, the UWA staff were skeptical of my presence and answered my questions hesitantly, but I'll likely try camping there sometime soon, if only to enjoy the local colony of Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eaters.

Notable birds seen: Little Grebe, Open-Billed Stork, African Black Duck, Palm Nut Vulture, African Goshawk, Great Sparrowhawk, Long-Crested Eagle, Scaly Francolin, White-Spotted Flufftail, Grey Crowned Crane, African Green Pigeon, Blue-Spotted Wood-Dove, Great Blue Turaco, Red-Chested Cuckoo (h), Klaas's Cuckoo, Yellowbill (h), African Wood Owl (h), Black-Shouldered Nightjar (h), Alpine Swift, Speckled Mousebird, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eater, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Crowned Hornbill, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, Yellow-Throated Tinkerbird, Speckled Tinkerbird, Grey-Throated Barbet, Yellow-Spotted Barbet, Hairy-Breasted Barbet, Double-Toothed Barbet, Yellow-Billed Barbet, Greater Honeyguide, Lesser Honeyguide, Yellow-Crested Woodpecker, African Pied Wagtail, Red-Shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike, Western Nicator (h), Little Greenbul, Slender-Billed Greenbul, Toro Olive Greenbul (h), Little Grey Greenbul, Cameroon Sombre Greenbul, Joyful Greenbul, Grey-Winged Robin-Chat, Red-Capped Robin-Chat, Olive Thrush, White-Tailed Ant-Thrush, White-Winged Warbler (h), Green Hylia, Green Crombec, Red-Faced Cisticola, Tawny-Flanked Prinia, White-Chinned Prinia, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Yellow-Breasted Apalis, Ashy Flycatcher, Lead-Coloured Flycatcher, Dusky-Blue Flycatcher, Black-and-White Shrike-Flycatcher, Red-Bellied Flycatcher, African Blue-Flycatcher, Brown Illadopsis, Yellow White-Eye, Bronze Sunbird, Green-Headed Sunbird, Olive-Bellied Sunbird, Green-Throated Sunbird, Olive Sunbird, Copper Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Northern Puffback (h), Bocage's Bush-Shrike, Purple-Headed Starling, Black-Necked Weaver, Grosbeak Weaver, Vieillot's Black Weaver, Grey-Headed Negrofinch, White-Breasted Negrofinch, African Firefinch, Black-Crowned Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin, Black-and-White Mannikin.

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