Beautiful, surprising Uganda shelters some of the most important bird areas in East Africa
By Chuck Hagner | Published: 12/21/2007
My field guide to the birds of East Africa is 604 pages long and lists an astonishing 1,388 species. That’s about a seventh of all the bird species found on the planet and almost double the number that can be seen in all of North America. And by East Africa, I mean only five countries: Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania — the states ringing Lake Victoria east of Lakes Albert, Edward, Kivu, and Tanganyika. Together, they occupy an area about the size of the United States east of the Mississippi.
No wonder that so many of the most intriguing photos we’ve ever published inBirder’s World have been taken there (the flamingos on page 30 of our December 2006 issue were photographed in Kenya): The place is simply filled with birds, and not just beautiful and fascinating individual species but whole families sure to be new to any birdwatcher making a first trip to Africa, including me.
A boyhood fan of TV adventurers Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler and countlessNational Geographic Specials, I had wanted to visit the region for longer than I’ve been a birdwatcher, and in December of 2006 I got the chance of a lifetime. I accepted an invitation from the Uganda Tourist Board to spend 10 days in Uganda, one of the most bird-rich countries on the continent (more than 990 species) and home of the world’s highest concentration of primates.
Five other journalists from America and one from England also made the trip, but I was the only birdwatcher. So after a late arrival at Entebbe airport, scene of the famous 1976 Israeli raid, and a night in the lovely Emin Pasha Hotel in Kampala, my pen-pals and I parted company. While they traveled to binoculars-optional destinations, I set off with two of the country’s best guides — Hassan Mutebi, owner of Access Uganda Tours, and Johnnie Kamugisha, lead guide of Birding in Paradise Safaris — to fill my bins with chimpanzees, hippos, elephants, and other animals, and as many birds as possible.
The heart of East Africa
Squashed between Congo to the west, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Lake Victoria to the south, and Kenya to the east, Uganda is the very heart of East Africa. In early December 2006, I visited the country’s southwestern half, mapped here.
My guides Johnnie Kamugisha and Hassan Mutebi and I were comfortable with the windows open just about everywhere we drove, but I reached for an extra blanket most nights. Uganda’s coolest months are from June to September, the warmest from December to March.
Paved roads connect Kampala, the capital city, to Jinja, Entebbe, Masaka, Mbarara, and other towns, but getting to Buhoma and other birding destinations means risking your vehicle’s suspension (and your fillings) on dirt tracks that are often rutted and can range from hard and dusty to mud-slick and soupy, depending on the rainfall. There are two rainy seasons — from April through May, and in October and November. Regardless of the road conditions, the scenery is breathtaking, the birding excellent.
A country of firsts
By my trip’s too-quick end, Hassan and Johnnie had generously shown me a wonderful time and 307 bird species, all but three of which I had never laid eyes on before. I had seen the bizarre-looking, stork-like Shoebill, one of the most sought-after birds in the world. I had seen my first sunbirds, Africa’s answer to our hemisphere’s hummingbirds; my first turacos; my first bee-eaters, rollers, and mousebirds; my first hornbills; and kingfishers that live in woodlands, not near water. Comfortable in a luxury safari tent, I had awakened to the bugling of Gray Crowned Cranes, Uganda’s national bird. And I had spotted five of the 37 bird species that are endemic to the Albertine Rift Valley, the western fork of the great rift system that extends from Lebanon to Mozambique.
What’s more, I got to watch, Marlin Perkins-like, from the open top hatch of a four-wheel-drive Land Cruiser as herds of zebras, impalas, topis, and other animals rumbled across the dirt track that was our path. I saw a lion cub lolling with its parents in the shadow of the Rwenzoris, thought to be the snow-capped Mountains of the Moon mentioned by Ptolemy. I escaped the rain of half-eaten dates and urine from a chimpanzee dining high in a tree (and who knew very well what he was doing). And I was privileged to share the company of a critically endangered mountain gorilla, one of about 340 residing in famous Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and one of only 720 or so on the planet, as it tenderly nursed a one-month-old baby.
Many bird tour companies offer trips to Uganda. Most are longer than mine and visit a larger number of the country’s astonishing birding destinations. They make an appealing list of places I would gladly go back someday to explore:
Mabira Forest, between Kampala and Jinja, the best place in the country for White-spotted Flufftail, a tiny rail.
Lake Bisina, northeast of Kampala, the sole breeding ground of Fox’s Weaver, Uganda’s only endemic bird.
Budongo Forest Reserve, between Masindi and Lake Edward, the only site in East Africa for Chestnut-capped Flycatcher and the shy brown babbler known as Puvel’s Illadopsis.
Semliki National Park, on the Congo border, where Long-tailed Hawk, Nkulengu Rail, Black-casqued Wattled Hornbill, Lyre-tailed Honeyguide, and other Central African species reach the eastern limit of their distribution. So rich is Semliki that one birder has described it as “the sort of place you would still be adding new species after five days of constant birding.”
Selected tours even reserve time for excursions south to Rwanda’s Nyungwe National Park, the largest montane rainforest in Africa, in search of Red-collared Mountain-Babbler and other Albertine Rift endemics found only there.
Expert guides to the pearl of Africa
These guides belong to the Uganda Bird Guides Club.
Access Uganda Tours
Birding in Paradise Safaris
Bird Uganda Safaris
Avian Watch Uganda
My trip was shorter. It progressed in a clockwise fashion through southwestern Uganda and took me to five Important Bird Areas.
The first was Mabamba Bay, a narrow, papyrus-lined, inky-black waterway along the shores of Lake Victoria, about an hour and a half west of Entebbe. From there we drove southwest to Lake Mburo National Park, a reliable place to find African Finfoot, and farther west to Bwindi Impenetrable, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the well-known destination for wildlife tourists hoping to see mountain gorillas. Giant Queen Elizabeth National Park, the 488,000-acre reserve lining Lakes Edward and George, was next. Kibale, a national park adjoining Queen Elizabeth to the north, was my last stop. The world’s greatest variety and highest concentration of primates, mischievous chimps included, live there.
It was early when we set out from the Emin Pasha for Mabamba, but the capital city was already wide awake, its streets crowded with pedestrians and taxis, the markets clamoring. The pungent odor of wood smoke and the sweet song of White-browed Robin-chat, my first Ugandan bird, hung in the air. I’ll never forget it.
According to BirdLife International, Mabamba is one of the best marshy areas along the northern shore of Lake Victoria and the location closest to Kampala where Shoebills are seen regularly.
Hassan pointed out the bird — along with Gull-billed and White-winged Terns, Goliath Heron (the world’s largest heron), Spur-winged Geese, Squacco Herons, African Jacanas, Malachite Kingfishers, and other birds — from the bow of a long, low, wood shell that a local guide hand-paddled through the marsh’s narrow, reedy channels.
The Mabamba bird that made the biggest impression on me, though, was one we saw from dry land. It was hiding in a dense stand of 10-foot-tall bright green papyrus: a robin-size bush-shrike with a black back, blazing orange-red undersides, and a shining yellow crown — a near-threatened Papyrus Gonolek.
Our drive to Lake Mburo later in the day carried me across the equator for the first time in my life. When we stopped at the monument that marks the spot, Hassan snapped my picture while I stood with a foot in each hemisphere. I was stepping into a new world, I thought. How ironic, then, to discover not another life bird, but an all too familiar one — a House Sparrow, introduced in Africa as well as in North America and a newcomer in this part of Uganda.
Eye to eye with Uganda’s gorillas
Coming face to face with a mountain gorilla in the wild is one of the most thrilling experiences you can have. No birder should pass up an opportunity to do it.
I got my chance in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Accompanied by a German, two New Zealanders, a Briton, a handful of Americans, porters hired from the community, and armed guards, I hiked for hours behind panga-wielding guides up a fern- and vine-clad forest hillside. Then, long after my shirt had become wet with sweat and our international chatter had turned to whispers, I pushed aside a veil of grasses and discovered that we were being studied by an adult female gorilla nursing a one-month-old baby — and other members of her group, each with brown eyes, were nearby.
Travelers who want to see mountain gorillas in Bwindi have to purchase permits from the Uganda Wildlife Authority (uwa AT uwa.or.ug, 0414 346287/8) or make arrangements with a tour company that will acquire permits for them. As of July 2007, the permit fee was $500 per person.
More than 310 bird species have been recorded at Lake Mburo, including the secretive Rufous-bellied Heron and the rarely seen, big-billed Red-faced Barbet, whose restricted range reaches its northern limit here. Our target that Sunday morning was the African Finfoot, an expert swimmer best seen by boat (if at all) as it creeps along the shore behind overhanging branches and exposed roots.
A light rain started falling when Hassan and I arrived at the landing, and it grew stronger as we motored away, so I wondered about our chances. Perhaps the Pied Kingfishers, African Fish Eagles, and Northern Brown-throated Weavers (another papyrus specialist) keeping watch over the hippos in the shallows would be the only additions to our day’s list. But the gathering storm brought good luck, not bad: We got excellent looks at a stripe-headed, orange-billed female. And a warthog greeted us as we returned to the dock.
The rain turned to a downpour as we drove to Bwindi. Our route – through the cities of Mbarara, Ntungamo, and Rukungiri — deviated from the planned path via Ruhiza, a traditional stop on most bird tours, but led through some of the prettiest countryside I’ve ever seen: high, rounded hills looming over deep, green valleys thick with tea and banana trees. So often images of Africa portray a sere, dusty place. This was anything but. Even in the rain, it was gorgeous. When we stopped later to stretch our legs and take in the dripping scenery, I was surprised by a sudden dash of color, vivid lime green and bright red, very close: a Red-headed Lovebird. It had flown up while I was looking down.
Because dense, mountainous Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is surrounded by one of the highest human population densities on the continent, its 82,000 acres are often described as an ecological island, a sanctuary of critical importance to East Africa’s birdlife as well as gorillas.
Sharp-eyed birdwatchers have recorded no fewer than 347 species in it, and it is home to 24 Albertine Rift endemics, including the endangered Grauer’s Swamp-Warbler; the vulnerable African Green Broadbill, Chapin’s Flycatcher, and Shelley’s Crimsonwing; and the near-threatened Dwarf Honeyguide and Kivu Ground-Thrush.
The forest is also the place where a band of Rwandan rebels nearly brought Ugandan tourism to its knees in 1999. Early on a March morning, they shot their way into the town of Buhoma, where the park headquarters and tourist encampments are located, killing a game warden and three rangers. Then they herded together 31 of the campers, robbed them of their valuables, and brutally killed eight, including two Americans. The assault made headlines around the world overnight.
High adventure in great comfort
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Mweya Safari Lodge
Queen Elizabeth National Park
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Lake Kitandara Bwindi Camp
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park
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Lake Mburo National Park
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Emin Pasha Hotel
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Albertine Rift specialties
Almost 10 years later, simmering tensions in the Congo and parts of northern Rwanda still threaten to boil over into Uganda, and green-uniformed security personnel toting assault rifles stand watch over all park visitors. When Hassan, Johnnie, and I set out from Buhoma in search of Handsome Francolin, Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo, Red-chested Owlet, Neumann’s Warbler, Pale-breasted Illadopsis, and other sought-after birds — and when my group hiked into the rainforest to find mountain gorillas the next day — we weren’t alone; at least two armed soldiers came along. Their presence made me uneasy but didn’t keep me from adding Red-throated Alethe, Mountain Masked Apalis, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, and the exquisite, long-tailed Purple-breasted Sunbird to my life list, each one an Albertine Rift endemic. Be sure to seek up-to-date security information from park authorities before you launch your own search for these birds.
A pair of Swamp Flycatchers and a Pied Wagtail, one of four wagtail species we saw in the country, were busy hawking insects on the inside of a picture window in the lobby of the magnificent Mweya Safari Lodge when we arrived in Queen Elizabeth National Park. More a luxury hotel than a lodge, it offers private bathrooms, Internet access, a swimming pool, a good restaurant, and an outdoor dining area overlooking Lake Edward and the distant Rwenzori Mountains. When I sipped coffee there one morning, black-masked Slender-billed and Yellow-backed Weavers helped themselves to the sugar in the bowl on my table.
On our drive into the park, we had seen a stocky, short-tailed Bateleur eagle, flocks of running Red-necked Spurfowl and Helmeted Guineafowl, and three of the area’s six species of vultures, as well as elephants, buffalo, waterbucks, baboons, and tree-climbing lions. Just as memorable, though, was an Australian girl we met on the open savanna. Not content to ride inside her land cruiser, she sat on its roof. When the vehicle pulled to a stop alongside us, her parents and driver swapped greetings with Hassan and Johnnie, and I popped my head through the upper hatch, so she and I could chat from rooftop to rooftop. TV adventures clearly wouldn’t do for this young traveler; her perceptions of Africa were all her own, gained, at least in part, from the seat of her pants.
More than 600 species of birds have been recorded in Queen Elizabeth, many of them no doubt spotted from the same small boat that carried me and a dozen or so other visitors along the 20-mile Kazinga Channel connecting Lake Edward and Lake George. The cruise has been described as “one of the most productive birding excursions on the planet,” and it was easy to see why. Hundreds of Bank Swallows skimmed the water’s surface as we set out, and we passed groups of shiny hippopotamus and muddy buffalo, dangling weaver nests, and assemblages of Great White and Pink-backed Pelicans, Yellow- and Saddle-billed Storks, African Spoonbills, Egyptian Geese, African Jacanas, Black-winged Stilts, Water Thick-Knees, Spur-winged Plovers, and many other birds.
Trogons and chimps
The rarely recorded Green-breasted Pitta tops the list of species that attract birdwatchers to 776-square-mile Kibale National Park, my final destination in Uganda, and Bar-tailed Trogon, White-naped Pigeon, White-headed Wood-hoopoe, African Gray Parrot, Superb Sunbird, and more than 300 other extraordinary birds also call the forest home. Like Semliki about 25 miles to the northwest (and like the four other parks I’d visited earlier), Kibale is a birding destination of exceptional richness.
When Hassan, Johnnie, and I arrived there early in the day, officials were already busy organizing visitors for guided walks to five habituated groups of chimpanzees, the park’s other chief attraction. Eager to see man’s closest relative in the wild, I took my place in line to await processing, but before all the arrangements could be made, Johnnie and Hassan, grinning, signaled for me to step around the back of the headquarters building. They had located a chimp in a tree just a few steps from the visitor center. Rather than wait for us to find him, he had come to find us.
The discovery made me recall what a friend, an experienced traveler who had been to Africa several times, told me shortly before I had flown to Uganda. I had asked him what Africa was like, and he said, “Chuck, as soon as you get home, you’ll want to go back.”
Back then, I wasn’t sure why he said that, but having been delighted by Shoebills, lovebirds, sugar-stealing weavers, bugling cranes, and countless other Ugandan surprises, and now by a chimpanzee, I’m sure I know.
Chuck Hagner is the editor of Birder’s World.