Tuesday, 29 June 2010

UGANDA June 2010: Bwindi & Mbamba

Tuesday 22 June.  All day was spent birding on the main trail at Buhoma, with two armed guards in tow, and later by myself along the river trail near the HQ.  My target here was Short-tailed Warbler which we heard briefly by the main trail but could not see.  Equally annoying was that our guards saw a male gorilla cross the trail ahead of us while we were looking at something ordinary in the canopy.  Birds seen included Great Blue Turaco 2, Black-billed Turaco 4, African Pigmy Kingfisher 1, Black Bee-eater 2, Blue-throated Roller 2, Yellow-spotted Barbet 2, Elliot’s Woodpecker 1, African Broadbill 1, Red-throated Alethe 1, Green Hylia 1, Short-tailed Warbler h, Vanga Flycatcher 2, White-tailed blue Flycatcher 2, Blue-headed Sunbird 1 male, Stuhlmann’s Starling 1, Red-headed Malimbe 1 and Grey-headed Negrofinch 1.

Wednesday 23 June.  All day was spent birding along the main and waterfall trails at Buhoma and the river trail near the HQ.  We heard another Short-tailed Warbler near the main trail and this one was more responsive, eventually giving brief but excellent views.  Birds seen included Black-billed Turaco 1, Bar-tailed Trogon 1, Black Bee-eater 3, Yellow-spotted Barbet 1, White-bellied Robin-Chat 1, Short-tailed Warbler 1, Vanga Flycatcher 2, White-tailed blue Flycatcher 2 and Grey-headed Negrofinch 1.

Harriet and one of our guards on Buhoma main trail

Thursday 24 June.  After much negotiation Harriet arranged a charter to take us to Ruhija, the higher elevation section of Bwindi NP.  It took 2-3 hours to get there but unfortunately the charter had other commitments which didn’t allow us time to stop to bird the Neck on the way.  I put my tent up in the grounds of a new lodge on ridge at end of village.  Harriet was on good terms with everyone there (as usual) and managed to get a complementary room as the lodge wasn’t full.  We birded the 'school' trail in the afternoon.  Birds seen included Black Cuckoo 1, Elliot’s Woodpecker 1, African Broadbill 1, Red-faced Woodland Warbler 1, Mountain Masked Apalis 4, Rwenzori Batis 2, White-tailed blue Flycatcher 1, Stripe-breasted Tit 4, Regal Sunbird 2, Sharpe’s Starling 2 and Strange Weaver 2.

Ruhija campsite and restuarant

views from the campsite of areas outside the national park
Friday 25 JuneMost of the day was spent visiting Mubwindi swamp, two hours steep walk down a ridge below the Ranger Station.  We had a local guide Amos and an armed guard.  Amos knew of a recently active broadbill nest which made me rather tense.  After reaching the valley floor we went a short way up a narrow trail and the nest was casually pointed out to me.  It took me a while to realise it was still occupied although only the top of the birds head could be seen initially.  A male visited after about 30 minutes although my attempts at digiscoping really suffered through not having a tripod.  On the walk back up the ridge we were very fortunate to get brief views of three gorillas, including a silverback.  They were from one of the habituated groups that the area is famous for, although they were usually well away from the trail.  What a brilliant end to the day.  Birds seen included Crowned Eagle 1 (an amazing view of one stooping into a gap in the canopy ahead of us), African Green Broadbill 3 (at nest), Archer’s Robin-Chat h, Mountain Yellow Warbler 2, Red-faced Woodland Warbler 3, Collared Apalis 2, Mountain Masked Apalis 5, Yellow-eyed Slaty Flycatccher 2, Rwenzori Batis 1, Stripe-breasted Tit 4, Regal Sunbird 1, Doherty’s Bush-Shrike 2 and Montane Oriole 2.

track from the lodge to the park entrance, forested hills inside the park in the background
Harriet at Ruhija
me at Ruhija

looking down on Mubwindi swamp
Black-fronted Duiker
Africna Green Broadbill nest (right of centre)

obscured African Green Broadbill at nest
Mubwindi swamp
White-naped Ravens near the lodge
Saturday 26 June.  Something of an anticlimax after the previous day we walked the main road through the park in the morning, although it soon became hot and birdless, and tried the School trail again later.  At this point not having a vehicle reduced our options and although I had been successful with all of my target species there is always something else it would be nice to see.  Birds seen included Crowned Eagle 1, Grey Crowned Crane 3, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo 1, Olive Thrush 1, Red-faced Woodland Warbler 1, Grauer’s Warbler h, Mountain Masked Apalis 2, Rwenzori Batis 1, Stripe-breasted Tit 2, Regal Sunbird 3 and Dusky Crimsonwing 1.

Mountain of the Moon volcano barely visible

Harriet coming down with a fever
Sunday 27 June.  A return to Mubwindi swamp seemed the best option for what would be our last day at Ruhija although in the event Harriet was struck down with a fever and stayed at the lodge.  Amos took me back down to the swamp where birds were much as on the previous visit although it was nice to see the broadbills again.  However despite finding a tree stump to use as a tripod there was much less activity and the one time the male came in my scope slipped in my excitement and I failed to get back on it and take any shots before it departed.  Harriet was feeling much better when I got back and we decided it was best to leave for Kampala the following morning, giving us a spare day should there be any delays.  With few vehicles at Ruhija a charter even to a nearby town was going to be difficult to arrange but we were very fortunate that a Spanish couple who staying in the lodge were returning to Kampala and agreed to take us in their 4WD.  Birds seen included Handsome Francolin 2, Great Blue Turaco 2, Black-billed Turaco 1, Narina Trogon 1, African Green Broadbill 2 (at nest), Red-throated Alethe 3, Red-faced Woodland Warbler 1, White-browed Crombec 1, Mountain Masked Apalis 3, Rwenzori Batis 2, Stripe-breasted Tit 2, Regal Sunbird 1, Montane Oriole 4 and Strange Weaver 1.
early morning at Ruhija

African Green Broadbill in its nest
Monday 28 June.  All day travelling to Kampala was disrupted towards the end by the 4WD breaking down.  Fortunately it was soon fixed and we were dropped at Kampala Backpackers just as it was getting dark.  It was nice not to have to put up a tent!  Birds seen included
Handsome Francolin 1, Grey Crowned Crane 40, Blue-headed Coucal 1, Broad-billed Roller 1, Grassland Pipit 1, Luhder’s Bush-Shrike 2 and Yellow Bishop 1.

Harriet supervising vehicle repair
Tuesday 29 June.  Harriet arranged a car and driver for us for the day and we revisited Mabamba as I’d enjoyed it so much the first time.  Shoebill didn’t perform quite so well but were still amazing.  We then spent a couple of hours in decent woodland at Mpanga before I was dropped at the Green Valley Motel in Entebbe at 4pm.  It was very sad to say goodbye to Harriet who had looked after me so well – a more cheerful, dedicated and knowledgeable guide it would be hard to imagine.  I looked around the gardens in town and walked to the shore of Lake Victoria while it remained light and had a restless night concerned that with no alarm I’d miss my 2 a.m. taxi to take me to the airport in time for my return flight home.  Birds seen included Shoebill 2, Banded Snake Eagle 1, African Hobby 1 (over Entebbe), Red-headed Lovebird 2, Great Blue Turaco 6, Narina Trogon 1, Blue-breasted Bee-eater 2, Double-toothed Barbet 1, Vanga Flycatcher 1, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher 1, Red-chested Sunbird 12, Papyrus Gonolek 2, Velvet-mantled Drongo 1 and Weyn’s Weaver 2.

Swamp Flycatcher

Monday, 21 June 2010

UGANDA June 2010: Mbamba, Budongo & Kibale

I had wanted to go to Uganda for several years but the opportunity never arose, or other destinations proved too tempting.  However sightings of Green-breasted Pitta were becoming more regular during a summer ‘window’ and in 2010 it was clear that I would have two weeks holiday ‘free’ that could be taken at that time.  Not finding anyone interested, or a private trip I could join, I considered going alone.  This would be a prohibitively expensive option with a vehicle for the whole time but possible on a restricted itinerary concentrating on key species, especially if I was camping.  Following a recommendation on the African Birding chat group I contacted Harriet Kemigisha, an ex-ranger at Kibale who knows the pittas well and was now a freelance guide, to determine the best time to look for the pitta and her availability then.  An email correspondence quickly established that she was very knowledgeable and would be happy to guide me around Uganda for the second half of June.  She arranged to meet me at the airport with a car and driver, from Avian Watch Uganda, which we would have for our first four days.  As I was camping I decided to travel light and only brought a 50mm spotting scope.  I also left behind tripod and Digital SLR (as few recharging opportunities).  I did take a digital compact with 3 batteries which just about saw me through.

Wednesday 16 June:  I arrived at Entebbe at 03.25, having flown via Cairo on Egyptair.  After collecting my bags and getting a visa I exited the airport and was very relieved to find Harriet waiting with car and driver.  It was still dark so we drove a short distance and slept n the car for a couple of hours before continuing to Mabamba Swamp.  Here we hired a canoe and local guide we were paddled into the swamp to look for Shoebill, after the pitta the main bird I hoped to see on the trip.  Our guide, who Harriet knew (she knew everybody!) was confident of success although it was still an anxious time.  Suddenly there one was and we got fantastic views of it.  I even managed some respectable digiscoped photos resting the spotting scope on my knee.  We reluctantly left the swamp after some more general birding, drove to Kampala to sort out some paperwork and visit a bank and then set off to drive to Masindi with a few birding stops en route.  I camped in the grounds of a lodge in Masindi while Harriet and our driver stayed in the town.  Birds seen included Shoebill 1, Banded Snake Eagle 1, Ross’s Turaco 2, Eastern Grey Plantain-eater 15, Malachite Kingfisher 4, Blue-breasted Bee-eater 4, White-browed Scrub-Robin 1, African Moustached Warbler 3, Caruther’s Cisticola 1, Grey-capped Warbler 1, Swamp Flycatcher 3, Red-chested Sunbird 3, Piapiac 30 and Hartlaub’s Marsh Widowbird 2.

entering Mbamba Swamp


Thursday 17 June.  We drove to Budongo where we picked up local bird guide Vincent.  We spent the morning birding the famous Royal Mile, where we saw both my target kingfishers, and the afternoon on a road along the edge of the forest before returning to Masindi.  Birds included Red-chested Cuckoo 1, Yellowbill 2, Blue-breasted Kingfisher 2, Chocolate-backed Kingfisher 2, African Pigmy Kingfisher 4, African Dwarf Kingfisher 3, Blue-throated Roller 4, Willcock’s Honeyguide 2, Fire-crested Alethe 1, Red-tailed Ant-Thrush 1, Rufous Flycatcher Thrush 1, Grey Longbill 1, Whistling Cisticola 1, Forest Flycatcher 2, Shrike Flycatcher 2, Chestnut Wattle-eye 3 and Jamieson’s Wattle-eye 1

The Royal Mile at Budongo (brilliant for kingfishers)
Friday 18 June.  We drove to Kanio Pabidi, just inside Murchison’s Falls NP, for a couple of hours brding.  A nice looking area but we didn’t have the time to do it justice and so I left somewhat disappointed despite seeing Puvel's Illadopsis for which the site is well known.  It was then had a long drive to Kibale, mainly on dirt roads, some of which some early rain had made very slippery.  At one point the road was blocked by a very laden car that couldn’t get up a hill although by the time we arrived there were enough helpers to push it over the brow and we soon continued.  We arrived at the edge of Kibale and birded the main road in the remaining light seeing the incomparable Vanga Fluycatcher, another of my targets.  We got to Kanyanchu Ranger Station just as it was getting dark.  I camped in the adjoining Primate Lodge campsite and had my meals there.  Harriet returned to her house in Kibale village.  Birds included Great Blue Turaco 3, White-thighed Hornbill 12, Abyssinian Ground Hornbill 2, Yellow-billed Barbet 1, Western Nicator 1, Spotted Greenbul 4, Vanga Flycatcher 3, Chestnut Wattle-eye 1, Puvel’s Illadopsis 1 and White-breasted Negrofinch 2.

Abyssinian Ground Hornbills
Saturday 19 June.  All day at Kibale, being driven into the forest before dawn.  The morning looking unsuccessfully for pittas with local guide Gerard, initially concentrating in an area he'd flushed one two days previously.  The pittas were not yet calling which was going to make them particularly hard to find.  Very annoying as they had been vocal at this time the previous year.  Chimps had moved into the area which might have caused the pitta to move on?  It couldn't be found and an impressive male chimp playing hide and seek at dawn was no consolation.  I walked the road during the heat of the day being rewarded with a Crowned Eagle flying directly overhead.  In the afternoon we drove to nearby Bigodi where we were taken around by local guide Alex, seeing Papyrus Gonolek and a pair of Vanga Flycatchers, before returning to Kanyanchu.  Birds seen included Crowned Eagle 1, Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo 1, White-headed Saw-wing 1, White-throated Greenbul 1, Red-tailed Ant-Thrush 1, White-tailed Ant-Thrush 1, Brown-backed Scrub-Robin 1, Green Hylia 1, Vanga Flycatcher 2, Brown-throated Wattle-eye 2, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher 1, Scaly-breasted Illadopsis 2 and Papyrus Gonolek 1.
Brown-backed Scrub-Robin
Sunday 20 June.  Again we were driven with Gerard into the forest at Kibale before dawn.  Our driver then took the car back to Kampala and we were on our own.  After five hours of intensive searching, during which time I'd seen virtually nothing at all, my hopes were seriously flagging and we were considering leaving for Bwindi to return a week later in the hope that the pittas might have started calling by then.  We approached a low hillock with Gerard going to the left, Harriet straight over and me to the right.  Harriet suddenly but somewhat unexcitedly called me over.  I was sure she'd seen something worthwhile but wasn't expecting her to rather calmly tell me she'd seen a pitta carrying nesting material drop down before a nearby log!  We approached slowly and it flew up from infront of us and landed in full view on another log 15m away.  It is hard to describe the feelings of joy and relief at seeing this absolutely stunning bird, something I'd dreamed of seeing for many years, so much so that it brought tears to my eyes.  I watched the bird almost continually for almost an hour, at one stage it was less than ten feet from me (although I didn't think to try my luck with the compact camera until later).  A second bird was seen briefly too - it was brighter above and below with the blue in the wing hidden.  The experience, and the views of the pitta, exceeded all expectations and made me extremely glad I'd come to Uganda and was being guided by Harriet.  We walked back to Kanyanchu and spent the afternoon birding along road which was rather quiet, but who cared?  I was instructed to be packed and by the entrance to the Ranger Station at 6am the following morning for the first stage (minibus) of our journey to Bwindi.  At this entailed getting up before it got light and the alarm on my watch had stopped working I had an anxious night, paranoid that I would oversleep.  Birds included Crested Guineafowl 2, Great Blue Turaco 6, African Wood Owl heard by campsite, Green-breasted Pitta 2 (amazing birds) and White-throated Greenbul 2 (quite the opposite).

poor shot of the brilliant Green-breasted Pitta
Monday 21 June.   A restless night but I was up and packed and met Harriet on the early minibus to Fort Portal.  Here after breakfast we got another minibus to Kasese.  We then chartered a taxi to Buhoma (foreigners price somewhat beaten down by Harriet) where I put up my tent in the campsite by the park HQ.  Harriet stayed in Ranger’s bunkhouse.  Birds included Bateleur 4, Grey Crowned Crane 4, Ross’s Turaco 1, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater 2, Madagascar Bee-eater 2, White-thighed Hornbill 1, Sooty Chat 4, Trilling Cisticola 2 and Black-headed Gonolek 2.

leaving Kibale
short break in Queen Elizabeth NP