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


  1. I toured with Harriet Kemigisha in 2007 and found her to be a wonderful person and guide.

    Mark Holmgren


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