For the love of birds

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Despite Uganda’s relatively small size, its unique position means a rich portfolio of habitats and thus a profusion of species. What’s more, you don’t need to be on a specialist safari to see countless feathered delights, from the great blue turaco to the famed shoebill.
Words and photographs by Mike Unwin

Silence. Suddenly. The maniacal shrieking that has ripped through Kibale Forest National Park for the last three minutes stops abruptly, as though unplugged at the wall. The chimps, wherever they are, appear to have calmed down. The forest breathes again. We take a break, rummaging for packed lunches and finding seats among vine-festooned buttress roots.

But as we munch in companionable reflection, I realise that the forest is far from silent. Other subtler sounds emanate from the dark tangle. A soft descending hoot signals a tambourine dove. A liquid chirrup is an eastern black-headed oriole. And an insistent four-syllable phrase right overhead is an emerald cuckoo. “Hello, Georgie!” it repeats, cheerfully.

Birds. And these are just the ones I recognise. My guide Bosco, noticing my interest, helps me with others: “scaly-breasted illadopsis”, he whispers, at a mournful rising whistle from the under-storey; “black-billed turaco”, at a harsh growling up in the canopy. The forest is alive with avian communication: not a dawn-chorus clamour but more a multi-layered conversation that ebbs and flows beyond the hum of insects and rustle of our backpacks. Together, we pick out more voices: Narina trogon, yellow-billed barbet, rufous flycatcher-thrush. I scribble down names, making a mental note to check a field guide later.

It’s not until the whirr of wingbeats reveals a black-and-white casqued hornbill close overhead that I realise all these birds have, until now, just been sounds. We’ve identified more than 20 species during this lunch break yet haven’t laid eyes on one. My neck is already stiff from craning upwards. But somehow seeing them doesn’t matter. Neither, even, does identifying them. Just sitting in the gloom enjoying the soundscape is magical.

I should explain, before going any further, that this is not a birding trip. I’m on safari; here, like most visitors to Uganda, in search of big game and great apes. But in Uganda, perhaps more than anywhere else in Africa, birds come with the territory. And Kibale, where I have come to find the famous chimpanzees, is no exception.

Uganda’s birdlife is remarkable. Home to some 1030 species, the country ranks fourth by number in Africa, behind Kenya (third), Tanzania (second) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (first). But by area, this modest-sized country is number one. To put its riches into perspective: Queen Elizabeth National Park alone, which covers less than 2000sq km, has recorded more than 600 species. Canada, which covers virtually 10 million sq km (around 5000 times larger), has recorded 686.

The key to this profusion is Uganda’s location. The country straddles two great tropical biomes: the savannah grasslands of East Africa and the tropical rainforests of the Congo basin. Add the arid plains of the north, the misty peaks of the Rwenzori, and a profusion of lakes and wetlands — including the source of the Nile and the shores of Lake Victoria — and you have an exceptionally rich mosaic of habitats, each with its own assemblage of birds.

But you needn’t study the ecology or statistics — indeed, you don’t even have to be a birder — to marvel at Uganda’s birdlife. My tour started four days earlier at Murchison Falls National Park, where the Victoria Nile thunders over the mighty cataract and flows west into Lake Albert. Here, from my base at the laid-back Baker’s Lodge, I ventured out with my guide Robert Aliganyira for game drives on the lush savannah. Wildlife was certainly plentiful: hartebeest and kob cropping the sward; Rothschild’s giraffes pruning the acacias. But equally arresting was the pageant of birds, from leggy Denham’s bustards stalking the grasslands to exquisite red-cheeked cordon bleus flitting along the verge. It was clear from this first drive that feathers would be vying with fur for our attention throughout the trip.

Murchison Falls is known to birders as a hotspot for the near-mythical shoebill. On an afternoon river cruise, while passengers admired elephants cavorting in the shallows and crocodiles slipping off the bank, I scanned the papyrus for this enormous, bizarre-looking swamp bird. My luck wasn’t in — I’d have more chance further downstream, advised our guide — but meanwhile, I spied purple swamphens and little bitterns among the reeds, while dazzling red-throated bee-eaters fluttered around their sandbank breeding colony and a dapper pair of rock pratincoles perched on a river rock below the falls.

Three days later, water birds also stole the show at Queen Elizabeth National Park, where a boat cruise (you can’t get enough of these in Uganda) took us down the famed Kasinga Channel between lakes George and Edward. With our boatman Yusef nudging us expertly along the bank, our craft became a perfect photography hide, allowing us to snap malachite kingfishers on reed stems and yellow-naped weavers fashioning their intricate nests. There were no rarities here, but the sheer abundance was breath-taking: in hippo-crowded bays, cormorants and pelicans lined the banks in hundreds, while ranks of spoonbills, ibis, egrets and storks worked the shallows. Pied kingfishers — a bird generally seen elsewhere in ones and twos — were hovering and plunging by the dozen, while African fish eagles yodelled overhead.

Pin-tailed whydah

After lunch, the towering thunderheads above ‘Queen’ — as Robert called this beautiful park — broke in lashing torrents. Later, as we drove through the dripping greenery of the southern Ishasha sector, the birds were making up for lost time. Widowbirds cruised over the grass heads, coucals bubbled from thickets, and every bush seemed festooned with larks, longclaws, chats and cisticolas — each diminutive songster belting out its territorial claim.

The beauty of such profusion was, I found, that priorities seldom conflicted. Great birds and big game were generally in the very same place — sometimes even in the same binocular scope. This was ably demonstrated that afternoon, as we watched green pigeons gorging on figs within touching distance of four slumbering lions draped over the same branches. And the following morning we found at least 100 vultures queueing behind hyena at a buffalo carcass. Given the decline of vultures across East Africa, this grisly spectacle was a cheering sight. White-backeds and Ruppell’s griffons dominated the throng, bounding forward as soon as they saw an opening, but there were also a handful of hoodeds, two palm-nuts and one massive lappet-faced — not forgetting Uganda’s ubiquitous marabou storks.

What’s more, lest you have difficulty sorting out your hooded from your lappet-faced, in Uganda there’s usually an expert to hand. Robert claimed not to be a birder, yet before we’d even left Entebbe Airport on day one he was pointing out long-crested eagles and hadeda ibises. Lunch stops during our long drives from park to park invariably saw us working through the field guide to resolve some earlier ID conundrum, binoculars in hand.

Local expertise was invaluable at the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, just outside Kibale, where I walked a 2.5km circuit around an island of swamp forest protected as a community eco-tourism project. My guide James was impressive, finding me local specials such as green hylia and locating elusive black cuckoo and yellow-billed barbet high in the canopy. “People don’t really tamper with the swamp, because they know what it is all about,” he explained, as we tramped a boardwalk through the papyrus. A party of gorgeous Ross’s turacos — a real Uganda A-lister – alighted in a nearby fig to give their vigorous bubbling chorus of approval. In a clearing at the centre, two grey crowned-cranes led their three chicks cautiously out into the open, allowing us a rare glimpse of Uganda’s national bird en famille.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, my next destination after Queen, makes the world wildlife bucket list for its gorilla trekking. But this high-altitude forest also offers (surprise, surprise!) excellent birding, including numerous montane forest species barely found elsewhere in East Africa. Relaxing at Bwindi Buhoma Lodge, after meeting the great apes, I struggled to get to grips with the species flitting around my chalet. But the following day, I had the help of two outstanding guides, Richard and Emmanuel, as we set out on the Ivy Trail — a four-hour trek from one side of the forest to the other.

In this cathedral of green, beneath towering newtonias and spreading tree ferns, the birds came thick and fast. Colour and movement low down betrayed such shy forest-floor denizens as equatorial akalat and red-throated alethe, while mixed feeding parties brought such gems as purple-throated cuckoo-shrike and white-headed wood-hoopoe. Every call was something new: the squeaky wheel of a black-faced rufous warbler; the deep, vibrating ‘worrrk’ of Ludher’s bush-shrike. For me, nothing could top the pair of dazzling black bee-eaters perched atop a forest emergent, their black, scarlet and turquoise livery illuminated in sunlight against the canopy behind. Again, it was the sense of profusion, more than the individual species, that most impressed. And with our senses on full alert, other treats appeared: a black-fronted duiker tip-toeing across the path; handsome L’Hoest’s monkeys foraging beside the trail.

Bwindi’s wild forests disappeared below me as, two days later, I hopped a flight back from Kisoro to Entebbe. With a weekend left before my return to the UK, it was a chance to dust myself down, check photos and field guides and enjoy the mellow hospitality of Papyrus Guest House. But Robert was not done with the birds just yet. The delightful Entebbe Botanical Gardens, overlooking Lake Victoria, offered a spread of lawn, forest and shoreline that seemed to reproduce in microcosm Uganda’s habitat mosaic. Thus, among the picnickers and strolling sweethearts, we found great blue turacos, black-and-white casqued hornbills, African grey parrots and paradise flycatchers, not to mention a troop of black-and-white colobus monkeys dangling their bell-pull tails high in the canopy. We also witnessed our first ‘kill’: a black-headed heron stalking, impaling and swallowing an unfortunate red-flanked skink.

My flight home loomed. The tour had produced more wildlife than I’d thought possible in just 12 days: gorillas, chimps, tree-climbing lions and — according to my laborious trawl through the field guide — more than 250 species of bird. But Robert was determined I could not leave without having seen Uganda’s greatest avian celebrity. Thus, my final day saw us bumping along the lakeshore’s red-dirt roads on one final quest. “Maybe we’ll be lucky,” said Robert, knowingly, as we pulled up at the dusty office of Mabamba Bay Wetland Eco-tourism Association. Irene Namubiru, our host, led us to a small motor dugout where our boatman Jackson awaited, clad in an Arsenal shirt.

Shoebill

For the next two hours, we explored a magical watery labyrinth packed with birds. The list continued to lengthen as Irene pointed out African marsh harriers overhead and black herons luring fish into the shade of their extended wings. We even surprised a shy spotted-necked otter. And the main attraction? “Shoebill,” announced Irene, casually, as we rounded a bend. There it was, the African birder’s holy grail, watching us from the papyrus just 50m away. Battleship grey, marabou height and with a bill the size and shape of a Dutch clog, it was as extraordinary as promised. I watched, spellbound, as that great conk split open in a cavernous yawn. “What kept you?” it seemed to say.

Six of the best Ugandan birds
Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex)  Huge, stork-like, water bird, with grey plumage and massive shoe-shaped bill. Confined to dense papyrus swamps, where it catches lungfish and other aquatic prey. Uganda offers Africa’s best viewing of this rare species, notably at Murchison Falls National Park and Mabamba Swamp.
Great blue turaco (Corythaeola cristata)  Around twice the size of other turacos, with a largely blue body, red-tipped yellow bill and scruffy black crest. Common in forested areas across southern Uganda, where it reveals itself with a loud rattling call.
Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus)  Common parrot of Africa’s equatorial rainforests that reaches its eastern limit in Uganda. Grey plumage set off by white face and scarlet tail. Typically seen flying in pairs or small groups between tall forest trees. A popular cage bird, renowned for its intelligence.
Green-breasted pitta (Pitta reichenowi)  Beautiful but elusive forest resident of south-west Uganda, with green breast, red belly and blue wing markings. Feeds in the leaf-litter. Kibale Forest National Park is a key site.
Southern crowned-crane (Balearica regulorum)  Uganda’s national bird. Tall, elegant and colourful, with bold white wing panels and a golden crest. Reasonably common in wetlands, swamps and flooded grasslands, pairs announcing their arrival with loud bugling calls in flight.
Black bee-eater (Merops gularis)  Dazzling, with scarlet throat and turquoise belly set off by black upperparts. Very different from other bee-eaters in both appearance and forest habitat, where pairs hawk insects in clearings. Found nowhere else in East Africa; in Uganda restricted to extreme south-west, including Bwindi.

Safari Planner
• Getting there  Uganda is well linked to its East African neighbours, with daily flights to Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda. Airlines include British Airways, Emirates, Ethiopian Airlines, Kenya Airways and South African Airways. Mike Unwin travelled as a guest of Rainbow Tours, which offers a variety of packages, including gorilla trekking, birding and general wildlife.
• Where to stay  There is a good choice of places to stay. Mike Unwin stayed at Baker’s Lodge in Murchison Falls National Park; Primate Lodge in Kibale Forest; Mweya Safari Lodge and Ishasha Wilderness Camp in Queen Elizabeth National Park; Buhoma Lodge and Nkuringo Bwindi Gorilla Lodge in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park; and Papyrus Guest House in Entebbe.
• When to go  Uganda’s position on the Equator means it is a year-round wildlife destination. March to May and October to November see the most rain, which can make gorilla tracking more arduous but also less busy (with discounts available on permits). Bird numbers increase from November to March, when Eurasian migrants overwinter, but birding is good year-round.
• Health  Check with your local travel clinic which vaccinations you need.
• Further reading  The Bradt Guide to Uganda (8th edition) by Philip Briggs; Birds of East Africa by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe.

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