SHOEBILLS & GORILLAS OF UGANDA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Shoebills & Gorillas of Uganda: Day 1 Our tour begins this morning at Entebbe, situated on the shores of Lake Victoria, where we will stay overnight. For those old enough to remember them, the name Entebbe brings to mind the infamous days of Idi Amin and the Israeli raid on the airport to free the hostages. Today there is little evidence of those troubled times and the gently rolling hills that slope down to the greatest lake in Africa have a timeless beauty that belies the troublesome past.
Today we will visit Mabamba Swamp, adjacent to Lake Victoria, and take a boat trip through an extensive papyrus swamp where we will be wanting in particular to observe the strange Shoebill or Whale-headed Stork. This extraordinary bird, which is placed in a family of its own, is confined to papyrus swamps and has its main stronghold in the inaccessible swamps of southern Sudan and central Zambia, although there are still a good number in Uganda. Other likely species at Mabamba include White-breasted and Reed (or Long-tailed) Cormorants, Little Egret, Squacco Heron, Hamerkop, African Openbill, Yellow-billed Duck, African Fish Eagle (with its call that is so evocative of the African wilderness), Lesser Jacana, Long-toed Lapwing, Grey-headed Gull, Gull-billed and White-winged Terns, Pied and Giant Kingfishers, the tiny Malachite Kingfisher, Winding and Red-faced Cisticolas, the confiding Swamp Flycatcher and Black-and-white Mannikin. The uncommon Lesser Jacana sometimes occurs.
We will also encounter a good variety of open country and woodland birds today, such as Western Cattle Egret, Black-headed Heron, Hadada Ibis, Yellow-billed Kite, African Marsh Harrier, African Harrier-Hawk, Shikra, Lizard Buzzard, Palm-nut Vulture, Grey Kestrel, Red-eyed Dove, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, African Green Pigeon, the impressive Great Blue Turaco, Eastern Grey Plantain-eater (constantly uttering its strange call), White-browed Coucal, Mottled Spinetail, Little, White-rumped and African Palm Swifts, Speckled Mousebird, Woodland Kingfisher, Broad-billed Roller, Crowned Hornbill, African Pied Hornbill (the form here is sometimes split as Congo Pied Hornbill), the grotesque-looking Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill, African Pied Wagtail, Angola Swallow, Dark-capped Bulbul (split from Common), African Thrush, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Grey-capped Warbler, Pied Crow, Splendid and Rüppell’s Long-tailed Starlings, Olive-bellied and Red-chested Sunbirds, the gorgeous Orange Weaver, Black-headed, Northern Brown-throated, Yellow-backed, Vieillot’s Black and Slender-billed Weavers, Northern Grey-headed Sparrow, Bronze Mannikin and Yellow-fronted Canary. If we are lucky, we will even see the nomadic Weyns’s Weaver.
Shoebills & Gorillas of Uganda: Day 2 Today we will drive westwards through central Uganda to Kibale Forest National Park for a two nights stay. First we will bypass the busy capital Kampala which, like Rome, was built upon seven hills, and then drive through farmland interspersed with papyrus swamps and patches of woodland where herds of Ankole cattle with their magnificent horns are commonplace. We will come across a good selection of widespread Ugandan birds during the journey and will stop for anything of particular interest. As we approach Kibale, situated in the Fort Portal region of western Uganda, we will get our first views of the distant Rwenzori Mountains. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration at Kibale Forest.
Shoebills & Gorillas of Uganda: Day 3 Some of our birding at Kibale National Park will be done from the wide road which bisects the forest, but most of our time will be spent on the network of small trails which pierce the forest interior.
Here the magnificent Crowned (or African Crowned) Eagle soars over the canopy striking terror into the troops of monkeys and flocks of Purple-headed Starlings gather to feed in fruiting trees where we may discover some subtly-plumaged Afep Pigeons.
Star attraction of Kibale is the jewel-like Green-breasted Pitta. Once a rarely-seen bird, the habits and location of this mega-bird are now much better known and so we have a good chance of seeing this very special African bird during our stay. (Kindly note that while most of our encounters have been during a dedicated early-morning search for the pitta, open to all participants, occasionally the only sighting of this species has been during the optional chimpanzee tracking excursion.)
Among the other birds we will look for are White-spotted Flufftail (difficult to see as opposed to hear), Tambourine Dove, African Emerald, Dusky Long-tailed and Red-chested Cuckoos, Blue Malkoha (or Yellowbill), Black-billed Turaco, Narina Trogon, Alpine Swift, Blue-breasted Kingfisher, the splendid Black Bee-eater, White-throated Bee-eater, White-headed Wood Hoopoe, Speckled, Yellow-rumped and Yellow-throated Tinkerbirds, Streaky-throated (split from Hairy-breasted), Yellow-billed and Yellow-spotted Barbets, Thick-billed Honeyguide, Cassin’s Honeybird, Mosque and Lesser Striped Swallows, White-headed Saw-wing, Mountain Wagtail, Plain (or Cameroon Sombre), Joyful, White-throated and Honeyguide Greenbuls, Western Nicator, the delightful Snowy-headed Robin-Chat, Rufous Thrush, Brown and Scaly-breasted Illadopsises, Green Hylia, White-chinned Prinia, Masked and Buff-throated Apalises, Green Crombec, Yellow White-eye, Grey-throated Flycatcher, the striking Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Western Black-headed Oriole, Velvet-mantled Drongo, Pink-footed Puffback, Petit’s Cuckooshrike, Chestnut-winged Starling, Green, Collared, Western Olive, Green-headed, Blue-throated Brown, Green-throated, Superb and Copper Sunbirds, Black-necked, Dark-backed and Vieillot’s Black Weavers, Red-headed Malimbe, Grey-headed Negrofinch and Black-crowned Waxbill. If we are very fortunate we will find the rare White-naped Pigeon, perhaps watching one perched up high on an exposed snag. perhaps watching one perched up high on an exposed snag, or come across a Red-chested Owlet being mobbed by angry passerines. During the evening, African Wood Owl may put in an appearance near our accommodation.
Kibale is home to no fewer than eleven species of primates and we should see Central African Red and Guereza Colobuses, Olive Baboon, Grey-cheeked Mangabey, and L’Hoest’s and Red-tailed Monkey.
We will also visit a nearby swamp in search of the restricted-range White-winged Swamp Warbler, as well as Grey Crowned Crane, Ross’s Turaco, the elegant Rufous-chested Swallow and Thick-billed (or Grosbeak) Weaver. With a bit of luck we will also encounter the delightful but erratic White-collared Olive-back.
Furthermore, Kibale Forest is one of the best areas in Uganda to see Chimpanzees. Local forest rangers keep a close watch on the activities of the various families and we will arrange to track Chimpanzees on one of our mornings here. There is a very high chance that we will encounter a troop of these most human of primates and it is often possible to have a good length of time with them (it all depends on how co-operative they are). We are sure to hear their deafening, blood-curdling screams echoing through the forest and we should enjoy wonderful views of these fascinating cousins of ours. We have even encountered Green-breasted Pitta on occasion during our Chimpanzee sessions!
Shoebills & Gorillas of Uganda: Day 4 This morning we will return to Kibale Forest and afterwards we will drive to Queen Elizabeth National Park for a two nights stay. Our route takes us through the foothills of the Rwenzoris. This mountain range is one of the wettest in the world and the snow-capped summits, including Mount Stanley (5109m), are usually hidden behind a cape of low cloud and mist. If we are lucky and the weather is clear we may catch a glimpse of the equatorial snowfields above the layers of cloud.
Shoebills & Gorillas of Uganda: Day 5 Queen Elizabeth National Park is very varied, with a mixture of West African-type tropical forest and open savanna that is more typical of East Africa. It boasts a birdlist of over 550 species, the largest of any protected area in Africa! Some impressive craters reflect the turbulent geological history of the area and large herds of African Elephants find a refuge in these natural enclaves. The elephant population is one of the most prolific on the continent; virtually all the females have calves and seem determined to redress the destruction that took place here during the lawless period under Amin and Obote. Mammals are much in evidence at Queen Elizabeth and we should find Vervet Monkey, Common Warthog, Kob, Bushbuck, Waterbuck, Topi, African Buffalo, Scrub Hare, Marsh Mongoose, Banded Mongoose, Spotted Hyaena and Lions. We even have a good chance of encountering a Leopard. We also have a modest chance of encountering the impressive Giant Hog (which used to be easier to see here than anywhere else in its range, but which has become much more elusive in recent times).
The park is bisected by the Kazinga Channel, which flows between Lake George and Lake Edward, and this swampy waterway teams with Hippopotamuses and Nile Crocodiles as well as an excellent variety of birds, including Great White and Pink-backed Pelicans, Great Egret, Grey, Purple and Goliath Herons, Saddle-billed and Yellow-billed Storks, African Sacred and Glossy Ibises, Egyptian Goose, Black Crake, African Jacana, Black-winged Stilt, Water Thick-knee, Spur-winged and African Wattled Lapwings, Kittlitz’s and Three-banded Plovers, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Brown-throated Martin, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Carruthers’s Cisticola and Papyrus Gonolek, all of which we are likely to see during an enjoyable boat trip or while exploring the area by vehicle. In addition, African Skimmers are often present.
A widespread but often hard to see species that we often encounter in the park is African Crake. Common and Black-rumped Buttonquails also occur in the lush grasslands, but are usually hard to observe. The superb Brown-chested Lapwing migrates here from further west to spend the non-breeding season, typically being present from July to December. At night we may find Square-tailed (or Gabon) Nightjars feeding around the lights of the lodge.
Other new species we may well encounter at Queen Elizabeth include Marabou Stork, Black-winged (or Black-shouldered) Kite, Hooded, White-backed, Rüppell’s (Griffon), Lappet-faced and White-headed Vultures, Brown Snake Eagle, Bateleur, Gabar Goshawk, Wahlberg’s, Tawny, Martial and Long-crested Eagles, Lanner Falcon, Helmeted Guineafowl, Black-bellied Bustard, Red-necked Spurfowl, Collared Pratincole, Senegal and Crowned Lapwings, African Mourning, Ring-necked and Laughing Doves, Diederik Cuckoo, Black and White-browed Coucals, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, Blue-naped Mousebird, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Olive (or Madagascar) and Little Bee-eaters, African Hoopoe, Common Scimitarbill, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, White-headed Barbet, Lesser Honeyguide, African Grey Woodpecker, Rufous-naped and Flappet Larks, Yellow-throated Longclaw, African (or Grassland) and Plain-backed Pipits, Banded Martin, White-browed Robin-Chat, Sooty Chat, Arrow-marked and Black-lored Babblers, Moustached Grass Warbler, Fan-tailed Grassbird, Trilling, Winding, Stout and Zitting Cisticolas, Northern Crombec, Buff-bellied Warbler, Western Black-headed Batis, Brown-throated (or Common) Wattle-eye, African Paradise Flycatcher, Common Drongo, Common and Grey-backed Fiscals, Black-headed Gonolek, Black-crowned and Marsh Tchagras, Orange-breasted (or Sulphur-breasted) Bushshrike, Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike, Violet-backed Starling, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Purple-banded and Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, Compact, Lesser Masked and Spectacled Weavers, Red-billed Quelea, Southern Red Bishop, Fan-tailed and White-winged Widowbirds, Green-winged Pytilia, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Red-billed Firefinch, Common and Fawn-breasted Waxbills, Pin-tailed Whydah, Brimstone Canary and Golden-breasted Bunting.
Shoebills & Gorillas of Uganda: Day 6 We will spend much of the day exploring the Ishasha section of Queen Elizabeth, which is famous for tree-climbing Lions, and then continue onwards to the lower section of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park for a three nights stay at Buhoma. As we approach Buhoma we will see forested mountains stretching as far as the eye can see towards the Congo border.
Shoebills & Gorillas of Uganda: Days 7-8 The Impenetrable Forest is one of the largest in East Africa and has a remarkable altitudinal range of continuous forest from 1160m to 2650m. This splendid forest is considered to be the richest in East Africa for plant, mammal, bird and butterfly species: over 330 bird species have been recorded here, for example. The Impenetrable is a wonderfully evocative name and often appears in the ornithological literature for Africa. The forest was so named not because it was any more densely vegetated than other forests, but because of the steepness of the hills which made progress almost impossible. Fortunately it is possible to see most of the special birds of this wonderful area by walking along the roads or along gently sloping tracks. On only a few occasions will we have to take to the steeper trails.
At lower levels the forest is easy to work and at Buhoma there is an excellent trail that follows a valley bottom through magnificent forest. Western Bronze-naped Pigeons and Olive Long-tailed Cuckoos call from the dense canopy, sedate Bar-tailed Trogons sit quietly overhead and weird-looking Grey-throated Barbets inspect dead trunks and boughs, but the real prizes of this forest skulk in the undergrowth and we will need patience to get views of the highly elusive Grey-chested Babbler (formerly Grey-chested Illadopsis but now reclassified as a member of a small bird family consisting of this species, Dapple-throat and Spot-throat). Other great undergrowth birds here include Red-throated Alethe (which often attends ant swarms), Equatorial Akalat, White-bellied Robin Chat, Black-faced Rufous Warbler, the unique Neumann’s (or Short-tailed) Warbler and Willard’s Sooty Boubou. Fruiting trees often attract an interesting selection of starlings including Slender-billed, Waller’s, Narrow-tailed and Stuhlmann’s.
Other species we may well see in the forest include Black (or Great) Sparrowhawk, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, Willcocks’s Honeyguide, Cardinal and Elliot’s Woodpeckers, African Broadbill (a bird with a remarkable display), Ansorge’s, Little, Slender-billed, Cabanis’s, Red-tailed Greenbul, Kakamega Greenbul (split from Shelley’s), Red-tailed Bristlebill, the gorgeous but secretive Blue-shouldered Robin-Chat, White-tailed Ant Thrush, Black-throated, Grey and Black-faced Apalises, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, White-browed Crombec, Olive-green Camaroptera, Dusky Tit, Sooty, African Dusky, Dusky-blue, Yellow-eyed Black and the rare Chapin’s Flycatchers, White-bellied Crested Flycatcher, Chestnut Wattle-eye, Many-coloured, Lühder’s and Bocage’s Bushshrikes, Grey-headed, Little Green, Blue-headed and Northern Double-collared Sunbirds, and Black-billed and Brown-capped Weavers. Exposed perches at the forest edge are favoured by Blue-throated Roller, while in the cut-over clearings we may find duetting Chubb’s Cisticolas, Cape Wagtail, Brown-backed Scrub Robin, Mackinnon’s Fiscal and Western Citril (split from African).
The Impenetrable Forest is also home to a healthy population of Eastern Gorillas. These Ugandan animals, which show shared characteristics of both lowland and mountain forms, could, in fact, be an endangered subspecies or even a full species in their own right. Those who want to will be able to go out with the park staff to look for these spectacular creatures during our second full day here, an experience which generally involves from three to six hours in the field, depending on where the gorillas are located. A close encounter with a group of these gentle giants is a profound experience which will make an indelible impression. The gorillas are fully protected in the park and you will be able to track a group of these marvellous animals through the dense, damp forest and thickets of giant bamboo on the slopes of the mountain. The terrain can sometimes be steep and rough, but the guides will cut a path through the dense understorey of giant nettles and wild celery if necessary. As you approach a group your guides will make strange grunting noises to reassure the gorillas that you are merely harmless tourists. These huge animals are surprisingly docile and often completely unconcerned by the presence of humans, so it is usually possible to get to within a few metres of them as they play, feed and rest. There is no need to say that this is an experience which you will never forget!
Other mammals are generally inconspicuous, but we may well come across the attractive L’Hoest’s Monkey.
Shoebills & Gorillas of Uganda: Day 9 After two full days at lower levels we will transfer to the higher section of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, passing through ‘The Neck’, a narrow corridor of forest that connects the two forest blocks, on our way to Ruhija for a two nights stay.
We will spend some time birding along the winding track at intermediate altitudes where flowering Leonotis often attract Bronze and Variable Sunbirds and other possibilities include African Goshawk, Augur Buzzard, Scarce Swift, Double-toothed Barbet, Red-throated Wryneck, Black Saw-wing, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Cassin’s, White-eyed Slaty and African Blue Flycatchers, Brown-crowned Tchagra, the glorious Doherty’s Bushshrike, White-naped Raven, Baglafecht Weaver, Yellow Bishop, African Firefinch, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, and Black-throated and Streaky Seed-eaters. If we are lucky we shall find the little-known Dusky Twinspot.
Shoebills & Gorillas of Uganda: Day 10 In the higher parts of the forest the mist lingers in the valleys until late morning and this perpetual dampness is reflected in the profusion of hanging mosses and epiphyte-encrusted branches. These Central African mountains are a centre of avian endemism which developed around the Albertine Rift, an ancient branch of the Great Rift Valley that runs through Uganda, the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.
A number of birds are unique to this region including Handsome Francolin, Archer’s Robin Chat, Ruwenzori Apalis, Grauer’s Warbler (with its insect-like song), Ruwenzori Batis, Stripe-breasted Tit, Regal Sunbird, Strange Weaver, Dusky Crimson-wing, the uncommon but unbelievably-plumaged Purple-breasted Sunbird and the uncommon and hard-to-find Kivu Ground Thrush.
We have a good chance of seeing most of these exciting birds during our stay and shall also make a long trek up and down hill to Mubwindi Swamp where we will hope to locate the rare Grauer’s Swamp (or Grauer’s Rush) Warbler (a species confined to high altitude swamps in the Albertine Rift) and of course the most sought-after bird of the Impenetrable Forest, the Grauer’s (or African Green) Broadbill. We have a fair chance of seeing this little-known species which, until relatively recently, had been seen by few living ornithologists.
Among the other birds we will look for in the forest are Mountain Buzzard, Ayres’s and perhaps Cassin’s Hawk-Eagles, African Olive Pigeon, the uncommon Brown-necked Parrot, Barred Long-tailed and Klaas’s Cuckoos, Ruwenzori Nightjar, Western (Green) Tinkerbird, Tullberg’s (or Fine-banded) Woodpecker, Rock Martin, Mountain (or Montane) Oriole, Ruwenzori Hill Babbler (split from African), Mountain Illadopsis, Grey Cuckooshrike, Olive-breasted (or Mountain) and Yellow-streaked Greenbuls, White-starred Robin, Abyssinian (or Mountain) Thrush, Chestnut-throated Apalis, Evergreen Forest, Cinnamon Bracken and Mountain Yellow Warblers, Chin-spot Batis, White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, White-tailed Crested Flycatcher, the skulking Mountain (or Montane) Sooty Boubou, Northern Puffback, Sharpe’s Starling, Kandt’s Waxbill (split from Black-headed), Thick-billed Seed-eater, Oriole Finch and Yellow-crowned Canary. Chimpanzees and Gorillas also occur in this section of the forest, but they are hard to see in this difficult terrain.
Shoebills & Gorillas of Uganda: Day 11 Today we will return to Entebbe, where our tour ends this evening.