The odd Shoebill is a confiding resident of papyrus stands along the Nile. Photo: Brian Finch.
Uganda is the jewel in the crown of East Africa, generally recognized as having some of the best remaining forest in Africa and with it some truly remarkable birdwatching. Our first taste will be a search for the enigmatic Shoebill at the edge of Lake Victoria. We’ll continue our journey to the papyrus-fringed lakeshore of Lake Mburo National Park, renowned for its mammals and birds, including White-backed Night-heron. The wonderful Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a magical place of mists, hanging mosses, and luxuriant vegetation, and it is also where we’ll see some of the rarest and most exotic birds of the trip. However, it will probably be a mammal that is uppermost in people’s minds here. Over half the world’s population of Mountain Gorillas can be found in this forest, and during our stay there will be the option to take part in a guided trek to search for a group of these magnificent animals. In Queen Elizabeth National Park we’ll encounter a variety of habitats more typical of East Africa along with an equally varied array of birds and mammals. In Kibale Forest we’ll be surrounded by birds as well as some of the eleven species of primate, including Chimpanzee, and in the rainforest at Budongo Forest Reserve we’ll explore the famous Royal Mile, a wide pathway through the forest that can simply drip with birds. We’ll conclude at Murchison Falls National Park, where we’ll take to the water, not only to visit the spectacular Murchison Falls on the Victoria Nile but with another chance to appreciate the unique Shoebill in its papyrus home.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Entebbe, Uganda.
Day 2: After an early breakfast and carrying our picnic lunch – most days will begin this way – we’ll depart for the Mbamba Wetlands, a locally protected marsh area of Lake Victoria and home to the magnificent Shoebill. We have a very good chance of locating one or more of these birds standing motionless among the papyrus, as well as an excellent selection of waterbirds. This is a weaver paradise, and we should find Golden-backed, Slender-billed, Northern Brown-throated, Village, Vieillot’s, Orange, Black-headed, and Grosbeak, and, if we are really fortunate, the near endemic Weyn’s Weaver. Other species here include Great Blue Turaco, Black-and-White Casqued Hornbill, and an impressive collection of swallows. All in all, it should be an excellent introduction to birding in Uganda. Later we’ll continue north to Masindi for our overnight stay, with several stops along the way where we may find Saddle-billed Stork, White-crested Turaco and a variety of widowbirds and bishops. Night in Masindi.
Day 3: We’ll depart for the renowned Murchison Falls National Park, locally known as Kabalega Falls. On the way we‘ll stop to look for Puvel’s Illadopsis in the Kaniyo Pabidi section of Budongo Forest where there is a small and disjunct population of this bird, which is typically found far to the west. Soon after we enter the National Park, it will be worth checking the gate for a large, bright, orange-and-velvety-black agama, a fairly newly described species of Old-World lizard Agama finchi or Finch’s Agama, named after our leader. We’ll drive slowly and bird as we head to our accommodation, stopping to picnic along the way. Night at Murchison Falls National Park.
Day 4: During our time at the Park, we’ll drive a track which heads along the Victoria Nile river towards the Lake Albert delta where the west-flowing Victoria Nile makes an abrupt turn and becomes the north-flowing Albert Nile. In the afternoon we’ll take a boat to the foot of Murchison Falls, where the mighty Nile is squeezed through a twenty-three-foot gap. An abundance of waterbirds occupy the well-wooded banks of the river, and we’ll hope for another encounter with Shoebill. Others we’ll also hope to see include the well-named Goliath Heron, Hamerkop on their enormous stick nests, yodeling African Fish-Eagle, and the regal Grey Crowned-Crane, which is Uganda’s National bird. Senegal Thick-knee, Long-toed and Spur-winged Lapwings, African Jacana, and African Skimmers all rest on sandbanks, and riverine vegetation provides perches for solitary and stately Giant and the gem-like Malachite Kingfishers. Burrows in the cliffs represent colonies of astounding Red-throated Bee-eaters or vociferous Pied Kingfishers. With luck we may see the rare Pel’s Fishing-Owl, as well as the dashing Red-necked Falcon that frequents the palm trees lining the riverbanks. In addition to the profusion of birds, we’ll see large numbers of the impressive Nile crocodile, hippopotamus, African buffalo, vervet monkey and olive baboon at close range, and herds of African elephants sometimes bathe in the river shallows. The scenic area north of the Nile holds a number of birds typical of dry savanna and we‘ll search here for Abdim’s Stork, Secretary Bird, Black-breasted Snake-Eagle, Shikra, Dark Chanting-Goshawk, Heuglin’s Francolin, Black-headed Lapwing, with both Swallow-tailed and Northern Carmine Bee-eaters, Black Scimitar-bill, Black-backed Cisticola, Shelley’s Rufous Sparrow, and Black-faced Quailfinch. A few birds - with their ranges centred on the Sahel region to the north - reach their southern limits here including the ponderous Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill, incandescent Abyssinian Roller, White-fronted Black-Chat, diminutive but bright Pygmy Sunbird and somber White-rumped Seedeater. Mammals are well represented and we’ll watch for the shy patas monkey, bushbuck, Rothschild’s giraffe, Uganda kob, oribi, Jackson’s hartebeest, and Defassa waterbuck. This is also one of the best places in Uganda to find lions. The moist, grassy woodland to the south of the Nile is very different from that of the north bank and supports a host of localized birds including Red-winged Prinia, the unusually proportioned Purple Glossy-Starling, Black-bellied Firefinch, both Cabanis’s and Brown-rumped Buntings, and, if we are fortunate, White-breasted Cuckooshrike and Red-winged Pytilia. Night at Murchison Falls National Park.
Day 5: We’ll bird our way back to Masindi but by a different route to that of our arrival, and our goal is to reach the Butiaba escarpment overlooking the mighty Lake Albert.This area holds a number of interesting species including Black-billed Barbet, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, Green-backed Eremomela, Foxy Cisticola, the noisy Lesser Blue-eared Starling and Mocking Cliff-Chat. From here we’ll drive slowly on our way back to Masindi, birding as we go. Night in Masindi.
Day 6: We’ll depart for a full day to the Royal Mile section of the Budongo Forest Reserve, a wide forestry track considered to be Uganda’s premier forest birding location. It’s certainly rich in birds but many are concealed in the forest’s dense undergrowth, and others live in the high canopy, requiring our perseverance to spot them. We’ll also investigate more open habitat in cultivated areas, where an entirely different range of species may be found. Among the many we hope to find are White-spotted Flufftail, Blue Malkoha, three species of forest kingfisher - Chocolate-backed, Blue-breasted and Dwarf, impressive White-thighed Hornbill, barbets including Hairy-breasted and Yellow-billed, cryptic Green Hylia, Grey and Yellow Longbills, and local specialties Rufous-crowned Eremomela, Lemon-bellied Crombec, African Forest-Flycatcher, Chestnut-capped Flycatcher and Ituri Batis. Other birds to find include Purple-headed Glossy-Starling, the aberrant Grey-headed Sunbird, Yellow-mantled Weaver, and Crested Malimbe. Greenbuls are abundant, and we’ll work slowly through any flock that we encounter, looking for Honeyguide, Red-tailed, and the striking Spotted. The near endemic and spectacular Nahan’s Partridge is often heard but requires luck and patience to see. We’ll search the undergrowth alongside the track for numerous understory skulkers, which may include three Illadopsis species, Fire-crested Alethe, Red-tailed Ant-Thrush, Yellow-browed Camaroptera, and Grey-throated Flycatcher. We’ll keep an eye on any openings in the forest canopy, as Cassin’s and Crowned Hawk-eagles, and Cassin’s, Mottled, and Sabine’s Spinetails are all possible. Spinetails occasionally drink from a nearby forest pond, and here we’ll also hope to find a pair of brilliant Shining-blue Kingfishers. Night in Masindi.
Day 6: We’ll depart for a full day to the Royal Mile section of the Budongo Forest Reserve, a wide forestry track considered to be Uganda’s premier forest birding location. It’s certainly rich in birds but many are concealed in the forest’s dense undergrowth, and others live in the high canopy, requiring our perseverance to spot them. We’ll also investigate more open habitat in cultivated areas, where an entirely different range of species may be found. Among the many we hope to find are White-spotted Flufftail, Blue Malkoha, three species of forest kingfisher - Chocolate-backed, Blue-breasted and Dwarf, impressive White-thighed Hornbill, barbets including Hairy-breasted and Yellow-billed, cryptic Green Hylia, Grey and Yellow Longbills, and local specialities such as Rufous-crowned Eremomela, Lemon-bellied Crombec, African Forest-Flycatcher, Chestnut-capped Flycatcher and Ituri Batis. Other birds to find include Purple-headed Glossy-Starling, the aberrant Grey-headed Sunbird, Yellow-mantled Weaver, and Crested Malimbe. Greenbuls are abundant, and we’ll work slowly through any flock that we encounter, looking for Honeyguide, Red-tailed, and the striking Spotted. The near endemic and spectacular Nahan’s Partridge is often heard but requires luck and patience to see. We’ll search the undergrowth alongside the track for numerous understory skulkers, which may include three Illadopsis species, Fire-crested Alethe, Red-tailed Ant-Thrush, Yellow-browed Camaroptera, and Grey-throated Flycatcher. We’ll keep an eye on any openings in the forest canopy, as Cassin’s and Crowned Hawk-eagles, and Cassin’s, Mottled, and Sabine’s Spinetails are all possible. Spinetails occasionally drink from a nearby forest pond, and here we’ll also hope to find a pair of brilliant Shining-blue Kingfishers. Night in Masindi.
Day 7: We’ll visit a different part of Budongo Forest where we’ll search particularly for species we missed yesterday, and given the huge variety of species in Budongo, we’ll certainly have missed a number. Night in Masindi.
Day 8: Departing immediately after breakfast, we’ll set off on the long drive to the Kibale Forest. While there may be odd stops along the way this is by necessity a driving day. In the afternoon, as we arrive on the outskirts of Fort Portal and pass through the highest section of the Kibale Forest, we’ll look for species not encountered elsewhere such as Joyful Greenbul, Masked Apalis, as well as Dusky Blue Flycatcher, and Slender-tailed Starling. In addition we have at least a chance of hearing Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo. As we get closer to our accommodation, and if time permits, we’ll bird along the road until dusk. Night in Kibale Forest National Park.
Day 9: Our two major targets for today are an early morning search for the very rare Green-breasted Pitta and an afternoon forest trek for chimpanzees. The towering Kibale Forest has the highest primate concentration and species diversity of any reserve in East Africa. Primate highlights might include the localized Central African red colobus monkey, L’Hoest’s monkey (Uganda’s rarest monkey), and the scruffy grey-cheeked mangabey monkey. In addition, our chances of finding chimpanzees here are excellent. The birds are typical of medium-altitude forest, with some good mixed species flocks and specials such as Afep and the globally threatened and rarely encountered White-naped Pigeon, Red-chested Owlet, White-headed Woodhoopoe, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, African Shrike-flycatcher, Superb, Green-throated, and Green-headed Sunbirds and Chestnut Wattle-eye. Greenbuls are well represented and includes the scarce Toro Olive among the more widespread forest species. Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoos hide well but are a noisy forest inhabitant and Grey Parrots frequently feed in roadside trees here. Night in Kibale Forest National Park.
Day 10: We’ll travel to Bigodi, a swamp forest reserve managed by the local community to protect the primates and birds living in this area. It abounds in birds from the very large Black-and-White Casqued Hornbill, Ross’s and Black-billed Turacos, and Eastern Grey Plantain-eater to the very small with many sunbird species, estrildid finches, and various warblers. As we walk the only trail that circumnavigates the swamp, we’ll hope for good views of Brown-eared, Buff-spotted, and Yellow-crested Woodpeckers, dazzling Double-toothed and unusual Grey-throated Barbets, as well as their smaller cousins Yellow-throated and Speckled Tinkerbirds. Hopefully, we’ll also spot the comical Black-and-White Shrike-Flycatcher noisily protecting its territory, as well as the furtive Snowy-crowned and Blue-shouldered Robin Chats and the conspicuous Vieillot’s Black and Yellow-backed Weavers. From here we have a relatively short drive to Queen Elizabeth National Park (QEP) and will arrive at our lodge for lunch. In the afternoon we’ll explore the local bushland. Night at Mweya Safari Lodge, QEP.
Day 11: After early breakfast overlooking the alluring Kazinga Channel, we’ll depart for the morning’s birding in the spectacular crater lakes area in the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains and for the main game-viewing area along the Kasenyi track. A few of the species that are possible here include Bateleur, arguably Africa’s most spectacular raptor, Grey Kestrel, Red-necked Francolin, Common and the rarely encountered Black-rumped Buttonquail, African Crake, Senegal Lapwing, the marsh-dwelling Black Coucal, and Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Flappet, Red-capped, and the scarce White-tailed Larks. Of the ten species of cisticolas we’ll look and listen for Croaking, Red-faced, Trilling, Carruther’s and Stout. In rank grass we may find Marsh Tchagra and in reed beds Southern Red Bishop. Mammals will also be a highlight of today’s excursion, and we’ll have a good chance of finding lion, leopard, spotted hyena, African elephant, African buffalo, Ugandan kob, bushbuck, hippopotamus, common warthog, and the spectacular giant forest hog. We’ll return to our lodge for lunch, then embark on our launch trip on the Kazinga Channel. Highlights of the voyage include our close (and safe) approach to African buffalo and hippopotami, as well as to numerous waterbirds. Among a multitude of others, we’ll hope to find African Open-billed, Yellow-billed, Saddle-billed, and Marabou Storks, Glossy Ibis, Wattled Lapwing, Water Thick-knee, Swamp Flycatcher, and Lesser Swamp Warbler, as well as several species of gulls, terns, and pelicans. Night at Mweya Safari Lodge, QEP.
Day 12: If conditions allow, we’ll drive through the extensive southern Ishasha section of Queen Elizabeth National Park. We’ll likely see a large variety of savanna bird and mammal species, and we may be fortunate in sighting the area’s famous tree-climbing lions. We’ll have our picnic lunch at Ishasha where we can start on our Democratic Republic of the Congo bird list while gazing over the narrow, shallow river! Finally, we’ll reach the headquarters of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Buhoma. Night in Buhoma.
Day 13: We’ll walk the Buhoma trail for the entire day. This is a particularly beautiful piece of forest in the valley, and our walking is on a mainly flat and well-maintained broad path. Species we’ll hope to encounter include Bar-tailed Trogon, rarely seen Oberlander’s Ground-Thrush, White-bellied Robin-Chat, Red-throated Alethe, White-bellied Crested-Flycatcher, Bocage’s Bushshrike, Northern Double-collared Sunbird, Black-billed Weaver, and Magpie Mannikin. High exposed perches are favoured by the dazzling Black Bee-eater, Blue-throated Roller, Sooty Flycatcher, and forest starlings including Waller’s, Stuhlmann’s and Narrow-tailed, while the tiny, vocal and highly secretive Neumann’s Warbler is buried in the undergrowth! Other understory birds could include African Broadbill, Banded Prinia, and the surprisingly bright male Black-faced Rufous-Warbler. The mid-story and canopy support Elliot’s and Tullberg’s Woodpeckers, Cabanis’s, Shelley’s, and Ansorge’s Greenbuls, the strange Grauer’s Warbler, and White-browed Crombec. The tiny Jameson’s Antpecker can be found at any level, probing under moss on dead branches or gleaning warbler-like in the canopy. Overhead, Scarce Swift forages over the forest. Other wildlife that we may be fortunate enough to find includes the huge yellow-backed duiker antelope, Guereza colobus, L’Hoest’s, blue and red-tailed monkeys, as well as chimpanzees. We’ll also no doubt find several species of squirrel, including fire-footed rope, Carruther’s’ mountain and Ruwenzori sun. Both the exceptional birding and the sightings of exotic mammals make visiting Buhoma a truly memorable. Night in Buhoma.
Day 14: Today is devoted to an optional but unforgettable trek to see Eastern Mountain Gorillas in their mountain refuge (see ** below). This adventure could take anywhere from three to six hours in the field, depending on where the gorillas are located. We’ll leave the lodge early to reach the park’s registration centre, where the trek will start after introductions and a briefing from the guide on what to expect and how to act in the presence of the gorillas. Viewing the gorillas is a profound experience, but because the trek may be too difficult for some participants, we are leaving it as an optional activity, not included in the tour price. For those who opt not to take the trek, there will be a birding excursion into the adjacent forest with a picnic lunch. Later in the day we’ll return to Gorilla Forest Camp for some optional leisurely birding. Night near Buhoma.
Day 15: We’ll start the uphill drive to Ruhija. Although it is not a long way, we’ll spend the entire day on this route to take advantage of the superb birding. In scrubby areas beyond Buhoma, we’ll search for Ross’s Turaco; Red-throated Wryneck; Brown-backed Scrub-Robin, as well as Bronze, Copper and Variable Sunbirds, Black-necked and Holub’s Golden Weavers; Yellow Bishop and Black-throated Seed-eater. Further along the road, we’ll pass through Kitahurira, or “The Neck,” another well-known birding site. Here we’ll search for the likes of Western Bronze-naped Pigeon, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, Willcox’s Honeyguide, Petit’s Cuckoo-shrike, Chapin’s Flycatcher, Mountain Wagtail, Pink-footed Puffback, and the rare Tiny Sunbird. Even further up the road, cultivated areas provide feeding opportunities for many seedeaters, which will hopefully include Dusky Twinspot and Yellow-bellied and Black-crowned Waxbills. African Stonechat, Thick-billed Seedeater and Yellow-crowned Canary may also be found. We’ll also seek out the noisy Chubb’s Cisticola providing cheerful song from deep within the bracken, the stunning Doherty’s Bushshrike appearing from the dense vegetation, and Mackinnon’s Shrike surveying the road from high, exposed perches. Night in Ruhija.
Day 16: We’ll undertake a full day of walking along the road at Ruhija. At this altitude the vegetation is quite different from what we experienced in Buhoma and will now include giant heather, giant lobelia, and extensive bracken. Bird species that we’ll hope to see here include Brown-necked Parrot, Black-billed Turaco, Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo, Western Green Tinkerbird, Olive Woodpecker, Dwarf Honeyguide, Eastern Mountain and the wing-waving Yellow-streaked Greenbuls, Archer’s Robin-Chat, Stripe-breasted Tit, Mountain Illadopsis and the beautifully voiced Grey-chested Illadopsis - now renamed Grey-chested Kakamega as it is not an Illadopsis after all. In addition, we’ll hope to spot African Hill Babbler (the local form often treated as a full species, Rwenzori Hill Babbler), Black-faced, Rwenzori, and Chestnut-throated Apalises, all noisy and active, Red-faced Woodland-Warbler, Yellow-eyed Black-Flycatcher, Rwenzori Batis, Mountain Sooty Boubou, the rare Lagden’s Bushshrike, Strange Weaver and Oriole Finch. Flowering symphonia trees attract the glorious Purple-breasted Sunbird, as well as Blue-headed and Regal Sunbird - all three being breathtakingly gorgeous Albertine Rift endemics. Dusky and Red-faced Crimsonwings, amongst the most magnificent and sought-after of African seedeaters, will also be possible. At night we’ll set out to search for Montane Nightjar and African Wood-Owl. Night in Ruhija.
Day 17: We’ll set off for the steep descent to Mubwindi Swamp and the seemingly steeper ascent back the same way! This will be our only chance to encounter the exceedingly rare and amazingly cryptic Grauer’s Green Broadbill, which lives near the bottom of the trail close to the swamp. Because of the steep trail, walking sticks are recommended. The option of borrowing walking sticks and of hiring porters to carry everything other than binoculars and cameras will be available. This will be another all-day excursion, and it will hopefully give us an opportunity to observe another Albertine Rift endemic, the Grauer’s Rush Warbler that inhabits the swamp vegetation here. Night in Ruhija.
Day 18: Our destination is Lake Mburo. On our way out of the forest, we’ll of course be on the lookout for any missed species, as we pass through the bamboo zone. These may include Handsome Francolin, Cinnamon Bracken-Warbler, Mountain Yellow Warbler, and possibly the highland Kandt’s Waxbill. As we head eastward, the birds en route will now be familiar, but it won’t stop us from looking in any interesting habitat. In the afternoon we’ll arrive at Lake Mburo National Park where the birding will be in open savanna and scrubby forest. Night in Lake Mburo.
Day 19: Lake Mburo National Park is a superb wetland and Acacia savanna sanctuary that hosts many sought-after species. Raptor watching will be a major feature of our day. Potential sightings include African Marsh-Harrier, enormous Lappet-faced and White-headed Vultures, and the trio of Brown, Banded, and Beaudouin’s Snake-eagles. Lake Mburo’s woodlands are the northernmost example of the southern savanna system and are home to several species at the edge of their range. The most sought-after of these is the elusive Red-faced Barbet, known only in remote northeastern Rwanda and here. We’ll also search for Coqui Francolin, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove which in Uganda is restricted to this region, Levaillant’s, Klaas’s and Dideric Cuckoos, Lilac-breasted Roller, Green Woodhoopoe, Common Scimitar-bill, Nubian and Bearded Woodpeckers, several swallows, including Lesser Striped, Rufous-chested, Mosque and White-headed Saw-wing, White-browed Scrub-Robin, Rattling and Tabora Cisticolas, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, African Penduline-Tit, the noisy Arrow-marked Babbler, Wattled and Greater Blue-eared Starlings, and Red-headed Weaver. On our afternoon boat excursion on the lake, we’ll have a good chance to see the much-desired African Finfoot and possibly the White-backed Night-Heron. Mammals that we’ll hope to encounter are foraging groups of banded and dwarf mongooses, common zebra, impala, eland, bushbuck, oribi, hippopotamus, and common warthog, In the evening we’ll look for nightjars, with the options being Black-shouldered and Freckled amongst others. Night in Lake Mburo.
Day 20: We’ll depart for a final chance to enjoy Lake Mburo before settling in for the drive back to the city of Entebbe. Hopefully we’ll spot a few more species that we may not yet have encountered. In the afternoon we’ll arrive in Entebbe where we’ll have day rooms for repacking and showering then an evening meal before we catch our flights home. The tour concludes this evening in Entebbe.
*Chimpanzee Tracking Permit at Kibale (Day 6): The cost of this permit is included in the tour price because a morning’s chimpanzee tracking session is also our best chance to see Green-breasted Pitta. We’ll start with a pre-dawn visit to a known site for the pitta and, if our luck holds, we’ll encounter this bird before moving down the trail to look for chimpanzees (likely following their vocalisations). The chimpanzee trek involves an indeterminate length of walking over uneven terrain. The chimps range widely in their habitat and may move while the tour group is with them, in essence forcing us to hike behind them at their walking speed. Or, the chimps may stay in one spot once found, making for a shorter walk. The habitat tends not be as steep as for the gorilla trek, but you should be prepared anyway.
**Gorilla Tracking Permit at Bwindi (Day 14): As of July 2020 a permit to see the gorillas costs £560 per person. The Gorilla Tracking Permit fee is subject to change and is not included in the tour price. This is partly due to the possibility of pricing changes but also because the trek can be rigorous and not everyone will chose to do it.
This optional trek can take anywhere from 3 or 6 hours and the off-trail terrain can vary from moderate to difficult, depending on where the gorillas are that day. The hike will likely be between 1-4 miles roundtrip and may lose and regain an elevation of 1000 feet or more. There is an option to hire porters at an extra cost of about £12 per day to carry your bags and help you to negotiate the more difficult parts of the trek. Please be sure to let us know when you register if you want a permit, as we need to obtain it at the time of booking. The final cost of the permit will be billed to you when the tour is invoiced. It’s worth noting that neighboring Rwanda has recently doubled its gorilla permit cost, but so far, Uganda hasn’t followed suit. If you opt out of gorilla tracking you will be able to go birding with one of the leaders.
Updated: 22 December 2020