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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Uganda: Shoebills to Gorillas

2008 Tour Narrative

In Brief: With 521 species of birds recorded in 19 days, including most of the local specialties, the 2008 WINGS tour of Uganda was undoubtedly a success. Our final list included over 30 birds of prey, 17 pigeons, six turacos, 15 cuckoos, 11 kingfishers, nine bee-eaters, 12 swallows, 16 cisticolas, nine apalises, 21 bulbuls, 24 chats (including a staggering eight robin-chats), 21 sunbirds, 34 weavers, and 25 estrildid finches! All participants agreed that this is a magically beautiful and captivating country, far beyond the descriptions of any travel literature. The friendliness of the Ugandan people was quite apparent, and we found a nation of gentle and accommodating people ready to welcome and assist us throughout the entire tour.

The 44 species of mammals identified included wonderful experiences with Gorillas and Chimpanzees as well as 11 other primate species. A constellation of butterflies were encountered. Even passing by many of the inconspicuous blues and skippers, but recorded over 200 species including some of the world’s most beautiful insects. We were incredibly fortunate to encounter Africa’s largest butterfly, and stood transfixed as the male Giant African Swallowtail (Papilio antimachus) flew out of the forest and danced around us—although we first identified it as a day-flying bat! In Murchison the group found a Western Savannah Monitor. Based on distribution in neighboring DRC and Sudan it had been suspected to occur here, but this would have been the first documented record for the East African region.

In Detail: Although we offer this tour at the same time each year, we have experienced incredible contrasts in weather. This year was much drier than expected, and many birds had already bred or were in the processes of raising new families. The weather was cool to mild throughout, with the only warm days in Murchison Falls National Park. Overcast conditions that prevailed in the mornings kept the temperatures comfortable. Nevertheless, we did have our share of sunshine, as well as breathtaking vistas, some incredibly comfortable accommodations, and plenty of delicious food.

Once our group assembled we set off into the nearby Entebbe Botanical Gardens. Here such impressive species as the yodeling Fish-Eagle, raucous Black-and-White Casqued Hornbill, crimson-winged Ross’s Turaco, and fluorescent azure Woodland Kingfisher were seen, as well as flaming Orange Weavers. The Yellow-billed Ducks here were the only typical duck of the entire tour. After this pleasant walk we were off to Masindi with our very capable driver, who would escort us throughout the tour. Brief stops revealed a nice group of nasal Marsh Widowbirds in breeding plumage, and an evening walk nearer Masindi provided us with attractive Bruce’s Green Pigeons, startling White-crested Turaco, Yellow-bellied Hyliotas, and Brown-rumped Bunting. As the evening progressed, an early Bat Hawk patrolling the road gave us an eye-level encounter, and Pennant-winged Nightjars—one of the weirdest birds in the world—emerged from their day-time retreats all around us.

The next morning after an early breakfast we arrived at Budongo. Before entering the forest, a look at a scrubby edge of the expansive sugar cane fields gave us Brown-backed Scrub-Robins and Marsh Tchagra, while the all-black race of somewhat inaptly named Red-collared Widowbirds had territories in the sugar. Forest species included an Ituri Batis closely followed by busy Chestnut-capped Flycatchers. Other birds here included Blue-throated Roller, Dwarf, Shining-blue, and Chocolate-backed Kingfishers, Yellow-browed Camaroptera, and Fraser’s Forest Flycatcher, as well as local specialties such as Crested Malimbe and Lemon-bellied Crombec. Perhaps the rarest species here was an adult Madagascar Cuckoo on its winter wanderings. In the afternoon we walked around the neighboring gardens, locating a pair of Gray-headed Olivebacks hiding in the pine trees. Other rewards were Brown Twinspots, Bar-breasted Firefinch, Compact Weavers, and a nice treeful of Gray Parrots.

The next morning we visited the Busingiro section of the forest, calling out an inquisitive group of Nahan’s Francolins and locating a few White-thighed Hornbills, some stunning Superb Sunbirds, Black-capped Apalis, and dapper Spotted Greenbuls.

The next morning’s roadside birding on the way to Murchison Fall National Park provided Eastern Gray Plantain-eaters and Piapiacs, and at Kaniyo Pabidi we easily located Puvel’s Illadopsis and more Nahan’s Francolins. Later, while walking a forest track, we were surprised by lots of noise and excitement from a nearby group of Chimpanzees. On locating them we were amazed to see a large male tucking in to a freshly killed adult Black-and-white Colobus. Our next 15 minutes with this group could never be surpassed.

After a picnic lunch we visited the impressive “Top of the Falls,” where the Nile River plummets over a 35-foot gap into the broiling waters below. Rock Pratincoles pattered over the rocks, and the recently described Finch’s Rock Agamas flattened themselves on boulders, making the most of the sun’s warmth. We retraced our path back to Sambiya River Lodge, where we would stay for three very comfortable nights.

The following morning we drove to the Victoria Nile at Paraa, where we flushed a dozen or so Pennant-winged Nightjars from the road and had close encounters with several Bunyoro Rabbits (which now have to live with the mundane name Uganda Grass Hare!). We were soon boarding our boat for the Albert Delta to look for the fabulous Shoebill. We motored downriver among the garrulous groups of Hippopotamus, with Elephant, Waterbuck, Buffalo, and Baboons eyeing us as we passed. Herons of nine species included five Little Bitterns, and we had five stork species—but no sign of a Shoebill. But on our return trip a Shoebill was finally seen at a distance, flying low over grassland. We reversed and set off on the chase! Soon enough, we came upon our bird posing for the whole world to see. We spent a while with this bird, then found another flying high , another perched on top of a tree, and another flying over a reed bed. Other nice birds on the river included Allen’s Gallinule, Senegal Thick-knees, Blue-headed Coucal, and Blue-breasted Bee-eaters.

The afternoon’s birding near Paraa featured contrasting Silverbirds, crisp Black-headed Batis, and dancing Red-winged Gray Warblers. On the return to the lodge we saw Vinaceous and Black-billed Wood Doves, Heuglin’s Francolin, Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill, Sooty Chats, and Yellow-mantled Widowbirds.

Our next day was a full day’s game drive. Near Paraa we located a pair of Fox’s Cisticolas and a family of Shelley’s Sparrows. In a burnt depression were a number of Rothschild’s Giraffes and Jackson’s Hartebeestes, while Oribi were abundant throughout. The best non-bird for the drive went to either a large male Patas Monkey or the Western Savannah Monitor, which later turned out to be the first for East Africa. On our game drive we saw dazzling Northern Carmine, Red-throated, and Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters among a good variety of open-country species.

From Murchison we left for Butiaba Escarpment. Just before leaving the park we found a group of seed-eating species on the roadside that included an attractive pair of Red-winged Pytilias and Cabanis’s Buntings. On the hill top we had a wonderful time with Black Scimitarbill, Brown Babbler, and Yellow-eyed Black Tit.

In the evening we arrived at Mountains of the Moon Hotel, and the next morning found us birding the forest. Our lunch was most interesting food of the tour, a traditional buffet taken in a hut on the floor, while a local elder explained the food items. Afterwards we visited the Bigodi Swamp Walk, an area of wetlands and woodlands protected by resident landowners who understand the benefits of eco-tourism. Here we were treated to a number of wonderful sightings: Gray Parrots fed quite unconcernedly on local wild fruit, Great Blue Turacos played follow-the-leader through the swamp forest, Blue Flycatchers danced in the eucalypts, and Red Colobus and Gray-cheeked Mangabys were quite indifferent to our presence.

The following day we left the lower forest for higher elevations. The numerous roadside birds included such desired species as posing Afep Pigeons, Cassin’s Honeybird, Joyful Greenbul, Masked Apalis, and Tiny Sunbird. It was here that we watched the ponderous flight of a Giant African Swallowtail. We then set off for Queen Elizabeth National Park, calling in at the Kob mating grounds along the way. A new set of savanna species here included Harlequin Quail, staggering close contact with the usually secretive Black Coucal, and Wing-snapping Cisticolas. We were welcomed to Mwea Lodge by a group of Giant Forest Hogs not far from the entrance gate.

The next morning we drove past spectacular volcanic craters, flushed four African Crakes at close range, and had a ridiculous experience with three Buttonquails walking in front of the vehicle, affording incredible views. A Pearl-spotted Owlet attracted the investigation of African Scimitarbill and Trilling Cisticolas. After lunch we took the Kazinga Channel launch, and found ourselves surrounded by Pied Kingfishers wheeling gracefully below us as Water Dikkops blinked at us from the banks, Elephants and Hippos allowed close approach, numerous heron species fished in the shallows, and lines of Great Cormorants, Pink-backed Pelicans, and various storks, terns, and Gray-headed Gulls roosted on the sand spit. As we passed the reeds more than 500 Plain Martins flushed, a remarkable assemblage for this species. From the garden we could see a gathering of over 150 African Skimmers.

The following morning a Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl winked at us as we departed, and just before exiting the gate we found a small group of Southern Red Bishops. A very obliging Papyrus Gonolek was located in a little bay, where we also found glowing Red-headed Lovebirds and glistening Copper Sunbirds. From here it was a comfortable drive down to Ishasha, and along the way a beautiful pair of Black Bee-eaters allowed good photographic opportunities. Lunch at Ishasha River was a pleasant affair with a docile group of Hippos at very close quarters. On the road again we encountered a heavy shower, and as soon as the weather improved many birds came out to dry off, among them some attractive African Firefinches and very waterlogged Red-faced Cisticolas. Soon we were at the luxurious Gorilla Forest Camp, where after a delicious meal we retired to ready ourselves for the Gorilla Trek.

As we convened for breakfast, White-tailed Blue Flycatchers cavorted in the trees in company of other species such as Ansorge’s Bush-Shrike and Black-billed Weavers. Starting our trek, we stopped for a short break while being entertained by Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher. We emerged from the scrub to skirt a tea plantation, then arrived on the lawn of a private house. On the other side of the garden drive was a small copse of eucalypts—and there were our gorillas, chewing the bark at the base of the gum trees. We spent an hour with the gorillas, then walked the 200 yards back to the registration center. No one was disappointed not to have had to exert more effort for the experience, especially as this gave us the entire morning for birding. We saw Elliott’s Woodpecker, Bar-tailed Trogon, Wilcock’s Honeyguide, Chapin’s Flycatcher, and Equatorial Akalat, to name but a few.

The next day’s walk added Rwenzori Batis, Rwenzori Apalis, Grauer’s Warbler, Short-tailed Warbler, Red-throated Alethe, White-bellied and Gray-winged Robin-Chats, Blue-headed Sunbird, and a party of five Jameson’s Antpeckers. We also paid a visit to the private land of an eco-friendly local. Indignant Mackinnon’s Fiscals scolded from the bordering shrubbery while Yellow-throated Leafloves chuckled from roadside trees. We were also entertained by Red-tailed Greenbuls and sprightly Cassin’s Gray Flycatchers. A roadside stop located gem-like Regal Sunbirds, and Chestnut-throated Apalis and Doherty’s Bush-Shrikes were found here, too. We found our accommodation at remote Ruhija offering comfortable beds, quite good food, and weather that was not too cold.

We beheld a beautiful, bright, but windy morning as we enjoyed our wholesome breakfast. Some participants elected not to take on the descent (and inevitable ascent) of the trail to Mubwindi Swamp and remained up at the road, where they birded with our driver. The rest of the group found Archer’s Robin-Chat and Montane Oriole on the trail, with a real highlight provided by a pair of African Green Broadbills at their nest, with offspring. During our picnic lunch, the reticent Grauer’s Rush Warblers finally capitulated and Carruther’s Cisticolas frequently exploded over the reeds, so much easier to see here than in their normal papyrus habitat. Among the other birds were Mountain Illadopsis and Rwenzori (African) Hill-Babbler. Our evening walk rewarded us with Stripe-breasted Tit and Red-faced Woodland Warbler.

The next morning was again beautiful and sunny. Among the new species were Handsome Francolin, Brown Woodland Warbler, White-tailed Crested Flycatcher, and Black-headed Waxbill. Soon it was time to leave Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, and after lunch we set off for Kabale. Our arrival at Mihingo Camp treated us to the sounds of nightbirds including Spotted Eagle-Owl, African Wood Owl, African Scops Owl, and Freckled, Square-tailed, and Black-shouldered Nightjars.

After rising from our super-luxurious surroundings the next day, we met for breakfast and departed for a game drive. Lake Mburu, with its Common Zebra, Impala, and Topi, is quite unlike any other of the national parks we visited. The lakeside savannah peppered with emergent euphorbias is a habitat unique to the country, making this the only corner of Uganda for some species. After a good start with Black-bellied Bustard, White-winged Black Tit, and Tabora Cisticola, we had our first Bare-faced Go-Away-Bird and exquisite Lilac-breasted Rollers. On our drive to Kampala we stopped at a swamp to find African Marsh Harrier and an early Osprey. On arrival at Mabira, we transfered to the new and fairly luxurious Rainforest Lodge on the edge of the forest.

A gray morning was brightened by a good variety of birds in the canopy, including wonderful views of a pair of Forest Wood-Hoopoes, Black-bellied Seedcrackers, and numerous Weyn’s Weavers. Just before mid-day we set out for Entebbe. The return to Entebbe was smooth and traffic jams were circumnavigated, reminding us of our special gratitude to our faithful, punctual, polite, professional, and safe driver, who escorted us in good fettle through the “Pearl of Africa.”

- Brian Finch

Updated: December 2008