Budongo Forest Reserve: October 9-10, 2016

A three-week birding trip to Uganda should yield about five hundred species seen. Some of these will be among Africa's finest and most sought-after, including Shoebill, African Finfoot, Pel's Fishing Owl, Green-Breasted Pitta, and African Green Broadbill. I've lived in Uganda, birding in my leisure time, for over a year, and I only recently reached this milestone myself. The issue, as most independent birders are aware, is whether to rely on guides to deliver the birds. I have always preferred to go it alone. Having lived in some of the world's birdiest countries, such as Brazil and Ecuador, I have been able to revisit sites and develop an understanding of the avifauna myself. If I blitzed sites with expert guides during my first few months in every new country, then I wouldn't have much left to see over the following several years.



Still, it's humbling to consider that many short-term visitors have seen more birds in Uganda than I have. And when counting up their life list, few birders qualify whether their records were assisted. We don't care how many birds Jon Hornbuckle has seen on his own, just than he has seen more birds than anyone else. So, with the clock ticking on my time left in country, I understood that it was time for me, too, to start ticking as many new birds as possible. With these issues in mind, I planned a clean-up trip to northwestern Uganda over the Columbus Day weekend. First, I would contract a local guide to find birds I had missed during my two previous trips to Budongo Forest Reserve. Then, I would spend time birding along the escarpment overlooking Lake Albert, habitat similar to the dry country bush at Murchison Falls National Park but without the tsetse flies.

With over thirty target species, this trip was likely to boost my country list significantly. I set out early on Sunday morning, reaching Busingiro in three hours. The National Forest Authority has taken over the management of the station from the Jane Goodall Institute. I have had uneven experiences with NFA at different reserves, but the team there welcomed me to bird the area on my own and camp that night. Having gone more than a month without birding, I felt rusty and out of sync as I birded the short loop trail behind the station. Three hours of patient stalking yielded a few backlit photographs of Jameson's Wattle-Eye and fleeting looks at Forest Robin, White-Throated Greenbul, and Red-Headed Bluebill. The access road through the reserve offered easier birding, but by then it was already midday, and I noted little more than Honeyguide Greenbul, Rufous-Crowned Eremola, and Yellow-Crested Woodpecker.

On the drive out west to the escarpment, I passed through the town of Biso, where thousands of people had gathered for the local Independence Day celebration. Not surprisingly in Uganda, which is a small but diverse country composed of many different tribes and historical kingdoms, Independence Day is a complicated holiday. In addition, the political opposition party, which lost the presidency badly in a problematic election last February, had plans this weekend to celebrate its own Independence Day as a gesture of protest. With these complications in mind, I didn't linger long in Biso and bounced along the murram road towards Lake Albert. A kilometer before the edge of the escarpment, the small farms and agricultural fields end, and the natural bush habitat resumes. A few scattered acacia trees mark the rocky hillsides overlooking the lake below and the mountains of the Democratic Republic of Congo beyond.




Despite the heat of the afternoon, I charged around the lip of the escarpment searching for dry country specialties of northern Uganda. A pair of Cliff Chat is resident among the ruins at the beginning of the road's steep descent. This area also yielded Red-Winged Pytilia, Cinnamon-Breasted Rock-Bunting, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, Yellow-Fronted Tinkerbird, Chestnut-Crowned Sparro-Weaver, and Black-Bellied Firefinch. Across the road, I walked a trail leading up the hill, where Foxy Cisticola responded nicely to playback while overhead an Osprey soared towards Lake Albert. It was blazing hot in the full equatorial sun, and I felt overexposed as dozens of taxis and motorcycles streamed uphill towards Biso for the Independence Day celebration. With several new birds seen, I decided to descend the escarpment and check out the lakeshore for waders.

Butiaba was once a thriving port, and the town has a rich history marked by several notable figures, including Ernest Hemingway. Since the destructive flood of 1961, the town has experienced a drastic decline in importance as a hub for trade and tourism. Now, there is little more to see than mud huts set among the ruins. There is a picturesque spit at the edge of town jutting into the lake, where fisherman and trash pickers make their living. The reeds along the lake edge offered Slender-Billed Weaver, African Jacana, and Winding Cisticola. Black-Winged Stilt, Lesser Sandplover, and Green Sandpiper searched for prey along the water's edge, while Pink-Backed Pelican, White-Winged Tern, and Pied Kingfisher wheeled above. The spit is dotted with Borassus, and leaving town I noted a Red-Necked Falcon diving from a cluster of palm towards its prey on the ground.




Nearing sunset, the open areas along the escarpment road were busy with birdlife. Huge groups of Rufous Sparrow, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Cinnamon-Breasted Rock Bunting, and various species of weaver and firefinch carpeted the open areas. I stopped again at the top of the escarpment to look around for Green-Backed Eremola and a few remaining targets. It was well after dark when I finally reached Busingiro for the night. I was exhausted from the heat, and my back felt tweaked after carrying around my camera gear all day. I set up camp and went to bed quickly after a few beers. I was so tired that I wasn't even bothered by the terrifying calls of the nocturnal Tree Hyrax. I've camped all over Uganda, and Busingiro has by far the highest population density of these rodents. It is incredible to hear these cute little buggers roar like dragons at each other all night long.

I met my guide the following morning near Nyabyeya Forestry College near Budongo Forest Reserve. Raymond was recommended to me by Gerald, one of the expert bird guides whom I have worked with at Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary near Kibale National Park. Although I had been frustrated by logistics on my previous two visits, with Raymond's help arranging a visit to the Royal Mile was straightforward. I paid 20 USD at the NFA office for a half-day of birding in the forest, plus 30 USD for Raymond's guiding service for the whole day (we also planned to bird the cultivated fields along the access road). The NFA staff was waiting for us, the guard at the entrance gate didn't give us a hard time, and we could bird free and easy along the Royal Mile. Although I had successfully gained access to the Royal Mile twice before while birding on my own, it hadn't been easy or pleasant.




Raymond and I spent our first hour together birding the cultivated areas. At first glance, these overgrown fields of maize, cassava, ground nuts, and sweet potato don't look like hotbeds of bird diversity, but we found some key dry country species of northern Uganda, including Brown Twinspot and Cabanis's Bunting. I also ticked new species that are more widespread, such as Dark-Capped Yellow Warbler, Singing and Whistling Cisticolas, and Zebra Waxbill. Other notable birds seen here were Cassin's Hawk-Eagle, Wahlberg's Eagle, African Moustached Warbler, Compact Weaver, Black Bishop, Red-Collared Widowbird, and Black-Winged Red Bishop. We also kicked up a group of Tree Pipits, a common migrant that Raymond had never seen before. In order to see these birds well, we walked deep into the fields following along the edges of patches of cultivation. The local farmers didn't seem to mind, but their reaction might have been different had I been alone.

On the Royal Mile, we encountered a good mixed flock with several site specialties, including Ituri Batis, Lemon-Bellied Crombec, and Chestnut-Capped Flycatcher. Raymond didn't have audio equipment, but he has clearly mastered the bird calls and songs of the area and was able to identify  the source of every bit of bird noise. With a variety of whistles and pishing sounds he elicited responses from Grey Longbill, Chocolate-Backed Kingfisher, Yellow-Browed Camaroptera, Jameson's Wattle-Eye, Green-Backed Twinspot, and many others. We heard Nahan's Francolin earlier in the morning calling spontaneously from another patch of forest, but it did not respond to Raymond's imitation along the Royal Mile. We also missed Yellow Longbill, Blue-Shouldered Robin-Chat, Black-Capped Apalis, and Uganda Woodland Warbler, all birds I was hoping to tick for the first time.





We encountered a few surprises along the road, including a solitary chimpanzee searching for fruit at the base of a fig tree. At the end of the Royal Mile, the road crosses a small stream where we searched for Shining-Blue Kingfisher. Suddenly, a male Black-Bellied Seedcracker emerged in the gloom of the understory to take a few sips of water before retreating back into the forest. All morning an adult African Crowned Eagle wheeled overhead, calling loudly. This looming threat kept the monkeys from disturbing our birding with too much activity. It's not unusual at Budongo for monkeys to inadvertently scare off a bird you've been stalking patiently for fifteen minutes, as they bound from tree to tree in the canopy high overhead. We did not find an African Dwarf Kingfisher among the many African Pygmy Kingfishers, nor did we spot either spinetail species soaring overhead.

By the time we left the forest at mid-afternoon, bird activity had dropped off dramatically. We spent another hour looking for dry country species again, including Grey-Headed Olive-Back. Raymond sees this localized and erratic species regularly in his yard, but we were unsuccessful. Eventually, I had to cut my losses and return to Kampala in order to arrive before dark. Admittedly, it was a pleasure birding with Raymond, and without his expert knowledge I would have only seen a few new species. It's likely that I wouldn't have been able to access the Royal Mile on my own, considering that technically the NFA requires a guide to enter the forest. You can contact Raymond directly by phone or SMS to set up a guided excursion (0752930065). He charges 50 USD per day for a group and 30 USD per for an individual. If you're only going to visit the Royal Mile once, I would recommend you maximize your visit to one of Uganda's best birding sites by hiring a guide.




Albertine Rift Valley Escarpment and Lake Albert

Notable birds seen: Pink-Backed Pelican, Common Squacco Heron, Little Egret, Black-Headed Heron, Hamerkop, Osprey, Lizard Buzzard, Wahlberg's Eagle, Cassin's Hawk-Eagle, Long-Crested Eagle, Red-Necked Falcon, Helmeted Guineafowl, African Jacana, Black-Winged Stilt, Lesser Sandplover, Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, White-Winged Tern, Blue-Spotted Wood-Dove, Laughing Dove, Red-Headed Lovebird, White-Browed Coucal, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, Red-Throated Bee-Eater, Speckled Tinkerbird, Yellow-Fronted Tinkerbird, Double-Toothed Barbet, Barn Swallow, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Plain-Backed Pipit, Tree Pipit, Cliff Chat, Sooty Chat, Whinchat, Brown-Backed Scrub-Robin, Dark-Capped Yellow-Warbler, African Moustached Warbler, Zitting Cisticola, Rattling Cisticola, Singing Cisticola, Red-Faced Cisticola, Whistling Cisticola, Foxy Cisticola, Tawny-Flanked Prinia, Swamp Flycatcher, Black-Headed Batis, African Paradise Flycatcher, Silverbird, Brown Babbler, Copper Sunbird, Marico Sunbird, Beautiful Sunbird, Common Fiscal, Black-Headed Gonolek, Black-Crowned Tchagra, Brown-Crowned Tchagra, Piapiac, Lesser Blue-Eared Starling, Rufous Sparrow, White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, Chestnut-Crowned Sparrow-Weaver, Slender-Billed Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Compact Weaver, Red-Collared Widowbird, Black Bishop, Black-Winged Red Bishop, Red-Winged Pytilia, Brown Twinspot, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Red-Billed Firefinch, African Firefinch, Black-Bellied Firefinch, Black-Crowned Waxbill, Zebra Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin, Black-and-White Mannikin, Pin-Tailed Whydah, Yellow-Fronted Canary, Cinnamon-Breasted Rock Bunting, Cabanis's Bunting.

Budongo Forest Reserve

Notable birds seen: African Crowned Eagle, Nahan's Francolin (h), White-Spotted Flufftail (h), Klaas's Cuckoo, Yellowbill, Narina Trogon, Blue-Breasted Kingfisher (h), Chocolate-Backed Kingfisher (h), African Pygmy Kingfisher, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, Yellow-Throated Tinkerbird, Speckled Tinkerbird, Yellow-Spotted Barbet, Yellow-Billed Barbet (h), Brown-Eared Woodpecker, Yellow-Crested Woodpecker, White-Headed Saw-Wing, Western Nicator, Little Greenbul, Slender-Billed Greenbul, Red-Tailed Bristlebill (h), Icterine Greenbul, White-Throated Greenbul, Spotted Greenbul, Honeyguide Greenbul, Forest Robin, Fire-Crested Alethe (h), Red-Capped Robin-Chat (h), Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush, Green Hylia, Lemon-Bellied Crombec, Green Crombec, Grey Longbill, Rufous-Crowned Eremola, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Yellow-Browed Camaroptera, Buff-Throated Apalis, Pale Flycatcher, Grey-Throated Flycatcher, Ituri Batis, Chestnut Wattle-Eye, Jameson's Wattle-Eye, Red-Bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Chestnut-Capped Flycatcher, Pale-Breasted Illadopsis, Brown Illadopsis, Olive Sunbird, Little Green Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Western Black-Headed Oriole, Purple-Headed Starling, Grosbeak Weaver, Vieillot's Black Weaver, Red-Headed Malimbe, Grey-Headed Negrofinch (h), White-Breasted Negrofinch, Green-Backed Twinspot, Red-Headed Bluebill, Black-Bellied Seedcracker.

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