My Top Ten Birds Missed in Uganda

Reflecting on birds unseen can be just as compelling as remembering those seen. Considering one's oversights, mistakes, and simple bad luck can even make us better birders. I certainly missed enough birds in Uganda to justify a return trip someday, and if I ever had another opportunity to revisit the country, I would be thrilled to see many of the same birds again. In compiling this list, I aimed to cover a variety of birds and reasons for missing them.

Blue-Shouldered Robin-Chat, Cossypha cyanocampter


Often seeing a bird is a matter of being prepared. Early on, I likely overlooked the Blue-Shouldered Robin-Chat at Budongo Forest Reserve and Kibale National Park because I did not have proper knowledge of the bird's habitat, behavior, and voice before going into the field. All robin-chats are terrific songsters and regularly mimic other birds. Often multiple robin-chat species are found in the same area, and it can be very challenging to distinguish their calls. For example, at Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary, I once heard a Grey-Winged Robin-Chat respond to a recording of a Blue-Shouldered Robin-Chat mimicking a Black-Shouldered Nightjar. Later on, when I was better prepared, or in the company of a guide, I was simply unlucky.

Short-Tailed Warbler, Urosphena neumanni


Birding is also about defining priorities. Consider the Short-Tailed Warbler, one of two dozen Albertine Rift endemics found at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This montane forest reserve is located in the far southwest region of Uganda, and reaching Buhoma, the most popular of the four park stations, requires nearly a full day's drive from Kampala. At Buhoma birders can find the Short-Tailed Warbler and several other endemics not present at Ruhija, which is significantly closer to Kampala and also at higher altitude. Buhoma, due the popularity of mountain gorilla tourism, is also more developed than the other access points, and prices for accommodation are higher than anywhere else in Uganda. On my three short trips to Bwindi, I opted to spend my time birding on the cheap at Ruhija and the Neck, skipping the chance to see this enigmatic and unique bird.

Shelley's Crimsonwing, Cryptospiza shelleyi


Other birds are so rare that no amount of preparation can guarantee a sighting. The Shelley's Crimsonwing, a colorful montane finch and another Albertine Rift endemic, is only very rarely recorded and almost never photographed (the Rare Finch Conservation Group has catalogued all extant photos). One of the continent's rarest birds, the Shelley's Crimsonwing has become an important symbol for conservation efforts in Africa, and the race is on to protect more of its habitat. Africa's other three crimsonwing species are seen more regularly in Uganda, although I only recorded the Dusky Crimsonwing a few times at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Another site in Uganda worth trying for all four crimsonwing species is Mgahinga National Park, where there are a few historical records of Shelley's Crimsonwing sightings.

Congo Serpent-Eagle, Dryotriorchis spectabilis


I never expected to see the Congo Serpent-Eagle in Uganda, but once we heard one calling from the forest canopy overhead at Semliki National Park, I had to see it. The serpent-eagle is one of dozens of so-called Semliki specials, birds of the forests of West Africa that only occur in East Africa at Semliki. Encountering raptors always strikes me as more luck than skill, and in my trip planning I had neglected to study the Congo Serpent-Eagle. My guide was convinced one was calling nearby though, and we peered into the treetops for several hours, wandering off trail and thrashing through the undergrowth. Finally, we were quickly distracted by the sounds of another rare bird and dashed off in another direction. It's a twist on the adage that you don't know what you have until it's gone: birders can only miss what they actually have a chance of seeing.

Rwenzori Turaco, Ruwenzorornis johnstoni


Sometimes a bird's habitat is too remote to justify an attempt. There are only two sites in Uganda for the spectacular Rwenzori Turaco, Mgahinga and Rwenzori National Parks, although distribution maps indicate that Rwenzori Turaco may also occur in upper Bwindi Impenentrable National Park. I decided that Mgahinga was too far away for a weekend trip, especially when Bwindi offers better access and a longer bird list. For my final birding trip in Uganda, I considered making a week-long trek up the slopes of the Rwenzori Mountains in search of the turaco, but it would have cost several hundred dollars a day. I opted instead for a safari to Kidepo National Park, where I would add dozens of new birds to my country list. Birders frequently must decide whether seeing a target bird like the Rwenzori Turaco is actually worth the time, trouble, and expense. Far from being onerous, this calculus is part of the appeal of birding.

Fox's Weaver, Ploceus spekeoides


If I calculated that a trip to see the spectacular Rwenzori Turaco wasn't worth the time and expense, then there was no way I would have splurged on searching for Fox's Weaver. This nondescript weaver is Uganda's only true country endemic, a subtle split from Heuglin's and Speke's Weaver. Known only from the swamps and fringes of two lake systems in eastern Uganda, Fox's Weaver has not been recorded in the last seven years. In fact, an extensive three-month survey by Nature Uganda in 2015 did not yield a single sighting of Fox's Weaver, although researchers noted 12 other weaver species. Birders visiting eastern Uganda would no doubt still find a boat excursion on Lake Bisinia productive as seeing the Shoebill, African Pygmy-Goose, and Lesser Jacana is much more likely than Fox's Weaver.

White-Collared Oliveback, Nesocharis ansorgei


Contracting a local guide is often the best way to see a target bird. Unless access requires it, I usually prefer to bird alone and acquire my own local knowledge through repeated visits to a site. I had visited Budongo Forest Reserve multiple times and amassed a respectable bird list, but my time in country was drawing to a close and I still had a handful of key species to see. Working with Raymond, a local bird guide who is based near the entrance to the Royal Mile, one of East Africa's most storied birding sites, I quickly ticked species that I had missed on my own, including the Spotted Greenbul, Lemon-Bellied Crombec, Grey Longbill, Brown Twinspot, and Cabanis's Bunting. The White-Collared Oliveback was one of the few target birds that I failed to see on that trip, despite Raymond's unparalleled knowledge of its habitat, voice, and behavior.

Pel's Fishing Owl, Scotopelia peli



Nothing grips one off like missing a mega, and Pel's Fishing-Owl is one of Africa's true mega birds. Endangered, scarce, and uncommon, it can be found in gallery forest along lakes and slow-moving rivers, where it hunts fish and frogs by night. The lower stretch of the Victoria Nile within Murchison Falls National Park is an excellent site for the Fishing-Owl, and park rangers are familiar with several roosts along the boat trip from Paraa up to the base of the falls. Unfortunately, local knowledge does not make for a guaranteed sighting. One issue is that owls don't necessarily maintain the same roost each day. Another issue is that boat trips are expensive and often crowded with tourists uninterested in birds. I only took the boat trip twice at Murchison and missed Pel's Fishing-Owl both times; on another visit, I heard from a guide that Pel's was seen well, along with a leopard lounging nearby.

Karamoja Apalis, Apalis karamojae


The Karamoja Apalis is right in a birder's sweet spot. It's genuinely rare and highly localized to a few remote spots in northwestern Uganda and western Kenya. While by no means spectacular, it is distinct enough from other apalis species to be interesting, and a visit to its habitat will reward birders with sightings of many other birds endemic to the arid woodland and semi-desert habitat of the Sudan and Horn of Africa regions. I spent several hours wandering through whistling thorn bush in the northern sector of Kidepo Valley National Park hoping to spot the Karamoja Apalis. Although I missed it, I was lucky to note a handful of birds that I didn't see anywhere else in Uganda, including White-Bellied Bustard, Pygmy Batis, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Ostrich, and Secretary Bird.

African and Rufous-Sided Broadbills, Smithornis capensis and Smithornis rufolateralis


Sometimes seeing a bird just depends on luck. The African and Rufous-Sided Broadbills are by no means rare, and I spent more than enough time in their habitat to warrant at least one sighting. Broadbills are typically quiet, unobtrusive, and phlegmatic birds, often perching silent and motionless in midlevel forest tangles for long periods of time. At certain times of the year, male broadbills will zip out in short sallies of tight horizontal circles, their wings buzzing distinctly. I likely wandered by dozens of imperceptible broadbills at Budongo Forest Reserve and Kibale, Bwindi, and Semliki National Parks as they waited patiently for the next breeding season. Even when using playback, with the permission of a park ranger, to prompt a territorial display, I was still unlucky. Fortunately, I did encounter an African Broadbill a few years ago in the eastern Usambara Mountains of Tanzania.

Honorable Mention: African Pygmy-Goose, Lammergeier, Pygmy Falcon, Forest Francolin, Nkulengu Rail, Greater Painted Snipe, Egyptian Plover, Four-Banded Sandgrouse, Lemon Dove, Black-Collared Lovebird, Bar-Tailed Trogon, Red-Faced Barbet, Wahlberg's Honeybird, African Piculet, African Pitta, White-Breasted Cuckoo-Shrike, Ground-Thrush species, Yellow Longbill, Broad-Tailed Warbler, Grauer's Warbler, Carruther's Cisticola, Yellow-Bellied Wattle-Eye, Capuchin Babbler, Tit Hylia, Pygmy Sunbird, Lagden's Bush-Shrike, Pale-Fronted Negrofinch, Grey-Headed Oliveback, Dusky Twinspot, Abyssinian Crimsonwing, Red-Faced Crimsonwing, African Quail-Finch, Cut-Throat Finch, Straw-Tailed Shydah, Brown-Rumped Bunting.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Fatbirder's Top 1000 Birding Websites