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Uganda Ornithology

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Bird Watching in Uganda

Pound for pound, or species per square kilometre, Uganda has a greater avian diversity than any other country in Africa. The species list to date of 1,018 birds is the fourth highest in Africa, behind Congo, Kenya and Tanzania. However, Uganda is a fraction of the size of any of these countries and fantastic birding is within easy and accessible reach of the capital, Kampala. Given its comparatively small size, Uganda is arguably the richest African birding destination. Located almost at the centre of the continent, Uganda attracts migrants from both the north and the south and has more indigenous birds than many of its neighbours.


Species

No other country can match the amazing diversity of habitats particularly its wetlands, and this richness is reflected in the ever increasiung bird list which currently runs to more than 1,000 species, from great eagles to tiny, iridescent sunbirds.

Flamingos gather on the smaller lakes, which abound with kingfishers, bee-eaters and fish eagles. the plains and scrubland are home to an exceptional variety of birdlife. Bwindi Forest Reserve and Lake Mburo and Murchison Falls Game Parks are growing in popularity amongst birdwatchers. Among the many important species for avid bird-wachers are the shoebill stork, the Rwenzoris Turaco, the Kivu ground thrush, Shelly's crimsom wing and the Rwenzori battis.

As with most of eastern Africa, Uganda has a large and diverse avifauna. More than 1,000 species, including many migratory species from Europe or Asia, have been recorded. Given the relatively small size of the country, this number is exceptionally high.

Human activities

Human activities, especially forest clearing, have had a tremendous effect on the abundance and distribution of Ugandan birds. Some umbiquitous, open country species, like the Common Bulbul (Pycnonotus barbatus) and the Mousebird (Colius striatus), have been able to proliferate and to extend their distribution widely, but many forest species are now confined to small derelict patches of forest. Until now, no species has become extinct however, birds are still abundant in most areas of Uganda. Unlike mammal hunting, bird hunting except for some trapping of francolins and doves is rare, and even unknown in most traditional Ugandan cultures.

This fact encouraged the Uganda Tourist Board to initiate a countrywide 'Avitourism Development Programme' in 1997. Components included: the identification of viable resources (natural areas with good avian diversity and the possibility of tourist access); the training of guides, both in the private sector and in the protected areas system; the development of avitourism-related infrastructure (such as bird hides and forest trails); the production of a user-friendly birding 'site guide'; and the establishment of a Bird Observatory to be a focal point for avian research and tourism.

As part of the programme to improve facilities for bird-wachers, the Uganda Wildlife Authority has developed a number of new hides at strategic sites and there has been a new survey of Ugandan birds, which has resulted in the publication of 'Where to Watch Birds in Uganda'.

Uganda's rich mosaic of wetlands, forests and woodlands, highlands and savannah's provides very sympathetic habitats for birds and there is the realistic possibility of sighting 500-plus species on a three-week itinerary.

Mabira Forest

Straddling the road to Jinja, a mere hour’s drive east from Kampala, Mabira Forest supports over 300 bird species, many of which are difficult to see elsewhere in Uganda. An excellent trail system allows access to both undisturbed primary and good secondary forest. Managed by the Forestry Department with input form the local community, Mabira Forest was opened to the public in 1996. The revenue generated from ecotourism is shared between the forestry Department and the local community. There is a clearly signposted visitor centre, banda accommodation and a basic campsite.

Birding

One of Mabira’s strengths lies in the large number of birds which may be seen a short distance form the visitor’s centre. Flowering trees in the clearing attract a variety of sunbirds such as Green, Little Olive, Blue throated, Brown, Green-throated, Olivebellied, and Superb Sunbird. Other forest edge species here include Speckle-breasted Woodpecker, Black-throated Apalis, African Blue Flycatcher and Grey-crowned Negrofinch. Forest Robin, Snowyheaded Robin-Chat, Grey-capped Warbler, Black and –white flycatcher, Dusky Tit and Common Wattle-Eye occur around the campsite, where Buff-spotted Flufftail and African Wood Owl may be heard in the evenings.

A loop trail with the misleading name of the "Grassland Trail" takes you in 2-3 hours (birding pace) through various stages of secondary growth vegetation. A lower, more broken canopy and an abundance of fruiting trees facilitate easy birding. Start below the visitor’s centre, where rank growth along damp gully is home to Blue-shouldered and Red-capped Robin-chats, Brown Illadopsis and Red-headed Bluebill. Look in the canopy of taller trees for Western Black-headed Oriole, African Shrike-flycatcher and Red-headed Malimbe. The trail continues into an open area where large, dead trees provide nesting sites for an abundance of barbets including Grey-throated, Yellow-spotted, Hairy-breasted, Double-toothed and Yellow-billed. Fruiting fig trees here attract Great Blue Turaco and the fairly local African Pied Hornbill. Search the starlings carefully for the uncommon Purple-throated Cuckoo-shrike.

Along this trail

Dense tangles along this trail support brown-eared Woodpecker, Scaly-breasted Illoadopsis, yellow-browed camaroptera and Sooty Boubou. At the far end of the loop turn left to continue the grassland Trail or right to cross the road and enter the primary forest to the south. A short distance after the left turn, the trail crosses a small bridge over a creek where White-spotted Flufftails may be heard calling from the thickets. Green-backed Twinspots feed along the trail and the diminutive Tit Hylia (known from only two localities in East Africa) has been observed on exposed snags of canopy trees in this area.

Bear left at a second fork to continue the loop, which passes a large fig frequented by hornbills, barbets and starlings, and reaches a level area with an open canopy and thickets. Check the mixed feeding flocks here for White-chinned Prinia, Buff-throated Apalis, Pink-footed Puffback and Olive-green camaroptera. Joyful Greenbul and red-tailed Bristlebill inhabit the dense thickets closer to the ground.
The beautiful primary forest south of the main Kampala-Jinja road is a prime birding area harbouring a number of species that avoid secondary forest. Watch along the initial stretch of trail for Dusky Long-tailed cuckoo, Red-tailed bristlebill, Red-tailed Greenbul, Pale-breasted Illadopsis, Fire-crested Alethe, Rufous Thrush, Green Hylia, Grey and Yellow longbills, and Dusky Crested Monarch. There have also been recent reports of Square-tailed Drongo, a species not yet confirmed from Uganda.

Arch Tree

Continue to the "Arch Tree" where the trail descends steeply into a gully. Listen here for the hollow hoot of the White-spotted Flufftail and the mechanical sound of the African Broadbill. Jameson’s Wattle-Eye favours the dense lower and mid-storey in this area. This is also a good spot for the localised Forest Wood-hoopoe, a species difficult to see elsewhere in Uganda. Light gaps along streams and at tree falls allow good views of the canopy and species such as Afep pigeon, grey Parrot, Black-billed Turaco, Blue-breasted Kingfisher, Cassin’s Honeybird, Dusky Tit, Purple-throated Cuckoo-shrike, Chestnut-winged Starling and Yellow-mantled Weaver may be found.

Lake Bunyonyi

"Lake of the Little Birds" (Lake Bunyonyi) is located in the hills above Kabale in the South Western corner of Uganda aptly named "The Switzerland of Africa. Unlike the nearby national parks of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Lake Mburo and Queen Elizabeth, virtually no bird information exists for this beautiful jewel. Lake Bunyoni is situated at approximately 6,500 feet, is the deepest crater lake in the country, and one of the few Bilharzia-free lakes in Uganda.

Although the hills surrounding the lake are heavily cultivated, a combination of forest groves, gardens, farm fields, open water and extensive marshes attract a wide diversity of bird life (over 200 species). The resident Spot-necked otters are readily seen fishing along the lakeshore. Bushara Island is probably the most central location to begin a bird-watching safari. More than 50 species can be regularly spotted in a leisurely two hour stroll over the 16 hectare island, and over 100 species have been spotted on two occasions. Commonly sighted birds include the White-Tailed Blue Monarch, African Harrier-Hawk, Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Cardinal Woodpecker, Grey-Capped Warbler, White-Collared Oliveback, and Rufous-Breasted Wrneck. Weavers nesting on the island include large Golden, Slender-Biloled, Baglafecht, Yellow-Backed and Spectacled Weavers. A Great Cormorant nesting colony is located at the South Western point of Bushara Island. Malachite and Pied Kingfishers and Cinnamon-Chested Bee-Eaters nest in Cavities on exposed banks. A night-time dugout canoe trip will reward the visitor with flashing fireflies, a loud chorus of crickets and frogs, swooping bats, and nocturnal birds.

Two swamps

Two swamps worth a visit on the lake are Nymobe and Muko swamps. Nyombe is located in one of the most southern points of Uganda. This beautiful swamp is bordered with water-lilies and papyrus. A slow cruise along the swamp edge should provide good views of many wetland associated species, such as purple Swamphen, African Jacana, Red-knobbed Coot, Little Grebe, Swamp Flycatcher, and Long-Tailed Cormorant. On a walk through cultivated fields along the swamp edge, one might encounter half a dozen varieties of weavers, such as the Yellow-Backed Weaver and skulking marsh birds, such as the Blue-Headed Coucal. The area also supports Grey Crownded Carne, Spur-Winged Goose, Hottentot Teal, Long-toed plover, White-Winged Black Tern, African marsh harrier, Long-Crested Eagle, Three-Banded plover and lesser Swamp Warbler.

Muko Papyrus Swamp, located at the North Western end of the lake, is arguably one of the best places in Uganda to see papyrus endemics such as Papyrus Yellow Warbler, Papyrus Gonolek and Papyrus canary. A hike into the heart of the swamp will improve your chances of encountering these species. Cultivated fields on the swamp margins are inhabited by numerous birds including: Yellow-Billed Stork, Little Reed Warbler, White-tailed Blue Monarch, Hammerkop, Veillots Black Weaver, Black Saw-Wing, Black-Lored babbler, African Wattled plover, Crimson-Rumped Waxbill and Common Fiscal.

Lake Mburo National Park

Three hours west of Kampala along the main road to Mbarara, this small acacia Savannah-and wetland-dominated park is one of the most accessible places in Uganda for spotting papyrus endemics and typical southern savannah bird species. An added attraction for Lake Mburo is the possibility of hiring a small canoe and birding the lake fringes which abound with wildlife as well.

Some of the key species to find in Lake Mburo National Park are: African Finfoot; Brown-chested Plover; Red-faced and Black-collared Barbets; White-winged Warbler; Papyrus Yellow Warbler; Papyrus Gonolek and, in the riverine forest at the mouth of the Ruizi River, the beautiful Narina Trogon.

Lake Mburo National Park makes an ideal stopover on the way to the National Parks in the west and South-West of Uganda. Bird list found here counts about 315 species.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park

A further four hours south-west of Lake Mburo, there is Bwindi Forest National Park which offers the best montane forest birding in Africa. Recently proclaimed a World Heritage Site, Bwindi is probably the most important and perhaps the most threatened protected area in Uganda.

Though better known as home to over half the world's remaining population of Mountain gorillas, Bwindi hosts 23 of Uganda's 24 Albertine Rift endemics, including the wonderful Blue-headed, Purple-breasted and Regal Sunbirds, Red-throated Alethe, Kivu Ground Thrush, Rwenzori Batis, Short-tailed Warbler and Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher.

The Ruhizha area of the park, and in particular the Mubwindi Swamp, is a must for visiting birders. Birds along the trail are plentiful and active throughout the day, but the undoubted highlight is the rare and localised African Green Broadbill, one of Africa's most sought-after birds. The swamp fringes make for spectacular birding, with species like the Grey-chested Illadopsis, Bar-tailed Trogon, Black Bee-eater and White-tailed Trogon, and White-headed Wood hoopoe, often loud and conspicuous.

The Buhoma area of the park is at a slightly lower elevation (1,550m) than Ruhizha (2,300m) and is also the location of the park headquarters and the main accommodation facilities. The Buhoma Forest Gorilla Camp is worth a visit for the services of Alfred Twinomusini, the resident bird-guide. Alfred knows the forest birds better than any one and is a priceless asset to any walk in the area.

The trails around Buhoma will yield birds such as Fine-banded and Elliot's Woodpeckers, Red-fronted Antpecker, Many-coloured Bush-Shrike, Long-tailed Cuckoos, Fraser's Eagle Owl and the pitta-like Short-tailed Warbler. The bird list found here counts about 357 species.

Queen Elizabeth National Park

Just an hour and a half north of Bwindi is Ishasha, in the southern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park. There is good birding along the road from Ishasha, north to the main part of Queen Elizabeth National Park, through the Maramagambo Forest. Be prepared though as it is a lousy road and it will take at least three hours to get to the northern part of the park.

The bird list for Queen Elizabeth National Park of 550-plus species is the largest of any protected area in Africa .

Queen Elizabeth is a must for birding visitors to Uganda. The park headquarters on the Mweya Peninsula is also the location for Uganda's only Bird Observatory and purpose built bird hide. The resident Field Co-ordinator, Malcolm Wilson, is particularly interested in Palaearctic migration and is currently conducting a long- term ringing programme to add to the understanding of this little-known migration route. Some of the interesting birds found in Queen Elizabeth National Park are Shoebill and other papyrus endemics, African Skimmer, Lesser Flamingo, Pygmy Goose and scores of Palaearctic shorebirds. Martial Eagle, Egyptian Geese, Ruppell's Griffon, White-backed and the immense Lappet-faced vultures are all fairly easily seen. There are particular areas within the park that merit some time birding.

Semuliki Wildlife Reserve

The remote and beautiful Semuliki WR is about four hours drive north of Queen Elizabeth National Park. The spectacular birding in the reserve owes much to its diversity of habitats and its proximity and similarity to the West African rainforests and northern Savannah. The reserve reaches the southern end of Lake Albert and this particular area is one of the most reliable sites in Uganda for Shoebills. The reserve is also one of the few places in Uganda where night drives are permitted.

The spotlight on these occasions may pick up African Scops Owl; Pearl-spotted Owlet; Verraux's Eagle Owl; African White-tailed, Standard-winged and Pennant-winged Nightjars.The recently opened lodge overlooking the Wasa River is an excellent base for birding and chimp walks into the gallery forest where the Leaflover is common and where Blue-breasted and Shining Blue Kingfisher, Crested Guineafowl, Black Cuckoo, Narina Trogon, African Pygmy Kingfisher and Honeyguide Greenbul can also be found. Bird list here counts about 350 species.

Kibale Forest National Park

Kibale Forest National Park is two hours from Semuliki Wildlife Reserve via Fort Portal. Superb birds combined with the greatest concentration and variety of primates in East Africa make this extensive (560km2) park well worth a visit.

The network of forest trails that radiate from the tourist centre at Kanyanchu provide fantastic birding. Some of the rare and elusive ground dwellers like African and Green-breasted Pitta, Nahan's Francolin and Abyssinian ground Thrush may be found along these trails.

Also worth a visit is Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, which is owned and run by the local community. The boardwalk access to Magombe Swamp in this sanctuary offers prime viewing of papyrus specials, White-spotted Fluffatail, Blue-headed Coucal, Yellow-billed Barbet and Scaly-throated Honeyguide.

The bird list found here counts about 335 species.

Murchison Falls National Park

Murchison is an eight hour drive north-east of Fort Portal, via Hoima and Masindi Towns (alternatively, it is only four hours from Kampala if you want to start your loop here). The birding experience in Murchison is greatly enhanced by the wildlife spectacle and the River Nile, the banks of which abound with herons, king-fishers, Bee-eaters and a host of wild animals including Nile crocodiles. Extensive game viewing tracks on the north bank of the Nile open vast Savannah areas for birding opportunities, especially raptors like Tawny and Martial Eagles, Secretary Birds and Black-chested Snake Eagles.

The colourful Abyssinian Roller, and Carmine, Blue-breasted, Little and Red-throated Bee-eaters. Bird list here counts about 450 species. Spending two to three days at each of the above protected areas makes this into a two-to three-week itinerary. It is possible to camp privately at all the locations as well as utilise existing lodge or luxury tented camp facilities.

Kampala

One of the first impressions of most visitors, even the non-bird watchers, is the abundance of birds around Entebbe and Kampala. Small birds like sparrows, bright yellow weavers, metallic-blue starlings, and colourful sunbirds are everywhere. Woodland kingfishers, Broad-billed roller, Black-and-white flycatcher, Black-headed gonolek, and Heuglin's robin chat are common garden birds. Large fruiting trees in the middle of Kampala attract Black-and-white casqued hornbill, Crowned hornbill, Great blue turaco, and Ross's turaco. Abdim's stork, Black-headed heron, and Hadada ibis are regular visitors on golf courses. Large birds like Marabou stork, Hooded vulture, Black kite, and even African fish eagle are rarely absent from the sky. The Marabou, the largest of all storks in Africa but also the most repulsive, with its large, fleshy pouch hanging from the neck, even breeds on some trees in the overcrowded city streets of Kampala.

Woodlands Species

Outside towns and villages, birds are mainly distributed according to the occurrence of broad vegetation types. Most birds of the woodlands and wooded grasslands, the most extensive type of natural or semi-natural habitat in Uganda, have a very broad distribution, both geographically and ecologically.

They range widely outside Uganda: some are found all over East Africa; others reach South Africa or West Africa, and still others are found throughout tropical Africa. This is the case with many raptors like the black kite and black-shouldered kite, the African cuckoo falcon, most vultures, the Harrier hawk, the splendid Bateleur eagle, Brown snake eagle and Banded snake eagle, African hawk eagle, Tawny eagle, several Sparrowhawks and Goshawks, Lizard buzzard, Long-crested eagle, Crowned eagle, and Martial eagle. Vultures and large eagles are now mainly confined to the national parks, except for the Hooded vulture and Palmnut vulture, which still have a wide distribution.

Savannah Species

Many Savannah species, however, are more or less restricted to specific vegetation types or eco-climatic conditions: some prefer the moister woodlands, some are only found in dry or very dry habitats. Even if they are distributed widely outside Uganda, their distribution inside the country is often limited.

In the moist Savannahs of southern and south-western Uganda occurs the Black-headed olive-back, a small greenish, finch like bird with a black head and a narrow white collar. It lives in rank, lush vegetation on edges of swamps, around forests, and in cultivated areas and has a very restricted distribution.

In the much drier acacia Savannah of Lake Mburo National Park are found other interesting species. The most peculiar is the Red-faced barbet, a plump, black bird with a stout bill, yellow shafts to the primary feathers, and a bright red face. It is a rare species, restricted to a small area of south-western Uganda, eastern Rwanda, north-eastern Burundi, and north-western Tanzania.

Forest Species

Compared with other East African countries, Uganda is especially rich in forest birds. They form a very substantial part of the avifauna and are one of the best reasons for a birdwatcher to visit Uganda. Some species have a widespread distribution, occurring in many different forests. Others are restricted to one, two, or three forest blocks, mostly along the wesern Rift - the richest being the Budongo, Kibale, Semuliki, Maramagambo, Kalinzu, and Bwindi forests. These forests harbour many central or west African species, which reach their easternmost limit of distribution in western Uganda.

Especially in the lowland forests of the Semuliki National Park, which are an extension of the forests of the Zaire Basin, there are many species that don't occur elsewhere in East Africa. These include the spotted ibis, Congo serpent eagle, Chestnut flanked goshawk, Long-tailed hawk, Bateso nightjar, Wattled black hornbill, Red-billed dwarf hornbill, Black dwarf hornbill, and White-crested hornbill, African piculet, Gabon woodpecker, Yellow-throated nicator, Black-winged oriole, Sassi's olive greenbul, Bearded greenbul and Capuchin babbler, Northern bearded scrub robin, Forest ground thrush, Grey ground thrush, Red-eyed puffback, Place-fronted negrofinch, and Grant's bluebill. Cassin's spinetail is known from only Budongo Forest.

Montane forests

Montane forests are poorer in bird species than lowland forests, but harbour more species with a restricted distribution. The high-altitude forests along the western Rift have many species that occur nowhere else: the Kivu-Ruwenzori endemics. The best places to spot them are the forests of the Ruwenzori range and those of Bwindi. There one can find the handsome Francolin, Ruwenzori turaco, Ruwenzori batis, White-bellied crested flycatcher, Yellow-eyed black flycatcher, Ruwenzori apalis, Red-faced woodland warbler, Red-throated alethe, Archer's robin chat, Mountain black boubou, Stripe-breasted tit, Purple-breasted sunbird, Regal sunbird, Blue-headed sunbird, Strange weaver, Dusky crimson-wing, Shelly's crimson-wing, and Dusky twinspot. The Tanganyika ground thrush is restricted to Bwindi and the volcanoes. The Dwarf honeyguide, Short-tailed warbler, and Grauer's warbler are found only in the Bwindi Forest. The rarely seen Green broadbill is found in only the higher parts of the Bwindi Forest, mainly around Ruhija and the Bwindi swamp.

Wetlands Species

The extensive and diverse wetlands attract a rich waterbird fauna. Most of the species of Pelicans, Cormorants and Darters, Herons, Storks, Ibises and Spoonbills, Ducks and Geese, Plovers, Waders and Gulls and Raptors found in eastern and southern African wetlands exist in Uganda. The African fish eagle is abundant, and some rare species like the rufous-bellied heron are also quite wide-spread.

Some species typically restricted to papyrus swamps and virtually endemic to the Lake Victoria basin, like the Papyrus gonolek, the White winged warbler, and the Papyrus canary, are also widespread.

The striking Shoebill stork is known from the Victoria Nile and the larger swamps around Lakes George, Edward, Victoria, and Kyoga. It is a large bird, about the size of a Marabou, silver-grey with a conspicuous broad bill. It can stand motionless for hours on floating meadows or on the water's edge, waiting for fish. In the montane swamps of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park occurs the very local, unobtrusive and skulking Grauer's rush warbler, known from only a few places in south-western Uganda, western Rwanda, and northern Burundi. On the Semuliki River Hartlaub's duck has been recorded, and along the edges of swamps north-east of Lake Kyoga lives the only strictly Ugandan endemic species: Fox's weaver.

Last Updated on Thursday 26th November 2009

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