Uganda: Shoebill and Albertine Rift Endemics

Despite being small and land-locked, Uganda supports more than 1000 species, which has earned this country its deserved reputation as a “birder’s Eden”. This tour explores papyrus swamps around Lake Victoria, the mountains of the Albertine Rift, the lower-elevation Congolese rainforests, and more stereotypically “African” savannah. We’ll look for one of the most epic of all African birds, the incredible Shoebill. This gray statuesque leviathan haunts papyrus swamps searching for lethargic lungfish. We also have chances of finding two of Africa’s most elusive and sought-after birds: the African Green or Grauer’s Broadbill in Bwindi National Park and the Green-breasted Pitta in Kibale National Park. These marquee species have a strong supporting cast of lowland rainforest species which are shared with Congo, a rich assemblage of Albertine Rift endemic birds, and a set of specialties that is mainly confined to the Lake Victoria drainage. Few countries can offer as much in such a small package as does Uganda, leading some birders to describe it as the “Ecuador of Africa”.

Day 1: Arrival in Entebbe. We arrive in Entebbe, on the shores of Lake Victoria. While Kampala is a manic capital city, Entebbe is some 40 km away, and is much more relaxed. It’s also incredibly birdy. Wonderful species like African Gray Parrot, Ross’s Turaco, and Woodland Kingfisher are all over the landscape. If time allows, we will make an afternoon visit to the beautifully landscaped Entebbe botanical gardens. Along with a bounty of more common species, our first birds here could include Orange Weaver and Red-chested Sunbird.

Day 2: Entebbe to Lake Mburo NP. Our first major mission of the trip is locating Uganda’s most famous bird: the Shoebill. We drive to the edge of a swamp where we board small boats that allow access to its shallow channels. With a bit of luck, we will catch sight of this primordial-looking beast standing in the swamp or soaring overhead. Other prize sightings here may include Blue-chested Bee-eater, Swamp Flycatcher, Lesser Jacana, Yellow-billed Duck, Papyrus Gonolek, or Greater Swamp-Warbler. We’ll spend the rest of the day driving to Lake Mburo NP, birding some productive wetlands along the way. 

The mighty Shoebill is one of Africa's top birds
The mighty Shoebill is one of Africa's top birds (Ken Behrens)

Day 3: Lake Mburo NP to Ruhija sector of Bwindi NPThe morning will be spent exploring the open savannah and wetland habitats of Mburo NP, which resembles the stereotypical savannah environments of Kenya’s Masai Mara. There are quite a few species that are very localized in Uganda, and which only occur here. Our top avian target will be the Red-faced Barbet, which has a small range in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and Tanzania, to the west of Lake Victoria. Other targets will include Tabora Cisticola, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Green-capped Eremomela, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Spot-flanked Barbet, and Grey Penduline Tit. Lake Mburo is also an excellent park for mammals, including classic safari fare like Warthog, Eland, Common Zebra, and Impala. We’ll board a boat to search for the rare and elusive African Finfoot, and maybe even White-backed Night Heron. In the afternoon, we drive up into the misty mountains of Bwindi NP, whose dense cloud forest provides a complete change of scene from Mburo’s savannah. One of the astounding things about Uganda is how drastically the habitats and landscape change over a short distance.

Day 4: Gorilla tracking (optional – extra cost) in Bwindi NP. Those who opt for gorilla tracking this morning are in for one of the world’s great natural history experiences. You don’t just watch these soulful animals; they watch you too. Although the tracking permits are expensive, few are disappointed by this experience. People who decide not to track gorillas will spend this morning birding. The group will be reunited in the afternoon, and make an easy walk along a broad path, looking for Collared Apalis, Grauer’s Warbler, Gray Cuckooshrike, Black-billed Turaco, and many other montane species.

When you watch mountain gorillas, you're also being watched yourself
When you watch mountain gorillas, you're also being watched yourself (Ken Behrens)

Day 5: Full day of birding in Bwindi NP. We have a full day to search out the avian wonders of Bwindi, which often ranks as many participants’ favorite place on the whole tour. There are large multi-species flocks, the habitat is beautiful, and the climate is wonderfully comfortable. In the morning, we’ll make our way downhill to the swamp-side habitat favored by the enigmatic African Green Broadbill, though finding this little gem will take some luck. Working forest roadsides and trails, we expect to find endemics such as Ruwenzori (Collared) Apalis, skulking Red-crested Alethe, and Archer’s Robin-Chat. The spectacular but skulking Doherty’s Bushshrike may be coaxed out of a thicket, or we may encounter a flock of babbling White-headed Woodhoopoes. The comical echoes of Great Blue Turacos resound across the valleys, and honking calls may alert us to the presence of Black-and-white-casqued Hornbills nearby. Some of the commoner species in Bwindi include Mountain Sooty Boubou, Yellow-eyed Black-Flycatcher, Ruwenzori Hill Babbler, Red-faced Woodland, Neumann’s, and Grauer’s Warblers, Black-faced Apalis, White-tailed Blue-Flycatcher, Purple-breasted, Blue-headed, and Regal Sunbirds, Stripe-breasted Tit, Dusky Crimson-wing, and Strange Weaver. Rare gems we’ll hope to see include Kivu Ground-Thrush, White-bellied Robin-Chat, and Dusky Twnspot. Many primates roam the canopy including Chimpanzee, Guerza Colobus, and Blue and L’Hoests Monkeys.

Day 6: Ruhija to Buhoma, Bwindi NP. After breakfast, we head west to the lower-lying Buhoma sector of Bwindi NP. Along the way, we’ll pass through “The Neck”, a narrow strip of forest that connects the southern and northern portions of the national park. Here we have our first chance to find some specialties of lower elevation rainforest, which include Cassin’s Flycatcher, Black Bee-eater, Western Bronze-naped Pigeon, Petit’s Cuckooshrike, Tiny Sunbird, and a bounty of difficult-to-identify greenbulls. By the afternoon, we will arrive at Buhoma for a two-night stay.

Bwindi NP, the forest is impenetrable indeed
Bwindi NP, the forest is impenetrable indeed (Keith Barnes)

Day 7: Full day of birding in Buhoma, Bwindi NPThis mid-elevation sector of the national park has a very different flavor from the higher Ruhija section. Some of our targets during our full day of birding the park’s trail system will include Bar-tailed Trogon, White-bellied Crested Flycatcher, Willcock’s Honeyguide, Black-billed Weaver, Sooty Flycatcher, and many species of starlings, sunbirds, and greenbulls. This is one of the best sites for the recently described Willard’s Sooty Boubou, which has pale blue eyes,  unlike the more common and widespread Mountain Sooty Boubou.

Day 8: Buhoma to Queen Elizabeth NP. As we head north, the habitat quickly transforms from montane forest to more open savannah, though of a different variety from that in Mburo NP. As long as current road conditions allow, we will pass through the Ishasha section of Queen Elizabeth, which is famous for its tree-climbing lions. It’s also rich in birds including Blue-throated Roller, Sooty Chat, Red-necked Francolin, Black-and-white Shrike Flycatcher, and many others. By the late afternoon, we will have arrived at our luxurious lodge on a peninsula between Lake Edward and the Kazinga Channel. The lodge gardens are full of birds like Northern Black Flycatcher, Black-headed Gonolek, Red-chested Sunbird, and Slender-billed Weaver.

The dapper Rwenzori Batis flits about the highland forests
The dapper Rwenzori Batis flits about the highland forests (Ken Behrens)

Day 9:Full day in Queen Elizabeth NPQueen Elizabeth NP is both a mammal and bird haven. While it offers an opportunity to view typical African megafauna such as Hippoes and Elephants, it is also a waterbird magnet, a wide diversity of which can be seen in a short time. We will spend the morning doing an extended “game drive” through the park’s euphorbia-studded savannah, seeking out birds like African Wattled Lapwing, Temminck’s Courser, Martial Eagle, African Crake, Flappet Lark, and Moustached Grass Warbler. In the afternoon, we’ll make a boat trip on the Kazinga Channel. This trip ranks among the most astounding birding and photographic experiences in Africa. There are usually masses of big mammals and waterbirds in close proximity. We normally see the regal Gray Crowned-Crane, the strange Hamerkop, and dainty African Jacanas trotting over lily pads next to the boat. Sometimes there are large flocks of lairds including African Skimmer, Gull-billed Tern, and Gray-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

Day 10: Queen Elizabeth NP to Kibale NP. After breakfast we take the long road to Kibale, where we overnight. The open country and waterbird birding on route is excellent. If time allows, we will make an afternoon visit to the community run Bigodi Swamp, an excellent place to search for primates like Gray-cheeked Mangabey and Central African Red Colobus, and birds like Speckled Tinkerbird, Speckle-breasted Woodpecker, White-spotted Flufftail, Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat, Bocage’s Bushshrike, and Western Nicator. Patches of papyrus support the incredibly shy White-winged Swamp Warbler.

Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes (Scott Watson)

Day 11: Full day in Kibale NP. Chimp tracking (optional) and birding. We awake well before sunrise on a quest for one of Africa’s ultimate avian prizes, Green-breasted Pitta. This “mega” has recently become available, though finding it still takes a good measure of luck. Kibale is also famous for its Chimpanzees, and those who opt for this activity will join an official park chimp tracking session a bit later in the morning. Even those who don’t track chimps are certain to hear their haunting wails and screams in the forest. Bird parties hold the dainty Forest Robin among scores of illadopses and alethes. Black-bellied Seedcracker inhabits the forest edge, while the canopy holds various vermillion and black malimbes as well as the crisp Black-collared Apalis. Gray-throated, Yellow-spotted, and Yellow-billed Barbets build nests in dead snags, while fruiting figs attract the massive Great Blue Turaco, a cartoon-like bird.

One of Africa's ultimate enigmas, the Green-breasted Pitta is a main target on this tour
One of Africa's ultimate enigmas, the Green-breasted Pitta is a main target on this tour (Keith Barnes)

Day 12: Kibale to Masindi. This is the longest driving day of the trip, all the way to Masindi, which is the gateway to Budongo. If we arrive in time, we may have time to work the woodlands south of town for White-crested Turaco and Gray-headed Oliveback.

Day 13: Budongo Forest. We have a full day to explore the delights of the impressive Budongo Forest, including the amazing Royal Mile. This forest is the best place in Uganda for Nahan’s Francolin, Cassin’s Spinetail, and Chestnut-capped Flycatcher. We’ll also search for the stunning Chocolate-backed and African Dwarf Kingfishers. The forest is full of illadopses and alethes, and the diversity of greenbuls here is simply amazing. But for those who don’t fancy cryptic birds, there are plenty of more colorful species like White-thighed Hornbill and Black Bee-eater.

Day 14: Masindi to Murchison Falls NP. En route to Murchison Falls NP, we stop at the Butiaba escarpment. Although it’s not hard from the Budongo rainforest, it holds completely different arid savannah landscape, and species like Mocking Cliff-Chat, Foxy Cisticola, and Brown Babbler.  We will pass through lots of wild country with open savannah along the way, and may find birds like Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Sengal Lapwing, White-rumped Seedeater, and the weird Piapiac. We reach the edge of the Nile in the late afternoon. Here in the national park, this mighty river plunges spectacularly over the namesake Murchison Falls.  We spend two nights at Murchison Falls NP.

Gray Crowned-Cranes are common throughout Uganda
Gray Crowned-Cranes are common throughout Uganda (Keith Barnes)

Days 15-16: Murchison Falls NP. We spend a full day exploring Murchison Falls NP, where we shall search for Silverbird, Buff-bellied Warbler, Black-headed Batis, Black-headed Gonolek, and the very local White-rumped Seedeater. The riverine thickets hold White-crested Turaco, Double-toothed Barbet, Heuglin’s Francolin, and many others. A visit here is not complete without a boat trip to the Nile delta of Lake Albert where waterbirds accompany breeding parties of Red-throated Bee-eaters, and Rock Pratincoles perch on exposed boulders whilst passage migrants such as Northern carmine Bee-eaters set the zenith alight.  We will set all our sights at locating the mythical Shoebill, as this is one of the best areas in Uganda to find it. On a different excursion we shall visit Murchison Falls where the Nile narrows, squeezes and plunges spectacularly over the escarpment with unfathomable might.

Day 17: Murchison Falls NP to Kampala. This morning we may make an early stop at Kaniyo Pabidi, where we can trek (optional) for Chimps if we have failed to find them elsewhere on our trip. This is also the best place in East Africa to look for the local Puvel’s Illadopsis. After lunch in Masindi, we return to Kampala where we spend the final night.

Day 18: Lake Victoria. If we failed at Murchison, we’ll explore Mabamba Swamp for another attempt at Shoebill. The tour concludes with international departures in the late afternoon or evening from Entebbe International Airport.

The male African Jacana tends his brood
The male African Jacana tends his brood (Guy Upfold)

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EXTENSION OPTION

Rwanda Albertine Rift endemics extension

After the tragedies of its recent past, Rwanda is firmly back on the birding map. The magnificent Nyungwe Forest offers the finest birding in the Albertine Rift; it has more rift endemics than Uganda, and many are more common here than in neighboring Uganda. These include highly desirable species like Ruwenzori Turaco, Handsome Francolin, and Grauer’s Rush-Warbler. Nyungwe is also the best accessible site for the localized Red-collared Mountain-Babbler, which is unknown from Uganda.

Day 1: Entebbe to Kigali to Nyungwe FR (Rwanda). We catch a short morning flight from Uganda to its southwestern neighbor of Uganda. After arriving in Kigali, we transfer to Nyungwe Forest for a three-night stay.

Days 2-3: Nyungwe Forest. Our top priority will be locating the rare and enigmatic Red-collared Mountain-Babbler. But we have plenty of other birds to look for along the way. Several species are much easier to find here than in Uganda. These include Ruwenzori Turaco, Handsome Francolin, and Grauer’s Rush-Warbler. The primates in Nyungwe are even better than those in Bwindi, and the Guerza Colobus of farther north is replaced by the beautiful Angola Colobus. Adding some birding in Nyungwe to what we have already done in Bwindi NP should allow us to virtually clean up on the Albertine Rift endemics of Uganda and Rwanda, save for near-mythical species like Albertine Owlet and Shelley’s Crimsonwing.

Day 4: Nyungwe – Kigali. After spending a final morning in magical Nyungwe we exit the part and drive a few hours back to Kigali.

Day 5: Kigali to Entebbe, Uganda. Departure. Today we fly back to Entebbe to connect with our outbound international flights.

Red-collared Mountain-Babbler is our top target on the Rwanda extension
Red-collared Mountain-Babbler is our top target on the Rwanda extension (Ken Behrens)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate to intense. Most days we will need to be up early, around 6 am, and will stay out until around 6:30 pm, in order to take advantage of the best times of day. Where possible we will use the middle of the day to rest up, but this is a fast-paced trip, and the middle of many days will be spent driving between locations. There will be only a handful of optional outings after dark to search for owls and nightjars; these are normally done just after or before dinner and seldom last for more than an hour. Uganda is a deceptively large country, and many of the roads are in poor condition, which can make for some long travel days, as on days 10, 12, and 16. There will be packed lunches on most days; but sitting with a packed lunch for a siesta under a tree is often a far more relaxing way to do things than spending a long time driving back to camp for lunch, only to head out again in two hours.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Much of the birding is done from mostly flat roads and other easily accessible areas, and much time is spent in the vehicle. The most difficult birding is in Bwindi NP, where much of the birding is done on trails with some elevation change. On the days with the most walking, you may cover about 6 miles (10km) in a day. Tracking gorillas in Bwindi is an optional activity that can be quite strenuous depending on the whereabouts of the group that you are assigned. You often have to traverse steep slopes off-trail in pursuit of the gorillas. Tracking chimps in Kibale is usually easy, though you may end up walking quickly off-trail to catch up with your assigned group.

CLIMATE: Generally moderate and pleasant; slightly cool at night and warm during the day. The higher altitude forest sites like Bwindi and Nyungwe can be cool (usually 50°-70°F, 10°-20°C), with rain highly likely at some stage. In the lower-lying savannah sites like Queen Elizabeth and Murchison Falls NPs, it is hot and dry (usually 72°-105°F, 22°-40°C).

ACCOMMODATION: Moderate to excellent. All lodges have private, en-suite bathrooms, and hot water. Electricity is available in most lodges 24 hours a day. Internet is fairly widespread, but generally slow.

PHOTOGRAPHY: Uganda is harder for photography than some East African destinations like Kenya, but there are still abundant chances to photograph big mammals and birds. Birds are plentiful and tame, and many lodge gardens are excellent for photography. If you are a serious photographer however, you may wish to consider our KenyaNamibia or South Africa Photo Journeys.

WHEN TO GO: We often run our set-departure tour in June, when the weather is fairly dry, yet the birds are still active. But this is a destination where a custom trip at any time of year can be highly productive. During the boreal winter (October – March) many migrants flood into Uganda, meaning your bird list can even be longer.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Visas can be obtained upon arrival for $100. 
Travel requirements are subject to change; it’s a good idea to double check six weeks before you travel, or check with our office if you are unsure.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 17, and to the night of day 4 of the extension if also taking the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 18, and to breakfast of day 5 of the extension if also taking the extension (if you have a very early flight on your departure day, you may miss the included hotel breakfast); reasonable non-alcoholic drinks with meals; safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with telescope and audio playback gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the morning of day 18, and from day 1 to the the afternoon of day 5 of the extension if also taking the extension; one arrival airport transfer and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers are only provided on the specific arrival and departure dates, and may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 1 to day 18 (and from day 1 to day 5 of the extension if also taking the extension) in a suitable safari pop-top vehicle with driver; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; 3 boat trips – one on Mburo, one in Queen Elizabeth, and one in Murchison Falls NP; if taking the extension, the return flight from Entebbe to Kigali; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; gorilla and chimp tracking permits (optional); tips for luggage porters at hotels (if you require their services); international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess baggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.

 

Gallery of the Top 20 Birds of Uganda: 

Gallery of the Top 20 Birds of Rwanda: