Uganda and Rwanda: Shoebill and Albertine Rift Endemics

Despite being small and having no ocean coastline, Uganda supports more than 1000 species, which has earned this country its deserved reputation as a “birder’s Eden”. One of the astounding things about Uganda is how drastically the habitats and landscape change over a short distance, and these numbers reflect that huge variety of habitats. This tour explores papyrus swamps around Lake Victoria, the cloud forest draped mountains of the Albertine Rift, the lower-elevation Congolese rainforests, and a range of woodland and stereotypical “African” savanna, including thorn savanna, grassland savanna, Guinea savanna and even palm savanna. 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. Many types of wildlife experiences are billed as “something that will change your life”; trekking and hanging out with Gorillas for an hour or so is one of those experiences that lives up to all the hype, and then some. It is common for people to be talking about how expensive the permits are the night before the trek, but end up raving about how it was money very well spent, and how they want to do it again. 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”.

Although this is billed as a birding tour, it would be a great trip to take a non-birding partner along on as long as they have an appreciation for nature.


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

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. It is generally assumed that the Shoebill is confined to the papyrus, but this is not the case, and the bird is usually found in the low vegetation between papyrus groves. In these open areas we expect prize sightings of Lesser Jacana and Yellow-billed Duck. We will also bird the thick papyrus stands where we watch for Blue-chested Bee-eater, Swamp Flycatcher, Papyrus Gonolek, and Greater Swamp-Warblers crossing the small channels between papyrus stands. We’ll spend the rest of the day driving to Lake Mburo NP, birding some productive wetlands along the way.

Shoebill has to be seen to be believed. But don't expect it to move around much
Shoebill has to be seen to be believed. But don't expect it to move around much (Iain Campbell)

Day 3: Lake Mburo NP to Ruhija sector of Bwindi NP. The morning will be spent exploring the open savanna and wetland habitats of Mburo NP, which resembles the stereotypical savanna environments of Kenya’s Masai Mara, but with many more thorny acacia thickets. 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 Gray Penduline Tit. Lake Mburo is also an excellent park for mammals, including classic safari fare like Warthog, Eland, Common Zebra, and Impala. It is not all safari vehicle birding; we will take a boat to search for the African cousin of the neotropical Sungrebe, the rare and elusive African Finfoot, and we may even find a 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 savanna.

Goliath Heron, the world's largest heron, is easy to see in Uganda
Goliath Heron, the world's largest heron, is easy to see in Uganda (Iain Campbell)

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. We work it so we have our group assigned to a family of Gorilla that we spend the day with, and the wildlife authority limits the experience to one group with each gorilla family, so the experience is personal. Although the tracking permits are expensive, very few people are disappointed by this experience, and the vast majority is so glad they did it and wants to do it again. It is hard to stress just how good this is, so unless you are absolutely opposed to a moderate walk from ½ an hour to 4 hours, you really need to do this. They even have porters to help carry all your gear for only $20 a day, so this within the physical capabilities of the vast majority of our clients. 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.

We spend time with the whole Gorilla family including the
We spend time with the whole Gorilla family including the "teenagers" (Iain Campbell)

A Gorilla mother chooses her child's meal carefully
A Gorilla mother chooses her child's meal carefully (Iain Campbell)

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 the top favorite place on the whole tour. A lot is often said of Albertine Rift species without explaining what this is. This area is so interesting because the western branch of the geologically very recent Great East African Rift System, the Albertine Rift, has the higher plateau of the Tanzanian Craton with Lake Victoria to the east, and the west is separated from the vast Congo basin by a mountain chain including the Ruwenzoris; this has resulted in a swath of endemic and restricted range bird, mammal, and reptile species. In these mountains there are large mixed species flocks, the habitat is beautiful, and the climate is wonderfully comfortable. In the morning, we’ll make our way downhill to the swampy 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.

African Green Broadbill is a major target in the mountains of western Uganda
African Green Broadbill is a major target in the mountains of western Uganda (Iain Campbell)

L'Hoest's Monkey can be quite inquisitive
L'Hoest's Monkey can be quite inquisitive (Iain Campbell)

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. This forest system is the eastern extension of the vast Congo forests combined with a series of restricted range species of the Albertine Rift. This forest which extends into the DR Congo, is far more accessible and very safe to visit, making this the perfect area for birders to see a range of species that are otherwise logistically very difficult to see. 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 greenbuls. By the afternoon, we will arrive at Buhoma for a two-night stay.

Mountain Greenbul is a common bird in Bwindi and Nyungwe
Mountain Greenbul is a common bird in Bwindi and Nyungwe (Ken Behrens)

Day 7: Full day of birding in Buhoma, Bwindi NP. This 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 include Bar-tailed Trogon, White-bellied Crested Flycatcher, Willcock’s Honeyguide, Black-billed Weaver, Sooty Flycatcher, and many species of starlings, sunbirds, and greenbuls. 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.

Regal Sunbird, a real gem, and an endemic to boot
Regal Sunbird, a real gem, and an endemic to boot (Ken Behrens)

Day 8: Buhoma to Queen Elizabeth NP. As we head north, the habitat quickly transforms from montane forest to more open savanna, though of a different variety from that in Mburo NP, having a similar appearance to the flat-topped tree savannas familiar in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as having savannas dominated by Candaleras, which are euphorbias that look similar to cacti. It is a strange sight to see cactus looking trees surrounded by lush grasslands. 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 arrive 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.

Black-headed Gonolek can be seen near our lodge near Queen Elizabeth NP
Black-headed Gonolek can be seen near our lodge near Queen Elizabeth NP (Ken Behrens)

Day 9:Full day in Queen Elizabeth NP. Queen Elizabeth NP is both a mammal and bird haven. While it offers an opportunity to view typical African megafauna such as Hippos and Elephants, it also has Buffalo, Kopi (which replaces Impala), and many Waterbuck and Bushbuck; 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 savanna, 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 take 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 birds including African Skimmer, Gull-billed Tern, and Gray-headed, and Lesser Black-backed Gulls.

Lions are more prone to sleep in trees in western Uganda
Lions are more prone to sleep in trees in western Uganda (Iain Campbell)

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.

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. The chimp tracking is on flatter ground than the Gorilla tracking, though we go off trail following the chimps as they move along much more gracefully than we will be, trying to swerve around vines and over logs. It is fun though, and when we finally find the chimp group resting or feeding in the trees, we will get a sense of accomplishment. Even those who don’t track chimps are certain to hear their haunting wails and screams in the forest. Bird flocks hold the dainty Forest Robin among scores of illadopses and alethes. Black-bellied Seedcracker inhabits the forest edge, while the canopy holds various vermilion 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 the most wanted birds in Africa is the Green-breasted Pitta
One of the most wanted birds in Africa is the Green-breasted Pitta (Iain Campbell)

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. We will be birding along the way at multiple locations, and many clients really enjoy this drive as it is not along main roads, and passes through rural Ugnada, where you get a real sense of what life is like here. If we arrive in time, we may have time to work the woodlands south of town for White-crested Turaco and Gray-headed Oliveback.

Lowland Masked Apalis is a difficult bird of the Congo forests
Lowland Masked Apalis is a difficult bird of the Congo forests (Iain Campbell)

Day 13: Budongo Forest. We have a full day to explore the delights of the impressive Budongo Forest, a massive block of lowland rainforest and the most readily accessible Congo rainforest anywhere in the world. We spend time at the amazing Royal Mile, which is a public, but very lightly used road, where the forest authorities have cleared the shrub growth for 20 feet either side of the road, leading to superb views of both undergrowth bird species as well as making canopy views better than most lowland rainforests; canopy species that are normally obscured by undergrowth and mid-canopy trees are visible and scopeable. 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 far from the Budongo rainforest, it holds completely different arid savanna landscapes, and species like Mocking Cliff-Chat, Foxy Cisticola, and Brown Babbler. We will pass through lots of wild country with an open palm savanna, unlike any other in East Africa, and along the way we may find birds like Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Senegal Lapwing, White-rumped Seedeater, and the weird Piapiac. We reach the edge of the Nile in the late afternoon. The lodge is on the White (or Albert) Nile, which goes from Lake Albert to Khartoum where it joins the Blue Nile and flows to the Mediterranean. The other stretch of the Nile in the park is the Victoria Nile which joins Lake Victoria, plunges spectacularly over Murchison Falls and flows into the northern edge of Lake Albert. We spend two nights in Murchison Falls NP.

Nile Monitor along the banks of the Nile
Nile Monitor along the banks of the Nile (Iain Campbell)

Waterbuck are usually seen in dry regions but the mothers take their foals to the riverside for protection
Waterbuck are usually seen in dry regions but the mothers take their foals to the riverside for protection (Iain Campbell)

Days 15-16: Murchison Falls NP. We spend a full day exploring Murchison Falls NP, where we 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. In the afternoon we take a boat to the base of the Murchison Falls where the Victoria Nile narrows and plunges spectacularly over the escarpment with unfathomable might. As well as being visually spectacular, it is also really good for birding, and we expect to get close to the normally very difficult Rock Pratincole. The next day we do a separate boat trip downstream to where the Victoria Nile enters Lake Albert and actually makes a delta with tributaries and papyrus marshes. This array of habitats is great for Shoebill in case we missed it earlier, as well as many other waterbirds and arboreal species like Red-throated and Northern Carmine Bee-eaters.

Rock Pratincoles are surprisingly confiding along the Nile
Rock Pratincoles are surprisingly confiding along the Nile (Iain Campbell)

Day 17: Murchison Falls NP to Kampala. This morning we may make an early stop at Kaniyo Pabidi, where we can track (optional) Chimps if we 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.

Speckle-fronted Weaver is a common bird of the drier parts of Uganda
Speckle-fronted Weaver is a common bird of the drier parts of Uganda (Iain Campbell)

Day 18: Lake Victoria. Depending on departure flight schedules, we may try to squeeze in some final forest birding just a little east of Kampala. It is unlikely that we will add many more species this day, but it will be a great opportunity to get better looks at some of the skulkers that may have been trouble earlier in the trip. The tour concludes with international departures in the late afternoon or evening from Entebbe International Airport.

We try for Giant Kingfisher on multiple boat trips
We try for Giant Kingfisher on multiple boat trips (Iain Campbell)

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EXTENSION OPTION

Rwanda Albertine Rift endemics extension

After the tragedies of its 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.

The mysterious vales of Nyungwe National Park
The mysterious vales of Nyungwe National Park (Ken Behrens)

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.

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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.