Rwanda & Uganda: Shoebills and Albertine Rift Endemics
Misty mountains and jungles, gorillas, chimps, and endemic birds
After a checkered past, Rwanda is firmly back on the birding map. The magnificent Nyungwe Forest offers the finest birding in the Albertine Rift and has more rift endemics, and most are far more common, than in neighboring Uganda. This trip also takes in one of the most remarkable and revealing wildlife adventures of them all, an encounter with the engaging Mountain Gorilla at Volcans NP in the heart of the Virungas Volcano range, where Dianne Fossey conducted her pioneer work on these amazing apes.
We then move to Uganda, a tiny landlocked country supporting more than 1000 species, which has earned this country its deserved reputation as a “birder’s Eden”. Our Uganda segment will focus on lowland forest specialties, and in particular the spectacular Green-breasted Pitta in Kibale. We’ll also 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 won’t neglect Uganda’s other habitats, including the northern Guinea Savannas, rounding out an amazing trip through the most prolific areas of these two incredible East African countries.
Note: This itinerary will be modified slightly for 2014. It will also be one day longer. We will post the updated itinerary soon, or please inquire for more details.
Day 1: Kigali to Nyungwe FR (Rwanda). We arrive in Kigali and transfer to Nyungwe Forest for a four-night stay.
Days 2-3: Nyungwe Forest. Nyungwe is at present the best site in the world to see the thrilling and localized Red-collared Mountain-Babbler. This bizarre and active flock species is a stellar attraction. Working forest roadsides we expect to find many Albertine Rift endemics such as Ruwenzori (Collared) Apalis, Ruwenzori Turaco, skulking Red-crested Alethe, and Archer’s Robin-Chat. The spectacular Doherty’s Bushshrike may distract our attention before we bump into a covey of noisy Handsome Francolins, or encounter a flock of shrieking 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. Commoner Albertine Rift endemics at Nyungwe are Mountain Sooty Boubou, Yellow-eyed Black-Flycatcher, Ruwenzori Hill Babbler, Red-faced Woodland, Grauer’s Rush, Neumann’s, and Grauer’s Warblers, Black-faced Apalis, Lagden’s Bushshrike, Purple-breasted, Blue-headed, and Regal Sunbirds, Stripe-breasted Tit, Dusky Crimson-wing and Strange Weaver. Other gems we’ll hope to see include Kivu Ground-Thrush, White-bellied Robin-Chat, and White-tailed Blue-Flycatcher. Many primates roam the canopy including Chimpanzee, Angola Pied Colobus, as well as Blue, Red-tailed, and L’Hoests Monkeys.
Day 4: Nyungwe – Butare. After spending most of the day in magical Nyungwe we exit the part and drive to the nearby town of Butare.
Day 5: Butare to Volcans NP. Today we transfer to Volcans NP for a one night stay, with a handful of birding stops en route.
Day 6: Gorilla trekking in Volcans NP to Kabale. On this optional activity (which requires an additional payment for your Gorilla permit) we’ll do a little easy birding before embarking on a walk to see one of the eight habituated Mountain Gorilla families. Volcans NP was where Dianne Fossey conducted most of her research on gorillas. The joy of finding our gorillas will only be overcome by the amazement of watching these gentle giants. Equally gregarious but less garrulous than their Chimpanzee cousins, the group is likely to be chilled out eating celery, indulging in grooming, or involved in some other primal social activity. Volcans is peculiar in that visitors are not permitted to enter the park in the afternoon, so we will return to our lodge, pack up and cross the border into Uganda, where we drive to the town of Kabale.
Day 7: Kabale to Queen Elizabeth NP. After breakfast we take the long road to Queen Elizabeth NP, where we overnight. The open country and waterbird birding on route is excellent.
Day 8: Queen Elizabeth NP to Kibale. Queen Elizabeth NP is both a mammal and bird haven. While it offers an opportunity to view typical African mega-fauna such as Giraffes and Elephants, it is also a waterbird magnet, a wide diversity of which can be seen in a short time. The river trips are great and we normally see the regal Gray Crowned-Crane, the strange Hamerkop, and dainty African Jacanas trotting over lily pads next to the boat. In the afternoon we head to Kibale for a two-night stay.
Days 9-10: Kibale Forest. We awake early in the morning on a quest for one of Africa’s ultimate avian prizes, Green-breasted Pitta. This “mega” has recently become available, and we will spend the morning trying to find this rainforest jewel. Kibale is also famous for its Chimpanzees, and if we don’t bump into our closest cousins we shall certainly 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, whilst fruiting figs attract the massive Great Blue Turaco, a cartoon-like bird. The Bigodi trail can also produce many forest edge and papyrus birds. We shall spend two magical days in this impressive forest.
Day 11: Kibale to Masindi. A long but interesting drive brings us to Masindi, which is the gateway to Budongo, The night will be spent in Masindi. We may have time to work the woodlands south of town for White-crested Turaco.
Days 12-13: Budongo Forest. We have two full days to explore the delights of the impressive Budongo region, including the amazing Royal Mile. 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. We shall lap these groups up among the more impressive White-thighed Hornbill, Black Bee-eater, and more.
Day 14: Masindi to Murchison Falls NP. En route to Murchison Falls NP, we stop at Budongo’s Royal Mile for a full morning before enjoying the Butiaba escarpment en-route to Murchison Falls NP. Later we reach the edge of the Nile and watch it plunge spectacularly over the mighty Murchison Falls. We spend three nights at Murchison Falls NP.
Days 15-16: Murchison Falls NP. We spend two days 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 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. After arrival on the shores of Lake Victoria, our first birds at the beautifully landscaped botanical gardens could include Orange Weaver and Red-chested Sunbird. If we failed at Murchison, we’ll explore Mabamba Swamp for another attempt at Shoebill. The tour concludes in the late afternoon at Entebbe International Airport.
CLIMATE: Warm to cool, mostly dry, but occasional thunder showers possible.
DIFFICULTY: Moderate. We’ll spend time birding some trails, only one of which is steep. Long drives on bad roads are required to get to the birding sites. The optional gorilla and chimp treks can be strenuous.
ACCOMMODATION: Good to excellent throughout.