The views expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not reflect those of VSO

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Into Uganda - part 4, the wildlife

One of the main reasons for being in Uganda, of course, was to see the wildlife. The trip proper started at Entebbe after a long bus trip from Kigali via Kampala. First port of call was Entebbe Botanical Gardens and a meeting with a young guide called Lawrence who spent a year in the US and has come back to set up an environmental group titled Green Youth Conservation - Uganda. Its constitution is worthy of any grand NGO in seeking to maintain and promote environmental sustainability in the country. Good luck to him and the organisation because it is only through the efforts of locals like Lawrence that nature stands a chance.
With Lawrence in Entebbe Botanic Gardens

One of the heartening things about the trip was hearing about, and seeing first hand, the good work done by VSO (who I am working for in Rwanda in case you have forgotten) which has trained guides who have often gone on to start their own successful businesses. At Mabira Forest (which as I wrote previously is under threat from sugar cane growing) and Fort Portal, companies had benefited from VSO training, in particular through the work of Andrew Roberts who still lives in the country and now makes a living in Kampala as a mapmaker. They are the most exquisite maps and an absolute prerequisite for anyone planning to tour Uganda. By the way, Broad-billed Roller and Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher were highlights in the gardens.

We stayed three days in Entebbe, 40 minutes south of Kampala, not just to hang out with the Kampala Kool Crowd at their trendy Lake Victoria playground, but because it is an excellent gateway to some key wildlife destinations. We took a boat to the Ngamba Island Chimp Sanctuary from where the picture of the handsome grey-haired chappie was taken. Rehabilitating abused and orphaned chimps can be tough work judging by the racket they make at meal times and the troubling, rock-throwing habit of one particular fellow with his liking for tourists as target practice. We also visited the Zika Forest Reserve for our first sightings of the charming, white-nosed Red-tailed Monkey and plentiful, locomotive-sounding Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill. The Reptile House, set up by an entrepreneurial local in his property down a dusty, winding lane, was an unexpected delight. The pictures of snakes and chameleons (in picasaweb) were taken there. He is trying to create the special kind of watery habitat at the foot of his garden conducive to the lungfish loving but scarce Shoebill which is the prize bird of Uganda. It is also the easiest country to have a relatively good chance of seeing one. He'll be able to charge at least double entry fee if Shoebill start turning up in his backyard!
Green Mamba
However, our destination for a possible sighting of this strange bird was the Mabamba Swamp to the east of Entebbe on the shores of Lake Victoria. They had disappeared from the swamp for a while and headed east but we had heard that a handful had returned and if we were lucky we might get to see one. It turned out better than expected. The weather, which had been wet in previous days, started fair. After passing a returning fisherman we entered the reed-lined channels and saw a family of what were most likely Spot-necked Otter. Lakes Victoria and Bunyonyi are two of the remaining strongholds of the species. Then almost immediately the guide spotted the sentinel shape of a distant Shoebill. We approached slowly. They can stand for hours in the same pose before pouncing for the kill. That's why it's important not to startle them. Imagine having to fly off after a three hour stint on the same spot and start all over again just because of some stupid photographer's hunger for the perfect snap. Our guide was very clear about how close we were allowed to get. After all, his livelihood depends on it. He doesn't want them heading back to the swamp on the other side of Kampala where some poor bugger was making a crust out of them until a tourist got too close and sent them back to Mabamba. Maybe!
It was one of those wildlife moments where you fear disappointment after seeing so many images of a spectacular creature. Fear not! They are stupendous birds with their outsized bill and kinky little quiff at the back of the head. We saw three birds in total, one quite permissibly close, and each looked as though it would have us for breakfast given half a chance. If I might anthropomorphise for a moment, they do have a slightly evil and very determined look. In the course of our marshy meanderings a long sought after Papyrus Gonolek made a brief appearance, its golden-yellow crown winking at us through the dense papyrus growth. Goliath and Purple Heron also showed up, as did a splendid Saddle-billed Stork.
Papyrus Gonolek

Mpanga Forest Reserve (briefly) to the west of Kampala then Mabira Forest (the next day) west of Jinja, were followed by Budongo Forest in the north west just south of Murchison Falls National Park. These are magnificent and now, sadly, rare environments. As always in rainforest, sightings are difficult but some things stand out; at Mabira, the uncommon, brown-headed Forest Wood-hoopoe foraging above our heads giving a bad case of birders' neck ache and the African Crowned Eagle, perched to expose its splendid rufous, barred front. That came as a wondrous shock, the most impressive chest I've ever seen in a raptor. Budongo revealed its delights slowly along its famous Royal Mile, a journey that the old kings of Bunyoro took to a retreat deep in the forest. Chocolate-backed Kingfisher was the dessert here. What's not to love about a bird with a name like that? The 4-inch African Dwarf Kingfisher came out of a nest hole in a bank to sit prominently on a nearby branch, the wonder being that its disproportionate bill didn't topple it over.
Dwarf Kingfisher

Waterways in African national parks usually have abundant wildlife and Murchison NP is no exception. The Nile flows into Lake Albert at Murchison Falls and the sides of the lake have hippos, crocs, buffalo and heaps of birds. A boat goes near the bottom of the falls where you can get out and climb up to the top for a refreshing spray. We lorded and ladied it for a night at the Paraa Lodge which turned out to be a lot less expensive than the equivalent in Kenya or Tanzania. It maybe pays to just turn up at the hotel door because I don't think anyone else had ever done it. It looked like Silvio Berlusconi's glam set, with hair, breast and shoulder implants, had all decided that Uganda was the new Big Thing. Stella and I joined them, minus the face-lifts, and turned into a pair of ravenous carnivores to compensate for possible protein deficiency in our Rwandan diet.
The game drive around Murchison the following day turned into the usual manic lion and leopard hunt. Forget about Where's Wally or Gaddafi, there should be cartoons and children's games with a lion or leopard secreted among the plentiful other fauna. But hooray, we saw a leopard so that means we've seen the Small Five (remember Tanzania blog) and, at last, the Big Five. Our guide was furious that people were getting out of their cars to take pics of the tree lounging leopard as the Murchison variety is very prone to dashing off at the first sight of a tourist. Gee, I'm glad to have seen them all - buffalo, rhino, elephant, lion and leopard - because now I never again have to charge around with other 4x4s willing our vehicle to be the magical one that finds the beasts. It can get very competitive but once you've had a decent sighting, hopefully in relative calm, cooperation kicks in and you're supposed to radio in the other vehicles so that they too can share in the photo-snapping action. By the way, we did bump into a few lions as well (seen them before so what!) and the Rothschild's Giraffes in the park are lovely. Favourite birds were Northern Carmine Bee-eater (wow!), Red-breasted Bee-eater, Red-necked Falcon, Denham's Bustard and the wonderful Abyssinian Ground-hornbill. Mammals seen were Spotted Hyena, Elephant, Hartebeest, Delassa waterbuck, Uganda Kob, Oribi, Bushbuck, grassland dwelling Patas Monkey and Warthog as well as the previously mentioned. Oribi are very pretty dwarf antelopes and the attractive Kob (a medium sized antelope) is the national animal of Uganda.
Denham's Bustard and Oribi
After taking another of life's many roads from hell, this one 10 hours' drive from Murchison to Fort Portal (see pic), it was time to relax for a bit and plan the next stage of the trip. FP is the launch pad for visits to Semliki NP near the DRCongo and Kibale NP but, as the road to Semliki was under construction and promised long delays, we decided that the Crater Lakes and Kibale were the better options followed by a stop at Queen Elizabeth NP further south. The main attraction at Kibale is chimp tracking, which we weren't particularly interested in.

However, there is a very special bird found in the forest. Ever since living in Malaysia 30 years ago, the Pitta family of beautiful ground dwelling birds has fascinated me. Once they were called Jewel Thrushes because of their magnificent colours. But they can be buggers to see, nearly always choosing dense rainforest as their habitat. At present there are 33 species in the world although that is changing as species like the Red-bellied Pitta, a race of which is found in Australia, are split following DNA analysis. There are two species found in Africa and the one in Kibale is the extremely rare Green-breasted Pitta. We had to leave well before sparrow-fart from the lovely Chimpanzee Guest House, with its terrific view over the forest, to try and nail the elusive blighter. (That's just jokey birder tough talk!) It is also an unusual species in that it doesn't respond to calls, the normal way of locating pittas. Rather it is necessary to find a possible location and wait for it to call or, in this case, hopefully make an appearance on a preferred branch which it only does at dawn. Then it spends the rest of the day on the ground scuffing through the leaf litter.
Green-breasted Pitta
Our guide was a local pitta expert and we set out in the dark into the forest before deviating down a narrow path where we waited for daybreak. We had been joined on the outing by an English birder, Charles, who was staying at the same guesthouse and works for the UN in Nairobi. If the bird was going to show up it would do it at 6.45. This particular pitta wore a Rolex. Except the battery must have run out because we waited.....and waited........and waited until the bird had no further excuse and dejectedly we made our way back to the main track. We continued to walk along in silence when suddenly the guide heard a noise. "Pitta", he said instantly. Stevenson and Fanshawe's 'Birds of East Africa' describes the call as 'unknown', so saying it sounded a bit like a frog will have to do. Once again, but this time very cautiously, we headed off the track towards the call. This is another curious feature of the Green-breasted Pitta. Finding them depends on luck and skill but, unlike other species, it is not as easily scared once located. The three of us were told by the guide to wait patiently while he attempted to find the bird. This is always a nerve-wracking moment, binoculars at the ready, fearful of breathing let alone stepping on a twig the crack of which invariably sounds like a nuclear explosion.
Ugandan Kob

"It's there, through the fork in the tree in front, can you see it?" The guide was insistent. "Quick, quick." Stella could, Charles could, but muggins couldn't. I didn't want to lift my head in case I blocked Charles's view. He was taller, was behind me and I knew he was keen to take photographs. But that was the problem. The tree trunk was obscuring my view. I raised my head a tad and immediately saw the pitta quietly perched on a log with its distinctive black and white face markings and brilliant green breast. What a moment. Then it hopped down flashing its bright red belly as it disappeared out of sight. That was it. We weren't blessed with a longer view. We tried to see it again and nearly did, but my brain has had to re-construct the experience out of that brief though wonderful moment. So I may have exaggerated!
Red-chested Owlet

As we were wandering through the forest trying to locate the call of a scarce Red-chested Owlet, the familiar screeching of chimps erupted. I looked up and saw one in a tall tree. Who needs to pay over $100 a head when you can stumble across them birding. Stella and Charles didn't see it but to oblige, another chimp appeared in full view brachiating in the general direction of the owlet. That'll be the end of owl spotting we thought. But no, it was still calling although why it does that during the day I don't know as it just encourages other birds to mob it. Eventually we could make out the owlet's red chest high up in the canopy. A troop of Italian chimp trackers with massive cameras and bright yellow clothing bustled past struggling to catch a glimpse of our closest simian relatives. The morning highlights concluded with great views of a Red-bellied Paradise-flycatcher, the rainforest cousin of the much more common African Paradise-flycatcher.
Lappet-faced Vulture

We headed southwards getting reasonable views of the Rwenzori Mountains (Mountains of the Moon) to the west. Mt Margherita, at 5109 metres, is the highest peak in the range and the third highest in Africa after Mts Kilimanjaro and Kenya. We were on our way to Queen Elizabeth NP or rather the savannah part of it because it is so big that you would need a week to properly explore its diversity including forests and gorges. The Kazinga Channel between Lakes Edward and George is truly spectacular with more buffaloes and hippos than you can shake a stick at. There were elephants in the water and even lions on the slopes but you needed binoculars to see them. The park itself is still recovering after the animal slaughter of the Idi Amin years so numbers were low on the game drive. A striking Lappet-faced Vulture attacking a carcase was the highlight. There was another lion which once again couldn't be seen well without binoculars. I don't really understand people - the vast majority I'm afraid - who spend a small fortune visiting game parks and don't bring binoculars. What's the point? I would rather do without my camera. In chimp tracking at Kibale, watching the leopard at Murchison and lion spotting at Queen Elizabeth people missed out really seeing the creatures because they were too far away.

We went to see the flamingos in a lake just outside the park. That's always beautiful but the most interesting part was the visit to the nearby saltpans of the Lake Katwe depression where temperatures can soar to 45 degrees C. Many hundreds of people make a living excavating massive rocks of sodium carbonate from the lake bed which they then drag back to shore from where they are later sent for transformation into a variety of products including salt. The money is good by Ugandan standards at $100 a week so the men are even prepared to sacrifice their manhood for the dosh! Despite wearing protective leggings against the burning astringency of the water, it still causes impotence when immersed in the water for the nine hours a day that they work. Even then they can work no more than three days a week or their health would suffer catastrophically. Who says that men only care about one thing!
Sodium Carbonate rock pullers
Finally we relaxed at Lake Bunyonyi for a few days as you will have seen from last week's blog pictures. This is definitely to be recommended but just remember to bring lots of warm clothes.

The wildlife top three for the trip were as follows: 1. Pitta 2. Shoebill 3. Leopard.

And that'll have to do for Uganda folks.

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