Why Uganda? I usually plan a trip with some objective in mind. For Jordan, it was to visit Petra. For Uganda, it was to see the critically endangered mountain gorillas.

Mountain gorillas can be found in the mountains shared by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Uganda. There are only about 900 mountain gorillas left, with about half in Uganda. For the foreseeable future, the DRC is a no-go zone—at least for me. Trekking permits are cheaper in Uganda, plus it has more birds than Rwanda and there is an excellent chance of seeing chimpanzees.

I originally planned this trip for last summer as a DIY trip, renting a car and driver from Roadtrip Uganda. They provide not only a car and driver but can also arrange all the logistics (reservations and permits) for the trip. On further reflection I decided that the driver probably would not be a bird expert. At each stop I would have to find a local guide and I would miss birding opportunities along the way. A knowledgeable guide can ID all the birds (male, female & juvenile), recognize their songs, and stop in what appears to be a random bit of swamp or field, play a recording of a papyrus gonolek, a red-throated wryneck or some other bird you have never heard of, and have them pay you a visit. They can also help ID all the “little brown jobs” you encounter. Cisticolas fall into this category. From their names (rattling, croaking or zitting) you can tell their vocalizations/songs are used to tell them apart. I found Deogratius Muhumuza (Ugandan Eco Tours) via the Birding Pal website—an excellent place to track down local guides. I signed up for one of his birding tours. Unfortunately, on the day I was supposed to fly to Entebbe, I had my right knee replaced putting an end to my travel plans.

 

Fast forward to this year. I arranged with Deo for a two-week wildlife tour to five national parks and other wildlife reserves. It ended a day later than planned after Qatar Airways, without explanation, canceled the outgoing PHL flight. It differs from a pure birding tour in that the emphasis was on seeing and photographing as much wildlife as possible. On a birding tour you don’t spend a lot of time on birds already ticked. On this trip there were frequent stops to try and get that illusive perfect shot.

 

Arrival: Finally after twelve hours in the air, seven time zones, three meals (plus snacks) and three movies, we arrived in Doha (Qatar); followed by five more hours, back tracking a time zone, one meal, and memories of the beginning and ending of a movie, before landing in Entebbe. And within two hours we were birding at the botanical gardens on the shores of Lake Victoria. It was a very, very long day. Below are some birds seen at the botanical gardens and Malakai Lodge.

Hadada ibis

 

 

Yellow-throated longclaw Woodland kingfisher: eats insects and small reptiles (lodge) Egyptian goose: normally shy-was able to get within 20-feet (lodge) Double-toothed barbet (lodge) Malakai Lodge Dining Room

 

Kasenge Forest Resort Beach was visited the day after arrival. This is a privately owned 60-acre track of mostly forested land that has not been touched for over 40-years. Since it is in the middle of land that has been extensively cultivated, it is a magnetic for birds. During our visit it was hot and very slow and we did not see the expected number of species. One of the great things about bird watching or interacting with nature is that you never know what species or behavior you will come upon. I had just finished a lunch of some very tasty but chewy goat, when I looked over my shoulder to see two greyish shapes in the distance. Grabbing my binoculars I saw they were a pair of dancing grey crowned cranes—the national bird of Uganda and found on the coat of arms. Cranes are very elegant birds with very elaborate courtship displays. I was around a hundred yards away and quickly picked up my camera and took off in their direction. I crossed a bridge and then headed for a red building. My plan was to use a half-wall of the building to hide behind and support my telephoto lens. By the time I got to the building the courting couple had moved to my right and the view was no longer unobstructed. I found a small rise in back of the building and got as close as I could without ending up in a small stream. No longer were they dancing and jumping up in the air. They faced each or looked in opposite directions. There was a lot of neck bending and wing-flapping.

Grey crowned cranes

On a typical day you are up before 6 AM, have an ample breakfast, and are out by 7:30 at the latest. You eat a packed lunch somewhere in the field, back around 6, dinner around 7:30 and then go over the day’s birds (Uganda has over 1000 species of birds and the bird list runs to 33 pages). Repeat.

 

Deo is an outstanding guide. The trip exceeded expectations with over 300 species of birds, the big five (seeing a leopard hunting was unexpected), tree climbing lions, gorillas, chimps, seven species of monkeys, hippos, antelopes, zebras, giraffes, and I learned never to stand under a colony of fruit bats. All this recorded in almost 14,000 images.

 

With this number of images taken, I expect somewhere between 150-200 will be keepers—too many to digest at one time. Instead I plan to send out blogs on a particular theme. This one is on the first days with the shoebill as the star. Don’t worry if you have never heard of the shoebill, before this trip, neither had I. Target birds tend to be rare, or unusual in some way. Birders will often send their guide a list of target species they would like to see. The shoebill is the number one target bird in Uganda. All birders (and many non-birders) want to see one. What makes it so special: it is big (4-5 feet tall), ugly, and looks almost prehistoric. This member of the stork family has the largest bill among all living birds. It gets its name from the resemblance of its bill to a wooden shoe. Shoebills will stand still for hours moving only their head or grey eyes, and when it moves, it does so ever so slowly except when it pounces on prey.

 

Shoebills live in swamps. The Mabamba wetland (west of Entebbe along the shores of Lake Victoria) is one of the most reliable places to see it. After a two-hour drive we arrived at a landing where we took off in a dugout manned by a boatman that handled the motor and a local guide that helped find and ID birds and to pole the boat thru the labyrinth of channels and lagoons.

 

Guides keep track of the shoebills, but there is no guarantee that you will see one or how long it will take. Luck was with us. We passed a boat that pointed us in the right direction. Eventually three other boats showed up, but we were the closest and had an unobstructed view. As we watched it came closer and closer to the point that the shoebill filled my camera’s viewfinder. The following are a few of the 30-species of birds we saw and of course—the shoebill.

Mabamba landing

Water lilies

 

Spur-winged goose

African jacana (male)

 

Pied Kingfisher

 

Little bee eater

 

 

Shoebill (first view)

 

Head shot

 

 

 

 

Michael De Rosa, Ph. D.Professor of ChemistryPenn State Brandywine25 Yearsley Mill roadMedia, PA 19063610-892-1416 (office)610-892-1405 (FAX