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Uganda June 2021 - A Safari for Remarkable Primates and Marvellous Birds


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adamt123

Uganda 2021 Trip Report

 

Happy New Year all. Please enjoy this much belated trip report of the classic Uganda circuit, June 2021.  

 

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Piping Hornbill in the Rain, Semliki National Park

 

Itinerary

 

Day 1: Entebbe to Lake Mburo. Lake Mburo boat cruise and night drive.

Day 2: AM Lake Mburo game drive. Lake Mburo to Bwindi NP (Ruhija).

Day 3: AM gorilla trek. PM Ruhija birding.

Day 4: Bwindi to QENP – Ishasha with Bwindi birding en route. PM Ishasha game drive.

Day 5: AM Ishasha game drive. Ishasha sector to QENP northern/main sector. Kazinga channel cruise.

Day 6: AM QENP game drive. QENP to Semliki NP. PM Semliki walk.

Day 7: Full day Semliki walk (Kirumya trail).

Day 8: AM Semliki walk. Semliki to Kibale via Lake Nkuruba. PM Kibale birding.

Day 9: AM Bigodi Swamp. Transfer Kibale to Entebbe.

Day 10 & 11 : Mabamba Swamp and Entebbe Botanical Gardens.

 

While this was what we agreed with Mamaland there was some fine tuning to the itinerary as the the trip developed:

  • Day 5: AM Ishasha game drive replaced with PM QENP (main sector) game drive.
  • Day 6: QENP game drive scrapped.
  • Day 9: visit to Bigodi replaced with walk through northern part of Kibale forest.

 

Overall Impressions

 

Overall, the trip, organized with Mamaland, was a great success and was probably better than expected. Semliki was a real treat and I’m so glad we went. It was rather busy when we visited – more so than I was expecting – though this didn’t detract from the park’s unique ambience. Birding/primate-watching in Kibale was very good and we had our best bird there. Bwindi (Ruhija) was also nice and not nearly as cold as I expected; gorilla trekking was tough but okay overall. Wildlife sightings at both the Ishasha and main/northern sector of QENP were slightly underwhelming but Lake Mburo easily made up for that and was a real highlight. Successful trips to Mabamba Swamp and Entebbe Botanic Gardens nicely rounded off the trip.

 

When planning, one the main questions was did we want our itinerary to run clockwise (Bwindi earlier, Semliki later) or anti-clockwise (Semliki earlier, Bwindi later). As far as  I know most people go anti-clockwise leaving Bwindi (and Lake Mburo) to the end; we went for clockwise because Semliki was a bit of an enigma and we wanted to save that surprise for the end. I took this trip with my father, who also accompanied me on our 2019 trip to Murchison Falls and Ziwa.

 

Two trip reports that were vital to my planning and to which I am hugely indebted are firstly, Uganda 2020 - A Tale of Seven Specials here on SafariTalk by @xelas, @kittykat23ukand @Galana- thank you all for such an amazing and detailed report, and secondly a shorter report by Tomer Ben-Yehuda on Mammal Watching which single handedly convinced me that we had to go to Semliki (https://www.mammalwatching.com/wp-content/uploads/Uganda-Jan21-updated.pdf). Unfortunately, my own trip report has been heavily delayed because editing the photos took so long (details to follow) but as I’m heading to SA at the end of this month (finally!), I really wanted to finish this report before that. They’ll be updates on most days and so apologies if it gets a bit tedious. 

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adamt123
Posted (edited)

To begin with, three important topics to cover - our tour operator, coronavirus and cameras. 

 

Mamaland

 

I honestly have nothing but praise for Mamaland and they are easily the most professional tour company I have dealt with in Africa. Our queries to Hamza, the company’s main contact, both by email and WhatsApp were always handled promptly and fully. I began contact with Hamza on 17th May and by the time we had run through a few different itinerary options and finalized our trip it was well into June. Although we booked quite last minute, I asked around for a few quotes and Hamza offered by far the best quote. Because of the short turn around, we for paid everything in USD cash-in-hand when we got to Entebbe.

 

As I will detail, both our driver-guide Paul and our bird guide Alfred were fantastic in every regard. Paul was absolutely on top of everything do to with paperwork, the car and of course COVID-19. Alfred was a brilliant spotter and guide and there are countless species that we would have missed without his expert help.

 

Our Mamaland Vehicle

 

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COVID-19

 

For the historical record, I think it’s worth saying something about COVID-19 before we begin. By early 2021 all of Africa south of and including DRC and Tanzania were on the UK’s red list which made travel to these countries very difficult. Owing to this, we cancelled our planned trip for April to South Africa and decided not to book anything else until we were very close to going, but our focus was on either Kenya or Uganda. Interestingly, both these countries had some good COVID offers on, with Kenya giving 50% off park fees and Uganda doing the same but with heavily discounted gorilla and chimpanzee permits too. However, the decision between the two countries was made for us when Kenya was added to the dreaded red list in April or May, as far as I can remember. By the end of May we had an itinerary for Uganda and as I have detailed, we accepted Mamaland’s offer.

 

Then, less than week before our arrival, cases in Uganda started to go up by a lot and more restrictions were announced, including a ban on inter-district travel. Fortunately for us, and in a decision which I think did make a good amount of sense, the authorities would allow inter-district travel for tourists in registered safari vehicles; when I messaged Hamza about the situation, he assured me that all was well (for tourists at least) and we would simply be waved through any police checkpoints at district borders. As I will detail, on our last day, rules were tightened further but we had no real trouble and were able to complete all of our activities as scheduled.

 

When we visited non fully vaccinated arrivals into Uganda had to go to a hotel for a COVID-19 test, but fortunately, both my father I and had our second doses in May and upon presentation of our shiny vaccination certificates at Entebbe airport we were allowed to leave without any delay. Wearing masks was okay – few locals in the rural areas wore them but at the lodges they were worn consistently. In terms of fear of catching of COVID-19 in Uganda, we were honesty pretty comfortable most of the time. 

 

I think finally its worth appreciating how easy it was to visit Uganda at that time. While that may sound a bit odd, at the time it really did feel like a simple country to visit – in fact, at Birmingham airport the check-in staff were a bit taken a back that all we needed to travel to Uganda was a PCR COVID-19 test and our vaccination certificates to avoid the PCR test on arrival, with no QR codes, locator forms or essential reason for travel. Coming home was a bit more complex, with Uganda being an amber list country, we required a COVID-19 test before arrival into the UK as well as more tests on day 2 and day 8 back in the UK together with the passenger locator form and ten days home quarantine. But still, at the time, Uganda was the only major safari country in Africa not on the red list, so we gladly accepted the amber list rules. Approximately one week after we came home Uganda did end up on the red list, so our timing was perfect. 

 

Without getting too political I believe the red list was an abomination and its targeted use against Africa has been disappointing. Also, although Uganda was an amber list country, I was a bit surprised by the daily phone calls from the government for the next ten days to check if I was quarantining, didn't realise it was such a nanny state... 

 

Day 2 and Day 8 Tests

 

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Photography Nightmare

 

I normally use Sigma’s 60-600 lens with the Nikon D500 and the Canon G3X as my secondary/video camera. However, I swapped my 60-600 for the Sigma 150-600 C and Nikon D4 before this trip. I was pretty impressed by the D4; this was the first time I had used a 35mm camera and there is definitely a certain crispness to the photos which I haven’t found on the APS-Cs. Having said that, I found the ISO performance to be about the same as the D500. 

 

The ‘nightmare’ however came in the form of a malfunction with the 150-600 C on the very first day. I don’t how or why but the autofocus jammed on our first activity at Lake Mburo. By night it had unjammed so I tried it on the D4 but it jammed again. Just before we set out for the gorillas in Bwindi it unjammed then after taking a few shots its was jammed for a third time. In the evening it unjammed for the third time and after this I decided to just try it in manual focus. This was a real mission because I don’t ever use MF but I was now going to use it for the rest of the trip, in boats, the rainforest and on game drives! It took some time, but I think I got pretty good at it; the fact that the 150-600 C is light lens and that the lens ring is small made the situation a bit easier. 

 

Botched autofocus from Lake Mburo – any guesses for what the birds are?

 

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Obviously, this was a major setback. Some animals show themselves only for a second which made it nearly impossible to use focus correctly in manual. Having said that, I am proud and happy with the photos taken like this and Topaz Sharpen AI has been an amazing help in improving the sharpness for a lot of shots. Because of this, almost all of the photos from Lake Mburo are from the Canon and afterwards I also stopped using the D4 pretty quickly; it was really too heavy to use MF all the time and I felt that I my personal MF accuracy was better on the D500’s viewfinder rather than the D4’s, probably because I had much more experience with the former camera. By the time we got home my left thumb was bloody aching from all that incessant manual focusing and the focus ring was pretty worn too. 

 

Despite this it was all well worth it, and I was very impressed by the image quality and sharpness of the 150-600 C and would easily recommend it as a cheaper alternative to the 60-600. I have since returned the faulty lens and also the D4 (while it was nice to use I don’t it offered enough in addition the D500) and am back with the 60-600. 

 

I’ll finish off for now with a few photos of some signature animals

 

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Edited by adamt123
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Atravelynn

You figured out MF and used it to produce excellent results.  But what a nightmare!

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Tom Kellie

~ @adamt123:

 

You hooked from the start with your Semliki National Park image of Bycanistes fistulator.

 

What a superb image.

 

Thank you for the care and patience to prepare and post this trip report.

 

It's much appreciated.

 

       Tom K.

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Alexander33

No problems with that incredible Shoebill portait. What I wouldn’t give for that!

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BRACQUENE

@adamt123

 

Your TR may be a bit late but it certainly has my full attention as Uganda is on my radar for a future trip and with some marvelous pictures from the start despite your focus problems ; as I love to play games especially with blurry photos :D I will have a try for the second one : a roller I think but then it gets difficult : amongst the local specialities and looking at the main and dominating turqoise color, it could be the Abyssinian or the Racket-tailed ( but this one doesn't seem to have the long tail ) or even the European ;)

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Looking forward to this report.  A malfunctioning lens on day 1 is certainly NOT the start you want but if the above photos are any indication you certainly did adjust to MF VERY well.

 

That Shoebill portrait is stunning.

 

Alan

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michael-ibk

Literally waiting for more of this with baited breath - if all goes well I hope to go to Uganda in February (including Semliki). Your Shoebill photo is the stuff of my wet bird photographer´s dreams! Oh, what a nightmare indeed with the lense, I commend you for adapting so well to such an annoying situation.

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adamt123

Thank you for your kind words @Atravelynn, @Tom Kellie, @Alexander33and @Atdahl

 

@BRACQUENE roller is indeed a great guess :) - its actually a woodland kingfisher. the first one is pearl spotted owlet. 

 

@michael-ibkI certainly hope you have a great trip and you find Semliki as fantastic as I did. We stayed two nights but one could definitely spend a few weeks there!

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Posted (edited)

Day 1 – Entebbe to Lake Mburo 

 

Having arrived from Amsterdam via Kigali late in the evening we went straight to the Protea Entebbe. I do like this hotel a lot and I have written on it in my 2019 Uganda trip report; to summarize, however, it’s a superb Bonvoy redemption and we’ve always been upgraded to a suite. Staff are on the whole polite and helpful and the restaurant is actually pretty decent. You can also have your COVID-19 test done inside the hotel. Before leaving the airport we did stop at the MTN store to buy a SIM. I wasn’t sure if the shop would be open so late in the night, but fortunately it was and although it took about 10 minutes to get set up, the SIM and data worked well for the duration of the trip. We paid 13 USD for the card and data.

 

The next morning, we met with Paul, who would be our driver-guide and Shaaban, who had come with Paul to collect the payment for the trip. We drove from the Protea through Entebbe to the Nakiwogo landing site we we said goodbye to Shaaban and continued with Paul on a little canoe across Lake Victoria. This was to avoid the traffic towards Kampala and would allow us to get onto the highway faster. Alfred was waiting on the other side (Buwaya) with our safari 4x4. Particularly based on my past experiences of certain tour companies, I was honestly impressed by the efficiency and professionalism of this system and it got the trip off to a relaxed start. 

 

The journey from Buwaya to Lake Mburo took about 4h including a few interesting stops. The first bird of the day was Northern Brown-throated Weaver and we also had sightings of Long-crested Eagle, Black-winged Kite, Great Egret, Black-faced Whistling Ducks, Gymnogene and our best views of Grey-crowned Crane during the trip. We also made a quick stop as the Equator. Overall, it was a pleasant drive filled with anticipation being back on safari – the relatively empty roads and balmy weather sure helped too. 

 

Crossing at Nakiwago 

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Long-crested Eagle

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Black-winged Kite

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Grey-crowned Crane

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Equator

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Hyena Hill Lodge

 

Hyena Hill is located at the Sanga gate (i.e. not the main gate) of Lake Mburo close to Eagle’s Rest. The lodge was okay but not great. While the views towards Lake Mburo and the national park were great and sunset was spectacular the atmosphere was dampened somewhat by strong winds and noise. We were the sole guests and service was adequate but not exceptional. Rooms had nice terraces but were very dimly lit; the food however was very good, and the two large dogs were rather friendly too. Overall, fine for one night – 3/5.  

 

Hyena Hill

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Lake Mburo National Park

 

Lake Mburo National Park (LMNP) was fantastic. We saw a good amount of game, birding was excellent and we pretty much had the whole place to ourselves. I think our expectations were somewhat low but, in the end, we definitely preferred the wildlife-watching here over the famous QENP. LMNP is well known for its boat cruise which we thought was nice, but the real highlight were the game drives. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Murchison Falls or Kruger, but for a small national park it was impressive and a real unexpected highlight of the trip – not unlike Nairobi NP in Kenya. I’m not sure of how seasonal of a destination LMNP is, but in June I would recommend a visit without hesitation. 

 

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Edited by adamt123
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Posted (edited)

Lake Mburo Boat Cruise and Game Drive

 

Driving from Hyena Hill to the launch site on Lake Mburo was about a 30m drive through the national park. Within ten minutes we had observed out first Plains Zebra, Impala, Waterbuck and Bushbuck. This is when the lens malfunction first occurred; the last in focus photo I have from the D500 is of a Common Warthog and after that it’s all blurry. Naturally I was very concerned at this stage; I didn’t have the D4 with me in the car so I knew I now had to rely on the little Canon for all shots until we got back to the lodge and I could investigate further. While this mishap on the first day was disappointing, we knew that we had to make the best of the situation and enjoy the rest of the game drive and cruise.  

 

Plains Zebra

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Impala

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Waterbuck

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Warthog

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As well as the two of us and Alfred there were four other guests on the boat cruise, two fellow Britons and two Americans. The boat was large with an upper deck and so with only 7 guests there was plenty of space to move about. While I have just sung the praises of LMNP the famous boat cruise was just good. I do think the cruises on the Kazinga Channel (QENP) and Nile (Murchison Falls) offer better wildlife viewing but the LMNP cruise was nonetheless a relaxing and pleasant way to spend the afternoon. I say this because other than being a highly touted activity for finfoot, game was somewhat sparse on the lakeshore. 

 

As I’ve already mentioned it, we may as well begin with African Finfoot; Alfred spotted two separate individuals, the first of which was too shy for a decent shot though the second one, a male, did momentarily show itself. The Canon G3x isn’t the fastest camera but I’m happy with the one usable shot I got – I find the finfoot’s enormous scarlet feet to be its most remarkable feature, and I’m certainly glad they are on full display in the photo.  

 

Finfoot

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Lake Mburo

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Other than the finfoot we didn’t see anything unusual but the sightings we had were nice nonetheless. The other highlight were Nile Crocodiles including a particularly impressive specimen basking on the shore, while a few Hippos, Common Warthog, Bushbuck, Vervet Monkeys and a lone Buffalo made up the mammals. From the birds we saw an excellent number of African Fish Eagles as well as Pied Kingfisher, African Pied Wagtail, Woodland Kingfisher, Rüppell’s Starling, African Wattled Lapwing, Water Thick-knee, Red-eyed Dove and Broad-billed Roller. 

 

Crocs

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Hippo

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African Fish Eagles

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Buffalo

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Once we had finished the boat cruise Paul and Alfred took us on a sunset game drive. We hadn’t planned or asked for this but again it was great to see Mamaland going above expectations. The game drive was good – again we had the whole park to ourselves and at a few different places Alfred just told us to get out the car and walk into the bush with him while Paul quietly followed quietly with the car behind.  As I didn’t realize we were going to do this I was not wearing closed shoes and ended up stabbing my toe quite deeply with a thorn; also the battery on the Canon soon died so I was effectively without a functioning camera for the second half of the drive. 

 

However, the sightings were great and Alfred was really in his element, finding us Broad-billed Roller, Bateluer, Woodland Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Sooty Chat, Little Bee-eater, Greater Blue-eared Starling, Nubian Woodpecker, Red-necked Francolin as well as Vervet Monkey, Topi and a photogenic group of Nubian Giraffe. Because I don’t keep any written notes once the battery on the Canon was dead, I started just shooting with the faulty Sigma and D500 for the record; once in a while the focus was just perfect, as with this Crested Barbet (northern edge of range) and Grey-backed Fiscal

 

Giraffe

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Topi

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Go Away

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Woodland were we walked

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Red-necked Francolin

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Vervet

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Crested Barbet

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Grey-backed Fiscal

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There were, however, two sightings which I just needed to get in focus so I just crossed my fingers and restarted the Canon hoping it would be able to take one shot. The first of these sightings was when we were walking around the wooded area Alfred found a Pearl Spotted Owlet which I had never seen before but was very high on my to-see list; the second was a a distant group of White-backed Vultures close to the gate including one of my all-time favourite birds, White-headed Vulture. Fortunately, the Canon was up for the challenge and I managed to get both shots. 

 

Pearl Spotted Owlet

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Vultures

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Lake Mburo Night Drive

 

We were pretty excited for the night drive even though it had already been quite a long first day. The lens had started working again now and just to be sure it wasn’t a fault in the D500 I mounted it on the D4 this time. At the park entrance gate, we picked up a UWA guide and then set off into the bush. Despite having three guides as well as keenly looking out for animals ourselves we saw very little. This was a bit surprising; it was a new moon night so the sky was pitch black, but had not a single nightjar or hare let alone a galago or genet. 

 

Our sightings in the two hours we had were a distant grazing Hippo and an African Scops Owl. Alfred heard the owl calling so we abandoned the vehicle a headed into the darkness of bush trying to locate it. This was pretty fun and a unique experience (definitely had closed shoes this time!); the owl was cooperative, and I took a few shots of it but unfortunately VR was off and the angle (about 20 degrees) made it more difficult to hold the camera steady so only one of the shots came out usable (at 600mm, 1/60, ISO 12800). I blame my apparent ineptitude here on the lateness of the hour and the earlier camera related stress – but at least I got a reasonable shot of a really nice new species. It goes without saying any wildlife related activity requires a bit of luck and on this night drive we probably had the worst luck of the trip, still, a second new owl of the day was a very welcome indeed. 

 

Scops Owl

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Edited by adamt123
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Atravelynn

Those colorful couch pillows on the deck of Hyena Hill might just entice me to spend a night or two!  Almost as dazzling as the fin foot's feet.  The wildlife was out and about at Lake Mburo for you and the Canon worked when it counted!  Sometimes that dead battery signal can be fleeting and there's still some juice left.  Both owls are excellent shots.

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adamt123

thank you @Atravelynn:) I adore owls and it lovely to pick up some new species, especially at Lake Mburo which I certainly wasn't expecting to be as good as it was. 

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adamt123
Posted (edited)

Day 2

 

Lake Mburo Game Drive Two

 

We spent about 4h 30m on our morning game drive at LMNP but I honestly don’t recall seeing another safari vehicle in that time. Birding was very good, and Lake Mburo is well known for hosting many bush species difficult to find elsewhere in the country. Antelopes and baboons showed nicely, and the highlight sighting of the drive was a large herd of buffalo coming into one of the watering holes. The lens was still working on the D4 so I left it on that, but the exact same thing as yesterday happened; I managed to shoot with it for about 30 minutes before it jammed. I’ll post the D4 shots first: a stunning female Bushbuck, Red-billed Firefinch, African Wattled Lapwing, White-browed Coucal, Fork-tailed Drongo, Black-winged Kite, Plains Zebra and lastly Red-faced Francolin. All remaining photos from this day taken on the Canon. 

 

Bushbuck

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Lapwing

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Coucal

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Firefinch

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Zebra

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One of my main targets here at Lake Mburo was Bare-faced Go-Away and we saw three of these handsome turacos at close range. Other good birds included our third owl species, a magnificent Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, as well as fleeting views of Blue-naped Mousebird. Alfred was particularly enthusiastic about a pair of vocal Coqui Francolins which are uncommon and difficult to observe in Uganda; for the LBJ fans we also had a slightly obscured sighting of Long-tailed (Tabora) Cisticola. 

 

Go Away

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Giant Eagle Owl

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Blue-naped Mousebird

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Coqui Male

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Coqui Female

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As well as more Bushbuck, Impala and Topi, Waterbuck showed very nicely, and we had views of a lone but unusually confiding Eland too. Olive Baboons were present in good number though the Vervet Monkeys were more retiring, and I struggled to get a good shot. Common Warthog, Giraffe and Plains Zebra all showed well again; in fact, even though I don’t have that many photos of them, the warthogs appeared to be particularly populous with a small family seemingly around every corner. Buffalos are among my favourite plains game and it was great to spend twenty minutes with a very large herd as they came to drink, with many more arriving at the water as others left.  

 

Giraffe

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Eland

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Warthog

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Baboons

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Waterbuck

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Buffalos

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I suppose the one target bird that I was hoping for here that we didn’t get was Meyer’s parrot, but we could still try for that at QENP. The other birds we saw in chronological order were: Brown-backed Scrub-robin, Yellow-breasted Apalis, African Green Pigeon, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Speckled Mousebird, Trilling Cisticola, Helmeted Guineafowl, Common Bulbul, Cape Turtle Dove, Emerald-spotted Wood-dove, Broad-billed Roller, Grey-headed Kingfisher, African Palm Swift, Tawny Eagle, African Grey Hornbill, Green Woodhoopoe, Little Bee-eater, Sooty Chat, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Plain-backed Pipit, Striped Kingfisher, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Egyptian Goose, Lilac-breasted Roller, Zitting Cisticola, Nubian Woodpecker, Long-crested Eagle, Spot-flanked Barbet and Grey Kestrel. Including the species I mentioned at the start, this brought the game drive’s bird list to a respectable 41, some of which are shown below. 

 

Brown-backed Scrub-robin

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Rueppell's Starling

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Trilling Cisticola

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Nubian Woodpecker

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Striped Kingfisher

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Emerald Wood-dove

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Green Woodhoopoe

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Little Bee-eater

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Sooty Chat

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Yellow-billed Oxpecker

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Grey Kestrel

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Goodbye Lake Mburo!

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Edited by adamt123
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Posted (edited)

Lake Mburo to Bwindi

 

The rest of the day was taken up driving from Lake Mburo to Ruhija. This was a long drive on mostly good roads passing the towns of Mbarara and Kabale, though the final hour through the mountains was corrugated dirt track. We stopped for lunch at the Agip restaurant in Mbarara, just of the main high street; the pizza was surprisingly good and the place had certain retro charm – a very enjoyable meal overall. Closer to Bwindi we stopped again to buy pineapples and physalis, and we enjoyed the fruits at a viewpoint just before entering the forest. Here, and driving throughout Uganda, the extent of deforestation was really visible. Mantled Guereza and fleeting Great Blue Turaco were the first Bwindi animals to greet us just as the forest was bathed in the glorious golden hues of dusk. 

 

Roadside Viewpoint 

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Arriving in Ruhija

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Mantled Guereza

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Why Ruhija?

 

Before tomorrow’s post on Bwindi proper and the gorillas, I just want to briefly cover why we chose the Ruhija sector.  It’s true that we booked our gorilla permits pretty late (<1 month) but availability was good because of COVID. Firstly, we choose Bwindi over Mgahinga because the latter was too much of a detour and we didn’t feel it was worth negatively impacting the rest of our trip just for Mgahinga's gorillas. If gorillas had been our first priority we might have chosen Mgahinga or perhaps done both parks as some people do. Certainly, no one can predict how rough the trek will be on a particular day or how good the quality of the actual sighting will be, but from my research and understanding, Mgahinga is definitely worth considering if you love gorillas. 

 

Because we had ruled out Mgahinga, we were left with a choice of one of Bwindi’s four sectors viz. Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga or Nkuringo. It was very easy to cross off Rushaga (south-east) and Nkuringo (south-west) because neither offered as established birding opportunities and both involved more travel to the southern sections, away from the main route we were travelling on. Picking between Buhoma (north-west) and Ruhija (north-east) was tough. While both offered excellent birding, Buhoma gave a better chance of seeing one of the forest duikers and the treks there may be slightly easier than Ruhija; Ruhija on the other hand split up the driving the most evenly and offered more of a bush experience, being less developed than Buhoma. 

 

We had looked at doing two nights at Ruhija and then a night at Buhoma for the birds, monkeys and duikers. The reason why we didn’t take this option was because we thought it would be too cold to have three nights in the high mountains. This came from experiences visiting Kruger in June where I found that the cold practically sucked all the fun out of game viewing as well as from Masai Mara in the same month which was even more miserable than South Africa! Bwindi was not like these two places; Ruhija, despite apparently being the coldest part of the park really didn’t feel cold at all and when we stopped for birding at the Neck (similar altitude to Buhoma) it was actually pretty hot! So retrospectively visiting both Ruhija and Buhoma might have been a sound option but nevertheless even our stay at just Ruhija (Broadbill Forest Camp) was highly enjoyable. 

 

Ruhija Sector, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

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Edited by adamt123
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Atravelynn

So many good shots of scenery, birds (another owl!) and animals.

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Really enjoying this TR, such a variety of birds and so many wonderful photos. 

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adamt123

Broadbill Forest Camp

 

Broadbill Forest Camp is a popular camp located close to the Ruhija gorilla trekking base; it offers tented accommodation and is well known for its birding opportunities too. We thought the camp was very good with comfortable accommodation, hospitable staff and generally nice food. The whole place had a serene ambience and is certainly helped that our tent offered sweeping views over Bwindi as well as us being the only guests in camp for the first night (for the second night a solo American arrived). Unfortunately we didn't manage to spot one of the famous Rwenzori chameleons, but still a delightful 4/5.

 

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Wildlife viewing opportunities in camp were solid and we spent 20-30 minutes before breakfast and dinner each day leisurely walking around the property. Here, I will collate all of sightings into one post, though note that they were observed over the two nights/three days. From the mammals we had a troop of L’hoest’s Monkeys foraging in the forest near our tent; some of them were bold enough to come into the camp, though they were still shy and always scurried away quickly. This was the first of the target monkeys we got, and it was also the first animal I tested manual focus on. All shots (except Canon and the gorillas)  are manual focus from now on. 

 

L'Hoest's Monkey

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Birding in camp was also productive and we picked up a lot of species that we didn’t see elsewhere. Green-headed Sunbird, Northern Double-collared Sunbird, Yellow-bellied Waxbill, Golden-breasted Bunting, African Yellow White-eye, White-eyed Slaty-flycatcher, Black Sawwing and Brown-crowned Tchagra were all spotted without much difficulty. As was the sole Baglafecht Weaver of the trip – I was honestly surprised that we didn’t see more later in the trip but at least I got a decent shot of this male. On the other hand, a soon to be familiar bird that was the rather shy and difficult to photograph was the White-browed Robin-chat which was always rustling around like a mouse somewhere in the undergrowth. The highlight were probably a pair of cooperative Rameron (African Olive) Pigeons on the last morning; we also clearly heard the call of African wood owl from our tent in the night, though a quick search for it in the black proved fruitless. 

 

Rameron Pigeon

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Green-headed Sunbird

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Yellow-bellied Waxbill

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African Yellow White-eye

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Baglafecht Weaver

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Brown-crowned Tchagra

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White-browed Robin-chat

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White-eyed Slaty-flycatcher

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Golden-breasted Bunting

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Posted (edited)

Ruhija Gorilla Trekking

 

It was a quick breakfast and an early start to drive the 10 minutes from Broadbill to the Ruhija gorilla trekking base. We were among the first to arrive but is soon got very busy and in all there were about twenty trekkers on this particular day. This was  probably more than I was expecting. We were allocated the Bitukura group and our party was made up the full eight tourists, interestingly all of whom were fellow Europeans (i.e. rather than a mix of Americans, who were in the majority, and Europeans). Everyone in our group was either fit or young; five of us were in our early twenties/late teens, and the remaining three were middle-aged, with my father probably being the oldest – albeit fittest – member of the group. 

 

Ruhija Base

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Both my father and I took porters as did only one other person. The trek was tough and, in my view, COVID or no COVID, the porters were vital in making the trip easier. Firstly, I wasn’t worrying about my bag with the all the heavy photography equipment; secondly, it is difficult to overstate how much a firm supporting hand is useful in some of the tricker and muddy uphill parts of the trek. Gloves, a good pair of well-fitting shoes and a wooden stick were also essential. 

 

The whole activity took about 4h 30m meaning around 3h 30m worth of trekking which was divided pretty equally between getting to the gorillas and getting back. We didn’t start from the Ruhija base but drove for about 10 minutes south (back towards Kabale). The trek to the gorillas was moderately difficult crossing many undulating sections. We had fairly regular breaks and I think everyone coped ok. As a lifelong severe asthmatic, I found the altitude and thin air to be by far the most challenging part. Luckily my toe had healed nicely from the Lake Mburo incident so that didn’t cause any major problems. A tip I would give here is that being at the front of the group is far more comfortable than being at the back. When we started, I was first with my father behind me at times there were some fairly large gaps between us at the head and those at the rear. I found walking in the middle to be too congested between bodies and walking at the end a bit disorientating.  

 

Once we arrived close to the Mountain Gorillas, we stopped to leave our porters and baggage behind. We then approached the Bitukura family which were apparently habituated very quickly. The group weren’t doing much when we got to them. The silverback was present but uncooperative for photos; there were also about three other adults, a juvenile and a baby. A very elderly silverback was also present but he was severely obscured. The experience itself was okay. There were a lot of us, but I definitely feel that the UWA trackers and guides put in good effort to accommodate everyone. Not sure what others who have done this activity think but I felt we were a bit close to the animals. In the last 15-20 minutes the family became more active and the baby was shown in full view which was nice; we also had a very close mock charge from one of the females. 

 

I don’t want to keep going on about the cameras, but the 150-600 C lens was working at the start (mounted on D4 for wider field of view). After two minutes it stopped working as I had pretty much anticipated would happen by this point. The UWA guys were kind enough to allow my porter to bring me bag so I swapped that combination out for the D500 with my old Sigma 30mm 1.4 which I always bring along on trips but rarely ever use; here I think the wider angle actually worked well and the large aperture was very helpful in the darkness of the undergrowth. I handed the D500 to my father and used the Canon myself. I’ve organized the photos below based on the camera. 

 

D4 + 150-600 C

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Canon G3X

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D500 + 30mm

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(my favourite shot)

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We retreated from the gorillas but were slightly delayed leaving because someone had lost their phone. As far as I can recall, it was not retrieved despite the best efforts of the guides. The hike back to the road was very difficult. It was uphill, steep and muddy, the only to cross it being to walk in a sort of sideways direction. The other person who had taken a porter really struggled here as did quite a few of those who didn’t have porters. Eventually we had no option but to stop and take a break which I think everyone appreciated; eating lunch sitting on the Ruhija mud was certainly a splendid way to eat lunch. At the very end the situation improved and eventually everyone made it back to the cars in one piece. 

 

Because two of our group were in a hurry (catching a flight that evening from Entebbe as far as I remember) we had our little certificate ceremony at this point rather than returning to the Ruhija office. I think it was because we were grouped with those two people that we were in the group which came back first and had the shortest trek. I remember Paul remarking that our group was the first to return. We had indeed requested an ‘easier’ group; I can only guess how difficult or long the other treks were. 

 

Overall, I would maintain that gorilla trekking was okay. The trek was fine; I expected it to be difficult and it was, but we signed up knowing that we could have spent all day hiking up and down the mountains – in fact, my father very much enjoyed the trek. So, what I didn’t like about gorilla trekking is what I knew I wouldn’t like from the start: the lack of genuine anticipation. We were hiking to a location were gorillas were known to be waiting for us; for me, this just isn’t as thrilling and doesn’t provide the same satisfaction as a spontaneous sighting, no matter what the species. Compared with Semliki for example, where we were hoping for one of the three rare monkeys (Semliki Red Colobus, Dent’s or De Brazza’s), when we did see one of them it was so much more exciting and euphoric. I also think that while mountain gorillas are a fantastic addition to any mammal list, spending a whole morning (or potentially the entire day) over a single species was a bit excessive. It goes without saying that I know this is part of mountain gorilla trekking – there is no other realistic way of seeing these animals and I do appreciate the opportunity we had to spend time with them, its just that this sort of activity runs contrary to my general safariing philosophy which is something along the lines of ‘see whatever crosses your path and don’t chase after things’ (something that I will touch on in a lot more detail when we do get to Semliki). Certificates were a bit gimmicky too. I can, nonetheless, appreciate how special this experience is for many people and am in no way attempting to take anything away from that. After all that rambling, am I glad I did the gorilla trek? Well yes, and it was still a pleasant experience, but it’s just not something I would run head over heals for to do again.  

 

 

Edited by adamt123
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Atravelynn

That Rameron Pigeon looks like it belongs in a festive king's court beside the jesters!

 

"We were hiking to a location were gorillas were known to be waiting for us; for me, this just isn’t as thrilling"  Lucky you that they were waiting.  Being free roaming, they may decide the wild celery is greener on the other side of the mountain and they can scoot over there much easier than the trekkers can.  I've had them waiting and I've tried to keep up with a moving troop for most of the afternoon.  Having them waiting was preferable IMO.  It is true that gorilla trekking is a narrowly focused journey.  In fact I've remarked how few other species I've ever seen in the forest.  Thanks for your comments on how you viewed the whole outing.

 

How great you had a spare camera and it could be delivered to you at the gorillas.  Hope that lost phone did not contain the owner's only gorilla shots.

 

My gorilla certs are in a folder somewhere, probably a similar fate to yours.

 

Looking forward to your Semliki thoughts and experiences, a place I've never been but have found intriguing.

Edited by Atravelynn
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Treking to see gorillas is in my top 3 things that I most want to do. Just waiting for the opportunity to do it.

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Posted (edited)

@NancyS truly hope that opportunity comes soon :) and please don't take my relative negativity too seriously - I'm certain you will love the experience!

Edited by adamt123
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thanks @Atravelynn.  I honestly felt pretty similarly about chimpanzee trekking the first time we came to Uganda when we basically just walked to the location were they were for about half an hour. You are absolutely correct that we have been lucky and I probably don't appreciate this enough. 

 

And as for Semliki that will be full of details and interesting animals as well as some more serious reflection - sounds a bit ominous but we encountered some less than pleasant "extremists" there. 

 

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Posted (edited)

Ruhija Evening Birding

 

After the gorillas Paul and Alfred were ready to start birding/monkey-watching straight away but we certainly were not and so we went back to Broadbill to rest for a good few hours before setting off again at around 16.30 to spend some time at two roadside locations in the Ruhija area. The first was about a 10-minute drive from camp and the more productive of the two. Unquestionably the highlight from this location was Doherty’s Bushshrike; unfortunately, no matter how much Alfred tried to coax it out with sweet song it was really uncooperative and fidgety. I’ve given my best shot below in which the enigmatic bushshrike is rather well camouflaged, but I was happy that at least I was able to get one shot of what was perhaps the most troublesome bird to shoot in the whole trip.

 

First Location

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Doherty’s Bushshrike

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The area also produced a handsome and localized Sharpe’s Starling as well as our first Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters, though they were a bit distant. The more common birds observed were Chubb’s Cisticola, Speckled Mousebird and Black Sawwing, as well as a very fast Boehm’s Squirrel – we didn’t have good luck with the forest squirrels on this trip and this was the only specimen we saw for more than a few seconds. A final really good Albertine endemic was Regal Sunbird; because I was still new MF this shot went a bit wrong and when the riotous little male was perched right in the open, I wasn’t able to focus on it. This was probably the biggest photography/manual focus cockup of the trip but a least I still had a photo (just about)!

 

Sharpe’s Starling

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Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater

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Chubb’s Cisticola

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Speckled Mousebird 

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Black Sawwing

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Boehm’s Squirrel

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Regal Sunbird

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Once we were fed up with Doherty’s bushshrike we jumped into the car with Paul and drove to the second location. On the way we stumbled across a pair of Handsome Francolins, one of my top target birds for the trip. Paul stopped the car a good few hundred metres away from the birds then Alfred instructed me to get out and shoot as much as I could slowly creeping forward. It was this thoughtful approach which characterized the duo and made wildlife-watching with them enjoyable. 

 

Handsome Francolin

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As sunset was fast approaching, we spent less time at the second location but still picked up some nice birds the best of which were a gorgeous lemon-coloured White-starred Robin and a rather cute Black-faced Apalis. Finally, White-eyed Slaty-flycatcher, African Dusky Flycatcher, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird and Abyssinian Thrush rounded off a very pleasurable evening. 

 

 

White-starred Robin

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Black-faced Apalis

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Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird

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Abyssinian Thrush

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White-eyed Slaty-flycatcher

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Second Location

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Edited by adamt123
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