The boat cruised silently through the water, surrounded by a sea of papyrus. The silence of a still life, nevertheless, the birds were there. The blue bullet of a Malachite Kingfisher sped past as the beautiful African Jacanas with a blue frontal shield over their beaks did their delicate tap dance over the lily pads. Finally, we turned a corner and there it stood – a prehistoric monster, large eyes staring at us as we watched it, its huge dinosaurian bill gleaming in the sunlight. The Shoebill Stork is truly the ruler of the Ugandan marshlands.
Possibly Uganda’s most famous bird, the Shoebill is an extraordinary giant stork-like creature, the only member of its genus. It is found in East Africa mainly in Uganda and Rwanda with a small population in Tanzania. It uses its massive bill to hunt for fish, mainly lungfish, crushing their skulls with one bite of the bill. It is mainly restricted to Papyrus marshes and is one of the main draws at Uganda’s sprawling Papyrus marshlands near Kampala (Mabamba) and at Murchison Falls, further north. The landscape at Mabamba is a large expanse of papyrus swamp with open areas of water. Papyrus is the main plant species here and it was used by the Egyptians to make paper. Even today it is used by the local people of Mabamba to make huts.
The swamp is home to some stunning birds, including the elusive Papyrus Gonolek. One needs to go deeper into the swamps to look for this red and black skulker that barely shows itself in the open. The canoe-like and extremely comfortable boats that you can rent on the Mabamba offer ringside views of the Gonolek, Crakes and other waterbirds that Mabamba is simply teeming with.
This was just the start of an epic week long adventure to Uganda-the pearl of Africa. Uganda deserves its epithet-with its wide range of habitats, ranging from savannahs to marshlands and tropical lowland and mountain forests, it is very scenic. This diversity also accounts for the sheer bird diversity in this country – over 1000 species in a country as big as an Indian state. As you go to different places in Uganda you will see many different species, many of them having restricted ranges in East Africa.
After leaving the Swamp, we headed for Lake Mburo. This is a fabulous site as it contains an extensive area of wooded savannah combined with the breathtaking scenery of Lake Mburo from where the park gets its name from. A boat ride on the lake can produce sightings of the stunning African Finfoot, the shy White-Backed Night Heron and an assortment of other wildlife including large numbers of Hipopotamuses and majestic African Fish Eagles.
Lake Mburo is also a convenient stop over from Entebbe (when one lands in Uganda) to the high altitude Albertine Rift forests of Bwindi. Then it was time to go to the Albertine Impenetrable NP. The Albertine Rift is a range of mountains that extends from Uganda to Rwanda, Burundi and to the eastern DRC. It has a large number of endemic species including many endemic birds. The site where we were going to has 23 out of 24 of Ugandan Albertine Rift endemics. The most beautiful of these are the sunbirds. The sunbirds are so beautiful, they have so many colours on them like metallic blue, green , yellow and red which shine in the sunlight. There are several sunbirds found in Uganda out of which the Ruwenzori Double-Collared Sunbird, Blue Headed Sunbird, Northern Double Collared Sunbird, Collared sunbird, Variable Sunbird, Scarlet-Chested sunbird and Red-Chested Sunbird were seen by us.
The next area we explored was the Queen Elizabeth National Park. There the highlight was taking a cruise down the Kazinga Channel which is a natural channel of water connecting Lake George and Lake Edward. As soon as we boated our cruise boat we were greeted by the sight of Hippos relaxing in the calm, placid waters of the channel. This channel has an estimated 2500 hippos, one of the largest of any kind in the world. There was also a Yellow-Billed Stork feeling the water with its bill for any unlucky fish that might swim in. African Buffaloes quietly sat in the water, with oxpeckers all over them. Everywhere we looked we saw one group of hippo after the other making us feel that we were in the Hippo capital of the world. A huge colony of Pied Kingfishers filled the sandbanks, making noise at any intruder who went nearby. Nearby the sight of two young male African Elephants playing around in the water made us imagine how aggressive they would be when they would be older. A huge group of Pelicans mixed with cormorants and gulls covered the sandbanks. On the way back to the jetty we were unaware of what surprise would wait for us the next day………….
Our final destination of the tour was Kibale forest. It is a large expanse of tropical rainforest home to perhaps the greatest concentration of primates anywhere in Uganda, especially Chimpanzees. Kibale has one of the largest populations of Chimpanzees anywhere in the world.
Big Bright and Beautiful
From tiny sunbirds and wattle eyes to huge hornbills and turacos, Ugandan birds come in so many colours, shapes and sizes. The hornbills range from predominantly black and white in plumage like the Black and White Casqued Hornbill to grey like the African Grey Hornbill. The Turacos range from the huge hornbill like Great Blue Turaco to the smaller forest dwelling Black-Billed Turaco. An interesting feature about many traces can be seen when they fly. They have a pigment called Turacin which imparts red colours to their flight feathers. All except the Great Blue have this feature. The most interesting bird according to me that I saw in Uganda were the African Skimmers in the Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park. These skimmers have a short upper mandible and a longer lower mandible that helps them to “Skim” the water as they feel for prey. The birds feed mainly in flight and as they skim the water, if the beak touches a fish, they will snap it up.