Swamps, Lakes and Waterfalls of Uganda
Africa is a massive continent it is the second largest continent by land area in the world almost 12 million square miles, with a total of 54 countries choosing where to go is overwhelming. I always knew I wanted to travel to Africa, but never gave much thought as to which country specifically to go to as a birding destination until 2015 when Hannah and I met Herbert Byaruhanga at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. So needless to say, Uganda has been on my birding radar since then.
Hannah and I had the honor of being invited to participate in a tour to experience the sights, sounds, and flavors of Uganda in an effort to put it on the map, like Herbert had done for me. Of course, I jumped at the chance to go! We quickly ordered a field guide, prepped our supplies, and just a few weeks later were off. The tour coordinator provided us with great information prior to the tour, and upon reviewing the itinerary we received we quickly realized what an incredible adventure we had before us. Uganda is a country the size of our home state, Oregon, and I would even contend that the spectrum of different habitats could be analogous, however Uganda also has many more charismatic megafauna and about double the bird species.
After 41 hours of travel time, which included a 16-hour layover in Dubai, from Portland, Oregon, Hannah and I arrived at the Entebbe airport and where we were met by an airport assistant who directed us through the entry process. The main trip prep logistic that we had to complete as soon as we were invited was a visa application which is submitted electronically and had to be completed a few weeks ahead of departure. The process to enter Uganda, during COVID times, is fairly straight forward but still felt daunting after having spent 41 disconnected hours. Our yellow fever vaccination was checked, our COVID-19 vaccination was checked for the 4th time of the travel and then we were shuttled over to a COVID testing tent where we received another COVID test, all this before we talked to the immigration officer to turn in our printed proof of visa and receive our passport stamp and lastly, we picked up out checked bags. From what I saw, Uganda is doing a great and efficient job at protecting their citizens from the ongoing global pandemic, while still staying open for visitors to help their tourism sector.
Before even leaving the airport property to begin our highly anticipated two weeks of birding in Uganda, we noticed a large colony of Village Weavers in the acacia trees right out front of the arrival meet-up. The drive to our hotel in Entebbe, just a few minutes from the airport, rewarded us with a Long-crested Eagle and the excitable screams of so many Hadada Ibis. Since we had not received our COVID test results, we were to quarantine at the hotel. We took advantage of the small courtyard to do some birding while we waited and were rewarded with almost thirty lifers in the brief time we sat there, just foreshadowing what was to come.
After a good night’s sleep at the Airport View Hotel, the eleven of us on the tour woke up early and to be serenaded by a musical duet of singing White-browed Robin-Chats on the rooftop before heading off to find our biggest and most obvious target of the entire trip: the Shoebill.
A quick aside about the infrastructure in the country. The roads are rather primitive and even when they are paved, the going is slow due to the speed bumps and the police/game officer check stations. Despite the roads being primitive, we spent over two weeks traveling around the country and did not get stuck a single time. And only had three minor vehicle hiccups that were quickly rectified by our driver/bus engineer Alex, leaving us with, what turned into, short breaks for additional birding in some otherwise un-birded locations.
Upon arrival at the Mbamba Swamp to load up into motorized canoes and start out into the swamp, I was awestruck by the habitat we were about to embark into. The papyrus swamp is an interesting and unique habitat type that I am not used to traveling through. There are channels cut through the vegetation for the canoes to travel but for the most part the swamp is dense floating mats of various plants anchored in place by the stalks and roots of the papyrus itself. As we passed through the channel, we could watch our canoe’s small wake push through the undergrowth as a wave and dissipate into the habitat making our passage to find the elusive Shoebill invisible.
We spent about 15 minutes cruising through small channels before breaking free out into the open water where we could pick up some speed and make a direct line for where Herbert had some intel of a recent Shoebill sighting. The sides of the open water was lined with papyrus for as far as we could see and Herbert pointed to a thinner section that looked like it might have once been a channel, our canoe captain directed us right into the overgrown canal and immediately shut off the engine so as to not disturb the vegetation or the possibility of our target.
Within seconds of shutting down the engine we caught sight of the nearly 4-foot-tall dinosaur. Balaenciceps rex is well-named, Balaenciceps refers to its whale-like head and rex as in ‘king’ just like the classic T-Rex from the cretaceous period. I imagine that most Shoebills have a similar demeanor, but the one we had the privilege to watch was both not interested in us but also well aware of our presence and once we had photographed and filmed it we headed out to have the Shoebill turn full on to us so as to say “go on, get out of here”.
The very next day after having survived the experience with the king of whale-billed birds, we had another boat ride scheduled which would also prove to be unforgettable. Our target species for the day was the African Finfoot, I felt a bit silly every day having Herbert let us know basically one species that was a target species. When doing the math over the trip, I got 325 lifers which comes to just over 21 lifer per day we spent on the ground there. While loading up the boat we all noticed a loud exclaiming roar-growl sound that Herbert let us know was a pod of hippos just around the corner from where we were loading up. Naturally, I was excited and had a paraphrased quote from Steve Irwin going through my head “now, that sounds dangerous, let’s get closer.” As we rounded the first corner headed towards the mouth of the Nyarutegura River we spotted the first couple hippos floating in the shallow water of the edge of the lake. We all got our fill of photos and videos of baby hippos nagging parents and parents pretending to not notice us while they wiggled their ears and pestered each other. The real action began when the boat captain turned the boat to head away from the sizable group in start of the skulky duck, African Finfoot. The last hippo in the group, which was the closest to the boat, began to swim towards us and all of a sudden disappeared below the surface of the water. I began filming at this point and caught the hippo leaping out of the water, porpoising towards the boat in a threat display that, despite our boat being a 50-foot double decker pontoon boat, caused one of the other participants to scream out an expletive that will have to be removed from said video before it can be shared with the world at large. Watching the hippo effortlessly heft its ton-plus weight halfway out of the water time-after-time definitely gave me a new level of respect for these majestic, beautiful creatures.
We did find both sexes of the sexually dimorphic African Finfoot shortly after our exciting encounter with the hippos. Despite not getting any good photos, everyone on the boat had spectacular looks at this underwater specialist that, after further research, looks like a mix between a Torrent Duck, which we have seen in Ecuador, with the feet of an American Coot.
I could go on and on, recounting every moment of every day through this post but I will just cut it off at our experience at Murchison Falls with another heavily habitat restricted target that we had for the trip. Murchison Falls is a massive waterfall that is along the Nile River between Lake Kyoga and Lake Albert. Hannah and I are from a part of the world that waterfalls are rather common, and we actually used to visit a waterfall for every anniversary. So, this meant, when faced with the prospect of going to see another waterfall, we were both excited to see another set of falls, but also hesitant to get too excited about the spectacle we were about to behold. Our local “big” waterfall that we grew up near has an average output flow of 30,000 cubic feet per second, Murchison Falls, on the other hand flows, at about one-third of that. The metric that I had not considered while reading about Murchison Falls is that the entire flow is squeezed into a gorge that only measures 33 feet wide, as opposed to our local Willamette Falls which is a 1,500-foot-wide arching horseshoe shape. This seemingly minor oversight in my research of the waterfall led me to an amazing sense of wonder which left me speechless for what seemed like hours but, was probably only a few minutes as we walked down the short trail to get to the overlook to the falls.
Before I could even find the words to start expressing my excitement and wonder at the sheer power and force of the River Nile, Herbert began shouting to all of us (shouting because it was too loud to talk in a normal voice this close to the waterfall) that he found our target bird for this stop: the Rock Pratincole. There was a pair of pratincoles on the other side of the waterfall that were enjoying the solitude that a lone rock in the middle of a raging river provides. Pictures and videos could not do this waterfall or the swift water-living Rock Pratincole any justice, so a visit to Murchison Falls must make it onto everyone’s bucket list.
Having spent a little over two weeks traveling around Uganda with Bird Uganda Safaris I can safely say that I will be back. It is an incredible place to go birding with so much to see and do. These are just a few examples of places we went, there are so many more sights and birds for you to explore here. To hear more about our grand Ugandan adventure you can listen to our podcast episodes released December 30th, 2021, January 13th, 2022 and January 27th, 2022.