Friday 22 July 2016

Uganda July 2016 - Birds

I am just back from my third tour to Uganda with Ornitholidays. The theme was 'Birds and Primates', and we saw almost 350 species of birds in two weeks. (Mammals in the previous blog, below). Strangest of all the birds we saw is this Shoebill, an inhabitant of huge papyrus swamps, where it feeds mostly on large fish. 

Shoebills only breed in seven countries - South Sudan, western Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, western Tanzania and northern Zambia. They can reach 140cm when standing up, and weigh up to 7 kilos. They can also catch frogs, water snakes, water monitors and small crocodiles. The estimates for the total number of birds are uncertain, but it is currently thought that there are 5,000 – 8,000 Shoebills, most of them in South Sudan. On take-off, it reminded us of a 747, lifting its huge bulk into the air!

Turacos are mostly forest-dwelling fruit-eaters found throughout sub-Saharan Africa. This Great Blue Turaco has also managed to adapt to open, cultivated habitats in western Uganda. A distinctive sound in Ugandan forests is their (impossible to describe!) hollow rattling, bubbling call. 

The Martial Eagle is Africa's second largest raptor, where it inhabits open Acacia savanna and feeds on guineafowl and mammals as large as small antelope. This adult allowed us to drive right below it without taking off. Later we came across a white-headed immature, almost as impressive in its size. 

From the huge to the tiny, here is a family of Red-billed Firefinches; but look carefully! (Click on the photo to enlarge). Close inspection shows that one chick is a firefinch, but the other two are juvenile Village Indigobirds, with streaked backs, a little larger than the firefinch chick. Indigobirds are nest parasites on firefinches, but both species are raised together in the nest.   

On our last day, we had a long drive from Bwindi back to Entebbe Airport, with few opportunities to stop. A legstretch by the road also gave us a chance to find this bush-shrike, a Papyrus Gonolek, on the edge of its marshy habitat. Many thanks to Carren and Mark for the photos that illustrate these two blogs. 

Uganda July 2016 - Mammals

I am just back from a two week Ornitholidays tour to Uganda. 'Birds and primates' was the theme: one major highlight was our 90-minute visit to a family of Mountain Gorillas in the highlands of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Our trackers led us down a steep slope, slipping on vines and logs as we went, until we found the gorillas at the bottom. But they were on the move, climbing the opposite hillside! Eventually they settled down to feed and rest, and we were able to get our breath back too.

There are 17 in the Oruzogo family, with an alpha male (silverback, above) and a beta male, not much younger. Perhaps in a year or two this large family will split into two, as the older male will not tolerate a second silverback. There were several females and youngsters, all climbing small trees to feed on the vines they love. An adult gorilla can eat 25 kg of vegetation in a day, so feeding is a fairly constant activity. We had a great team of trackers and porters, who helped us over the challenging terrain - often having to pull and push us! 

On another day, in Kibale Forest, we tracked a family of Chimpanzees. This 17-year-old was on the ground when we found him, but he soon climbed a tree for a mid-morning rest. Other family members were already sleeping in a large fig-tree, while another was testing the green fruits and finding them still unripe.

The western Uganda forests - close to the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo - are also home to various monkey species, notably the handsome Black-and-White Colobus. At present the forests are well protected, but there is great pressure from the ever-growing human population that lives all around it. The considerable income from gorilla tracking permits (over US $25,000 per day in Bwindi alone) is ploughed back into forest conservation, including the training of forest guards and trackers.

In more open country near the Queen Elizabeth National Park, we had to wait for these heavyweights to cross the road. This landscape is a transitional one, between the forests further south, and the acacia savanna in the Ishasha sector of the park. 

Following a tip-off from other drivers, we soon found this pride of Lions draped over the branches of a huge fig-tree in the Ishasha Loop. Their main prey is an Impala-like antelope called Uganda Kob (below). During the chaos of the Amin presidency, unpaid soldiers killed most of the park's game animals, but they have recovered their numbers very well. Controlled burning in some areas ensures fresh green grass, which in turn attracts both herbivores - and inevitably carnivores too. 

Due to a camera battery malfunction, my photography was virtually non-existent this trip: how could I have forgotten to pack a spare!? I am very grateful to Mark and Carren for allowing me to use their images. My next blog will feature a few of the special birds we watched.