Birdwatching in East Africa

Holub's Golden WeaverOk I feel a little apologetic for admitting to a birdwatching holiday.  Twitching is a little odd.  Well that’s how people react when I tell them.  So how did I end up booking an African birdwatching holiday?  (Apart from enjoying bird photography?)

To start with it’s a good spot for birdwatching.  Three countries, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have almost twice as many bird species as the whole of Australia.  It accounts for 14% of all of the world bird species.  And there are some great birds to see, the hammerkop, the shoe-bill, the starlings, the sun-birds, horn-bills, barbets, kingfishers, bee-eaters, the birds of prey, the cranes and storks.

Too Close

Secondly it’s a great way to see Africa.  We were on a standard wildlife safari for part of our trip. “So have you heard of the big five?” Does that include the giraffe, or the wildebeest, or the zebra?” “No” “How about Hippos or the cheetah or the mountain gorilla?”  “No”  There are just five highly sought after animals on safari.  They are based upon the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot and was coined by the game hunters.  It includes, elephant, buffalo, lion. leopard and rhino.  Reminds me of the beetles song – “Hey Bungalo Bill – what did you kill”.  Subsequently the term was adopted by safari tour operators for marketing purposes. I couldn’t help thinking that it made their job easier if you reduce the exercise down to just 5 animals.  Bird watching on the other hand opens your eyes to so many more things going on.  We ended up seeing a lot of the big game when we did our bird safari, but we saw so much more.

Ruppell's StarlingDon and Jane, friends of ours had worked in South Africa.  When asked, they said that the thing they remembered most fondly was the birds.  “You just won’t believe the Starlings, they are wrapped in coloured tin foil.”

3476509Lastly I read, “A Guide to the Birds of East Africa” by Nicholas Drayson. This is a very funny book and worth reading just for the description of the evolution of Mr Maliks comb over. The premise is that the two rivals will Hadada Ibiswin the right to ask the
heroine’s hand to the social club dance if they can spot the most bird species.  The book starts with a description of the Hadada Ibis that has the same name as the Swahili word for flatulence. I won’t try and explain the joke – just go and read the book.

So after wanting to do this for many years, my time had finally come.  On the internet I found “Avian safaris”.  Crammy, our guide, met us in Entebe, Uganda and personally guided us for 12 days in a four wheel drive vehicle. We saw many birds in the garden of our guest house and in the Entebe botanical gardens.   We were uncertain of our bearings, but as far as birds go we thought we had landed in heaven.

Over ThereOur first “Wow” experience was on an excursion to the Mabamba swamp, a RAMSAR wetland on the north shore of lake Victoria.  Some local villages had made an industry of conserving the wetland and guiding tourists through it.  There is also a small fishing industry.  Ismail and Tony propelled our dugout canoe through the small passageways in the reeds and papyrus to see herons, jacanas, bee-eaters, ducks and wading birds.  Finally Ismail strode up to the slightly higher prow of the canoe and took a broad sweep of the landscape with his binoculars.  With an arm outstretched like Colonel Light he guided the canoe up a narrow waterway.  ShoebillEventually the canoes was pushed up over the bank and into just 2 inches of water and manhandled with poles and one very wet Tony over a distance of perhaps 300 meters. Eventually we inched past a clump of reeds to be faced by a large grey bird with the look of centuries, a shoe-bill stork.  Well not actually a stork, it forms it’s own family.  It stared at us over it’s curious broad ivory like beak.  The bill is hooked to help it in catching lungfish. It opened it’s bill a few times, then squatted onto it’s haunches and sprung into the air and flew away.  High fives from Ismail and Tony.  This was one of only 9 birds in this wetland.  When we got back Crammy explained that the shoe-bill was one of the African “birding big five”.

Great Blue TuracoIn our travels we saw two more of the big five, the “great blue turaco” and the “african finfoot.”  The Turaco was quite large, the size of a black cockatoo, with a mohawk hair style and a crazy mix of blue red and yellow colouring.   The finfoot was a secretive bird hiding in the vegetation overhang around lake Mburu.  We took a boat ride to look for it.    “If you had booked the 18 day tour” Crammy explains,  “I could have taken you hunting for the other two, the African broadbill and the green bellied pita.  It involves some long walks into inaccessible terrain.”

Murchison Falls 5The next great experience was a river trip up the Victorian Nile to Murchison falls.  If that name sounds familiar, it should be.  This was the location where the famous words, “Dr Livingstone I presume” were uttered.  Stanley had traveled up the Nile, on the bequest of the Royal Geographic Society to find the ill and greatly weakened Dr Livingstone.

CrocodileWe saw hippos and elephants and various water buck and kingfishers and bee-eaters.  As we approached the falls, crocodiles basked on mud flats with their yellow mouths open.  A goliath heron strode confidently to within meters of the crocodile.   Foam was drifting down stream from the falls.  Our passage to the falls was hindered by a small rock in the middle of the river. Rock PratincoleThe boat nosed up to the rock and the guide gave me special permission to photograph the rock pratincole, a small bird on the rock, before allowing the other passengers to climb onto the rock to photograph the falls.  The water tumbles down this narrow gorge with such force, that a veil of mist rises to the top of the gorge.  Black and white colobus monkeys sit in the trees watching the boat.  On our return trip the elephants were feeding in the elephant grass on the bank.  Swifts and swallows were darting over the waters surface catching insects.  The sun set over the waters of the Nile was superb.

Black Bellied BustardCrammy also took us on game drives into the national parks.  Pulling up to see some bustards stalking through the grass, the other tours would drive straight past us, looking for the big 5.

Cob Duel on the Leking GroundIn Queen Elizabeth National park we saw the Ugandan Cob, a medium sized antelope, on their leking ground.  The term lek refers to a display ground, where females will go to select a mate.  The male cobs all stood around 50 meters apart on their piece of turf.  If another strayed too close there would be a skirmish to send the impostor off.  Horns were down, interlocked, hooves straining in the dirt, the dust would fly and eventually one would back down and run away.  We approached a pride of lions that day, but they were not in the mood for visitors and hid in the thickets.  I’m glad we didn’t spend all day waiting to catch just a glimpse of tossled mane.

Balloon RideFrances thought 18 days of bird watching would be too much, so we did a wildlife safari of Kenya and Tanzania for 10 days after the 12 day biding trip.  We enjoyed our time here but in retrospect we would both have chosen the longer birding trip in Uganda.  One of the highlights of the second trip was a balloon ride in the Massai Mara.  We had never done a balloon ride before.  This is the site of the Wildebeest migration that appears on David Attenborough documentaries.  Although there was a lot of game about we were there at the wrong time of year to see the herds cross the Mara river (that happens in June).  We were collected at some ungodly hour and driven to the ascension point, before sunrise.  As the sun rose we were aloft, following the river to our final landing site.  A pair of ostriches were running under the basket.  The animals stirring on the plains would take fright and run away from the balloon.  Long shadows extended out from the beasts giving them gargantuan stature.

Giraffe from BalloonWe saw Thompsons gazelle, impala, topi (Blue jeans, yellow socks), wildebeest, giraffe, buffalo and eland. As we came close to a row of low hills in order to land, we disturbed a pack of hyenas.  Eventually as the basket was touching down some francolin broke cover and flew away.  Landing was followed by champagne breakfast.  Our companions were all shell shocked to find that Donald Trump was now their president.

Greater FlamingoWe had hoped to see great flocks of flamingo at lake Nakuru.  Unfortunately the water table has changed and more fresh water is flowing into the lake and the flocks have moved Rhino hornto adjacent lakes.  Needless to say we saw a handful of birds, and we got quite close to a pair of white Rhino.  Both rhino species are the same colour.  It is a play on words, White (from the Dutch word “wijd” meaning wide) because they have a wide mouth as opposed to the narrow mouth of the black rhino (for which there is no eponymous Dutch word).

Gorilla in treeCrammy booked us to walk with the chimpanzee troop and to climb up to see a family of Mountain gorillas.  These animals were habituated to the presence of tourists.  However our guide carried an AK47 assault rifle, just in case.  These animals, although shorter in stature are a lot more powerful than us.  I saw two gorillas push over a quite large tree.  The apes with human like expression fussed around in the undergrowth just a few yards from us.  However when their time was done they grew tired and moved away, crashing off through the vegetation.  I felt as though we were intruding into their world.  The truth is however that tourism pays for the maintenance of the national parks and without us they would find themselves without a home.  Farmland encroaches in all directions.

Captured ChameleonOn the way into the mountains, boys had chameleons on sticks to show to tourists.  “These will not survive” explained Crammy.  He instructed Frances to grab the stick and bring it into the car.  Crammy reprimanded the boys and  confiscated the chameleons.  “If I find you doing this again, I will report you to Parks and Wildlife”.  Driving 4 to 5 km down the road.we released them back into the forest

Flying CraneAs we were descending from the mountains, Crammy pulled over on the side of the road for us to photograph some crowned cranes.  “This is the National bird of Uganda, appearing as a logo on official stationary.”  A flock of perhaps two dozen birds had gathered in a field and they were displaying and dancing.  The dance involves synchronized walking and feeding and posturing, neck forward and wings flapping.  We were enthralled, photographing the birds for over 45 minutes.  When we put down our cameras we suddenly realized that we had become the spectacle.  We had attracted a couple of dozen kids, farmers and bystanders who were watching us.  “Mzungu” is the Swahili word for us white people.  Crammy waves at our instant crowd, “Jambo” meaning hello.  He easily entered into conversation with them..

Black Headed GonolekPerhaps the best part of the tour was his passion for the wildlife and the birds in particular.   He was always recruiting people to assist with his conservation efforts and asking about local wildlife. There was an owl man, a butterfly guide, some boys keeping an eye on a swamp for him.  “All of these people may one day be guides.”  He always had something up his sleeve.  There was something special at every luncheon spot or toilet break.   He explained that it all started with just one bird.  I was working in computing and asked a friend to show me some birds.  He showed me the black headed Gonolek.  We had already discovered this bird for ourselves back in the garden in Entebe.  After watching that bird “I was hooked.  I set out to learn a new bird species every day, until I could identify them all.”

Augur BuzzardWe learned a lot from Crammy.  Perhaps too much.  Our second tour guide started deferring to Frances and I when we encountered birds.  “Is that a Tawny Eagle?”  “No I think its an Agur Buzzard.”  “OK.” And we had only been in Africa for 12 days.  I think we saw quite a few birds on the second trip, but only because our interest was piqued.  There is so much more to tell, but I think I will finish here.

Ten Bee-eatersAs I finish, have a look at the diversity of what we saw.  In Australia there is only 1 bee-eater species, the Rainbow bee-eater.  In Africa we saw 10 species. We saw 13 weaver bird species,

Eight Shrikes and Fiscals8 fiscals and Shrikes, 8 sunbirds and so many more.

I don’t think I got great shots of lions or Elephants.  I have nothing to rival the great shots from Helen Whitford several years ago.  I did like the Cheetahs. I must say however, for the fastest land animal on earth they don’t seem to move much do they.

CheetahMy recommendations: Definately contact Avian safaris.  Read “A Guide to the Birds of East Africa”, take a big lens and download the “Birds of East Africa” phone Ap.

James Allan