Abyssinian Ground Hornbill

Photo by Sidharth Hariharan

Uganda, a Birder’s Haven

Sudha Subramanian

A New York Times news report claims that the bird population has declined in the past decade. Birds are dropping dead from the sky, and migrations are fluctuating. Climate change is one of the primary factors for this disturbing behavior. Strangely, this is the decade I have begun noticing these feathered friends. This transformation, from a non-birder to an amateur birder, was due to one holiday: a trip to the African continent, the blessed land of wildlife. And here, in central Africa, lies a beautiful country with lakes, mountains, and trees, a country close to my heart—Uganda. 

Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, borders Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa. As we drove from the airport, a murder of pied crows greeted us. Painted storks, or Marabou Storks, perched on rooftops and lamp posts, white cattle egrets hopped on carpeted green grass. As the birds jostled for space with people and skyscrapers, we knew we were in the land where birds ruled the roost.  

We checked into an Airbnb on the outskirts of the city. The place, run by an English couple, boasted a small lake in the backyard. They chatted with us over lunch and casually spoke of the 256 species of birds recorded in the neighborhood. A slice of bread slipped out of my fingers. 256? My small garden patch in Dubai welcomes seven species of birds, including two varieties of pigeons. I rubbed my hands because deep down I still believed 256 wasn’t possible. 

Pied Kingfisher

Photo by Sidharth Hariharan

Pied Kingfisher

Photo by Sidharth Hariharan

We sipped our evening tea, resting our arms on round stone tables with floral motifs. A bird the size of a small dove circled over us. Was it a Kingfisher? We had earlier picked a bird book from the dining hall. And when it called out, we guffawed. It was the Pied Kingfisher, and about seven of them chatted from the tree above. Black-headed weavers chirped happily in a nearby bush, and a beautiful Malachite Kingfisher (that reminded me of the exquisite Kanjeevaram saree from my wedding) sat on a low-lying branch. We could wait no more and took the short trail towards the quiet lake before we held our chest. Two lovely grey crowned cranes dazzled each other with a dance at a distance while a flock of geese was headed someplace in the skies. Our adventure didn’t end there. We were introduced to small flycatchers, a woodpecker that continued to tap on the tree, and another magnificent bird called the plantain eater. With so much action in a single evening, we were ready to explore more of the country to see birds. It was also the same evening I opened a new note on my phone—birds I saw in Uganda.   

Uganda is well connected by roads. Crested Eagles, African Fish Eagles, and black-headed weavers are a common sight. They live alongside humans in absolute harmony. 

African Pied Wagtail

Photo by Sidharth Hariharan

One of Uganda’s famous tourist destinations is the Murchison Falls. The game drives here are beautiful. The night safari under the dark star-lit sky is breathtaking. But the morning game drives are the ones for spotting birds. The lady guide who showed us around reeled out names that I jotted down in my Notes while I took in the sights. One of the most famous birds in the country is the Shoebill Stork. It is a prehistoric-looking bird that can be spotted in swamps. The beak, a strange shoe-shaped one, showed itself up near a watering hole, and it soon became our prized sighting of that morning. There were, of course, others like the Abyssinian hornbill, the oxpeckers, the blue Turacco, the black-headed lapwing, black-headed gonolek that roamed about freely while colorful bee-eaters teased us now and then. And we almost got bored of yellow wagtails, kingfishers, and the African Jacana. We told ourselves that the adventure had just begun. We needed a guide, a sheet with pictures and names to educate us, and we soon found one at the campsite. We spotted every bird on that poster when we cross-checked with the name list we had written down from the game drive. The birder in us had awakened. After two days at Murchison, we decided to head towards another birder’s haven, Semiliki.

Semiliki is a thick tropical forest with tall trees, many bushes, and many insects. Although we walked into the woods with our guide by 7 am, the weather was humid, and the air hung over us like clouds. Grey hornbills called us from atop the trees, and little birds chirped away from nearby bushes. Our guide walked with us with a thick bird book under his arm. Birds responded to his bird calls, and he would turn to us with a smile, rattle out a name and continue to walk. There were palm-nut vultures, grey parrots, tinker birds, red-bellied paradise flycatchers, crested Malimbe, African woodpeckers, and many, many more, and the guide patiently pointed to each bird as we craned our necks to spot them. 

African Fish Eagle

Photo by Sidharth Hariharan

African Fish Eagle

Photo by Sidharth Hariharan

QENP was our next stop. The Queen Elizabeth National Park has the most visitors in Uganda. The park extends from Lake Edward to Lake George, and connecting these two lakes is the Kazinga Channel. For the birder, a boat ride in Kazinga can throw some of the best birding sights. African Fish Eagles perched on low-lying branches, and a bunch of pied kingfishers circled the waters and dived in for their meal, which was a sight to see. The weaver nests along the banks were so low that I worried they would drown if the water level raised. Apart from the usual water birds like the Goliath Heron, terns, sandpiper, cormorants, and plovers, there were pink-backed pelicans and, not to forget, a herd of hippos swimming in the waters.  

One of the most exciting birds for us was the Hammerkop. The bird was our neighbor, staying on a tree in front of our guest room. It is a strange-looking bird with an odd-shaped head. The nest, though, was gigantic (one of the forest officials told us that it could weigh nearly 50 kilos!).

Northern Red Bishop

Photo by Sidharth Hariharan

We continued to explore Uganda armed with a bird book and found some more interesting birds, like the Northern Red Bishop at Ishasha near QENP, and love birds. One thing was sure before the end of the trip: we were officially in love with birding. 

Things to remember:

Uganda is a developing country with a road network at its primitive stage. Many roads are ridden with potholes. So, it takes a while to get from one place to the other.  

Staying at Murchison Falls can be a challenge. Book in advance. There are tents that you can rent for the day, and they are expensive.  

Semiliki does not boast of good forest lodges. The one we stayed in was in bad condition. Also, the birding in this place requires a good pair of binoculars as the whole site is thick with bushes.  

QENP has a forest guest house, which can be booked in advance.  

Throughout the place, food can be a challenge. So, go well-equipped, especially if you are a vegetarian.

Fruits and vegetables are delicious since the produce is organic. Gorge on them as much as possible. The avocados are unbelievable. 

In QENP, if you have the time, drive to Ishasha, the paradise in QENP, where you can see the tree-climbing lions. 

Sudha Subramanian is an independent writer of Indian origin living in Dubai. Her words have found space in many literary magazines, anthologies and newspapers. Sudha loves a good chai and she enjoys watching the birds and butterflies in her garden.

Twitter: @sudhasubraman

Instagram: @sudha_subraman