Birding Lake Mburo National Park

After we saw the shoebill, I felt a weight come off of me in Uganda. I really, really wanted to see that bird. Of course I wanted to see many things, but that was the number one hope and Bird Uganda Safaris delivered. Even though my first look was at a distance I truly felt that I could really enjoy anything and everything because I saw my most wanted and didn’t have to stress if I would go home without it. It’s weird to pin so much hope on one species.

Leaving Mabamba wetlands we saw several trucks with fish attached to the Grill. Herbert told us that people put it there to keep it cool and fresh on the drive home. We asked if it worked and he said, “When I tried it, all I had was fish covered in insects and I never did it again.”

Leaving Mabamba wetlands we saw several trucks with fish attached to the Grill. Herbert told us that people put it there to keep it cool and fresh on the drive home. We asked if it worked and he said, “When I tried it, all I had was fish covered in insects and I never did it again.”

 After the shoebill swamp we headed to Lake Mburo National Park where would stay at a Mantana Tented Camp. I wasn’t sure what the meant, but it sounded like an adventure. Along the way we would spot many birds and a few mammals. It was overwhelming because early on a bird trip everything is new and most likely a lifer, you’re not sure which species are going to be the common ones you see everywhere and which ones will be harder and that’s your one chance. Our guides Herbert and Davis from Bird Uganda Safaris also had the challenge of keeping us to schedule, but delighting in all of the things we were enjoying. But when we would stop for bathroom breaks we would always get fun birds.

Lesser blue-eared starling coughing up an undigestible seed seen on a bathroom stop.

Lesser blue-eared starling coughing up an undigestible seed seen on a bathroom stop.

Darkness descended as we entered Lake Mburo National Park and though we couldn’t see the landscape well we saw some mammals in our headlights. This park was where we got our first iconic African mammals like cape buffalo and zebras. When we arrived at the lodge, travel weary and hungry they gave us our keys and the rules of the tented camp. The biggest rule was that you were not allowed to leave your tent and walk the grounds without an escort. Not because you might be eaten by leopard, but because cape buffalo wander the grounds and if you surprise them you would be trampled. You can schedule staff to pick you up and there’s even a whistle in your tent in case you need help immediately. You blow on that and staff come running.

My porter carried my 50 pound suitcase on his head and with flashlights in hand we took the gravel trail to my tent. He showed me how to use the shower—I would schedule a time with him to fill the bucket with warm water and I’d have about 5 minutes to get clean. He also offered to spray my room with insecticide while I was at dinner for extra mosquito protection. I arranged for him to pick me up in twenty minutes and began to unpack. I suddenly heard a chirping noise and assumed it was a house gecko. Then I heard some fluttering.

Scarlet-chested sunbird.jpg

To my surprise and delight, I had a lifer scarlet-chested sunbird in my bathroom. I think the bird had been roosting and my activity in the tent woke it up. It soon found a gap and flew out into the night. There were no outlets in my tent, though there were lights. Anything that I needed to charge, I would only be able to charge in the main lodge. At night I would plug in external batteries at the lodge to use the next day. I’d use my laptop to charge my phone. During the day I’d leave my laptop in the main lodge to charge.

The lodge charging station…at a slow time.

The lodge charging station…at a slow time.

 During dinner we could order from the bar and we were served three course meals of soup, a main dish like chicken and rice and a dessert. Bats would zoom in and out of the darkness while we ate and discussed the next day’s itinerary. The hotel manager came by and asked if we would like to arrange a wake up call—if you’re phone was changing, you needed some type of alarm. We also had the option of getting our wake up call with fresh coffee or tea. I arranged for my wake up call with coffee and a fill up of warm water for the shower.

I love an alarm that comes with fresh coffee.

I love an alarm that comes with fresh coffee.

I was so overwhelmed by the beauty and fun of the day that I fell asleep on my very firm mattress as soon as my head hit the pillow while crickets sang around me. At about 4am some snorting outside my tent woke me up. It didn’t sound like angry snorting and I assumed they were some kind of wild boar and fell asleep. Two hours later my wake up call arrived with coffee and biscuits. What a treat! He ten filled my bucket with warm water. I opened the valve to get good and wet before shutting it off, lathered my hair with shampoo and my body with soap. I opened the valve again to rinse and shut it off. I added some conditioner to my hair and opened the valve until the water ran out and I was perfectly rinsed. It was an ideal shower.

Freshly showered and caffeinated I absorbed my view over dawn.

Freshly showered and caffeinated I absorbed my view over dawn.

I finally got a look at the outside of my room as I left for breakfast.

I finally got a look at the outside of my room as I left for breakfast.

 I stood on my deck and watched the sun reveal the majestic landscape around me as I sipped rich coffee. All around me birdcalls filled the air. I love being in a country and listening to people speak in languages I’m not familiar with. I don’t enjoy that so much with birds. I want to know who the all are.

 I got dressed and packed up my daily birding gear and made my way towards the main lodge. When I arrived a green-headed sunbird was fighting its reflection in one of the mirrors and adorable mousebirds were teed up. The expansive lush landscape was filled with new birds. We wanted to eat breakfast but so many birds were popping up and we had to see them all. It’s one of my favorite feelings, surrounded colorful landscapes and birds and being surrounded by fruit and coffee. Herbert kept us on task because we had a boat to catch, he made us finish our breakfasts and load up in the vehicles.

Speckled mousebirds tempting us away from our breakfasts.

Speckled mousebirds tempting us away from our breakfasts.

Yellow-fronted tinkerbird outside our vehicles.

Yellow-fronted tinkerbird outside our vehicles.

Zebras on our commute.

Zebras on our commute.

Rüppell's long-tailed starling adding material to a nesting cavity near the boat launch.

Rüppell's long-tailed starling adding material to a nesting cavity near the boat launch.

Warthog with a yellow wagtail.

Warthog with a yellow wagtail.

When we arrived at the boat launch, the sun was shining and the air was warming up. We had some time and while I lathered on more sunscreen, we got our fist looks at warthogs. I had no idea they were so cuddly with each other and that hey had to kneel with their front legs to eat vegetation! I made sure to take some video for Non Birding Bill (above). Barbets, starlings and swallows surrounded and delighted us. And then it was time to board.

 I give a lot of boat programs in the US and personal floatation devices are mandatory. I have comfortable ones that were made specifically for women (thank you PFDiva). Personal floatation devices weren’t offered at Mabamba wetlands in our canoe but they were given to us for Lake Mburo. The PFDs we were offered the worst kind too—uncomfortable, ill-fitting and bulky. I decided to test the waters to see how hard they would enforce them. If a PFD doesn’t fit you properly they can be more of a hindrance in water than a life saving system. The boat captain strongly urged, but didn’t push it so I kept mine next to me. I was wondering if I should have made room in my suitcase for my personal PFD since we had so many boat trips in Uganda.

The boats we would take to explore Lake Mburo.

The boats we would take to explore Lake Mburo.

We explored the lake where we were dazzled by African fish eagles, malachite and pied kingfishers and African marsh-harried. Then I spotted my first hippo and forgot about birds. First there was one hippo in the middle of the lake… then they took us to a herd or bloat of hippos (how’s that for a collective noun).

All those lumps are a crash of hippos (another collective noun) on Lake Mburo.

All those lumps are a crash of hippos (another collective noun) on Lake Mburo.

A hippo contemplates if it can kill me as I digiscope it with my Swarovski ATX 65mm scope and iPhone X with a PhoneSkope adapter.

A hippo contemplates if it can kill me as I digiscope it with my Swarovski ATX 65mm scope and iPhone X with a PhoneSkope adapter.

If you watch Fiona videos you get the impression they are delightful creatures who want to splash around with us and get chin scratches. In the wild they are far more menacing and really want to kill anything that gets too close. We watched their faces and backs just break the surface and were surprised at how much they reminded us of whales with air blowing out of the water…from either end of the hippo. I watched people kayak this lake and as much as I love kayaking, I’d never kayak anyplace there were hippos.

Hippo poop!

Hippo poop!

Part rail, part cool with a little bit of duck thrown in. This secretive bird is a finfoot.

Part rail, part cool with a little bit of duck thrown in. This secretive bird is a finfoot.

As we cruised along the shore we found more secretive birds like white-backed night-heron, finfoot and giant kingfisher--check the eBird list for Michael O’Brien’s photo of the kingfisher. Imagine seeing a kingfisher that is the size of a crow. I almost wet myself.

As we kept near the shore we did find a common sandpiper bobbing on top of a rock near another finfoot. As we approached the finfoot the rock burst out of the water to reveal they were in fact a couple of hippos who were not happy with us. The boat backed up immediately and we survived.

I was taking a picture just as the “rocks” started to move.

I was taking a picture just as the “rocks” started to move.

The hippos running amuk when we unknowingly got too close. Not digiscoped. Yikes.

The hippos running amuk when we unknowingly got too close. Not digiscoped. Yikes.

Water thick-knees were all along the shore of the lake.

Water thick-knees were all along the shore of the lake.

And in case anyone asks, yes I did see the fish eagle.

And in case anyone asks, yes I did see the fish eagle.

The view from my safari vehicle with another not far behind.

The view from my safari vehicle with another not far behind.

 We returned to land and explored more of the park both on foot and in our safari vehicles. Below are more photos of birds and animals we saw during our stay there. You can see our full eBird list an even more photos of Lake Mburo here. Our eBird lists for Mantana Tented Camp are here and here. And the lists from driving around the park are here, here and here.

A herd of impala chilling in the shade on the side of the road.

A herd of impala chilling in the shade on the side of the road.

Digiscoped image of the male impala’s head taken from our safari vehicle.

Digiscoped image of the male impala’s head taken from our safari vehicle.

Broad-billed roller digiscoped from the vehicle.

Broad-billed roller digiscoped from the vehicle.

Crested francolin.

Crested francolin.

Red-necked francolin

Red-necked francolin

Spot-flanked barbet.

Spot-flanked barbet.

African pied wagtail looking for tasty morsels inside warthog noses. Ew.

African pied wagtail looking for tasty morsels inside warthog noses. Ew.

Madagascar bee-eater.

Madagascar bee-eater.

Red-chested cuckoo.

Red-chested cuckoo.

Pygmy mongoose trying to assess if it could kill me and eat me.

Pygmy mongoose trying to assess if it could kill me and eat me.