Home Magazine Issues Aug-Sept 2014 BIRDING KARAMOJA – THE UNDISCOVERED OUTBACK OF UGANDA

Birding Karamoja - Birding in Uganda

By Charlotte Beauvoisin

BIRDING IN KARAMOJA (South of Kidepo Valley National Park)

Magnificent scenery, remarkable tribal cultures, birds and wildlife that you won’t see elsewhere in Uganda, are slowly drawing visitors north.

Karamoja is located to the south of Kidepo Valley National Park in an arid belt of land that runs down from the Ethiopian Highlands into Eastern Tanzania.

The semi-arid plains and thick Acacia bush of Karamoja is interspersed with hills, rocky granite outcrops and mountain ranges. Unlike the rest of Uganda, there are no natural lakes; most of the rivers are seasonal and drain rapidly. Around human habitation, vegetation is severely degraded with short grass and small shrubs or no cover at all. During dry seasons this quickly degrades to dust. All of these factors combine to make the Karamoja a truly unique birding environment.

Wildlife species that are limited to Karamoja and Kidepo include the Ostrich, Cheetah and the lesser and Greater Kudu. Small antelopes like Oribi and Dik-Dik are thriving in Karamoja. Leopards are present in sizable numbers and there is a strong population of Buffalo. Greater Kudu can be found in the Kadam Mountains and in Matheniko. Lesser Kudu have been seen in Matheniko, and in the hills along the Kenyan border from Amudat to Loyoro.

On a recent Karamoja trip, our birding team identified a total of 198 species.Guaranteed bird sightings in Karamoja include Yellow-necked Spur fowl, Red-winged Lark, Black-throated Barbet, Grey-wren Warbler, Yellow-spotted Petronia and Purple Grenadier.

Our itinerary takes in watering points, such as man-made reservoirs, community grazing and agricultural land and ‘buffer zones,’ areas of Thorn Scrub that have deliberately been left to discourage the tribal factions from stealing each other’s cattle!

We take a boat trip on Lake Bisina for a chance to see the Shoebill and Fox’s Weaver, later passing along the edge of Pian Upe. After a bumpy 1-½ hour drive from Soroti, we spot the indigenous Karamoja Apalis and the Black Backed Cisticcola among the mountains and ‘inselbergs’ of Iriri Community Wildlife Area.

Despite their differences, it is common for outsiders to refer to the eleven ethnic groups jointly as ‘Karimojong.’ Leaving Moroto, a Karamojong ‘village communicator’ is our guide for the day, welcoming us to his Manyatta and nomadic way of life.

March/April visits offer the chance to see transit migrants and Karamoja Specials, birds that range from ‘generally uncommon’ to ‘distinctly scarce in Uganda’, according to Nature Uganda and The Bird Atlas of Uganda.  They include: Buff-crested Bustard, Grey-wren Warbler, Magpie Starling, Mouse-coloured Penduline-Tit, Purple Grenadier, Red-winged Lark, Steel-blue Whydah, Straw-tailed Whydah, Taita Fiscal, Three-streaked Tchagra, White-bellied Canary and Yellow-necked Spur fowl.

In this rarely visited part of Uganda, first bird sightings are entirely possible for the keen birder. There is no guarantee you will see all these birds but hiring a specialist Karamoja bird guide gives you a distinct advantage. 

WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT BIRDS?

Every species on earth has a function – can you imagine how much rubbish would be lying on Kampala’s streets without the giant Marabou Storks? The long curved beak of the Hadada Ibis probes your lawn for worms, helping aerate and thus improve your grass. Birds also help with the pollination process, spreading pollen and fertilising flowers as they move from plant to plant.

Birds’ uses are many, not only to us humans but also to every other plant and animal too. Every species depends on every other for its survival. Every species has its value and demands us to protect it.

For me birds are a real wonder and a thing of beauty. The flap of the Great Blue Turaco’s wings flying across the road ahead can transform a boring long car journey.

Believe it or not, some of my best bird sightings have been in abattoirs and sewage ponds in and around Kampala! So you don’t have to travel far, nor do you have to spend much money to enjoy Uganda’s spectacular birdlife.

Birds teach me to live in the moment.

For birders, Uganda is ‘the birding mecca’ of Africa. Our tiny country is home to over 1000 bird species, almost 50% of Africa\’s bird species. In addition to the 1000+ species that are resident in the Pearl of Africa, did you know there are hundreds more bird species that pass through the country twice a year? Millions of birds fly over Uganda to make the most of hot summers in South Africa and warm summers in Northern Europe. These visiting birds represent millions of opportunities for us to appreciate and learn more about our feathered friends, host tourists, train bird guides, develop itineraries, photograph birds, build lodges and so on. Birding tourism will be BIG news in Uganda in the future.

BIG BIRDING DAY UGANDA

Uganda’s Big Birding Day is the ideal opportunity for Ugandan residents to connect with this highly prized heritage.

The general public is invited to all these FREE Big Birding Day events:
  • Thursday Nov 27 – BBD Launch. Inspiring talks about birding & flag off the birding teams from the Uganda Museum.
  • Saturday Nov 29 – BBD 24 Hour Race across Uganda! Register with Nature Uganda or Uganda Wildlife Authority in advance.
  • Saturday Dec 5 – Big Birding Festival, Kampala

 Big Birding Day – A series of fun conservation events across Uganda: Thursday / Saturday November 27/29th and Saturday December 5th

Every year families, individuals, conservationists and the tourism industry come together to celebrate Uganda’s Big Birding Day (BBD), a series of three exciting events celebrating birds.

Whether you are young or old, an amateur or a professional ‘twitcher,’ Big Birding Day has something for everyone. If you’re competitive, you might like to join one of the teams of professional birdwatchers looking to improve on last year’s incredible score of 275 bird species seen in one 24hour period in Mt. Elgon National Park.

FREE PARK ENTRY! Thanks to UWA and NFA, Big Birding Day participants can get FREE ENTRY into Uganda’s National Parks, Wildlife Reserves and Forest Reserves on Big Birding Day November 29th – but, you MUST register your team before you go.

 

Big Birding Day includes free-guided nature walks at dozens of sites across Uganda. Expert bird guides from NatureUganda membership, UWA staff and Uganda Bird Guides Club lead participants in the main event, a 24hour bird watching contest.

After the BBD race, Nature Uganda and UWA’s tally centre will verify the participating teams’ records. (Note: spotting a domestic chicken will be disqualified from your results sheet!)

The results are announced – and the best birding teams recognised – at the Big Birding Festival ceremony on Saturday December 5, the climax of the events. A morning bird walk, entertainment, conservation-related kids’ activities are all part of the fun.

Bigger and better every year, Big Birding Day 2013 recorded:

  • The highest number of birds ever: a total of 708 species.
  • The winning team identified 275 bird species within 24 hours
  • The highest number of birding teams ever – 73 across the country.

Help us make Big Birding Day 2014 the BIGGEST BIRDING DAY yet! 

Companies are welcome to sponsor the event. For birding tourism to grow, there are many opportunities to sponsor bird guide training, provide binoculars and bird books, cut walking trails and provide basic infrastructure like shelters and hides. If your lodge or travel business would like to take part in Big Birding Day, why not put together your own team?

Registration is free. To participate in BBD please Register with Nature Uganda, Plot 1 Katalima Crescent, Naguru. Tel: (041) 4540719Email: bbd@natureuganda.org. Website: www.natureuganda.orgTwitter: @NatureUganda. FB: www.facebook.com/NatureUganda You can also register for BBD with UWA, Email: info@ugandawildlife.org, Tel: (041) 4355000 or at all National Parks and Wildlife Reserves. Uganda Tourism Board www.visituganda.com

 Searching for the Shoebill at Mabamba Swamp… What is it like to take part in the Big Birding Day race?

On the shores of Lake Victoria about 50 km west of Kampala lie the vast swamps of Mabamba, one of the few remaining swamps protected by the local communities.

Classified as an Important Bird Area, Mabamba Bay is home to Uganda\’s most famous bird, the iconic Shoebill. Would our team get lucky and see one?

A couple of rickety-looking boats greet us on the edge of Mabamba Swamp.  With giggles of excitement, the Big Birding Day teams head off into the Papyrus. Two Crested Cranes fly overhead. It’s like a statement:  you have officially landed in Uganda’s wetlands.

All around us is vibrant green, dotted with shimmering, purple water lilies. Now I know why I got up so early: the cool morning mist rises from the crystal-clear water of the swamp.

The spluttering of the diesel engine breaks the morning peace. (I would prefer to be paddled by hand but it seems the local birdlife is used to the coughing of the engine, even if I’m not).

A vibrant blue and orange Malachite Kingfisher poses delicately on a Papyrus stem as our boat pushes through the vegetation.

I spot a Northern Brown throated Weaver (pale brown with an orange beak) at the base of some reeds. (I can’t say I know exactly what it is, but I’m the first to spot it! You see, you don’t need to be an expert, just have your eyes peeled and quickly point out the moving blocks of colour to your more knowledgeable teammates).

The narrow waterways cutting through the swamp allow one, maximum two, narrow boats to pass. This place is undeniably special. Travelling in a low-lying boat means you are at eye-level with so many of the birds at the water’s edge. It’s magic. (How have I not had this experience before?) We spot a Yellow-billed Duck in flight, an Squacco Heron amongst the reeds, and several Long-toed Lapwings, just a number of the iconic wetland birds you can see at Mabamba.

The narrow labyrinth of channels opens out into a wide freshwater lagoon. Everyone in the boat stands up as we spot our Shoebill, a dark grey, funny looking character standing an impressive five feet tall. A cross between a Stork and a Pelican, this prehistoric-looking bird dines on a menu of lungfish and frogs. Oh yum!

A pair of magnificent Blue-breasted Bee-eaters entertain us, while the Shoebill looks on, seriously, just ten or so metres from our boat. The Shoebill moves his head from side to side as our Mabamba guide educates us about this fascinating bird. There are just two or three pairs of Shoebills breeding in Mabamba, all under the watchful eye of the local community.

We look in vain for the Lesser Jacana, to the disappointment of our guide, who has a mental checklist of the birds he has hoped to record for Big Birding Day.  Birds we do spot include Pink-backed Pelican, Saddle-billed Stork, African Fish Eagle, Purple Swamphen, Giant Kingfisher, Swamp Flycatcher and Weynn\’s Weaver.

There is no protection from the sun when you are out on the water. By 11 o’clock, it’s getting hot. Cue: return to land, for a soda and a chapatti from the resident snack stall. Refreshed, and with the Big Birding Day clock ticking, the competitive streak kicks in again and the Big Birding Day team marches uphill towards some tall trees. En route we add a Fan-tailed Widowbird to our list.

Leaving Mabamba are a series of smaller Papyrus Swamps where it’s possible to see locally occurring ‘endemic species’ such as Papyrus Gonolek, White-winged Warbler and Carruther’s Cisticcola.

With a score of 114 species identified during Big Birding Day 2013, our Mabamba team ranked a decent 9th out of 73 participating teams. Not bad!

For birding adventures, one-day tours or birding itineraries, please contact:

Diary of a Muzungu | Uganda travel blog www.diaryofamuzungu.com Twitter: @CharlieBeau | Charlotte on Mobile: +256 774 802319 / +256 758 802319.

Sightings of the Shoebill and other birds are not guaranteed. It is nature after all!

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