Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Mpanga Forest visit - a few recent bird photos and a new monkey

We had a Sunday afternoon in Mpanga Forest recently.  

We drove through a thunderstorm to get there and there was still nearby - rumbling as we set off on the trail.  It gradually moved away however and we had a good 3 hour walk.  I don’t think we saw a bird for the first hour (but plenty of butterflies) then the activity slowly picked up and we eventually recorded 21 species.  The lowlight was African Emerald Cuckoos calling in several locations.  I’ve heard these in Minziro Forest and Arusha National Park in Tanzania and now Mpanga Forest but I still haven’t seen one.  The highlight was a pair of Fire-crested Alethe - a small robin-type bird that skulks in the dense undergrowth.  Another highlight was meeting Herbert Byahurunga.  Herbert is a birding legend here with his own tour company (Bird Uganda Safaris - www.birduganda.com).  He is tireless in promoting Uganda to international birders and has been most active in developing the skills of women bird guides.  He has visited the USA and Europe but was recently rejected for a visa for Australia.

Fire-crested Alethe

Some of my recent bird photos are on my Flickr account at:

All taken at the two School for Life campuses.

Finally - at SFL Mbazi Riverside yesterday I managed to see one of the monkeys that live in the tiny remnant swamp forest patch the school owns.  They are Grey-cheeked Mangabeys - normally a primary forest species.  Apparently they are in Mpanga but we haven’t seen them there.  Our school population is marooned on a tiny island!  How can we ensure their continued survival?

Those red eyes are amazing!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Wood Warbler and a Kipling Lodge getaway

On Friday I photographed a small Warbler in trees below Katuuso school.  I thought it was a Willow Warbler but the photos later showed it to be a Wood Warbler - a European migrant to East Africa but not at all common.  I think there were three or four present.  A nice bonus lifer - especially since they will be leaving soon to head back to Europe.

Wood Warbler

Wood Warbler

We stayed at Kipling Lodge back in early January and decided to have another night there last weekend.  It is a 3 hour drive if you don’t get lost (as we did for a while).  We had from late morning on Saturday to early afternoon on Sunday.  It was good to see them busy as it is a new lodge and they are trying to grow the business.  As before, the food was excellent, the Nile was flowing fast, Jenny enjoyed the pool and I saw plenty of birds. 

The bird highlight was my first Great Reed Warbler.  These are migrants from their breeding range in Europe and are one of several very similar species.  Good views/photos are essential for identifying these and they rarely come out of dense cover to give you a good look.  Fortunately the two birds present were calling through the day and I was able to compare calls with recordings I had of the various species - only Great Reed Warbler was a match.  My photo attempts were of little use for identification purposes.

I did manage some nice photos of several species and the total bird list for the lodge is now 96.  I will give Alex and Sandra - the owners - some of my photos to use in their promotional material.

Eastern Plantain-eater

Woodland Kingfisher

African Pied Wagtail

Spot-flanked Barbet

Long-crested Eagle

Bronze Mannikin

Thick-billed Weaver

Great Reed Warbler

Pin-tailed Whydah

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Bed buying, rain, birds - and a cautionary tale

We went shopping for a guest bed on Saturday.  Lots of carpenters along the highway make beds - essentially the same design - so buying one is simply a matter of driving and finding one that looks finished.  We found one on Saturday morning that needed an hour of work to be finished according to the carpenter.  Fine.  We paid a deposit and agreed that we would be back at 3pm.  At 3pm we returned and nothing had been done to the bed.  The chap was confused - “You want it now?.  OK 20 mins”.  So we sat in the car and listened to the radio for 2 full hours before our bed was finally ready.

This is a typical experience.  Somehow the communication is just wonky and the two partners in the deal have a completely different understanding of the arrangements.  What did this chap think was happening at 3pm?  When was he expecting us?  Why did he tell us the work would take an hour, then 20 mins, when it actually took 2 hours?

Oh well.  We now have a nice bed all ready for guests.

After a prolonged period with virtually no rain since Christmas we have had some heavy falls in recent days.  There was a map in one of the national papers last week that showed big chunks of the country under drought and food shortages.  Hopefully the wet season that is about to begin will be at least average and well distributed across the region.  I’m planning to bring a rain gauge back from Australia when we visit in a few weeks.  I’ll set it up here at Katuuso somewhere and the science teacher can monitor and chart the daily rainfall.  At the moment the dust has gone and the mud has yet to appear so driving on the gravel roads is as good as it gets.

My patch at school continues to deliver with new birds every day.  Last week I added Red-headed Lovebird, Diederik Cuckoo, Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher, African Yellow White-eye, Afep Pigeon, Garden Warbler, Grey-headed Nigrita, Black-throated Canary, Red-chested Cuckoo, Tambourine Dove, Thick-billed Cuckoo, White-browed Scrub Robin, European Honey Buzzard and Speckled Tinkerbird.  Some of these are forest species probably wandering due to the dry conditions.  With the rain coming I expect they will return to the forests but other species might arrive.  Lots of birds are always on the move in Africa and the Eurasian migrants leave in March-April.

We’ve had a professional videographer volunteering from Australia with us recently.  Liam has shot and edited a number of  promotional videos for School for Life.  An example of his work showing new kids on their first day at one of our schools is online at https://vimeo.com/204991194.  Unfortunately his laptop with much of his video work plus other irreplaceable photos etc. was stolen in a restaurant in Kampala last week.  

What is your backup strategy?

Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Miscellaneous jottings

All the children came back to school last week so we have been busy with school stuff and mostly trying to keep out of the way while everything settles down.  So no theme for this post - just some miscellany.

We pulled into Don’s service station in Lyantonde for fuel on the way home from Lake Mburo on Sunday.  It feels like the 1950s here sometimes and a good example is the service station.  Each pump has 2-3 attendants who wave you in, fuel you up, do your windscreens, check the oil etc.  At Don’s the woman filling the tank teased me about putting diesel in and we had a bet about how much a full tank would cost.  Several of the others came over for a chat (“where are you from?  where have you been? where are you going?) and Jenny decided that she would take a photo of them (and me) in their Don uniforms.  They were good fun!  This is an example of the little things that happen that make us glad we came.

Check out the fuel price - 3440 UGX for Unleaded is $1.25/l Australian.  What is it in Hamilton at the moment I wonder?

My birding spot at school continues to be productive even though the kids are back.  I spend an hour down there each morning - mostly concentrating my attention on one particular small tree.  I don’t know what species it is but it is possibly a remnant from the original forest.  In any case, every bird passing through seems to pop into it for a while and I have had some exciting species.  Best was Honeyguide Greenbul (a lifer) but I’ve also had Plain and Slender-Billed Greenbuls, Red-headed Malimbe, Yellow-spotted and Double-toothed Barbets and Olive Sunbird.  Every day something new!

Yellow-spotted Barbet
Red-headed Malimbe
Plain Greenbul
Olive Sunbird
Woodland Kingfisher
Double-toothed Barbet
Honeyguide Greenbul

We have had our compound to ourselves for 3 months but now we have neighbours.  Last week a woman with a house girl moved in to #1 (we are in #2).  So far we haven’t seen or heard much of them and they don’t seem to have a car.  Then today a family have moved into #3.  Mum, Dad and 3 boys.  It will be good to have people in the compound for security but we have enjoyed the peace - hopefully that won’t be affected too much.

We also had a visit from some of the neighborhood goats a few nights ago.  I think Askari Richard was wondering if he could get them to eat the grass but not the trees.  They haven’t been back.

Some of the children (and a couple of teachers) had fun with a big parachute thing.

Science Teacher Godfrey (my favorite teacher) was thrilled to receive his new laptop on Monday from the science faculty at Jenny’s old school Baimbridge College in Hamilton.  I have lots of sciency documentaries that I am slowly introducing him to.  He will be a critical thinker by the time I have finished with him.  He is loving the first series of Cosmos!

CEO Annabelle (centre) with Teacher Emily and Teacher Jenny on Wednesday showing they haven’t lost their primary school skills - preparing some signs for a photoshoot of the new truck School For Life has bought with a generous donation.

On Friday our car was used to teach the P5 class all the parts of a car (part of the English course).  It had all the necessary bits.

Saturday we drove into Kampala for supplies and to pay a deposit on a lodge booking (for gorilla tracking).  Some insane drivers - imagine a very busy roundabout where no-one ever gives way.  I used my horn at one point - very rare for me.

Today we had plans to buy a guest bed but we just couldn’t be bothered!  We stayed home, made bread and pumpkin soup and did some cleaning.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Two trips to Kampala, a breakdown and a visit to Lake Mburo NP.

We’ve packed quite a bit into the last week before the kids return to start the school year.  Monday and Tuesday saw us visiting both schools.  The School for Life founder/CEO Annabelle Chauncy is visiting from Sydney to rally the troops and check on progress at the Mbazi secondary school.  We met up with her initially at Mbazi where the highlight was when the school mascot Gaby - a dachshund - caught and efficiently killed a rat in one of the classrooms that was being cleaned.

We have had the exciting news that our Hamilton friends Rob and Lou have booked their flights and will be visiting us in June-July for 3 weeks.  Top of Lou’s requests was to go Gorilla tracking so I have made enquiries on how to organise that and started thinking about an itinerary that combines great birding, accommodation, food, other wildlife and the best road conditions Uganda has to offer.

On Wednesday we packed an overnight bag and headed into Kampala for a couple of days.  Jenny had meetings with the office staff and Annabelle and had lots of printing to do.  Later we went to the National Parks office and enquired about Gorilla permits.  We also sent our car off with Bosco for a service.  

On Wednesday evening we all went out to a Korean restaurant.  We have three new Aussie volunteers so it was a chance to get to know them socially as well.  We see many funny signs in our travels (Tick Flavour Restaurant, Pearl of Africa Pork Joint, Plan B Lodge etc.) but can seldom get a photo.  I am therefore pleased to share these from our menu in the Korean restaurant:

On Thursday we returned to the NP office to buy our gorilla permits.  They cost a lot of money but everyone we speak to who has done it says it is worth every cent.  Some more office work then we drove home to pack for our weekend in Lake Mburo NP.

Friday morning we left at 0700 to get to Rwakobo Lodge for lunch.  Five minutes from home the car spluttered a bit then stopped.  It felt like a running out of petrol scenario - but we had nearly a full tank.  We sat on the side of the road, called Bosco, waited then tried the car again after maybe 20 mins and it started.  Off we went again.  Five minutes later we were stopped again.  A chap passing by on his motorbike went to the nearby town and came back with a mechanic.  The mechanic removed our alternator.  Then Bosco rang to say his mechanic was on the way from Kampala so we sent the local chap away.  

Bosco’s mate arrived with two apprentices - think Speedy Motors in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels.  They blew some dust out of the alternator, refitted it, and tightened a belt or two.  The car started and ran as normal as we followed them back into now mid-morning traffic in Kampala.  Eventually we arrived at the workshop.  This is an open air yard where about 30 different specialist mechanics worked on cars in absolute chaos.  Our alternator was taken away and tested while the apprentices poked at battery terminals and adjusted more belts.  Some fault was found with the alternator and fixed (apparently).  It was replaced and we were assured that we could happily proceed to Lake Mburo (200 km) and get home again.  So off we went - into the worst traffic jam we have seen in Kampala.  It took 45 mins to travel maybe 1 km up a hill.  After that it was relatively plain sailing however and 6 hours after breaking down we drove past where we had been stranded.

Lake Mburo NP is a wonderful place despite having only a fraction of the big mammals of other parks.  Its closeness to Kampala means that it is much visited by birders and has a bigger list than any of the other parks (over 600 species).  It combines grassland, with acacia woodland, more densely wooded hills, and several lakes including Mburo with extensive papyrus reed beds. A good network of gravel tracks covers the park.

We have stayed at Mihingo Lodge twice and it is superb.  This time we thought we’d try another highly rated but less expensive lodge - Rwakobo Rock.  It was also superb with great rooms, food and a swimming pool.  I think the birding is better around this lodge than at Mihingo also but there isn’t much in it.  There are other lodges and more budget options of course.

We spent the whole of Saturday in the park - only returning to the lodge for lunch.  We drove Eland, Ruroko and Research Tracks mainly and saw many birds and all the big mammals except the recently reintroduced giraffes.  We didn’t go near the lakes so our bird list lacks a large number of potential waterbird species.  

The loss of elephants some years ago has seen the acacia woodlands in particular thickening up meaning less grassland and meaning grazing animals wander out of the park into cattle country.  In an attempt to fix this 15 giraffes were introduced in July 2015.  These are still here but are rarely seen by tourists.  “Did you see the giraffes?” is a common question of people returning from a park drive.  We think the giraffes are not making much impact on the acacias so maybe elephants will need to be reintroduced.

Sunday we slept in, had a full, leisurely breakfast then birded around the lodge for a couple of hours before heading home without any further car incidents.  The trip is a comfortable 4 hours on a good bitumen highway.

All up we saw about 95 bird species with two still to be identified from photographs.  The highlight was a new species for me - the Grasshopper Buzzard.  This was a young bird (immature plumage) that sat on the road and posed well for photos.

Heads down now for 6 weeks of full-on school stuff until we head home for a few weeks.  Looking forward to that!

Little Bee-eater

African Green Pigeon

Ring-necked Dove

Grasshopper Buzzard

Nubian Woodpecker

Wood Sandpiper

Common Cuckoo

Lesser Masked Weaver

Barn Swallow

African Grey Hornbill

Chinspot Batis

Rüppell's Starling

Black-headed Gonolek

Meyer's Parrot

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A few birds from Katuuso Primary School

No proper birding of late but I’m always looking of course.

Katuuso school is so quiet at the moment that I can hear interesting calls.  Yesterday I was attracted out of the office by a ‘different’ Starling call.  The standard Starling here is the Splendid and they have easy to recognize calls and pale yellow eyes.  I managed to chase two Starlings away but a third lingered long enough for me to see a glossy starling with deep orange-red eyes and to get a couple of photos.  

The field guide app I have showed no Starling with such eyes but the only possibilities were Greater Blue-eared, Purple or Bronze-tailed.  My photos weren’t showing much of the bird’s body so subtle differences in tail and belly colouration weren’t any help.  A Google image search for each species leads me to the conclusion that my bird was a Bronze-tailed Starling but I can't rule out Greater Blue-eared.  Here is the bird in question compared with a Splendid Starling taken nearby today:

Bronze-tailed Starling or Greater Blue-eared Starling?

Splendid Starling

This morning I wandered to the same area to see if I could find the birds again.  No luck but I kept walking and eventually found some remnant forest trees amid vegetable/banana plots that held some interesting birds.  I was able to add African Blue Flycatcher, Violet-backed Starling, Olive-bellied Sunbird, Woodland Kingfisher, Grey Parrot, White-headed Saw-wing, Little Greenbul and Tree Pipit to the school list and managed to get a few decent photos of some.  I’m (almost) particularly pleased with the Sunbird.  It would have been easily the best Sunbird photo I’ve taken - if only it’s head and bill were fully in shot!

So here are some birds I've seen and photographed in the last week - mostly today - and all at Katuuso PS.

Olive-bellied Sunbird
Violet-backed Starling
Northern Grey-headed Sparrow
Crowned Hornbill
Red-billed Firefinch
Great Blue Turaco
Tree Pipit
White-shouldered Black Tit