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

African (or maybe 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

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What will I do today?

Today - Tuesday - we awoke with the 0600 alarm ready for a busy day (for Jenny at least) at Katuuso Primary School.  No power so no coffee to start the day. 

The kids aren’t due for another 3 weeks but most of the teachers (new and old) are busy getting ready for the new year and doing various professional development courses.  Jenny has four training sessions planned and they were all scheduled for tomorrow.  Today she was going to be busy getting this all ready.  We were nearly at the school and I said “What will I do today?”  

I had three choices: 
(i) continue to work on learning to write iPhone/iPad apps, 
(ii) pull together some material for a bird brochure for our friends at Kipling Lodge (to take advantage of their offer of a couple of days free accommodation) or 
(iii) revise the bird family models for the bird book/app project I’ve been working on for the last 5 years.

We arrived to find the head teacher Robert in a flap.  He’d asked our office in Kampala to print 800 exam papers that our kids had done late last year.  The new teachers will be using them to practice marking exams.  Unfortunately Robert had forgotten to ask the office staff to white-out the student names on the originals - against Education Department rules - so he was planning on using gallons of liquid paper to blank out the names.  

“I’ll do it” I said.  Jenny suggested a better solution would be to paste strips of colored paper over the names.  That’s what I did nearly all day with help from Jenny and a couple of other people who wandered into the office.

So who knows what I will be doing tomorrow.  You should never plan too far ahead in Africa!

On a birding note, I also said as we were driving to work “We haven’t seen Scaly Francolin along the road for several months.  It would be nice to get them for 2017”.  Ten minutes later a large bird that clearly found flying difficult did a controlled crash onto the road in front of the car - a Scaly Francolin!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Southern Citril in Uganda

Formerly considered to be a single species the African Citril is now treated as three species - African, Western and Southern.  The Western Citril is found throughout Uganda but the other two are not normally shown to be present here.  I am familiar with the Western Citril as it occurs near our house west of Kampala and was in our garden in Bukoba, Tanzania.

Western Citril (male) from Bukoba, Tanzania
One of the first birds I saw when wandering the grounds of Sipi River Lodge, Mount Elgon Highlands was a Citril - but quite different to the Western Citril.  It was grey rather than black-faced, had a weak, not prominent yellow supercilium and had heavily streaked underparts.  It clearly matched the Southern Citril.  I could find no reference to this species in Uganda so took hundreds of photos to support my claim for a new country species.

Male Southern Citril - Sipi River Lodge, Jan 2017

Male Southern Citril - Sipi River Lodge, Jan 2017

Female Southern Citril - Sipi River Lodge, Jan 2017
Britton's "Birds of East Africa" (1980) considered the original lumped species and stated that ssp. brittoni is "endemic to W Kenya at 1300-2800 m, from Siaya (several localities), Kakamega and Nandi north to Mt Elgon ...".  

It seems reasonable to me that a bird found on Mt. Elgon on the Kenya side would be likely to occur on the Uganda side of the mountain.  

Further research at home led me to a report in the African Bird Club Bulletin 18.2 which states "Also new for the country is Southern Citril Serinus hypostictus, of which at least ten were seen on the slopes of Mount Elgon at Sipi on 5–7 April 2010".

So, my birds are not the first but confirmation that Southern Citril (Crithagra hyposticta brittoni) does occur in Uganda at least near Sipi and the Mount Elgon NP research centre.  It may also occur in the far south west near Bwindi according to one correspondent - Akankwasa Hilary.

Safari - Mount Elgon highlands

From The Nile above Lake Victoria we headed north-east to Sipi village adjacent to Mount Elgon National Park.  What is supposed to be an easy 3 1/2 hour trip took us 5 hours as probably 80% of the roads were being ripped up for resurfacing or had more potholes than tarmac.  Jenny took lots of photos showing some of the conditions we faced on the road.  It will be a great drive in a few months when all is finished.

Bone shaking road humps come in about 5 different flavors.

We had this for 30-40 km.

If it wasn't potholes it was treacherous cliffs where the road edge was eroded.

Then there was the chaos of roadworks for another 50 km.

Mount Elgon is the 8th highest peak in Africa at 4,321 m - not quite high enough for snow apparently.  It is an extinct volcano and has the largest base of any volcano in the world.  It spans the border with Kenya and national parks from both countries share the mountain.  Forest covers the lower levels and they give way to bamboo at around 2,500 m then heathland at 3,000 m and finally moorland at 3,500 m.  A typical summit climb and return takes 4-7 days depending on the route.

We stayed at Sipi River Lodge ( which was set on the bank of the Sipi River and below the famous Sipi Falls.  Very leafy and full of birds.  We stayed in a comfortable banda with shared bathroom facilities.  Mossies are not a problem here so no bed net for the first time in 3 months.  The food was great but too much!

Sipi River Lodge from the waterfall.  Our banda is hidden in the trees on the right.

We had three nights and two full days and spent the first in the national park.  We asked about trail walking for birds and were assigned a compulsory guide - Alex.  Alex was excellent (as all the guides have been so far).  We walked 7 km in about 6 hours.  It’s normally a 2-3 hour walk but Alex was delighted to have birders along and we took our time.  Lots of up, up, up then down, down, down stretched some dormant leg muscles.  We reached the beginning of the bamboo zone.  On the walk I recorded some 58 species including 14 lifers.  I probably missed another 4-5 lifers that Alex saw or heard but I couldn’t get onto.

Northern Double-collared Sunbird

Grey-throated Barbet

Jenny and guide Alex at the top of the forest zone.

On the second day we rested up in the morning and I took lots of photos of birds in the lodge gardens.  In the afternoon we went on a three hour walk up to the second of three Sipi Falls, then through villages and gardens/farms to the main road where we bought some of the famous Sipi district arabica coffee.  The hotel-provided guide Julius was chatty and we learned a lot about village life.  He also found two new chameleons for my photo collection (

The first (lowest) section of Sipi Falls

A nice new house waiting for the finishing mud outer wall.

Sipi Village

Collecting water and washing clothes at the community tap.
Giraffe are rare at this altitude but this one was across the road from our lodge.

Rock Martin roosting near the waterfall.
See for more birds from here and Kipling Lodge

We had planned to drive straight home from Sipi but the roadworks put us off so we broke the journey with an extra, uneventful night in a Jinja guesthouse then had an easy 3 hour drive home from there.  

Today is Thursday and we woke to no power.  It came back on about 0900 so we didn’t have to wait too long for morning coffee (Sipi arabica of course).  Jenny is preparing for work resuming tomorrow and I’m writing this blog and sorting out photos - absolutely not driving anywhere today!


Sipi Lodge and village: 

Southern Citril, Slender-billed Starling, Fan-tailed Raven

Mount Elgon NP: 

Northern Double-collared Sunbird, Grey Cuckooshrike, Yellow-crowned Canary, Olive-breasted Greenbul, Grey Apalis, Stuhlmann’s Starling, Grey-throated Barbet, Montane Nightjar, Black-billed Weaver, Abyssinian Crimsonwing, White-headed Wood Hoopoe, Brown-capped Weaver, Abyssinian Ground Thrush, Black-faced Rufous Warbler