A birder abroad: Wildlife- and bird-watching in Uganda
My trip to Africa last month was total sensory overload; almost everything there was completely new for me.
When I agreed to a trip with Bird Uganda Safaris, I almost couldn’t believe what they were promising was true: more than 450 bird species and tracking animals like wild chimpanzees and mountain gorillas.
Every day in Uganda, epically beautiful landscapes from the savannah to mist-covered mountains confront you. It truly is the Pearl of Africa. It’s like wandering through an epic movie set. Every day you see wild versions of iconic mammals you may have only seen in a zoo, movie, or book. My brain could comprehend my first wild elephant, and I wowed the crowd in my vehicle with my unrestrained profanity when I realized what was in front of us. Most of the iconic wildlife wanders around your lodges and tents the way white-tailed deer and raccoons wander our yards in the United States.
My lodges had strict rules about where you could walk at night because Cape buffalo, hippopotamuses, and elephants freely roamed the property. These are not the kindly gentle creatures we view in stories and cartoons. No, these animals are content to kill you if you get in their way. But who doesn’t love returning home with stories of a little danger for your friends and family?
The trip gave me so many new and exotic birds, many with overwhelming colors and others with improbable shapes. The shoebill stork was my most desired bird, and we ended up seeing them twice. This bird is sometimes referred to as the “murder stork” on the Internet for its giant bill that resembles a wooden shoe. Sunbirds fill the niche of hummingbirds as they use their thin, curved bills to sip nectar. Larger than hummingbirds, many still have the iridescent feathers like hummingbirds. One night I headed to my tent to sleep, and when I turned on the light, I discovered a scarlet-chested sunbird roosting inside. It’s nice when life-list birds tee up and wait for you like that.
If you start in Entebbe on beautiful Lake Victoria, you can work your way west to Lake Mbarara for giant kingfishers, finfoots, hippos, and African fish eagles. You might find some zebras and waterbucks along the way as well. Then you can head to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the border with DR Congo, for mountain gorillas and elephants.
The gorilla experience is beyond anything you could comprehend in a zoo. Trackers keep track of family groups that are tolerant of humans. You get a guide (who carries a gun in case you’re ambushed by angry elephants) who leads you to the trackers. You have the option of hiring a local port for $20, and they will not only help get you up and down the mountains, but they will carry your equipment. I was nervous about my ability to climb the mountain, but my guide assured me that I was “very portable.”
Once the trackers have the gorillas in a spot in which they are settled and eating, you hike to them. Leave all of your food and water behind, and take only your cameras. You approach the family group and settle in, and the family group can approach you. Several in our group had gorillas touch them as they used us for balance. I was taking photos of young gorillas playing when I felt a pair of warm hands on my rear end and a shove. A female gorilla pushed me out of the way because I was blocking the view of her baby. I had it coming.
As you work your way north along the western border, you can track chimps and watch for leopards and lions. We took a night safari and found nightjars and hyenas while endless stars glowed overhead and a meteorite flashed across.
After two weeks of overwhelming beauty, I was ready to return to Minnesota. I even headed back to my office for a few hours, much to everyone’s surprise. After more than two weeks of incredible, sensory overload beauty, a little taste of the mundane helps restore your bearings.