My Maiden City Birding Expedition: The Start of a Whole New Journey of Adventure!

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The Black Headed Heron, one of the highlights of our birding excursion 

It’s 7:47AM on a Saturday morning of Oct 10, 2015 and I am already in Entebbe waiting for my birding partner and guide, a very experienced and passionate birder – Samuel Rukundo – who is also the Founder of The City Birder. I will talk more about him in a separate article. In the meantime, as I buy a few minutes waiting for my guide to arrive, I check out the newly opened, gothic and state-of-the-art, Victoria Mall. I had been looking for an opportunity to visit and it could never have presented itself in a better way. With fewer stores already open and very cool western gospel songs playing from the dotted speakers in the high ceilings, it seems like a beautiful Sunday morning. I pick my coffee at Café Javas (whose service is unmatched) and trot up and down the grand staircases as I explore the beautiful structure. Standing on one the many balconies, I look down the botanical gardens, the trees are standing tall, the flowers are blossoming, and the beautiful lyrics of myriads of birds are almost outcompeting the calm in-house music from the high ceilings, it’s an awesome ‘jaribu’ for my would-be exciting birding excursion.

I soon move out of the mall to join my guide at the mall gate, he’s first of all impressed that I could make it earlier than him after traveling from Kampala and he lives within Entebbe. But I quickly remind him of the saying in my language that simply translates ‘where your heart slept, the legs go there at dawn’. He’s very excited at my commitment and the fact that he could finally meet someone who truly shares his passion.

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My guide, Samuel Rukundo of The City Birder, posing with what he considers one of his most valuable items – Birds of East Africa by Terry Stevenson & John Fanshawe 

8:24am: Right on one of the homesteads across Victoria Mall on Berkeley Road, is a pair of African Pied Crow (Ekikoona) on a pole next to the main house. Our birding excursion has officially started! My guide quickly tells me that the crows are some of the birds that pair for life. So one was possibly a male and the other a female. I am also reminded that they like staying near homesteads or open shrubs and are scavengers, habits I very well remember since they used to steal soap from the outdoor dish rack in the village as we grew up and usually the one who would have left it there would earn themselves good canes!

But what is more fascinating here is the fact that these birds pair for life. My guide quickly tells me that there are so many other birds that pair for life citing the example of Black and White Casqued Hornbill and the African Fire Finch (Akafunzi). Then I ask him what happens when one of the partners dies and he tells me that the other partner stays single for the rest of their life. Wow! Then I’m thinking, if birds can keep this commitment, why can’t humans? “The African Fire Finches go an extra mile,” my guide tells me. “They go and spot a partner for their offspring in another family and arrange for a marriage ceremony, they understand the dangers of inbreeding so their offsprings must get partners from another family or clan”. Still on Berkeley Road across Victoria Mall, we spot the Common Bull Bull also known as Yellow Vented Bull Bull because of a yellow vent right under the beginning of its tail, and a Woodland Kingfisher at 8:30am and 8:33am respectively.

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The African Fire Finch 

We now enter the National Botanical Gardens, our main birding destination. Laid in 1898 by the first curator, A Whyte, the gardens sit on over 100 acres stretching to the Lake Victoria shores. The gardens are divided into different zones including a rain forest zone, which was a backdrop to scenes of Tarzan films featuring Johnny Weissmuller shot in the 1940s. Boasting of over 115 different bird species, the botanical gardens are some of the few urban destinations that will offer unmatched value to the birder. Although developers are now encroaching them on, they are still impressively intact and wholesome!

The Common Finches, Tawny flanked Prenia, Double Toothed Barbet and the Black and White Casqued Hornbill welcome us to the gardens at 8:39, 8:40, 4:44 and 8:45am respectively. My guide tells me something rather intriguing about the breeding of black and white casqued hornbill. First of all they live in tree holes, so when the female reaches the time of incubating her eggs, it enters the hole and the male seals it around its neck area leaving its head outside so the male can keep feeding it for the whole incubation period of about 21 days. This is done to avoid cases of the female leaving the hole to look for food and disrupt the incubation temperatures. Once the young ones are hatched, the male informs ‘friends’ and ‘relatives’ who gather for a cerebration.

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The Black and White Casqued Hornbill

Its now beginning to drizzle and quickly transforming into a heavy shower so we run to the next nearest open cottage near the main camping site. It’s all a marvel, the towering rain forest trees, the climbing shrubs, the lilies, and the streaming lyrics from birds. We grab a moment to indulge in a photo fiesta achieving some unprecedented shots. Meanwhile, we eat our packed cassava chips as we lay plans for our next joint adventures while enjoying every moment. It’s breathtaking!

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Our search continues after about 25 minutes of a beautiful shower. We come across a magnificent and tall anthill and are immediately, without hesitation, lured into climbing it. Coming down necessitated one to fly down like a monkey, a challenge that left Samuel and I very elated albeit with muddy hands. Looking across as we move away is the rare Red-Bellied Paradise Flycatcher with its characteristic long tail and inability to settle in one place since its job is basically to catch flies. It’s 9:55am. We slop down to the Lakeshores and are welcomed by the Little Egrets and the Long-Tailed Cormorant at 9:59 and 10:00am respectively. This Cormorant is also rather hypnotic. It swims and swallows everything it comes across, then comes back to the shore, and vomits everything and re-swallows what’s alive or appealing. The rest is then left for the Little Egrets to feast on.

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As high as this tree shall we grow! Thanks to the anthill!

The African Fish Eagle is identified by its characteristic three-time call. We would later observe it hunting at the shore. We also spot the African Pygmy Kingfisher at 10:09am as we slop towards the other side of the shore ending at a cliff rock that is about 10 meters high. Here we are basking like lizards and enjoying the scenes of the long-Tailed Cormorant swimming and the Pied Kingfishers hunting in the waters, the calm Cattle Egrets with their characteristic brown legs and beaks, the towering black-Headed Heron, the Black Kite and Marabou Stokes gliding the skies all left us thrilled and were recorded. All this occurs between 10:15 and 10:31am. We need to further our pursuit at this time, our trotting begins again but we immediately bump into the rare Tambourine Dove at 10:56am. My guide is all wowed! Like every other dove species I have seen, I immediately fall in love with this one too, and I love the name even more! It reminds me of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, one of my all time favorites.

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11:02-11:28am: Taking a round turn to avoid our earlier trail, we follow the lower loop of the gardens only to bump into a an Eastern Grey Plantain Eater, a Yellow White Eye, an Egyptian Goose, a Grey Parrot, a Ruppell’s Long-Tailed Sterling, and a Palm Nut Vulture named after its endless stalking of the palm trees looking for nuts.

Our quest for these beautiful, flying and tree loving creatures would be culminated by a pair of majestic, shy less Three Striped Squirrels, with traits very different from most of their rodent cousins, before we meet an army of 30-50 Vavet Monkeys (Enkyima) and I grabbed a light moment with one of our ‘distant cousins’. Earlier in the middle of our expedition, we had spotted a pair of Black and White Colobus Monkeys (Enjeyo) high in the tree. This was the finest magical!

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So after a series of many long days organizing and coordinating the recently concluded LeO Africa Emerging Leaders Forum and the endless annoying emails from the ‘Germans’, this was indeed a perfect micro adventure to clear my mind ahead of another series of long weeks.

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