BIRDING IN BUJAGALIOctober 11, 2012
There is a birder born every minute in Uganda – Anne-Marie Weeden, General Manager of Journeys Discovering Africa, takes to the water with her binoculars in a new birding cruise at Jinja.
Pulling focus on the dainty little heron sitting perched demurely on a branch above me in the leafy shadows of the riverbank, I failed to notice the 3m Forest cobra silently gliding through the water below. If it wasn’t for our sharp-eyed guide, I would not have had the chance to see this elegant reptile up close in its natural habitat.
The guide forgave me – I had, after all, been distracted by one of the rarest birds in the area – the White-backed Night Heron. Out on a new birding cruise at Bujagali on the river Nile, my only criticism was that sometimes, there was so much to look at I just simply didn’t know where to start.
Uganda has long been considered one of the premier birding safari destinations in the world, with over 1,060 species including a significant number of Albertine Rift endemics. Now, thanks to the changing waterscape of the river Nile, there is an excellent new birding boat cruise at Bujagali, just downstream from Jinja.
The area around Bujagali used to include a raging set of whitewater rapids known as Bujagali Falls. The recent construction of a new Hydropower dam has flooded the river, creating a large reservoir, or lake, and this recent change in habitat has created an unexpectedly positive outcome for both birds and birders alike. For the former, it provides a peaceful new habitat, attracting new species to the area in addition to the many water birds and other wildlife already in residence. For the birding community, bird calls now carry clearly across the flat water, making it easy to spot our feathered friends. Previously the noise from the rapids used to drown out any birdsong. The flat water also allows a more conducive pace at which to travel the river – the only option used to be to throw oneself down the rapids in a kayak or rubber raft, which, whilst great fun, didn’t exactly lend itself well to steady binocular use!
The boats used by new birding and sports fishing operator, Feather & Fin Pursuits, are brand new twin-hulled aluminium crafts with enough comfortable seats for up to around 12 passengers. There is a top deck which acts as both an elevated viewing platform and effective sun and wet weather protection (though bringing a light waterproof is recommended). The boats can be booked either privately, or as part of a group, for early morning and late afternoon guided birding cruises when the birds are at their most active (or even full days for those who really want to explore the species along this stretch of river). Binoculars are provided, but don’t forget your camera and telephoto lens – as there are some stunning photo opportunities.
Within minutes of setting off we had seen Open-billed Storks, Great Cormorants and Monitor Lizards at close range, and a pair of Pied Kingfishers – the first of many Kingfisher species we saw that afternoon including Malachite, Woodland, Giant and Grey Headed Kingfishers. The air was filled with the eery calls of the many African Fish Eagles resident along this stretch of river – we saw plenty of them – including one ‘hunting’ an Open-billed Stork, and a pair in their nest.
Cruising upstream towards the source of the Nile, a clutch of trees growing out of a tiny island was home to a flight of Cormorants. Our guide held the boat steady against the current and we watched as one female Cormorant fed her young in her nest. In mid-river, a little further upstream, we stopped at a line of flat-topped rocks watched over by a pair of chubby little Rock Pratincoles – a rare enough find for these parts to excite the more experienced birders onboard.
Green-backed Heron lined this waterway, with Purple Heron another common sight. But as we approached a particular section of the bank, filled with mature trees offering the cool dark shade found under their broad branches, the excitement on the boat became palpable. This was a known location for the rare White-backed Night Heron, a much sought birding spot. It’s not an endemic, as it has quite a large range across sub-saharan Africa, but it’s quite hard to find and considered a ‘lifer’. And this stretch of river happens to be one of the easiest places to spot this species in Uganda. Sure enough, within a few minutes of staring into the deep green shadows of the trees, we spotted this secretive bird, its distinctive eye markings peering out at us from the gloom of its daytime roosting spot.
While I managed to bodge my shot of the White-backed Night Heron, the photographic opportunities are generally incredible on this cruise, with the nimble craft able to get up close to the trees and rocks that the birds inhabit. I had been on plenty of boat launches in popular birding areas elsewhere in Uganda – the Kazinga Channel cruise at Queen Elizabeth National Park, or the Falls Cruise or Delta Cruise at Murchison Falls National Park to name but a few – but none that got you as close to the birds as this cruise. And birds were not the only object of our affection. We saw Red-tailed monkeys, Otters, Nile Monitor Lizards, and of course, that Forest Cobra.
Coming back to the jetty, we relaxed with a drink from the cooler and cruised leisurely into the most picture perfect water-colour sunset. The blood orange sun cast watery reflections across the river and silhouetted the quintessential Nile scene – the unmistakably noble outline of an African Fish Eagle perched high in a tree next to its nest.
Birding cruises on the Nile at Jinja can be easily combined with other wildlife and adventure activities in the area. Overnight options include a stay at the nearby luxury Wildwaters Lodge on its own private island, or boutique mid-range lodge The Haven offers affordable en suite cottages on the Nile. Contact your Journeys Discovering Africa tour consultant for more information on how to incorporate this into your tailor-made itinerary, by emailing email@example.com.
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