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Mburo National Park

Johnnie got us up close to even the biggest and most dangerous animals in Mburo National Park--like this big male Cape Buffalo. Johnnie has been guiding in this park for 30 years and knows what is safe and what is not--don't try this without an experienced guide.

After our boat ride in the Mabamba Swamp to see the magnificent Shoebill and some of the birds of the Lake Victoria marshland, we drove south into drier bush country as we approached Lake Mburo National Park. We didn’t see any areas in SW Uganda that I would call arid, but the bush country in and around Lake Mburo National Park supported only isolated groves of tall trees--most of the landscape was relatively open scrubland. Here we started to see some of the large game for which East Africa is famous. The Mburo National Park supports large herds of Zebra, Impala, Waterbuck, Rothschild Giraffe, and Cape Buffalo along with groups of Olive Baboons and several species of monkey. On my one previous trip to Africa, which was centered on a trip to Kruger NP, I never felt like we got all that close to the animals. We mostly viewed big game through bus windows and the animals were generally at least 50 yards away. In Mburo, we were right in amongst the animals as Johnnie expertly navigated the park roads. Both Wendy and I were enthralled.

Iconic large mammals like Rothschild Giraffe, Impala, Zebra, and Wart Hog roam the bushlands of Mburo Lake National Park.

Vervet Monkeys put on a show for us in the Mburo region and pretty much everywhere in Uganda.

We saw Yellow-billed Oxpeckers on Zebra, Cape Buffalo, and Giraffe. Surprisingly, oxpeckers were more skittish and harder to approach than the big mammals they were riding on.

While the mammals of Mburo were big and dramatic, the diversity of birds was nearly overwhelming. Johnnie was getting me on life birds as fast as he could move his laser pointer around. It was a flood of barbets, bee-eaters, oxpeckers, wood-hoopoes, cisticolas, apalis, coucals, prinias, widowbirds, and weavers. Within the long lists of birds, there were some species that were particularly noteworthy for me. I was thrilled to see many large vultures. Old World Vultures are in crisis nearly everywhere within their ranges in Africa and Asia. When Wendy and I visited India a decade earlier, we were shocked to hear that vulture populations were down by about 99%. We saw essentially no vultures in ten days in India. In Uganda, huge vultures still fill the skies. White-backed Vultures were most numerous, but we also saw several Lappet-faced and Hooded Vultures. Lappet-faced Vultures might be the largest bird (bird with the widest wingspan) that I’ve ever seen in flight. They have a greater wingspan than California Condor, just a tad less on average than Andean Condors. They are impressive birds in flight.

I was pleased to see that vultures still exist in large numbers in Uganda. In both Mboro and Queen Elizabeth NP we saw both White-backed (top) and Lappet-faced Vultures (bottom).

In the Mburo region I saw some other species that I had always wanted to see. When I started graduate school, two of my fellow graduate students were working in Kenya, studying Gray-backed Fiscals and Arrow-marked Babblers, respectively. They were in the lab of Dr. David Ligon, and David was studying Green Woodhoopoe. In Mburo, I had a chance to see all of these species.

In Mburo, I had a chance to see three birds that my friends studied in Kenya and that I had heard a lot about but had never seen--Gray-backed Fiscal, Arrow-marked Babbler, and Green Woodhoopoe.

In addition, since I first became interested in birds, I heard about the amazing convergence of appearance between longclaws in Africa and meadowlarks in N. America. In Mburo, we got great looks at many Yellow-throated Longclaws. The resemblance to Eastern Meadowlarks is really uncanny—not only do the longclaws have a nearly identical black and yellow plumage pattern to meadowlarks, they also live in the same grassland habitat, flew like meadowlarks, and even had white outer tail feathers in flight like meadowlarks.

Yellow-throated Longclaws (left) look and act like Eastern Meadowlarks (right) even though they are not closely related. They independently evolved their behaviors and black-and-yellow plumage pattern.

In the heat of the afternoon of our one full day in Mburo, we took a boat ride on Lake Mburo, which is a fairly large lake that is completely contained within Mburo National Park. There were three stars of this boat trip: hippos ,which I had never been close to in the water, African Finfoot, a bizarre bird that looks like it was cobbled together from leftover parts from 3 very different birds, and the tiny, engaging, and spectacularly beautiful Malachite Kingfisher. All three put on a show.

We had dramatic, very close views of hippos in Lake Mburo.

The hippos were a mix of mello and dramatic. Most individuals most of the time floated around with just their eyes, ears, and nostrils poking out of the water, often asleep. But then two would interact and you'd realize you were within a few yards of many tons of very dangerous animals. In our tour boat we were sometimes so close could almost touch the hippos. They see the boat every day, so they paid no attention.

Finfoot look like a loon but can run around on land like a rail. Their feet have lobed toes like a grebe.

We had to hunt for a while to find an African Finfoot. These birds often hang out in heavy cover and can be hard to spot. Once we found one though, it stayed out in the open for 10 minutes giving us great views. The African Finfoot is in a family of birds with Sunbitterns, and they are truly odd birds. As their name implies, they have toes with fins, like grebes. Their body shape is reminiscent of a loon. But unlike grebes and loons, the finfoot can walk well on land. They are really unique and odd birds.

Malachite Kingfishers were easy to see from a boat in Lake Mburo.

Malachite Kingfishers can be hard to see from a vehicle on a road. The boat ride afforded much better views. The brilliant red beak, shining blue dorsal feathers, and the deep ocre color of the breast made these tiny birds one of the prettiest that we saw on the trip.

On the morning after the boat ride we said goodbye to the Mburo region. It was time to go see Gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.


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