Monday, December 24, 2007

Mt Elgon National Park

I have to say I'm a little sheepish about having lived in Mbale, in the shadow of Mount Elgon for almost 12 years, but not having set foot inside Mt Elgon national park until last Saturday (still haven't made it to any of the peaks, or into the caldera, the largest in the world, BTW). Nathanael, Jonathan, their friend Abraham and I loaded ourselves and our binoculars, water, and bug repellent into the pickup and left the house shortly after 7:30 Saturday morning.

It took us a couple of hours to get up the first two terraces of Mt Elgon and to the park gate, partly because we made a couple of stops along the way. One of them, about 20 km from Mbale town, was a rare and memorable occasion. I pulled over to take a closer look at a medium-sized bird of prey sharing the top of a muvuli tree with a hamerkop (Scopus umbretta). To our great delight the raptor turned out to be a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). It stayed put and gave us excellent views from right under the tree from which it was taking in the morning.

Once inside the park, we hooked up with a young guide and did a 5-km circuit that took us through mostly secondary forest. There were, however, quite a number of enormous remnant giant trees from the days before the primary forest was encroached and before the park was gazetted with its current boundaries (formerly quite a number of local villagers living near the forest boundaries had cut down many of the larger trees and done some cultivation inside the park perimeter). On our way we stopped by a lovely little waterfall and a cave with a considerable bat population (the latter especially fascinating to the boys).

Our time was somewhat limited, so we hiked at about double the ideal birding pace. This limited the number of bird species that we were able to observe/identify, but still we came across several notables, including some new ones for me (I'll mark these with a double asterisk).

** montane oriole (Oriolus percivali)

** both banded / brown-throated and black-throated wattle-eyes (Platysteira cyanea and P. peltata)

** black-throated apalis (Apalis jacksoni)

** Luehder's bush-shrike (Laniarius luehderi)

** male white-phase paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis)

** African hill-babbler (Illadopsis abyssinica)

** white-tailed crested flycatcher (Elminia albonotata) -- this is an old friend with which I first became familiar in one of my favorite spots on the planet, Zomba mountain in Malawi; I'd not seen it before in Uganda

** black-faced rufous warbler (Bathmocercus rufus) -- heard these secretive birds but did not get a glimpse of them; they are familiar from many times birding in rainforest near Kakamega, Kenya

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Decked out in black

Leaving for a shopping foray into town yesterday, I came across a group of eight or ten birds foraging on the ground beside our driveway--three different species but all with predominantly black plumage: piapiac (Ptilostomus afer), bronze-tailed starling (Lamprotornis chalcurus), and Rueppell's long-tailed starling (Lamprotornis purpuropterus).
This morning, out with some of the boys for a tour of our neighborhood -- hazy and already getting hot at 9 a.m.! -- we had a fine look at a pair of grey woodpeckers (Dendropicos goertae), a male purple-banded sunbird (Nectarinia bifasciata), and an African goshawk (Accipiter tachiro).

Three sunbirds & a boubou

While out and about early this morning, I had excellent views of three gorgeous sunbird species, as well as a tropical boubou (Laniarius ferrugineus -- a type of bush shrike). The latter I've only rarely seen or heard in Mbale, and this morning it was fun to see one clearly and watch it giving some of its signature calls. The sunbirds were as follows:

* scarlet-chested sunbird (Nectarinia senegalensis), common but unfailingly splendid

* green-throated sunbird (Nectarinia rubescens), less common and always noteworthy

* bronze sunbird (Nectarinia kilimensis); used to see these more often, but they seem less frequent these days

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Lately here and there

I haven't done well with blogging birds encountered on several recent trips, so will just report a smattering of the more interesting ones I've come across here and there in the past few weeks.

At a wetland stop just west of Kayunga:

* Pair of yellow-billed ducks (Anas undulata)
* Long-toed plover (Vanellus crassirostris)
* Large numbers of blue-cheeked bee-eaters (Merops persicus) and sand martins (Riparia riparia)

En route through Soroti, Dokolo and Lira districts (mostly fairly dry bush country):

* Several spectacular Abyssinian rollers (Coracias abyssinica); here's a link to a photo of a pair of them:
* Vinaceous doves (Streptopelia vinacea)

Here in Mbale:

* Heard a red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius) calling, first for several months
* Bronze-tailed starlings (Lamprotornis chalcurus) are here in force again; they are especially noisy in the late afternoons as they get themselves situated in roosting positions for the night
* Have had several pygmy kingfishers (Ispidina picta) in the neighborhood lately

A few km south of town, not far from Manafwa River:

* Male Namaqua dove (Oena capensis)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Sunbird nest

Monday morning I came across a typical sunbird nest (usually a pouch suspended from a branch with the opening near the top) in a kei apple thorn hedge. This nest is a bit smaller than average, and the reason appears to be that its builders/users are smaller-than-average members of their family: little purple-banded sunbirds (Nectarinia bifasciata). I had not noticed this diminutive species in our area until recently, so it's pleasant to see that they are not only present, but breeding here.

Here's a link to a photo of a male little purple-banded sunbird:

Saturday, December 1, 2007

oriole identification

I've written previously about the black-headed orioles in our neighborhood, and the difficulty of knowing whether they are "ordinary" black-headed orioles (Oriolus larvatus) or the western black-headed oriole (Oriolus brachyrhynchus). The two differ only slightly in plumage, and have overlapping ranges. Based on a fairly good look at one in an albezia tree outside our gate this morning, and additional reflection on vocal differences, I'm inclined to believe that what I've been seeing and hearing in Mbale town are the western sort. We'll see if future encounters with these dapper birds bears out that conclusion or pushes my thinking in the other direction!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Across the tracks

I spent an hour and a half or so this morning on a reconnoiter of an area just west of Mbale town, not far past where the railway crosses the Kampala-bound road. It's mixed grassland, swamp, scrub and thornbush (several Acacia tree species, with some Euphorbia, Ficus and many others I don't recognize). The variety of habitats in a fairly small area makes for a pleasantly diverse birding experience too. My brief walk-around there this morning made it clear that it's a place that needs a lot more visits. Some birds of interest from today's excursion:

Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) -- I didn't get a long enough look at it to be 100% certain of this ID, but the combination of brief observation and extended listening to its unusual call makes me think this is correct. Nightingales migrate through most of East Africa Oct-Dec on southward passage and back northward again in Mar-Apr.

Marsh tchagra (Tchagra minuta) -- also heard brown-crowned tchagra (Tchagra australis) and black-crowned tchagra (Tchagra senegala); my first experience of seeing/hearing all three species in one setting; also in the shrike department, the common but always stunning black-headed gonolek (Laniarius erythrogaster)

Green sandpiper (Tringa ochropus) -- a group of about eight of these in a man-made pool near the swamp; another migrant

Helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris) -- came across 10 or 15 of these; they allowed me to approach to within 20 meters or so before they flushed and relocated just beyond the next "scrub island"

African mourning dove (Streptopelia decipiens) -- never see these inside town, but the mixed habitat near the wetlands outside suits them well; also saw laughing dove (Streptopelia senegalensis), red-eyed dove (Streptopelia semitorquata), blue-spotted wood dove (Turtur afer); and heard tambourine dove (Turtur tympanistria)

Yellow-breasted apalis (Apalis flavida)

A large coucal (very wet and back-lit, so difficult to ascertain plumage details, but by habitat and size probably blue-headed [Centropus monachus])

Several raptors, none unusual but always interesting: black-shouldered kite (Elanus caeruleus); black kite (Milvus migrans); harrier hawk (Polyboroides typus), African goshawk (Accipiter tachiro); lizard buzzard (Kaupifalco monogrammicus); hooded vulture (Necrosyrtes monachus)

A kettle of at least 300 Abdim's storks (Ciconia abdimii)

Yellow-throated longclaw (Macronyx croceus)

White-headed saw-wing (Psalidoprocne albiceps)

Brimstone serin (Serinus sulphuratus)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Green-headed Sunbird

Had a male green-headed sunbird (Cyanomitra verticalis) outside the window just before sunrise a couple of days ago. We see these fellows occasionally in Mbale, but I think this is the first time I've observed one in the immediate vicinity of our house.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Notables from Sironko district, 19 November, 2007

Couple of the boys took a drive with me early Monday morning east across Sironko district, where the dry savannah meets the lowest terrace of the northern slopes of Mount Elgon. It’s a completely different habitat than Mbale town, with another set of birds to enjoy. Here are a few that we spotted, most of them kinds that we seldom or never see in our home area.

Silverbird (Empidornis semipartitus)

Spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa striata; a first for me)

Green wood hoopoe (Phoeniculus purpureus; a family party, as usual)

Heard both Ross’s and white-crested turacos (Musophaga rossae and Tauraco leucolophus) but did not see them

Fox kestrel (Falco alopex; with rich chestnut plumage one of the more stunningly turned out of a family that tends anyway to be more ornate than most other birds of prey)

Dusky turtle dove (Streptopelia lugens; first I’ve seen in Uganda)

Black-chested snake eagle (Circaetus pectoralis)

Common buzzard (Buteo buteo; several on migration, attracted to a bush fire)

Pair of long-crested eagles (Lophaetus occipitalis)

Bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus; immature)

African grey hornbill (Tockus nasutus)

Little bee-eater (Merops pusillus)

Superb starling (Lamprotornis superbus)

Cinnamon-breasted rock bunting (Emberiza tahapisi)

Monday, November 5, 2007

morning walk

I took a short stroll this morning and came across several nifty birds along the way.

* Holub's golden weaver (Ploceus xanthops) - If these have been around, I've been overlooking them. Last week two of the boys and I saw what looked like on of these on the golf course, but I couldn't be sure. I watched a pair of them searching through leaves of corn plants and long grass in a marshy area this morning.

* Black and white mannikin (Lonchura bicolor) - We see these occasionally, much less frequently than the abundant bronze mannikin (Lonchura cucullata).

* A pair of palm-nut vultures (Gypohierax angolensis) are nest-building in one of the mature African mahogany trees that line the road above our house.

* Had a paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis) pass through on its way across the valley where I watched the pair of weavers.

* Bronze-tailed starling (Lamprotornis chalcurus) - these seem to have returned from wherever most of them spent the past few months away from here.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A few notables from Sudan

During a recent 3-day visit to Nimule, Sudan I did not have leisure for focused birding but did see some nifty ones along the way. Here are a few highlights, most of them typical of that area but of interest to one who is seldom there:

* Grasshopper buzzard (Butastur rufipennis)
* Bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus) - formerly much more common across Africa than at present
* Flappet lark (Mirafra rufocinnamomea) - much in evidence with the males passing high overhead in their signature wing-snapping display flights
* Zitting cisticola (Cisticola juncidis) - another common species there that draws attention to itself by its display flight; it is named for the "zitting" call that the male emits as he follows an undulating pattern at fairly high altitude, before plunging back down into the long grass where they live and breed
* Northern red bishop (Euplectes franciscanus) and black-winged red bishop (Euplectes hordeaceus) - these similar spectacular species are found alongside each other in the bushy grassland around Nimule

A pair of long-crested eagles (Lophaetus occipitalis) in flight

A tawny eagle (Aquila rapax) that passed over the location of one of the eye-glasses clinics that we conducted a little east of Nimule

Thursday, October 25, 2007

honeyguide & cuckoo

A day or two ago I stepped outside and heard the distinctive, repetitive double-note of a greater honeyguide (Indicator indicator). These fellows are fairly nondescript and tend to stay high in a tree, so are hard to glimpse even when you can hear them not far away! I didn't have the leisure to pursue this one, but it was nice to hear after a number of months without that particular call in the neighborhood.

I've had two brief sightings the past few days of Levaillant's cuckoo (Oxylophus levaillantii), both times flying across my field of vision for just a second or two. This is the largest cuckoo that we have in the area, as far as I know--very striking with largely black plumage, crested, with white wing patch and white or black underparts, depending on the color phase of the individual bird.

Also heard a Klaas's cuckoo (Chrysococcyx klaas) calling yesterday. These are common throughout the region, but I had not heard one for a while.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Njeru & Mabira

Back in September we had several delightful days in the Njeru area, beside the source of the White Nile, where it empties out of Lake Victoria. One morning some of us drove the short distance to Mabira forest in search of any interesting birds and other forest denizens we might come across. My combined list from the lakeshore and forest was 122 species seen and/or heard, even though the number from our forest walk was lower than usual. A few of the more noteworthy:
  1. African hobby - two pairs and a single
  2. White-faced duck
  3. Black and white shrike-flycatcher
  4. Golden-backed weaver
  5. Brimstone canary
  6. Brown-crowned tchagra
  7. Emerald cuckoo (calling at Kingfisher resort, male and female seen in Mabira)
  8. Common (brown-throated) wattle-eye
  9. Osprey (several)
  10. Black-crowned waxbill
  11. White-browed scrub robin
  12. Levaillant’s cuckoo
  13. Yellowbill
  14. Little green sunbird
  15. Black-necked weaver
  16. Cassin’s hawk eagle
  17. Buff-spotted woodpecker
  18. Speckled tinkerbird
  19. Yellow-throated tinkerbird
  20. Blue-headed coucal
  21. White-breasted negrofinch
  22. Buff-throated apalis
  23. Ross’ turaco
  24. Gabar goshawk
  25. Yellow-throated longclaw
  26. Velvet-mantled drongo

Sunday, October 14, 2007

On Kenya roads

Five days in Kenya last week -- many hours on indescribably bad roads and a fair bit of moving about in Nairobi -- no time for focused birding, but I did take note of several interesting species in passing.

Hoopoe (Upupa epops) -- one flew across the road as we left Nakuru town; probably the African version, but in that part of Kenya could perhaps have been the northern race

Lilac-breasted roller (Coracias caudata) -- a common enough species, but I never see them in Mbale and indeed could never tire of seeing any bird so splendid

Olive thrush (Turdus olivaceous) -- a familar garden bird in Nairobi and other suitable highland areas, but again not present in Mbale, where it is replaced as in most of Uganda by the very similar African thrush (Turdus pelios)

Common (Cape) robin-chat (Cossypha caffra) -- another highland bird, somewhat more drably turned out than its more common cousin the white-browed robin-chat (Cossypha heuglini); but all robin-chats are spectacular in their own way

Dusky turtle dove (Streptopelia lugens) -- seen on the road just east of Eldoret town in the higher forested area around Timboroa

Augur buzzard (Buteo rufofuscus) -- noted four or five of these magnificent buteos on various parts of our journey; always associated with mountainous or hilly areas

Crowned crane (Balearica regulorum) -- Uganda's national bird, but may be more common in Kenya, depending on locale; I always look for them around Eldoret, where there were quite a few this time, especially in the open country around the junction of the Kitale road and the A104 just west of Eldoret town

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

A little sunbird

I don't remember ever seeing a purple-banded sunbird (Nectarinia bifasciata) before, but we do seem to have come across one just outside our gate a couple of days ago. The considerably larger (14 cm v. 11 cm) marico sunbird (Nectarinia mariquensis) is not uncommon in Mbale, and I've often wondered if the size differential would be all that helpful in distinguishing these two species from each other in the field. They have almost identical plumages. Anyway, I was glad to notice that the purple-banded does look quite a bit smaller than the maricos that we have in the neighborhood, and its beak is shorter and appears less curved.

A few other notes from along the way...

Saw a steppe/common buzzard (Buteo buteo) on Wanale mountain Sunday, as well as a common kestrel or two (Falco tinnunculus).

Heard a buff-spotted flufftail (Sarothrura elegans) in a swampy patch near our house a few days back.

Have seen several African blue flycatchers (Elminia longicauda) out and about, and, to my particular delight, a male paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis) with the gorgeous long tail streamers of his breeding plumage.

Observed a solitary bronze-tailed glossy starling (Lamprotornis chalcurus) on a utility line Monday - may have been a vagrant, since there seem to be no others around currently, and they are normally found in pairs or small flocks.

Our black / yellow-billed kites (Milvus migrans) are back in force. I watched one stoop down behind a hedge yesterday and come back up with a chick from a domestic chicken brood in its talons.

Can't remember if I posted about having a black goshawk / sparrowhawk (Accipiter melanoleucus) visible and calling in the top of a mahogany tree not far from our house a week or so back. We come across these here only occasionally.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Mbale owls & a cuckoo

Between 4 and 5 a.m. a few days ago I heard the unmistakable weird screech of a barn owl (Tyto alba) in our yard, first from one side of the house, then on another. A bit later, after returning from a morning jog, I noticed quite an assemblage of small birds fussing and agitated in the thick foliage of some trees in one corner of our compound -- bulbuls, mousebirds, sunbirds, etc. The reason for all the commotion had to be a predator of some sort, either a snake, a cat, or some bird of prey. So I crept up under the low branches hoping for a glimpse of whatever it might be. It took some searching, but finally I was able to discern the distinctive outline of a roosting barn owl. It did not seem disposed to leave, and I was glad to have it spend as much time with us as it might, especially if it reduces the rodent population in the neighborhood!

A few times at night or very early morning recently I've heard the high-pitched, somewhat mournful hoot of a white-faced scops owl. These seem to be fairly common in Mbale, at least for part of the year. A couple of years ago we found a slightly injured adolescent specimen on a nearby road at night. It was mature enough that we were able to feed it for a week or two and then release it. We called it Otis, suggested by its Latin name, Otus leucotis.

The other species of owl that is resident here in Mbale happens to be the largest on the continent -- the giant eagle owl (Bubo lacteus). As the name more than implies, these are eagle-sized birds and fierce predators. They roost by day high in the thickly leaved branches of the African mahogany trees that still line some stretches of road in this part of town. They are more often heard than seen, their low-pitched grunting notes a common sound not only at night but also an hour or so after sunrise and before sunset.

Once in a great while I've heard or caught a glimpse of African wood owls (Strix woodfordii) in the Mbale night-time, but it's been seldom enough that I do not think they are normally residents here.

Sunday I visited Kachede, a parish in Bukedea district, near some of the areas most devastated by recent flooding from the swollen Sironko River. It was not a day with impressive numbers of bird species noted, but I did have a brief look at a black cuckoo (Cuculus clamosus) that flew into a grove of grevillea and citrus trees nearby and proceeded to serenade us with its haunting, ascending three-note call, repeated over and over again. This is an intra-African migrant which, though reasonably common in its range, I have seen only a few times. Since they tend to call from inside the foliage of trees, often in forested areas, they are far more often heard than seen.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


I was not far from the house on my morning run the other day when from up in a Neem tree ahead of me came the unmistakable two-phrase laughing song of a male paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone viridis). These strikingly beautiful birds, common in much of their range, are an uncommon find in Mbale, so I stopped to take a look. Turned out to be a pair (in the past I've come across single birds only here in town) of them. The male did not have his breeding-plumage long tail streamers, but it was special to see both birds at once.

Not two minutes after leaving the flycatchers I came across an avian version of the odd couple. A female gray woodpecker (Dendropicos goertae) was excavating for insect larvae at wire level on a utility pole. Juxtaposed less than three handbreadths away, on the wire, was a white-browed robin chat (Cossypha heuglini) busy with its morningly outpouring of song. The two of them, absorbed in their respective endeavors, ignored me as I ran by, giving them considerably more attention than they had for each other.

Shortly thereafter I noticed yet another pair of flycatchers flying across the road in front of me -- African blue flycatchers (Elminia longicauda), cousins, actually, to the paradise flycatcher, in a group called monarch flycatchers (probably because most or all of them are crested/"crowned"). These guys are an unusual (among birds) powder-blue and never stay still for more than a couple of seconds at a time. I had a good view of them as they perched briefly on a power line before diving into the foliage of a jambulan tree near the road.

Monday, September 3, 2007


The start of migration season caught me by surprise today, as the familiar liquid notes of European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) on the move came down from overhead this afternoon. September 3 isn't all that early to begin seeing these and other migrants escaping the cold European fall and winter, but I had not thought about the time being upon us already. A few minutes later, the similar but sharper-toned calls of a flock of blue-cheeked bee-eaters (Merops persicus) announced that they are also passing through. Nice to have both of these in the skies the same afternoon--an appropriate appetite-whetting experience as I look forward to having many other migrating species around in the next seven or eight months.

Just a couple of days ago I noticed the first large group of black kites (Milvus migrans) that I've seen in two or three months flying overhead in Mbale town. There has been a straggler or two in the neighborhood since most of them left for their seasonal relocation, but it looks like they're back. I did not have binoculars handy to check whether these were the European race (M. m. migrans) or the common African yellow-billed one (M. m. parasitus).

Had a nice view of a black-headed oriole (Oriolus larvatus) yesterday. It's a gorgeous bird, a bit larger than most American orioles I've seen, and decked out in stunning yellow plumage with black head and red bill.

Other notable sightings lately include:

Black sparrowhawk/goshawk (Accipiter melanoleucus) - I see these only occasionally in Mbale; this fellow was calling from the top of an African mahogany tree

Ross's turaco (Musophaga rossae) - always traveling tree to tree in groups, some of the most spectacular feathered inhabitants of our area

Thursday, August 16, 2007

More from Liwonde

Take a look at this stunning sago star shrub that I photographed beside Mvuu ("hippo") Camp in Liwonde National Park while in Malawi last week. Not a bird, granted, but gorgeous nonetheless!

Some of the notable birds that I caught sight of while there in Liwonde:

* Western banded snake eagle
* Giant kingfisher
* Boehm's bee-eater
* Little bee-eater
* Fork-tailed drongo
* Grey loerie (turaco)
* Trumpeter hornbill
* Long-toed plover (lapwing)
* African skimmer
* White-faced duck
* Blue-grey flycatcher
* Egyptian goose
* African Jacana
* Grey-headed gull
* Black crake
* Natal (red-capped) robin-chat
* Red-billed ox-pecker
* Collared morning thrush
* Emeral-spotted wood dove
* Bateleur
* African fish eagle
* Gymnogene (harrier hawk)
* Long-tailed starling
* Wattled plover (lapwing)
* White-browed sparrow weaver
* Lillian's lovebird
* Red-faced mousebird

You can see the ox-peckers perched on the hippos' bodies:

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Seen on the Shire

On a recent trip to Malawi I had the opportunity to visit Liwonde National Park, which contains a considerable length of the Shire River, the principal outlet of Lake Malawi. We spent one hour of our time there on a boat safari -- saw large numbers of hippo and crocodile up close, as well as elephant, warthog, baboons and numerous bird species. White-faced ducks (Dendrocygna viduata) were abundant, and we had magnificent views of several pairs and singles of African fish eagles (Haliaeetus vocifer), whose signature wild, ringing calls up and down the river reminded us that we were indeed still in Africa.

White-faced ducks line the shore of the river, with an openbill stork (Anastomus lamelligerus), wings half spread

A fish eagle keeps solitary vigil near the water

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Comings and Goings

We're having the unusual experience of no black / yellow-billed kites (Milvus migrans - some authorities divide them into two full species while others consider them two races within the one species) in our skies these days. The African-resident race/species (yellow-billed) is here almost all the time, but does follow some intra-African migration patterns. I assume that's what has happened to them temporarily, but they'll be back soon, I'm sure. The typical view of this graceful raptor is captured in the photo at

I've glimpsed a couple of that miniature flying jewel, the African pygmy kingfisher (Ispidina picta), in the past week or two. It's been a while since they've been around -- another intra-African migrant. Nice to have them back, with their habit of appearing out of nowhere after launching from an inconspicuous perch and zinging in a straight line to their next stop. Like their larger and more abundant cousin, the woodland kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis), they are not water-dependent but live primarily on insects and any other animal even smaller than they are, wherever they can find them. Check out some amazing pictures of these beauties at

We have also had bronze sunbirds (Nectarinia kilimensis) back in the area lately after not having seen them for a few months. These are the only species common in Mbale in which the males have the elongated central tail feathers sported by several members of this showy family (see the male pictured on the flower-pendant of a banana tree at

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

North of Elgon

Did a bit of exploring with four of the kids Monday, through the area at the base of Mount Elgon on its north side. The farther east one goes, the more thinly distributed are the human inhabitants, and the lightly wooded savanna is quintessentially African. We saw close on 50 bird species, observed mainly from our pickup, since we did not have time to get out and walk around. Here are some of the best birds of the day:

d'Arnaud’s barbet

black-billed barbet

lanner falcon (imm)


crested francolin

white-crested turaco

fork-tailed drongo

superb starling

red-billed hornbill

village indigobird

pin-tailed whydah

fan-tailed widow

blue-headed coucal

northern red bishop

black-winged red bishop

rufous sparrow

olive pigeon

yellow-throated longclaw

striped kingfisher

mountain wagtail

black-and-white mannikin

grey-backed fiscal

marsh tchagra

cardinal quelea

blue-naped mousebird

Saturday, June 16, 2007


Twice recently have had a family group of Ross's turacos (Musophaga rossae -- for image check in or just outside our compound. A little larger than crow-sized and with much longer neck and tail, the glossy dark-purple plumage with crimson primaries and crest and bright yellow face make these one Africa's most impressive avians. We used to see them a little more often in Mbale, which makes it feel all the more of a privilege to have them come around these days.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Monday at Sisiyi

Had several pleasant hours at Sisiyi Falls on the first terrace of Mount Elgon today. Even though we were not there for prime birding during early-morning hours, still there were these highlights (in addition to the stunning scenery around the falls - see pictures at

Fan-tailed raven (Corvus rhipidurus)
African blue flycatcher (Elminia longicauda)
Black-and-white mannikin (Lonchura bicolor)
Mountain wagtail (Motacilla clara)

Mocker swallowtail, citrus swallowtail, and green-banded swallowtail butterflies were also much in evidence. We had a glimpse of what was probably a mother-of-pearl butterfly too.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Mabira, bat hawk, etc.

We took a field trip for the older students in our mission school to Mabira May 26, and spent most of the morning in the trails in both the primary and secondary rain forest. Our guide took us on a route long enough that we had to maintain a quick pace and were not able to stop-look-listen the way one needs to do to observe many forest birds. Nevertheless we did see some fine specimens, especially after returning to the forestry office compound and waiting for lunch to get ready. Some of the species highlights on my list of what we saw:

Common (brown-throated) wattle-eye (Platysteira cyanea)
Olive sunbird (Nectarinia oliivacea)
Yellow-throated tinkerbird (Pogoniulus subsulphureus)
Speckled tinkerbird (Pogoniulus scolopaceus)
White-rumped swift (Apus caffer)
Cardinal quelea (Quelea cardinalis)
Great blue turaco (Corythaeola cristata)
Red-bellied paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone rufiventer)
Purple-throated cuckoo-shrike (Campephaga quisqualina)
African blue flycatcher (Elminia longicauda)
Black-necked weaver (Ploceus nigricollis)
Common waxbill (Estrilda astrild)
Black-crowned waxbill (Estrilda nonnula)
Grey-headed negrofinch (Nigrita canicapilla)

We heard almost as many kinds of birds as we actually saw, but did not have leisure to wait around for them to appear, or to make detours to find them. Counting species both seen and heard, I wrote down about 70 for the day.


Bat hawk

"The early bird gets the birder"--I guess that re-wording of the proverb is one way of saying it when one comes across a bat hawk (Macheiramphus alcinus) early of a morning before it goes to roost after its dawn hunting. I was on a pre-breakfast jog a few days ago, somewhere around 6:30 or so, when one of these mysterious raptors flew a semicircle in front of me before alighting in a giant muvule tree.


Baglafecht nest

My boys showed me a Baglafecht weaver (Ploceus baglafect) nest just a couple of meters outside our dining-room window. We watched the adults coming and going into and out of the nest, which they had attached to overhanging bougainvillea branches above a retaining wall. Here's a picture of the nest; if I get one that includes any of the weavers themselves I'll post it later.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Superb sunbird

I took advantage of having an overnight stay in Entebbe last week to stroll around in the municipal botanical gardens, a several-acre tract of light woodland interspersed with real rain forest, and all fronting on the shore of Lake Victoria (I'm told that the original Tarzan movie was filmed in the rain forest there). It was Saturday and consequently a little crowded with other people out to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the place. The birding could have been much better otherwise, but even so I did have one of those breath-taking sightings. A dark sunbird turned out, on closer inspection through my binoculars, to be a male superb sunbird (Nectarinia superba). Since male sunbirds in general are gorgeous, to merit a title like "superb" one has to be seriously stunning--and he was. Although his colors are all on the dark side, there's a remarkable richness and lustre in the deep maroon and blue iridescence of this fellow's plumage. He's larger than average for a sunbird, which adds to his impressiveness. And, being a forest dweller, he's harder to get a look at than most others. This was my first encounter with a male of the species, although a few years back I did see a female in the same park area. Sunbirds need to be seen from several angles and in varying light to bring out their best points, but you can see a still of a male superb sunbird at this URL:

Thursday, April 26, 2007


Yesterday morning around 0700 I was standing in downtown Mbale when I noticed an incoming from the north, looking about crow-size. Turned out to be a lanner falcon (Falco biarmicus), cruising over at only about 50 feet altitude. These are occasional here, and always a particular pleasure to see.

It's been a few days since hearing the liquid contact-calls of Eurasian bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) migrating overhead. The season's rush is more or less over, but we'll probably still have some straggling flocks up into May.

In case anyone's wondered why I have been including scientific/Latin names for bird species, it's because English nomenclature varies so much from book to book and area to area. If you look up a species I mention by its Latin name, your 95% certain to come up with the species that I have referenced, regardless of which English-(or other language)-name it may go by in your fieldguide or website of choice.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Seen on the shoulder

Driving the road from Mbale toward Kampala yesterday we spotted a female Abyssinian ground hornbill (Bucorvus abyssinicus) in statuesque pose on the paved shoulder of the road. At over 40 inches long (105 cm), these turkey-sized mainly black birds with blue and red facial wattles are an impressive sight. I've seen them in that area a few times before, but it had been a couple of years since the last time.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

empty nest

A couple of days ago there were a pair of adult palm-nut vultures (Gypohierax angolensis, also called the vulturine fish eagle) soaring in the neighborhood in company with a brown-plumaged immature. The mature birds, with their startling black-and-white color scheme and reddish bare facial skin, cut quite a contrast with most other raptors that are typically decked out in sombre camouflage. One of the roads bordering this subdivision is lined with towering African mahogany trees where the palm-nut vultures roost and, I suppose, nest.

I've been hearing the calls of a red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius) daily for quite a while, but haven't yet caught a glimpse of it.

This morning I noticed a kettle of about 70 migrating storks, probably Abdim's (Ciconia abdimii), circling together in preparation for the next leg of their journey.

The leisurely song of the African thrush (Turdus pelios) is an early morning fixture these days. Must be time for nest-building and breeding! It sounds much like that of the American robin and others in this large avian family.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Kenya trip, etc.

We spent the last week or so of March in western Kenya on a farm just outside Eldama Ravine town. It's an area where the highlands in that region end in an escarpment that descends to the Rift Valley. The change in elevation makes for an extraordinarily diverse ecosystem, from highland forest and grassland to dry, hot acacia savannah in the valley floor.

I wrote down a hundred or so bird species that I encountered on the trip, and I'm sure could easily have logged over hundred and fifty if I'd made a foray or two into the lower-lying bush areas. Here's a list of several of the ones I found especially notable:

Wahlberg's honeybird (Prodotiscus regulus), alternatively named sharp-billed honeyguide--a rather drab bird, apart from prominent white outer tail feathers, but a new species for me

Hartlaub's turaco (Tauraco hartlaubi)--an altogether splendid bird in violet, green and scarlet, with with dashing white facial markings; had better than usual views of one this time, a particular pleasure since we do not have this species in our Mbale, Uganda area

African crowned eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus)--Africa's most powerful raptor; son Jonathan's sharp eyes spotted one soaring over the forest as we were starting our return trip to Uganda; we pulled over to the shoulder of the road and enjoyed watching for a little while

Red-fronted parrot (Poicephalus gulielmi)--had flocks flying overhead daily en route to feeding or roosting places

Dusky turtle dove (Streptopelia lugens)--this was a new one for me also; viewed several of the birds while there; they do occur in Uganda, but only in southwestern and far northeastern parts of the country

Common scimitarbill (Rhinopomastus cyanomelas)--it had been years since I'd last seen one of these handsome black birds with white wing and tail spots

Cape robin-chat (Cossypha caffra)--I don't come across these very often, as they tend to be found at higher elevations than where we live, and not in my past experience in the same area as the related white-browed robin-chat (Cossypha heuglini, which we also enjoyed seeing while there)

Cape wagtail (Motacilla capensis)--a pair of them, foraging on the same patch of roadside grass with a couple of the common African pied wagtail (Motacilla aguimp)

Yellow-breasted apalis (Apalis flavida) and chestnut-throated apalis (Apalis porphyrolaema)--both of these were new to me, both observed in acacia trees at or not far from the forest edge

Sulphur-breasted bush-shrike (Malaconotus sulfureopectus)--saw a juvenile of this species that I often enjoyed watching at home in Malawi during growing-up years

Yellow-bellied waxbill (Estrilda quartinia)--I first got acquainted with these lovely, gregarious little birds in the highlands of Malawi, where the field-guides call them East African swees.

Streaky seedeater (Serinus striolatus), thick-billed seedeater (Serinus burtoni) and yellow-rumped seedeater (Serinus reichenowi)--the last of these was a new species for me

African golden-breasted bunting (Emberiza flaviventris)--gorgeous birds that I came across on several walks as they foraged on the ground, then flew up to a branch of a tree or shrub when I got too close

Red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius)--there were quite a number of these attractive birds drawing attention to themselves by their loud three-note, oft-repeated (even throughout the night!) calls; had some excellent views of a pair of them late one afternoon; sometimes they are called "rain-birds" because of their habit of calling frequently around the time that the rainy season begins

Heard the calls also of the black cuckoo (Cuculus clamosus) and the African emerald cuckoo (Chrysococcyx cupreus); Klaas's cuckoo (Chrysococcyx klaas) both heard and seen while there

Chin-spot batis (Batis molitor)--another bird familiar from our yard in Malawi, but not seen so far in Uganda

Monday, March 19, 2007

White-throated bee-eaters

Yesterday I was treated to a first-time (in Mbale) view of a flock of white-fronted bee-eaters (Merops albicollis) crossing over our yard, probably 200 feet up. Not the best presentation of these lovely birds, against a bright sky, but a thrill nonetheless to see and hear them in this area for the first time. They are not uncommon in other parts of Uganda, especially near wetlands, and draw attention to themselves by their almost continuous calling while on the wing.

A while back, as I was driving east toward Mbale from Kampala in the Busembatia area, I was keeping alert for grey-headed kingfishers (Halcyon leucocephala) on the power lines alongside the road. More often than not I get a glimpse of them on that section of road. This is to be appreciated because, even though they are not all that uncommon, they are much more localized in their distribution than their almost ubiquitous (in Uganda, at least) cousin the woodland kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis). Anyway, it was my pleasure to spot one or two of them and a woodland kingfisher to boot, right in the same neighborhood. I think that's the first time I've observed both species there together.

A day or two back I heard in the distance the distinctive descending three-note call of the red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius). I've heard that these are sometimes called "rain-birds" because they do often call repetitively with the onset of the rainy season. They are somewhat infrequent here in Mbale, for some reason, but have been around more often the past couple of years.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Blue flycatchers

It has been a while since I saw blue flycatchers in Mbale, even though they are reasonably common around here. What a pleasure it was early this morning to come across a pair of them just a few feet away from where I was walking. Almost completely powder blue, crested, never still, frequently fanning their tails and keeping up a lively chittering as they chased each other through the lantana bushes--it was a delight to see them.

I was also treated this morning to stunning views of a male scarlet-chested sunbird and very close-up looks at a male olive-bellied sunbird.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Recently noted

African hobby -- brief look at a pair of them early one evening from the verandah atop our garage; the time of day when bats begin flying and the palm swifts were still out in numbers, either of which would make fine menu items for the hobbies

African paradise flycatcher -- second sighting in a month or so, and still quite unusual for within Mbale town

Bat hawk -- spotted on two early-morning outings; the first one was probably sharing in the general feeding frenzy on a flight of the winged reproductive versions of one of the larger termite varieties

Tropical boubou -- ran across a pair dueting (which is what alerted me to their presence about 30 meters off the road I was on); I've observed these only a few times in this neighborhood during our eleven years in Mbale

This morning there were noticeably fewer than usual yellow-billed kites in flight around the area. In 30 minutes or so I saw two, I think, compared with the 30-40 I would have expected based on what I've been seeing in recent months. Makes me wonder if most of them may be gearing up to move out of these parts for a while.

Also this morning I got close to a mvuli tree from which a giant (Verreaux's) eagle owl was grunting; short on time, I couldn't stay long enough to locate it among the branches.

Near a swampy area along the municipal golf course I came across a winding cisticola, which I've not usually met that close to town (they are common just outside in the wetlands just west of town).

There have been a pair, at least, of red-billed oxpeckers turning up in our part of town the past two or three weeks. We evidently have enough people keeping cows around here to provide a sufficient supply of ticks and other parasites to support them.

Friday, February 16, 2007

More cuckoos

Since hearing the Klaas's cuckoo calling the other day for the first time in a while, I've noticed their signature sound just about every day. A couple of days ago, over on the north side of Mbale along Nabuyonga stream, I was surprised to hear another trademark African voice from the same family: that of the diederick cuckoo. These birds are named for their call, which goes something like "dee-dee-dee-deederick!" -- with the emphasis at the end. Diederick cuckoos tend to inhabit somewhat warmer areas than Klaas's cuckoos, and it's a little unusual in my experience to find them together in the same neighborhood.

Note on pictures

Copyright law does not allow the display on a website of pictures taken by someone else without prior written permission. So I'll limit my occasional posting of bird images to pictures I've taken myself. I do recommend, though, that if you'd like to have a look at a bird that I write about encountering, just use Google or another search engine to do an image search on the bird's name. In most cases, you'll get a number of excellent pictures to view.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Here today, gone tomorrow

The male Klaas's cuckoo is a dapper fellow, metallic forest green above and mainly white below. That green and white pattern camouflages him perfectly when he's high in a full-foliaged tree (which is where he prefers to hang out). Usually the only thing that gives his presence away is his distinctive and oft-repeated whistling call, one of the characteristic sounds of woodland in this part of Africa. The other day I heard this signature sound up in a tree beside the road I was on; didn't see the bird, but was glad to get a call from him, so to speak. It's been a number of months since I've heard one, and in the few days since then I haven't heard one calling again. He may have been just passing through.

Speaking of birds that are sometimes here and sometimes not, the grey-capped warbler is another one. These tend to be much harder to observe than Klaas's cuckoo, not only because of their grey and green coloration but also because they normally stay well within dense thicket or undergrowth. I tried for many months to get a glimpse of this bird that regales the neighborhood with an extraordinarily loud and varied series of call notes before I finally laid eyes on one. For some reason, though, since returning to Uganda in October, I had not heard a grey-capped warbler sing until early in January. For a couple of weeks, then, I heard their calls several times, but not again since then. They have either moved on, perhaps according to some local migration pattern, or they are skulking in the hedges without vocally advertising their presence.
I'll mention one more that fits in the category of "here today, gone tomorrow"--the African black-headed oriole. For the past several weeks, beginning in December I think, I've been hearing one calling in the early part of the mornings of several days. About three times I've been treated to a sighting--most recently yesterday when one flew between trees not far above my head half a mile or so from our house. These encounters have reminded me that I also saw and heard these orioles several times in December 2005 and January 2006. I would guess that they may be in our area seasonally as intra-African migrants; or alternatively that they simply find it convenient to be here at this time because of the temporary availability of some particular type of food that they favor. The African black-headed oriole is extremely similar to the less widespread western black-headed oriole (which also occurs in our area, according to my field guide). One of my challenges is to observe these birds closely enough with binoculars at some point to be sure which of the two I've been seeing. Sometimes one arrives at a firm identification of a species only after months of peering and researching. Which I think makes reaching that conclusion all the more rewarding.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Mabira stopover

Last week I stopped overnight in Mabira Forest, about two hours' drive west of Mbale toward Kampala. While there I indulged in a late afternoon walk in the forest and another early the next morning. The number of bird species I saw/heard was somewhat less than average for birding in Mabira, but there were some notables, as always.

A few highlights:

*** In the weaver department, black-necked weaver and red-headed malimbe

*** Representing the turacos, the great blue turaco and black-billed turaco (voice only on the black-billed; these guys are fairly elusive in Mabira and I didn't get to lay eyes on one this time)

*** From the barbet and woodpecker families, speckled tinkerbird, grey-throated barbet, yellow-billed barbet (voice only), yellow-spotted barbet, and the diminutive buff-spotted woodpecker

*** Robins, thrushes and their kin -- forest robin and scaly-throated illadopsis

*** Greenbuls and allies -- saw a variety of these, but in most cases they exceeded my amateur forest-bird identification skills; I did run across several red-tailed bristlebills

*** Sunbirds -- would have expected more than I saw, but enjoyed sightings of olive and collared sunbirds

*** And my new species for the outing, Nahan's francolin -- these reclusive forest-dwellers start searching the fallen leaves and ground debris for food around sunset. They are extremely shy and difficult to observe, so I was more than a little pleased to come upon a family group of them on the trail in front of me as twilight was turning into evening darkness. They scattered on seeing me, but I was able to approach to within about 20 feet of them and get a brief look before they noticed.

*** Finally (stepping momentarily out of strictly birding mode), I had good views of red-tailed monkeys and red colobus monkeys.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Mannikins and mannikins

Mannikins are a family of finches so named, I would guess, because their dark heads, upperparts and chests with the rest of their underparts white gives the impression of a clothing-shop white mannequin on display with a dark coat on.

The bronze mannikin, sporting a dash of easily overlooked bronzy-green on its shoulders, is one of the most common and familiar little birds in Mbale, as in many other parts of Africa.

Less often seen (or recognized, at least) is the closely related black and white mannikin. The dark and light coloration patterns are similar in both species, and I can testify that they appear even more alike when you see them out and about. The best field mark for distinguishing them is the bit of white that extends up around the black bib on each side of the chest on the bronze mannikin. The black chest of the black and white mannikin makes a kind of waistcoat line all the way across the bird's breast, from one dark-hatch "sidebar" to the other on each side.

It is rare not to come across small family groups of bronze mannikins whenever you walk in our neighborhood. Seeing a group of black and whites is somewhat unusual here, however, so I was pleased the other day to observe both species on one outing.