In The Mist

 

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February 21-23, 2016

We bit the financial bullet and booked gorilla tracking permits for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (BINP). It was a lifetime dream to spend time with these (generally) gentle giants but one that’s been toward the bottom of the bucket list given the likelihood of traveling to the western edges of East Africa. Then, we moved to western Kenya, and the limitation was primarily economic. We saved our pennies and made the decision to track in Uganda on a trip to Rwanda. We chose Ruhija for a couple of reasons. One, it was close to Kabale, and we were dependent upon locally available transport. Two, the highlands of Bwindi usually mean the gorillas can be found in relatively open areas where the canopy is not as dense. Three, Ruhija is only 25 kilometers from the section known as “The Neck”, where black bee-eaters are known to nest from January to March. We made arrangements to stay at Ruhija Gorilla Friends Resort Campsite, which was a phenomenal decision. Don’t hesitate to contact the manager, Clemensia, at +256751619725. She’s delightful.

We arrived to Kabale at 8:00 AM after taking an overnight Simba Coach from Kenya. There is only one shuttle/vehicle that travels to and from Ruhjia daily. It arrives in town about 9:00 AM and leaves around 2:00 PM. The driver is incredibly friendly, but his English is poor. His Kiswahili is only marginally better. However, simple phrases like the name of the campsite gave him all he needed to know. If you want to reach him, his mobile number is +256758537239. It was a long drive. About 3 hours later (including stops), we arrived in Ruhija. The drive itself was stunning. We climbed steadily into the mountains and slowly, the cultivated grasslands began to give way to banana plantations, which then gave way to tea plantations, and then forest. Dark, deep, dense forest. The stark delineation of Bwindi could not be missed.

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There is a gate at the forest boundary, but because we used the public shuttle, we were not charged the standard vehicle fee. After about 20 kilometers on the windy dirt road, we arrived to Ruhija, which is a charming little village. All of the buildings are made of timber, and it feels like a perfect caricature of a theme park. It’s set on the spine of a sharp hill with the road riding the crest. We checked into our safari tent, unpacked a bit, and met with Saul Ampeire, who was to be our birding guide. He informed us that the rains from the day before had thankfully knocked down the dust after over three weeks without rain. He warned us though that the rains could holdover and create come less than ideal scenarios for birding due to lowered temperatures. We continued to talk over dinner, which was a delicious roasted chicken in a Ugandan sauce with fried potatoes. I’ll say it now: The food blew us away given the price and location. We expected food that would get us by. We really looked forward to breakfast and dinners. Lunch was packed each day, as our activities would prevent us from returning to camp. Tired from 24 hours of travel, we called it a night.

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The following morning, we drove over to The Neck in search of black bee-eaters. Indeed, as Saul warned, the temperatures were cool, and the sun failed to come out all day. The usually busy and active bee-eaters were shut down for much of the time as they sat at the very tops of the forest seeking warmth. Two active nesting sites were found in which a bird was incubating eggs in both. However, they did not leave their roosts until the very end of the day. As we started our search, we scoped out a two-kilometer stretch of road where Saul suspected we’d find active nests. As aforementioned, we successfully located two. We spent all day patrolling this range and enjoyed great encounters with a male bar-tailed trogon, which was a lifer for us.

Bar Tailed Trogon

The day’s low light made for tough photography, but the cooler temperatures made for a very comfortable experience. We also found our very first male emerald cuckoo not more than 50 feet from the trogon and at eye level (though further into the dense forest). Great blue turacos and black billed turacos also let us know of their consistent presence through their barks, grunts, and scaws. At a small swamp, we found two African black ducks, which are an area specialty, and the blue on their wings is quite beautiful. Finally, at around 2:30 PM, some of the cloud cover burned off, and the incubating bee-eaters emerged from their nests.

Black Bee-Eater

Black Bee Eater Eating

They allowed for some decent photos given the conditions before the rain began to fall heavily beginning at 3:00 PM. This made for an interesting ascent back to Ruhija over the suddenly very muddy and slippery road. In fact, the road is impassable for up to 10 months of the year, with January and February being the exceptions. The surrounding scenery is stunning in this part of Uganda.

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We made it back to camp in time for a delicious supper of Nile Rice (a Ugandan stir fry/fried rice with vegetables and tilapia). It was delicious, and the dessert of crepe-like pancakes topped it off. We went to bed with hopes that the afternoon rain would blow over during the night to reveal a dry and brighter day for our gorilla tracking.

I awoke at 5:00 AM to the sound of soft rainfall and was not pleased. I was afraid it would only grow in strength, making our track and photos nearly unenjoyable. I was proven wrong when after about 45 minutes the rains ceased and the clouds began to part. We enjoyed our Spanish omelets, toast, and bananas but were distracted by the coming attraction. We packed our gear and were escorted through the village down the road to the Ruhija park office about two kilometers away. Here, we submitted our permits and waited to see if other trackers would arrive. After about 35 minutes a group of four Europeans arrived, and we were ushered into the briefing gazebo. Here, we learned the history of the park, were told the dos and don’ts with the gorillas, and were provided a few tips. Joyfully, it was announced we’d be searching for the famous Bitikura group of 19 members, with four of them being silverbacks and two of them being juveniles.

The hike was not easy. It was about 40 minutes of up and down over slick and often narrow passages along ravines and drop-offs. We arrived to the gorilla area and setup our camera gear…our one hour had begun. The sixty minutes went by way too fast. But in the midst, our encounter was unimaginable. We saw three of the silverbacks, including the 38-year-old founder of the family. We came upon a group of about six, including a three-year-old resting, eating, and sleeping under a group of trees.

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Slowly, they departed and spread out through the undergrowth. Two females moved only a few meters away and began to play and wrestle with each other. At one point, they were no more than one meter from us before calming down to eat. Activity was all around us, and while these two were a joy to watch, we left the Europeans and with two guides, explored more of the surrounding hillside to find other gorillas. We found a group of four in trees, a mother with a very small baby (perhaps no more than a few months). She was very shy and did not allow us to view her well at all. The tracking itself once we moved off trail was very challenging. The only path was the one cleared by the guides as they slashed and pulled the vegetation this way and that. Every step was on slippery, itchy, and sometimes spiky undergrowth that was strewn upon steep terrain, ditches, and burrows. We likened it to walking in the snow. One step we were on top, the next three feet deep.

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Another real highlight was watching the three-year-old playing in a young tree and swinging up and down. When he landed, he beat his chest like the larger silverbacks, sat down, and stared at us for a bit. It was a fitting way to end our hour.

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Just as we were climbing out, we spotted the dominant silverback far below with only his head emerged from the vegetation. He looked at us and then departed for a deeper recess of the forest, showing us his namesake as he grunted away. Truly magical.

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Weekend at the Lake

January 9-10, 2016

Lake Baringo

It was a spur of the moment decision, we visited Lake Baringo for the weekend. We knew that two things will soon happen at the lake: the northern carmine bee-eaters will migrate north between February and April, and it will become unbearably hot.  A bit of advice…don’t travel to northern Kenya in February or March. We made the standard Nakumatt run for supplies, packed our bags/cooler box, and checked the car’s vitals. The drive was (as usual) quite interesting with the terrain constantly changing. Farmland and fields are soon replaced by escarpments and acacia thickets, which then transition to scrub hillsides, which become lush forested hills, which then morph to dry bush, and finally dusty rock outcroppings with scattered trees. Thankfully, the forecast predicted cloud cover at night, which meant cooler temperatures.

We stayed at Robert’s Camp once again and opted to rent one of their dome tents for 2,000ksh per night. Quite affordable considering the local safari lodges charge ten times that rate. After settling in (which only takes about 6 minutes with an already setup tent), I began walking the grounds for signs of birdlife. This in and of itself is a misnomer. You don’t look for birdlife here. It’s everywhere (this is not an exaggeration). What you look for are birds of personal interest. I quickly found a pearl spotted owlet, Verreaux’s eagle-owl, weavers, pied kingfishers, superb starlings, Ruppell’s long tail starlings, bristle crowned starlings, dimorphic egrets, a flock of 30ish northern carmine bee-eaters, African fish eagles, and more.

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Verreaux’s Eagle Owl

Unfortunately, Francis (our go-to guide) was not available, as he’d been contracted for a Samburu safari. Not to worry because we connected with Joseph Aengwo. That name might look familiar to some of you as he’s the owner of kenyabirding.me and Silent Fliers Safaris. Jumping to the end, it was a honor and privilege to spend time with Joseph.

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Male Green Winged Pytilia

He met us at Robert’s, and we went for a drive/walk/trek to see what we could find along the western shores, northern basin (above Loruk), and the cliffs. We encountered a good array of species, with highlights being a pair of green winged pytilias, a lanner falcon, a juvenile black and white cuckoo, two African grey hornbills, a pygmy falcon, three rufous-crowned rollers, a couple fan tailed ravens, a Somali fiscal, slender-tailed nightjars, and scattered blue-cheeked bee-eaters overhead. On the mammal front we found a couple of dik-dik, a wild hare, and two rock hyrax. We hoped to find the Hemprich hornbills returning to the cliffs for their night roosts, but alas, none cooperated. With darkness approaching, we called it a night and agreed to meet at 7:30 the next morning for a boat ride.

The evening cooled off quite nicely, and we enjoyed a dinner of stir fried chicken and vegetables in a coconut soy-sauce gravy. We played some card games, read a bit, chatted with other guests, and generally unwound. It’s amazing how even after the holidays and a couple of days off, a recharge can still be necessary. Just because the holidays translate to no work, they don’t translate to rest. We slept well thanks in part to a few things. One, we took cold showers before trying to sleep. Two, the clouds cooled the sun’s intensity as it was setting. Three, there was a breeze most of the night. Four, we removed the rain-fly from the tent. We awoke and saw that a layer of clouds dimmed the sun considerably. Undeterred, we met Joseph and Louis (our boat driver) at the agreed-upon 7:30 and embarked. The target was bee-eaters (no surprise for those who know me). But the lake holds a multitude of great species so even without bee-eaters, it would have been a great morning. We found a pair of giant kingfishers, reed (long tailed) and greater cormorants, egrets, weavers, and more fish eagles right out of docking station. We traveled south and before long, came upon a small flock of blue-cheeked bee-eaters high in the partially submerged trees. Continuing, we spotted a couple of carmine bee-eaters that sat in the slowly warming sunlight that struggled to penetrate through the clouds.

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Northern Carmine Bee-Eater

We stalked the bee-eaters as they hunted a bit, and we were told that on particularly hot mornings they can be found by the hundreds. Today’s cooler weather meant less bee-eaters but very nice soft lighting combined with higher densities of water birds that depart for shelter in the normal heat. Goliath herons were easy to find, a couple of white-faced whistling ducks lingered overhead, and a couple of species of tern presented themselves.

Goliath Heron

Goliath Heron

We continued to look for the blue-cheeked bee-eaters and along the way spent time being stalked by an African fish eagle that hoped we’d stir up a morsel or two. We also spent about 15 minutes watching a male pied kingfisher beat the living daylights out of a young tilapia. It struggled to figure out how to get breakfast down the hatch and seemed determined to solve the problem. Deciding to part ways, a doubt was left in our minds as to whether or not that particular fellow would be successful. My opinion was that its eyes were bigger than its gullet.

African Fish Eagle

African Fish Eagle

 

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Male Pied Kingfisher

We ventured back to the large trees where we’d spotted the blue-cheeks earlier, but with bland light and only juveniles, we called it a morning and went back to camp for breakfast. For the rest of the day, we took it easy. Usually I’m itching to get out and squeeze in every last bit of birding. But today, I felt that some R&R with my wife was in order. We resumed our card games, reading, and laziness and loved every minute of it. There were a few anxious moments in which I heard an interesting bird, so I’d grab my camera and play a round of hide and seek. My efforts paid off in cracking views of a pearl spotted owlet, a klass cuckoo, and a number of Dierderic cuckoos.

Pearl Spotted Owlet

Pearl Spotted Owlet

 

Diederic Cuckoo

Diederic Cuckoo

As the day wound down, a single adult carmine bee-eater landed on a tree at the lake’s edge and was not the least bit shy. I walked to within a few paces and shot a few frames of the outlandishly-colored, sleek specimen. The northern species is differentiated from the southern by the throat and tail-streamer length: green and shorter for the northern groupings, vibrant pink (carmine) and longer for the southern.

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Northern Carmine Bee-Eater

Unsure of what the weather would look like in the morning, we decided to release Joseph. We did not want him to rise early only to find out we’d cancelled to morning’s excursion. Unfortunately, we were met with a beautiful sunrise and quickly arranged with Louis for another boat ride. We wasted no time and made right for the bee-eaters. A couple of carmine obliged us as they chased after dragonflies and butterflies in the morning light. The low sun cast their plumage in bright display for our viewing pleasure, and the backdrop of the cliffs made for nice photographic moments.

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Northern Carmine Bee-Eater

The blue-cheeked bee-eaters were still playing hard to get. In fact, we traveled up and down the western shore trying to locate a mature male. The females and juveniles were a dime a dozen (plentiful), but the jewel-like males were nowhere to be found. Finally, as we zipped over to the large tree from the first morning, my wife spotted one perched on a low branch. We’d nearly overshot him, and thankfully her eyes zeroed in on the rather out-of-place emerald green breast. The females are a bit bluer in frontal coloring, and the juveniles are generally dull and lack the pointed tail streamers. We edged as close as possible to enjoy this colorful bird and took a few photos before he sailed off for a higher and more private lookout.

Blue Cheeked Bee-Eater

Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater

Incandescently satisfied, we retuned to Robert’s Camp to enjoy breakfast and leisurely pack our things before departing. On the way back to camp, we asked if Louis knew of the new roosting spot for the African Scops Owls who’d moved from their normal spot at the Lake Baringo Club property. He assured us he’d find them while we ate our morning meal. After a short time he called me and told us to bring our cameras. We strolled to the gate, entered, and were quickly ushered to a back section of the abandoned camp. There we spent time with the diminutive six-inch scops owl. He just peered at us and occasionally slow-blinked while we soaked in our experience of this little beauty.

African Scops Owl

African Scops Owl

All in all, it was a fantastic couple of days at the lake with quality birding, quality birds, and quality time with my wife. Thanks again to Joseph and Louis for the effort you put into our positive experience.