Game Drive …

Dawn found us on the banks of the Nile, our taxi was first in line for the ferry …

The savanna awaits on the north bank along with a severe case of pixel intoxication …

Waterbuck (m)
Waterbuck (m)
Denham’s Bustard
Northern Carmine Bee-eater
African Elephant
Hartebeest
Patas Monkey
Rothschild’s Giraffe

What about that sky, the light was magical, and surprisingly not a drop of rain fell.

And then we encountered the lions …

 

 

The some very sharp eyes found these for us.

the Leopard is a very secretive animal. And if you delve into his secrets it could be quite dangerous for you…

Geoffrey Muhanguzi.

Leopard

This is just a fraction of what we saw, and we racked up quite a bird list to go with the mammals. Choosing which photos to include here has been very hard. If I went through the exercise again there might not be too much of an overlap.

All too soon it was over, we had to make the 11 am ferry in order to be out of the park before our 24 hours were up and we all became liable for another 50 bucks.

My advice, if you are visiting Murchison Falls National Park, stay longer and explore the possibility of staying in the northern section of the park.

R and R …

After all our hard work it was time for a weekend off.

The Budongo forest is adjacent to the Murchison Falls National Park. The quintet of Earthwatchers were very keen to make a visit there and the director of the research centre, Geoffrey Muhanguzi, very kindly offered to arrange our transport and accommodation.

Saturday morning came and Godfrey was waiting for us in his van. Geoffrey, in his quiet way, made it plain to Godfrey that, although we would only be doing this trip once, he would be organising similar trips in the future and would be keen to hear our opinion on our return.

Godfrey was very keen to impress and I’m sure he would have if his van hadn’t broken down 20 km up the road.

He rang a mechanic who arrived on a motorbike. And after about 45 minutes was able to get the van going … after a fashion.

photo – Will Steele

But not for very long. A taxi was sent for. We reached the park shortly after midday. $50 US each buys 24 hours in the park. We could have spent a week there.

First stop was the Nile cruise. Disembarking at the foot of the falls and then climbing to the top where our new driver and his taxi would be waiting.

The Victoria Nile flows northwards from Lake Victoria into Lake Kyoga. Then from the western extremity of Lake Kyoga it takes an arc through the national park into lake Albert dividing the park into a larger southern and smaller northern section. Along the way a lot of water tumbles 140 metres through a 6 metre gap, Murchison Falls.

The falls were put on Europe’s map by Sir Samuel Baker and his dearly beloved, Florence, in the mid 1860’s. They named the falls after Sir Roderick Murchison, president of the Royal Geographical Society.

The White Nile flows north out of Lake Albert.

If you take the cruise remember the action is on the north bank, try to get a seat on the left side of the boat. Where better to see Nile Crocodiles and Sacred Ibis than on the Nile?

Nile Crocodile
Goliath Heron
Hippopotamus
Rothschild’s Giraffe
African Elephant
Murchison Falls

The hike up the falls was hot and steep, but worth the effort although the best view is from the boat just before it docks.

Our accommodation for the night was at the Yebo Safari camp. The authentic Africa, dirt floor, thatched roof but with flush toilet and shower en suite. The shower even had a hot tap, but just for decoration. I guess they come as a set and it would have seemed a waste not to put it on the wall.

I shared the room with a scorpion. I understand that if the pincers are small the sting in the tail is potent. It had very small pincers.

The sheets were clean, the food was excellent, the staff very pleasant.

Chimpanzee …

chimpanzee (n.)

1738, from a Bantu language of Angola (compare Tshiluba kivili-chimpenze “ape”). Short form chimp first attested 1877.

There was a fruiting mango tree in the camp. Chimpanzees had wandered through for a feast every day. We had kept a respectful distance so as to keep our germs to ourselves, now that we had passed our quarantine period we could follow them more closely.

My first full day with them was with the Sonso group, named for the river than ran close to the camp. This was the first group to be habituated and could usually be found without too long a hike.

The aim was to spend long periods with a target individual recording their every activity in ten minute blocks. Their daily life can be summarised in a list of eating, traveling, resting, grooming and sorting out their social life – just like ours.

So far as eating goes, chimps like ripe fruit. They supplement this with young leaves and will also eat flowers. They will ingest clay occasionally. They drink mainly from puddles in tree hollows but we saw a few drink from a stream which is where they found their clay. They also like to eat monkeys.

They travel with ease along the ground or through the trees. They climb by putting their hands beyond the tree trunk, their feet go on the near side. They are expert at making the more slender trees sway until they can make a transition from one tree to the next. And they make frequent use of outer branches to slow their rate of descent towards the ground or a more rigid branch. Their internal map is in 3D, we have given up a dimension.

When they are having a break from eating they are often involved with grooming, usually in pairs or groups of pairs.

Their social life seems to be all about status and sex. It involves a lot of noise and showing off. Human parallels might be bikie gangs or drug cartels, big males capable of forming useful alliances will rise to the top. And stay there ruthlessly until toppled from power.

The Sonso group hunted Colobus twice on the day I was with them and were successful the second time. The field assistants were very quick to recognise their intentions. The group spread out around the Colobus troop, some on the ground, some at mid level and some high in the trees, all making some attempt to conceal themselves. Then a couple of individuals go after the monkeys. Colobus tend to all rush in the one direction which may be the reason they are the preferred target … you can stay concealed until the first one goes past then grab the next.

The successful chimpanzee will then rip open the monkey’s abdomen and start eating the entrails, the monkey might still be screaming at this stage.

Whilst the hunting is communal the eating is definitely selfish. A lucky few will get some meat. They will ignore the most pitiful begging of subordinate individuals. Why then take part? It doesn’t take that much effort and you may win the lottery.

The next day it was off to the more recently habituated group. We found them after about two hours roughly 8 km from camp. They passed the morning slowly moving towards camp. Then the afternoon moving away!

They had a female in estrus with them, the alpha male was guarding her very carefully. For all his efforts though it was a subordinate that got lucky whilst the boss was chasing off the number two male. There was a fair bit more hooting and drumming on trees than the day before, tensions were raised, it seemed.

They didn’t hunt and the field assistants told us that they had not hunted in recent weeks.

Meet the monkeys …

Our trial run at primate tracking and data collection was with the monkeys.

Specifically Blue Monkeys and Red-tailed Monkeys.

Blue Monkey
Red-tailed Monkey

Their big cousin, the Chimpanzee, is a ripe fruit specialist although they are not averse to eating monkeys, too. One way to coexist with them is to get in early and eat unripe fruit. We watched them do exactly that, feeding in trees where most of the fruit was green but taking such ripe fruit as was available and some young leaves for variety.

We also got to see them grooming each other, and hear some of their vocabulary.

The other monkeys present in the Budongo forest are the Olive Baboon and the Guereza Colobus.

Olive Baboon

The Baboon seems the odd one out. It has a much more terrestrial way of life and a rather ape-like demeanour, however it is a monkey and is more closely related to the previous two than it is to the Colobus.

They are extremely inquisitive and extremely smart. They are always hanging around the Research station accommodation and would be in in a flash if they got the chance. If that happens no one is game to throw them out … you just wait until they leave and then clean up the mess. Some of the staff on campus have their small children live with them, baboons are a threat to their safety. A baboon control officer is always on patrol near the staff quarters. Most of the time his weaponry is for show, most of the time …

Baboon control officer at work …

This is the real odd one out. Look carefully at its thumb, well actually, look carefully for its thumb. It doesn’t have one, an odd feature for a creature that picks leaves and fruit and climbs trees. You’d think a thumb would come in handy.

Guereza Colobus

 

Banding Birds in Budongo …

The local birding team …

Raymond, Andrua, Moreen, Patrick.

Moreen Uwimbabazi started the banding project as her honours research. Raymond on the left is a red hot local bird guide who was drafted for our benefit. If you need a bird guide in northern Uganda he is your man. You can contact him on 0777 319 865 or 0752 930 065.

The process is fairly straight forward. You set a mist net between poles, keeping it very taut from one end to the other and endeavouring to keep it out of the branches of the adjacent trees. In the shade it is almost invisible which is why I chose to photograph the end in the sunlight.

Mist net

Visit regularly, carefully extracting any birds that have found their way in. Identify the birds, measure them (wing length, head and bill, tail length), weigh them, band and release.

Andrua and Patrick were just learning the ropes so we were able to ensure their technique improved. In exchange they were able to ensure we made our identifications correctly as we encountered birds that were completely new to us.

Forest Robin
Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo
Doesn’t hurt a bit …

Budongo …

After arriving at the Budongo Research Station we were each assigned to a single room in one large house. The toilet was in the back yard and consisted of a concrete slab with a hole in it. Beneath that  was very deep hole in the ground. Zephyr, the always genial manager of the accommodation showed us where to put our feet if we were to be successful with our aim. Very useful advice. And for the novice squatter it’s a bit further forward than you think.

Our house
The dunny

The showers were about 150 meters away. The fire would be lit at 4.00 pm every day, if you wanted to shower before that it would be cold.

It was  basic, a bare bulb in a bare concrete room, but a comfortable bed with a mosquito net, a bolt on the bedroom door and on the outside door to keep the baboons out.

My room

Tomorrow would start with a comprehensive briefing followed by a lecture on chimp health. Since chimps are prone to many human diseases, especially upper respiratory tract infections new humans are kept away from them for five days. There is plenty to do, however, in the afternoon we wandered down the Royal Mile for some bird watching.

There are about 700 chimps in the Budongo forest. Two groups, about 150 individuals, have been habituated and are tolerant of human proximity. These are followed, quietly, on a daily basis by visiting researchers and field assistants. The researchers may be doing undergraduate honours research or more advanced studies. The field assistants are the real experts, most have been working at the station for years and all can recognise and name all the chimps by sight or even sound.

Days three, four and five are occupied with phenology, bird banding and then following monkeys.

Phenology (my spell checker hasn’t heard of it either) is the study of the progression of plants, in this case food trees, from budding through leaf formation to fruiting. We followed transects scoring marked trees essentially for their usefulness as primate food sources at that instant. Not the most exciting component of our stay but a 12 km walk in a tropical forest has to be good for you.

The bird banding was our chance to shine. Stay tuned.

Monkeys are definitely more exciting. They don’t come close enough to catch the flu and are excellent practice for following the chimps. With clipboard in hand we watched a target monkey for ten minutes at a time, recording their behaviour and if they ate, their food.

For instance , they might eat young leaves and unripe fruit, move trees, call, groom and resume eating. Or they might spend ten minutes resting. Or they might disappear into foliage and not be seen again in which case you choose a new one to follow.

 

Blue Monkey

If we’d had to wait five days for our first glimpse of a chimpanzee we would, by this stage, be at fever pitch. In fact we’d seen chimps every day, we had just had to be well behaved humans and keep a safe distance away to safeguard their health.

Note the presence of mature leaves, ripe and unripe fruit. For the moment please ignore the chimpanzee …

 

Meet the Team …

I started bird watching at about eight years of age. A book that my parents had and a keen classmate got me going, after that it was self sustaining. It usually consisted of a long walk making a list of what I found, I loved doing it then and I still love doing it 60 years later.

Along the way I took the time to study ornithology and earn a Graduate Diploma. I got involved in some research projects and have a Licence to Band Birds. While banding migratory waders I met Dr Will Steele who got his PhD studying sea birds on Marion Island. I met Dr Mark Antos whilst banding bush birds, he earned his PhD studying foraging in forest passerines. They are both professional biologists. We have been friends for many years.

We were in Uganda to join an Earthwatch Project investigating threats to Chimpanzees but we would also get the chance to share our knowledge of bird banding with a local team.

At breakfast the next morning the group of three Aussies were joined by Cristina and Silvana. Cristina, originally from Brazil, is a zoo keeper at Dallas Zoo looking after Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Baboons. Silvana is a banker from Switzerland.

l to r – Silvana, Mark, Cristina, Will, Geoffrey, McGee

At 8.00 am two vehicles pulled up, Geoffrey Muhanguzi, director of the Budongo Research Centre, was driving one. We were soon on our way. Our route took us north through the outskirts of Kampala then on to Masindi where we had lunch. After lunch we left the main road and slowly bumped our way north-west to the Budongo Forest arriving late afternoon. The journey was a shade under 300 km, it took about 5 hours actual driving. The traffic around Kampala was chaotic, the main road was fairly poor, beyond Masindi it was really poor.

Along the way we got to see life on the streets.

And almost everything you could imagine being transported on a motorbike from building materials to furniture. Mum Dad and three kids, no problem, four adults likewise. To transport a few planks lay them across the saddle and sit on them, just don’t try going through a narrow gap, the same technique will work for a dining table.

In the country side we passed the odd herd of extremely well horned cattle …

And eventually we reached our destination …