A Day in the Life of a Chimp …

… could be a day in your life that you will never forget.


Earthwatch have written to me …

If you have any friends, family, or colleagues who you think might benefit from the once-in-a-lifetime experience of living a day in the life of a chimpanzee, please let them know that we have a team in need of more volunteers running from October 7-18, 2017, as well as 6 teams scheduled throughout 2018 that need a good head start on their recruitment …

Apply now <zzimmerman@earthwatch.org>. Tell them Rob sent you.

You can be in Budongo soon. If you need a refresher on the delights that await you there skip back in this blog to July 10th. The link again … Investigating-Threats-to-Chimps-in-Uganda

Do it.

Farewell Uganda …

Prossy, our birding guide for the last couple of days dropped us back at the Boma.

You can’t beat local knowledge. Having a guide to help us find birds and to identify them makes a huge difference to the rate at which the list grows. Local ears are even more important than local eyes.

It brought an end to our stay in Uganda, a stay that we had thoroughly enjoyed.

There was a photo close by that we just had to take …

The burning question was … when the guy got the modelling gig, did anyone tell him what his photo would be used for? Or did they just say let your eyes light up like you’ve just received a nice surprise.

And then to the airport for a late night flight to Kigali, Rwanda, followed by a very late night drive to the Volcanoes National Park. In the next couple of posts I will share with you some photos of Golden Monkeys and Mountain Gorillas.

But whilst the blog is between countries let me editorialise for a moment. The other day, just outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe someone bagged themselves a lion. The lion was Xanda, he was the son of Cecil who was shot in similar circumstances two years ago. Like Cecil he was wearing a research collar and was part of a long term study.

I have photographed lions in South Africa, Botswana, very recently in Uganda and the Asian branch of the family in India. They are easily approached in a vehicle, especially if they have wandered from a national park. It is also a simple matter to conceal yourself near a kill and await their return.

I have hiked in Hwange and encountered lions on foot. It was a surprise to both parties, four humans, five lions. The lions scattered and fled.

There is no courage or skill required to kill a lion. It is the act of a coward who wishes to seem something bigger. It is beyond my understanding that someone can approach a magnificent, living and trusting animal and with a modern rifle convert it to a corpse. There is no need for it, no sense in it. It is sick.

I understand that the head will be cured and sent home to the hunter to be mounted on the wall. I do hope they leave the collar on.

way too easy – press the shutter not the trigger


Mabamba …

You sometimes hear the expression “And the food was to die for”. I don’t think that means it was poisonous, or so fatty as to instantly clog your arteries. I think the suggestion is that having eaten such delicious food life is complete, nothing will ever match the experience again, you may as well die now. Birdwatching is evidently nothing like eating.

I had seen the Shoebill, I could never tick it again, but life goes on. There are other pebbles on the beach, fish in the sea, birds in the swamp. The Papyrus Gonolek would be nice.

It’s rare, has limited distribution, skulks in the papyrus and is a lot smaller than a Shoebill. And considerably prettier.

You can’t beat local knowledge, our guide for our couple of days in the Entebbe region was Nanyombi Proscovia. It would not be easy but she would do her best, she said, to find us the Gonolek.

Prossy, the bird guide.

So, Mabamba for the second morning, back into our boat and back into the swamp along with the local people going about their daily lives.

We nosed along, sometimes through narrow water ways, sometimes across more open expanses, mostly driven by outboard motor but where the vegetation was particularly dense the boatman resorted to pushing us along with a pole. It was surprising how close some of the birds would let us get.

African Jacana
Malachite Kingfisher
Purple Heron
Blue-breasted Bee-eater

Where’s its blue breast? It’s an immature bird, give it time and it will develop a neat blue collar.

The Intermediate Egret has a huge range. You can even find them in Australia but it’s not often we see them in their breeding finery.

Intermediate Egret

What’s this flying past? Oh, I’ve seen them before …

What we need is …

Papyrus Gonolek

Prossy was an excellent bird guide. If you need a first class guide in Uganda you can email her at prossybirder@gmail.com or visit her Facebook page.

Let them eat fish …

A recent post, Game Drive, has been a big winner. With the tags travel and Africa it has attracted a lot of attention. Some posts are like that. This post is about a trip to the Entebbe Botanical Gardens, it’s a great destination, it gives you a chance to get at the shore of Lake Victoria, three species of monkey are well represented and there is also a fourth, it’s a great place to find birds in a big city but it really doesn’t lend itself to a sexy title.

And some of its denizens are certainly not sexy …

Marabou Stork

Others are way more attractive …

Black-headed Heron
Great Blue Turaco
Striped Ground Squirrel

The squirrel stays close to its hole in a termite mound.

The three regular monkey species are Blue Monkey, Vervet Monkey and Colobus. There is a solitary Red-tailed Monkey as well, an escapee from the nearby zoo. The Vervets are adorable …

Vervet Monkey
Vervet Monkey

Just ask them.

What on earth does all this have to do with fish? Miracles and fish have a close relationship. It’s a miracle this Pied Kingfisher could catch and then fly with this fish. If you click on the first photo you can step through the process of swallowing it. First turn it around so that it’s head points down your throat …


Shoebill …

Many years ago I went to a farewell dinner for a surgeon. Naturally he gave a speech. He was a surgeon who was retiring but he was no retiring surgeon. In the space of a few minutes he had mortally offended every catholic in the place and alienated every woman. Hospital managers, health insurance funds, nursing staff all got a serve. If he ever regretted his retirement there was little chance that he would be welcome back.

But his ultimate scorn was for birdwatchers. You could safely assume he would not be spending the twilight of his days bird watching.

I can understand that. Bird watchers are weird. They are socially awkward and compare sizes … of lists that is. Now, of course, this is a bird watcher’s blog but it’s not a birdwatching blog, if it were it would consist of endless lists and no sane person would read it. You can find such blogs.

Lists, though, are remarkably democratic. A House Sparrow, a feral pigeon and the rarest bird in the world all contribute just one to the list. But are they really all equal? Would a birder ever send a photo of some trash bird to a birding friend and say “Look what I just added to my life list”?

On the other hand if it were rare, limited in range, five feet tall and known to include crocodiles in its diet …

It was about an hour and a half’s drive from Entebbe to the papyrus swamp at Mabamba Bay. We had been advised that our chance of seeing Shoebill was about 70%. To improve our odds we would go twice.

Our transport awaited …

We sent a sharp pair of eyes up into the crow’s nest …

And after a couple of hours we found our quarry …

Balaeniceps rex

King of the whale heads. Just standing there looking down at us. Which is what they do for long periods, waiting for some unsuspecting lung fish or baby crocodile to swim within reach, or even a duck. Then it’s all action, it lunges into the water, engulfs a bill full, ejects everything that it’s not interested in swallowing before decapitating anything that it is interested in swallowing and then swallowing it. Or so they say, just finding one is hard enough, it would be a rare privilege to witness what The Handbook of the Birds of the World calls its “violent method of fishing”.

Where the Shoebill fits in the evolutionary bush is uncertain. It was once lumped with the storks, it shares some characteristics with the herons but it is more likely, though, that its nearest relatives are the pelicans. For the moment it is a single species in a unique genus in its very own family, the Balaenicipitidae.

Heads up, camera ready …

It strides to the water’s edge …

and plunges, eyes protected by a nictitating membrane …

Up it comes, spilling water. Then discards vegetation until after a few minutes working on the contents of its bill it discards everything left in its mouth. It seems to have been unsuccessful and flies off to find a better spot …

I wasted no time sending the photos to my birding friends around the world. They gnashed their teeth and howled in pain.

The Boma

We enjoyed a leisurely drive back to Entebbe. The three Aussie Earthwatchers would be staying at the Boma and then continuing our African sojourn. Sadly, Cristina and Silvana would be flying home.


The first impression of the Boma is  discouraging but beyond the razor wire and security post is a hotel of old world charm.  It looks good by day …


Even better, perhaps, at night …



The gardens are a delight and full of bird life …

Black-headed Gonolek
Northern Brown-throated Weaver

With such a colonial flavour would a pith helmet be out of place?


Here’s looking at you, kid …



Earthwatch Really … ?

the Royal Mile

If you have been following my African adventure this far it may have crossed your mind that an Earthwatch expedition may be a good idea. It is not merely a good idea – it is a great idea. Put yourself in the picture above, surround yourself with beauty …


and meet interesting people.

There were five of us at Budongo. Two were PhD qualified professional biologists, one was a keen amateur with postgraduate qualifications in ornithology, one was a zoo keeper with a wealth of knowledge about primates in captivity and one was a banker.

Four out of five brought a great deal of biological knowledge with us, but it was the odd one out that proved you needed none of that to make a contribution. Five out of five took a great deal away with us.

The program was top class. It started with the trees themselves, from buds to ripe fruit. It moved on to the birds, the monkeys and the apes, the wildlife that depend on the forest. It reached into the surrounding farms to provide the human context that will determine the future of the forest.

Huge thank yous needs to go to Geoffrey Muhanguzi, the director, a quiet man of enormous authority and depth, to the effervescent Zephyr, facility manager, to Dr Caroline Asiimwe, Conservation Coordinator, to Moreen Uwimbabazi, bird bander extraordinaire and to all the field assistants and station staff that made our stay so rewarding.

What of the flagship research?

As food supplies decline, chimps in the Budongo Forest are raiding farmers’ crops. What is causing the decline in food? How can the area support both farmers and primate foragers?

The phenologists are keeping a close eye on forest productivity. We must take their word for it that, for now, productivity is declining. Our observations will do nothing to explain why that is the case.

Chimpanzees are raiding farmers’ crops. Well, it was probably always thus. More frequently now because of declining fruiting? The research model will not answer that, largely because the people asking the question have done a lot to improve conditions for the chimpanzees, numbers have increased and so has their health. As they tend towards the carrying capacity of their habitat they will look to take advantage of the crops next door, regardless of forest productivity.

Do the farmers care? Regarding chimpanzees – no. Their concern is the enormous amount of human time taken in guarding their fields. Losses are tolerable if the animals are promptly driven away. Losses are total if the crops are not guarded. So long as baboons, bush pigs and monkeys raid crops those crops must be guarded. Full time. Partial reduction of raiding will not reduce the time spent guarding by the farmer and their family.

So if our efforts as researchers did not break any new boundaries in science did we make any contribution at all?

Yes we did. If you want to maintain a research facility focused on chimpanzees that is available to undergraduate and postgraduate students you need people in the field to maintain habituation of the animals, you need accommodation and you need expertise. In other words you need money.

One way to get the money is to build a five star hotel and fill it with rubberneckers. That requires considerable capital input and entails a large commercial risk. If successful it might bring a host of new problems in its wake.

Alternatively a steady stream of interested and motivated visitors who will take one star accommodation in their stride and pay their way will bring in some of that much needed income. That was us … quiet and intelligent tourists who paid our money and in exchange were given an experience way more valuable than our meagre contribution.

We helped to support a facility that is doing a great job.

Could it be you?

It can and it should be you. There is almost certainly an Earthwatch expedition that will appeal. If it’s to be Budongo you need to be sure that:-

  • you can walk 15km a day (10 miles)
  • some of it at 5 km/hr (3 mph)
  • you can and are prepared to use a squat toilet

So here are the links. Click now.

The food, by the way, was delicious.

Black-and-white Casqued Hornbill