I used to think that travel to the tropics during rainy season would be a waste of time and money, and so for many years we timed our trips so as to miss the wettest months. But while we were living in Thailand for all of 2018, we realized that some of the best birding (plus cheap rates and lack of crowds) occurred during rainy season. Moreover, it wasn’t the constant deluge I imagined it would be. It meant that a few hours in the afternoon or at night it might be wet, but the weather would be lovely otherwise. The respite from heat was welcome, and bird activity would often ratchet up after some showers. I’d come to prefer rainy seasons for birding.
With that in mind, we decided to hit a couple of East Africa countries during the April/May rains. It worked out well because Claire had a week-long work stint at her company’s facility in southern Holland, and flights from Amsterdam to Africa are plentiful and not too long. While she was working, I was out adding audio recordings of European birds to my collection.
We’d fly first to Kilimanjaro airport in northern Tanzania, spend about a week there, and then hop over Lake Victoria to visit Uganda for a similar time period. I expected that we’d reach the 5,000 species milestone before we were done, as I needed 155 more birds to get there. My target list was over 300 species, and getting half is something we usually always achieve. On the way back home, we’d stop in Istanbul for a day to add a few more.
Speaking of Kilimanjaro, one drawback to visiting in April was that the mountain was always obscured by clouds. But what the rains brought to the savannah made up for it. Our timing was perfect in that the grass had sprung up into a lush green carpet everywhere but was not yet so tall as to conceal any of the wildlife. We saw photos of the same places during the dry season, and it looked unrecognizably brown and barren.
The rain in Tanzania came here and there, often at night, and never once interfered with the birding. (In Uganda it would be a different story.) We only had a week in each country, so we didn’t have time to get to the Serengeti. Instead, in Tanzania we focused on Arusha and Tarangire National Parks, as well as the fantastic Ngorongoro crater.
I rarely photographed any birds on this trip. I left my Nikon P900 at home to reduce the bulk of our gear, and instead carried a small Panasonic Lumix with 30X optical zoom which I found to be almost unusable in the field. No matter, I was there to focus on audio recording in addition to getting lifers. I might have photographed about 10 birds, but I captured the vocalizations of 155 species.
Of course, Africa is the one place where one can get easily distracted by mammals while birding. We’d seen many of them previously in Kenya and South Africa, but we were still waiting to see our first lions. Tanzania obliged us with them at Tarangire, where we found them sleeping on the road.
The real bonus was just a few miles beyond the lions, where a termite mound was being used as lookout point by another cat, one we never expected to be lucky enough to see. Even our guides were excited to come across this cheetah.
The highlight in terms of locale was the Ngorongoro crater, which was teeming with birds and mammals, including a couple of Black Rhinos and many more lions. Most of the wildlife found here is confined to roam on the vast floor of the crater, so it is almost like being in a natural zoo ringed in by an escarpment instead of fences.
Our guide, Anthony from Tanzania Birding, was fantastic, and in eight days we had 269 bird species and 75 lifers. Tanzania is by far our favorite place on this continent, eclipsing Kruger National Park in northern South Africa.
An hour’s flight over Lake Victoria brought us to Entebbe. While the gamble on rainy season paid dividends in Tanzania, it would not be the case in Uganda. From the time we arrived rain would be the rule and not the exception. It threatened to wipe out our scheduled visit to Mabamba swamp and made already difficult roads at times almost impassable. Fortunately, the weather cleared in time for us to join several local guides in a canoe, and we scoured the thick papyrus beds until we finally found one of the famous, prehistoric denizens of this place, pictured below.
The next must-stop location was Lake Mbara where we got another specialty of the region, the African Finfoot. Because of the rain and the poor roads, we were always a bit behind schedule, but happily this meant that we did not stop for the so-called “water experiment” at the equator, something the tour company had put on the itinerary. I had read about an individual who uses water basins to fool people into thinking that water drains in different directions in the northern and southern hemispheres. (Be warned I am a physicist and sensitive to these things.) While the Coriolis force affects ballistics and the movements of air masses, the effect is negligible for a tub of water. Other considerations, such as the shape of the container, will utterly swamp any effect of the earth’s rotation. If this was a real experiment, the same tub would be used for both locations in order to control for any effect from its shape. To make the whole thig even more laughable, the directions of the flow painted on the basins is wrong; it is opposite to the actual effect. I was not looking forward to witnessing this buffoonery, so I was pleased we didn’t stop.
Next, we headed further southwest to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, our first experience with an ecosystem representative of the Congo region to the west. It was here that our gambling debts related to rainy season became even more steep. We got into the area after dark on waterlogged mud roads, often needing several minutes of tire-spinning just to move a few meters. This area has numerous lodges catering to those looking to trek out to meet up with gorillas, but we were the only guests at our hotel. Now I was starting to wonder if our strategy was wise, but the next morning was clear, and all looked good for a five-mile hike in search of the Grauer’s Broadbill.
The weather stayed dry just long enough to get deep into the forest, and then we got inundated. We never found the broadbill. I didn’t even think to try to capture photographs of the proceedings, as it became too dark for me to see much, and my waterproofing was essentially useless. The best image I can find to represent the experience is this:
Due to the low light that comes from a heavy downpour in a dense forest, I basically had to have one of the guides lead me by the arm for the multiple hours of trekking back up the mountainside, trudging through deep impressions left in the rough paths by forest elephants. When we got back in the late afternoon, the staff at the Gorilla Mist Lodge were wonderful, building us a fire as there was no other way to dry off.
We were not even supposed to return to that place that evening, but rather to continue on to Buhoma, where a different mixture of bird specialties awaited us. However, the storm did more than make half the day miserable: multiple landslides left the road forward impassable, so we had to write off that portion of the trip. How many birds it cost us… I don’t want to think about that.
We had to backtrack a bit in order to find a way to our next destination, Queen Elizabeth National Park. Here, again we were lucky because the storm took out even part of the paved road, and trucks were not allowed to pass but our tour van was.
Queen Elizabeth was the busiest place we found here, but the birding wasn’t all that great. We were reaching diminishing returns on savannah species. It is a lovely place though, with the Rwenzori mountains of the Congo towering to the west. The rain even stopped.
Our final destination was the Kibale Forest, home to chimpanzees as well as the difficult Grean-breasted Pitta. We had a local guide that was familiar with their preferred haunts, and eventually we heard the strange call that make when the hop up from their perch on a tree branch. Eventually we found one we could see.
With only a couple more species on the way back, a Cassin’s Flycatcher put me at 4,999 as we left Uganda. I expected it was going to be close. Luckily, we would pick up a couple of birds in Istanbul and get over the hump for 5,000 species. I’m glad we did this trip, but I’d think twice about ever going to Uganda in May.