It is Sunday morning after breakfast at the Ngamba Restaurant where birding guides, majority female have assembled to create a bird checklist for Ngamba from the previous day’s bird tour. Every guide has a field guide’s book: Birds of East Africa by Stevenson and Fanshawe.
The Uganda Safari Guides Association (Usaga) chairman, Hebert Byaruhanga, leads the strenuous session comparing the birds seen on the Island and those on the different plates in the book. “Did you see any grey-backed camaroptera?” he says pointing to the bird in the book.
In unison, the guides respond, “yes”. He proceeds to inquire about the flycatchers and the answer is “no”. How about a red-faced cisticola? Red-faced cisticola had been seen. Byaruhanga is a moving birding encyclopedia that has traversed all corners of the Pearl of Africa in search for birds.
“Tit-hylia is the smallest bird in Uganda standing at 8cm,” he tells the guides. It was last seen two months ago by Kibale-based guide, Harriet Kemigisa, in Mabira forest.
New birding destination
For years, Ngamba Island was not prominent on the birders map, but with the assistance of fast budding bird guides female club and forward-thinking twitchers such as Byaruhanga, travellers have an opportunity to explore, at first hand, the riches of the island beyond the orphaned, rescued chimpanzees.
Set for a birding expedition, the team boarded a motorised canoe at Uganda Wildlife Education Centre, Entebbe. Every guide had a back pack with camper’s material with either a pair of celestron waterproof or Nikon 10 X 42 binoculars.
Their dressing was similar comprising caps, jeans, canvass shoes, long stockings and khaki shirts with a badge on the left breast and right shoulder.
Birding got underway as we spotted little egrets. They are aquatic birds that feed in shallow water and on land, consuming a variety of small creatures.
The birding trail began at the neighbouring Koome Island with the guidance of Joseph Masereka and Innocent Amumpaire both caregivers and knowledgeable island birders. In a single file, we marched on like soldiers going to war. We could only stop at the sight or call of a bird.
We were warned against pointing our binoculars at the villagers as this made them feel insecure. None of the visitors knew what lay ahead of them in the 5-6Km trail. We endured creepy-crawlies that we crossed paths with as some found their way into our pants.
We had failed to heed Masereka’s advice of tucking in our pants into either stocks or boots. However, the pain was short-lived and the excitement ushered in as we saw unique birds.
According to Alderleaf Wilderness College, an online study centre, when you are learning to identify wild birds, it helps to keep size and shape, field marks, behaviour, and location in mind. These categories do not have to be used in this order, but it certainly can help make this process easier and more effective.
Byaruhanga spotted what the guides identified as black bellied bustard in the open savannah grasslands. It was at a relatively long distance, but the power of their opticals brought it closer.
One by one, they raised their voices, “lifer, lifer”. “What is a lifer?” I asked. Davis Rukundo, a fresh graduate from Makerere University, but on apprenticeship programme of Bird Uganda Safaris explained that a lifer is the first-ever sighting of a bird by an observer, added to one’s life list. As Rukundo observed, every bird tells a story, and the stories make sense if you listen attentively.