Mabamba Shoebill Safari

One of the highlights for anyone visiting Entebbe (even before or after a gorilla safari) is the canoe ride through Mabamba Swamp to see the prehistoric looking Shoebill Stork.  I booked with Mabamba Shoebill Tours based in the Sunset Hotel in Entebbe on Church Road which was just down the road from Lake Heights Hotel.  The manager, Olive was very friendly and helpful as were all her staff.  It’s great how they involve the local community, eco-tourism in action!  The price was very reasonable at $150 for both of us.

The driver picked us up early and we drove through the town to the boat dock.

My husband Ina, the driver and Vincent the guide

Red-eyed Dove near the dock

Fishermen at work

Bird making use of floating junk as a fishing launch!

Entering the Mabamba Swamp

Vincent on the lookout for Shoebills

Beautiful Malachite Kingfisher Weaverbirds

At last we spot our target bird, the amazing Shoebill Stork!

The Shoebill flew away and we tried to follow but the water was too low and we ran aground.  I was nervous until they pushed us free and headed back to the main waterway.

US Air Force plane flying overhead as we head back to shore.  I have no idea why it was there, I didn’t even know what it was until I got the pic uploaded!

Planning A Birding Safari In Uganda

First of all, everything I write here works for a normal “Big 5” type safari or even the mountain gorillas (though there are more specific blogs on gorillas) so if you are not particularly into birding you will still find value in this post.  Of course if you ARE into birding, you will find even more value!

Uganda has so much to offer and is easily accessed by airline miles.  If you have limited time and finances you will really have to make some tough decisions on how many parks to visit.  It really helps if you know what species are your priority.  For some people this may be raptors or trying to check off all the endemics.  For me it’s always parrots first, then songbirds, then other birds and mammals.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to bypass lions or cheetahs though!

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

With so much on offer, you have to do lots of research online to find out your best chances of seeing the species you really want to see.  I always check trip reports on Surfbirds and more recently added Cloudbirders to that.  Xeno-canto has mapped locations where birders took sound clips of many species so that can pinpoint them even more.

I always check bird sightings on eBird, you can see my full guide on locating bird species .

I also look through trip reports by major birding companies such as Birdquest, VENT, Naturetrek, Rockjumper and more.  The trip reports will show you which parks you need to concentrate on.  Once you have this, you can start contacting birding tour operators or safari companies that are well-recommended for quotes.

HOW I CHOSE MY ITINERARY

Firstly I should mention that I had unusual circumstances regarding travel insurance coverage and pre-existing conditions so I could only make a short dash into Uganda.  Normally I would have spent at least a week here although I have already seen the Mountain Gorillas back in 1998.  I was prioritizing parrots knowing that plenty of other bird species would be in the same habitats.  There are 3 parrot species in Uganda.    The African Grey Parrot is one which I only caught a fleeting glimpse of in Ghana so I wanted a better look.  Same with the Red-headed Lovebird.  The third parrot is the Meyers (Brown) Parrot.  I didn’t want to stray too far from Entebbe so I found 3 good prospects:

ENTEBBE BOTANICAL GARDENS

African Grey Parrot — Psittacus erithacus

Red-headed Lovebirds — Agapornis pullinarus

Meyer’s (Brown) Parrots – Poicephalus meyeri

MABAMBA SWAMP

Best known for Shoebills though African Grey Parrots have been seen flying overhead.

MPANGA FOREST

Same as Botanical Gardens.

Here is a map showing the locations.

HOW TO ORGANIZE YOUR OWN BIRDING SAFARI

In Uganda, it’s very rare for tourists to self-drive cars and you will have to use some kind of transport with a driver included.  These drivers probably won’t know anything about birds so you will also need a guide at each park/reserve you visit.  There are usually guides hanging around national parks waiting for customers so this won’t be a problem.  You may decide that it’s more convenient to just join an organized tour such as those whom I mentioned above if you can afford it.

I booked a Shoebill Safari with Mabamba Shoebill Safaris which was well-recommended on Trip Advisor.  The first time we went to the Botanic Gardens we used a taxi-minibus from our hotel.  This didn’t work out well as the windows were shaded cutting visibility.  After the Shoebill safari, I struck a deal with their driver to take us back to the Botanic Gardens after the shoebills, then the next day to Mpanga Forest.  They had a more comfortable vehicle (SUV) and made a good price.  If you are a less-experienced traveler and not comfortable with “Winging it”, then you can contact safari companies in advance to book a driver.

VISA FOR UGANDA

Uganda has an e-visa system where you fill out the application, upload scanned copies of your documents and pay online.  The paying thing is new, when I did it, we paid on arrival, $50 cash per person.  The details and application is HERE.

You will need scanned copies of your passport, a recent passport photo, your Yellow Fever certificate (valid for lifetime) and details of your flights and accommodation.  It’s pretty easy and our were approved by email the nest day.

BEST SEASON TO TRAVEL

There’s a couple things to consider, the weather and potential crowds (especially if you are going to other parts of Uganda).  I always check the weather on Weather2Travel.  In my case, since we were going to other places in Africa we went in the rainy season (April 2017) but it wasn’t too bad, only a few showers in the evening.

If you have “must-see” bird species, always check eBird to make sure the birds are being seen that time of year by other birders.

BOTTOM LINE

Obviously a lot of thought and preparation needs to go into a birding safari to Uganda and even more so if you will be visiting Chimps & Gorillas.  The lower your budget, the more you have to do yourself.  For most people, this will be a once in a lifetime experience so take your time and get it right!

 

48 Hours In Dubai

It doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but this wasn’t our first visit to Dubai.  We had been there in 2006 and already done some of the touristy things like the dune-bashing and desert dinner in the desert so this time I know I wanted to eat some of my favourite Middle Eastern dishes, see a belly dance show for locals (not tourists) and shop!

Al Tannour in the Crowne Plaza Hotel has a delicious Lebanese fixed menu and an excellent show featuring a belly dancer and 2 singers.  We were the only tourists there and the locals in attendance were definitely in a party mood!  Everyone was up dancing by the end of the evening, including us!

Of course we had to pay a visit to the famous Gold Souk in Deira.  You can get there on the Metro.  I didn’t buy anything but I did have a gold ring repaired at a bargain price.

Then we had some yummy Persian food at Sadaf which was walking distance from our hotel.

The Dubai Museum in the fort has been vastly improved since I was there last and has some wonderful dioramas of Arabic lifestyles and traditions.

Near the museum/fort is Al Fahidi Street which has some really cool ladies clothing shops.

There are also some souvenir type shops near the creek.  I might have bought one of these lamps if I didn’t have to lug it around Africa!  This same area also has some money changers who stock African currencies.  I got some Ethiopian Birr, but struck out on Uganda Shillings and Zambian Kwacha.  The other thing I stocked up on was Doxycycline for malaria prevention.

The shopping continued at DXB airport in the transit area as we waited for our red-eye flight to Nairobi on KQ.

Overview Of Our African Trip – April/May 2017

You gotta do a Godmother proud and we started off right in Etihad’s wonderful business class thanks to Virgin Velocity points.

Then we had a couple days layover in Dubai to shop and sightsee.

Next it was off to Entebbe, Uganda on Kenya Airways using Flying Blue miles.  We stayed at the Lake Heights Hotel and hired local drivers to take us to the Entebbe Botanical Gardens, a day trip to Mpanga Forest and a Shoebill Safari.

Then we flew to Addis Ababa & Lusaka on Ethiopian Airways, then to Windhoek on South African Airways courtesy of United Mileage Plus points.

In Ethiopia, we had a 2 night stay at Lake Langano at the Hara Langano Resort, then 2 nights in Addis Ababa at the Ghion Hotel with a day trip in hired car to Menagesha Forest.

In Zambia, we used public buses to get around and started off in Livingstone where we had a day trip to the Machile IBA to see the Black-cheeked Lovebirds, then to Mfuwe for an amazing safari in South Lungwa National Park.

Finally it was off to Namibia for a massive road trip to Etosha National Park, Kunene River, Huab Lodge and Omaruru for some independent birding.

We returned to Brisbane on Qatar Airways in business class thanks to AAdvantage miles with a connection to BNE on Qantas from Adelaide as QF don’t fly to Brisbane.

The whole thing looked something like this.

So sit back, relax and enjoy the birds of Africa and learn how to do this trip using miles and points!

Manila To Mt Makiling In A Whirlwind

Continuing my historical report of our trip to the Philippines in Sept 2010.

We ran off the Cebu Pacific flight from Puerto Princesa and got a taxi to the bus station from where we found a bus headed to Banos.  I had asked the driver to let us out someplace we could get a taxi/jeepney to Mt Makiling.  In retrospect, we shouldn’t have tried to rush this trip but I was hopeful of seeing Guaiabero Parrots.

The place we stayed seems to have been renovated and renamed so here is their current website.

The trails go through some lovely rainforest habitat and there were other birders there who pointed the way to where they had seen Guaiabero Parrots earlier.  We hurried along and could hear parrots in the distance as it was near roosting time but they were too far to see.

We were hoping for more birding in the morning but got rained out.  We gave up and went back to Manila as it was our last day in the Philippines.

I got the Crowne Plaza on an IHG Pointbreaks for a bargain 5000 points!  It’s located in this mall which has a huge food court.

One last dip in the pool after a hectic adventure.

After leaving the Philppines, we flew on Cathay Pacific via Hong Kong to London with a rare op-upgrade to business class on HKG-LHR!  We had done a status challenge back when they were still free and held Platinum.  From there, we flew Iberia to Madrid, then to our final destination, Tenerife for our first time attending the World Parrot Conference at Loro Parque.

Puerto Princesa: Conservation Centre, Iwahig & Hibiscus Inn

Continuing my report of a trip we took in Sept 2010:  We got an early jeepney to Puerto Princesa as we had lots to see.

Gotta love the bird decorations at Bakers Hill!

I don’t remember the details of how we got from place to place – taxis, jeepneys or what.  Next stop was the Puerto Princesa Wildlife Rescue & Conservation Centre.  Most of the birds and animal here have been rescued from poachers ans some are in conservation breeding programs.  Butterflies are everywhere!

Philippine Cockatoos

A chance to see beautiful Blue-naped Parrots up close!

Hornbills

My husband with a baby crocodile. Rice paddies

Iwahig Prison rehabilitates prisoners by teaching them skills and crafts which are sold in the shop.

Prisoners in rice paddy.

Lunch at fast food place in Puerto Princesa.

We stayed at the Hibiscus Inn which was a pleasant small hotel.

Checking in at the airport for Cebu Pacific flight to Manila.

Souvenir shops at airport. Goodbye Palawan, hope we return someday!

 

Adventures In Sabang, Palawan

After being dropped at the Puerto Princesa bus station, we found a jeepney-bus headed to Sabang.  Sabang is a village/beach area that is very popular with backpackers and people visiting the Underground River. This trip was done in Sept 2010 so it won’t be as detailed as my usual reports.

Jeepneys go when full but they are super cheap.  It was less than $10 per person iirc.

We had intended to stay at Bambua Nature Cottages just out of the main Sabang area but it was closed.  I don’t know if it was seasonal or the family just went away for something.  Recent Trip Advisor reports show it’s still open and a good place for birders.

Anyway, we walked down to the beach and found Green Verde Resort.  They have a good restaurant and nice little nipa huts for budget travelers.

Across the road was a massage cabana on the beach, just what we needed!

The whole town is easily walkable, nice place to chill out!

I felt so sorry for this mynah bird in the horrible cage. 

Monkey watching

Lizard

Ox cart

Fishing & snorkeling is available here though we didn’t do it.

The Underground River is the main attraction here.

There’s some hiking trails but very little light for birding.  We were hoping for Racket-tail Parrots and Blue-naped Parrots.

There are other small boats you can take for birding on the river.  We took one of these and the guide identified some Blue-naped Parrots streaking overhead. 

Return To Rasa Island & A Visit to the Philippine Cockatoo Monitoring Project

After a brief sunset visit to see the Philippine Cockatoos roost for the night, now we would have the chance to see them wake up and fly to the mainland. Wake up call was bright and early-4:30am so we would reach the island by dawn. Ina opted to sleep a bit more so it was just Ivy and me this time. Benito was waiting right on time and we were able to get a bit closer to the roosting site. Although it is possible to land at certain times of the year, they prefer not to as it disturbs nesting and breeding Katala. We arrived around 5:30am, set anchor and waited for the cockatoos to wake up. There were signs of stirring about half an hour later as dawn broke and the sky grew lighter. They were pretty lazy and took their time but gradually more and more Katala would wake up, fly between the trees looking for their friends and of course making noise!

Wakey wakey Cockatoos!

They flew back to the mainland in small flocks.  We followed in the boat.

Back on the mainland we took a tuktuk to the feeding site.

I sat in the gently rocking boat trying to get photos and video as they flew around the roosting site.  They didn’t linger, hungry cockatoos want to eat so they flew off to foraging grounds on the island and mainland.  As we drove back, I could see several pairs heading to Narra.

We landed ashore and got the tuk-tuk to a small road in the middle of the village surrounded by family homes.  This was where I got to see the Katala much closer and get better photos.

A good shot of the red vents.

This is the Katala Foundation’s monitoring project where the locals keep track of the cockatoos.  There were around 5 or 6 flying between trees in people’s backyards. Ivy said that the people don’t mind if tourists with the Katala Foundation enter their backyards to see the birds. The Philippine cockatoo feeds on seeds, and, to an extent, on fruits, flowers, buds and nectar. The species is very adaptable and even forages on crops, particularly rice in a half-ripe stage and corn. Therefore the cockatoo was formerly regarded as a pest. Thanks to the Katala Foundation, the locals now treasure their endemic bird and even assist in monitoring the preferred feeding trees and keep logs of Katala visits. We enjoyed watching them for about an hour, then they flew off. Ivy showed me the seed pods they eat and some of the log books.

Malunga seed pods left over from the cockatoos.

One of the most important aspect of any bird conservation program is to get the local people involved and the Katala Foundation is one of several conservation programs sponsored by Loro Parque Fundacion . They organize schools, festivals, field trips and build community pride in the Katala. Annual festivals feature people dressing in Katala costumes! For more information on the Katala Foundation, booking an eco-tour or learning more about these rare cockatoos, please visit their website.

My very shaky video of our trip, it does get better towards the end with some close-ups.  Back then, I think I had a Canon450D with 55-250mm lens.

After our visit, we caught a minibus back to Puerto Princesa.  Since we were larger than the locals, we paid for 3 seats to be more comfortable, it was still really cheap.

A Visit To Rasa Island, Palawan

This is a historical report of a trip we did in Sept 2010, before I started blogging so the details aren’t as good as my more recent trips.  You can organize a similar trip with the Katala Foundation.

The lush tropical island of Palawan, Philippines is well known as a location for spectacular diving in the northern resort of El Nido.  Though many tourists make the trek up north, very few head south to see the rare feathered gems on the private Rasa Island near the small town of Narra.  This is the stronghold of the few remaining Red-vented Philippine Cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia) .  The endemic Philippine or Red-vented cockatoo is a small psittacine with a helmet crest and red undertail coverts. The white plumage is extremely conspicuous in flight and in the foliage of the lowland dipterocarp and mangrove forest habitats. It is 12.2 inches long and has an 8.6 inches wingspan. The Katala as it is locally called is a social species which roosts, feeds, and flies in noisy groups.  Their habitat is lowland, riverine, and mangrove forests but may be found in forest edge and open fields as well as high in the mountains. Can be seen singly or in flocks of up to 30 or more.  Recent estimates by Widmann (2001) suggest 1000 individuals left in the wild! Rasa probably holds the highest population density with 200 recorded individuals.

Getting here is quite an adventure in itself.  First you need to get to Manila, then get a short domestic flight to Puerto Princesa.  We were lucky enough to be met by Dr. Sabine Schoppe from the Katala Foundation who lives in Puerto Princesa.  We stopped at a nearby restaurant for a quick chat, then she dropped us at the bus station.  Small shuttle vans leave when full direct to Narra and are comfortable.  It’s about a 3 hour drive through lush farmland and small villages, passing the Iwahig prison farm.  Indira Dayang Lacerna-Widmann, the Program Manager for the Katala Foundation had booked us into a small hotel-the Gorayan, and organized a guide for us.  She had meant to meet us personally but found out she would be in Australia at the time of our visit.

We then rode through the town in a tuktuk to the beach.

Later that afternoon, our guide Ivy met us and had us fill out some paperwork and pay the fees for conservation, guide and boat. She’s a lovely lady full of enthusiasm for the cockatoos and very friendly and helpful. The boat launch site was a few km away so she brought a tuk-tuk for us and she rode her moped. The boat captain, Benito was waiting for us with a small wooden boat. We got in carefully-camera gear and all and headed out towards Rasa Island. Ivy explained that Benito had once been a poacher but he’s now a forest warden to guard the Katala and provide boat transport for eco-tourists. The core project of the Philippine Cockatoo Conservation Programme is a wardens scheme to guard the cockatoos, particularly during the breeding season. Former poachers were recruited as wildlife wardens because of their profound knowledge of the species. They are indigenous people of Palawan: the Pala’wan from the south, the Tagbanua tribes and the Cuyunin from the northern part of the province. He got as close to the island as possible given the tides, set anchor and proceeded to fish while we waited.

Wait we did, the Katala weren’t going to show up early just because a couple of Aussies had flown out there to see them! Around 6:10pm, we could hear them approaching. They had been out foraging all day, some on Rasa and some on the mainland. A few flew in at first and clung to the trees near the bank squawking noisily as cockatoos do. Then more and more and suddenly the darkening sky was full of them! Although we were pretty far away in the boat, we could see mostly the silhouettes of the small cockatoos who are similar in size to Aussie Corellas. They flew from tree to tree, looking for the best perch for the evening until the sky was dark and they quieted down for the night.

.We went back to shore, noticing several fishing boats with flickering lights along the way. Ivy brought us back to the hotel and we had dinner in a nearby restaurant/karaoke bar. Some of the locals turned out to have beautiful voices! They encouraged me (as a visitor) to have a go, I proceeded to murder Simple Mind’s “Don’t You Forget About Me” and got good natured applause from the very kind locals. Then I was glad to hand the mike back!.

Planning A Birding Trip To The Philippines

The Philippines archipelago has an astounding mix of more than 600 species of birds and  of these almost 200 species are endemic.  This was a very brief visit we made back in September 2010 while enroute to the World Parrot Conference at Loro Parque.  Some of the details are hazy but I do have plenty of photos.  Anyway, you can be sure the Philippines is on my list for future trips!

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

With so much on offer, you have to do lots of research online to find out your best chances of seeing the species you really want to see.  I always check trip reports on Surfbirds and more recently added Cloudbirders to that.  Xeno-canto has mapped locations where birders took sound clips of many species so that can pinpoint them even more.

I also look through trip reports by major birding companies such as Birdquest, VENT, Naturetrek, Rockjumper and more.  The itineraries can provide inspiration for your own or you may decide that it is easier to just join a tour.  They are not cheap but they do have excellent guides to help you find a lot more birds.

Independent birders have a lot of resources too.  Have a look at these websites.

Birdwatch Philippines

EBON

Katala Foundation

 

HOW I CHOSE MY ITINERARY

This was back in the early days of my birding career.  I was prioritizing parrots, knowing that there would actually be lots of different bird species in the same habitats.  First I contacted the Katala Foundation to see the #1 target, the Philippine Cockatoo.  Details are on their flyer and the costs are extremely reasonable.  Then I knew there were other parrots on Palawan such as some Racket-tail Parrots and Blue-naped Parrots.  Then I squeezed in a stop to Mt Makiling to hunt for Guiabero Parrots.

This will be covered in detail as the report progresses.

HOW I BOOKED OUR FLIGHTS

I used American Airlines miles for

BNE-HKG-MNL-HKG-LHR (CX) -MAD-TFN (IB).  I don’t recall what it cost then (it was much cheaper) but now it would cost 30k in Y or 40k in J for the BNE-MNL segments and 35k in Y or 75k in J for the MNL-TFN segments.  We were in Y as I hadn’t yet honed my travel-hacking skills to where we could get J. The flights were booked around the end of 2009.

From there, we had cheap paid tickets TFN-MAD-RAK (Marrakesh side trip), then United miles back to Australia via IST & BKK on TK & TG.

The one thing to be careful of is that we couldn’t just issue a MNL-Europe award from BNE.  We would have had to walk into an AA office and pick up the tickets in person.  However as an open jaw award, we could have this routing.

LOGISTICS

We flew on Cebu Pacific from Manila to Puerto Princesa where a rep from the Katala Foundation met us and took us to the minibus for Narra.  We took another minibus back to Puerto Princesa, then changed to a larger bus for the Sabang trip.

Back on the mainland, we took a taxi to the bus station and a bus that dropped us at Mt Makiling.  Given that this trip was 6.5 years ago, I don’t recall the details, we may have had another taxi from the bus stop to Mt Makiling.

WHEN TO GO

This wasn’t a conscious decision as this trip was part of a longer trip including Spain (Loro Parque conference) so we had to go in September.  We did cop some rain as a result but nothing we could do but try.

Weather2Travel is my go-to site for weather planning.  On a future trip, I’d be looking at Feb, March, April (avoiding Easter holidays).

VISAS

The citizens of most countries that are likely to be reading this blog can enter the Philippines for at least a month (or 3) visa free.  See details here.

ACCOMMODATION

During the layovers in Manila, we stayed at the Crowne Plaza because it was on the IHG Pointbreaks list and only cost 5000 points.  We stayed at very small hotels in Narra to see the Philippine Cockatoos, Subang for the Puerto Princesa Subterranean NP and Puerto Princesa.  Back on the mainland, we had an overnight in yet another small guesthouse in Mt Makiling.  None of these were booked in advance, we just rocked up.  If you want to have something booked in advance, it’s worth looking on  Pointshound  or  Rocketmiles to maximize bonus miles.  Each property will be reviewed in the appropriate section of the trip report.