Day Trip To Mpanga Forest, Uganda

Although the weather wasn’t the best, this day trip to Mpanga Forest about 90 minutes from Entebbe was still a pleasant trip.  It was one I could relax and enjoy since I had already found my target birds in the Entebbe Botanical Gardens.

I negotiated a full day rate with the driver, Robert from the Shoebill Safari (they can put you in contact with him) for 300,000 UGS.  We left very early to try to get to the forest as early as possible.

We went past lots of small markets and villages.

Turn off to the forest.

A bit muddy from the rain.

There are some cabins you can rent at the Mpanga Forest and this is where you pay the entrance fees and hire a guide.  There are official prices for everything, cash only.

The outhouse

Setting off on the trail with the guide.

Lots of pretty butterflies

Dug out tree roots, not sure what critter did this.

Trails are well marked but dark due to the overhead canopy.

Mousebird

Pied Kingfisher

We left after an hour as it was getting drizzly and not many birds around.  We were sitting around the picnic area for awhile to relax and see if the weather got better but it didn’t.  We drove back to the nearest town – Mpigi to get some lunch.

The restaurant had local food which was ok, not really to my taste but it was…………..ok.  The rice was good but the meat was too tough to eat.  Definitely cheap!

Heading back to Entebbe we passed more small markets and roadside stalls.

All in all it was an interesting trip though not the best for birding.  Maybe in a different season.  I had also considered Mabiri Forest  but that seemed too far for a day trip but it would make a nice overnight trip.

Entebbe Botanical Gardens – The Birds

If you’ve been to most botanical gardens around the world, you may be expecting lots of flowers in organized garden plots. That’s not what the Entebbe Botanical Gardens is like.  It’s more like a large city park or small nature reserve with lots of trees-which of course attract lots of birds!  It’s also one of the most reliable places to see wild African Grey Parrots which was why I planned this visit.  Even if you are headed elsewhere in Uganda, it’s well worth a visit.

If you want to see as many birds as possible you need 2 things.  A vehicle (because this place is HUGE and you have to chase the birds if they fly off) and a guide.  Most hotels can organize a car for a set number of hours.  I paid around 100,000 UGS for 2 or 3 hours, I forget what it was.  You can pick up a guide at the gate, there will be several waiting and they seem to have their own rostering system.  Just make sure the one you get knows birds, maybe test them on a few photos first.  We got a guy named Bright who was excellent in both bird spotting and identification.  The standard fee is 20,000 UGS and I gave him a bonus of 20,000 UGS for finding the Grey Parrots because he really worked hard to find them.

Cool sculpture along the road.

Entrance to the Entebbe Botanical Gardens, this is where you pay the entry and hire a guide.

Monkeys were all over the place.

The shores of Lake Victoria is where you see a lot of water birds.  We were driving back and forth so the same birds were seen on different passes in this area.

Weaverbird

Pied Kingfisher

Little Egret

Red-chested Sunbird Now we’re in a more wooded area as Bright heard the Ross’s Turaco calling and quickly spotted him.

Wicked looking spider!

Great Blue Turaco

This one is too obscured, if anyone knows what it is, please comment.

Woodland Kingfisher

Fish Eagle

Bad shots of random birds, if anyone can help with these, let me know.  I do have a bird checklist on eBird.

Black and White Casqued Hornbill

Colobus Monkey

Saving the best for last-the wonderful African Grey Parrots!  There were around 10-12 frolicking in the trees but not all of them came into view.  Thankfully a few did!

Notable birds that I didn’t get pics of were the Meyers Parrot that flew overhead that Bright couldn’t find perching and the Red-headed Lovebirds we spotted on our last visit (no guide available as it was late) who were flitting around the flowered bushes near the lake.

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!

 

Getting To Uganda With Airline Miles

Most frequent flier programs place Uganda into the Africa zone.  You can find some generic recommendations on how to get to East Africa here.  I already have a blog with my recommendations for which programs to join if you are new to the world of miles and points.

The major gateway city for Uganda is Entebbe.     Once you have been in the miles and points game for awhile, you will get a feel for which airline to use where but if you are just starting out Wikipedia will show you all the airlines that fly into Entebbe.

ONE WORLD OPTIONS

The only One World member serving Entebbe is Qatar Airways via Doha.  You can reach Doha from anywhere in the world where Qatar flies to.

STAR ALLIANCE OPTIONS

From North America you can use Egypt Air via Cairo, Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa, South African Airways via Johannesburg or Turkish Airlines via Istanbul.

From Europe you can use Egypt Air via Cairo, Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa, South African Airways via Johannesburg (a bit out of the way but UA might allow it) or Turkish Airlines via Istanbul.

From Australia and New Zealand there are no direct flights, you need to get to Singapore or Bangkok, then you can pick up Egypt Air, Ethiopian Airlines or Turkish Airlines.

SKYTEAM OPTIONS

From North America you can use KLM or Kenya Airways via Europe.

From Europe KLM flies direct from Amsterdam with connection to most European cities or Kenya Airways.

From Australia Skyteam isn’t the best option unless you travel via Dubai and pick up Kenya Airways from there.

NON-ALLIANCE OPTIONS

Etihad and Emirates serve Entebbe from all over the world via their hubs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively..

HOW MANY MILES WILL IT COST?

Every airline member of the 3 main alliances has it’s own frequent flier program.  Examples are in my East Africa post.

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!

Back From Africa, The Godmother Was Amazing!

Although I have had posts appearing each week automatically, actually we have been in Africa on the “Godmother of all African Adventures” so I have missed over a month’s worth of happenings in May.  Not to worry, I am sure there will be more good deals in June!

I had to deal with “stuff” like replacing my 4 year old laptop and transferring my life over to the new one and I haven’t really gone through the photos yet.

For the time being, I will maintain my reduced posting schedule of 4 posts a week until I get caught up at least.  The Africa series starts Monday and I plan to keep posting Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

We went to 4 countries – Uganda, Ethiopia, Zambia and Namibia, each one amazing and totally unique!  We had layovers in Dubai and Doha while flying to and from Brisbane and flew business class in Etihad and Qatar Airways thanks to miles and points.

Did I outdo myself from the “Mother of All African Adventures”?

Here’s a teaser, see for yourself!

 

A “Godmother” Of All African Adventures?

Now that the Mother of all African Adventures is behind us, it seems my fascination with Africa isn’t over yet!  So what would I do for an encore?  If you’ve been reading this blog for the past several months, hopefully you enjoyed hearing how I planned the travel to South Africa, Mauritius, Madagascar, Ghana & Tanzania and saw most of my target birds.  But there is still so much more to see!

So what would be on my list if I do a “Godmother” of all African Adventures?  Here are a few places on my radar.

  1. Namibia – Peach-faced Lovebirds, Ruppells Parrots & more.  This would be a self-drive trip.
  2. Zambia/Botswana/Zimbabwe/Malawi – would choose the best of these for Brown-necked Parrots, Lillian’s Lovebirds, Black-cheeked Lovebirds, Meyers Parrots & more.  Most of these places might require using the car/driver option which is not my preferred method so I would be looking hard for national parks I can get to with public transport & taxis.  So far, these are looking like the most expensive for lodges so I need to do the most research here.
  3. Ethiopia – the layover wasn’t enough, I’d like to get to Menagesha NP for Yellow-faced Parrots, Black-winged Lovebirds & more.  Easy day trip from Addis Ababa or spend one night there.
  4. Uganda – I think my odds for African Grey Parrots are better here than in Ghana.  I’d use public transport to Fort Portal, then a taxi to Kibale.

IMG_3193WHAT DO I NEED?

Short answer – United miles as Star Alliance is by far the best alliance for Africa.  I could supplement with some Avios to get from Namibia to Livingstone, Zambia via JNB.  So looks like Chase will be my best friend for a while longer!

Getting To Tanzania & Other East African Countries With Airline Miles

East Africa is probably the most popular option for people wanting to go on a safari.  Unlike South Africa where it is easy to drive yourself around the game parks, the experience here will be in 4WD safari trucks with a driver either on you own or shared with others.

There are several airports you can use to visit East Africa and the one you choose will depend on what you want to see, safari prices and birdlife you are targeting.  I will be using Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro International Airport as an example because that is where I went and also because Tanzania is in my opinion the best country in East Africa for a general bird and mammal safari experience.

The first step is to identify which airlines that participate in one of the 3 alliances serve the airport in question.  You can do this by looking the airport up in Wikipedia and making a note of which airlines fly there and cross referencing with my guides on Star Alliance, OneWorld Alliance and SkyTeam.  Other East African airports of interest to birders will be Nairobi for Kenya, Addis Ababa, for Ethiopia, Entebbe for Uganda & Dar es Salaam for southern Tanzania & Zanzibar.

This is what you are looking for and I have highlighted all alliance members in yellow.

JRO Airport

STAR ALLIANCE

Star Alliance rules Africa in general and for most people, these are the miles you want if you are going anywhere in East Africa.  Ethiopian Airlines and Turkish Airlines fly here.  Most people will be using United Airlines miles for their trip although Australians may be using Singapore Krisflyer miles.  I advise using United or possibly Avianca Lifemiles to avoid YQ fuel surcharges.  Here are some typical routes and costs with United, all are quoted as one-ways so double it for a round trip.

Traveling from the USA or Canada will cost 40k economy or 80k business class.  Beware of mixed classes in the business class column, sometimes the long flight is in economy!

JRO UA1

From the UK or Europe you will pay 30k economy or 55k business class.  Watch the high airport tax from the UK!

JRO UA2From Australia or New Zealand you will pay 50k economy or 85k business class.

JRO UA3

If you need intra-Africa flights, these are a bargain at  17.5k economy and 35k business class.  Notice how the 2nd itinerary gets you a free overnight in Addis Ababa!

JRO UA4

If you are using Singapore Krisflyer, the miles are reasonable but the YQ surcharge is insane!

SQ AfricaThe website only quotes for SQ redemptions but this gives you an idea because SQ flies to JNB.  They also charge YQ on partner awards.

Seriously?  Over $500 AUD for the YQ surcharge!!!

SQ Africa1

ONEWORLD

Only 1 OneWorld Airline serves Kilimanjaro – Qatar Airways.   Beware of YQ surcharges when using Avios or Qantas miles.   Due to routing restrictions, you will need to redeem 2 awards if you are coming from Australia/New Zealand – Singapore/Bangkok – East Africa.  Americans can use Qatar all the way from the gateway to Kilimanjaro but they may need to pay extra for a positioning flight if Qatar doesn’t offer a through-fare from the originating city.

AA Ghana

If you are flush with Avios from a credit card bonus, they are an option but please beware of the YQ surcharges!  I couldn’t find any availability online using Avios on Qatar but this might mean the system is down so it’s worth calling in.  Here is what you are looking at.

JRO Avios1

LHR-DOH is 3261 miles and falls into Zone 5.

DOH-JRO is 2201 miles and falls into Zone 4.

JRO BA Chart1

So add the figure for your preferred class of service in Zone 5 & Zone 4 as per below to find out how many Avios you need.  Partner awards use the peak chart so you need 46,000 Avios for one way economy and 81,250 for business.  When you call in, you will find out the YQ surcharges.

JRO BA Chart

 

SKYTEAM

Accra is served by 2 Skyteam partners – Kenya Airways & KLM.

Delta has annoyingly removed their award charts so I tried to quote IAD-JRO and couldn’t find anything.  I did find a quote for a sample IAD-NBO route using Delta and KLM.   However their website doesn’t see Kenya Airways flights so you may better these examples by calling in.  Also see the West Africa post for an example where Delta serves the airport – Accra.

I have to admit that I have no use for Delta’s Skypesos which seem to devalue at an alarming rate so if I need SkyTeam partner flights I use the Flying Blue program with miles transferred in from Amex or SPG.

DL NBODL NBO2

Using Flying Blue miles on Kenya Airways can be good for hopping around Africa and they do add certain destinations like Madagascar that Star Alliance can’t provide.  For more information on using Kenya Airways, see my Madagascar post.

BOTTOM LINE

You can’t beat the Star Alliance coverage which at time of writing has no fuel surcharges, so collect United Mileage Plus!  Chase is your friend!

African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus)

Seeing wild African Grey Parrots is a holy grail for many people.  They are not only popular as pets worldwide but famous for their intelligence due to Dr Irene Pepperberg’s work with Alex.  I had such high hopes for Kakum as they are commonly reported being seen there and Ghana is a very easy country to get to and travel in.  Many people see them from the Canopy Walkway but we didn’t.  I was really disappointed as they were the main reason to visit Ghana.  In the evening, back at the lodge, I spoke with the guide of the organized group who were staying there and he said they saw them around 7am-ish from the car park at Kakum.

The next day, we went back and staked out the car park.  At first we saw lots of hornbills flying past but no Grey Parrots.  Our guides from the previous day showed up for work and sat with us while waiting for their clients to arrive.  Around 7:30, I was ready to give up and go back to the lodge when one of the guys said “There”!   He was pointing at a clearing through the trees over the park.  Two Grey Parrots in flight!  I grabbed my camera, said a quick Hail Mary and took aim.

IMG_6090I missed!  They were flying towards the left side of the photo and had cleared the tall tree in the middle and were heading behind the thick clump of trees on the left.  A blink of an eye, they were gone!  That was all I was going to get for African Grey Parrots after traveling all this way.  That’s how birding is, sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t.  In a way I was lucky, at least I DID see them for a split second, but I had wanted more time to enjoy watching them and their behaviour.

The best I can do are these photos I took at Birds of Eden, South Africa.    Many more African Grey photos can be found in the links below.

IMG_3526 IMG_3193

For birders, seeing wild African Grey Parrots has the same problem as most African birds.  A potentially large range but many areas difficult to get to or unsafe to travel in.  Independent birders should try Kakum but expect the sighting to be brief and far away.  Uganda has better possibilities now that World Parrot Trust has released some Grey Parrots who were rescued from a poacher, rehabilitated and released at Ngamba Island, a chimpanzee sanctuary located in Lake Victoria.  Kibale National Forest in Uganda is also a good place to see them.

AG RangeLEARN MORE ABOUT AFRICAN GREY PARROTS

Wikipedia

World Parrot Trust

Birdlife

Rainforest Alliance

African Geographic Magazine – This is a must read article about the tragedy of wild African Grey Parrots being captured by poachers and the horrible fate they suffer.  Eco-tourism encourages locals to leave the birds in the wild!

VIDEOS

There is no shortage of videos showing wild African Grey Parrots!  Many are filmed by researchers who can access areas that independent travelers would have trouble with.

These first two are what I was hoping to see in Kakum.  The videographer doesn’t say where he filmed them but this may be because he is protecting them from poachers.

World Parrot Trust Documentary – shows actual poaching technique which is horrible to see!

The journey to freedom of rescued African Grey Parrots.  They start out in such heartbreaking condition, the trapping methods and transportation by poachers is extremely cruel.