August 31, 2015, Budongo Forest, Uganda — Most people who visit Uganda’s Budongo Forest come to see its chimpanzees, which live wild here as they have for eons. To commune with the chimps, you must sign up for a “chimpanzee tracking” excursion with the forest’s full-time guides, who keep tabs on the animals’ whereabouts. Some families of chimpanzees have been habituated to humans so you can get pretty close to them. The trips are exquisitely expensive, but priceless for some visitors.
When Livingstone and I arrived at the forest’s headquarters this morning, a group of chimp watchers was being briefed in the parking lot. We had other motives for today’s visit to the Budongo Forest, though: While the tourists filed down one trail, Livingstone and I went bushwhacking across the road, chasing around a small, skulky, brown bird called a Puvel’s Illadopsis in the undergrowth.
We were joined this morning by a park guide named John who seemed happy to be looking at birds. “Most people come here for the chimp tracking, you know,” he said earnestly, “but they miss all the good birds!” Oh, the angst of a bird guide working in a chimpanzee park! The three of us spent several satisfying hours in the forest, finding a Black-billed Turaco, Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo, and Chestnut Wattle-eye. At midday we decided to head back in for lunch, and started walking back to headquarters.
Just then, John’s ears perked up and he said, “I hear some White-thighed Hornbills!” We walked in the direction of the sound and eventually tracked the hornbills to a large fruiting tree. Livingstone picked out a male and female on a high branch, and we craned our necks to get a good view. As we watched the massive birds eat with surprising delicacy, John, who had circled around the tree to see what else might be lurking in it, called us over.
“Look up there,” he said, and I followed his sightline. Near the top of the tree, wedged inconspicuously in a swirl of branches, were two furry bodies. I put my binoculars on one and a young chimpanzee filled the view. It looked down, apparently checking us out while we stared upward.
Wow! It was pretty cool, I must say, to find wild chimpanzees without being led to them on a gold-plated leash. Chimps are supposedly our closest living relative, and the sudden encounter felt eerie. All of human civilization notwithstanding, it was like meeting a hairy cousin with good tree-climbing skills. After a minute, the two chimpanzees grew bored of us and returned to their snack, and we quietly went on our way.
New birds today: 15
Year list: 4111