Birding Without Borders

Day 249: Land of the Apes

Close encounters in an impenetrable forest.

September 6, 2015: Bwindi, Uganda — Besides the obvious stuff (family, friends, chocolate chip cookies), maybe the most unexpected thing I’ve missed this year is physical exercise. At home I usually run several times a week, play a lot of tennis, go hiking and biking, and generally live on my feet. People often assume that birdwatching is active, but it’s typically the opposite; patience and observation don’t give you much cardio. The other night I had a dream about running on the treadmilland that’s just twisted!

So it was nice today to go for an all-day hike. Livingstone and I walked into the so-called Impenetrable Forest outside of Buhoma at dawn and didn’t return until dusk. We were joined by two up-and-coming bird guides and a young, bored-looking guard with an assault rifle (required company in this park). None of us sat down all day except for a brief sandwich break at noon.

This wet forest has fantastic birds, but it’s most famous for mountain gorillas, the same as are found in neighboring Rwanda. For a highway-robbery price you can sign up for a morning “gorilla tracking” tour here and spend an hour or two with wild, human-habituated animals. People come from all over the world for the experience. Only the park’s trackers know where to find the gorillas, so, without booking the tour, I forfeited my chances of seeing a great ape today even though I’d be birding in the same forest. Another trip, another time.

Most of my remaining targets in Uganda are in its southwestern wet forests, and today was the most productive birding session I’ve had in more than three weeks! We encountered a slew of Albertine Rift endemics, from White-bellied Robin-Chat to Oberlaender’s Ground-Thrush and Neumann’s Warbler, while cool clouds kept things active all day. We had only two interruptions all day: A thunderstorm pinned us under a vine tangle for half an hour, and, just before lunch, our group stumbled into a surprise.

We rounded a bend to find one of today’s gorilla-tracking parties heading down to their lodge, all smiles and satisfaction. As they passed in single file, Livingstone was caught in an animated conversation (in Bantu) with one of their guards who, it turned out, was trying to prevent us from continuing up the trail. This seemed strangeI’d already paid my $70 (!) entry fee just for this day hike, and we weren’t halfway to to the top yet. As Livingstone talked to the guard, I noticed some bushes moving just up the hill, and things suddenly clicked: Mountain gorillas! The guard didn’t want me to see them because I hadn’t signed up for the tracking tour! 

What a strange situation. I’ve actually been banned from posting photos of what happened next, apparently because they don't want birdwatchers to think you can find gorillas without booking the tour, but let’s just say that an impressive silverback and several others may (or may not) have crossed the trail at close range. Hey, you can’t charge admission to a museum without letting people look at the paintings! I didn’t set out to find great apes this morning, but they found meand, I must admit, that brief encounter totally made my day.

New birds today: 19

Year list: 4173

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