Let’s talk about Bee-eaters, Rollers and Kingfishers (again). Anyone who has followed my previous blog (Eastern Bushchat) and/or has purchased my book (see panel to the right), will know of my quest to see all the world’s species of the aforementioned bird families. Not an easy task, mainly because these birds are scattered throughout Africa and Asia, and in some instances have relatively small populations secreted in the forests of various remote islands. But we all like a challenge I hope.
The last time I wrote about this was following a trip to Gambia in 2019, at the end of which my tally stood at:
Bee-eaters: 9 /24
Quite a way to go then.
I’m pleased to report some progress, although recent splits in some Bee-eater species has resulted in their now being 31 distinctly recognised species – a moving target if ever there was one. We’ve recently visited Africa again, specifically Uganda and Zambia, positioning ourselves in prime localities for some of the missing species. How did we fare? Read on…..
Our first day in Africa was a rest day, sandwiched between the previous day’s flying and the long drive yet to come. We spent the day relaxing around the very pleasant and lush grounds of the quite splendid guesthouse, watching the colourful sunbirds and generally getting acclimatised to the heat. In the middle of the afternoon our tour guide and driver arrived to discuss the plans for the first leg of our adventure. He was a most pleasant chap and would be our exclusive aide for the next week.
The following day, Monday 2nd Oct, we began our safari in earnest. First stop Mbamba Swamp. Denise’s query ‘Why are we holidaying in a swamp?’ was quite pertinent, why indeed were we spending the first few hours of our trip in a swamp? Well, all would soon be revealed. We boarded our small canoe complete with guide and gently cruised along the tranquil waterways bordered by dense, lush vegetation, eyes peeled for anything of interest. African Jacanas trotted over lilies, herons and egrets waited patiently for unwary fish to spear with their dagger bills, Malachite Kingfishers perched like gaudy ornaments atop reeds and rushes taking no more notice of our passing than that of a dragonfly.
And then as we turned into a wide creek we came upon it; a monster from prehistoric times standing sentinel on the bank. A massive, stately Shoebill. We kept a respectful distance and simply admired this beast of a bird. They’re big these Shoebills, nobody could call them pretty, but they are impressive. We felt very privileged to be able to watch this stately swamp dweller, not something many people are lucky enough to experience. Some more detailed information on the Shoebill and its conservation can be found here.
Whilst we drifted sedately along the creeks, we also came upon another particularly sought after bird, namely the lovely Blue-breasted Bee-eater. Excellent little things that perched surreptitiously amongst the dense vegetation waiting for passing prey. A satisfying beginning.
We next endured a gruelling, seemingly never ending, drive along mile after mile of dusty road where motorbikes, used as taxis, swarmed as locusts. We eventually arrived at our lodge overlooking a lake on the edge of Queen Elizabeth National Park just in time for dinner. A quick wash and brush up and we were seated on a veranda with a stunning view over the plains. A refreshing gulp of Nile Special beer and the trials of the day faded away. It transpired we were the only 2 people staying in this particular place so were truly pampered.
We spent two full days on safari here with game drives in the morning and a trip along the Kazinga Canal in the afternoon. This waterway connects two very large lakes, Lake George and Lake Edward, and is thriving with wildlife of all kinds. We gave the guide a challenge to find us Red-throated and Madagascar Bee-eaters and an African Pygmy Kingfisher. Since we were the only people on the boat on each of the days, he did his very best to find us the birds.
On the first day we cruised the bank of the channel, bins focussed on the waterside vegetation for anything that moved. In this way it wasn’t too long before an exclamation of ‘Red-throated Bee-eater, on the bush at 12-o-clock, midway on the right’ revealed an absolute beauty of a bird. There’s ticks and there’s ticks and boy was this one to wield with a flourish. With that one safely in the bag and with my eye now firmly in, I found a few more dotted along the shoreline. Lovely. Next we hunted in known hotspots for Madagascar Bee-eater, but on both days drew a blank. The young lad serving as our guide had seen them the previous week, but it seemed they had now flown, migrating south for the breeding season.
All was not lost, for towards the end of the 2nd day trip he managed to spot a small kingfisher deep in a bush. Quite how he saw this little gem is beyond me, but that’s what you pay for I guess. As we got closer it became clear that we had indeed come upon a delightful African Pygmy Kingfisher that proceeded to preen itself just a few yards from where we bobbed. Success.
Our next stop was Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, another full day bumping along unmade roads and breathing in clouds of dust. En-route there were many stops to enjoy the birds and animals, including this huge, powerful Martial Eagle.
At Bwindi, our driver/guide hired the services of a young man who he always relies upon when visiting this spot, Nicholas Tugumisirize, who did us proud. Once again the challenge: Black Bee-eater, Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater and Blue-throated Roller. Upon learning of our wish list, we were escorted a few hundred yards towards the guarded park entrance. Here, by looking across a field to a line of trees displaying plenty of dead branches we were shown a pair of Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters. A distant but conclusive view. 20 minutes in and the skills and knowledge of young Nicholas was coming good.
After this we walked slowly along a wide track through the forest logging species with regularity. At least Nicholas was logging them, I was just seeing brief silhouettes or glimpses of something flitting through the canopy. Forest birding is hard work, especially if you’re unfamiliar with calls and likely inhabitants.
Our progression through the Forest was arrested every now and again by watching butterflies
dancing in a sun dappled patch, and by various dragonflies and interesting plants. After about a
mile or so Nicholas heard the calls of Black Bee-eaters. After a bit of neck craning we could see
one perched high in the canopy. The light wasn’t good, making the bird indeed a black silhouette
against the bright white sky, but it was undoubtedly the target bird. We were promised better views
the following day. Two birds down, only the roller to go. Shortly afterwards, we came to a large tree growing just beside the trail. This, we were informed, is a favoured haunt of the rollers, but today they had obviously chosen somewhere else to spend their time. Accordingly for this part of the quest we were resigned to disappointment. Still, 2 out of 3 wasn’t bad at all and we walked back to the lodge very happy with the day.
We spent the following day plying our trade in a different part of the forest, walking along the little
traversed road birding as we went. We logged Mountain Buzzards, Woolly-necked Stork together with numerous flycatchers, tinkerbirds and greenbuls before coming to an small area of wet marsh. By the edge of this we once again espied a couple of Black Bee-eaters, but these too were perched high in the trees and appeared nothing more than small dark birds against the bright white sky.
But as we turned a bend in the road we came upon three more of these little gems, one of whom took pity on us and flew onto a relatively low perch. Light wasn’t ideal, but I reeled a few frames, and at last had this most excellent of birds captured. I never actually thought we stood a chance of seeing these birds, so I was extremely pleased. To cap it all we also stumbled upon a lovely pair of Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters hawking insects right next to the road. Snap, snap, snap…..heaven.
We bid Uganda farewell and drove across the border into Rwanda to spend the night in Kigali prior to flying into Zambia and the South Luangwa NP. Two days later we were driven to the banks of a largely dry and dusty river bed to delight in the amazing sight of scores of Southern Carmine Bee-eaters nesting in the exposed banks. The colours of these birds caught in the mellow light of a setting sun takes your breath away. Their slinky, curves giving them such grace as they flighted around hawking insects. During our stay here we visited three separate colonies, each one providing memorable sights and sounds, a real African experience shared with another couple of like minded wildlife enthusiasts and the odd gin and tonic.
We also saw several Brown-hooded Kingfishers amidst the open forest habitat of this very hot,
dusty, but intensely interesting NP. Another one for the slowly growing list. Sadly, no Racquet-tailed
Roller, a bird we searched for diligently but failed to connect with. We’ll just have to come back and
After these exploits we can update the overall tally:
Bee-eaters: 14 /31
Rollers: unchanged at 6/12
Other members of the target groups were also spotted during our stay. Clockwise: top left – White-throated Bee-eater; top right – Lilac-breasted Roller; middle right – Little Bee-eater; bottom – Pied Kingfishers
I’m beginning to think some of this is just, maybe just, possible. Certainly we’re reaching the critical mass with the Bee-eaters. Not possible without a trip to Asia though, watch this space……
I’ve created a gallery of images from the trip which can be found here.