7 Things a Uganda Safari Taught Me About Birding Back Home

(Hugh Powell; 2 April 2017)

Dream globally; bird locally. That’s what I came away with on my first-ever visit to Africa. For 11 days in western Uganda I was treated to birds, mammals, reptiles, and even a few insects that I had thought I would only ever dream about.

After almost two weeks on the ground, our group locked onto more than 440 species—still well shy of Uganda’s total list of more than 1,000, or half the bird species in all of Africa. This country sits on the equator, gives rise to the Nile, and marries the plains of East Africa to the jungles of West Africa. It’s dripping with birds.

As I struggled to tell apalis from akalat, boubou from Brubru, I marveled at the skills of local birders who were totally at home in patches they’d birded for years. And after I made the long flight home, that’s what stuck with me from Uganda. Traveling as a birder is like being a kid and playing at your friend’s house, with a whole new set of toys. The time I spent with Uganda’s birds (and incredibly skilled birders) reminded me of how much there is to love about birding back home:

1. Love Your Locale

Travel is glamorous and new places are thrilling, right? But no one ever found the heart of a place on their first afternoon, or even their first week. Local birding will always have the power to satisfy deeply, because the biggest surprises come after you’ve built your expectations.

It’s also why you should tap into the wisdom of locals whenever you’re on the road, even in your own continent, by hiring guides or finding locals. When you’re still in the planning stages, use eBird Hotspots to get your bearings. And it goes both ways: around your hometown, maybe you’re the local wizard who can find the hero birds for visitors. The rewards of intensively birding your home turf has even acquired a name in the last several years: patch birding.

2. Find an eBird Buddy

During our time in Uganda our group of six birders filed more than 60 eBird checklists. For me, it was hard enough to keep track of the sunbirds and widowbirds and indigobirds and silverbirds and go-away birds and tinkerbirds, not to mention the eagles, hawk-eagles, snake-eagles, and, yes, something called a Lizard Buzzard. Those eBird lists became an invaluable record after the dust settled.

Amazingly, I didn’t file any eBird checklists myself. I had the good fortune to draft in the eBird slipstream of Nate Swick of the American Birding Association and Ethan Kistler of the tour group Birding Africa. They traded off listing duties—which included navigating the enormous checklist while keeping a mental tally of how many Pied Kingfishers, Red-billed Queleas, Brown-throated Wattle-eyes, Speckled Mousebirds, and more we had seen. If they ever give up birding, the Las Vegas blackjack tables need to watch out.

Back home, the value of having an eBird buddy or two still applies. By sharing birding, you end up with more, and more complete, records that make for better memories and contribute data to scientists. And if you’re like me, you also benefit from having better birders challenge you to keep up.

3. Look Beyond the List

This is the paradox about birding in the tropics: you go there for the overload of strange and fantastic birds, but the unforgettable moments only come one by one. Like the African Broadbill we saw giving its toadlike trill and then display-flying in a tight circle around its perch, as if circumnavigating a basketball. Writing down an X on a checklist or clicking down an eBird screen takes only moments. But thinking back on those glimpses into the bird’s life—that will last you years.

So appreciate behavior. Back in the Northern Hemisphere, even our less sensational-looking birds still dazzle and reveal. Every time I see a familiar bird, I try to follow it a little longer, to seek out what it’s up to. (eBird encourages this by letting you enter breeding codes). I guess that’s why they call it bird watching.

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