February 2016. Rubugali. Kisoro District, Uganda. There is a patch of hilltop land near here called Heaven; aptly named in its own way. The way up is long and taxing. You start by slogging up a very rough, rocky and shade-less track for a kilometre or so. It’s all climbing, no flat spots. The Ugandans have the right approach, walking uphill is not a challenge, it’s something you do in measured, one-at-a-time easy steps; no one is timing your ascent. After the first kilometre the track ends at an open, grassy saddle between two hills; it’s a good resting stop.
Heaven itself awaits yet another kilometre higher, but this time the trek is along an erratic, single file path. Plodding on, then pausing, you look down over fields of beans, maize and potatoes to the valley bottom far below and nearly lost in blue haze.
The top is a quite different world, cooler, quieter and more open, mainly a wide expanse of tree-dotted cattle pasture. Were it not for the occasional fence or cattle shed you might think it is an English country park. Behind is the valley we’ve just left: occupied, cultivated from top to bottom and threaded with the distant echoes of people and their animals. In front of us lies original Africa: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest rolling away into the blue distance, from treetop to treetop it’s all green: towering trees draped in orchids, ferns and vines, and underlain with thick mattressy undergrowth scratched over in patches with geometric tree- ferns. This is where Mountain Gorillas live and where the resonant calls of birds or the grunting barks of monkeys quite simply belong.
We actually made two day trips up to Heaven, both produced some fine and novel bird sightings: A Grassland Pipit standing erect on a rock, looking around as if it was on sentry duty; White-naped Ravens flipping over pats of cattle dung looking for beetles and grubs; and a rather sensational Black-shouldered Kite, pale grey and slender and whose flight the field guide accurately describes as soft and elegant. We struggled to identify what turned out to be a Regal Sunbird, it kept vanishing in some dense treetops but when we did finally get to look at it, it was neck-breakingly right overhead. I managed to get this Regal-Sunbird-from-underneath photo, which without explanation you’d wonder what on earth you’re looking at.
For me there were so many new discoveries that it is hard to pick out a best bird, but perhaps the most breath-taking would be Turacos. We heard Great Blue Turacos chattering in the forest and watched a couple of Ross’s Turacos feeding in the upper layers of a fig tree. Turacos are large (chicken-size) birds, rather ponderous and breathtakingly showy. When you spot them you can usually rely on them staying where they are for a while. The Great Blue Turaco in the photo below was busy preening itself perhaps in a deliberate show of nonchalance. The Ross’s Turacos were harder to photograph and I only managed some rather coy shots. When they left the relatively open spaces of Heaven and flew back to the forest the Ross’s showed off wide expanses of crimson upper-wings.
This post contains photos in galleries visible only on the website, not if you’re reading this as an email.