Category Archives: birds

Bwindi’s wild bananas

It’s one of those times of year at ITFC when everyone is busy analyzing and writing up their completed research and we chose this opportunity to talk to Frederick Ssasli about his interesting study conducted on the little known wild banana species (Ensete venticosum) in Bwindi.

The objective of his study  was to investigate the ecology of the wild banana by recording the animals that visited and utilised the plant’s fruit and flowers. Most fruiting plants in Bwindi are seasonal, however these wild bananas are special as they fruit and flower all year round, possibly providing a reliable ‘fall back’ food source for animals. Little is known about wild bananas and even less in Bwindi, so Frederick expected some exciting results.

A convenient site was chosen less than a kilometre from ITFC’s premises. Ten camera traps were set up, each on a different tree, five focusing on the flowers and the rest on the fruit. The study ran from 2011 to 2012 in the months of November to April and has just come to an end. 

Now for the results, what everyone had been waiting for! The most frequent visitors to the fruit included L’hoste monkeys, baboons, squirrels and mice which were viewed feeding on the ripe bananas, or in the L’Hoeste’s case, humorously squabbling over them (as they often do). The flowers’ visitors included some nectarivorous birds in the day and lots of bats (which are yet to be identified to the species level) and mice during the night. Even more interesting was the presence of the predatory two-tailed palm civet (Nandinia binotata) which was captured on several occasions visiting the flowers and in one case with a mouse in its mouth!

Two-spotted palm civet after catching a mouse

Two-spotted palm civet after catching a mouse

Bat on banana flower

Bat on banana flower

L’Hoest’s monkey on banana fruit

This study has set the stage for further research at Bwindi to find out more about these inter-specific relationships and to test the list of hypotheses stimulated by each camera picture. There are also some interesting implications for crop raiding. Could the conservation of wild bananas help in preventing increased crop-raiding incidents by providing an alternative food source in the low fruiting season? Could the wild banana be a new keystone species (a species which has a large effect its environment and that many species rely on)?

We hope to see some interesting papers in the near future!

On a side note this is our (Lucy and Andrew’s) last blog. We hope you enjoyed them!

squirrel on wild banana

squirrel on wild banana

Special visitors to ITFC: cyclists from Johannesburg!

Last weekend, two young South African guys arrived in Ruhija … on bicycles! Alex and Murray have cycled some 6000km now on a tour from Johannesburg to Nairobi that started in early February, an amazing feat! I took the photo below when they left Ruhija again, after two days of walking in the forest, birding along the road and having a good rest. They gave a talk at ITFC too, telling an astonished audience about their epic journey: slides of bicycles on a canoe crossing a small river, or being pushed on a very muddy track alternated those of people they met along the way. They were not just clocking up the kilometers: they hope to raise awareness (and funds!) for water needs along their route and visited many projects that bring water closer to communities. Sponsors pay them by the kilometer or when they reached the equator and already some 5000 U$ was raised.
Alex and Murray, posing in their RFCG T-shirts and about to set off in the direction of Queen Elizabeth National Park
And what were some of the lessons they learned about water provision in Africa?
“Providing water for people’s livelihoods is only partly an issue of infrastructure and availability, and culture and education are at least as important factors to take into account for successful water projects”, says Murray. “In Zimbabwe we actually saw some of the most successful examples: systems set up and managed by government, with locally produced pumps and taps that can be repaired in-country, a good management structure. They both feel that here in the SW of Uganda, there is a lot of potential for intelligent capture of rain compared to the much drier areas they passed through.
Alex, who is keen on birdwatching, said it had been a childhood dream to come to Bwindi and the Albertine Rift at large, knowing how rich in bird and other species the area is. His contacts with people of the Rare Finch Conservation Group (RFCG, see blog on the search for Shelley’s Crimson Wing, that ITFC hosted last year) resulted in them supporting the cycle tour. The RFCG suggested the team would pay us a visit to see what ITFC is and meet with Benson -who had led the Crimsonwing search. That all worked out!
Having seen so many different places and landscapes along their route, I asked them what was special for them about coming to Bwindi and both of them said without hesitation that it was the first place on the tour where they had felt to be in ‘Disney land version of tropical Africa’. Cycling the 13 km through the park, from Ndego gate to Ruhija they already saw l’Hoest monkeys, a black fronted duiker, Great blue turacoes and even a jackal along the road!
We wish Alex and Murray good luck and safe travels on the remainder of their journey, which will come to an end in Nairobi, in August.
If you want to follow these guys, have a look at the blog/website that they update regularly

Greetings, Miriam

Why Stripe Breasted Tits get their toenails painted

I did not know about this until I saw it. Young birds get their toenails painted by researchers. Strange indeed but there is a reason.

The other day coming back from visiting the mountain gorillas we saw one of our staff, Narsis, up a ladder. He was looking into one of the nest-boxes that are scattered around the forest here. He had plugged the opening to the box and was looking inside. We stopped to watch.

Here are a few pictures.

Stripe Breasted Tits Bwindi ITFC Douglas Sheil

Stripe Breasted Tits being removed from their nest box — the opening is blocked to stop the adults finding the young have gone

Stripe Breasted Tits being weighed and marked Bwindi ITFC Douglas Sheil

Each bird is weighed (watched here by UWA ranger Silver who was with us)

Stripe Breasted Tits Bwindi ITFC Douglas Sheil

Recording the data

Stripe Breasted Tits being weighed and marked Bwindi ITFC Douglas Sheil

Birds are marked to allow them to be individually identified

Stripe Breasted Tits being replaced to their nest box Bwindi ITFC Douglas Sheil

The chicks are carefully replaced to their nest box and the parent birds will find them unharmed

So what was happening?

The brood had been discovered just the day before. Phil Shaw who coordinates the Stripe Breasted Tit (Parus fasciiventer) work (by email from Scotland ) asked Narsis to weigh the chicks in order to estimate their age. Marking the claws with coloured polish helps tell the individuals apart in future assessments — when they are bigger they will be ringed instead.

Why do they plug the box? If the parent birds find the nest-box empty they may not come back again thinking their chicks are gone for good. By plugging the box until we are ready for them we can be sure the adult birds don’t see inside the box until they can find their chicks unharmed.

These birds are only found in Bwindi and a few other forests in the region.  If you are interested to know more about them you can find out more at our web site here.

All part of the research in Bwindi.

Best wishes


Where are the Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs) in Uganda?

Endemic bird areas (EBAs), defined by BirdLife International, are geographical areas home to at least two endemic bird species whose ranges (i.e with a world distribution of less than 50,000 km²) are restricted to a relatively small area. More than 70% of such species are also globally threatened with extinction. For this reason, EBAs should be high on our list of habitats to protect. Though the focus is on birds, however, the idea has great significance for the conservation of other species, and of biodiversity in general.

In 1998, the book Endemic Bird Areas of the World cemented the connection between endemic birds and biodiversity, and argued that it’s critically important to protect these areas: “At the ecosystem level, biodiversity underpins the ecological processes that are vital to human life, for example in influencing global climate patterns, in mediating the carbon cycle, in safeguarding watersheds, and in stabilizing soils to prevent desertification” (p. 13).

Birdlife International now recognizes 218 EBAs and lobbies for their conservation.

Uganda has parts of three EBAs.: the Albertine Rift Mountains (EBA 106), Eastern Zaire lowlands (EBA 107) and Kenya Mountains (EBA 109). There are 31 restricted-range species in Uganda, five of which categorized as Vulnerable: namely African Green Broadbill, Karamoja Apalis, Grauer’s Rush Wabler, Shelley’s Crimsonwing and Chapin’s Flycatcher.

The Shelleys Crimsonwing

The Shelley's Crimsonwing

The Albertine Rift mountains (classified Priority Urgent) has 36 restricted range species, 10 of which are threatened. It includes the Rwenzori Mountains (5010m ASL) and several other highlands in Southwestern Uganda (ranging between 2000 and 3500 m ASL) with wildlife protected areas namely: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Echuya Forest Reserve, and the national parks of the Virungas. The restricted range species include the monotypic endemic genera Pseudocalyptomena, Graueria and Hemitesia. They mostly range in montane forest, bamboo zone, highland swamps and Afro-alpine moorland.

Nectarinia stuhimanni is only known to range in the Rwenzori ranges.

Nectarinia stuhimanni is only known to range in the Rwenzori ranges.

The Ugandan portion of Eastern Zaire lowlands EBA (classified Priority High) lies in the northwestern sector of Semliki Forest (Semliki National Park) touching DRC’s great Ituri Forest. Semliki Forest is outstandingly rich in wildlife and internationally recognized: it contains half as many bird species as the entire DRC and nearly two thirds as many as the 181,000 km² of the Upper Guinea Forests. Globally threatened species (Near-threatened) here include the Great Snipe, White-naped Pigeon, Sassi’s Greenbul, Papyrus Gonolek and Forest Ground Thrush.

A section of the Rwenzori ranges habitat. The park contains 17 Albertine endemics.

A section of the Rwenzori ranges habitat. The park contains 17 Albertine endemics.

Uganda’s fraction of Kenyan Mountains EBA lies on the country’s portion of Mount Elgon extending for about 80 km north/south and 50 km east/west. On its slopes is a 900 km² forest extending across the Uganda-Kenya frontier, gazetted as Mount Elgon National Park on either side. The bird diversity totals 300 species (three confined to this EBA, and one near threatened species – Taita Falcon). The restricted range species include Francolinus jacksoni, Macronyx sharpie and Cisticola hunter.

Over 25% of all bird species (2561 species) have restricted ranges being confined to areas less than 5000 km². Of these 816 are threatened species, yet most (80%) of the 62 species that have gone extinct in the last 200 years had restricted ranges. 77% of EBAs are located in the tropics and subtropics.

From a global perspective, the most essential feature of EBAs is that they include important numbers of the globally threatened species in somewhat small regions, as well as vast numbers of other organisms. They deliver a chance for maximum conservation with minimum effort.

Further Reading/ Sources:

Endemic Bird Locations. BirdLife International.

Endemic Bird Regions of the Planet: Priorities for Biodiversity Conservation. Stattersfield, A. J., M. J. Crosby, A. J. Long et al. (BirdLife Conservation Series No. 7.) BirdLife International. 1998.


Save the shaggy rat! The challenge of conserving neglected animals

Protected areas in SW Uganda include significant populations of several globally threatened animals. While mountain gorillas, elephants and chimpanzees have received a lot of attention, many smaller animals in the region remain poorly known and neglected.

The last few weeks we have been putting together a proposal to address conservation of neglected species with a particular focus on local wetlands. There are quite a number of these animals in the IUCN red list that identifies vulnerable and endangered species: 5 amphibians, 11 small mammals and 4 birds. The list would be longer if we included endangered reptiles, fish and invertebrates. We also excluded several other frogs, mammals and birds about which we know too little to say if they are endangered or not (e.g. Bwindi’s new Boubou bird discovered last year). So our 20 species, though neglected, are not the most neglected animals — we don’t even have names for most of the forest’s insects, spiders and other invertebrates.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Good mountain gorilla habitat, but also home to many less charismatic animals, also in need of conservation

The majority of these species specialise on wetland habitats for some or all of their lives. Their persistence depends on maintaining particular wetlands within the wider landscapes they inhabit. These restricted habitats are threatened by a range of factors – both within and outside of protected areas. To safeguard these key locations and their endangered species we need to identify them and ensure that they are managed against both immediate and long-term threats.  That is the focus of the proposal we were developing.  But neglected species are not easily promoted.

Bwindi mouse – hard to sell as a conservation concern?

An unnamed Bwindi frog — easier to like?

Bwindi spider — if this was an endangered species would anyone care enough to try and save it?

Why have these species been neglected? Well, they are hard to see and don’t have the obvious charisma of the gorillas, chimps and elephants. I suspect that their names are also a problem — how many people are willing to visit the forest to see an animal called a “rat” even if it is the “Montane shaggy rat”, the ” Medium tailed Brush-furred Rat” or “Kemp’s Thicket Rat”? It’d be even harder with snakes and spiders. Not sure how we can change that. At least the birds and frogs are pretty.

Here is our list of the smaller species of immediate conservation concern, scientific name, common name and they the  IUCN red list category — limited here to only Vulnerable (VU) and Endangered (EN). All these species have been reported in the region (Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Echuya Forest Reserve and perhaps in some of the surrounding wetlands).  It’d be nice to have pictures for you but (aside from the birds) we dont have any …


1.        Afrixalus orophilus , Western Rift leaf-folding frog , VU

2.        Hyperolius castaneus, Ahl’s reed frog , VU

3.        Hyperolius discodactylus [= H. alticola], none, VU

4.        Hyperolius frontalis , none, VU

5.        Phrynobatrachus versicolor, none, VU


1.        Delanymys brooksi, Delany’s swamp mouse, VU

2.        Lophuromys rahmi, Rahm’s brush-furred rat, EN

3.        Lophuromys medicaudatus , Medium tailed brush-furred rat, VU

4.        Praomys degraaffi , De Graaff’s praomys, VU

5.        Thamnomys kempi [=T. major] , Kemp’s thicket rat, VU

6.        Crocidura stenocephala, Kahuzi swamp shrew, Narrow-headed shrew, EN

7.        Crocidura tarella, Tarella or Uganda shrew, EN

8.        Dasymys montanus, Montane shaggy rat, EN

9.        Myosorex blarina , Montane mouse shrew, EN

10.     Ruwenzorisorex suncoides, Ruwenzori shrew, VU

11.     Sylvisorex lunaris, Moon shrew, VU


1.        Bradypterus graueri, Grauer’s swamp/Rush warbler , EN

2.        Cryptospiza shelleyi, Shelley’s crimson-wing, VU

3.        Muscicapa lendu [=M. Itombwensis], Chapin’s flycatcher, VU

4.        Pseudocalyptomena graueri, African green broadbill/Grauer’s broadbill, VU

So what do you think? Should we care about the rats and shrews and the spiders too? Let us know if you have any ideas how the plight of these animals might be better marketed to the World!

Best wishes


ITFC hosts Rare Finch Conservation Group (RFCG) Directors

It’s one of the rarest birds on earth and according to Birdlife International’s IUCN Red Data List the Shelley’s crimsonwing finch is classified as Vulnerable . It is estimated that there are just between 2,500 and 10,000 of these finches left in the world . For the first time in many years, this extremely elusive bird was spotted in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park’s Ruhija sector. Unfortunately, no photographs were taken. Over the last five years, no live photograph of this bird has been taken. Very sad!

The Rare Finch Conservation Group (RFCG) of South Africa has led a one year search for the Shelley’s ( around Bwindi and Mgahinga from May 2009. ITFC has been supporting  field research and has been hosting RFCG teams for their field activities in Uganda. At the time the search for the bird started, there were no photographs in the world of this elusive bird .

1976 photo reference of Shelleys crimson from a book by two Belgiums Lippens & Willie titled : Les oiseaux du Zaire in 1976.

Last week, ITFC was glad to welcome RFCG directors Russell Kingston OAM from Australia and Prof. Ernst Kruger from South Africa. The two were here trying to acquire first-hand knowledge and experience of the challenges involved in trying to find the  the inexplicably rare and elusive Shelley’s crimsonwing finch.

Russel Kingston and Prof. Ernst Kruger

The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is home to no less than 43 finch species . It is also home to the now famous Shelley’s crimsonwing finch which the Rare Finch Conservation Group ( RFCG ) is trying to find.

This threatened finch inhabits the dense highland rainforests of the Albertine Rift in central Africa .

The RFCG recently completed Phase 2 of its field research work and is currently raising funds to support a Phase 3 initiative . Phase 3 will consist of doing a further 4 months work at Bwindi before going onto the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park for 4 months and then doing a final 4 months at the Rwenzori Mountain National Park in the north western part of Uganda . All the national parks mentioned are high altitude parks where the threatened crimsonwing finch has purportedly been seen.

Bwindi’s brand-new blue-eyed black Boubou bird

Some titles are too good to miss. How often in my lifetime can I expect to be able to write up “Bwindi’s brand-new blue-eyed black Boubou bird”? Well today I can!

Recently I was passed a scientific paper by one of its authors, John Bates from the Chicago Field Museum. The paper has the title  A New Species of Boubou (Malaconotidae: Laniarius) from the Albertine Rift.  It is worth a look — it is a well crafted piece of detective work.  You can access the paper, Voelker at al 2010, here.

What is exciting is the the authors “found” a new bird species right here in Bwindi. New bird species are not common these days so a discovery like this should attract some interest.  They have called it Laniarius willardi, or “Willard’s Sooty Boubou” – the specific epithet honors the ornithologist David Willard .

This is an artists impression of the newly described species (second from top). From Voelker et al 2010.

No-one had thought to make too much of the local blue-eyed black Boubou that was found here until a genetic analysis (based on birds in museum collections) showed it was quite different than the various otherwise similar dark Boubou species found in the region (these other have  reddish-black to black eyes).  According to the genetic data our blue-eye’s nearest relative is a distinct (dark-eyed) species from Mt Cameroon.

The team that described this bird did it from their museum collections. They lack observations of the wild birds — even photographs. We don’t even know what sounds they make.  Is it common or rare, threatened or safe? We hope to try and answer some of these questions if we get a chance. We know where to look!

A view of the Virungas from Nkuringo – close to the Bwindi collection of the blue eyed Boubou.

We’ll let you know if we have any progress! In the meantime, am I the only one who thinks the paper should have had a more fun title?

Best wishes


Who is Benson, the Shelley’s Crimsonwing spotter?

14 Nov 2010 Telephone interview with Benson Bamutura, who is waiting in his home village for the RFCG project on Shelley’s Crimsonwing to continue


From left to right: (juvenile) White-starred Robin; Regal Sunbird; Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird

Miriam: “How did you get so interested in birds?”

Benson: “From when I was a young boy I remember always hearing the bird calls around our compound and I would try to see the birds themselves. My home was near Kibale forest and from when I was around 16 years old, I went along with a friend who was guiding (birding) tourists in and around the forest. Then I also had a chance to take part in a guide training with a Community Based Organisation for Magonde swamp, which helped me even more.

From 2002 onwards, I started touring Uganda as a bird guide and learning a wider variety of birds. I got many contacts through the visitors I was guiding and once I had an email address and phone, they started calling me directly and I became a free lance guide!

 That is how I met Simon (Espley) for the first time in 2008 and he asked me to become the field leader for the Shelley’s project.”

M: “What motivates you to keep birding?”

B: “I really like ‘to keep in the wild’! And it has been satisfying to go out with visitors to Uganda who are really interested and enthusiastic about seeing our many and special birds in Uganda. It has been a good income too for me and my family.”

M: “What do you prefer: the bird guiding work or the research project you did with the RFCG?”

Benson holding a Dusky Crimsonwing ( Cryptospiza jacksoni ) . These finches have sometimes been reported to be seen with the elusive Shelley Crimsonwings 

Benson holding a Dusky Crimsonwing (Cryptospiza jacksoni). These finches have been reported to be seen with the elusive Shelley Crimsonwing. 

B: “I liked the research work better and could go on forever with that, if asked! I had a chance to see birds so close-up because of the netting. I even learned how to distinguish the sexes. And I was pleased to learn how to use a camera.”

M: “Anything special you want to tell about?”

B: “For the first time ever I saw the Grey-chested Illadopsis in the mist nets and also we had Mountain buzzards trying to pick the netted birds! Oh yes, and when we were trapping around Nkuringo (south side of Bwindi), we trapped 7 Red-faced Crimsonwings in one go! That was a real special day. Again in Nkuringo, one day our tents were surrounded by 13 Mountain gorillas.”

redfaced crimsonwing

Two males and one female Red-faced Crimsonwing  (Cryptospiza reichenovii)

M: “How did you feel when you heard that the rare Shelley’s Crimsonwing, which you had tried so hard to net during many months of fieldwork, had been spotted along a Bwindi trail by visitors?”

B: “Of course I was a bit sad it had not been me to see them! The visitors happened to be guided by Amos Monday Bunengo, one of my field assistants. He called me to let me know. Unfortunately, no-one got a picture of it. But we could go back to where they saw it and set up mist nets for some days, to try and catch it for detailed description, ringing and photos. Hearing about this sighting is stimulating for me to continue the search.”

M: “Any message for interested readers?”

B: “It is really important to keep our search for Shelley’s Crimsonwing going and I appeal to people to donate to the RFCG. It is such a rare bird and can only be found in Bwindi and Mgahinga, in the whole world… imagine!”



From left to right: Yellow White-eye;  Rwenzori Batis; (adult) White-starred Robin

Rare Shelley’s Crimsonwing was spotted in Ruhija!

Yes!!! for the first time in many years, the elusive Shelley’s Crimsonwing ( Cryospiza shelleyi ) has been spotted in Bwindi again. It happened in the morning of August 1st 2010, when Amos Monday Bunengo and Joni Kamugisha (of Avian Watch Uganda), both experienced Ugandan bird guides, were leading a group of 6 visitors into the (higher altitude) Ruhija sector of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.


Amos Monday Bunengo, telling me about the sighting of the Shelley’s Crimsonwing

This is how Amos describes the experience: “Joni and I were guiding our visitors along the new Kajembejembe trail. It was about 10am in the morning and bright when I spotted a bird that came from above my head and descended about 7 meter in front of me. I knew immediately it was a Crimsonwing and it had a bright green colour on the belly, so I was sure this was the Shelley’s we had been trying to find for RFCG for so long. It was me who saw it first and then Joni as well. We saw it for about 5 minutes, feeding alongside the small stream along the trail. It was amazing!”

“No, we have no photographs, unfortunately. When something so special happens by chance, you are not ready for such a thing!”

The next day, another group of birders went along the same trail and was so lucky to see 4 Shelley’s! These were probably 2 pairs, as that is how they normally move around. This igroup was led by Mutebi, another experienced bird guide, from Access Uganda, whom we have not had a chance to contact yet. Again, no photos were taken according to Amos, so we have to show you once again the one photo in existence:

Shelley's crimsonwing2.jpg

The only photograph there is of a Shelley’s Crimsonwing, from Mgahinga NP. With thanks to the Gorilla Organisation!

Interestingly, Amos had come to report the event to ITFC, because he had seen the awareness raising posters in several places around the village, asking people who saw the Shelley’s to come and tell. Who had put up those posters and why?

The Rare Finch Conservation Group (RFCG) of South Africa has led a one year search for the Shelley’s ( around Bwindi and Mgahinga from May 2009 . ITFC supported the field research and hosted Benson Bamutura, the project leader (link to website ITFC/RFCG). Unfortunately, his team never spotted one despite great efforts mist netting in early mornings and late afternoons in several places around the two parks.

I got in touch with Benson, after learning about the sighting and in my next blog will be the interview with him.

Check back in a few days!


Bwindi on candid camera 2 – Birds

We have lots of pictures from the recent camera trap efforts in Bwindi. There are about 15,000 pictures in total.  It takes time to sift through them.  Its exciting skimming through all these pictures to see what we have.

We plan to share some of the better pictures.  Many pictures are empty or unclear.  Some are amazing.

Badru left me with a first cut pile of images while he goes off for a few days leave.  So now, what’s first?  Ok its some of the birds we captured on film.  I shall remove the many pidgeons (often too small to see clearly in the images) … now …


Not sure what this is.  Perhaps a young raptor.

Francolin (we have two species in Bwindi, Handsome or Scaly Francolin (Francolinus nobilis or squamatus) … hard to tell apart here though)



Crested Guineafowl (Guttera pucherani)

More to come … Enjoy

Douglas and Badru