Uganda birdwatching holidays

In Uganda, big wildlife might draw you here: gorillas and chimpanzees – but you might be converted to the small.
“I always tell people: if you want a really good wildlife guide, start off with a bird guide – if someone’s taken the time to learn all the birds, learning the mammals is easy.”

Leonie Taylor, travel specialist at our partner Wayfairer Travel, grew up in Uganda, where her mother was a keen birder: “Everywhere we went she had her binoculars around her neck.” Leonie designed a Uganda birding and wildlife tour using many of her mother’s birdwatching contacts.

Uganda is home to over 1,000 species of bird – that’s 10 percent of all the world’s species. Many of them will be missed without a guiding eye to tell you that that little flicker in the branches is the rarest bird here.

“It’s a good country to convert people into birders,” says Leonie, “it’s only coming back to Uganda as an adult that I’ve appreciated how awesome Uganda’s birdlife is.”

What’s so special about Ugandan birdlife?

Uganda’s enormous flock of species is partly thanks to its geography. The country sits at a juncture between different habitats: savannah, rainforest, an arid north, and vital wetlands. The country is littered with lakes – including a source of the Nile. Papyrus swamps swarm with wildlife, and there are many water birds. From the air, the country appears greener than other safari destinations; a closer look reveals impressive forests, stuffed full of elusive birds.

The special birds that you can see here are Albertine Rift endemics – these mostly montane forest-dwelling birds are only found in the Albertine Rift region which spans parts of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and the DRC.

For serious birders, parts of Uganda function as a proxy-Congo – providing opportunities to see birds found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, when ongoing conflict rules out travelling there.

For amateur birdwatchers, there are plenty of vivid, large and iconic birds to see – from hornbills to shoebills, eagles to egrets. “It’s so colourful – even in our garden here [in Kampala],” says Leonie, “Especially compared to somewhere like the UK.”

What kids of birds can I see in Uganda?

Enthusiastic birdwatchers will be on the lookout for Ugandan birds that are localised to particular areas and harder to spot outside Uganda – among them a clutch of forest-dwelling kingfishers, francolins, barbets and robin-chats. “I think if you were really trying you could get into 300-400 bird sightings, easily,” says Leonie.

If you’re an amateur, Uganda has plenty of colourful and distinctive species that could turn you into a birdwatching convert.

There are big birds: the goliath crane which towers over its prey; the grey crowned crane, which is Uganda’s national bird; the elusive shoebill, and marabou storks, whose downy breast feathers are famously dyed, exported, and used to mimic fur trim, or to make fly fishing lures. Up in the north of the country, Uganda’s only ostriches stroll in sight of the mountains of South Sudan, in Kidepo Valley National Park.

There are showy birds too: the big-headed Abyssinian roller has lots to be vain about – not least its serene blue plumage. Then there’s the great crested go-away-bird; the great blue turaco; the black-and-white-casqued hornbill; and the pin-tailed wydah, with a streaming pennant of a tail.

Among the water birds there are African finfoots, mysterious birds that might like water, or might prefer land – they are so rarely seen that little is known of them. Lake Mburo in Uganda is a rare place where they can be spotted relatively frequently.

Then there are the shy forest birds, hiding among the trees: trogons, pittas, broadbills and many forest greenbuls. Some will escape the notice – and the interest – of everyone except hardcore birders.

Spotting shoebills

Do you want to see a shoebill? You should – not just because they’re one of the most intriguing birds in Uganda, but because perhaps the best place to see them in the country is at a community-based ecotourism project in the Mabamba Wetlands, near Kampala.

It’s a win-win: you get to see a bird that looks like a dinosaur, and your visit encourages their protection, “The more people that go, the more the villagers are likely see the value of the birds and the wetlands,” says Leonie, “Shoebills are swamp birds – their specific habitat is under threat from development.”

Prehistoric, malevolent-eyed shoebills prefer stagnant water and murky places. They can be found, usually stock-still and engaged in ambush hunting, in national parks with wetlands – particularly at Murchison Falls, Lake Mburo and Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Birds saving wetlands

Birds like the striking shoebill are useful poster-animals for protecting wetlands. Another is the great blue turaco, the star of a swamp walk run by the community around Bigodi swamp, near Kibale Forest. The blue bird, which towers over other species of turaco, is the awkward cousin at a mostly green-feathered family reunion. But its presence here is welcome, drawing tourists towards the rustling papyrus after they’ve watched chimpanzees in nearby Kibale.

The swamp walk, run by the Kibale Association for Rural and Environmental Development, was established in 1992. In that time its profits have helped create a secondary school and health centre and provided employment and guide training in the area. Since the area has profited from the habitat, it is likely to remain under protection.

Site-specific guides

Site-specific guides are an important part of any birdwatching trip in Uganda. As well as your tour guide, additional guides on location can help track birds in localised spots. Take the guides at Mubwindi Swamp, who keep tabs on and help you see the Grauer’s broadbill – a blip of bright green on a branch – only found in a couple of locations in Uganda, and in the Congo.

Combining birdwatching and safari

Shoebills love it when a hippopotamus drifts along and flushes a delicious fish out of its hiding place, while grey crowned cranes feed in the wake of roving herbivores that drive insects out of the grass.

Viewing Uganda’s birdlife has always gone hand-in-hand with admiring its wider wildlife, making the country a brilliant place for combining birdwatching and safari. Birdwatchers flock to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest to see its impressive Albertine Rift endemics, but the forest is better known for being the only place where you can see chimpanzees and mountain gorillas in the same area. Queen Elizabeth National Park is where you may record the highest bird counts, but it is more famous for its black-maned, tree-climbing lions.
Travel Team
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Best places to go birdwatching in Uganda

Queen Elizabeth National Park

This popular park might be a safari stalwart, but you can’t bypass its astonishing 600 species of birds. The waters of the Kazinga Channel, which links two freshwater lakes, are a hotspot for wading and water birds: yellow-billed storks, African spoonbills and flotillas of floating pelicans.

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Bwindi is one of the most biodiverse areas of Africa, and shelters over 300 bird species – including many of those sought-after Albertine Rift endemics. You can expect to bird over a variety of areas, including the Ruhija Section and the Buhumba Section. Look out for martial eagles and over twenty Albertine Rift endemic birds. There’s another Albertine Rift endemic here too: the famous mountain gorilla.


On Uganda’s border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the steep, snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains lie in sharp contrast to Uganda’s usually undulating terrain. Birds live in a unique eco system, which varies with the altitude and is known for special plant life – usually diminutive alpine plants, swelled to improbable sizes, colour the mountain slopes. Among the birds, look out for colourful characters like the Rwenzori turaco and the Rwenzori double-collared sunbird.

Semuliki National Park

This park excites seasoned birders, as it closely resembles some areas of the Congo. Whilst it has over 435 resident bird species, not all of them are easy to spot, making it a park that’s best for more experienced birdwatchers. For casual visitors, the park is known for its hot springs – and the springs attract a variety of shorebirds. Someone should warn them: some of these pools are hot enough to cook an egg.

Lake Mburo National Park

Lake Mburo is often a favourite spot on a birdwatching tour. It’s small and quiet and great for water birds. Leonie explains more, “It doesn’t have lions, elephants, or any other big herbivores, so people skip it. But for birders it’s really good.” The lack of predators means you can go on foot – or even by bike – through the park, to observe the birds. It’s also the only place you can see zebra in Uganda.

Kidepo Valley National Park

Off the beaten track: northeast when the rest of the tourist sites are to the south west, Kidepo Valley National Park’s open grassland dotted with tall sausage trees has something found nowhere else in Uganda – ostriches. You can track them here, but don’t stop once you’ve found them. Other birdlife is numerous; the parks is second only to Queen Elizabeth National Park in species abundance, and you could happily spend three days here birdwatching in the shadow of the park’s numerous swooping raptors.

Kibale Forest and Bigodi Swamp

The Bigodi swamp tour outside Kibale Forest is a community-run initiative that slots perfectly into a tour if you’ve come to Kibale for a morning trek to look for chimpanzees. Head out for an afternoon at the swamp, scouring the papyrus and the trees for birds, including the great blue turaco.


Jinja town is known for being near the place where the River Nile winds out of Lake Victoria. Water-loving birds join you in your pilgrimage to the source of the world’s longest river, including the magnificent African fish eagle, kingfishers, cormorants, egrets and pelicans.


Tailor made birdwatching holidays in Uganda are the way to go. These tend to have a maximum of six travellers per tour guide: for close encounters of the bird kind. From November to April you’ll also be able to see migratory birds in the parks, as well as Uganda’s homebirds. It’s easy to combine birdwatching with other wildlife watching in Uganda. In the national parks you can expect to spend one day gorilla trekking or on safari, and the next birdwatching. Night owls be warned – birdwatching is commonly a morning activity, when the birds are at their most active. Get hold of Stevenson and Fanshawe’s The Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa. Whilst forests might be the most species rich places, the birdlife is much trickier to spot in forests than a day idly looking in, say, the Botanical Gardens at Entebbe. Forest birds are shy and elusive. Wetlands are one of the most important bird habitats here but whilst they attract birds they also attract biting insects – so pack repellent.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Giles Laurent] [Intro: Charles J. Sharp] [What kids of birds can I see in Uganda?: Francesco Veronesi] [Combining birdwatching and safari: Bernard DUPONT] [Bwindi Impenetrable National Park: Thomas Fuhrmann] [Kibale Forest and Bigodi Swamp: Giles Laurent]