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the zen of twitching

After a miserably wet but ultimately successful outing in Mabamba Swamp, D headed to nearby Mpanga Forest to dry out and stretch his legs.

Located within easy driving distance of both Entebbe and Kampala, and featuring almost 200 different bird species, Mpanga also has the benefit of not being a particularly popular tourist destination. For a nominal fee to the Mpanga ecotourism project, it is possible to wander around the forest unsupervised, which is most definitely not an option anywhere we’ve been in Rwanda. D was alone when he visited and had the forest all to himself.

The sun was close to its noontime high by the time D reached Mpanga – not ideal for birding, but considering the heavy rainstorm that had deluged the forest for the better part of the morning, D hoped to luck into some decent bird sightings. And indeed the forest canopy was abuzz with a cacophony of esoteric birdcalls. With fresh raindrops still glistening in the late morning sunshine, the forest residents had come out in force to dry off their wings after the downpour. Alas, Mpanga is dense and the trees so tall that most of the birds D spotted initially were nothing more than distant silhouettes in the treetops, too far away to capture with his camera.

A 3km-long path traverses the forest, and the woman who greeted D at the entrance suggested he stick to this main artery – the denser forest trails were bound to be too muddy to navigate. D walked on slowly, letting his thoughts drift over him as he looked for birds.

Whenever S brings up her chagrin with D’s rapid descent into birding obsession, he finds it helpful to enumerate the hobby’s many salubrious aspects: 1) it requires walking and immersing oneself in nature, both healthy activities; 2) it usually does not cost much, aside from the camera gear we already have and the occasional bird book when we move somewhere new; 3) it is – as a friend recently put it – a great way to organize a trip to the outdoors, providing both a sense of purpose and, usually, a feeling of accomplishment.

And, most importantly in D’s estimation, birding is a great way to improve one’s patience. D recalls a fellow twitcher whom he met in Namibia who said he could not handle the frustration of birding with a camera because the birds were too quick for him. Aside from the fact that D got into birding through photography and the fact that he enjoys the challenge, he’s found that the hobby also has had a profoundly relaxing influence on his mental well-being. D also used to get extremely frustrated when he missed a shot; although he still experiences occasional pangs of exasperation, he’s found that birding has helped improve the degree of control he has over the inevitable disappointments and other negative emotions.

Patience certainly served D well in Mpanga. Aside from a noisy group of black-and-white casqued hornbills at the forest edge, no other birds presented themselves at the outset. D walked on slowly, admiring the myriad butterflies that flitted about, snapping pictures of massive centipedes, and keeping a lookout for sudden bursts of motion in the otherwise still forest. His first sighting proved to be a Narina trogon, a brilliantly colored bird D had been seeking for a long time. Unfortunately, though not uncommon, trogons are hard to spot in the wild as they expertly blend into the foliage. This one sat with his back to D, hiding its bright red breast and singing from deep within the forest – the faraway pictures D managed to take hardly do this magnificent bird justice.

D did a bit better with the great blue turaco – also a first sighting for him. D had heard the great, colorful birds whooping up a storm at various points during his walk, but they stayed just out of sight until D reached the end of the trail and turned around. Ten minutes after retracing his steps towards the entrance, D came upon at least a dozen turacos noisily hopping from tree to tree in a clearing that allowed D a clear sightline. In addition to a handful of other new species, D also saw black-and-white colobus and red-tailed monkeys in Mpanga.

On his way back to the hotel, D finished off his day of twitching with a stop at the Entebbe botanical gardens. Stretching right down to the shore of Lake Victoria, the gardens boast an impressive variety of forest- and shorebirds. The only drawback is the gardens’ multitude of other human visitors…unless one enjoys birding to the thumping sound of club music, that is.

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