Bird Photography in Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda

It was difficult to know where to start this newsletter given that my trip to Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda was three years in the making and one that I had dreamt about for many more years before that.

In many ways I feel that this issue and the accompanying images are not enough to communicate the full majesty of Nyungwe nor the range of emotions I experienced while exploring this ancient forest. Unbelievably rich in biodiversity and 1000 kilometres squared in size, Nyungwe Forest is not something you should just read about or watch on television, it is undoubtedly a place that you should do your best to see for yourself.

I truly hope this newsletter does it some justice and look forward to hearing what you think.

If you would prefer to listen to me talk about my trip to Rwanda, please feel free to watch the following free webinar that I was honoured to do with Prints for Wildlife (PfW) and host Chase Teron.

 

PfW is raising money to support the African Parks Network, who manage Nyungwe National Park and 19 other parks in Africa. They are doing an exceptional job in protecting our natural heritage for future generations. The webinar shares more about this fantastic organization and what they are doing to ensure Rwanda’s main source of water is protected and that local communities are involved and uplifted. The talk also provides a number of hints and tips, which are not found in this newsletter, in terms of what to consider when doing bird photography in Nyungwe.

The Destination Behind the Birds
Dream Bird Photography in Nyungwe Forest in Rwanda

About 11 years ago I bought a copy of “Birds of Africa South of the Sahara” by Sinclair and Ryan, as I was heading to Kenya with my family and wanted to start learning about the birds I may encounter on the trip. While paging through the field guide I would be stopped in my tracks by some of the birds on offer. I would wonder at some of the unbelievable Wattle-eyes, Babblers, Crombecs, Cuckoos and Akalats, which could all be seen on this incredible continent of ours! What struck me most, however, was that just about every time I got extremely excited about a certain species, I would look at its distribution map and notice that they all came from a specific part of East Africa. This area soon became known to me as the Albertine Rift mountains, and from then on it has been a destination that I have dreamed of visiting!

 

Fast forward seven odd years and I was chatting to Keith Barnes about the best photographic destinations in Africa; defined by us as areas where you can enjoy both excellent photographic opportunities but also see and record some of the rarest birds on the planet. What was eye-opening for me about this conversation was not only Keith’s incredible knowledge of Africa and his generosity to share it, but that he believed that Nyungwe forest in Rwanda was the best place to photograph most of the Albertine Rift endemics. Based on the above, I booked my trip to Rwanda through Keith’s bird guiding company; Tropical Birding, and I cannot praise them enough for how they supported me through the last three years and especially when challenges presented themselves (which they inevitably did).

There are 31 Albertine Rift endemics in total with Nyungwe holding a whopping 27 of them! Boasting approximately 322 bird species and being the oldest forest in Africa, Nyungwe National Park is a biodiversity hotspot of note. Besides the birds, it has 1068 species of plants (with undoubtedly more still to be discovered) and 13 species of primates, with a huge drawcard for tourists being the Chimpanzees.

My objective for the trip, however, was not to try and see all the bird species or mammals available but rather to try and achieve meaningful photographs of some iconic Albertine Rift species. All in all I had around 16 birds to target (with a couple of extras if there was time), which equated to two species a day. From a photographic perspective, I find that this is a reasonable number (albeit a little on the high side) to ensure I don’t spread myself to thin and to give myself enough time with each species. To take record shots is one thing but to try and record images that are of high quality and hopefully unique, requires a ton of time and this couldn’t be more true for forest birding. (In fact, if the birds weren’t so exciting I would have preferred far fewer photographic targets).

On arrival in Kigali I was met by my awesome driver and tour guide for the trip; Guston Damine, who transported me in his trusty Toyota Landcruiser, to my accommodation in Rwanda; Nyungwe Top View Lodge. Based on my experience, I can highly recommend Nyungwe Top View Lodge. I found the service excellent, the food delicious and the rooms were incredibly spacious (with mine having a lounge, bathroom with bath and shower, separate toilet and a big bedroom). The lodge is also very well situated; being around 30 minutes from the Uwinka reception area where a lot of the trails start from and even closer to some excellent hikes such as the Isumo Waterfall and Ndambarare trails.

While nearing the lodge we bumped into my bird guide for the eight and a half days; Claver Ntoyinkima. Claver has been working at Nyungwe for 22 years. Besides being one of the best bird guides I have had the honour to bird with, he is also a wealth of knowledge on the history of the park, it’s mammals and all the incredible variety of plant species. He is also a gentleman who was always patient, kind and accommodating. Even when things went wrong, which they did at the start of the trip, he would do his best to find solutions and accommodate different personalities. I can honestly say that my trip would not have been the same without him. And the same can be said for Guston, who was an amazing driver, coffee connoisseur, tour guide and companion. I learnt so much from both of them! Having done quite a few trips into Africa, I have not met two more fantastic individuals and I am looking forward to when our paths will cross again!

As my journey with wildlife photography has moved into its thirteenth year I have become increasingly aware that it is far more about the incredible relationships you build and the memories you make along the way than it is about the shots you take. I am grateful for meeting Guston and Claver and am privileged to now call them both friends!

The Bigugu Trail and the search for Red-collared Mountain Babbler

My top target for the trip was the charismatic and “star” of the show at Nyungwe National Park; the Red-collared Mountain Babbler. Nyungwe is the most accessible location in Africa to find this iconic Albertine Rift endemic and I was extremely excited to find this interesting Babbler and test my Canon R5 in what were very tricky, low light, forest conditions. I was hoping that the improved ISO performance and autofocus of my mirrorless camera would help me achieve some unprecedented images.

The best place to find this species in the park is the Bigugu Trail; named after the Park’s highest peak. The trail climbs to 2950 metres in elevation and is considered the most challenging hike in Nyungwe. I was thankful that I had trained extensively for Rwanda before going, as carrying a variety of equipment and supplies (my Canon camera and 600mm lens as well as a backpack with another camera, 100 to 400mm lens and lunch for the day) up these trails required a degree of fitness and stamina to be fun. The good news about Bigugu is that if you can make it up the first kilometre or so of steep climbing, it is believed that you have a 70 per cent chance of finding the Babblers in the next couple of kilometres.

On our first attempt to find the Babblers, Claver and I started the trail just after sunrise, around 06h45am. We reached the top of the climb after an hour or so and took time to pray together and thank God for the day ahead. It is moments like this that make my trips so much more than photography! Time to share dreams, time to connect at a deeper level and time to stop and be thankful. We had now reached the relatively flat part of the trail where a flock of the Babblers are known to reside. After every 100 metres or so, we would stop and listen, stop and listen. After 3.5 hours had passed, we were still stopping and listening, hoping to hear their telltale call. And then from down in the valley below we heard our first sign of hope; it was them, they were calling. Unfortunately they were some way from the trail and so we decided to walk a bit further along the path. Much to our surprise we found another flock right above our heads. We had found two flocks within the space of seconds. My heart was jumping inside of me, as finding the birds was the first step! Now the challenging task of trying to take special images had just begun.

Fortunately it was just Claver and I and we were happy to spend as much time as they would allow with them! This is one of the many reasons I choose to do bird photography trips on my own, as not everyone has the passion or patience to wait for as long as it takes. There is, however, no replacement for time with birds like this, as you often get to learn what books and images battle to tell you. You get to immerse yourself in their world. You get to learn what trees and food they favour; for example Red-collared Babblers love Waterberry and Macaranga trees. You see how they feed, for example, the Babblers moved frequently but not far and would often circle back on themselves. I also noticed that they would sometimes drop down to eye level if there were potential food sources lower down. This was very helpful to know as it meant it was often better to stand still and wait for them to come to you than try and walk after them. Slowly but surely you start to get a feel for where they may go next and how to predict their future behaviour.

I soon realised why the images I had seen in books and online were mostly grainy and taken from some distance, as the birds spent most of their time high above us, the light was very tricky and darker than I imagined and the Babblers were constantly moving to find there next food items. After two hours of watching them I got a sense that a few birds were heading my way and that there was a small possibility that they could come down to my level. I waited with my camera and lens ready to shoot. As favour would have it, this is exactly what happened as one bird flew onto one of my desired perches just a few metres in front of me. I fired away on high speed continuous and just hoped I had captured what I saw for a few seconds in the viewfinder. Fortunately for me I had one image which was perfectly sharp and it was more than I could have hoped for!

The Bururi Valley Road and the search for Shelley’s Crimsonwing

Besides the Babblers, I had one other top priority and that was to bird the Bururri Valley road with Claver. This road is famous for many reasons, but probably the most significant being that it is the one place in the Park where the mythical Shelley’s Crimsonwing has been sighted on multiple occasions.

These tiny seedeaters have never been photographed in the wild (at least to my knowledge) and are on top of most African birder’s bucket lists. The idea of walking down this very road with Claver; one of very few people to have seen this bird in the wild, was a dream come true. In fact, given the adventure associated with this, I gave up my photographic efforts to take “Iconic African Birdscapes” to hike the road again with him. I still remember the exact moment when he stopped, pointed and said “That is where I once saw the Shelley’s”. Although we never got a glimpse of it, just being there and knowing we could was such a thrill!

The fact that the road held a number of other eye-watering specials such as Tullberg’s Woodpecker, Oriole Finch, Dusky Twinspot, White-bellied Robin-chat, Equatorial Akalat and Red-faced and Dusky Crimsonwing, meant there was never a dull moment. It was undoubtedly the best birding I experienced in Nyungwe given the density of birds, variety of species and high levels of action and excitement.

It is also the only place in the Park where I was forced to give Claver an emotional yet manly hug. We had been wandering down the road for a few minutes when Claver stopped and listened (as was the norm). This time, however, he whispered “Yellow-bellied Wattle-eye”. Just the mention of the birds name made my heart increase to maximum beats per second! The call was coming from the left of us. Claver responded with his own recording to see if the bird would show itself. Nothing! Then we heard a call coming from the opposite side of the road. Then a flash of movement. We both stood motionless. The bird was perched two metres away at eye level and out in the open. I knew if I moved it would fly but somehow I had to raise my camera slightly so I could get into position. It felt like forever as I slowly raised my lens and took focus. Unbelievably the bird stayed exactly where it was! I took a few shots at ISO 12800. I knew I wanted to get it down to ISO 6400. I dared to change my ISO. It was still there. I took more shots! I knew I had the image of a lifetime! And it was then that I had no other response but to thank Claver and give him a hug! It was a moment I will never forget and it is exactly what trips to places like Nyungwe Forest are all about!

The Best Trails and Birds

We encountered so many iconic species on my eight and a half days in the forest that it would difficult to do each bird and story justice without writing a full scale novel. Hence, to keep things packaged into a newsletter I thought I would mention my favourite trails and the some of the birds seen on them.

There are 15 magnificent trails in Nyungwe and I purposefully didn’t do them all. Instead, based on my target list of species and Claver’s knowledge of the area we focused primarily on 5 trails / areas:

The Bigugu Trail ~ This is undoubtedly a must do trail if you are looking to find the very sought after Red-collared Mountain Babbler. The trail is the most challenging in Nyungwe, can be slippery when wet and requires a degree of fitness. We did this trail on two occasions and found the Babblers both times.

We discovered the Babblers in mixed bird parties with Mountain Orioles and White-headed Wood-hoopoes often in attendance. The trail was also excellent for Dusky Crimsonwings as we found a pair of birds on both visits. Other good species included Chestnut-fronted Apalis, Rwenzori Apalis, Rwenzori Batis, Doherty’s Bushshrilke, Yellow Mountain Warbler; Wilson’s Sooty Boubou and Mountain Buzzard.


Trails around Uwinka Reception ~ We spent a lot of time birding the Umvoyowe and Igishigishigi Trails, which lie below the Uwinka reception area. They were undoubtedly the best places to find all three Turaco species; Rwenzori, Great Blue and Black-billed. The area produced many excellent birds including Doherty’s Bush-shrike, Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher, Red-throated Alethe, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, Rwenzori Batis, Chestnut-fronted Apalis, Mountain Masked Apalis, Strange Weaver, and White-headed Woodhoopoe.

We also found Purple-breasted Sunbirds and Silver Monkeys feeding on the Symphonia trees on the Umvoyowe trail.

This area also turned out to be the best location in the Park for Barred Long-tailed Cuckoo. I still cannot believe we managed to get images of this bird out in the open!

The Uwinka parking lot and close surrounds also produced some brilliant birds with Dusky Crimsonwing, Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Stripe-breasted Tit, Regal Sunbird, Rwenzori Double-collared Sunbird, Cinnamon-breasted Bee-eater, Northern Double-collared Sunbird, Albertine Sooty Boubou and an array of Starlings being the highlights.

Claver also had an excellent spot for Kungwe Apalis, which is an interesting and sought after endemic, near the reception area. Be sure to also keep your eyes out for Handsome Francolin as you drive towards Uwinka and the Bigugu Trail, as we saw them on a number of occasions on the roadside.

Ndambarare Trail ~ We walked the Ndambarare Trail on two occasions and I loved it. It is considered one of the best places to find the awesome Bar-tailed Trogon and it didn’t disappoint! One of the non-birding highlights was bumping into a group of Angola Collubus Monkeys right next to the trail, which allowed me to capture a cellphone video for my son; Joshua, back home.

The trail produced a number of birds that we did not see anywhere else (or on very few occasions) during our time. These specials included African Hill Babbler, Grauer’s Warbler, Blue Malkoha and Cabannis Greenbul. Other good birds were Albertine Sooty Boubou, Wilson’s Sooty Boubou, White-bellied Crested Flycatcher, White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, Mountain Masked Apalis, Chubb’s Cisticola, Strange Weaver, Yellow-eyed Black Flycatcher, Black-faced Rufous Warbler and Black-billed Turaco.

Isumo Waterfall Trail ~ This trail was one of my top three locations while in Nyungwe (with the Bigugu Trail and the Bururi Valley Road being the others). The forest was incredibly beautiful and the birds were equally awesome.

Isumo produced a number of the trip’s birding highlights with sightings of Neumann’s Warbler, White-browed Crombec, Elliot’s Woodpecker, Tulberg’s Woodpecker, Banded Prinia, Equatorial Akalat, Mountain Illadopsis and White-bellied Robin-chat. It was also the site where I had my best encounter with Black-faced Rufous Warbler.

It was also a brilliant spot for Luhder’s Bush-shrike, Many-coloured Bush-shrike, Gray Apalis, Blue-headed Sunbird, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, Black-crowned Waxbill, Pink-footed Puffback and a variety of awesome weavers. 

Runguri & Bururi Valley ~ This newsletter has already introduced this epic area and the road that runs through it. We spent two and a half days hiking up and down this incredible road and were rewarded with some truly spectacular sightings and moments.

Seeing a Cassin’s Hawk Eagle with its squirrel prey, our moment with the Yellow-bellied Wattle-eye and our best views of Tullberg’s Woodpecker were the obvious highlights.

Other birds seen on this infamous road included Red-faced Crimsonwing, Grey-throated Barbet, White-bellied Robin-chat, Equatorial Akalat, Red-throated Alethe, Petite Cuckoo-shrike, African Citril, White-chinned Prinia, Bar-tailed Trogon, Wilson’s Sooty Boubou, Black-and-White-casqued Hornbill, Mackinnon’s Shrike, Black-throated Apalis and Least Honeyguide. We unfortunately didn’t get to see the Dusky Twinspots, which are best found at the bottom of the Bururi Valley Road and in the nearby timber plantations.

I hope this newsletter has given you a small window into the wonders of Nyungwe National Park and a renewed desire to embark on your first or next African adventure. Once again, a big thank you to Claver, Guston, Keith and Desiree for making a dream trip come true. I have provided their contact details below as well as an excellent book to read should you decide to book a trip for yourself.

Contact Details of those who made the trip possible:
Tropical Birding (Keith and Desiree): reservations@tropicalbirding.com
Guston Damine (driver and tour guide): bdamineguston@gmail.com
Claver Ntoyinkima (Nyungwe National Park bird guide): cntoyinkima@gmail.com
Good reading material before you go:
Wild Rwanda: Where to watch birds, primates and other wildlife by Ken Behrens, Christian Boix and Keith Barnes.

Yours in bird photography

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