The Fox’s Weaver-Uganda’s only endemic bird

The Fox’s Weaver-Uganda’s only endemic bird

March 29, 2024
News Journeys Uganda

The Fox’s Weaver—Uganda’s only endemic bird: With more than 1,070 species of birds, including the endemic Fox’s weaver, Uganda is known as the “Eden of Birding.” It is undoubtedly one of the best places in Africa, if not the entire world, to go bird-watching. One of the unique birds for Uganda is the Fox’s Weaver, which is special to Uganda and cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.  Following a gap in sightings, the Fox’s Weaver was categorised as a globally threatened species. The species was last seen in the mid-1990s, when there were around 50 individuals reproducing on the edges of Lake Bisina near Opeta. The scientific name for the Fox’s weaver is Ploceus spekeoides. It is a member of the ploceidae family and can be found in the sub-tropical, tropical, and occasionally wet swamps around Lira and Soroti districts. It is primarily found near Lake Bisina and Opeta, but it may also be found near the Awoja river basin and the main Lake Kyoga system, according to records from Nature Uganda and a few of the nation’s top birding guides. The forested acacia grasslands and lakes surrounded by papyrus, which are found in eastern Uganda, provide excellent habitat for Fox’s weaver nesting and feeding.

Appearance and Identification of Uganda’s Fox’s Weaver

Uganda’s only endemic Fox’s Weaver is a chunky, short-tailed, and long-billed weaver, where breeding males exhibit vibrant features such as a pale eye, dominant yellow plumage, and a black face mask with a strong black, yellow-streaked back. Females are characterised by an overall dull coloration of brownish-olive with yellow underparts. This species is larger than Heuglin’s Masked Weaver, and their vocalisation is defined by typical weaver sounds such as “chek” notes and a squealing, sizzling “radio static” song. The only differences between the Fox’s weaver and the Speke’s weaver are that the former has darker top sections because of its shorter wing tail and narrower yellow feather margins. Inexperienced guides often confuse it with the Common Northern-brown Throated Weaver, which is the most common in eastern Uganda but has a recognisable white eye instead of the pale yellow of the Fox’s Weaver. The local boatmen and the so-called self-proclaimed “bird guides” in the marshes can confuse you endlessly if you go without an experienced birding safari guide; some of them even lack the best viewing devices to distinguish between the two species of weavers.

However, because of the nature of life around it, many of these ecosystems where the Fox’s Weaver finds safety have been altered in recent years. These people are pastoralists and farmers who need land for settlement due to population growth, grazing their animals, and rice farming, which has resulted in a decline in the species’ numbers due to habitat loss and altered breeding habits.

Reliable sightings of Uganda’s Fox’s Weaver from Senoir guide Paul Tamwenya

Senior birding guide Paul Tamwenya, on his birding expedition, crossed the waves of one of the seasonal rivers in the Amagoro swamps in Katakwi district.

After being fortunate enough to find a male with its full plumage on a trip in July of 2014, senior birding guide Paul Tamwenya from Journeys Uganda set out on a birding expedition in early 2015 with the hope of seeing the Fox’s Weaver, but in vain. However, a colleague of his confirms that he saw it on a trip around the Awoja Bridge between Soroti and Kumi in 2017. But in May 2018, while Paul Tamwenya and Bruce Wedderburn, an Australian solo birder, were on a 27-day super or combined Uganda birdwatching safari, a local Ugandan photographer captured the moment for fun and posted it on the Uganda Bird Guides, putting a stop to the fear that the endemic Fox’s Weaver might go extinct.

Fortunately, Paul was already on his way, having spent the night at the Soroti Hotel. Instead of visiting the customary Lake Bisina, he was headed to the Amagoro swamps in Katakwi district, where the photo was taken. As the rainy season came to an end, the seasonal rivers had blocked the Amagoro access road. They had to cross the waves on foot, and in several places, there had been growth of about one metre. After crossing over, we first saw the Foxy and Wailing Cisticola. In some areas, we then quickly saw the Karamoja Apalis, a much-sought-after bird species that we had missed in Kidepo Valley National Park. Following a brief stroll, our local guide, Robert, showed us the location of the last recorded sighting of the whistling acacias. As we watched, a yellow weaver carrying nesting materials flew by and sat in the adjacent acacia. We were able to determine that it was a Fox’s, which made us all erupt because many had assumed that Uganda was losing faith in maintaining this rare bird species. After counting close to eight pairs, we hustled back over the flooded plains, where we flushed the Allen’s Gallinule, Lesser Jacana, and Lesser Moorhen, in addition to the endemic Fox’s Weaver. The flooded length of around 1-2 kilometres is home to these birds.

A birding team crossing the Amagoro access road that was blocked by seasonal rivers in Katakwi district to access the Fox’s Weaver

The Uganda Bird Atlas lists it as locally near threatened and data inadequate in addition to being globally near threatened. This can be attributed to the species’ extremely low population size, very little knowledge of it, and lack of any available population estimates. Because of the scarcity of sightings in the expected locations, very little research has been done on them, and it is considered that their numbers are declining. Therefore, it is imperative that more research be done as soon as possible to understand the ecology and distribution of the Fox’s Weaver in order to mitigate any threats to the bird’s habitat and create species conservation strategies to protect its population in Uganda.

Conservation efforts in regard to Uganda’s Fox’s Weaver

The Fox’s Weaver is a captivating bird with unique characteristics, and efforts to protect its habitat are essential for its survival in Uganda. The good news is that Nature Uganda will hopefully be able to change everything as a result of securing funding from the African Birding Club to examine the preferred habitat of the species in order to assess population, breeding density, success, threats, and range. In order to preserve the Fox’s Weaver—a bird Uganda is proud to have as its sole endemic—they are also applying for further grants. Even if Nature Uganda’s efforts have not produced much thus far, we have hope.

 The Weyns’s Weaver Ploceus weynsi and Clarke’s Weaver Ploceus golandi provide a slight ray of hope due to their similarity with the Fox’s weaver and exhibit totally different habitats outside of the breeding season. Hopefully, Nature Uganda, along with other related bodies like the Uganda Bird Guides Club and the African Birding Club, can quickly find a solution to the declining number of Uganda’s only endemic bird. Not long before COVID-19 sent the entire planet into limbo, more positive news arrived. During a discovery trip to Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve in 2014, my German friend Konrad Enderlein and I spotted a pair of Fox’s Weavers. We drove from Mount Elgon National Park to Bulambuli, a newly built camp where the Bagisu tribe of Bududa is being settled due to landslides up high in the mountains, a few kilometres from the main road off Mbale Kapchorwa from the Muyembe junction. I quickly gave Konrad the assignment to observe and take numerous photos of the nesting location.

Bruce Wedderburn, an Australian solo birder, on a 27-day super or combined Uganda birding safari.

While driving through the Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, we did come across multiple pairs of individuals and nests. It caught my attention that, because the Reserve is one of the least visited protected areas in Uganda, non-observant visitors, amateur birding guides, and Uganda Wildlife Authority Rangers have consistently seen Fox’s Weaver sightings and mistaken it for another species, most likely Heuglin’s Masked Weaver, which is smaller and, if observed very well in good light, has a lightly mottled greenish-olive mantle. There have been reports of sightings of it in the whistling, prickly acacia grasslands of Magoro and Ngorium in Katakwi; Chepskunyu in Kween District; Palam, Usuk; Okudud village near Moru’Ajore, and other sightings have been further north of Iriiri, Napak. To the best of my knowledge, the Fox’s Weaver is a nomad that breeds in Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, primarily in January, February, and March. It is crucial to note that the Fox’s Weaver shares many characteristics with the Speke’s Weaver, which is found in central Tanzania, northern Kenya, and south-western Kenya.

Stand a chance to spot Uganda’s Fox’s Weaver in its spectacular splendour before it disappears entirely. Please do not hesitate to contact info@journeysuganda.com to plan your ideal bird-watching safari to Uganda and search for species of birds endemic to Uganda in the Albertine Rift Valley as well as the Guinea Congo Biome species.