Semliki National Park: July 2-3, 2016

Semliki National Park is sometimes described as Uganda's best birding site, but it falls short of this designation in several ways. First, the park is tucked away on the far side of the Rwenzori Mountains and is disconnected from the rest of the country geographically and culturally. Second, although the avian diversity is certainly impressive, the site lies on the eastern edge of the Guinea-Congo Forests biome, and the birds are not representative of Uganda. Third, accessibility is a challenge: not only is the park located in a remote area along the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, birding is a tightly controlled and commodified activity. Semliki is still an alluring destination, particularly to birders who are focused on their country list, but it is hardly the best or most unique birding site in Uganda. Queen Elizabeth and Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks, just to name two, easily surpass Semliki in most respects.



I have been putting off my first trip to Semliki in favor of making return visits to other national parks. For example, I have been to Bwindi three times already and I have spent more time at Murchison Falls than is probably necessary to see all of the park's avian attractions. In part, this is because Semliki offers little of interest to the casual birder or wildlife enthusiast. Aside from the over-hyped hot springs, which do not permit bathing, the park boasts no other attractions. Plus, there is no comfortable accommodation for tourists in the area. How would I sell a weekend trip to Aimee, who enjoys birds but isn't interested in spending hours parsing greenbul species? There is nothing to do and nowhere to stay that doesn't involve a fair amount of physical misery and stupefying boredom. That's not a good sell, nor does it add credence to the idea that Semliki is Uganda's best birding site.

This holiday weekend I finally mustered up the motivation to visit Semliki. After loading up my iPod with the bird calls of some of the site specialties, I left Kampala early on Saturday morning. Remarkably, I arrived within six hours, having avoided traffic and enjoyed relatively good road conditions. Checking in at Sempaya, where the visitors' center is located, I explained my plan to the park rangers. I hoped to do an afternoon birding walk through the swamp forest around the hot springs (15 USD), and a birding walk the following morning through the ironwood-dominated forests along the Kirumia Trail (30 USD). I opted to camp in the clearing at Bumaga, a UWA-operated site a few kilometers down the road towards Bundibugyo. The UWA rangers were perfectly accommodating, and I was assigned a knowledgeable and well-equipped bird guide for both activities.




Justice was my first guide, and we started birding behind the campsite at Bumaga along a trail through swamp forest. Bird activity was low as it was already noon and quite hot, but we ticked a few site specialties, including Green-Tailed Bristelbill, Swamp Palm Bulbul, and White-Crested Hornbill. This particular hornbill is likely Africa's most spectacular; unfortunately, I only glimpsed it fleetingly while it associated with a troop of Black-and-White Colobus and Red-Tailed Monkeys. I wasn't too disappointed, however, because in Ghana I had enjoyed splendid looks at one from the canopy walkway at Kakum National Park, even capturing a few photos from long distance. Hornbills are a star attraction at Semliki and the diversity of hornbill species is incredible, including Black-Wattled Casqued, Black-and-White-Casqued, White-Thighed, White-Crested, Red-Billed Dwarf, Black Dwarf, African Pied, and Piping Hornbills.

Before returning to Sempaya for the hot spring walk, we drove the road towards Bundibugyo, finding a single Western Bronze-Naped Pigeon resting in a tree. At Sempaya, we played a game of cat and mouse with a male Black-Wattled Casqued Hornbill that kept relocating in the canopy each time we approached. The wingbeats of this massive hornbill are as deep and impressive sounding as any bird I have heard in flight. Despite repeated attempts to lure in the bird with playback, we failed to get a look at a singing Chestnut-Breasted Negrofinch. Green-Tailed Bristebill also proved evasive and difficult to see. Justice briefly took me to the "female" hot springs but neglected to show me the "male" version, these designations having more of a cultural, than physical, meaning. Despite his knowledge, I didn't care much for his demeanor as a guide nor his overuse of a laser pointer, with which he repeatedly scared off birds.




After a paltry two hours, Justice abandoned me for a newly-arrived French couple that had made reservations to bird the Kirumia Trail over the next several days. I returned to the campsite in hopes of birding on my own. Frustratingly, I was not permitted to walk the trail through the swamp forest independently, despite it only being 500 meters long. Later, I would sneak back there anyway and bag a few more birds towards dusk, including Red-Tailed Bristelbill, Red-Tailed Greenbul, and Olive-Green Camaroptera. I also had another brief chance encounter with a White-Crested Hornbill. In the intervening hours, I birded the campsite and the short trails to the nearby bandas, noting Red-Bellied Paradise-Flycatcher, Forest Robin, Little Greenbul, Snowy-Headed Robin-Chat, and Slender-Billed Greenbul. The birding options at the campsite are limited, though, and I felt like I was missing out on better birding elsewhere.

As darkness fell, the midges came out in full force, and despite wearing repellent and long sleeves, my wrists and forearms are now covered in painful bites. Exhausted, I warmed up my food and had a cold beer, counting the minutes until I went to bed. That night two African Wood Owls called incessantly, and the overeager French couple woke me up several times by accidentally shining their spotlight in my tent. Each time, I went back to the novel I am rereading, V.S. Naipaul's Bend in the River. Like many expatriates living in Sub-Saharan Africa, I regularly turn to books to get a sense of place and my relationship to it. Naipaul tells this story about Congo in the post-independence era from the perspective of a confused and fearful East African of Indian descent. Scholars have debated whether this narrator voices Naipaul's own neocolonialist and racist attitude towards Africa. After several years of work and travel in the region, I am even more compelled with the text than during my original read over a decade ago.

I headed out for the Kirumia Trail the following morning with Moses. Following his advice, I parked my car in an exposed position along the side of the road, where a crowd of young men had gathered from the village opposite the trailhead. Where to Watch Birds in Uganda provides a detailed account of a multi-day trek along this trail, camping at oxbow lakes and eventually turning around at the Semliki River. These young men were interested in working as porters for our journey. Although the novelty of such an expedition is enticing, there is an extensive trail network within a few kilometers of the road, leading through both swamp and terra firm forest. Aside from slightly improving the chances of seeing a few specialty birds, such as White-Throated Blue Swallow, Spot-Breasted Ibis, and Black-Collared Lovebird, I don't see the point of mobilizing so many resources to camp in the forest. Why not just spend a few full days birding the trails with a small footprint and spending the nights in relative comfort at Bumaga?



I got along better with Moses than Justice, even though he reeked of alcohol. After the last day of birding in humid conditions, I wasn't sure that I smelled any better, though. The first hour with a new bird guide can be crucial as the client demonstrates his level of knowledge and interest and the guide proves his expertise and ability. Moses and I quickly established rapport and mutual respect as we set out into the forest. He complimented my familiarity with bird calls, such as Scaly-Breasted Illadopsis, Fire-Crested Alethe, and Forest Robin, and I was excited to hear his accounts of finding rare birds, like Lyre-Tailed Honeyguide, Yellow-Footed Flycatcher, and Nkulengu Rail. Bird activity was good in the early morning, and we worked through a couple of interesting mixed flocks. I was excited to see several small groups of Crested Malimbe, and at one point a gorgeous adult male briefly came down to eye level from the canopy. Despite our efforts, we missed seeing many birds for which I was realistically hoping, including Rufous-Sided Broadbill, African Piculet, and Capuchin Babbler. Red-Billed Dwarf Hornbill, Chestnut-Breasted Negrofinch, and Willcock's Honeyguide were heard only.

We wrapped up at midday, and I had to decide whether to stay another full day at the national park, braving the midges and forking over the cash to cover another birding activity fee. Obviously, I was interested in seeing more of the site specialities, but I had been less than thrilled with my experience so far. Instead, I opted to visit Semliki Wildlife Reserve nearby, which encompasses an entirely different habitat than the national park of the same name. This excursion hadn't been part of my original plan for this three-day trip, but the French couple had reported having a great experience there. They had hired a boat to explore the marshes fringing the southern edge of Lake Albert and found two Shoebill and a variety of other interesting waterbirds. I would have to return to Fort Portal to fuel up and hit an ATM, but I decided that it was a better use of my time than slogging it out in the forest again to parse greenbul species. I could make a return trip to the national park later this year.

Notable birds seen: Sacred Ibis, White-Spotted Flufftail (h), Spur-Winged Lapwing, Western Bronze-Naped Pigeon, Olive Pigeon, Tambourine Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, Great Blue Turaco, Black Cuckoo (h), Dusky Long-Tailed Cuckoo (h), African Wood Owl (h), Woodland Kingfisher, Blue-Breasted Kingfisher (h), Piping Hornbill, Red-Billed Dwarf Hornbill (h), White-Crested Hornbill, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill (h), White-Thighed Hornbill, Black-Casqued Wattled Hornbill, Yellow-Throated Tinkerbird (h), Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird (h), Yellow-Billed Barbet (h), Willcock's Honeyguide (h), Brown-Eared Woodpecker, Western Nicator, Yellow-Whiskered Greenbul, Slender-Billed Greenbul, Toro Olive Greenbul (h), Cameroon Sombre Greenbul (h), Red-Tailed Bristelbill, Green-Tailed Bristlebill, Red-Tailed Greenbul, Swamp Palm Bulbul, Forest Robin (h), Fire-Crested Alethe, Snowy-Headed Robin-Chat, African Thrush, Red-Tailed Ant-Thrush (h), Green Hylia (h), Green Crombec, Red-Faced Cisticola, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Olive-Green Camaroptera, Chestnut Wattle-Eye, Red-Bellied Paradise-Flycatcher, Scaly-Breasted Illadopsis (h), Blue-Throated Brown Sunbird, Grey-Headed Sunbird, Olive Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Sooty Boubou (h), Western Black-Headed Oriole (h), Purple-Headed Starling, Black-Necked Weaver, Grossbeak Weaver, Vieillot's Black Weaver, Crested Malimbe, Grey-Headed Negrofinch, Chestnut-Breasted Negrofinch (h), Common Waxbill, Black-Crowned Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin.

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