Kidepo Valley National Park: December 29, 2016-January 1, 2017

Kidepo Valley is Uganda's most remote national park, but its scenic beauty, prolific game, and unique bird list attract a steady trickle of visitors throughout the year. Located in the northern Karamoja region, one of the country's most rugged and least developed, the park is contiguous with Kidepo Game Reserve in South Sudan. It encompasses two broad river valleys, the semi-arid Narus and the essentially arid Kidepo, and is home to a handful of dry country specials not found in any other national park in Uganda. Top targets include Karamoja Apalis and Black-Breasted Barbet, and there is also the possibility of encountering vagrants or adding new species to Uganda's country list.



I had long planned to visit Kidepo Valley National Park and saved the destination for my last birding trip in Uganda. Aiming to reach 600 species seen in Uganda, I was confident that a few days in Kidepo would yield the 22 new birds I still needed and likely more. Many of these dry country specials can also be found along the eastern border with Kenya, north of Mt. Elgon National Park. In particular, Where to Watch Birds in Uganda describes several sites near the town of Moroto that sound worth exploring. I had so far neglected this region, focusing instead on birding the forests of the west and southwest. In retrospect, I probably could have visited Murchison Falls National Park less frequently and improved my geographic coverage of the country.

The drive from Kampala to Kidepo via Gulu and Kitgum is intimidatingly long. High-end tourists can opt to fly directly to the park, staying at the posh Apoka Safari Lodge. Road warriors, like us, often elect to break up the journey by visiting Murchison Falls National Park along the way, or spending a night in Gulu or Kitgum. I had been to Kitgum once before for work and found the journey to be long but straight-forward and uncrowded. There is comparatively less trade along the north-south axis in Uganda than the east-west, which is one reason I visited Murchison and Budongo so frequently. Between Gulu and Kitgum, the 100 km road is now being paved. Beyond Kitgum, the road is no longer tarmac, but it is wide, well-graded, and almost completely free of other vehicles. 



It took us approximately nine hours to make the trip each way. We experienced a few incidents while traveling in both directions. Just as we were leaving the outskirts of Kampala early on Thursday morning, I realized that I had left my camera battery at home. Without a backup battery, I was compelled to turn around and reenter the city, which was quickly coming to life. The streets were choked with vehicle traffic and pedestrians an hour later when we reached the point where we had turned around earlier. I had spent an entire day planning and organizing this trip, and it's a point of pride that I rarely forget any gear. Even though I am a birder first and a photographer a distant second, there was no question whether I would turn back. 

We made a final stop to refuel in Kitgum town, which offers the last petrol station before Kidepo, filling two jerrycans with additional fuel. Although there is a petrol pump at Apoka, where the UWA park station is located, it is not consistently available to visitors. The 115 km road from Kitgum to Kidepo is well signed, indicating the direction to Kidepo at each fork. Approaching the park, the landscape becomes increasingly dramatic, as the road winds through jagged mountains and rock formations, past fields of cotton, millet, and sunflower. It is definitely worth stopping to bird along the road before entering the park, especially in the morning. The 30 km before the park entrance offer excellent views of woodland and rock outcrops, which are good for cliff-dwelling birds, such as Fox Kestrel. It is worth checking for Black-Breasted Barbet in fruiting trees, which they are few and far between within the park itself.



Even a quick drive through the region will reveal that living conditions in Karamoja are rough, and there are few public services available. The Karamojong are an agro-pastoral people and culturally distinct, perhaps more so than any other ethnic group in Uganda. Their unique customs have sparked a fledgling community tourism industry, where tourists can visit traditional villages, similar to what has evolved around the Maasai in Tanzania and Kenya. Historically, a burgeoning population and dwindling resources have resulted in internecine conflict in Karamoja, as well as violent clashes with Ugandan security forces. Cattle raiding in the southern districts of the region were once common, with the Karamojong being the aggressors. After a disarmament effort, travel restrictions for foreigners were lifted in recent years, but it's still advisable to inquire about current conditions before you go.

After a long drive, Aimee and I headed straight into the park. We first stopped at a rock outcropping, where the ruins of the Grand Katurum Lodge are located. The woodland around the base is a good spot to look for White-Crested Turaco as well as cliff specials. Down the road a bit, we encountered two female lions resting in the shade of a sausage tree. Heading up the Narus Valley, we stopped an observation point where camping is also permitted. The views are magnificent from this hill, and there excellent facilities for visitors, including a telescope and informative placards about the wildlife of the park recently installed by the African Wildlife Foundation under the project Uganda Tourism for Biodiversity. In general, Aimee and I found the infrastructure and management of Kidepo to be better than any other national park in Uganda.



We decided to camp at this observation point the first night. We made a short game drive before sunset, passing near the wallows where hundreds of buffalo and elephants were grazing. New birds for my country list came quick and easy, including Clapperton's Francolin, Rose-Ringed Parakeet, Yellow-Billed Shrike, Northern White-Crowned Shrike, and Superb Starling. There is a watering hole nearby, where I hoped to wait for Four-Banded Sandgrouse, but it had recently gone dry. We returned to camp at dusk flushing a single unidentified nightjar along the track. I took a quick break from making camp to track down a calling Freckled Nightjar among the rocks. The night was filled with animal sounds, including lions grunting in the distance, but Aimee and I have grown accustomed to these noises and slept peacefully.

The following day was a critical one. We had decided to drive to Kidepo Valley to search for dry country birds, including the globally threatened Karamoja Apalis. There was potential to see dozens of new birds, which would push me well past my goal of seeing 600 species in Uganda. We picked up an armed UWA ranger at Apoka and set out on a well-graded road. The ranger is a requirement for visiting this part of the park and costs 20 USD. There is no coverage for mobile phones, and the rangers carry a radio for communication with the station in case of emergency. Reserve the services of Bernard (mobile number 0782889344), who knows the birds of the park well. From the park station it is 48 km to the Kanangarok hot springs, the final destination within the park for visitors. The road crosses several dry stream beds, including the Kidepo River, and passes through savanna, woodland, and acacia and thorn bush. 



Where to Watch Birds in Uganda provides detailed instructions about what birds to look for and where to find them in Kidepo Valley. We spent a fruitless few hours looking for Karamoja Apalis in the thorn bush along the last 5 km of road before the hot springs. A French couple was also birding along the road; they might have seen one individual but admitted they weren't sure. New birds that proved relatively easy to find included White-Headed and White-Billed Buffalo-Weavers, African Grey Flycatcher, Grey-Capped Social Weaver, d'Arnaud's Barbet, Red-Winged Lark, Slate-Colored Boubou, Rufous-Crowned Roller, Jackson's and Red-Billed Hornbills, Rufous Chatterer, and White-Bellied Tit. Less expected finds were White-Bellied Bustard, Pygmy Batis, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Ostrich, and Secretary Bird. I spotted three new Estrildidae together near the hot springs: Black-Cheeked Waxbill, Crimson-Rumped Waxbill, and Purple Grenadier.

In addition to dipping on Karamoja Apalis, I left a lot of birds on the table. Some of these are supposed to be common, such as Yellow-Throated Spurfowl, Straw-Tailed Whydah, Chestnut Weaver, Eastern Yellow-Billed Hornbill, and Pygmy Falcon; others, including Red-and-Yellow Barbet and Heuglin's Wheatear, are less so. Ideally, I would have spent two days birding along this road, but we had only planned for two full days in the park. I also had a head cold, and the extremely hot and dry weather in the Kidepo Valley was taxing. The French couple had opted to return a second day and planned to spend two hours hiking through the thorn bush in search of the apalis. I understand that Karamoja Apalis is not only localized but rare, and visiting birders should not have high expectations of seeing it.



After a long day driving through the Kidepo Valley, we stopped at Apoka for some cold beer. African Hoopoe was tame around the bandas, and we observed Patas Monkey, Side-Striped Jackal, waterbuck, and warthog at the small watering hole. In the late afternoon, we drove to the Crocodile pools, where various waterbirds were congregated, including Yellow-Billed Stork, White-Faced Whistling-Duck, Knob-Billed Duck, and African Jacana. Abdim's Stork was also present in large numbers. Four-Banded Sandgrouse did not make an appearance after dusk, nor did we see any nightjars on our return to the campsite. We camped that night in the same spot, joined this time by a group of Indian men accompanied by a UWA ranger. Aimee tells me that the animal sounds the second night were even wilder, but I was gassed with my head cold and slept without interruption. 

I had already achieved my birding objective for the trip but was still in search of a flagship bird. We started the day off back at the Grand Katurum Lodge to look for White-Crested Turaco, dipping on it again. We looked for Fox Kestrel among the rocky hills, finding Common Kestrels and Lappet-Faced Vultures as well as several plump Rock Hyrax. Then, we explored the western section of the park in the hills behind our campsite. We spent an hour waiting at a fruiting tree, where African Grey and Jackson's Hornbills were deftly plucking the choicest fruit. At a dry stream bed where there was a narrow strip of riverine forest, I played the call of White-Crested Turaco. Almost immediately, two turacos popped from the undergrowth and scampered up into the canopy, gliding away before I could capture a decent photograph. Elated to see this spectacular bird, we continued confidently through bush and woodland. 



Bouncing along the road, I spotted a black and white bird dash out of a bush as we were driving past. I figured it was a Sooty Chat but decided to reverse back to confirm what it was. After a minute of scanning, I dug out a stonking Black-Breasted Barbet hidden low in a bush about 30 m back from the road. What a find! For nearly ten minutes, we watched this magnificent barbet as it phlegmatically moved about, feeding occasionally on a few small berries. I tried desperately to photograph it, but even with my lens, the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-S, it is challenging to focus on a bird in a bush at a distance. Ultimately, I needed to get out of the car and properly stalk the bird, which I neglected to do until it had moved on down the hill. At least we now had two flagship birds for the trip: White-Crested Turaco and Black-Breasted Barbet. Both of these beauties would probably also make my top-ten list for birds seen in Uganda.

By now it was early afternoon, and we decided to celebrate with another cold beer. After a brief stop at Apoka, we set up again at the Crocodile pools and relaxed in the shade. A Landcruiser rolled by after a while, and I helped the driver change a flat tire. We met the French couple again and exchanged birding notes. They had spent the previous day hiking up one of the mountains on the eastern edge of the park, notching an impressive list of specialties, including Stone Partridge. I couldn't imagine trudging up an arid mountain in the heat with a head cold, but I applauded their effort in recording what are likely two new species for the park, Shining Sunbird and Boran Cisticola. Where to Watch Birds in Uganda doesn't mention the possibility of seeing either bird, but I'll defer to their extensive birding experience in northeastern Kenya.



Aimee and I headed further south in the evening, climbing a rock outcropping. A raucous group of White-Bellied Go-Away-Birds welcomed us at the top before sailing away. The panorama was breathtaking, as the color of the landscape softened in the dying light. On the way back to camp we passed a solitary elephant injured on its left front leg. It was terrified of the car but unable to walk. We reported it later at Apoka, where the UWA rangers informed us that they had already summoned a veterinarian from Kampala. We found our campsite overrun by Italian tourists celebrating the new year, and we decided to spend the night at the other campsite instead. The twilight drive yielded several Swamp Nightjars, a lifer for me. There were revelers at the other campsite too, but they proved relatively dignified as midnight approached. Lions called to each other forcefully throughout the night, passing close by the camp.

We made a final quick circuit around the Narus Valley the following morning. I didn't have any significant targets beyond common birds that I had previously overlooked, such as Singing Bushlark, Bruce's Green Pigeon, Broad-Tailed Warbler, and Harlequin Quail. I didn't record any of these species, but we did find another pair of lions resting in the shade, this time a young male and female. Any safari bookended by lions is a memorable one, and we headed out of the park immediately afterwards determined to reach Kampala before dark. I stopped only once for birds, just beyond the entrance gate in recently burned woodland. Red-Fronted Barbet would prove my final new bird species seen in Uganda, leaving me at 614. For a small but diverse country like Uganda or Ecuador, seeing two thirds of the bird species is an attainable goal for resident birders.



Notable birds seen: Common Ostrich, Little Egret, Intermediate Egret, Black-Headed Heron, Grey Heron, Hamerkop, White Stork, Yellow-Billed Stork, Abdim's Stork, African Open-Billed Stork, Knob-Billed Duck, White-Faced Whistling-Duck, Black-Shouldered Kite, Secretary Bird, White-Headed Vulture, African White-Backed Vulture, Ruppell's Griffon Vulture, Lappet-Faced Vulture, Short-Toed Snake-Eagle, Brown Snake-Eagle, Montagu's Harrier, Lizzard Buzzard, Bateleur, Long-Crested Eagle, Common Kestrel, Grey Kestrel, Red-Necked Falcon, Helmeted Guineafowl, Clapperton's Francolin, Crested Francolin, Black Crake, Common Moorhen, African Jacana, White-Bellied Bustard, Black-Bellied Bustard, African Wattled Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, Speckled Pigeon, Black-Billed Wood-Dove, Namaqua Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, Brown Parrot, Rose-Ringed Parakeet, White-Crested Turaco, White-Bellied Go-Away-Bird, White-Browed Coucal, Senegal Coucal, Freckled Nightjar, Swamp Nightjar, Mottled Swift, African Palm Swift, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Striped Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Abyssinian Roller, European Roller, Rufous-Crowned Roller, Green Wood-Hoopoe, African Hoopoe, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Red-Billed Hornbill, Jackson's Hornbill, African Grey Hornbill, Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill, Red-Fronted Barbet, Spot-Flanked Barbet, White-Headed Barbet, Black-Breasted Barbet, d'Arnaud's Barbet, Nubian Woodpecker, Red-Winged Lark, Flappet Lark (h), Sand Martin, Barn Swallow, Yellow Wagtail, Plain-Backed Pipit, Sooty Chat, Northern Wheatear, Isabelline Wheatear, Spotted Morning-Thrush, Familiar Chat, Buff-Bellied Warbler, Red-Faced Crombec, African Moustached Warbler, Croaking Cisticola, Rattling Cisticola, Tawny-Flanked Prinia, African Grey Flycatcher, Pygmy Batis, Black-Headed Batis, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Silverbird, Rufous Chatterer, White-Bellied Tit, Marico Sunbird, Scarlet-Chested Sunbird, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Yellow-Billed Shrike, Slate-Coloured Boubou, Brubru, Black-Crowned Tchagra, Northern White-Crowned Shrike, White-Crested Helmet-Shrike, Fork-Tailed Drongo, Piapiac, African Black-Headed Oriole, Lesser Blue-Eared Starling, Ruppell's Long-Tailed Starling, Superb Starling, Speckle-Fronted Weaver, White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, Grey-Capped Social-Weaver, White-Headed Buffalo-Weaver, White-Billed Buffalo-Weaver, Green-Winged Pytilia, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Purple Grenadier, Crimson-Rumped Waxbill, Black-Cheeked Waxbill, Cinnamon-Breasted Rock-Bunting. 

Mabamba Swamp: December 18, 2016

Mabamba Swamp is the most convenient site in Uganda for seeing the Shoebill, one of Africa's most unique and sought-after birds. Located just an hour outside Kampala, the site boasts a success rate of over 80 percent for Shoebill sightings. Although rates at Murchison Falls National Park and Semliki Wildlife Reserve are similarly high, trips to these remote destinations are significantly more time-consuming and expensive. There are several different options for visiting Mabamba, including participating in an organized tour out of Entebbe. My preferred method is to drive to the swamp and contract a local guide and boat driver directly.



On my first trip to Mabamba in September 2015, Aimee and I worked with David Katumba (mobile 0783911643) to locate Shoebill and a wide variety of other water-associated birds. On our most recent visit, we toured the swamp with Shukuru (mobile 0784751923), David's grandson, also an astute bird guide and field researcher who participates in the annual monitoring of the migratory Blue Swallow. Shukuru proved just as sharp-eyed and knowledgable as his grandfather, and we would need his strength and stamina as we struggled to navigate through the unseasonably shallow swamp. For 100,000 UGX, or about 30 USD, we spent over three hours in the swamp searching for Shoebill and other target birds in a motorized canoe.

Driving directions to Mabamba Swamp are available either in Where to Watch Birds in Uganda or on Google Maps. I would recommend getting an early start from Kampala in order to arrive at the swamp around 9am. During the weekend, there are a few boats out searching for Shoebill each morning. Although it's rewarding to be in the first boat to successfully locate a Shoebill, it is practical to take advantage of the efforts of earlier boats. The guides work together to share information, and if you're in one of the later boats, you can head out directly to the Shoebill's location. The less time you spend looking for Shoebill, the more time you have to spend chasing other birds.



In addition to showing us a Shoebill or two, I was hoping that our local guide could help me build up my country list. I have seen nearly 600 bird species in Uganda, and I would love to surpass that number before I depart in a few weeks. My targets included African Pygmy Goose and Lesser Jacana, two smaller and subtler water birds that I had overlooked or not been lucky enough to see previously. My country list was also embarrassingly light on swallows and martins, which I struggle to identify with confidence. I was also hoping to introduce my companions to a few papyrus specialties, including Papyrus Gonolek, White-Winged Warbler, and Carruthers's Cisticola. Even if we came up short on all these birds, I could certainly think of worse ways to spend a sunny Sunday morning.

We were the third and final boat to visit a solitary Shoebill this morning, ultimately flushing it deep into the swamp beyond any navigable channels. I have rhapsodized about this strange and prehistoric-looking bird before, but seeing a Shoebill in the wild is one of the continent's great birding experiences. What made this particular experience unique was the amount of effort it involved. We first located the Shoebill about 30m back from the channel, partially obscured by sedges. Because the water level was low, we were forced to pole the canoe laboriously into the sedges for better views. Shoebill are generally stolid birds and somewhat habituated to boats and people. We were able to approach to 10m in search of a entirely unobstructed view before finally scaring it away.



We set out next for more open water, eventually reaching a stand of papyrus. Here, we played recordings of Papyrus Gonolek to no avail; however, Little Rush and Sedge Warblers showed briefly, and we also spotted Black Crake, Common Moorhen, Swamp Flycatcher, and Osprey. Returning to the narrow channels afterwards, we headed towards a stagnant area dominated by water lilies. Scanning patiently for Lesser Jacana, I was pleased to encounter a pair of White-Backed Ducks, another new species for my country list. A patch of muddy ground held Lesser Stint, Collared Pratincole, and Common Ringed Plover. Long-Toed Lapwing, Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, and Winding Cisticola were abundant here, while an African Marsh Harrier circled menacingly overhead.

We finally picked out a pair of Lesser Jacana walking daintily atop the lily pads. These diminutive birds were dwarfed by an African Jacana nearby. Although Lesser Jacana looks similar to an immature African Jacana in the field guide, the birds are on entirely different scales and impossible to be confused side-by-side. Pushing my luck, I inquired again about African Pygmy Goose. Shukuru explained that it is uncommon at Mabamba and that we were lucky to find at least one of these two target species. Add the Shoebill sighting, which is by no means guaranteed, and we had definitely had a successful excursion. For reference, Blue Swallow is present at Mabamba Swamp in July and August, its dark glossy plumage and long tail streamers unmistakable.



Notable birds seen: Long-Tailed Cormorant, African Darter, Common Squacco Heron, Purple Heron, Hamerkop, African Open-Billed Stork, Shoebill, White-Faced Whistling-Duck, White-Backed Duck, Yellow-Billed Duck, Osprey, African Marsh Harrier, Black Crake, Common Moorhen, African Jacana, Lesser Jacana, Collared Pratincole, Long-Toed Lapwing, Common Ringed Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint, White-Winged Tern, Great Blue Turaco (h), Blue-Headed Coucal, Pied Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater, Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, Plain Martin, Sand Martin, Lesser Striped Swallow, Barn Swallow, Angola Swallow, Sooty Chat, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Sedge Warbler, White-Winged Warbler (h), Winding Cisticola, Swamp Flycatcher, Papyrus Gonolek (h), Black-Headed Weaver, Vieillot's Black Weaver, Northern Brown-Throated Weaver, Red-Headed Quelea, Fan-Tailed Widowbird, Common Waxbill.

Semliki National Park: December 12-14, 2016

My first trip to Semliki National Park was relatively unproductive. Although it's sometimes billed as Uganda's top birding site, I showed up last July unannounced, unprepared, and undetermined. This time, I called ahead to secure the guiding services of a knowledgeable park ranger, I had a well-organized list of target birds, and my iPhone and iPod were loaded with thousands of bird calls. Bearing the heat, humidity, biting insects, and general frustrations of forest birding, I logged more than twenty-four hours of field time over three days. While I still have a few legitimate gripes about the management of the park, the results of this trip are noteworthy, even if they are just as dependent on luck as skill.




Much of the park's allure stems from its uniqueness in East Africa. Semliki is nestled between the western base of the Rwenzori Mountains and Uganda's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. It consists mostly of moist semi-deciduous forest lying on the far eastern edge of the Guinea-Congo forest biome. Several dozen birds in the Birds of East Africa field guide occur at Semliki and nowhere else. Tourists, photographers, and casual birders should note, though, that Semliki is not considered one of Uganda's top birding sites because the birds are especially beautiful or easy to see. The site is important because it offers hardcore birders a taste of birding the forests of Congo without actually having to visit the country.

Historically remote, the site is easy to reach now that road is sealed from Fort Portal. The drive from Kampala takes between five and six hours depending on traffic. There is decent accommodation at Bumaga Tourist Camp, located a few kilometers past the UWA park station, where you can camp (15,000 UGX) and order basic meals in advance. There are also small furnished huts with en-suite facilities available (52,000 UGX). The park entrance is 35 USD for foreign non-residents. Birding along the famous Kirumia Trail costs an additional 30 USD. This fee covers the services of a UWA guide, as well as an armed guard from the Counter-Terrorism Unit. It was unclear whether the guard was there to ward off buffalos, elephants, or rebels based in DR Congo.



Justus is the most knowledgeable UWA guide at Semliki. Originally from Bigodi near Kibale National Park, he has been based at Semliki for six years. He also has experience working at the nearby Semliki Wildlife Reserve. Justus describes birding as his hobby, and he regularly works with visiting birders, ornithologists, and other scientists. He thoroughly understands the rigors of field work. I wouldn't describe his knowledge of birds as very precise, but he is keenly observant and has probably logged more time birding at Semliki than anyone else. If you're interested in a particular target bird, he can also tell you roughly when and where it was last recorded. Once in Uganda, you can call him directly to check on availability (0775399771).

The biggest birding attraction at Semliki is the Kirumia Trail, which is described in great detail in Where to Watch Birds in Uganda. Visiting birders should note that the research for that book took place in the mid-to-late 90s, and the condition of the forest has likely deteriorated since then. Although the authors fairly describe the birding at Semliki as challenging but rewarding, some of their tips for finding specific birds are likely antiquated. The Kirumia Trail winds from the road for approximately 16 km to Semliki River, passing through ironwood-dominated forest, swamp forest, and overgrown cultivation. One campsite still remains at the first oxbow lake, which is located about 6 km from the road, but the two others are now overgrown. Most birders visit the first campsite on a day trip, opting to stay at Bumaga for the night, although overnight expeditions can still be arranged.




In addition to the Kirumia Trail, which starts about 5 km down the road, there are several shorter trails that leave from the park station. The main attraction is visiting the hot springs, which are more impressive from a distance. The activity fee for this nature walk is 30 USD for foreign non-residents, meaning that most visitors will spend 60 USD (park entrance plus activity fee) for a 30-minute walk to see water bubbling out of the ground. I mentioned earlier that I wasn't satisfied with the management of Semliki National Park. What exactly does the park entrance fee cover if you can't enter the park without paying for an activity? It is also possible to bird along these trails, which pass through swamp forest. Depending on the season, fruiting trees can boast up to five hornbill species at a time.

If you're on a budget and unwilling to pay these steep fees, it is possible to bird the edge of the forest from the road. There is a lot of vehicle and foot traffic though, and in my evaluation it's not worth visiting Semliki without also birding the forest interior. Possible along the road are forest-edge species as well as open country lowland birds. Noteworthy records here included Black-Casqued Wattled Hornbill, Western Bronze-Naped Pigeon, and Orange-Cheeked Waxbill. Across the road from the UWA park station at Sempaya, the old road to Itojo winds up and over the mountains. It passes through forested ravines, where it's possible to find Leaf-Love and Simple Greenbul. Supposedly, the National Forest Authority manages the area, but there is no entrance gate. Not far up this road is a lookout from where you can see the hot springs boiling up from the rainforest.



On Monday afternoon, we first looked around Bumaga Tourist Camp for Swamp Palm Greenbul. There is a short loop trail here, which passes through swamp forest and overgrown plantations. On my previous trip, I saw White-Crested Hornbill here several times. Next, we checked the road for Orange-Cheeked Seedeater before heading down the Kirumia Trail. It had rained for a few hours in the morning, but the weather was clearing up. Bird guides are by nature conservative, even pessimistic, especially about the prospects of forest birding in the afternoon. In my experience, a rainy morning can often lead to frantic bird activity in the afternoon. Even if our first excursion proved unproductive, it would be good to readjust my eyes and ears to the birds of Semliki.

The first three kilometers of the Kirumia Trail is actually a network of trails that crisscross through ironwood-dominated forest. It is possible to spend the entire day using this grid to chase down difficult-to-see canopy species, such as Yellow-Throated Nicator, Red-Billed Dwarf Hornbill, Yellow-Throated Cuckoo, Lemon-Bellied Crombec, Red-Billed Helmet-Shrike, and many others. The forest understory here is also home to many skulking specialties, including Capuchin Babbler, Northern Bearded Scrub-Robin, Blue-Headed Crested-Flycatcher, and Grey Ground-Thrush, to name just a few. Mixed flocks moving through the mid-level and understory here commonly include Xavier's Greenbul, Red-Tailed Greenbul, Green-Tailed and Red-Tailed Bristlebills, Green Hylia, Grey-Headed Sunbird, Brown-Eared Woodpecker, and Crested Malimbe.



In wandering through this grid, we encountered three or four mixed flocks. It was helpful to shake off the rust and physically get back in the groove of forest birding: dashing along trails, straining to look high overhead, and crouching low to peer into the understory. I also reacquainted my ears to the common bird calls of the humid lowland forests of Uganda, including Great Blue Turaco, Fire-Crested Alethe, Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush, Green Hylia, Red-Tailed Bristlebill, Forest Robin, Western Nicator, Chestnut Wattle-Eye, Blue-Throated Brown Sunbird, and many others. In addition, Justus and I had a chance to build rapport, share information, and identify targets for the next few days. It can be problematic to accomplish all this during the morning hours, when birding is more high-stakes. Small talk at dawn could drown out the call of a Green-Breasted Pitta, for example.

My two most significant ticks of the day were Yellow-Throated Cuckoo and Woodhouse's Antpecker, both lifers. As a quick side note on taxonomy, it's been my practice when blogging to strictly follow the taxonomy of one published field guide, even if it is out of date. For example, in Birds of East Africa, Stevenson and Fanshawe handle the bristebill complex by dividing it into Red-Tailed and Green-Tailed. Whereas Sinclair and Ryan, in Birds of Africa South of the Sahara, further split the bristlebills with predominantly green tails into Green-Tailed, Yellow-Lored, and Yellow-Eyed. On the other hand, the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) lumps the Yellow-Lored and Yellow-Eyed Bristlebills together. I have decided to reduce these complexities by following one authority for each of my birding blogs. There is a similar dispute about the antpeckers.




On Tuesday, we spent the morning birding the Kirumia grid, pushing on to the first campsite at midday. In the afternoon, we slowly trudged back to the road, completing a 12 km journey. The weather cooperated, and the birding was excellent with lifers coming one after another. Highlights included a pair of Hartlaub's Duck on a small pond formed by recent flooding. Red-Billed Dwarf Hornbill, its mournful call one of my favorite sounds of Semliki, responded nicely to playback by zooming in overhead to check us out. The skulking Blue-Headed Crested-Flycatcher appeared briefly in the sun, illuminated by a serendipitous ray of light that somehow reached near the forest floor. We picked out a Blue-Billed Malimbe in a mixed flock, and Sooty Boubou and Red-Rumped Tinkerbird also cooperated nicely to playback. We also found a mix of birds bickering over their place at an antswarm, including Brown-Chested Alethe, Green-Tailed Bristlebill, Xavier's Greenbul, and Red-Tailed Ant-Thrush.

At the campsite, we stopped to rest and searched for a few other key species. Justus informed that this is a reliable place for Hartlaub's Duck, White-Bellied Kingfisher, and Yellow-Footed Flycatcher. Megas, such as Spot-Breasted Ibis and Nkulengu Rail, have also been recorded here. At first glance, the campsite looks like a lovely place to spend the night, a quiet clearing in the forest on the banks of a small oxbow lake. The insects are problematic, however, and I was quickly bombarded by tsetse flies, midges, and mosquitoes. Justus told me he spent six nights camping here recently with a South African client, who was passionate about ticking all the Semliki specialties. At the time, I couldn't imagine a more physically miserable way to spend a week. Local fishermen had likely scared off the resident Hartlaub's Duck, but we found several White-Bellied Kingfishers, including this confusing juvenile Acledo kingfisher, which looks like a cross between Malachite and White-Bellied Kingfishers.



Rossouw and Sacchi, in Where to Watch Birds in Uganda, gush about the birding potential at Semliki. While their enthusiasm is still warranted, I will provide a few updates here from Justus so that visitors can temper their expectations. Despite six years of birding at Semliki, he has not seen or heard Lyre-Tailed Honeyguide, Zenker's Honeyguide, Spotted Honeyguide, Black-Winged Oriole, Fiery-Breasted Bush-Shrike, Sassi's Olive Greenbul, Red-Eyed Puffback, Gabon Woodpecker, or Black-Collared Lovebird. He is also unfamiliar with Pale-Fronted Negrofinch, Eastern Bearded Greenbul, and Icterine Greenbul, the latter two of which are difficult to distinguish from the common Red-Tailed and Xavier's Greenbuls. Species that were once present but have gone unrecorded in recent years include Grant's Bluebill, Forest Francolin, and Maxwell's Black Weaver. Capuchin Babbler and Rufous-Sided Broadbill call only seasonally. He hears Bates' Nightjar just a few times each year.



On Wednesday morning, I opted for a final half day to explore the Kirumia Trail network again. We spent several hours painstakingly tracking down Yellow-Throated Nicator. It is sporadically vocal, calling loudly from dense clusters of vines in the mid-level or thick canopy of the forest. Significantly smaller than Western Nicator, which occurs right alongside at Semliki, Yellow-Throated Nicator proved very difficult to see well. I finally caught a glimpse of its bold yellow supercilium but never saw the bird at rest. Some ticks are more satisfying than others. We spent another hour where the Kirumia river had flooded its banks and drowned the surrounding forest. Justus was confused by the call of a mysterious warbler, which turned out to be Banded Prinia. We also noted Black Cuckoo, Orange-Cheeked Waxbill, and White-Thighed Hornbill in this area.



Our last push back to the road was rewarding. I finally got a look at Chestnut-Breasted Negrofinch, which had become something of a nemesis bird for me at Budongo and Semliki, always heard but never seen. Then, we caught a noisy flock of Red-Billed Helmet-Shrikes. This delightful stunner was likely the bird of the trip for me, and I was excited to get a decent record shot of one overhead before it moved on. Surprisingly, the helmet-shrike reveals a bold white-striped underwing in flight, which isn't mentioned in either Birds of East Africa or Birds of Africa South of the Sahara. As we searched fruitlessly for Rufous-Sided Broadbill, a final series of highlights included hearing Congo Serpent-Eagle, Northern Bearded Scrub-Robin, and Grey Ground-Thrush in quick succession. To hear all three localized and difficult-to-see birds in the same area was amazing, adding further to the lore of Semliki.




Notable birds seen: Hartlaub's Duck, African Crowned Eagle, Congo Serpent-Eagle (h), Great Sparrowhawk, Long-Crested Eagle, Crested Guineafowl (h), White-Spotted Flufftail (h), African Jacana, Western Bronze-Naped Pigeon, Great Blue Turaco, Black-Billed Turaco (h), Black Cuckoo, Dusky Long-Tailed Cuckoo (h), Klaas's Cuckoo (h), African Emerald Cuckoo (h), Yellow-Throated Cuckoo, Yellowbill (h), Black-Throated Coucal (h), African Wood Owl (h), Woodland Kingfisher, White-Bellied Kingfisher, Shining-Blue Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Blue-Throated Roller (h), Broad-Billed Roller, Piping Hornbill, Red-Billed Hornbill, White-Crested Hornbill, Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill, White-Thighed Hornbill, Black-Casqued Wattled Hornbill, Yellow-Throated Tinkerbird, Red-Rumped Tinkerbird, Speckled Tinkerbird (h), Yellow-Billed Barbet (h), Buff-Spotted Woodpecker, Brown-Eared Woodpecker, Yellow-Crested Woodpecker, Plain-Backed Pipit, Western Nicator, Yellow-Throated Nicator, Little Greenbul, Little Grey Greenbul, Cameroon Sombre Greenbul, Icterine Greenbul, Xavier's Greenbul, Leaf-Love, Red-Tailed Bristlebill, Green-Tailed Bristlebill, Red-Tailed Greenbul, Forest Robin, Brown-Chested Alethe, Fire-Crested Alethe (h), Blue-Shouldered Robin-Chat (h), African Thrush, Grey Ground-Thrush (h), White-Tailed Ant-Thrush, Red-Tailed Ant-Thrush, Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush, Northern Bearded Scrub-Robin (h), Green Hylia, Green Crombec, Lemon-Bellied Crombec (h), Yellow Longbill (h), Banded Prinia, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Olive-Green Camaroptera (h), Yellow-Browed Camaroptera (h), Buff-Throated Apalis, Grey-Throated Flycatcher, African Shrike-Flycatcher (h), Chestnut Wattle-Eye, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Red-Bellied Paradise-Flycatcher, Blue-Headed Crested-Flycatcher, Dusky Crested-Flycatcher, Brown Illadopsis, Scaly-Breasted Illadopsis, Blue-Throated Brown Sunbird, Olive Sunbird, Grey-Headed Sunbird, Copper Sunbird, Sooty Boubou, Red-Billed Helmet-Shrike, Western Black-Headed Oriole, Purple-Headed Starling, Vieillot's Black Weaver, Crested Malimbe, Blue-Billed Malimbe, Black Bishop, Chestnut-Breasted Negrofinch, White-Breasted Negrofinch, Woodhouse's Antpecker, Orange-Cheeked Waxbill, Black-Crowned Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin, Brimstone Canary.  
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