Lake Mburo National Park: August 12-14, 2016

Having dipped on Pennant-Winged Nightjar a few weeks ago in Murchison Falls National Park, I hoped to try again at Lake Mburo National Park. Aimee had work commitments in Kampala for much of the weekend, and so I opted to light out for the territory and revisit my search for crepuscular birds. My plan was to camp both Friday and Saturday nights inside the park, thoroughly searching a variety of habitats for different nightjar species.  Then, I would pass the daylight hours relaxing and looking for a few key species, including Red-Faced Barbet, Green-Capped Eremola, and several papyrus-associated birds that I hadn't seen yet. I also wanted to check out Kaku Swamp, an unprotected wetlands between Masaka and Mbarara that is referenced in several birding trip reports. It would be a solitary, focused weekend of birding, and I was looking forward to pushing my country list up to 500 species seen.

Remarkably, I slipped out of Kampala on Friday afternoon without much delay. Traffic is generally unpredictable in the city, and the chances of both leaving work on time and arriving at your destination before dark are slim. The few times I have risked it, however, I have been successful, and nothing beats sneaking in an hour of birding at the end of a long week of work. The road to Masaka from Kampala has recently become notorious for fatal car accidents. Seemingly every week, there are horrible reports and gruesome photographs of head-on collisions, and dozens of people have died on this road during the last few months. The road itself is generally straight and in good condition, complete with passing lanes on uphill sections. The problems are poorly maintained vehicles, lack of road safety and driver's education, and bad judgement. To address these issues, the police are staffing a series of roadblocks, the efficacy of which is yet to be determined.

I arrived at the park entrance a few hours before dark. The landscape was brown and parched, and the contrast from my last visit to the park in April was stark. The Uganda Wildlife Authority manages the environment at most savanna game parks, such as Lake Mburo, Murchison Falls, and Queen Elizabeth, by doing controlled burns each year. This practice preserves open grasslands, which are vital for supporting populations of grazing animals, and keeps the parks from becoming overgrown. I saw that large swaths of bush and grassland had recently been cleared and burned, and the park hardly felt pristine. For a birder, though, recently burned areas are of great interest, attracting bird specialists and opportunists that feast on insects and other arthropods that no longer have the benefit of cover. Plus, visibility is vastly improved, and scanning burned fields for birds is akin to shooting fish in a barrel.

After ticking a few common open-country birds, including Striped Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Grassland Pipit, and Yellow-Throated Longclaw, I headed out along the Ruroko Track. There is a scenic picnic spot in a remote rocky area along the track, called Ruroko Kopje. Although it is not technically a campsite, there is a small parking area and pit latrine. A sign implies that campfires are permitted, and there is a small informal fire pit against the rocks. I judged that this would be an ideal spot for seeing Freckled Nightjar, and I vowed to keep my footprint small, just sleeping at the site and not making a fire. I set up my camping chair overlooking the woodland and watched the sky fade into darkness. A half moon illuminated the rocky cliff, and I heard several Black-Shouldered Nightjars calling steadily below. After not finding anything of note on a short game drive, I returned to the site, where a Freckled Nightjar was calling among the rocks.

Instead of heading out on an early morning game drive, I spent several hours birding from the kopje. I had chased the Freckled Nightjar around the rocks the night before, and it had called steadily until dawn before finally flying off to roost in another location. Fruiting trees nearby attracted Ross's Turaco, African Green-Pigeon, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, and Greater Honeyguide. I was particularly excited to see the latter, which was profiled in a recent New York Times article about humans and honeyguides in Mozambique. The Greater Honeyguide is reportedly common in East Africa, but I have only seen it a few times and generally struggle with honeyguide identification. In the dense vegetation at the base of the cliff were Yellow-Throated Greenbul, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Black-Headed Gonolek, and Collared Sunbird. A troop of vervet monkeys started vocalizing noisily in the area, and the rocks were spotted with their excrement. Instead of waiting to see what would transpire next, I decided to move on.

Back in the car, I weighed my options and resolved to head towards park headquarters along the Zebra Track. A freshly burned area was already baking hot in the morning sun, and the heat was distorting the air just above the ground. I spied a pair of Senegal Lapwing probing the dirt in the distance. As they slowly approached the car, their subtle plumage grew more attractive with each dash in my direction. Further down the track, a lightly wooded area with scattered bushes, as of yet not burned, held Long-Tailed Cisticola, Buff-Bellied Warbler, Sooty Chat, and African Black-Headed Oriole. Eventually, I reached the park headquarters and paid the camping fee for two nights. The main campsite is down at the lake, adjacent to a basic restaurant and the dock where boat rides depart and return. The views are beautiful, but the parking lot is relatively busy. Combined with the abundance of trash, this campsite is not an appealing place to spend the night. In the lakeside vegetation, I found Grey-Capped Warbler, Spot-Flanked Barbet, and Common Wattle-Eye.

There is another, more secluded campsite about 5km down the Lakeside Track. I decided to camp there for the night and explore the fringes of the lake at different points along the Lakeside Track and Kigambira Loop. With the weather being so dry, it was possible to approach the papyrus swamp on foot without having to worry about an aggressive hippopotamus or crocodile. In general, birding papyrus swamps is difficult and mostly involves playback to call out warblers that reside deep inside. Ideally, you would maintain a slightly elevated position about the papyrus, in order to scan for swallows, weavers, and canaries, and be on site early in the morning when the skulking birds are vocalizing naturally. Papyrus Gonolek, Carruther's Cisticola, White-Winged Warbler, and a few others are considered to be specialists that only inhabit papyrus swamps in the Great Lakes region. While stalking around in the mud that afternoon, I flushed a Rufous-Bellied Heron, an unexpected lifer, and early the next morning, I would reel in a Greater Swamp Warbler.

On the drive around Kigambira Loop, I noted African Harrier-Hawk, Common Button-Quail, Common Scimitarbill, and Red-Headed Weaver, among others. Then, I made for the Kazuma Lookout, a sweet spot that looks out over the different lakes and rolling hills of the park. The evening breeze cooled me off as I relaxed in the shade with a book. NoViolet Bulawayo's "We Need New Names" is an imaginative retelling of the collapse of Zimbawe through the eyes of a ten-year old girl. Eventually, the protagonist immigrates to the United States to join her aunt, and the story follows an arc vaguely akin to Chimamanda Adichie's "Americanah." Where Adichie exercises her intellect and socio-cultural commentary, Bulawayo employs poetic language and original metaphors. At dusk, I was engrossed in a scene in which the protagonist is caught in the middle of a repossession incident that is veering towards violence. Suddenly, a Square-Tailed Nightjar broke my focus. It was calling in full force from a perch just on the other side of my car. I recorded some video and followed it around the hill. In the darkness, I slowly returned to the lakeside campsite using my spotlight to locate Pearl-Spotted Owlet and a calling African Scops-Owl.

Early the following morning, I revisited a point along the papyrus-lined shore for an hour. It's interesting to note how other birds utilize this habitat, including Nubian Woodpecker, Common Bulbul, and Ruppell's Long-Tailed Starling, for example. I didn't stop for much on the way out of the park, except for a lone Lesser Honeyguide in a wooded area. Before returning to Kampala, I stopped at Kaku Swamp along the Mbarara-Masake Road. These wetlands are located 40km before the turnoff to Nshara Gate, on the south side of the road. I followed a narrow dirt track down towards the shore and along the margins of the wetlands. The area is not protected, and the people living in the area actively fish, harvest papyrus and reeds, and cultivate the land bordering the wetlands. I had reasoned this might be a good site for the seasonal Blue Swallow, but I hardly saw any Hirundinidae, perhaps because it was still early. I did record some common herons and other waterbirds, as well as a group of Hottentot Teal. A walk around the wetlands would have no doubt been worthwhile and yielded many more birds, but I was concerned about leaving my car unattended. Plus, I was filthy, and it was time to go home.

Notable birds seen: Long-Tailed Cormorant, Striated Heron, Rufous-Bellied Heron, Little Egret, Great Egret, Hamerkop, African Open-Billed Stork, Sacred Ibis, Hottentot Teal, Yellow-Billed Duck, Black-Shouldered Kite, African Fish Eagle, Palm-Nut Vulture, African White-Backed Vulture, African Harrier-Hawk, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Long-Crested Eagle, Grey Kestrel, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Francolin, Red-Necked Spurfowl, Common Button-Quail, White-Spotted Flufftail (h), Black Crake, African Jacana, Grey Crowned Crane, Black-Bellied Bustard, Water Thick-Knee (h), Long-Toed Lapwing, African Wattled Lapwing, Senegal Lapwing, Common Sandpiper, African Green-Pigeon, Emerald-Spotted Wood-Dove, Ring-Necked Dove, Brown Parrot, Ross's Turaco, Bare-Faced Go-Away-Bird, White-Browed Coucal, Blue-Headed Coucal, African Scops-Owl, Pearl-Spotted Owlet, Square-Tailed Nightjar, Black-Shouldered Nightjar (h), Freckled Nightjar, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Broad-Billed Roller, Lilac-Breasted Roller, Common Scimitarbill, African Grey Hornbill, Crowned Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Spot-Flanked Barbet, Greater Honeyguide, Lesser Honeyguide, Nubian Woodpecker, Cardinal Woodpecker, Rufous-Chested Swallow, Angola Swallow, White-Headed Saw-Wing, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Grassland Pipit, Plain-Backed Pipit, Red-Shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike, Little Greenbul, Yellow-Throated Greenbul, White-Browed Robin-Chat (h), Sooty Chat, Greater Swamp Warbler, Buff-Bellied Warbler, Red-Faced Crombec, Trilling Cisticola, Long-Tailed Cisticola, Tawny-Flanked Prinia, Grey-Capped Warbler, Northern Black Flycatcher, Lead-Coloured Flycatcher, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Marico Sunbird, Red-Chested Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Black-Headed Gonolek, Papyrus Gonolek (h), Fork-Tailed Drongo, African Black-Headed Oriole, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Ruppell's Long-Tailed Starling, Violet-Backed Starling, Spectacled Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Red-Headed Weaver, African Golden-Breasted Bunting.

Murchison Falls National Park: July 30-August 1, 2016

It is hard to tire of Murchison Falls National Park, but it is not hard to get tired there. A two-night trip wears me out, especially the way Aimee and I prefer to explore the park: driving our own car, camping in the bush, and searching for birds and game all day, sometimes into the night. All this activity follows the stress of a week of work and the exasperation of bouncing around Kampala every day. The heat and insects add additional layers of exhaustion and uncomfortability to the experience. Despite the hardship, it is easy to explain why: to mingle with pride of lions, stalk a Shoebill, or contemplate the Nile, and to do these things independently, inexpensively, and often in solitude. In my brief year in Uganda, I have not surpassed the Murchison experience at any other park or reserve.

Our impetus for this particular trip was to see the Pennant-Winged Nightjar, one of the world's most spectacular nocturnal birds. The adult male's breeding plumage includes two extraordinarily long primary feathers, which give the wings an elongated flag-like appearance in flight. Although several sources state that the nightjar breeds further south on the continent from August to March, there is apparently enough variation that adult males in breeding plumage are regularly seen in Uganda from March to September. Aside from this primary target, I had a long list of regional specialties that I hoped to see, including White-Rumped Seedeater, Red-Winged Grey Warbler, White-Breasted Cuckoo-Shrike, Foxy Cisticola, Green-Backed Eremola, and many others. Murchison is also the mostly likely site in Uganda for two of Africa's best birds, Egyptian Plover and Pel's Fishing-Owl, neither of which I have seen.

Instead of entering the park from the south, as we had on our previous four trips, I decided to drive around the park and enter from the north. The area south of the Victoria Nile has noticeably less game, and although the park entrance is significantly closer to Kampala, another 80 km remain before you reach the ferry crossing. The ferry itself runs on a limited schedule and breaks down occasionally. Conversely, we arrived at Tangi Gate in just over five hours, and by then we had already seen an elephant and a few interesting birds, including an adult Martial Eagle perched near the road. In addition, the route crosses near Karuma Falls, upriver from Murchison Falls. Although they lack the power of Murchison, Karuma Falls are no less grand especially in the rainy season when the surrounding vegetation is verdant. Beyond Karuma, the road branches to the west into the notorious West Nile region, long racked by conflict and poverty.

Even inside the northern park entrance, the remnants of decades of war are still visible. Aimee and I drove by the ruins of the old Pakuba Lodge, which rebels destroyed in the late 1980s. In fact, almost all of the tourist lodges and park infrastructure from Paraa northwards had to be restored or rebuilt once the conflict with the Lord's Resistance Army started to wind down over ten years ago. The ruins of Pakuba Lodge are located in a lovely spot on a hill overlooking the Albert Nile as it begins its long journey to the Mediterranean Sea. Bright bougainvillea flowers now cloak the charred bones of the lodge. Although the region is now probably as safe for tourism as any other in Uganda, the West Nile will likely carry negative connotations for a long time, whether recalling the place of origin of the West Nile Virus or Uganda's notorious dictator Idi Amin.

On our way towards the delta, we drove through miles of woodland choked with game, passing only one other vehicle, which oddly enough contained one of our colleagues from work. There were very few tsetse flies, and I was able to stop the car several times to do some birding on foot in the vicinity of the car. After parsing a few cisticolas, including Rattling and Siffling, I spotted an unfamiliar bird overhead, which proved to be a Red-Winged Pytilia after a little research. Admittedly, I haven't studied the field guide as regularly as I should, but I am familiar enough with the birds of Africa to recognize a pytilia when I see one. Several times over the next two days, I would trip over the names of common birds. What is the difference between an immature Ruppell's Griffon Vulture and an African White-Backed Vulture? Was that a Wattled Lapwing or an African Wattled Lapwing?

Further along the Albert Track, Aimee and I encountered the largest herd of elephants either of us had ever seen in East Africa. Over one hundred elephants of all sizes were ambling towards the delta, stopping occasionally to graze on thorn bushes and other unpalatable looking vegetation. Several individuals were missing trunks, perhaps due to hunting snares or lion attacks. Just ahead, we found a female lion resting on an exposed tree branch in the heat of the day. The lion was panting terrifically, as if it had just tried to chase down prey, but we quickly realized it was just trying to cool off. Throughout the trip, we found animals and birds with their mouths or beaks open hoping to shed a little thermal energy while going about their business. As the herd of elephants blindly approached, we wondered if a kill was imminent, but the lion suddenly abandoned her perch and scooted into the bush out of sight.

Instead of cruising the delta, Aimee and I headed back along the Queen's Track in the late afternoon. A pair of Denham's Bustard stalked through the tall grass along with hundreds of oribi and Ugandan kob. Perhaps a few of these antelopes would fall prey later that night to a lion, leopard, hyena, jackal, or other nocturnal predator. Perhaps we would finally see a kill the following morning. I had hoped to search for nightjars this evening along the Buligi Track, but we both realized that we were exhausted and would be better served by setting up camp before dark. Our usual camping site in the designated area a few kilometers from the ferry was vacant but swarming with tsetse flies. Eventually, it filled up with people too, as a crowded carload of tourists pulled up at sunset. Spoiling the mood, they yucked it up all night until we were all ready to go to sleep.

I checked around the campsite early the following morning for birds, finding Black-Headed Gonolek, Violet-Backed Starling, White-Browed Scrub-Robin, and Red-Throated Bee-Eater, among others. Breaking camp and driving back towards the airstrip for a game drive, I stopped the car suddenly in the middle of the road. In front of us was a feathery bit of roadkill, a bird likely struck a few minutes previous by a vehicle dashing out for a safari. Expecting to see a Black-Billed Wood-Dove, I was shocked to find the very bird I was hoping to see that weekend. I carefully pieced the Pennant-Winged Nightjar back together and admired its lifeless form at close range. The white streamers were relatively short and uneven in length, but together the wing feathers were a beautiful contrast of black and white. The rest of the bird's plumage provides excellent camouflage as it perches motionless on the ground during the day; however, the wings of an adult male in flight are unmistakable signs to a female.

Our colleague had mentioned that they found some lions on the Victoria Track the previous morning, and I decided to search for evidence that they were still in the area. In principle, the Uganda Wildlife Authority strictly prohibits driving off track, imposing a fine of 150 USD. Tourist vehicles commonly do it anyway, especially when there is a UWA ranger inside. Tire tracks in the sand indicating a U-turn or an abrupt turn are reliable signs that there is something worth seeing nearby. It didn't require the powers of Sherlock Holmes to realize the lions were still north of the Victoria Track, and we saw half a dozen vehicles circling in the distance. Waiting for the traffic to clear, I picked my moment and dashed off track to approach a pride of seven lions frolicking in the grass. We spent five hurried minutes in their magnificent presence before returning to the track unnoticed.

Further along the Victoria Track, we encountered a dead buffalo and dozens of Ruppell's Griffon Vultures waiting their turn to disembowel the carcass. I have witnessed vultures picking over carrion many times but never so freshly or graphically as this morning. The buffalo was entirely intact except for one small hole in its belly, into which vultures would take turns plunging their head and neck deep inside. This revolting maneuver would leave them vulnerable to attack from rivals, and the scene was utter mayhem as adult vultures swooped in from all sides to violently jump the line, blood and entrails flying everywhere. Meanwhile, immature vultures stood around and waited, stretching their wings into a sepulchral pose, perhaps to intimidate others or dry their feathers. We could have watched the disgusting spectacle for hours, and it would likely be days before the carcass was picked clean.

The Victoria Track ends at the delta where the Victoria Nile meets Lake Albert. The marshy area includes large patches of papyrus and is supposedly home to a few individual Shoebill. On our previous visits to Murchison, Aimee and I had stopped here to scan the fringes of the river and lake, but without success. Alternatively, you can hire a boat at Paraa to explore the delta, increasing your chances greatly of seeing one of Africa's most sought-after birds. Nearby, there is a short track leading to a bird hide, where it is possible to find other waders and waterbirds. Here we found an impressive Saddle-Billed Stork, but in general there were fewer birds present than on previous visits. I went off on foot to poke around in the bushes at one point, and upon returning to the car I was floored to see a Shoebill swooping in for a landing overhead. Once it landed, we were able to relocate it nearby after a short drive along the marsh. Unsatisfied with the spot, it took to the wing again, swirling up on a thermal only to be bombed by a territorial African Fish Eagle. 

The highlight of the afternoon was a colony of Northern Carmine Bee-Eaters. A bird of such stunning color, it is perhaps gaudy to some eyes. Usually, we see one or two solitary individuals hawking insects in flight from the top of a bush or tree in open areas. Bee-eaters are extraordinarily agile in flight, dive bombing after bees, wasps, and other insects in blinding flashes of color. This time we encountered dozens of bee-eaters resting on the sandy banks of the road. These vivid pools of pink and green in the dirt were puzzling at first. Why would birds in the heat of the day expose themselves to the full power of the sun, not to mention to predators circling above? Research reveals their behavior to be a form of pest control. Because bee-eaters typically nest in holes in the earth, they are more exposed to parasites that can damage their finely-tuned feathers. Bee-eaters already spend a lot of time preening every day, and the heat of the sun makes parasites more active and hence easier to remove.

Originally, I had hoped to visit the Nayamusika Cliffs this afternoon to search for the Egyptian Plover, which prefers broad sandy river banks. No doubt it is found in other areas in Uganda too, but I love returning to the peace and solitude of the cliffs each time I visit Murchison. Having run out of time, we crossed over the Victoria Nile on the 4pm ferry and drove an hour to the campsite overlooking the falls. Happily, there was no one here, and the tourists that had bothered us the previous evening were clearly following a different schedule. After checking in and setting up camp, Aimee and I relaxed for a few minutes overlooking the rapids above the falls. This area is notorious for tsetse flies, and we were both over dressed for protection. Recently, UWA has invested in tsetse fly traps, which are little more than small blue and black tents that have been treated with insecticide. Judging from our experience, they are working somewhat, and the flies seemed more manageable than before.

Towards sunset, we drove out on the recently reopened Honeymoon Track in preparation for an hour of night birding after dark. There are no tsetse fly traps along this track, and the car was covered ominously in flies. UWA recently introduced giraffes on the south side of the Victoria Nile, and I have also read recent accounts of tourists seeing lions and leopards in this area of the park. We did not encounter any game. Just before dark, someone opened the door briefly, and our car was suddenly filled with dozens of ravenous tsetse flies. Aimee and I used our guide books, including Where to Watch Birds in Uganda, to smash the nearly indestructible flies against the windows. To add insult to injury, we only saw two nightjars briefly on the return trip to camp despite ample use of the spotlight. Perhaps it was because of the rain that followed later that night, or maybe we were simply unlucky. Regardless, we will have to return to Murchison sometime soon to see a live Pennant-Winged Nightjar.

Notable birds seen: Pink-Backed Pelican, Long-Tailed Cormorant, Intermediate Egret, Purple Heron, Woolly-Necked Stork, Saddle-Billed Stork, Shoebill, Egyptian Goose, White-Faced Whistling-Duck, African Fish Eagle, Palm-Nut Vulture, Ruppell's Griffon Vulture, Eastern Chanting-Goshawk, Bateleur, Martial Eagle, Grey Kestrel, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Guineafowl, Heuglin's Francolin, Black Crake, African Jacana, Grey Crowned Crane, Denham's Bustard, Spotted Thick-Knee, Senegal Thick-Knee, Spur-Winged Lapwing, Long-Toed Lapwing, African Wattled Lapwing, Black-Headed Lapwing, Brown-Chested Lapwing, Black-Billed Lapwing, Tambourine Dove, African Mourning Dove, Diederik Cuckoo, White-Browed Coucal, Square-Tailed Nightjar, Pennant-Winged Nightjar, Blue-Naped Mousebird, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Little Bee-Eater, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, Red-Throated Bee-Eater, Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, Broad-Billed Roller, Green Wood-Hoopoe, African Grey Hornbill, Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Grey Woodpecker, Wire-Tailed Swallow, White-Headed Saw-Wing, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Grassland Pipit, Black Cuckoo-Shrike, White-Browed Robin-Chat, Sooty Chat, White-Browed Scrub-Robin, Spotted Morning-Thrush, Zitting Cisticola, Rattling Cisticola, Siffling Cisticola, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Silverbird, Brown Babbler, Beautiful Sunbird, Collared Sunbird, Grey-Backed Fiscal, Tropical Boubou, Black-Headed Gonolek, Northern Puffback, Black-Crowned Tchagra, White-Crested Helmet-Shrike, Piapiac, Yellow-Billed Oxpecker, Ruppell's Long-Tailed Starling, Violet-Backed Starling, Rufous Sparrow, Speckle-Fronted Weaver, White-Browed Sparrow-Weaver, Vitelline Masked Weaver, Little Weaver, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Red-Billed Quelea, Cardinal Quelea, Yellow-Mantled Widowbird, Northern Red Bishop, Red-Winged Pytilia, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Pin-Tailed Whydah.

Abyssinian Roller

The Abyssinian Roller, or Coracias abyssinica, is the gaudiest member of this family of large, colorful birds. Rollers are named after their aerial maneuvers, in which they tumble spectacularly through the air flashing their brilliant plumage in courtship or territorial displays. Inhabiting woodland and savanna, often near human settlements, rollers are difficult to miss whether on safari or simply driving around. I regularly spot Broad-Billed Rollers along the road on my travels in Uganda, and the Lilac-Breasted Roller is one of most commonly seen birds on safari in East Africa. The Abyssinian Roller inhabits semi-arid savanna, bush, and woodland, including the Sahel further north. In January, Aimee and I found several pairs of Abyssinian Roller in Murchison Falls National Park along the road towards Wankwar Gate.

Semliki Wildlife Reserve: July 3-4, 2016

I visited Semliki Wildlife Reserve on a whim. It is not covered in Where to Watch Birds in Uganda, nor do visiting tour groups or independent birders include it on their trip itineraries. While birding Semliki National Park last weekend, I met a French couple who had just come from the reserve and gave it positive reviews. Plus, they had seen two Shoebills along the southern shore of Lake Albert. In addition, I spoke with several UWA rangers at the national park who had previously worked at the reserve, and they encouraged me to stop by on my way back to Fort Portal. Considering that my visit to Semliki National Park had been something of a bust, I judged that seeing a Shoebill would be a good way to salvage the holiday weekend.

Semliki Wildlife Reserve is the country's oldest protected area. The vast savanna and acacia woodland was first gazetted in 1932, well before Uganda's independence. Unfortunately, most of the game was poached during the Idi Amin era, and populations have yet to recover. Even though the grassy plains lack the animals of Murchison Falls National Park, the setting is perhaps more beautiful, with the Rift Valley Escarpment rising steeply to the east, the Rwenzori Mountains to the south, and Lake Albert stretching north at the end of the road. Visitors can explore several game tracks looping off the public road that stretches through the reserve for nearly 50 kilometers from Katunguru to Ntoroko. There is one high-end lodge in the area, Semliki Safari Lodge, and UWA manages a campsite with bandas in Ntoroko.

After leaving Semliki National Park, I had to return to Fort Portal in order to get cash and petrol. The distance is short, but the tarmac road is steep and perilous. I didn't set out from Katunguru until 3pm, and it would be after 7pm when I arrived at the UWA campsite. The dirt road through the reserve is currently in poor condition, in part because of the rains, but also because of heavy traffic. Ntoroko is a port of sorts, as boats regularly transport goods across Lake Albert from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Semi-trailer trucks in turn carry these goods across Uganda, first negotiating the deep potholes in the main road through the reserve. The traffic makes birding from the main road less enjoyable, and it is wise to leave plenty of room for passing vehicles when stopping for birds. Since it was so late in the day, I only passed a few large trucks precariously crawling along.

The birding was good, and I enjoyed the evening rush of bird activity. Black-Billed Barbet, Spotted Morning-Thrush, Black-Headed Gonolek, Black-Headed Batis, Double-Toothed Barbet, White-Browed Robin-Chat, and Cardinal Woodpecker showed nicely in the light of the setting sun. Woodland Kingfishers called from both sides of the bridge over the Wasa River, which is lined with riverine forest that looked like it would be a productive spot for birding. The tall grass along the road was seeding, and huge flocks of Red-Billed Quelea swirled in the distance like schools of bait fish. I also came across a brilliant male Northern Red Bishop at dusk, photographing it at very high ISO levels on my outdated and dying Nikon D5100. I had also hoped to encounter nightjars along the road before I reached Ntorko, as it is the breeding season for Pennant-Winged Nightjar, but had no luck.

I finally met Alex at the campsite, my UWA host and guide. We made arrangements for the following morning, and he let me prepare some food on a gas burner. Not surprisingly, there were a lot of mosquitoes buzzing around, and so I quickly finished my beer and rested in the safety of my tent. There was an incredible amount of noise coming from the town all night. I drifted off to sleep to the sound of a nearby television blaring National Geographic shows at full volume. I was awakened at 2:30am by throbbing music likely projected from a moving truck. After an hour, I could no longer hear the music through my earplugs, but I awoke at 6am to the steady beat of traditional drumming. When I remarked to Alex how lively Ntoroko was the previous night, he admitted that it caused him much grief but explained it usually only occurred on Sundays and Wednesdays.

I birded around the campsite for an hour while sipping my coffee. A group of Broad-Billed Rollers was hawking insects in an open field, staying on the wing for many minutes at time. I have never seen rollers behave in this manner and had initially thought they were nightjars feeding before dawn. Meanwhile, Brown Babblers were squawking loudly from a bush, and Spotting Morning-Thrushes were fluting marvelously from exposed perches. Alex and I set out on foot to the lakeshore to meet our crew. I had hired a boat and driver for a few hours for 150,000 UGX, and we were also accompanied by an officer from the local Counter-Terrorism Unit armed with an AK-47. He would actually prove useful later on, spotting our first of two Shoebills that morning. We left shore from the grounds of Ntoroko Game Lodge in overcast but nonthreatening weather conditions.

Seeing a male and female Shoebill was the obvious highlight of the excursion. The female proved a bit skittish, and we eventually drove her back into the grass. The male was unperturbed by our presence, and at one point we had closed to within 10 meters. Focused on stalking fish, the male Shoebill never once glanced in our direction. Other interesting observations included Purple Heron, Little Grebe, and Allen's Gallinule. We only identified two warblers confidently, Winding Cisticola and Lesser Swamp Warbler, but almost certainly saw others. Local fishermen work this area extensively, and we crossed paths with many of them in pursuit of the Shoebills. At one point, our outboard motor became tangled in a fishing net, instead of the usual water hyacinth, and we had to enlisted the help of a fishermen to cut us loose. Our crew spared him no grief when they witnessed the sorry condition of his boat, which was patched in several places and half-full of water.

The drive back to Kampala was uneventful, and I jammed over the potholes along the road through the reserve. There was a chance that the following day would also be declared a holiday, but the timing of Eid-al-Fitr depends upon the moon; in Uganda, it also depends upon the determination of Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia. As it turned out, Eid wouldn't come until Wednesday, and it was prudent for me to have come back to Kampala on Monday. The following day I read about several fatal traffic accidents that occurred over the weekend, two on the Kampala-Masaka road that involved multiple vehicles and claimed dozens of lives. I like to think that I generally drive defensively and at times appropriately aggressively, but looking at the gruesome photographs of these accidents gives me pause when considering my next birding trip. Maybe I'll just stay at home for a while and study the field guide.

Notable birds seen: Pink-Backed Pelican, Little Grebe, Long-Tailed Cormorant, Common Squacco Heron, Little Egret, Intermediate Egret, Great Egret, Purple Heron, Grey Heron, Hamerkop, African Open-Billed Stork, Shoebill, Sacred Ibis, African Fish Eagle, Bateleur, Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Francolin, Black Crake, Allen's Gallinule, African Jacana, Water Thick-Knee (h), Spur-Winged Lapwing, Long-Toed Lapwing, White-Winged Tern, White-Browed Coucal, African Palm Swift, Speckled Mousebird, Pied Kingfisher, Striped Kingfisher, Grey-Headed Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, Broad-Billed Roller, Green Wood-Hoopoe, African Grey Hornbill, Black-Billed Barbet, Double-Toothed Barbet, Cardinal Woodpecker, Rufous-Chested Swallow, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, White-Browed Robin-Chat, Spotted Morning-Thrush, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Winding Cisticola, Grey-Backed Camaroptera, Northern Black Flycatcher, Swamp Flycatcher, Black-Headed Batis, Brown-Throated Wattle-Eye, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Brown Babbler, Yellow White-Eye, Beautiful Sunbird, Black-Headed Gonolek, Fork-Tailed Drongo, Piapiac, Ruppell's Long-Tailed Starling, Violet-Backed Starling, Yellow-Backed Weaver, Red-Billed Quelea, Northern Red Bishop, Red-Cheeked Cordon-Bleu, Red-Billed Firefinch, Pin-Tailed Whydah, Yellow-Fronted Canary.
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