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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