Semliki Wildlife Reserve: July 3-4, 2016

I visited Semliki Wildlife Reserve on a whim. Although it is covered in Where to Watch Birds in Uganda, few 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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