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Birding in Semliki

It’s all about the dawn. The sounds at dawn.

It starts with the pouring of water from a bottle, followed by what sounds uncannily like the broken-down starter of a Mini, then some guys starts yodeling at each other, and then all hell breaks loose.

It’s 6am and I’m in the Semliki valley (AKA the Semliki Basin) in Western Uganda. And I’m not surrounded by some urban gang, but rather the Blue-Headed and White-Browed Coucal, Great Blue and Ross’s Turaco… and everybody else in the trees. The air is thick with the sounds of dawn happiness as the birds vie to make themselves heard.

The Semliki Basin is considered Mecca for birders. Nowhere else in Africa will you find as many varied habitats. Semliki National Park – the western-most edge of the central Africa rainforest – borders the fabled Mountains of the Moon, the Rwenzori Mountains, with their mist-shrouded forests, and the Semliki Wildlife Reserve rolls away to one of the Great Lakes of Africa: Lake Albert. All of this is nestled within the walls of the Western rift valley.

In the Semliki Basin all the habitats of Africa’s converge. Lowland rainforest, gallery rain forest, varied riparian forests, borassus palm forests, short grass savanna, high grass savanna and of course the vast wetlands of the Semliki River Delta. Wherever you go, you never know what you may see. A short walk across the savanna yields four types of Eagle: Marshal, Tawny, and both Short-Toed and Brown Snake Eagle… as well as Black Coucal and the usual savanna inhabitants. A trip to the Mugiri River, cool and green under leafy canopy, requires a keener eye but rewards you with its leafloves, Greenbuls and the hard to see Pitta. Lake Albert and the Semliki River delta are most certainly one of the best places on the continent to see the endangered Shoebill. Not only is the success rate incredibly high but it’s fairly easy to reach this bird by boat. The Shoebill is a poseur of note, and they rarely miss a photo op.

An early morning trip to the deep, dark, mysterious forest of Semliki park is a must-do. This is real ‘Heart of Darkness’ country: hot springs, thick rainforest, and the Semliki river itself, fed by icy cold streams running down from the Rwenzori glaciers. This unique place is also the edge of the home range of the Batwa people (pygmies). In the Semliki Basin there are 441 bird species including 46 Guinea-Congo Biome species found nowhere else in East Africa, and 5 species endemic to the Albertine Rift Valley only. Some of the stars include the Nakulenge Rail, Yellow-Throated Cuckoo, Piping Hornbill, Red-Rumped Tinkerbird, African Piculet, White-Throated Blue Swallow, Yellow-Throated Nicator, Swamp Palm Bulbul, Lemon-Bellied Crombic, Maxwell’s Black Weaver, Crested Malimbe, Blue-Billed Malimbe, Chestnut-Breasted Negro Finch and Orange-Cheeked Waxbill.