This article has been updated with Shoebill photos.
It’s 3:15 in the morning. I arrived to Africa one day and one night ago at 11 pm…feeling like dog meat after a 27 hour flight schedule. But after a superb day of birding and a few epic bird sightings under my belt, I am chipper as a bird at this early hour. Let me write a few words before the 5:30 am alarm clock rings…
I have come to Uganda at the invitation of the Uganda Tourism Board and my colleague Herbert Byaruhanga, who is also known as “Mr. Birding Tourism.” Few if any have done as much as Herbert to get Uganda’s birding tourism sector organized and in the world spotlight. Herbert asked me to gather a stellar group of writers, editors, and bird guides – all of whom would come with me to Africa to experience Wild Uganda (I will list names later, as it’s too late in the morning for me to trust my memory). We are now here, and most of us are grinning ear-to-ear after having a FANTASTIC birding day in Mabamba Swamp where our chances of seeing SHOEBILL were a mere 80%.
We landed in Entebbe and my group stayed at Lake Victoria Hotel which was very nice in the dark – it had a pool and served a nice breakfast of eggs, pancakes, pastries, fruit, and, believe it or not, breaded fish with mushroom sauce. Being on a high protein diet, I opted for the latter and it was excellent.
We dined to a thunderstorm and set off for Mabamba Swamp, a 90-minute or so drive, but keep in mind the latitude dictated by the ‘or so’ qualifier when dealing with birders who want to stop at every new sparrow, dove, and feral pigeon. I expected the birding to ramp up once we arrived to the swamp, but we immediately passed a large group of Hadaba Ibis on the side of the road and I squealed with excitement – these large birds were high on my list and I did not know they’d be so easy. Several km further down the road, we passed Hooded Vulture, Marabou Stork, a few Eastern Grey Plantain-eaters and eventually FIVE Great Blue Turacos sitting in a tree. The sun had barely risen and we were already treated to several new families and iconic birds.
We drove southwest through vast fields of papyrus and passed pockets of sugar cane, eucalyptus, and plaintains. The roads were busy with people and cars. The local Ugandans are beautiful – warm, friendly, with smile that light up the world. So many young children walking in bare feet on their way to school, navigating busy streets in a way that Americans would never allow. Women dressed in beautiful colors sitting on the stoop of their mud brick home, preparing the morning meal, or nursing a young one. The boys and girls love to see safari vehicles pass – they smile and wave eagerly and shout “White people!” in the local language. We waved back just as eagerly.
In no time at all we had seen our first hornbill – the Black-and-white Casqued Hornbill – a massive white and black bird with a large horn-like bill. We made a few stops and admired starlings – there are SO MANY starlings species in East Africa. Here, the Splendid Starling is indeed splendid, and the Rüppell’s Starling is quite a looker.
Eventually we made it to Mabamba Swamp to what seemed a very busy “port.” Many locals, along with guides, were assembled by the shore. About 4 or 5 boats were reserved for us, but locals were there to fish the wetland. A tree with a massive amount of colonial nesting Village Weavers was right by the shore…beautiful birds. Malachite Kingfisher darted across the channel. A Swamp Flycatcher was rather confiding.
My favorite early sighting at the swamp was a Hamerkop – another bizarre and prehistoric, bad-ass bird. I have a wonderful photo that I will download another time. Love me a Hamerkop. We set off in the leaky but swamp-worthy boats, guided by a captain and our excellent guide Crammy.
Mabamba is a massive papyrus swamp that has been managed into a community conservation project. Whereas the community used to poach birds such as Shoebill, today they preserve both the bird and the swamp and its young people, through efforts such as guide training, have learned to make a living through ecotourism.
Papyrus swamps like this are becoming more and more rare. Plus they happen to be the preferred habitat for the Shoebill stork. We navigated narrow channels filled with water lilies (poisonous, we were told!) and set out forAfrican Jacana, African Marsh-Harrier, Intermediate Egret, Wood Sandpiper, Purple Heron, Squacco Heron, Pied Kingfisher, Long-tailed Cormorant, Long-toed Lapwing, African Black Crake, Black-shouldered Kite, Gargany, and White-faced Whistling Duck. A group of 30 Abdim’s Stork flew overhead and a Blue-breasted Bee-eater sat for a spell as we took several photos.
We had been combing the swamp for what seemed hours when Crammy got the call. Our 90-minute session on the swamp was coming to a close – he’d long ago said we have 40-minutes left. The caller, a guide from another boat, said they had a Shoebill in their sights. Hallelujah! But where? This swamp is so large there are no land marks to guide you. We turned into such a narrow channel we had to shut down the motor and push ourselves through the matted lilies. This took another six or eight hours, I think…or so it felt – knowing that a Shoebill was presenting for another boat and we were trapped in a papyrus swamp perhaps never to be found made us both giddy and worried. Visions of a skeleton crew paddling in circles came to mind. With ten Shoebills just behind the far tussock. Gah!
Finally we saw a stationary boat in the distance. Eureka! We motored slowly to meet up with the boat and as we slid into the slip a shadowy grey figure, whose vision was hindered by scintillant green reeds, came into view. OH MY GOD.
We slipped a bit further in and were greeted by HUGE smiles from the others. We raised our binoculars and cameras as the SHOEBILL came into full view, and the full-on assault of clicks, oohs, and ahhs began. This is an incredible bird to behold, certainly one of the world’s most iconic. The birds massive beak and brilliant large eye are noticed first, but as you skim down you note how substantial its body is and the impressive shades of bluish grey in the plumage. I could get lost in its eye – the Shoebill eye is large, round, and truly menacing; there is no doubt this contributes to the sense that the Shoebill is prehistoric, a true dinosaur as ready to tear you to shreds as a Velociraptor. The Shoebill, however, is nothing for us to fear.
“A solitary, silent bird, the shoebill stork is native to the marshy banks of the papyrus swamps of the East African White Nile and its tributaries, where it feeds on a diet of frogs, small crocodiles, and especially lungfish and other mud puddle fish.” – WIKI
The bird is incredibly patient, as well. No less than four boats with 4-5 passengers each were within 30 meters of him and he allowed us to watch him for 10 or 15 minutes. Sometimes SHOEBILL are silent and unmoving. This one was a bit more showing – he struck a few poses such as left profile, right profile, front on view, before eventually – he ducked his head as if to fly off, and fly off he did.
We caught this all on our cameras and it was one of the most thrilling moments of my life.
We continued our journey southwest toward MBuro National Park – spending quite a bit of time on the side of the road at Kaku wetlands. An incredibly fertile place with dozens of species such as Pink-backed Pelican, Gray crowned Crane, Wattled Lapwing, Copper Sunbird, Grey Heron, Black-headed Babbler, Sacred and Glossy Ibises, Common Moorhen, Purple Swamphen, Rufous-bellied Heron, Lilac-breasted Roller, Black-headed Gonolek, and Spur-winged Goose.
Leaving the wetland we closed the night with a group of Wooly-necked Stork in a tree.
We gathered for dinner back at Igongo Cultural Hotel – a gated hotel with wonderful rooms. I am currently not taking advantage of its cozy King sized bed but the upscale bathroom with walk-in shower was lovely.
I opened doors and stepped out into the dark veranda and thought to myself: I’m in Africa. Africa, I am in you! Who knows what’s next for us, but I am looking forward to each precious day here.
Now, to start a pot of coffee. Over and out.