Searching for the Shoebill

Our wooden motorised canoe sets out from Entebbe across Lake Victoria just after 8am. It’s already humid but the skies are blessedly overcast. We are on our way to the Mabamba Swamps, one hour away, hoping to track down the elusive, rare and extraordinary Shoebill stork.

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Photo credit : wildlife.com

At the edge of the Swamps, we clamber into a smaller canoe and edge our way through tall papyrus. Pied kingfishers swoop and dive for fish as African jacanas trot across the floating vegetation of purple water lilies. The pale morning sunlight shimmers on the water; colourful malachite kingfishers flash bright colours through the green papyrus.

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Malachite kingfisher on papyrus

From the open water we slink past the swaying papyrus through the narrow channels of the swamp. Joseph, our guide, balances precariously on the bow of the canoe, his binoculars constantly scanning the horizon. Occasionally we struggle through the shallower water, as Joseph punts our progress with a tall wooden pole.

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The Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex), sometimes referred to as the Shoebill stork, is a tall bird (up to 5ft) with huge feet and almost prehistoric features, notably its extraordinary shoe shaped bill. It inhabits freshwater swamps in central tropical Africa. For birders, it is often the bird they most want to see in Africa.

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Picture credit : birding-uganda.com

After two or three hours, and with the sun rising, we slather on suncream and insect repellant, hats and caps firmly in place. The lapping water lulls us towards sleep, papyrus leaves swishing as we ease our way through murky waters. Increasingly there is a deflated feeling that today we are not going to be lucky, the shoebills aren’t coming out for us. We renew our interest in the other wonderful birds.

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I occupy myself photographing close-ups of purple water-lilies. We congratulate ourselves on how good it has been canoeing through the swamps anyway.

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Then suddenly Joseph swings his binoculars high above us. We almost capsize the canoe in our rush to stand up, grab our cameras, rip off our hats and shield our eyes from the noonday sun. There, soaring above us, like a mini-pterodactyl, is the unmistakeable outline of the Shoebill.

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Shoebill Stork, Mabamba Swamps.

Not the best sighting, not the best photo opportunity, but nonetheless an exhilarating moment.

Mabamba Swamp Tours, Entebbe, Uganda.

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