Uganda may be known for its 1000+ species of birds but for us there was just one star of the avian show in East Africa: the shoe-billed stork. From the moment I first saw a picture of a shoebill in the pages of a wildlife magazine, I hoped to see one with my own eyes in my lifetime. Given that shoebills range over a very narrow and remote territory from Sudan, eastern Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, western Tanzania and northern Zambia, at the time I dismissed ever seeing one myself. When we decided to take a 2 week trip to Uganda to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary it dawned on me that I might finally realize the dream of seeing a shoe-billed stork!
Getting to Mabamba Swamp from Entebbe
We did some research and discovered that one of the best places to see shoebills is in Mabamba Swamp, about a 90 minute drive from Entebbe. We worked with our hosts at the Karibu Guest House to organize transportation and a 2 hour guided tour of Mabamba Swamp.
After bumping along a dirt road for about an hour, we arrived! We stopped at the Mabamba Bird Guides' Office where we met Ismail who would lead our expedition into Uganda's wetlands.
The road ends at a small channel where a number of wooden boats were lined up. We met the captain of our vessel who gave me a hand up onto a rock and into the boat and we were on our way.
They Call Him Ismail
As we wound through the narrow channels of Uganda's Mabamba Swamp, I could tell that Ismail had done this before. He confidently leapt up onto the bow of the canoe and stared out into the distance through his binoculars; ever vigilant and on the lookout for the shy and evasive shoebill!
We knew that Ismail's expertise and eagle eye would be critical to our success. We learned that there are only 9 shoebills living in Mabamba swamp.
Into the Papyrus Swamp
Mabamba is a papyrus swamp with both wide and narrow channels carved through it. We started on the main artery of the waterway passing fishermen and others going about their business. We even passed a couple boats ferrying motorcycles across the swamp!
I have to say, I was slightly concerned about the seaworthiness of our vessel especially as our captain surreptitiously bailed water from the the floor of the boat and over the side periodically. After seeing the motorcycles, I realized that these canoes could hold quite a weight. Note that lifejackets aren't normally a consideration for water-based activities in Uganda. However, safety is our number one concern and our hosts at Karibu House called ahead and Ismail was able to arrange for lifejackets that day.
The Birds of Mabamba Swamp
We started by seeking out the smaller and more common Ugandan birds in Mabamba Swamp including the African Jacana...
...common squacco heron...
...and a flock of yellow-billed ducks.
Sneaking up on Shoebills
Finally it was time to get serious and look for shoebills. As we crept up one narrow channel we heard a rustling in the bush. We turned around quickly to catch a glimpse of a magnificent shoebill with an enormous wingspan flying out of the swamp where it was hidden. We thought it might alight somewhere nearby but alas we seem to have spooked it but good and it landed a long distance away and out of sight. I was worried that this might be my one and only glimpse of the shoe-billed stork and I didn't even get a great picture!
It turns out that I was worried for nothing. Ismail and our captain turned off the outboard motor on our boat and we began to pole our way into narrower and narrower channels. The papyrus and other vegetation scratched up against the boat and we held back the reeds with our hands. We were rewarded for our stealth when Ismail told us to stand-up and follow his pointing finger. Shoebill!
We slowly poled closer so as not to spook it. The shoebill stands about 4 feet tall and is simply unreal. Shoe-billed storks really do look like they have a clog on their face.
The first shoebill flew away after about 10 minutes.
Luck was in our favor and there was another shoebill nearby. We simply stood watching in awe. I couldn't believe we were having this once in a lifetime birdwatching experience in Uganda! We got some amazing photos as you can see below.
You can experience more of our search for Uganda's shoe-billed storks in Mabamba Swamp in the video below. We could scarcely believe that one of the most awesome birdwatching experiences in the world was so accessible from Entebbe Airport.