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What's It Like to Search for Uganda Shoebill Storks in Mabamba Swamp?

Discover Uganda's endangered Shoe-billed Stork and other birds on a boat tour of Mabamba Swamp. See photos of the shoebill flying and at rest in their wetland habitat.
Note: We visited Uganda in December 2016 and these posts are a reflection on the trip at that time. It is now 2024 and the political situation in the region has evolved. Please check the U.S. State Department website or information provided by other governmental organizations around the world for up to date information to determine whether it is considered safe to travel to Uganda.

Where in the world can you see shoe-billed storks? 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 shoebill. 

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. 

However, shoebills live in a very narrow and remote territory covering Sudan, eastern Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, western Tanzania and northern Zambia, so at the time I dismissed ever seeing one myself. 

Where to see shoe-billed storks in Uganda? Close-up of a shoebill in Mabamba Swamp

When we decided to visit Uganda on a 2 week safari 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. 
Mabamba Bird Guides Office in Uganda
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.
Mabamba Swamp in Uganda
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

Ismail shoebill tour guide in Mabamba Swamp near Entebbe in Uganda
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 in finding Uganda's most icondic bird. We learned that there are only 9 shoebills living in Mabamba swamp.

Into the Papyrus Swamp 

canoe on Mabamba Swamp near Entebbe in Uganda
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! 
Cruising on Mabamba Swamp in Uganda
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 Uganda's Mabamba Swamp

African Jacana on Mabamba Swamp in Uganda
We started by seeking out the smaller and more common Ugandan birds in Mabamba Swamp including the African Jacana...
Common Squacco Heron on Mabamba Swamp in Uganda
...common squacco heron...
Yellow-billed ducks on Mabamba Swamp in Uganda
...and a flock of yellow-billed ducks.
Yellow-billed ducks in flight over Mabamba swamp wetlands in Uganda
We even saw a stunning saddle-billed stork.
Saddle-billed stork on Mabamba Swamp in Uganda

Sneaking up on Shoebills

Finally it was time to get serious and look for some 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 flying out of the swamp from where it was hidden. 

My jaw dropped when I saw the shoebill's enormous wingspan. 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!
Shoebill in Mabamba Swamp in Uganda
We slowly poled closer so as not to spook it. Fun shoebill fact: these birds stand about 4 feet tall; taller than a human child and not much shorter than an adult human. Shoe-billed storks really do look like they have a clog on their face. 
Shoebill in Mabamba Swamp in Uganda
The first shoebill flew away after about 10 minutes.
Shoebill flying over Mabamba Swamp in Uganda
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 of the shoebills as you can see below.
Portrait of a shoe-billed stork in Uganda

SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: What are the top things to do on a trip to Uganda? Read on for our top picks.

shoe-billed stork in Uganda's Mabamba Swamp
Eventually this shoebill decided it had had enough and flew off as well. What an incredible windspan!
Shoebill flying over Uganda's Mabamba Swamp
I highly recommend taking a wildlife tour of Mabamba swamp as one of the top things to do in Entebbe

We could scarcely believe that one of the most awesome birdwatching experiences in the world was so accessible from Entebbe Airport.

Useful Links for Planning A Birdwatching Visit to Mabamba Swamp in Uganda

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Uganda Shoebills: Mabamba Swamp


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Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog: What's It Like to Search for Uganda Shoebill Storks in Mabamba Swamp?
What's It Like to Search for Uganda Shoebill Storks in Mabamba Swamp?
Discover Uganda's endangered Shoe-billed Stork and other birds on a boat tour of Mabamba Swamp. See photos of the shoebill flying and at rest in their wetland habitat.
Sidewalk Safari | Part-time Travel Blog