Stalking the Shoebill
... with Some New Friends
The reason we had come to Uganda was to see the Shoebill. As good a reason as any for getting out and exploring. It's not, however, the reason we'd go back. It's an amazingly varied and beautiful country with a people that we didn't get to know nearly well enough.
Shoebill. Lugogo Swamp, Uganda.
Shoebills are currently listed as a Vulnerable species. There are estimated to be a few thousand individuals left in the swamps of East Africa, their range extending from South Sudan through Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo down to the Bangweulu Wetlands of northern Zambia. When one starts planning a trip to see a Shoebill, however, South Sudan and the Congo are usually nixed early on due to safety concerns. We also met some fellow birders who had relatives in the Bangweulu area. Even they had determined, as had we, that it would be easier and more comfortable to track Shoebills in Uganda.
In Uganda there a handful of areas where they can often be spotted: on the shore of Lake Victoria a little to the west of Entebbe, in the Lugogo Swamp near Nakitoma, and in the delta of the Victoria Nile on Lake Albert. We have friends who have spotted them in the former area. We saw them in both of the latter locations.
The hauntingly beautiful Lugogo Swamp is conveniently reachable during a stay at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary (we spent the night at Amuka Lodge).
(Left) Hadada Ibis. (Right) Saddle-Billed Stork. Lugogo Swamp, Uganda.
The sanctuary's amazing guides, such as Raymond in the image below, keep tabs on the Shoebills and can guide you to areas where they have recently been spotted. He also provided us each with a pair of gum boots for trekking into the swamp ( ... as an added bonus each and every pair, including the men's size 15, was hot pink). Raymond was also exceptionally knowledgable and passionate about other wildlife within the sanctuary, as well, including the more than 250 other species of birds. He was able to track down four different Shoebills within a matter of two to three hours, including one that we were able to get within 20 meters of. Even Raymond raised his camera with us to snap a few pictures.
Tourists. Lugogo Swamp, Uganda.
We hadn't expected, however, the three young children who came with two women to the swamp's edge to gather water, less than a hundred meters from where the Shoebill fished.
Raymond used the opportunity to educate the kids and convey a bit of his passion for the local wildlife to them. One of the local tribes holds the Shoebill in great stead, believing that the presence of the Shoebill, an excellent fisher, is a good omen for their own fishing. The other sees the Shoebill as a nuisance, competition for a limited resource. Donna was quick to offer up her binoculars to each of the kids and the women, the first time they had ever seen a Shoebill up close. Raymond explained how rare and beautiful the birds were as the kids watched the Shoebill patiently stalk a fish.
They all left with big, bashful smiles and maybe a little extra dose of wonder at the amazing wildlife they share the region with.
And having gotten his fish, and thus blown his cover, the Shoebill moved on to other pastures as well.
Shoebill. Lugogo Swamp, Uganda.
Victoria Nile, Paraa, Uganda
A few days later and a couple of hundred kilometers north we had the great fortune to see another pair of Shoebills with a superb guide, Ellis. Ellis had originally gone to school in Kampala in business, but after graduation he gave it up to follow his passion as a river and safari guide. He was supremely knowledgable about both the bird and mammal species in the area, ... though I believe Donna did manage to spot and identify a couple of birds while we were there that were new to him as well! Ellis works out of Wild Frontiers in Paraa.
Donna and our guide Ellis during a pit stop along the northern shore of the Victoria Nile, Uganda.
Ellis took us down to just inland from the delta at Lake Albert. Lake Albert is part of the East African Rift and forms the border between Uganda and the Congo. Local villagers still fish its waters much as they have done for centuries, though the waters of the Nile itself are now staunchly protected.
Fisherman on Lake Albert, Uganda.
And there, on a floating shelf of grasses, were another pair of Shoebills, though they appeared to be a little cool towards one another while we were there (a tinge of marital strife, perhaps). We watched the Shoebills for a few minutes as they rested and preened, then Donna and Ellis became enthralled with two other small birds flitting around the grasses in front of the Shoebills ( ... Little Ringed Plover and a Yellow Wagtail, if I recall). More interesting quarry, I guess. Oh well, ... seen one Shoebill, I guess you've seen them all.
Shoebill. Lake Albert delta of the Victoria Nile, Uganda.