Day 241: The Shoebill

An encounter with one of nature’s weirdest creatures.
A Shoebill lurks in the Mabamba Swamp near Entebbe.

August 29, 2015: Entebbe, Uganda — My alarm went off at 2:45 this morning and, by 9:30, I’d landed in Ugandamy home for the next 12 days. A local birder named Livingstone Kalema picked me up (yes, he was named after the famous doctor, and no, I didn’t mention the word “presume” all day long) and we drove straight from the airport to a nearby spot called Mabamba Swamp.

Mabamba Swamp is a floating mass of vegetation in an inlet of Lake Victoria, famous among birders for one bird, the Shoebill, my most-wanted bird in Uganda. So I was pretty stoked when we climbed into a dugout canoe this morning and slid into the swamp within an hour of my arrival in Uganda.

The Shoebill resembles no other bird on Earth. It stands nearly four feet tall with a massive beak and weird eyes and a cowlick on the back of its head, and always seems to be glowering down with curious disapproval. The Shoebill makes no sound except an occasional bill-snap; it doesn’t blink; it often stands statue-still for long periods of time; it eats lungfish and has been recorded attacking fish more than three feet long; it mostly lives in remote swamps (perhaps most commonly in South Sudan, though nobody seems to be sure); it lays two eggs of which only one ever survives; and it’s not closely related to any other birds. Ornithologists think pelicans may be a distant relative, though I wonder about an animatronic muppet-pterodactyl hybrid. Virtually everyone who has ever seen a Shoebill went to Uganda to see it, and virtually everyone who has seen one in Uganda found it at Mabamba Swamp, where there are an estimated eight adult birds.

The swamp is weird enoughit took me a while to realize that the solid-looking reeds and grasses are, in fact, floating on top of deep water. Narrow channels have been cut to allow canoe access and, guided by an on-site bird guide named Ishmael Katumba, we slithered into the vegetation to begin our search. Lesser Jacanas, Blue-breasted Bee-eaters, Malachite Kingfishers, and a Goliath Heron kept things interesting, but we all knew the real target.

Livingstone spotted the first Shoebill, circling high overhead. “Late in the morning, once it warms up, they like to fly around,” he said. We watched the strange bird circle for a while before it disappeared from view and Ishmael paddled onward. A few minutes later, we rounded a bend and I saw a second Shoebill standing stock-still in the grass. We watched it for 10 minutes and it never moved. It stared at us with a fairly murderous expression and, for the first time in my life, I fully appreciated the nightmares of lungfish.

New birds today: 13

Year list: 4,090


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