The Shoebill Stork is probably one of the oddest looking creatures I’ve seen, like something left over from when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It looks ancient, a pre-historic animal that doesn’t somehow seem right for our world. Plus, the Shoebill Stork is probably not a stork at all. Despite sharing a few similarities with the average stork, recent DNA studies place it in the same family as pelicans, although it may well be related to both storks and pelicans.
Regardless of its true nature, it is a huge and magnificent creature, well worth the effort of making a day trip from Kampala to the Mabamba Wetlands on the edge of Lake Victoria. The Mabamba Wetlands is designated as an Important Bird Area, but is affected by human encroachment which is damaging the Shoebill’s habitat. The Shoebill is considered to be vulnerable, if not yet endangered, thanks to habitat loss. Most people come here to spot a Shoebill, but the area has a rich diversity of birdlife on offer. Plus, the lovely waterscapes on the edge of the lake make a trip here a very pleasant adventure.
The Shoebill gets its name from its giant beak, shaped like a shoe – it looks like a Dutch clog – which makes it one of the most easily identifiable birds on the planet. They also reach a height of over four feet (140cm), which should make them simple to spot, but they are solitary creatures and have a tendency to loiter in high grass and papyrus. My Bradt guidebook mentioned a Shoebill expert who lived close to Lake Victoria, a short drive from Kampala. It was impossible to contact her by phone, so I hired a car and went in search of her, hopeful that she’d be free to take me into the wetlands to spot Shoebills.
Turning off the main paved road from Kampala, we bumped down a dirt track for a few miles before coming across a house with a large handmade sign outside it. Here we found Kasana, a knowledgeable local guide to the Mabamba Wetlands. After we’d agreed a price we set off for the ‘port’, where we picked up a boat and a boatman and headed into the wetlands in the hope of finding a Shoebill.
Paddling out into the wetlands, we passed through narrow channels overshadowed by foliage. Numerous small, brightly coloured birds flitted about in the reeds and around the boat. An intense sun bore down on us, and I was thankful I wasn’t doing the paddling. After about an hour Kasana spotted a Shoebill. It was quite a long way away, but we paddled as close as we could get and through binoculars watched this magnificent creature. They rarely fly, but I’d hoped to see one catch its favourite prey, a lungfish. Our Shoebill seemed to be content to walk around and flap its wings.
After about twenty minutes, the Shoebill decided to sit down behind some long grass, our cue to leave. We paddled back to port seeing more birds in the reeds. At Kasana’s house, I signed the guest book and discovered that the last person to visit came a couple of weeks before my arrival. Despite the attraction of the Shoebill, there aren’t that many tourists visiting this area – one estimate suggests less than a thousand people each year. I suppose I should be grateful, but local communities could certainly do with an economic boost from tourism – something which might help preserve the Shoebill’s habitat.
After all that hard work, the driver took me to a nice lakeside hotel in Entebbe where I celebrated spotting a Shoebill with a fitting drink: a cold bottle of Nile Special.