Searching for the Shoebill in Uganda

Heading off on our Shoebill Search, cameras at the ready

Top of our target list of birds to see in Uganda was Shoebill, so no surprise that on the very first day of our two week trip we left Entebbe and headed straight to the Mabamba Wetlands. We got to the muddy slipway and clambered aboard our flat-bottomed wooden canoes, three of us plus a boatman to a boat.

We headed down the narrow channel towards the more open marshy areas and papyrus beds. Ahead of us was a wooden ferry carrying goods to the opposite side of the marshes, everything here is transported by boat.

Hard work propelling this heavy load manually!

Once out in the more open areas, we scanned hard, looking for a large grey bird with a huge clog of a bill. We saw plenty of African Jacana, a Lesser Jacana, Black Crakes, egrets and herons, Whiskered and White-winged Terns, both Eurasian and African Marsh Harriers, but no Shoebill.

Scanning hard for our target bird

We investigated all the narrow channels on one side of the marsh but no luck, and then it began to rain. Things weren't looking promising on the Shoebill front! Time was ticking and we would have to leave soon. Surely not without a Shoebill sighting....

Then a fisherman nearby waved to attract attention and pointed to the far side of the marshes. Could this be a change in our fortune? We gave him the thumbs up and our flotilla motored across the open stretch of water. As we neared the far side, we saw another channel that was previously hidden to our view. And there, striding imperiously through the knee-high vegetation was an impressive, grey leviathan: SHOEBILL!!

Shoebill: enigmatic or sinister, you decide!

Truly dinosaurs are alive and well and living in Uganda! This incredible bird looked almost prehistoric as it strode along purposefully, looking for food. It gave a sudden lunge forward as it spotted what it was searching for: lungfish lurking in the shallows. This bizarre bird with its clog-shaped bill looked immense from our water-level vantage point in our canoes, and an Intermediate Egret also fishing nearby gave a real sense of scale. You can imagine how cameras clicked and whirred as we recorded our incredible encounter with this unique bird. We were so absorbed with watching and photographing the bird that we barely registered that the rain had stopped and the light levels had improved - perfect!

You really know you're being watched when a Shoebill looks straight at you!

Then our Shoebill lifted off to try fishing in another part of the marshes and we were treated to a view of this Hercules of a bird in flight as cameras went into overdrive again.

The Shoebill show was over and we turned our canoes back to our launching point but the Mabamba Swamps weren't finished with us yet. On our way back we had incredible views of a handsome Papyrus Gonolek, a normally skulking bird but in showy mood now the rain had stopped. It was vibrant red, orange and black in contrast to our previous grey Shoebill encounter, and if that was too much colour in one bird, the brown tones of a Greater Swamp Warbler made a good counterpoint in the same papyrus bed. And if that wasnt enough, we even had a close encounter with a otter which kept popping its head above the surface of the water to take a good look at us.

Happy Shoebill-watchers return to the launching point

Dark clouds were gathering again as we headed back to shore and more unseasonably late rains threatened, but nothing could dampen our enthusiasm. Shoebill was well and truly in the bag, our very own encounter with a living, breathing, modern-day dinosaur.

Plenty more exciting birdwatching adventures in Uganda to come, so please check back soon for more Bird Blogs.

We're planning another trip to Uganda in December 2020, so if you'd like to join us to look for the enigmatic Shoebill and more, please send us an email on

for more information or to register your interest in the trip. We look forward to hearing from you and sharing Shoebills with you!

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