Looking For A Bird With A Clog For A Bill

Hammerkop on boat 1

Hammerkops waiting for the ferry to leave at Mabamba Wetlands, Uganda.

Back in 2008 we looked for a much wanted bird in Zambia, now we had another chance to look for that same bird, in Uganda. To set the scene here is the account of our 2008 search....

We thanked Frank and the staff for their help and headed off for the much-anticipated Shoebill Lodge. It was another long, hot, dusty drive, six hours, mostly on dirt roads but with a little tarmac here and there. Finally we found ourselves on the edge of a vast flat plain. In the wet season this would be a shallow lake, but now it was a dusty, short grassed, flat expanse as far as the eye could see, Bangwuelu Marsh. Somewhere out there lay Shoebill Island Camp. All we had to do was find it. As we set off across the flat land, kicking up a mushroom cloud of dust in our wake, we encountered herds of black lechwe, pretty antelope endemic to this part of Zambia. A flock of waders lifted from the plain ahead of us but luckily soon came down again, Caspian Plovers!

At last we saw a raised area with a gateway, beyond this some derelict buildings and we thought, oh no, not another abandoned camp. But the track continued on, and so did we. Then another raised area which had a few trees. We headed for that and found the tents and shacks of Shoebill Island Camp.

We were shown to our tents, rather tired-looking, and we were sure the bedding hadn’t been changed for a long time, decidedly grubby. We dumped our gear and then scanned the adjacent wetlands. It was heaving with birds, looked good; it also had lots of mosquitoes. A Painted Snipe flew in and began to feed at the edge of the water, cool bird. Fishermen were all over the place, dragging nets through the shallows, paddling canoes, repairing nets, squabbling with their wives and children. We had expected a wilderness, not a fish market! As we ate dinner that night in a shack near the tents, the boss man came to tell us he had exciting news. We knew we would not see Shoebill here at this time of year, they move deeper into the huge swamps when the waters recede. But now we were hearing amazing news. A fisherman had come into camp with the fantastic story that he had found a Shoebill nest and would take us there in the morning! What amazing luck, we had timed our arrival perfectly! We wouldn’t sleep with excitement! The Shoebill is one of nature’s freaks, a heron-type bird with a Dutch clog for a bill, hence the name. It uses this massive, ugly, hooked bill to smash electric eels to death deep in the swamps of Central Africa, where it is rare and elusive, a must-see bird for birdwatchers, but few ever get the chance to see one. Perhaps we were about to join those lucky few?

At dawn, we met on the edge of the wetlands, three of us, two guides from the lodge and the nest-finding fisherman. We all climbed into a large canoe and the guides expertly punted us down a maze of tiny channels through the swamp. The atmosphere was electric; we had a great chance of seeing a Shoebill! A chance-in-a-lifetime dream bird.

It was an idyllic setting; carpets of purple water-lily floated on the surface; herds of black lechwe were everywhere; Malachite Kingfishers were abundant; Marsh Widowbird displayed all around; Greater Swamp Warblers sang from papyrus beds; it was calm, sunny and warm. Perfect. It became too shallow for the canoe so we splashed through wet grassland on foot, towards another huge block of papyrus where the fisherman had found the nest.

One guide and the fisherman continued on into the papyrus to scout the route while we waited on the edge. We were not happy about this. What if they flushed the Shoebill and it flew without us seeing it? But they insisted we waited until they had seen how the ground was - an African Risk Assessment, what next! A wader called and we spun around to see three Long-toed Lapwing dropping down onto the wet grass not far away. These were sumptuous waders and we were thrilled at another new bird. Time was ticking. Where were the two health and safety inspectors? Had they sunk without trace in the swamp or had the Shoebill attacked?

At last, two muddy, wet figures struggled out of the huge reeds. Their faces told the story before they said a word. We were not going to see a Shoebill. The fisherman had not been able to show the guide any nest, let alone that of a Shoebill. The guide was now convinced the man had lied from the outset in the hope of some easy cash. I felt like punching him, what a prat. It was a very sombre trip back to the lodge; barely a word was spoken as we gave the man murderous looks.

We ended the day on 3,176 species for 2008, less than five hundred away from the world record that we were chasing.

Our last morning at Shoebill Island Camp was spent out on a canoe gliding silently through the myriad of channels, watching thousands of birds. It was just a wonderful way to see wildlife. We passed within metres of a feeding Lesser Sandplover, which allowed great photos. A Lesser Moorhen stalked along the edge of a reed bed as flocks of Garganey and Comb Ducks swirled around us.

Fast forward to 2016 and here we were in Uganda at the Mabamba Wetlands to try again to see a Shoebill. We headed out into the vast wetland in wooden canoes, again, and hoped we would have better luck. There was lots to see here as we glided along the channels through the papyrus swamp.

Crammy Mabamba wetlands

Our super guide Crammy, surley he can find us a Shoebill?

Herbert talking Uganda 2016 1

Herbert gives us a briefing before we set off in search of our nemisis bird.

On boat Uganda 1

Long toed Lapwing Uganda 1

Long-toed Lapwings were again enjoyed as we looked for that very odd stork.

Looking for Shoebill 2016 1

You can see the tension as time ticks by and no luck.

Crammy pushes boat

As the channels got narrower Crammy had to help push us through.

Water lilley Uganda 1

The birds, wildlife and flowers were all lovely but no clog bills!

We had already over run our alotted time in the wetlands and still no sign of our most wanted bird and there were mutterings about heading back, our hearts sank. Then Crammy's mobile rang and there was a chatter in local language and the boat turned and took another channel, a sighting! Now all we had to do was find the spot in this vast wetland where we could only see a few yards through the papyrus. We pushed through very narrow cuttings and Crammy made more calls to try and home in on the other boat. Finally we saw two other boats and their occupants standing and all looking the same way, hearts raced, but we still could not see a bird! As we got closer at last a grey shape in the cut reeds...

Shoebill Uganda 2016 1

What a fantastic bird! A Shoebill at last! Yes!

Shoebill Uganda 2016 2

Shoebill Uganda 2016 3

Shoebill Uganda 2016 4

We had amazing close views of this wonderful, weird bird and took a lot of photos! Well worth the wait for such an amazing special bird, huge thank you to all those that made this superb visit to Uganda possible. What a way to start our Uganda wildlife experience, much more to follow soon please check back for lots more amazing wildlife.

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