Thursday, August 25, 2011

The one, the only, the legend, part 2: B REX

So did we see a shoebill in the wild?

Watercolor interpretation of Balaeniceps rex (shoebill)

Once arriving to Kampala, Uganda, from Kigali, Rwanda, on a 10-hour bus trip, we found a minibus taxi that could get us close to where we hoped to find our bird. After about an hour, we got off the bus taxi in a rural marketplace called Kasanji.  We hired boda-bodas (motorcycle taxis) to take us the remaining 10 kilometers to the swamp. Helmets are not used in Uganda, and the muddy hole-filled road made for a scary ride. But it’s the shoebill we are talking about, and like I said, if there is one bird to see, this is it.

Michele is on the back motorcycle, a friend is in the middle, and I am
on the lead motorcycle, snapping this picture and hanging on.

At Mabamba Swamp, which is designated as an Important Bird Area, local tourism exists largely because people want to see shoebills. We hired a local guide and a boat for 70,000 shillings ($28 USD) and paid 5,000 shillings entrance fee each ($2 USD each). Rain delayed us for an hour, but soon we were in a 6-seater wooden canoe being paddled through a channel in the papyrus toward Lake Victoria.

Pied Kingfishers and Malachite Kingfishers darted into the water and rested on reeds; Long-toed Lapwings and Africana Jacanas waded along the edges of the water, near lily-pad looking plants. Yellow-billed Ducks, White-faced Whistling-ducks, and Spur-winged Geese swam in the water, rather looking like they are just floating along effortlessly, but with their feet propelling unseen underwater. Occasional Squacco Herons, Purple Herons, and Intermediate Egrets stood among partially submerged swamp vegetation, watching and waiting to spear fish while Black Crakes crept along the mud, weaving around the shoots of papyrus and marsh grasses. An African Marsh Harrier patrolled from the air. There were these birds and more, but there was no denying the purpose of this boat ride.

We noticed a blob in the distance, far ahead on our right. Binoculars were firmly attached to my eyes at this point, glued to a single possibility. The first thing visible was only its head with that enormous bill. As we approached, more details were revealed in the flesh (in the feather!). We stayed with the Shoebill until it flew off, and we actually saw the same individual again on our way back to the boat launch.

The first look, just a head circled in this picture.

Shoebill showing well. Fantastic!

The satisfaction of seeing the shoebill, quite the unusual life bird. On my
notes, the exclamation point indicates it is is a new bird for me and the
star indicates it is a new bird for Michele. The shoebill is actually in the
background,  just to the right of the notepad in my hand, but you have
to enlarge the photo to see it.

Although we had our quarry on the first outing, we camped at Mabamba for three days. We took four boat trips total and saw shoebills each time. Our fourth and final trip was particularly satisfying. It took us nearly two hours in the mid-morning sun to find one. We just sat on the boat and watched it. Some three years ago, I first learned about this bird; now, there it is, as extraordinary as I had imagined. We saw it preen, open and close its mouth with a strange clicking noise, blink, wait patiently for prey, and finally launch into the air and disappear behind some papyrus. Exactly why this bird has meant so much to us I don’t fully understand, but we saw it: the one, the only, the legend, the shoebill, B. rex.

The last look, flying away. Goodbye shoebill... I hope we meet again.

Note on photographs of the shoebill:

  • All photos of the shoebill (eyes, feathers, bill) from part 1 were taken at the Uganda Wildlife Education Center, a conservation and rehabilitation-based zoo.
  • All photos of the wild shoebills in part 2 were taken at Mabamba Swamp.

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