Searching for the Shoebill

I often joke that on my 60th birthday, I’ll buy an expensive set of binoculars and a birding guidebook, then let my inner birder soar. This is only half in jest. Trekking to remote corners of the planet in search of anything never sounds like a bad idea. Whether or not those ornithological aspirations come to pass, in this current moment, I live in one of the most spectacular bird-watching regions in the world. As a service to my potential future self, I try to take advantage of any birding situations as they arise.

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On my ever-growing Uganda bucketlist, “see the shoebill” was the easiest to accomplish, and the least like to be checked off. Proximity was the problem there- just as most people have never actually seen the Top 10 Musts Sees! in their own home towns, I have never bothered to explore much of Kampala or nearby Entebbe. Fortunately, my housemates recently planned a trip to welcome me back to Uganda after I’d spent two months away.

We drove to Entebbe and joined a tour group as they bused from their hotel to the docks. Together we sped off on the 45 minute journey across Lake Victoria to the edge of the Mabamba swamp where smaller canoes and local guides awaited us. As we navigated through small channels in the papyrus and swamp sawgrass, our guide plucked a few blue lotus blossoms from the water. He handed them to us with a lack of ceremony that suggested he picks them for all the tourists.

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After quite awhile, we cut through a clearing in the tall papyrus and there it stood, alone on a small grassy island. Blaeniceps rex, the shoebill stork.

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The shoebill is an enormous bird, usually 4-5 feet tall, with a wingspan of around 8 feet. Named for their bulbous shoe-like beaks, they are somehow both comical and majestic. Solitary creatures, they build less that three nests per square kilometer. They spend the days stalking the murky waters for lungfish, catfish, and tilapia.

The bird didn’t acknowledge the small herd of canoes surrounding it, staring only down at the water as it waited for fish. Still, it rewarded us with a few nonchalant postures at various angles. In some way, it seemed accustomed to the cameras.

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When the clicking shutters slowed, the guides handed out water bottles and boxes of digestive biscuits. I nibbled through several of them, watching not just the bird but the surrounding canoes. What a strange situation, this collective encounter with just one small piece nature.

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Still, though, we were lucky. There is only room for about nine of them to live in that area, and an encounter is not guaranteed. Satisfied, we rowed back across the swamp, passing a few fisherman’s encampments in the reeds, a few less thrilling bird species.

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Again we glided through the calm waters of Lake Victoria in wooden speedboats. This time the sun shone in full force, dissolving the morning haze. The weather was flawless by the time we reached Entebbe, so we settled in for lunch along the palm-lined shore. As day trips go, this one was far better organized and more relaxing than any I’ve been on before. And someday, on my 60th birthday, I’ll have one less thing to check off my life list, one less regret.

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