Safaris to see the rear shoebill in Uganda
The shoebill also is known as whale head, whale-headed stork, or shoe-billed stork, is a very large stork-like bird. It derives its name from its enormous shoe-shaped bill. It has a somewhat stork-like overall form and has previously been classified with the storks in the order Ciconiiformes based on this morphology. This large water bird is unmistakable distinctive due to its unique ‘shoe-shaped bill which gives it an almost prehistoric appearance – reminding us of birds’ dinosaur ancestry.
Found in nine countries across Africa the species has a large range but exists in small localised populations concentrated around swamps and wetlands. Individuals are highly solitary – often the male and female in a breeding pair prefer to occupy different ends of their shared territory.
The nest is large and flattened, built amid swamp grasses or sedges and usually on a mound of floating vegetation or a small island. The construction can be up to three metres wide. Although a clutch of up to three dull, chalky-white eggs is laid, typically only one nestling survives due to inter-sibling rivalry, where the larger (generally firstborn) chick will out-compete and/or kill its siblings. The breeding season varies, being dependent on Africa’s seasonal flood cycle.
The Shoebill is undergoing a continuing decline owing to the effects of habitat destruction and degradation, pollution, nest disturbance, hunting, and capture for the live bird trade. The global population is currently estimated at between 5,000-8,000 birds and the species is classed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Where to see the shoebill in Uganda
Mabamba Bay Swamp in Uganda is one of the top destinations to see the Shoebill which is one of the endangered bird species in Uganda attracting massive numbers of birders . Mabamba Swamp is located west of Entebbe on the adjustment wetland connected directly to Lake Victoria on the northern shore of Lake Victoria, covering 2420 hectors with thick marshes of papyrus, water lilies and other wetland grasses with narrow channels which a just big enough to get through a small traditional motorized canoe boat .
Mabamba swamp is a Ramseur site and Important Bird Area in Uganda , The wetland hosts over 250 bird species that include many globally threatened species, 7 of Uganda’s 12 Lake Victoria biome restricted species (notable is the Papyrus Gonolek) and plenty of wetland species . The wetland also hosts huge flocks of Palearctic migrants every year from October to March which is one of the best seasons for bird watching in Uganda.
Mabamba Swamp can be reached by a number of routes. From Kampala or Entebbe the easiest route is via the Nakiwogo landing site in Entebbe where you take a 10 minutes ferry crossing to Buwama landing and from there drive for about 40 minutes to Mabamba passing through fields that will provide plenty of garden birds like Turacos.
Travellers that do not want to drive may hire a speed boat from Entebbe and cruise down to the entrance of Mabamba swamp and meet up with the canoe boat guides and interchange and head into the swamp to search for the endangered shoebill and later return to the waiting speed boat for return back to Entebbe.
Birding in Mabamba swamp is done from a motorized wooden canoe boat by riding through a maze of trails cutting through the thick marshes.
Nile Delta in Murchison falls
Recommended for birders is a morning cruise downstream to the Nile-Lake Albert Delta. Alternatively, a tranquil sun downer cruise offers the classic view of an equatorial sunset reflected on the river.
This is one of the most stunning boat safaris to search for the endangered shoebill stork in the dense papyrus swamps that are concentrated around the delta area where the Victoria Nile meets the Lake Albert before forming Albert Nile.
The area is shallow and muddy giving great habitat for the lungfish which is one of the common prey of the pre-historic shoebill stork
Lower Lake Albert region in Toro-Semuliki National Park
Semuliki National Park and the beautiful Semuliki wildlife reserve lie on the southern shores of Lake Albert and offer a mosaic of different habitats with some excellent birding opportunities.
The Toro-Semuliki Wildlife Reserve (formerly called the Toro Game Reserve) is subtly different and shows affinities with the northern savannah woodland with over 400 bird species and a captivating landscape.
Toro-Semuliki Wildlife Reserve
No visitor to the reserve should miss a boat trip on Lake Albert for nowhere else in Uganda do you stand a better chance of seeing the mighty shoebill.
However, accommodation in this area is pretty tricky with only one option of the upmarket Semuliki safari Lodge which is about 1-hour drive to the Ntoroko landing site where the boat activities start from however it is recommended to travel with a specialist birding guide for this trip.
Lugogo Ziwa wetland swamp
The Lugogo Wetland is, arguably, Africa’s richest birding destination and Amuka is working with the Rhino Fund to have this area officially declared a wildlife conservancy.
One of Uganda’s best-kept secrets is part of the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary’s border. It is a 10-kilometre swamp called, The Lugogo Wetlands. This wetland is an integral part of the ecosystem and is home to a multitude of animals and rare birds. It provides guests with some of the most unparalleled opportunities for bird viewing in Uganda – including the threatened and endangered Shoebill.
This birding is thanks to three biospheres being integrated into the Wetlands meaning that vast numbers of birds not normally seen reside in the area.
Taking a pair of binoculars and well-worn bird book on the usual tour, avid bird watchers will be ecstatic to view some of the 350+ species found here including the White Crested Turaco, the Giant Kingfisher, Palm-nut Vulture, Barbets, and most of the woodpecker species, including the Speckled-breasted Woodpecker.
Other destination destinations
Makanaga swamp off Kamengo town.
Situated west of the main capital of Uganda Kampala, Makanaga wetland is part of the extensive Mabamba wetland system, one of Uganda’s most endowed Ramseur sites and a perfect site for spotting the elusive shoebill storks. The destination is approximately 60 kilometres drive from Entebbe and can be reached via the Kampala-Masaka road before taking the road down from Kamengo trading Centre.
Upon arrival, clients will meet the local bird guides who are very knowledgeable about the habitat of the rear shoebill.
Lake Mburo swamp in Lake Mburo National Park
Lake Mburo National Park is a compact gem, located conveniently close to the highway that connects Kampala to the parks of western Uganda. It is the smallest of Uganda’s savannah national parks and underlain by ancient Precambrian metamorphic rocks which date back more than 500 million years. It is home to 0ver 300 bird spices.
Together with 13 other lakes in the area, Lake Mburo forms part of a 50km-long wetland system linked by a swamp. Five of these lakes lie within the park’s borders. Once covered by open savannah, Lake Mburo National Park now contains much woodland as there are no elephants to tame the vegetation. In the western part of the park, the savannah is interspersed with rocky ridges and forested gorges while patches of papyrus swamp and narrow bands of lush riparian woodland line many lakes.
The best birding spots in Lake Mburo National Park include the swampy valleys of Warukiri and Miriti and the roadsides between Rwonyo camp and the jetty. There are also ideally-situated viewing platforms at the salt lick, in Miriti Valley, and in Rubanga Forest.
Rubanga Forest can be visited using a vehicle or on foot. This is a real draw for keen birders, and prior arrangement should be made with the warden. The rare Red-faced Barbet – only seen in Lake Mburo National Park – is one of the forest’s featured species.
On rear equations, the shoebill has been recorded in the area but the chances are pretty narrow due to the lack of research being done in the area as to the movement and the habitat of the shoebill during different times of the year.
Lwera swamp after the Equator on Masaka –Mbarara road.
Lwera swamp, which stretches about 20kms along the Kampala–Masaka highway, is a major water catchment area that connects several rivers and wetlands in Gomba, Mpigi and Kalungu districts and drains directly into Lake Victoria.
However, there are no designated tourist activities in the area for searching the rear shoebill however the shoebill has been sighted on the road as you drive through the swamp please ask your safari guide to keep a keen eye on the open wetland patches.
Nabajjuzi swamp Masaka-Mbarara highway.
Nabajjuzi wetland in Masaka is globally important and contains many threatened species including the Sitatunga swamp antelope, the Shoebill and the Papyrus Yellow Warbler.
However this is not a protected area but the shoebill has been sighted on numerous times after the last roundabout as you leave Masaka town to start driving to Mbarara, travellers can stop on the roadside and scan into the swamps open patches to see if they can see a giant statue looking bird in the marshes.
Edward flats in Queen Elizabeth National Park
The 1978km2 Queen Elizabeth National Park is one of Uganda’s oldest protected areas. Originally gazetted as the Lake George and Lake Edward game reserves in 1925, it was upgraded to create one of Uganda’s first national parks in 1952.
Queen Elizabeth lies directly on the equator. A pair of concrete hoops marks the spot where the 00 line crosses the Kasese road.
The park is home to over 95 mammal species and over 600 bird species.
The park’s highest point, 1,350m above sea level, is found in the Katwe Explosion Craters while the lowest point is 910m on the shore of Lake Edward where the large swamp belt between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo has provided a huge breeding area for the shoebill but the efforts to see the shoebill have been shortening by the hard to reach access way to the area please contact Uganda Wildlife Authority or Wilderness Explorers Africa before accessing the area.
Uganda Wildlife Education Centre Entebbe
Previously known as Entebbe Zoo, the present-day Uganda wildlife education centre is a rehabilitation centre for rescued animals recovered from poachers and traffickers. Among these living onsite is the rare shoebill which has been rescued from the locals who keep them in their homes as traditional medicine and cultural values.
Lake Bisinia and Kyoga near Mount Elgon National Park
Also formerly known as Lake Salisbury, Bisinia is an attractive freshwater lake. Found in eastern Uganda, it is long, narrow, shallow and fringed by a swamp that is extensive which support a number of localized bird species including the legendary shoebill and rare Papyrus Gonolek, white-winged warbler, pigmy goose, lesser jacana and fox’s weaver, a bird that habitats swap fringes and is endemic to Bisinia. To the avid birder, Lake Bisinia is a tasty bit of morsel, so to speak.
How to see the shoebill in Uganda
Most of the shoebill habitat is in swampy areas of most the lakes, swamps and river banks, in order to have better chances birders are highly advised to hire either speed boat or canoe boat while embarking on a journey to search for the endangered shoebill as they can be concentrated deep in the papyrus marsh which is where they have better chances of catching the fish which is their main prey.
When to see the shoebill
The best times to see the shoebill in the morning as they active feeding and later in the evening as they try the last chance for prey before heading to the nest.
During the day sometimes the shoebill flies high up in the sky and they tent to change places too.
Best time for shoebill safaris in Uganda
Shoebills can be seen all year round but during the rainy season, most of the swamp beds sub-merge in the water making it difficult for the shoebill to hunt so they may change the habitat, in any case, some of the new habitats are not easily accessible by boat so the best time to see the shoebill is usually the dry months in Uganda which runs from July-September and from January-march.
Popular birding destinations in Uganda
Mount Elgon National Park
Excellent birding opportunities exist around Kapkwai Forest Exploration Centre, in particular in the secondary forest and thick shrub along the loop trail to Cheptui Falls. It supports the African Goshawk; Chubb’s Cisticola, White-chinned Prinia and African Blue Flycatcher among others.
Excellent birding opportunities exist around Kapkwai Forest Exploration Centre, in particular in the secondary forest and thick shrub along the loop trails extended to cover Cheptui Falls. It supports the African Goshawk; Chubb’s Cisticola, White-chinned Prinia, African Blue Flycatcher, Chinspot Batis, Mackinnon’s Fiscal, Dohertys and Luhders Bush-shrikes, Baglafecht Weaver, Cinnamon Bee Eater, Moustached Tinkerbird, Hartlaub’s Turaco, Tacazze Sunbird, Olive- and Bronze-naped pigeons, Black Kite and Black-collared Apalis.
Birding in Semuliki National Park
Birders who make it to Semuliki will be rewarded with some of Africa’s best forest birding.
Birders who make it to Semuliki will be rewarded with some of Africa’s best forest birding. Sempaya and Ntandi provide excellent viewing of the birds including the White-crested Hornbill, Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill, Piping Hornbill, Yellow-throated Nicator, Great blue and Ross’s Turacos. The area around Kirumia River is another top birding spot. The shoebill stork is regularly seen at close quarters on Lake Albert and forest walks are good for tracking water birds.
Birding in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Bwindi a varied habitat which is Uganda’s oldest forest mean it is the ideal home for a variety of birds, with 350 species recorded, including 23 endemics (90% of all Albertine Rift endemics) such as the Short-tailed Warbler and Blue-headed Sunbird as well as seven IUCN red data listed species. Easy to see are the African Emerald Cuckoo, Common Bulbul, African Blue and White-tailed Blue Flycatchers and Red-headed Bluebill.
Birding takes place along the main trail, the Buhoma Waterfall Trail and along the bamboo zone and Mubwindi Swamp trail in Ruhija
Birding in Mgahinga National Park
The best birding in Mgahinga also takes in some of its most beautiful scenery – in the gorge between Mts Gahinga and Sabinyo, through the bamboo forest, and in the montane forest, where the beautiful Rwenzori Turaco may be observed.
The three to four hour Gorge Trail between Gahinga and Sabinyo can provide spectacular sightings of the Dusky turtle Dove, Cape Robin-chat, Kivu-ground Thrush, Olive Thrush, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Bronze Sunbird, Regal Sunbird, Blue-headed Sunbird, Rwenzori Batis, Black-headed Waxbill and Streaky Seedeater.
Other good birding areas are at the bamboo belt at about 2,500m above sea level, and the tall montane forest at 2,660m. The Rwenzori Turaco is mostly sighted at around 2,700m. Along the Uganda-Congo border and on level ground, the Chubb’s Cisticola, Red-faced Woodland Warbler, Banded Prinia and Doherty’s Bush-shrike are vocal yet inconspicuous inhabitants of the tangled vegetation at the forest’s edge.
Birding in Kibale Forest National Park
Bird watching tours start at 7 am at Kanyanchu. Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, located just outside the park, is home to 138 bird species which may be seen during guided walks along the boardwalk trail and viewing platforms.
Bird watching tours start at 7 am at Kanyanchu; you are advised to book in advance. Rare species include the Papyrus Gonolek, White-winged Warbler, White-collared Olive back and Papyrus Canary.
Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, located just outside the park, is home to 138 bird species which may be seen during guided walks along the boardwalk trail and viewing platforms. These could include the White-spotted Flufftail, Yellow-spotted Barbet, Hairy-breasted Barbet, Yellow-billed Barbet, Western Nicator, Grey-winged Robin-chat, White-tailed Ant-thrush, Brown-backed Scrub-robin, Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher, Brown-throated Wattle-eye, Superb Sunbird, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Bocage’s Bush-shrike, Black Bishop, White-breasted Negrofinch and Black-crowned Waxbill among others.
THINGS TO DO
|Shoebill tours in Mabamba swamp|
|shoebill tours in Murchison falls NP|
|shoebill tours in Lake Albert Ntoroko area|
|shoebill tours in Lugogo Ziwa wetlands Swamp|
|Shoebill tours in Makanaga swamp on Lake Victoria|
|Shoebill tours in Lake Mburo Swamp|
|Shoebill tours in Edward flats in Queen Elizabeth national park|
|shoebill tours in Nabajuzzi swamp Masaka|
|Shoebill tours in Lwera swamp in Lukaya|
WHERE TO STAY
|Botique Hotel N0-5 Entebbe|
|Murchison River Lodge|
|Semuliki Safari Lodge|
|Aramaga Rift Valley Lodge|
|Amuka Safari Lodge|
WHEN TO GO
|Best time to see the shoebill in Uganda|
|1 Day Mabamba Shoebill Trip|
|4 Days Murchison Shoebill & Game Safari|
|4 Days Toro- Semuliki Shoebill Safari|
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