Wildlife Holiday News

Uganda − Searching for Shoebills

An entry to the Naturetrek 2019 Writing Competition. James Watson travelled on our 'Uganda – Mammals & Mountains' tour, and you might feel like you were there with him after reading his immersive narrative!

The water lilies that lined the narrow waterway were unfolding their mauve faces to the morning sun as our canoe puttered between the swaying papyrus plants. We emerged into open water, then quickly turned away from it into a cramped gap in the waterweed that coats the Mbamba Wetlands. Here we were snagged, and Ismail, standing at the prow, gave pointed directions to the outboard motor driver. Shoves with a paddle and sudden accelerations from the outboard enabled us to struggle on. But we didn’t have to travel far. 

In the deafening silence that followed the killing of the motor, it was hard to believe that such a creature, which stood on the other side of some tall weeds, was actually a bird. But then it slightly canted its vast head, as if intent in birdlike fashion on tracking something. The huge bulk, the size of an eight-year-old child, its top half only visible, was decked in lightest blue and grey shimmering feathers. Suddenly it took wing and, with surprising agility, disappeared behind trees. 

Content to make that the crowning glory of our morning, as we cruised the edges of the weeded swamp we learnt to distinguish a Rufous-billed Heron from a Purple Heron, heard rumours of Spot-necked Otters, and tracked a Spur-winged Goose flying low over the water. But then our attention was drawn to a couple of canoes parked by an expanse of waterweed. We joined them. 

This time there was nothing to impede our view. Indeed, so close were we, it was surprising the apparition didn’t take fright. But it had other matters on its mind – breakfast. Its stillness and concentration were identical to our previous creature, punctuated only by the same minuscule adjustments to the angle of its head. A cross between a Dodo and a dinosaur dressed in the lightest of blue feathers and with a raffish tuft on the back of its head, its close-set eyes wore a lidless, stunned expression, as if amazed at itself. Its static vastness made it hard to believe that it could ever take flight. 

And there we all remained for ten minutes in the company of the Shoebill which, in turn, remained impervious to our presence, marmoreal in its green expanse of marshweed, with an intense concentration that was effortless but formidable, its dirty-white boot of a bill tucked into its breast. Then, with a swiftness and despatch not easily perceived, it snatched up a cat-fish in that capacious bill, its head jerking in an attempt to swallow. The head and tail of the fish flapped and writhed; three triumphant gulps finished it. The sharpness of the bill itself excised any unwanted fragments of weed. 

Thus sated, it became a wheeling dark shape in the bright air, its seven foot wingspan casting fleet shadows. It would retire into the innermost reaches of the wetlands, to digest its meal.

By the time we made our way back, the water lilies had opened their faces completely to the nourishment of the sun. 

Read more about our 'Uganda – Mammals & Mountains' holiday.