In Buganda, there’s a proverb that goes, “Okutambula kulaba, okudda kunyumya”-Traveling opens your mind to the unknown, turning you into a story teller on your way home”.
Before my recent trip to Uganda, I read lots of books and blogs on the shoebill and with my curiosity roused, I set off. Tourists travel from all over the world to Uganda just to take its photo. My sight watching began in Mabamba swamp, a famous birding site situated in the west of Entebbe on the northern shore of the largest lake in Africa: Lake Victoria.
Through a motorized wooden boat, we rode through the maze of trails that cut through the thick marshes eagerly anticipating a glimpse of the shoebill. The area is covered with water lilies and papyrus where over 300 species of birds reside. The black heron, African fish eagle, Brown and grey parrot, Grey woodpecker, great cormorant, goliath heron, African pigmy goose, grey crowned crane and many others can be spotted here.
This is not the only place to spot the spoonbill in Uganda. It’s also commonly found at the Murchison falls parks on the banks of the river Nile, lake Edward, Rugogo swamp, and Lake Mburo. On our way, we also met a couple of fishermen casting their nets. This swamp is rich with lung fish – the shoebill’s favorite meal.
‘The Baganda believe that meeting a Shoebill bird as they fish, would mean a poor catch that day and this has consequently resulted in the birds being hunted and killed in great numbers.’
This brings a conflict between the two hunters-the fishermen and the shoebill-who heavily rely on the fish for their survival. The Baganda believe probably due to its frightening look, its whale head or shoebill, to spot one, is a bad omen. Our tour guide told us, “They (Baganda) believe that meeting one (Shoebill bird) as they fish, would mean that a poor catch that day and this has consequently resulted in the birds being hunted and killed in great numbers. They were nearly extinct in this swamp” he finishes.
When the wetland was designated a Ramsar site in 2006 it began offering protection for the remaining bulwes. A ramsar site is a wetland that is specifically set aside to be of international significance under the Ramsar convention which was established in the year 1971. The Ramsar identifies wetlands that are of international importance specifically, those that offer a home species of birds facing extinction. By 2016, 2231 ramsar sites had been created to safeguard 214,936,005 hectares of wetlands all around the world. Some of the ramsar sites in Kenya include Lake Bogoria, Elementaita, Naivasha and Nakuru due to their birdlife fame.
The many tourists who visit the Mabamba swamp have also contributed in sensitizing the fishermen who earn a living by renting out their boats. Some fishermen have also trained as tour guides specialized in bird watching. Our trip was almost cut short by the dark clouds which were gathering in the sky but we wore our raincoats and braved the rain, till the guide shouted, “Over there, the bird is over there!” A fisherman had just passed by our boat and cautioned the guide – he had met a shoebill whilst fishing. He commanded those of us who were noisy to keep quiet as the legendary bird loves hushed places. In the Ugandan culture, when a shoebill approaches you, one is supposed to take a deep bow, and then shake your head side to side. Next, one is supposed to lower their head and make a soft low voice to connect with the bird, which in turn makes it respond to your greetings. It all sounded like yoga when we were asked to do this – its impression – for the first time.
There are approximately 12 shoebills in the swamp. Shoebills are masters of patience. They will stand in water, large patches of high grass, and other hiding places for hours on end. They know that if they wait long enough for the right moment, they will find their next meal. The Shoebill will leap suddenly and quickly from cover, lunging forward with its sharp bill, scoop up their prey, devouring it whole. Roughly 60% of their attacks are successful.
We only managed to find one. The first thing I noticed were its huge eyes and its massive beak. If we were to do a starring contest, I think this bird would emerge the victor as they can stay motionless with their bills down against their necks. They do this, to be on guard while a fish or other prey passes by, so that they can attack them with speed and find a meal. They also feed on water snakes, turtles, monitor lizards and even young, baby crocodiles.
Another interesting thing is that these solitary birds nest alone, laying just one to three eggs in a large flat nest which is constructed in the midst of sedges and swamp grasses. Their elusive and antisocial behavior occurs throughout, except during the breeding season. Our guide tells us that even when two siblings hatch, there is usually rivalry amongst them which results in only one surviving. The bird is so ruthless that the largest chick in the hatch will end up committing fratricide without a moment’s hesitation. The mothers will also eventually eject the last bird standing after the chick has learnt basic survival skills. They have an average life span of 25 years, especially in the wild.
Both the male and female participate in rearing. It takes 140 days of nest-attendance to get from new-laid egg to independent offspring; and it takes three to four years to get from newly independent offspring to mature adult. I was shocked to find out that the bird practices urohydrosis – defecates on its legs to lower its temperature. This is what made them to be confused with storks, since they too use their droppings to cool off!
We stayed for 20 minutes. Gazing. Then our guide informed us that it was time to head back home, lest the death stare haunts some of us in our dreams. Frankly, I was scared of the thought of having a nightmare with the big eyes staring at me at night, in a hotel room all by myself. Beastly or terrifying as it looks like, it was an amazing experience learning about this legendary bird or bulwe and I feel that the world is a better place having such impressive creatures to astound us.