The Land Rover bounced its way down into the Albertine Rift Valley, with the Ruwenzori mountains shrouded in mist away to the west. Bananas, sweet potatoes, mangos and all manner of fruit was for sale along the muddy roads around the town of Fort Portal, and we’d bought up our fair share for what promised to be a hot excursion.
Tracey and I had arrived at Semliki Safari Lodge in western Uganda the previous day and had encouraged some fellow travelers (Philip and Elizabeth) to join us on our quest to find one of the world’s strangest birds. A couple of hours from the lodge and we were on the shores of the sparkling Lake Albert, in search of a man – any man – with a decent boat.
The Shoebill (once known as the Whale-headed Stork) is a huge, long-legged bird with what appears to be an oversized head, most of that being a massive, shoe-shaped bill. It has a somewhat prehistoric appearance and is not actually a stork, but belongs to its own family and has the equally strange (but much smaller) Hamerkop as its closest kin. The Shoebill is a predator of fish and other aquatic creatures up the size of young crocodiles, which it catches by plunging downwards after standing motionless for lengthy periods. Extensive papyrus swamps are its preferred habitat and it is rarely seen far from such dense vegetation. Pairs occupy a large territory and appear to forage independently of each other; it is invariably a solitary bird. The Shoebill is found only in Africa with the vast Sudd region of South Sudan and the wetlands of Uganda being its stronghold; it also occurs in Zambia and the eastern D.R.C.
It took over an hour to find a boat with a working motor, and then a complicated fuel-filling operation before the slim fishing boat was finally boarded. The Marabou Storks on the shoreline seemed as fascinated by the binocular-bearing mzungu as the villagers. Three locals joined the skipper (not sure why), so it was a rather overloaded craft as far as I could tell. The locals, it turned out, were being dropped off at favourite fishing spots so the captain was also our guide. We skirted around endless rafts of alien water hyacinth before arriving at the first proper papyrus swamp where Shoebill were likely to occur. An hour later, and we’d seen nothing more than jacanas and egrets. Then, just as I was beginning to wonder how much fuel was left in the outboard’s tank, a ptertodactyl-like shape appeared from nowhere to glide above our boat and land on a floating mat of water hyacinth. Shoebill!
The great bird was surprisingly unconcerned by the boatload of observers, gazing back us with its cold, reptilian eyes. With the motor off, we paddled closer to within about 30 metres, but I wanted to ensure that we didn’t spook it into flight. It being what it is, the Shoebill then adopted its typical statue pose, peering into the water – not moving an inch, waiting patiently for some unsuspecting fish to drift into striking range. Mission accomplished – our work on the lake was done!
Lake Albert, Uganda, August 1996
Note: according BirdLife international, a population of between 5 000 and 8 000 Shoebill survives. This seems a rather ambitious estimate given the rate at which wetlands are being populated by people, and compromised in various ways.