Mabamba Swamp: September 20, 2015

Mabamba Swamp is located west of Entebbe on the northern shore of Lake Victoria. Over 100 square kilometers in size, the wetlands is a Ramsar Site and an Important Bird Area, where the Shoebill and other papyrus-specific bird species are reliably seen. Access to Mabamba in a private vehicle is relatively straight forward and described accurately in the Bradt Guide and Where to Watch Birds in Uganda. Upon arrival in Mabamba, I negotiated a two-hour ride in a motorized canoe for two people for 120,000 UGX, which is about 30 USD. There are also several private companies that run organized tours from Entebbe, such as Mabamba Shoebill Tours. These excursions can be reserved in advance and, while significantly more expensive, travel farther on the water and theoretically offer greater opportunity for spotting a Shoebill.

The drive to Mabamba from Kampala early on a Sunday morning is relatively peaceful. Aimee and I left at dawn as a thunderstorm was passing above the city, but by the time we reached the Northern Bypass Road, the skies had cleared. Along the paved road to Masaka, we spotted a few interesting birds from the car, including Broad-Billed Roller and Long-Crested Eagle. Turning onto a dirt road towards Kasanje from Mpigi, we passed through a papyrus swamp after five kilometers. It is worthwhile trying for Papyrus Gonolek, White-Winged Warbler, and Carruthers’ Cisticola here, as access to extensive papyrus is just as good here as from the boat. Continuing to Mabamba, we saw a few Great Blue Turacos in flight.

We set off into the swamp at 9:30 with our guide, David Katumba (mobile 0783911643), and a boatman. David was texting with other guides from Entebbe who were already on the scene and within five minutes we pulled alongside several other motorized canoes to marvel at a Shoebill. We were on the scene for about thirty minutes, and the rest of the crowd was well behaved, giving the bird an appropriate amount of space and not being too loud. There were a few other birders in boats, and even casual tourists without binoculars appeared satisfied with the sighting. David explained there are about 20 shoebill in the wetlands, and excursions are successful approximately six times out of seven. Clearly, the individual we encountered was habituated to the proximity with people and boats.

Shoebill are generally static and stoic, although on occasion they will strike out violently at a lungfish below. We watched for long enough to see the Shoebill stalk around the marsh a few times to position itself better for spotting passing prey. At one point, it defended itself from a diving Black Kite by ferociously snapping its mammoth bill. For the most part, though, the Shoebill stood motionless and gazed at us defiantly, its large eyes with light irises seeming to communicate much more than your typical bird. Photographs of the Shoebill are ubiquitous in Uganda, but it is still worth seeing in person to appreciate the incredible heft of its bill and its huge overall size. The name Shoebill is evocative, but it is accurate only if you picture a wooden clog. I actually prefer the common name Whale-Headed Stork because there are few birds of the world with a larger head. Other massive waterbirds, like the Goliath Heron, have very slender heads that along with their long, narrow bills create a rapier-like appearance. Using their tools appropriately, herons and storks spear fish, while the Shoebill pulverizes them. 

Moving on, we wound our way back through the narrow channels of the swamp into more open water, where thousands of White-Winged Terns had gathered on floating lily pads. Blue-Breasted Bee-Eaters stood sentinel on tall stalks of grass along the shore, occasionally sallying out to nab a hapless insect. Virtually indistinguishable, Angola and Barn Swallows sliced through the air chasing even smaller prey. Mabamba Swamp is also one of the few sites where the migratory Blue Swallow has been recorded, and it’s worth looking out for if you visit during November or April. Here and there among the lily pads were also African Jacana, Wood and Common Sandpipers, and Yellow-Billed Duck.

We were headed out towards a bank of papyrus, where David assured me we would have the best chance at Papyrus Gonolek (there is a detailed map at the landing stage in Mabamba indicating sites in the swamp where Blue Swallow, Papyrus Gonolek, and Shoebill have been recorded). There was no response to playback, which was not surprising so late in the morning, but we did spot a few other specialities, including Swamp Flycatcher and Black Crake.  On the return trip, I tried to photograph several Malachite Kingfishers before they dashed away on approach of the boat. The results are mixed, although our boatman did his best to facilitate. Back at the landing stage there was no funny business, and Aimee and I departed in high spirits with plans to return later in the year.

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