Mabamba Swamp: December 18, 2016

Mabamba Swamp is the most convenient site in Uganda for seeing the Shoebill, one of Africa's most unique and sought-after birds. Located just an hour outside Kampala, the site boasts a success rate of over 80 percent for Shoebill sightings. Although rates at Murchison Falls National Park and Semliki Wildlife Reserve are similarly high, trips to these remote destinations are significantly more time-consuming and expensive. There are several different options for visiting Mabamba, including participating in an organized tour out of Entebbe. My preferred method is to drive to the swamp and contract a local guide and boat driver directly.

On my first trip to Mabamba in September 2015, Aimee and I worked with David Katumba (mobile 0783911643) to locate Shoebill and a wide variety of other water-associated birds. On our most recent visit, we toured the swamp with Shukuru (mobile 0784751923), David's grandson, also an astute bird guide and field researcher who participates in the annual monitoring of the migratory Blue Swallow. Shukuru proved just as sharp-eyed and knowledgable as his grandfather, and we would need his strength and stamina as we struggled to navigate through the unseasonably shallow swamp. For 100,000 UGX, or about 30 USD, we spent over three hours in the swamp searching for Shoebill and other target birds in a motorized canoe.

Driving directions to Mabamba Swamp are available either in Where to Watch Birds in Uganda or on Google Maps. I would recommend getting an early start from Kampala in order to arrive at the swamp around 9am. During the weekend, there are a few boats out searching for Shoebill each morning. Although it's rewarding to be in the first boat to successfully locate a Shoebill, it is practical to take advantage of the efforts of earlier boats. The guides work together to share information, and if you're in one of the later boats, you can head out directly to the Shoebill's location. The less time you spend looking for Shoebill, the more time you have to spend chasing other birds.

In addition to showing us a Shoebill or two, I was hoping that our local guide could help me build up my country list. I have seen nearly 600 bird species in Uganda, and I would love to surpass that number before I depart in a few weeks. My targets included African Pygmy Goose and Lesser Jacana, two smaller and subtler water birds that I had overlooked or not been lucky enough to see previously. My country list was also embarrassingly light on swallows and martins, which I struggle to identify with confidence. I was also hoping to introduce my companions to a few papyrus specialties, including Papyrus Gonolek, White-Winged Warbler, and Carruthers's Cisticola. Even if we came up short on all these birds, I could certainly think of worse ways to spend a sunny Sunday morning.

We were the third and final boat to visit a solitary Shoebill this morning, ultimately flushing it deep into the swamp beyond any navigable channels. I have rhapsodized about this strange and prehistoric-looking bird before, but seeing a Shoebill in the wild is one of the continent's great birding experiences. What made this particular experience unique was the amount of effort it involved. We first located the Shoebill about 30m back from the channel, partially obscured by sedges. Because the water level was low, we were forced to pole the canoe laboriously into the sedges for better views. Shoebill are generally stolid birds and somewhat habituated to boats and people. We were able to approach to 10m in search of a entirely unobstructed view before finally scaring it away.

We set out next for more open water, eventually reaching a stand of papyrus. Here, we played recordings of Papyrus Gonolek to no avail; however, Little Rush and Sedge Warblers showed briefly, and we also spotted Black Crake, Common Moorhen, Swamp Flycatcher, and Osprey. Returning to the narrow channels afterwards, we headed towards a stagnant area dominated by water lilies. Scanning patiently for Lesser Jacana, I was pleased to encounter a pair of White-Backed Ducks, another new species for my country list. A patch of muddy ground held Lesser Stint, Collared Pratincole, and Common Ringed Plover. Long-Toed Lapwing, Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, and Winding Cisticola were abundant here, while an African Marsh Harrier circled menacingly overhead.

We finally picked out a pair of Lesser Jacana walking daintily atop the lily pads. These diminutive birds were dwarfed by an African Jacana nearby. Although Lesser Jacana looks similar to an immature African Jacana in the field guide, the birds are on entirely different scales and impossible to be confused side-by-side. Pushing my luck, I inquired again about African Pygmy Goose. Shukuru explained that it is uncommon at Mabamba and that we were lucky to find at least one of these two target species. Add the Shoebill sighting, which is by no means guaranteed, and we had definitely had a successful excursion. For reference, Blue Swallow is present at Mabamba Swamp in July and August, its dark glossy plumage and long tail streamers unmistakable.

Notable birds seen: Long-Tailed Cormorant, African Darter, Common Squacco Heron, Purple Heron, Hamerkop, African Open-Billed Stork, Shoebill, White-Faced Whistling-Duck, White-Backed Duck, Yellow-Billed Duck, Osprey, African Marsh Harrier, Black Crake, Common Moorhen, African Jacana, Lesser Jacana, Collared Pratincole, Long-Toed Lapwing, Common Ringed Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint, White-Winged Tern, Great Blue Turaco (h), Blue-Headed Coucal, Pied Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater, Blue-Breasted Bee-Eater, Plain Martin, Sand Martin, Lesser Striped Swallow, Barn Swallow, Angola Swallow, Sooty Chat, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Sedge Warbler, White-Winged Warbler (h), Winding Cisticola, Swamp Flycatcher, Papyrus Gonolek (h), Black-Headed Weaver, Vieillot's Black Weaver, Northern Brown-Throated Weaver, Red-Headed Quelea, Fan-Tailed Widowbird, Common Waxbill.


  1. Beautiful photos! Happy New Year and warm greetings from Montreal, Canada. :)

  2. Beautifully written, great reading and pictures. Thank you for sharing. I wish I had run upon this blog before my birding trip to Uganda. Thanks once again.


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