Friday 31 July 2015

A dream comes true in Uganda

Put two or more birders together in a pub or indeed any convivial situation and the conversation will often turn to a discussion on what are their respective favourite birds. We all like seeing birds of any shape or size but some are more special, more desirable than others and we are all familiar with this aspect of our interest. There are certain species that we cherish or covet and desire to see above all others.

Often these favourite birds are to be found, not in Britain but residing at all points of the globe and too often the hopes and desires of seeing them will never become reality and just remain a fantasy. Some are happy to leave it at that whilst for others it becomes almost a holy grail involving considerable sums of money and long distance travel.

My personal favourites are, in no particular order Southern Giant Petrel, Pallas's Gull, Great Grey Owl, Shoebill, Picathartes and Steller's Sea Eagle. Unfortunately for me none are native to Britain and only two are to be found in Europe. They all have that certain something about their character or appearance, even their habitat, that sets them apart and creates a sensation, a longing, almost a craving that feels it needs satisfying at some point in a lifetime. How often do we say 'Oh I would love to see that' when an image of a bird or animal appears in a book, magazine or on the television?

Of my special birds I have only managed, so far, to achieve seeing one - the Shoebill in Uganda but then my chosen special birds would not be special if they were easy to see and could be ticked off simply. The fact that they require considerable planning and effort to travel to their specific locations in the world adds to the attraction and promises a real sense of achievement if and when the fantasy becomes reality.

I went on a birding trip to Uganda with two birding friends, Ads and Chris in June 2009 and on our second day we visited the Mabamba Swamp, which is home to Shoebills and is about a one hour drive from Entebbe. It is a strange sensation being in close proximity to something that has been just a dream, a casual subliminated desire for so many long years that one never thought it would become real. In fact I never considered I would get the opportunity to go to Uganda let alone see a Shoebill, but chance circumstances meant that here I was in Uganda and hopefully minutes away from realising this particular fantasy. It was not without a certain anxiety however, as it was by no means guaranteed I and my friends would see a Shoebill. A number of birders have come to the Swamp and failed to see a Shoebill and the contemplation of having travelled thousands of miles at relatively great expense and with the distinct possibility of failure, understandably made the situation more than a little fraught.

The world population of Shoebills is between 5000-8000 individuals and they are only found in tropical East Africa. They are considered one of the five most desirable bird species to see in Africa and there is currently much debate about whether they are a true member of the stork family or more closely related to pelicans. 

I had seen pictures in books and even TV programmes of Shoebills but now here I was in a primitive wooden canoe being paddled down olive coloured, opaque water channels running through vast stands of papyrus, reeds, lilies and other exotic aquatic plants towards the huge heart of the Mabamba Swamp. I was now minutes away to either realising a dream or enduring the misery of failure.This was my one and only chance.

Slowly we wound our way down the narrow water channels, the steamy heat combining with the sickly foetid smell of rotting vegetation to suffuse the air with that familiar distinctive scent of riparian Africa. The boatman's paddle disturbed the shallow bottom of the channel, pushing us ever deeper into the Swamp, a magical world of still, dark water and alien looking plants that made me realise I was a very long way from Oxfordshire. We passed through the papyrus stands, our seated position in the canoe, just inches above the water, was so low that the height of the papyrus on the banks made it seem as if we were passing through a long green tunnel open to the eternally blue sky above. Mysterious croaks and squeaks, strange other worldly, unrecognised amphibian sounds emanated from the depths of the papyrus and lilied banks. Frogs plopped from the reeds into the water at our approach as various birds briefly came into view and then disappeared just as quickly back into the green, humid depths of the surrounding vegetation. 

We were in two canoes. I was in the first one with a boatman and my two friends were in another following, as we were paddled gently along, almost silently, apart from the quiet splash as the boatman's paddle regularly entered the water to propel us along the channel. Slowly we glided through the water until we came to where the papyrus died away and were confronted with a vast area of open swamp, an area of water completely covered with floating plant life and with a couple of vague, lily festooned channels of open water meandering through the trackless green wilderness and into the haze blue distance.

Yours truly in the Mabamba Swamp
As our canoe rounded the end of the papyrus stands I saw a massive, blue-grey, prehistoric looking head towering above the swamp vegetation. It could be nothing else. It was a Shoebill. The colloquial name of whalehead never seemed more appropriate. The realisation of finally seeing a live one so unexpectedly was invigorating, as was knowing that the long arduous journey from the Northern to Southern Hemisphere had been worth it for this bird alone. This was a dream literally coming true and I called in excitement to the others. At that instant they had not quite cleared the papyrus so frustratingly for them could not see the bird but eventually they too drew alongside my canoe and we all gaped in awe at this monstrous member of the stork or pelican family as it stood motionless in the swamp.

A creation of antiquity. a morose, solitary giant of a bird. It stood absolutely still, almost monumental. A bird of extremes its  almost freakish ugliness and gargantuan proportions, made it absolutely fascinating. Its head was huge but needed to be to carry such a massive appendage as its bill from which it gets its name. In antiquity the Arabs called it 'abu markub' which means 'one with a shoe'. True its bill looks like an enormous straw coloured clog but the ski slope proportions and appearance of that enormous bill would dwarf any shoe known to man other than for a giant.

c Ads Bowley

Grey all over, it stands almost five feet tall and its feet are huge, which allows it for all its great size and weight, to walk or stand on the floating vegetation of the swamp.  All I could think of as I looked at its prehistoric countenance and pale reptilian eye was of the dinosaur Tyrannosaurus Rex. In fact its Latin name is Balaeniceps rex. It hardly moved at all but stood statuesque and forever silent. Its formidable weapon of a bill with razor sharp edges to the mandibles is adapted to catching sizeable catfish and lungfish in the mud of the swamp. Its main prey consists of these fish and it can tackle catfish up to three feet long and well over a kilo in weight but it is also partial to snakes, lizards, frogs and even small crocodiles.

This individual was obviously stoically waiting for a catfish or lungfish to come within range of its specialised bill but eventually it flew on huge wings, they are between 7.5-8.5 feet across, further off into the swamplands. 

We paddled further into the Swamp and soon came across another, flying in to do exactly what the first one had been doing. In the distance we could see yet another, a grey hulking presence standing pillar like in the green wastes of the Mabamba Swamp.