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Klaserie River Sands

Operation shoebill at Big Birding Day

Original Source: Diary of a Muzungu

So why precisely have I woken up well before dawn – on a Saturday – to drive for three hours in a cramped minibus to sit in an old boat? 

©Kaj Ostergaard

© Kaj Ostergaard

It’s that time of year again: Uganda’s annual Big Birding Day, a 24 hour contest in which birders compete to see who can rack up the score for the highest number of bird species seen in one day. The early bird catches the worm, so they say. (This silly early bird didn’t even remember to catch breakfast, and now I’m sitting hungry in the middle of a huge swamp).

On the shores of Lake Victoria about 50km west of Kampala lie the vast swamps of Mabamba, one of Uganda’s few remaining swamps that are protected by the local communities. Classified as an Important Bird Area, Mabamba Bay, is home to Uganda’s most famous bird: the iconic shoebill.

© Nick Sausen

© Nick Sausen

Would our Big Birding Day team get lucky and see a shoebill? 

A couple of rickety-looking boats greeted us on the edge of Mabamba Swamp. With giggles of excitement, our team’s boat headed off into the papyrus. You know you have officially arrived in the wetlands when  you spot a pair of grey crowned cranes (referred to locally in Uganda as crested cranes) flying overhead. The fabulous crested crane adorns Uganda’s national coat of arms and makes its home in the wetlands.

©Kaj Ostergaard

© Kaj Ostergaard

Our boats were surrounded by vibrant vegetation dotted with shimmering, purple water lilies, the cool morning mist rising from the crystal-clear waters. A Malachite kingfisher posed delicately on a papyrus stem as our boat pushed through the vegetation.

©Charlotte Beauvoisin

© Charlotte Beauvoisin

I spotted a Northern brown-throated weaver (pale brown with an orange beak) at the base of some reeds. I can’t say I knew exactly what it was, but I was the first to spot it! You don’t need to be an expert to take part in Big Birding Day, all you have to be able to do is quickly point out the moving blocks of colour to your more knowledgeable teammates. Travelling in a low-lying boat means you are at eye-level with so many of the birds at the water’s edge allowing you to see more. It’s magic.

The narrow labyrinth of channels pans out into a wide, freshwater lagoon. We are able to find a number of wetland birds you can see at Mabamba: a yellow-billed duck in flight; a Squacco heron amongst the reeds and several long-toed lapwings.

A shoebill came into sight and everyone in the boat stood up, almost tipping the boat! It is a dark grey, funny-looking character that stands an impressive five feet tall. This prehistoric looking bird looks like a cross between a stork and a pelican and dines on a menu of lungfish and water snacks. Oh yum!

©Ronan Donovan

© Ronan Donovan

A pair of magnificent blue-breasted bee-eaters entertained us as the shoebill moved on. The Mabamba guide educated us about this fascinating bird, saying there are just two or three pairs of shoebills breeding in Mabamba, all under the watchful eye of the local community.

©Nick Sausen

© Nick Sausen

We looked in vain for the lesser jacana, to the disappointment of our guide, who had made a mental checklist of the birds he has hoped to see at this years Big Birding Day. Birds we did spot included: pink-backed pelican, saddle-billed stork, African fish eagle, purple swamphen, giant  kingfisher, swamp flycatcher and Weyn’s weaver.

©Charlotte Beauvoisin

© Charlotte Beauvoisin

There is no protection from the sun when you are out on the open water so we took this as a cue to return to land, for a soda and a chapatti from the local snack stall. Refreshed, and with the Big Birding Day clock ticking, the competitive streak kicked in and the Big Birding Day team marched uphill towards some tall trees. En-route we added a fan-tailed widowbird to our list.

Leaving Mabamba is a series of smaller papyrus swamps where we saw some papyrus specialists and ‘near-endemic species’ such as the striking papyrus gonolek, white-winged warbler and Carruther’s cisticcola.

With a score of 114 species identified, by the end of Big Birding Day our Mabamba team ranked a decent 9th place. I suppose you can’t be on the winning team every year.

Uganda – ‘the birding mecca’ of Africa

My tiny country is home to over 1 000 bird species, almost 50% of Africa’s bird species. In addition to the 1000+ resident species, millions of birds migrate across Ugandan skies en route to summer alternately in South Africa and Europe.

Every year families, individuals, conservationists and the tourism industry come together to celebrate Uganda’s Big Birding Day: a series of fun conservation events celebrating birds. Young or old, an amateur or a professional ‘twitcher,’ Big Birding Day has something for everyone. Competitive types might like to join one of the teams of professional birdwatchers looking to improve on last year’s incredible score of 275 bird species seen in one 24 hour period at Mt. Elgon National Park.

Expert bird guides lead participants in the main event, a 24 hour bird watching contest. Big Birding Day includes free guided nature walks at dozens of sites across Uganda and free entry to the country’s National Parks, Wildlife and Forest Reserves on the day.

©Kaj Ostergaard

©Kaj Ostergaard

Diary of a Muzungu follows my African adventures, initially as a VSO volunteer with the Uganda Conservation Foundation supporting anti-poaching and human wildlife conflict projects in the National Parks. Yes, some lucky devil got paid to go on Safari. I fell in love with Uganda the moment I set foot here – and despite the challenges – still can’t think anywhere else I’d rather be. A would-be travel writer in Uganda and beyond, I share random thoughts, (mis)observations & travel. Together we go off the beaten track, be it on safari adventures, birding or walking my rescue dogs through the slums

  • Great article – I’ll share it.

  • oleny solomon mario

    hahahahaha, the early bird who 4got breakfast.Great story Charlotte.i love it to bits

  • Equatorial Wild Safaris

    It’s that time of the year indeed. I can feel the excitement as read down through the blog


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