The swamp king. King whale-head. The giant peculiar bird of Africa. Whatever you’d like to call Africa’s shoebill, this bird deserves to be on your radar. Not only do they take your imagination into prehistoric times, but they are also rare and considered Vulnerable due to habitat destruction. Coming face to face with one is the stuff of birding dreams!
With their unusual physique and mysterious behaviour, the rare shoebill is a bird to be cherished, and the best place to witness a special sighting of one is the Bangweulu Swamps in Zambia.
Every May Robin Pope Safaris takes a trip to the swamps in search of the elusive species. Tracking them down on foot or in dug out canoes is all part of the unique experience that makes it a bucket list safari.
Simon Cousins embarked on the Shoebill Safari last year and recalls the unforgettable experience:
We landed and were met by the enthusiastic team from Shoebill Camp and no sooner had we got off the plane we were offered a game drive – who could refuse! We hopped into the vehicle and were off over the plains through the huge group of black lechwe. Whilst the main attraction of a trip to Bangwuelu Swamps is to see the elusive and rare shoebill stork and the vast herds of black lechwe, it is important to note the other wonderful fauna and flora on offer in the area. The scenery and birding is out of this world!
We soon arrived back along the edge of the swamp where we were looking for the elephants that frequent that area when, low and behold, as we came around the bend, in the middle of an opening in the reeds, stood a shoebill stork! We had not been on the ground for two hours and here we were with a wonderful, prehistoric looking, shoebill!
There was much excitement and taking of photos; we were with the stork for about 15 minutes before it flew off!
When we returned to the airstrip to park the vehicle and get on the boat to go to camp, our guide called us to come and see ‘the bird’. We were not too sure what he was talking about but we followed him to one of the management houses close to the airstrip. As we rounded the corner of this house we came face to face with a tame shoebill stork! It was unbelievable to be face to face with one of the rarest birds in Africa. Raised by the team there, hopefully his release back into the wild will be successful and the bird can add to the gene pool and help increase the numbers of shoebills in the swamps.
Polling through the swamps is one of the most amazing birding experiences one can have. The sheer number of ducks, geese, herons, storks, teals and many other swamp dwelling birds is incredible. You don’t know where to look most of the time as there is so much going on around you! Blue breasted bee-eaters are hawking insects off the water surface, malachite kingfishers plunging into the shallow waters feeding on the teeming fish life, lesser jacanas and their chicks scurrying over the lilies, hundreds of ducks, geese and teals flying overhead – it is all too much!
Our trip was over all too quickly and we were heading back to Nkwali but not without some of the most wonderful memories a person could take from a safari.
A trip to Bangweulu swamps in search for Africa’s Shoebill demands to be on any birder or nature lover’s wildlife calendar. Luckily, the dream can become a reality every May on Robin Pope Safaris’ Shoebill Safari.