Commonly known as the Whale-head, the Shoe-billed Stork, or even the Balaeniceps rex, the Shoebill is a large wading waterbird, commonly found in tropical East Africa’s marshes of Uganda. It stalks the swampy Nile River and Lake Victoria shores, snatching prey with its distinctive, easily identified bills. Birdwatchers regard the shoebill as one of the five most desirable birds in Africa. Though this marvelous bird is most common in Uganda, it can also be seen in some parts of South Sudan, Kenya, the Central African Republic, northern Cameroon, southwestern Ethiopia, Malawi, Botswana, and the Congo River.
This rare bird has earned its name as one of the most sought-after birds in Africa, and seeing it on your Uganda safari will be a sight to behold. The shoebill cannot be confused with any other bird. It stands 4 to 5 feet tall, has bluish-gray plumage, and a wingspan of 8 to 10 feet. Their bill, which occupies the majority of their face, resembles a massive Dutch wooden clog.
The shoebill was known to both ancient Egyptians and Arabs, but it was not classified until the nineteenth century when its skins and, eventually, live specimens were taken to Europe. It was named Balaeniceps rex by John Gould, an English ornithologist, in 1850. Alternatively, ‘Whale-head’ is derived from the Latin words balaena “whale” and caput “head,” which are abbreviated to -ceps in compound words.
This amazing bird was traditionally classified with storks (Ciconiiformes) and kept there, but taxonomists have recently reopened the debate. After staring at their telescopes and watching the grotesque bird for countless hours, they now classify it as a Pelecaniformes. So it’s in the same family as pelicans. The shoebill bird is a carnivore, meaning that it mostly feeds on the flesh of other animals.
The shoebill has earned itself other exciting names that include the boat-bill, bog-bird, lesser lechwe-eater – referring to the shoebill’s alleged taste for lechwe, or aquatic antelope, and Abu markub, which translates as “father of a slipper” in Arabic.
When flying, the shoe bill stork’s legs extend straight back past the tail and its neck draws back.
Mouth: The shoebill stork has a shoe-like shaped mouth, hence the name shoebill, and a sharp bent beak that allows it to tear mammals into reasonable sizes for easy digestion.
Weight: A mature female shoebill stork weighs approximately 4.9 kilograms, whereas a male shoebill weighs approximately 5.6 kilograms.
Length: The shoebill stork is about 110cm-140cm tall when standing on its legs and has a long foot that extends up to 18cm, allowing it to stand on aquatic vegetation.
The shoebill stork’s tail measures 100-140cm in length, and its wingspan is 230-260cm. The shoebill stork is known as a statue bird because it is frequently seen standing and remaining still in one location for extended periods.
Flying distance: Due to their flapping rate of about 150 flaps per minute and their nature, shoebills are slow and their flying distance ranges between 100-500 meters.
Life Span: The shoebill stork is known to be a solitary bird and can live for 35 years in the wild, and up to a stunning 50 years or more in captivity.
Reproduction: During the mating season, which lasts from April to June, male and female shoebill storks build 1-1.7-meter-wide nests out of aquatic vegetation on floating platforms. Both the female and male shoebills build nests, and the female typically lays one to three 164 grams eggs. The incubation period lasts about 30 days, and both parents help guard the nest and feed the young. After about 105 days, the young shoebill stork develops flight feathers and can fly well.
Habitats and feeding: Shoebill storks live in swamps or lakes and feed on a variety of prey including frogs, water snakes, baby crocodiles, turtles, rodents, monitor lizards, turtles, snails, small waterfowls, tilapia fish, lungfish, catfish. Shoebill storks feed in muddy waters and hunt with vision, striking as soon as they spot prey or waiting patiently for an ambush.
Population in Uganda: The shoebill stork population in Uganda is considered endangered, with less than 1000 shoebill storks remaining. However, there are several factors affecting the shoebill stork’s population growth, including fishermen who hunt and kill them in the belief that they bring bad luck, habitat destruction in which swamps are converted to agricultural land and cattle grazing areas, pollution, and climate change, among others.
Shoebill stocks are mostly active at night. Despite being primarily water birds, they lack webbed feet but can still stalk their prey in the water. They are mostly solitary birds with territories that they can be fiercely protective of. Shoebill storks are known to prefer to live alone. Even hunting is done separately, and the male and female are only seen together during mating season, after which each bird moves separately.
They are normally silent birds. Their silence helps them capture their prey by hiding silently and jumping once to grab it with their large shoe-like beak. However, shoebills have been observed communicating by making sounds and gestures such as mooing, head bobbing, bill-clapping, and high-pitched whining. These sounds are mostly done while at their nests. They have a large wing span in flight and retract their heads and necks.
They appear sluggish on the ground but are graceful in the air, and when attacking their prey, they pull back their wings and strongly approach their prey. Shoebill storks are extremely patient. They will parade on a water body or any hideout waiting for their prey to feast on, even if it means parading there for an entire day until they get what they need to eat during the night. Actually, they prefer to eat at night after the sun has set.
Shoebill storks normally defecate on themselves, and scientists have proven that they use their droppings to cool their bodies from heat, which is one of the behaviors shared by all storks.
Shoebill storks are known for their intimidating appearance, with dinosaur-like features and a strong, powerful beak, but does their behavior match their fearsome appearance. Despite their sinister appearance, shoebills are generally peaceful, docile birds that pose no threat to humans. Their strong, wide beak, on the other hand, allows them to hunt large prey such as crocodiles, lizards, and even large antelopes. People are not at risk from shoebills, and there are no records of attacks on humans by these “prehistoric throwback” wading birds. The opposite is more likely to be true.
Shoebills are an endangered species that have few natural predators. Human hunting has contributed significantly to the population decline, with only 5,000 to 10,000 birds remaining in the wild.
Shoebill storks are not native to and do not exist in the wild in the United States. There are, however, a few in captivity at zoos. Zoo Tampa in Tampa, Florida is the only place in the United States where people can see shoebill storks.
Shoebill storks can be seen in a variety of locations, including Lugogo swamp in Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, Mabamba swamp on Lake Victoria, Murchison Falls National Park along the Albert Nile, and the shoebill storks can be seen during the Nile delta boat cruise, Lake Mburo national park in western Uganda, Toro-Semuliki wildlife reserve, Nabajuzi swamp in Masaka, Makanaga swamp bay, Ishasha sector in (UWEC).
Here are the two most commonest shoebill safari tours done in Uganda:
Mabamba Bay, a Ramsar-listed wetland of international importance, is a vast marsh that stretches through a narrow and long bay fringed with papyrus towards Lake Victoria’s main body. It’s the simplest swamp to get to and see the globally threatened Shoebill up close on any given day in Uganda.
Mabamba Bay is not only a shoebill haven but also a bird-watching paradise, with 260 bird species recorded within the mash. Other globally threatened bird species found at the site include 38% of the global population of the Blue Swallow, the Papyrus Yellow Warbler, the white-winged tern, and the papyrus gonolek.
Other bird species of interest to birdwatchers in Mabamba Bay include spur-winged geese, goliath herons, pygmy geese, African jacana, several Lesser Jacana, and pallid harriers. Migratory species at the site include Gull-billed Terns, Whiskered Terns, White-winged Black Terns, and Grey-headed Gulls.
Mabamba Bay Wetlands support lucrative fisheries activity and provide fish for surrounding communities as well as raw materials for local crafts, building materials, domestic and livestock water, and non-wood products.
The best way to get to Mabamba is to take a one-hour boat ride from Entebbe to the Nakiwogo site on Lake Victoria. You board a smaller boat at the Mabamba landing site to navigate the papyrus swamps and find the shoebill.
The Mabamba shoebill tour lasts approximately 1-2 hours and costs between $90 and $150 per person for two people sharing a boat, including the tour guide. Because the site is close to Entebbe International Airport, this tour is best done in the early afternoon or evening before/after your all-inclusive Uganda safari into the countryside.
The Murchison Falls-Albert Delta Wetland stretches from Murchison Falls to the delta at the Victoria Nile’s confluence with Lake Albert. The confluence of Lake Albert and the delta creates a marshy haven for endangered shoebills as well as other important waterbirds such as Pelicans, Darters, and various heron species. The Nile Delta stretch is part of the Victoria Nile, and it has 50 tributaries that flow through thick papyrus swamps towards the lake, where tourists’ boats meander to see the incredible shoebill.
To get to the shoebill, tourists take a three-hour boat ride down from the Paraa jetty, which takes them close to some of the park’s most spectacular wildlife sightings. On the Nile’s banks, one can see elephants, hippos in their thousands, some of Africa’s largest crocodiles, small herds of buffalo, waterbuck, kob, and, more often than not, giraffes. The Ramsar-listed delta protects several bird species that birders would love to see, including the Black-winged Pratincole, a migrant waterbird that usually shows up in April. The Lappet-faced Vulture, Lesser Kestrel, and Denham’s Bustard are among the other notable bird sightings.
To see the shoebill, take the UWA three-hour daily boat launches that leave at 08:00 and 14:00 for about $15 per person, with a minimum of ten passengers. Other companies operate small private cruises from Paraa’s south jetty, offering plenty of flexibility for $20 to $150 per person.
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