Operation Shoebill: first-hand experience of Uganda’s Big Birding Day annual 24 hour bird race at Mabamba Bay
So why precisely have I got up well before dawn – on a Saturday – to drive for three hours in a cramped minibus to sit in an old boat?
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… or 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, miles from anywhere … oh damn you and your insatiable Muzungu appetite for cappuccino…)
On the shores of Lake Victoria about 50 km 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.
Would our Big Birding Day team get lucky and see a Shoebill at Mabamba Bay?
A couple of rickety-looking boats greet us on the edge of Mabamba Swamp. With giggles of excitement, the team’s boats head off into the Papyrus.
A pair of Grey Crowned Cranes (referred to locally in Uganda as Crested Cranes) fly overhead. It’s like a statement: you have officially landed in Uganda’s wetlands. The fabulous Crested Crane adorns Uganda’s national coat of arms and makes its home in the wetlands (or what is left of them).
Our boats are surrounded by vibrant green, dotted with shimmering, purple water lilies, the cool morning mist rising from the crystal-clear waters.
A vibrant blue and orange Malachite Kingfisher poses delicately on a Papyrus stem as our boat pushes through the vegetation.
I spot a Northern Brown-throated Weaver (pale brown with an orange beak) at the base of some reeds. (I can’t say I know exactly what it is, but I’m the first to spot it! You don’t need to be an expert to take part in Big Birding Day; just quickly point out the moving blocks of colour to your more knowledgeable teammates).
The narrow waterways cutting through the swamp allow one, maximum two, narrow boats to pass. Travelling in a low-lying boat means you are at eye-level with so many of the birds at the water’s edge. It’s magic.
The narrow labyrinth of channels opens out into a wide freshwater lagoon.
We spot a Yellow-billed Duck in flight, a Squacco Heron amongst the reeds, and several Long-toed Lapwings, just a number of the iconic wetland birds you can see at Mabamba.
As our Shoebill comes into sight, everyone in the boat stands up (precariously tipping the boat to one side of course!)
The dark grey, funny-looking character stands an impressive five feet tall and stares back at us. A cross between a Stork and a Pelican, this prehistoric-looking bird dines on a menu of lungﬁsh and frogs. Oh yum!
A pair of magnificent Blue-breasted Bee-eaters entertain us, while the Shoebill looks on, seriously, just ten or so metres from our boat. The Shoebill moves his head from side to side as our Mabamba guide educates us about this fascinating bird. There are just two or three pairs of Shoebills breeding in Mabamba, all under the watchful eye of the local community.
We look in vain for the Lesser Jacana, to the disappointment of our guide, who has a mental checklist of the birds he has hoped to record for Big Birding Day. Birds we do spot include Pink-backed Pelican, Saddle-billed Stork, African Fish Eagle, Purple Swamphen, Giant Kingfisher, Swamp Flycatcher and Weynn’s Weaver.
There is no protection from the sun when you are out on the open water. Cue: 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 kicks in and the Big Birding Day team marches uphill towards some tall trees. En route we add a Fan-tailed Widowbird to our list.
Leaving Mabamba is a series of smaller Papyrus Swamps where we see locally occurring ‘endemic species’ such as the striking Papyrus Gonolek, White-winged Warbler and Carruther’s Cisticcola.
Our tiny country is home to over 1000 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 (BBD), 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 in Mt. Elgon National Park, to the east of the country, bordering Kenya.
Expert bird guides from NatureUganda, Uganda Wildlife Authority staff and Uganda Bird Guides Club 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 of the contest (provided you register in advance).
In 2014, Big Birding Day will take place on Saturday, November 29.
Big Birding Day is supported by the Uganda Tourism Board
With a score of 114 species identified by the end of Big Birding Day 2013, our Mabamba team ranks a decent 9th out of 73 teams participating nationwide.