The Shoebill Stork and Where in Uganda To Watch This Prehistoric Bird.

The Shoebill (aka Whale-head, aka shoe-billed Stork, aka Balaeniceps rex) is a large wading waterbird that stalks the marshes of tropical East Africa in South Sudan and Uganda. It stalks along the swampy Nile River and Lake Victoria shores, snatching up prey with its unique, immediately recognizable bills. 

The Shoebill, aka Balaeniceps rex, or shoe-billed bird or whale-headed stork bird.

The enigmatic shoebill stork, with its unmistakable shoe-shaped bill and imposing stature, has captured the fascination of bird enthusiasts and travelers alike. Found in freshwater swamps of central tropical Africa, this magnificent wading bird’s unique characteristics and behavior make it a highly sought-after sighting on birdwatching adventures in Uganda.

You really can’t mistake the shoebill for any other bird: They grow 4 to 5 feet tall, have bluish-gray plumage, and have an 8-plus-foot wingspan. Their bill, which takes up most of their face, looks like a huge Dutch wooden clog. 

In this article, we delve into the captivating world of the shoebill, exploring its classification, habitat, distribution, and prime locations in Uganda, where you can catch a glimpse of this remarkable avian species.

Shoebill Classification: Heron, Stork, or Pelican?

The shoebill, also known as Balaeniceps rex, shoe-billed stork, or whale-headed stork, has intrigued ornithologists for centuries due to its distinctive appearance. Its towering height, reaching up to 5 feet, and sharp-edged, shoe-shaped bill set it apart from other bird species. While its bill may resemble that of a pelican, its behaviors and traits align more closely with storks and herons. This has led to debates regarding its classification, with its own family, Balaenicipitidae, being created for this unique bird.

According to Wikipedia, the shoebill stork was known to both ancient Egyptians and Arabs but was not classified until the 19th century, after skins and, eventually, live specimens were brought to Europe. An English ornithologist, John Gould, described it in 1850, giving it the name Balaeniceps rex. Or, ‘Whale-head’ from the Latin words Balaena “whale” and caput “head,” abbreviated to -ceps in compound words.

Traditionally classified with storks (Ciconiiformes) and retained there, but taxonomists have recently awakened the debate. They now classify the grotesque bird in the Pelecaniformes group after staring at their telescopes and watching the bird for countless hours. So, I would say it’s in the same group as pelicans.

The shoebill stork’s favorite meal is air-breathing, ell-like fish called a lungfish.
The shoebill’s favorite meal is air-breathing, Eel-like fish called a lungfish.

Interesting Facts

Shoebill storks have a repulsive habit of shitting on their legs. Apparently, the practice is effective in lowering their body temperature. That’s why taxonomists originally placed it within the family of storks since all storks also use their own shit to cool off. Eeww!

They can stand virtually motionless for hours with their bills held down against their necks. Complemented by their golden eyes, the posture affects a compelling death stare. Selfie, anyone? Careful, it can also inflict a very powerful bite, and it’s by no means a safe bird for a stranger ignorant of its ways to approach. So keep a distance when trying to get that perfect shot.

The whale-headed stork rarely breeds in captivity: At least only two chicks have hatched outside the shoebill’s dwelling zone in the last hundred years. Currently, only a handful of zoos open to the public have shoebills, including the Prague Zoo in the Czech Republic, Pairi Daiza in Belgium, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the Dallas World Aquarium, and UWEC Zoo in Entebbe. All of them in the zoos were either born there or were legally collected from the wild.

The shoebill’s favorite meal is air-breathing, Eel-like fish called a lungfish. This wading bird also eats eels, catfish, lizards, frogs, monitor lizards, water snakes, and baby crocodiles. They’re great fishers; shoebills stand motionless for hours in swampy water to steak out their unsuspecting prey. Then, the bird swiftly pounces on its target, bill-first, decapitating its catch with the sharp edges of its bill and swallowing it whole.

Historically

The shoebill stork has been compared to the sacred ibis in ancient Egyptian culture due to its appearance and behavior. Its solitary tendencies and bill-clattering symbolize patience and vigilance.

Feeding

With its hunting skills, the shoebill feeds mainly on fish in its freshwater swamp habitats. It displays exceptional stealth and lightning-fast strikes while consuming aquatic prey, including water snakes.

Movements

Shoebills migrate to areas with a higher abundance of food during the rainy season. Observing these birds in their natural habitats during this seasonal movement only adds to their allure.

A boat ride at Mabamba Bay to view the shoebill stork
A boat ride at Mabamba Bay to view the shoebill

Distribution: Where Do Shoebill Storks Live?

Shoebills are often sighted in areas of floodplain interspersed with undisturbed papyrus and reedbeds. They live in freshwater swamps, marshes, and wetlands of central tropical Africa, from southern Sudan through parts of eastern Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, western Tanzania, and northern Zambia. 

They’re most numerous in the West Nile sub-region and South Sudan (especially the Sudd, a main stronghold for the species); it is also significant around Lake Victoria marshes in Uganda and western Tanzania. More isolated records have been reported of shoebills in Kenya, the Central African Republic, northern Cameroon, south-western Ethiopia, Malawi. Vagrant strays to the Okavango Basin, Botswana, and the upper Congo River have also been sighted. Their distribution seems to coincide with that of papyrus and lungfish largely.

Shoebill stork Distribution map in Africa
Map Showing The Distribution of the Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) by the IUCN

Where You Can See The Shoebill Stork in Uganda

While shoebill storks can be found in various African countries, Uganda stands out as a premier destination for observing these captivating birds. The country’s diverse wetland ecosystems provide ideal conditions for shoebills to thrive, making it a haven for both resident and migratory populations.

The best places to watch the shoebill stork up close in Uganda are around the Mabamba Bay marshes on the shores of Lake Victoria and in the Albert Delta, up the Victoria Nile found in Murchison Falls National Park.

Mabamba Bay Wetland. 

Important Bird Area in Wakiso District, Entebbe, Lake Victoria; 2,424 ha; 00°07’N 032°21’E

Located on the shores of Lake Victoria, Mabamba Bay Wetland is renowned for its rich birdlife and, of course, its resident shoebills. This expansive wetland area, characterized by its floating vegetation and tranquil waters, provides a perfect backdrop for observing these majestic birds in their natural habitat.

Mabamba Bay is a bird-watching haven with 260 bird species recorded within the mash. The site supports other globally threatened bird species, including 38% of the global population of the Blue Swallow, the Papyrus Yellow Warbler, the white-winged tern, and the papyrus gonolek

Other bird species in Mabamba Bay of interest to birders include the spur-winged geese, goliath herons, pygmy geese, African jacana, several Lesser Jacana, and pallid harriers.  The site also supports migratory species, including Gull-billed Terns, Whiskered Terns, White-winged Black Terns, and Grey-headed Gulls. 

Mabamba Bay Wetlands support lucrative fisheries activity and are a source of fish for surrounding communities and raw materials for local crafts, building materials, water for domestic and livestock use, and non-wood products. 

The best route to reach Mabamba is to take a one-hour boat cruise across Lake Victoria from Entebbe at the Nakiwogo site. At the Mabamba landing site, you climb aboard a smaller boat to navigate the papyrus swamps and reach the shoebill. 

The Mabamba shoebill tour can take about 1-2 hours and cost about $90 to $150 per person for two people sharing a boat, including the tour guide. This tour is best done in the early afternoon or evening before/after your all-inclusive Uganda safari into the countryside because the site is close to Entebbe International Airport.

Shoebill sighting at Albert Delta in Murchison Falls National Park
Shoebill sighting at Albert Delta in Murchison Falls National Park

Murchison Falls-Albert Delta Wetland. 

Important Bird Area Masindi, Gulu, Murchison Falls National Park; 17,293 ha; 01°57’N 031°42’E

The Murchison Falls-Albert Delta Wetland, extending from the majestic Murchison Falls along the Victoria Nile to its convergence with Lake Albert, is a remarkable habitat for various bird species, including the endangered shoebills, pelicans, darters, and herons. The Nile Delta, part of the Victoria Nile with numerous tributaries flowing through dense papyrus swamps, offers a captivating environment for tourists to track the incredible shoebill.

A three-hour boat cruise from Paraa jetty allows visitors to spot an array of wildlife, such as elephants, hippos, crocodiles, buffalo, waterbuck, and giraffes, along the shores of the Nile. This Ramsar-listed delta is a paradise for birdwatchers, featuring species like the Black-winged Pratincole, Lappet-faced Vulture, Lesser Kestrel, and Denham’s Bustard.

To observe the shoebill in the Nile Delta, tourists can join daily boat launches or opt for private boat tours, offering flexibility at varying price ranges. The UWA three-hour daily boat tours set out at 08:00 and 14:00 for about $15 per person, with a minimum number of ten passengers. G&C and Marasa operate small private armadas from Paraa’s south jetty, which provide plenty of scope for flexibility for about $20 to $150 per person.

Shoebill Stork Viewing Tours

Nkuringo Safaris usually includes a shoebill viewing tour on most of their all-inclusive tailor-made Uganda safari itineraries based out of Entebbe. A typical tour will have a day in Entebbe with a couple of hours in the evening on a boat into the Mabamba marshes tracking the rare shoebill and bird watching. The safari trip will either fly or drive to the southwestern region to trek the mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

They also customize private Uganda safaris to Murchison Falls National Park, including game viewing drives on the park’s vast savannah tracks and a boat cruise down the Victoria Nile to the Albert Delta to catch sight of the historical shoebill.

Nkuringo Safaris’ birding safari itineraries usually include tracking the incredible shoebill in Mabamba or the Albert Delta.

Shoebill Conservation Status

Unfortunately, the shoebill’s scarcity and mystique have made the gawky birds a big item in the illegal wildlife trade. According to the National Audubon Society, in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, enthusiasts can pay more than $10,000 to add a Shoebill to their collection.

Besides the poaching threats, fires and human encroachment also put the waterbirds at risk. This whale-headed creature is a shy bird requiring large areas of undisturbed habitat in which to breed—when people spook them, they desert their nests, leaving eggs and chicks vulnerable to water lizards, snakes, and eagles. 

The shoebill’s unique characteristics and habitat requirements make it vulnerable to environmental changes and habitat loss. BirdLife International has classified the shoebill as “Vulnerable,” emphasizing the importance of conservation efforts to ensure the survival of this iconic species.

A 2016 IUCN Redlist population estimate suggested that 3,300 to 5,300 mature adults remain in the wild, down from 5,000 to 8,000 mature adults in 2008.

International wildlife groups and local conservationists monitor shoebill habitats in South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia and patrolling the sites for poaching. Still, much more attention is needed to protect shoebills.

The revival of these wetlands and conservation initiatives to protect their wildlife are essential for those who share the waterways and fish with the shoebill. Their futures are entwined, dependent on the birds’ survival in this incredible landscape where water meets the sky.

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