Uganda: Mabamba Wetlands

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It was an eventfully start to our first full day, with thunderstorms and heavy rain at day break, and Johnnie, our guide, having to change a flat tire he got in the hotel car park!

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The hours drive to the Mabamba Wetlands, was punctuated with short stops along the dirt road for Green-throated Sunbird, Green Crombec, Tawny-flanked Prinia and a mixed group of Great Blue and Ross’s Turaco (above) drying themselves out.

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This morning our group was extremely excited to visit Mabamba Wetlands an Important Bird Area (IBA) situated on the northern edge of Lake Victoria, a short distance from the capital Kampala. The extensive marsh is probably the best place to see the specialty of the swamp, one of Africa’s most sought after birds, the Shoebill.

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As our boats were being readied, we watched Village and Vieillot’s Black Weavers building their nests and fisherman bringing in some of their early morning haul, namely tilapia, nile perch and lungfish.  For four hours we slowly wound our way along the papyrus, reed, fern and sedge lined channels, pausing for Purple Herons (above), Blue-headed Coucal, the first of dozens of Winding Cisticolas, and Malachite Kingfishers as they darted from perch to water surface and back.

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In the wider and deeper sections we were able to motor enabling us to cover a larger section of the wetland. Osprey and African Fish Eagle (above) showed well, the latter occasionally flicking its head back and yodeling – the quintessential call of Africa. Flocks numbering in the many hundreds of White-winged Terns flew overhead. Lake Victoria holds the largest overwintering concentration of these birds, with over 3 million! African Marsh Harriers quartered the shorter vegetation as African Jacanas, Intermediate Egrets and Squacco Herons worked the edges.

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We explored some of the narrow winding channels where in shallower sections our boatman had to punt. Fan-tailed Widowbirds were conspicuous along with a few Long-toed Lapwings, Common Moorhens, Yellow-billed Ducks and White-faced Whistling Ducks. Blue-breasted Bee-eaters perched on low stalks, and both Papyrus Gonolek and Black Crakes were heard. Two distant Rufous-bellied Herons were spotted as well as fly over Grey Parrots. We also managed to tracked down a Lesser Jacana that was giving us the slip as it flew from one patch of water lilies to another!

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We came across areas of burnt marsh, sadly a result of illegal hunters burning the vegetation to flush out Sitatunga, a marsh antelope. It was in an area of burnt marsh that after three hours of searching we found a Shoebill. Since our large FAM group was split up into four, with different itineraries, this was the one location that we would all meet up. And they could not have timed it better, joining us to see this wonderful 4 1/2 foot tall iconic strange looking bird.  For half an hour we watched it walk around a small area getting a great look at the oversized hooked bill, specialized to feed on lungfish, before it took off. Even in flight it is just as impressive.

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The importance of this Important Bird Area (IBA) and Ramsar and site cannot be overstated. Nature Uganda along with other conservation groups and the tourism board are to be commended for their tireless effort in doing everything they can to protect, conserve and promote this wetland, and its most iconic species, the endangered Shoebill.

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