On The Trail Of The One-In-A-Million Bird

I teach photography to people occasionally- nothing particularly complex, just basic handling of SLRs and the outline of how to make pictures a little better. Recently a couple of students from the first class I ran contacted me. They wanted to go out for a day doing wildlife photography, and as Kampala is a little slow on the wildlife front and the parks are too far away from the city for a good day trip, we settled on going to Mambamba Swamp, a Ramsar site on the Masaka road which hosts a small community of shoebill storks.

Shoebills are known as the one-in-a-million bird because of the slim chance of sighting them. They’re solitary creatures, most at home in dense swamp and well camouflaged too. I had heard about them, and seen a few pictures, but I had never seen one, so the opportunity to take a class AND possibly find one was something I jumped at.

We left Kampala in the morning in thick rain- the season has not yet ended (to the alarm of some) and the clouds hung low as we passed along the Northern Bypass through flooded wetland in which houses stood, islands among the brown water laced with garbage washing off the hills. But as we sped along the road the sky began to lighten, and on arriving at the Mambamba landing site the rain had lifted, though the light was still pale and the sky grey.

The Mambamba landing site

On arrival we were met by two people named Hannington. I had been in contact with one of them, to arrange the trip, but had never seen him in the flesh so it took a while of both claiming to be the man I had been speaking to before I rang the phone number I had and discovered the ‘real’ one. (On a side note, Hannington is a popular name in these parts owing to the story of the martyr Bishop Hannington, though this recent Monitor article suggests he may have been martyred because of a misunderstanding in communication between Busoga and Buganda, whose languages are similar but not identical. The article states that “Those who claim it was an accident narrate that after Hannington had been arrested in Busoga, word was sent to Kabaka Mwanga who responded in Luganda that bamute agende (they should set him free and he goes), but this was unfortunately misinterpreted for bamutte agende which means “kill him”. Chief Luuba thereafter ordered for the killing.” Whoops. But I digress.)

Having identified the real Hannington, we clambered aboard his boat and headed out into the reeds.

Boating into the swamp

The weather was still a bit miserable, but the swamp was alive with birdlife which made for great snapping opportunities.

Cattle egret, sharing my sentiments about cold weather

There were a few other boats powered by outboards which shattered the silence, but otherwise it was blissful.

Bringing bikes to shore from one of the islands

But the environment was just spectacular.

Malachite kingfisher taking off from its perch

Water lillies

Pied kingfisher

The swamp seems to be made up mostly of rafts of floating vegetation which drift and bump like equatorial ice floes. The local community have banded together to clear a few permanent pathways through, which they maintain as a group on a regular basis, but for the most part movement is achieved by punting the vegetation aside to clear a slim sliver of channel, which closes silently behind the small canoes.

Hannington punts the boat through thick, though floating, vegetation

We meandered around, finding lots of birds to photograph as we moved, though as yet no sign of the big score.


A jacana hunting for bugs in amongst the waterlillies

And then suddenly Hannington was up on the prow, binoculars in hand, shouting directions to the paddler seated at the rear of the boat in Luganda.

Off in the distance he has seen something

He had sighted something, but it was a long way away. A frenzy of activity commenced as he attempted to force the boat through what appeared to be solid greenery.

Punting hard

We could see something in the distance, but with a lot of effort Hannington began to edge us closer.

Sitting alone, hunting for mudfish

Hannington plunges into the swamp to tug the boat past an obstruction in the passage

Finally Hannington pushed the boat over the blockage and we paddled swiftly over to near the reeds.

And there she is, in all her glory

My class respond to the first sighting of the shoebill

It was a female Shoebill, Hannington told us (the tuft of hair on the back of the head indicates this). She was hunting for mudfish which hide among the waterlogged plants. What surprised me most was the size- a turkey-sized body with a head the size (and not far off the shape) of a rugby ball. She was stalking through, watching for fish, the very picture of a predator.

Suddenly she caught one, and Hannington explained the ritual. The shoebill, on catching a fish, will flap its wings before tipping its vast bill skywards and gobbling the unfortunate thing whole. Then it takes a swill of water to clean its beak and spits, takes another swill and then continues on its prowl. Around midday, appetite satisfied, it takes to the air and flies high for the afternoon before returning to its swamp in the evening.

Debbie brings out the big guns

I’m pleased to say my students seemed to enjoy it as much as me, and I’m waiting to see the pictures.


By this point a second tour boat, seeing us deep in the reeds and guessing we had found our quarry, joined us. Mrs Shoebill was walking away slowly, hunting as she went, and so we decided to make a move too.

Debbie and Vicky

If you’re based in Kampala and need a good day trip, this is the best thing I’ve done in ages and I’d recommend it highly. To reach Mambamba you drive as far as Mpigi on the Masaka road and take the left turn onto murram, following this road as long as it keeps going. Eventually you’ll reach the landing site, from where you can begin your adventure. Hannington the wonder-guide can be reached on 0782945185.


About Muzungu

I’m a Uganda-based freelance photographer (and occasional writer) working for a broad range of clients including NGOs, newspapers and magazines and development agencies. My work has taken me across East Africa, South America and Europe, and previous clients include USAID, the World Bank and the East African. I also work on personal documentary projects in my spare time. If you’d like to hire me or to know more, please feel free to get in touch.
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One Response to On The Trail Of The One-In-A-Million Bird

  1. meniez says:

    This i like , thanks for sharing and posting. About the Shoe bill, you are very right, rare bird. It blinks after almost several minutes. I saw it 13 years ago in entebbe

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