Off to Mabamba for the Shoebill Stork, We Go

No sooner had the car engine started at the Uganda museum on November 29 than Ronald Sekiziyivu’s voice came through: “If you see a bird, shout it out so we can record it.”

Two first-time birders in the minibus exchanged puzzled looks beyond the ordinary chicken and duck – oh, and the kalooli (marabou stork although the first two do not count as birds in birding) – they were not sure they could identify any bird even if it hit them smack in the head, one of them noted smugly.

Sekiziyivu, a young bird guide who has been training for the last two years, had set the discussion as the Coaster, almost full to capacity, set off for a birding expedition in Mabamba bay, Mpigi. When you tell a Ugandan you are going birding, many will call you “a Mzungu wannabe”. Ugandans see and hear birds everyday why would anyone go out of their way to find them?

Few Ugandans are aware that birding is special and a world-acclaimed hobby cherished by millions, and that there is no better birding home than Uganda, which at the size of the UK, boasts of at least 1,057 bird species that is 11 per cent of the globe’s total, and 50 per cent of Africa’s.

Uganda is regarded as Africa’s best destination for birders and other nature enthusiasts, with the African Bird Club ranking Uganda as home to two of the top 10 birding sites on the continent – Bwindi Impenetrable Forest national park being at number one and Murchison Falls national park in ninth position.

Nature Uganda in 2003 started the concept of the Big Birding Week, which climaxes into the Big Birding Day. So, every year, teams are dispatched to different parts of the country to compete in recording the highest number of birds.

The team that finds most species in the selected habitat win trophies from Uganda Tourism Board and Nature Uganda that had provided a list of birds and trained guides.

The competition

This year, the competition sucked in The Observer, with photographer Edward Echwalu, web administrator Frank Kisakye, Society editor Carolyne Nakazibwe, Mars magazine editor Firoz Khan and Yours Truly tagging along to Mabamba. Apart from me, the rest had never been on a birding expedition before and were excited at what lay ahead.

Nakazibwe had even dug up a pair of antique binoculars, possibly from the 1960s, that some on the bus were more engrossed with than the birds species being yelled out from the confines of the bus.

The counting started right away and our first sighting of the day was at Mulago.

We strained to see, but I could not see the bird. The situation was worsened by the fact that many of us did not have binoculars – save for when it came to the kalooli. But birding is not only done with the eyes you can bird with your ears by identifying a bird’s call and telling what specie it is. For the Nature Uganda and other birding experts on board, it was amazing how easily they identified birds by their scientific names, without the bus stopping.

The Northern Bypass had several species including the cattle egret (enyange). Sekiziyivu was kind enough to offer the Luganda name for each bird, helping first-timers along.

“There is the crested crane,” another guest pointed to the country’s national bird, which was standing in Lubigi swamp.

“It is not called the crested crane. It is the grey-crown crane (ngaali),” Sekiziyivu said.

“So, who named it the crested crane?” someone asked.

“Maybe someone famous in the country,” he responded. “Crested crane is a Ugandan thing.”

As the debate continued about Ugandan stereotypes, a common bulbul (ssossolye) flew into our line of sight. For some reason, the local song, Sossolye Bw’atafa Atuuka Ku Lyengedde, played in my head. Birds inspire everyone, from singers to architects in fact, with us on the team was a four-year-old boy whose father, a bird guide, named him Dohert, after the bird Dohert’s Bush-Shrike.

Rosemary Komutagi, the acting Commissioner Tourism Development, ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, said birds are inspiring fashion designers. She recently met a Chinese photographer who had been assigned to camp in Bwindi and take photographs for a fashion company that would copy their colours and designs.

By the time we got to Mabamba, located about 48km from Kampala, we had recorded 40 species, among them a hammerkop (naddibanga), which builds huge, beautiful nests, the eastern grey plantain eater (ekookootezi), and long-crested eagle. Our list would have been even richer but as Sekiziyivu explained: “With this [cloudy] weather, the birds aren’t active because the sun is not out. When the sun is up, the birds are active looking for insects.”

Skies open up

No sooner had we disembarked at Mabamba than the skies opened up, raining heavily that we ended up taking shelter in an empty, grass-thatched hut – also the only sign of hospitality – put up by the community, under Mabamba Wetland Eco-Tourism Association (MWETA).

The hut with a leaking roof speaks volumes about how this country does not take tourism seriously. Mabamba is a Ramsar site sought after by birders because of the rare shoebill stork (bbulwe), but there we were, standing in a leaking hut shivering in the cold, with not even a cup of black coffee in sight, let alone chairs.

Charles Saabwe, a member of MWETA, says they get between 20-25 tourists a day during peak season. Another guide said when a tourist manages to see the shoebill during an expedition, a fat tip later is guaranteed, because the bird is considered special.

However, even with such numbers, Mabamba depends on small, engine-powered rudimentary canoes for the birding expeditions. As we waited for the rain to let up, a group of Europeans that had arrived earlier with their children disembarked from one of the canoes, dripping. There was no place to change from, no place to warm up.

And Mabamba is a beautiful, scenic, unpolluted place, with spectacular views of the airport and State House on the other side of the lake. If only there was an eco-lodge from where someone could enjoy it all!

When the rain reduced to a drizzle, we got into three canoes and disappeared into the extensive swamp, with channels cut into the floating vegetation for the boats to squeeze through. A fourth group went trekking. The good Lord has a sense of humour, for just then, it began to pour heavily. In a swamp with narrow channels, retreat is not an option.

Although it was really hard to spot any birds in the downpour, we hung in there, enjoying the weaverbird nests, beautiful purple swamp lilies and the pitter-patter of the rain on us.

A lot had been said about this shoebill stork, which even draws tourists from other continents. No one wanted to leave without seeing the bird with a unique, shoe-like bill. Looking for a shoebill here feels like looking for the cheetah in Kidepo Valley national park.

As we strained through the papyrus, spotting a few other birds such as the kingfisher, something huge flew over the swamp in the distance. Our guide, now assisted by David Katuma, a Mabamba site guide, were able to identify it as a shoebill.

Two canoes took off in its direction and were able to catch up with it.

“At least I saw the shoebill. Drenched to the bone, we just sat there and looked at the bird, as it stared back at us. It is a beautiful creature in a bird way, but I couldn’t understand why we just sat there in the rain. Oh, we were birding,” Nakazibwe, who was in one of two canoes, later said.

My canoe took a different channel and we ended up in the open waters of lake Victoria. The rain had relented a little. Far into a large space of water, the birds here seem accustomed to people you can get a closer look, as long as the boat’s engine is silent.

Near the shores, a malachite kingfisher, one of the most beautiful small birds, monitored us while darting from branch to branch.

“It’s a common bird,” Sekiziyivu said, “but it’s so richly coloured.”

“The rain was so worth it,” Khan, who has since taken keen interest in birds, later said. “I loved the African fish eagle the most, because I watch it grabbing fish in TV documentaries a lot. Seeing it in action in the wild was really special.”

Migratory birds

On the other side, a long-tailed cormorant was also swimming in the water. In the air were white-winged terns, also known as white-winged black terns, which are migratory birds from Europe that arrive in August, escaping the winter cold.

“They are around until May before commuting back to the north,” Sekiziyivu said.

When we finally made it ashore almost three hours later, there were a couple of birding converts on board. The same could not be said of those first-time birders who had made it back to land earlier.

Kisakye, Nakazibwe and Echwalu were found huddled around a shopkeeper’s charcoal stove, trying to get some warmth, with their discussion not on the birds but, rather, about the islands of Busi and Jenga, which the shopkeeper said were the epitome of the Ugandan party life. As we waited to board the bus, a truck full of disco machines and plastic chairs pulled up to board a rudimentary ferry at Mabamba, to cross to Busi.

“Every singer worth their name in this country has performed on that island, crossing from here. Abaana balya kaasi eyo! (They enjoy their money). They have better, fancy beaches there,” the shopkeeper said.

As we made the trip back to Kampala, we compared notes from the different boats and trekkers. We had recorded 105 birds, which was way below what we had anticipated, because the bay has at least 215 bird species. Other groups had gone to Mabira forest and Entebbe, but we were sure with the weather, they were not faring any better, either.

Well, there is always a next time, seasoned birders reasoned. Well, there is always Busi to discover, the few still unenthusiastic new birders figured.

About Mabamba

Mabamba Bay covers 16,500 ha of Lake Victoria’s shores. Mabamba Bay forms part of Waiga bay south-west of Nakiwogo bay, west of Entebbe International Airport.

How to get there

Situated in Wakiso and Mpigi districts in the sub-counties of Kasanje and Kamengo, Mabamba swamp can be reached either from Entebbe or Kampala. Entebbe route is the direct one. On Entebbe – Kampala highway at Kisubi, take a left turn to the road to Nakawuka, then again take a left turn to Kasanje. Turn left at the Kasanje round about and drive for 10km.

Another route from Kampala is to follow Masaka road (30km) before Mpigi town. Take a left turn at the road to Buyege. Drive 22km through Kasanje to Mabamba Bay.

Unique experiences

– Bird watching is not only on the lake but also on a well-established path through the raised end of the wetland boundary, allowing one to enjoy the panorama and the vast birds species.

– One can enjoy a slow boat ride and be involved in interesting activities such as traditional rod and hook fishing and shoebill trekking. The site boasts of the highest records of the shoebills in one day within a small land size.

-T he crocodile farm at Buwama could be good stopover later. Also, enjoy the cultures and hospitality of the people. The Buganda history of 300 years can be told in one trip through interesting village walks.

Source : The Observer

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