Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Shoebills in Mpigi Marsh

We are out the door at 7:30 am Sunday, a thermos of tea, hats and sunblock in hand. We have warm shirts because the day is still cool and its looks like it is going to rain. We head south from Kampala on the main highway to Mpigi on the lookout for a sign indicating St. George's School. Schools in Uganda are better marked than cities or highways.

Traffic in Kampala, usually clogged with vehicles, is light at this hour. as we head out to see one of the remaining groups of Shoebills in Uganda. Shoebills, also known as Whale-headed storks, are found in Sudan mainly but there are two groups in Uganda, one group of seven in Mpigi Marsh and another group of about the same size in Murchison Falls.

The Shoebill looks a bit like a dinosaur would if it were a medium-sized bird. The cover of Brandt's Uganda travel book provided my first exposure to them. Since then I have taken a photo of a shoebill through the chain link fence at Entebbe Zoo so it would not appear to be in captivity. Now I am going to have the chance to see it in the wild.

We have a cell phone number for a guide called Hannington and have let him know we are on our way. Mpigi exits are spread out along the Kampala-Masaka Road for miles so we have been told to keep an eye out for the sign for St. George's School. We reach one large crossroad with numerous signs-- for St. Joseph's, St. Henry's Girls, St. Theresa and St. James, but no St. George's. We call Hannington on the cell phone. He tells us to keep going. The rain is starting to pelt down. We drive about 10 km further south. Now when we contact Hannington he tells us we have gone too far.

The rain is coming down fast and furious. Abby, our driver, is beginning to think it is not such a great day to be out in an open canoe in Mpigi Marsh. I am still hopeful as rain in Uganda usually clears up quickly bringing the sun, but I can see her point, especially given the trouble we are having locating the turnoff and Hannington.

We turn back along the highway, still no St. George's. Another U turn and just as we are about to give up in exasperation, we return to the original crossroad with multiple signs, locating Hannington in a red shirt, black pants with binoculars strung around his neck.

If our guide's name was James or Richard, we would have likely given up long ago, but the very name Hannington has us going, as we run through all we can remember about John Hannington Speke, one of the early British explorers in Uganda. At this point we are speculating that maybe Speke died going back and forth looking for the source of the Nile.

We head down a murram road, slippery from the rain, several stalled trucks skewed on the uphill slope. Hannington takes the wheel and maneuvers the vehicle around the trucks. It is at least a half hour off the main highway to the edge of the marsh, thick with papyrus, with hand-built raft in various states of disrepair littering the edge, men returning with the morning fish and hand-hewn canoes bearing motorbikes from the off shore islands. As Hannington arranges for our dugout and paddler we settle into the dugout.

The sun is coming out and beginning to dry out the area, birds are twittering, a black and white hornbill takes off over the papyrus as hand-hewn paddles.

A perfect day to be out on the marsh propelled forward with paddles shaped like heart-shaped leaves, similar in shape to those found in early drawings and photos of the Lake Victoria region. Fishermen are bringing their catch, including an eel, the preferred lunch of the shoebill. At first we don't discern between the fish and the eel so they hold it up for us to see it is more like a snake, lacks fins and has long feelers.

Two young boys are sent out to push a larger raft to the side of the narrow channel and off we go. Purple water lilies line the edges as we scoot along the water way silently, manuevering in and out. The marshy edge looks as if it goes on for miles without breaking into the open water.Not long out we come to a female shoebill standing in the marsh intently watching one spot. We sit and watch as she patiently waits, then quickly grasps an eel, bites it with the sharp end of her bill and swallows it. I can hardly see in the bright sunlight but my camera does its work and I have several lovely photos. It is a female we note from the tuft of hair at the back of her head.

Photos: Mpigi Marsh in the dugout; Shoebill on alert; Shoebill snags an eel; Shoebill waits; Pelican; African Jacana- the Jesus bird that walks on water



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