Shoebill Sighting in Murchison Falls National Park.

Shoebill Sighting in Murchison Falls National Park.

February 20, 2024
News Journeys Uganda

Shoebill sighting in Murchison Falls National Park: Murchison Falls National Park is located northwest of the Ugandan capital Kampala, approximately 305 km along the Kampala-Masindi highway. Tracking the gigantic Shoebill stork in Murchison Falls National Park is an incredible and exciting birding experience, especially for avid birders around the world, as it is one of the top destinations to track and observe the outrageously prehistoric and beautiful Shoebill stork. Early in the morning or in the evening on a guided boat trip along the Nile delta region, you are guaranteed to spot the park’s sought-after bird with its unique and distinctive features.

Where does the shoebill name originate from?

The Shoebill stork, also known as the whale-billed stork or whale-headed stork, is a large wading bird with a unique appearance that resembles that of a dinosaur. The name Shoebill stork comes from its massive shoe-shaped beak. The bird has a robust build and its plumage is mainly dark grey, blue-gray, and slate, with a white belly and elongated breast feathers with dark shafts. On the back of its neck, it has a small, bristly crest and piercing yellowish or grayish-white eyes. The bird has exceptionally large feet, and its dark legs are quite long, with a tarsus length of 21.7 to 25.5cm.

What kind of traits does a Shoebill Stork possess?

Shoebill storks are friendly birds that breed independently and defend their nests from predators and competitors. They inhabit territories that span around 3 square kilometres.

A Shoebill stork is flying in Murchison Falls National Park.

Can the shoebill stork fly?

The shoebill stork cannot fly long distances due to its enormous size of about 4 to 7 kgs, with a flight distance of only 100 to 500 metres. Their flapping speed is around 150 beats per minute, and their neck retracts when flying. Long flights are rare, and only a few flights beyond their minimum foraging distance of 20 metres have been recorded, Many times, when disturbed, they soar into the clouds, as seen over the Mabamba Swamp

Facts about shoebill storks:

Originally, it was believed that the Shoebill belonged to the stork family, but then researchers discovered something else. After several DNA experiments, they determined that the bird belonged to the Pelecaniformes and Balaenicipitidae families.  Herons and Pelicans also belong to this group, with similar genetic makeup as evidenced by the following shoebill stork facts:

They have a kill bill.

Their huge facial structure can be 9 inches long and 10 inches wide, making them seem ridiculous to many people. This powerful beak is a tool used to catch huge fish by piercing them with a sharp hook at the end and beheading them with a razor-sharp edge before swallowing them.

Their identity is hard to define or pin down.

Their beaks have been a contentious issue among many researchers on how to classify the beaks of these strange birds. Recent research from their DNA shows that the shoebill stork is closer relative to pelican birds than to storks.

Their eating habits differ from those of other birds.

They always feed on fish, particularly swamp-dwelling lungfish of any size, young crocodiles, catfish, eels, water snakes, and others.

Their intense gaze could make you feel intimidated.

Shoebills are known for standing still with patience while staring at water in search of food, perhaps because of their foraging habits. Their golden, green, or blue eyes rarely blink, and the intensity is unsettling, this is commonly referred to as “the look of death.”. This long attention span means the bird can catch the best, most sophisticated prey when it appears.

They are larger than they appear.

Many people see it as strange to learn that the front of the shoe can reach up to 1.5 m high, where the bird is an inch smaller than the average human. Surprisingly, it has a massive wingspan of over 8 feet and a huge shoe-like beak. However, they are not very heavy, weighing around 16 pounds (4–7 kg). They can fly by flapping their large wings, which are not exceeding 500 metres high.

Their prey never notices them coming

Shoebills wait patiently by the water, then suddenly pounce forward to catch fish with great accuracy and power. This quick move is called “a collapse,” and it can be so forceful that the bird’s beak can break but the thick skull acts as a shock absorber to protect it from injury.

They go by many names.

The Shoebill bird is named after its distinctive bill shape, which is reminiscent of a Dutch clog shoe. However, the taxonomists who named the species also believed that the shape of its bill resembles the head of a baleen whale, and thus called it “Balaeniceps rex,” meaning “whale-head king.” This species of bird is also informally referred to as the boat bill, the big bird, and the swamp king.

Best time to go shoebill tracking in Murchison Falls National Park.

Bird watching at Murchison Falls is excellent all year round, but the best time for shoebill stork tracking is January to March. However, it is the low season for tourists visiting Uganda, but it is the best time for bird watching in Uganda. Here,  the water level is low, and the Shoebill Stork will be foraging on the Albert Delta fringes. This is considered to be the breeding season when birds are more active, including the migratory birds that are present from November to April. But from our kin guides who have been doing this over time, like Paul Tamwenya, he says the bird breeds almost all year round, as young Shoebills have been sighted in the months of June, July, and February, and they are very secretive breeders.

The lowest rainfall is from December to February, the highest from April to May, and from September to November. Heavy rains can cause delays and shorter birding times due to impassable roads and slippery paths.

What to carry on a shoebill stork tracking in Murchison Falls National Park.

Shoebill stork sightings in Murchison Falls National Park are an amazing experience. For one to enjoy a boat safari on the Nile into the delta area in search of the pre-historic shoebill stork, essential items should be prepared, such as insect repellent, a long-sleeved shirt, a pair of trousers, a camera, a telescope, binoculars, drinking water, waterproof jackets, hiking boots, sunscreen, a large brimmed hat, a notebook, and a pen, among others.

Other top Shoebill stork spots in Uganda.

In Uganda, there are approximately 1000 shoebill storks that can easily be tracked on a bird-watching safari. While on safari in Uganda, there are many famous bird-watching spots where you can easily spot the sought-after shoebill stork. Popular locations include Murchison Falls National Park along the banks of the Nile Delta. Other places where the shoebill stork can be spotted include; Mabamba wetland in Entebbe, Queen Elizabeth National Park in the Lake Edward flats in Ishasha sector and Lake George areas, Rugogo wetlands in the Ziwa Rhino sanctuary, Lake Mburo National Park, Semliki National Park close to the Lake Albert area, Lake Bisina and Opeta, the Awoja bridge towards Soroti town, wetlands towards the Kibimba Rise scheme, Nabajjuzi wetlands along Masaka road and Nakasanke plus a few other mashes surrounding Lake Victoria.

The Abyssinian Ground Hornbill waddles in the savannah grasslands of Murchison Falls National Park.

Other bird species are found in Murchison Falls National Park.

As you wander the swamps and riverine forests of Victoria Nile and the Albert Delta region in search of this prized Shoebill stork, you are assured of seeing other species of birds, including the riverine birds, savannah birds, migratory birds, water birds such as Senegal Thick-knee, Black-headed lapwing, African Darter, Giant Kingfisher, Pel’s Fishing Owl. the rare Southern Carmine Bee-eater, Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Osprey, Pied and Malachite Kingfisher, Grey-crowned Crane, Saddle-billed, Open-billed, and Marabou stork, among others.

Other tourist attractions in Murchison Falls National Park.

Bird watching at Murchison Falls is considered the most entertaining activity on a Uganda safari, with over 451 species of birds. In addition, the park is also known for other wonderful attractions such as wildlife safaris, nature walks, cultural tours, boat cruises, and hiking at the top of the falls, where roaring water flows through a 7-metre gap and cascades to a depth of 45 metres, discharging approximately 300 cubic metres per second into the Victoria Nile, which lies at the head of the delta from which Lake Albert arises.

In addition to the shoebill stork, which is a popular birding attraction in Murchison Falls National Park, there are numerous other breathtaking activities that visitors can engage in, such as wildlife safaris, boat cruises, cultural tours, and nature walks. Uganda boasts several other tourist destinations with equally amazing and unique activities that guarantee unforgettable experiences, including Queen Elizabeth National Park, Kibale National Park, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and many others.

For detailed itineraries of these attractions, please contact us at Journeys Uganda via email.