Ask a first-time birder to Africa what tops their fantasy feathers list, and chances are this outlandish shoebill will be somewhere up there. The appeal lies both in its bizarre appearance – think outsized heron with a Dutch clog stuck on its face – and its reclusive nature: only those travellers prepared to brave the deepest and darkest swamps need apply.
Balaeniceps rex, the bird’s scientific name, translates as ‘King whale-head’. With a noggin like that, a height of 1.4 metres and a wingspan wider than a sofa, you might expect the shoebill to be conspicuous. It was not until 1851, however, that Western scientists first laid eyes on one. And they were duly impressed: “the most extraordinary bird I have seen for many years,” said the Victorian naturalist John Gould, when a stuffed specimen first came his way.
What Gould was looking at was a tall, grey, long-legged bird that resembles a stork but, it now turns out, is more closely related to pelicans. What most impressed him, however, was that preposterous beak. Some 23cm by 10cm, it’s certainly as capacious a container as your average shoe. But it is also a lethal weapon, with slicing edges and a wicked hook that allow it to scoop, stab and crush all in one.
The shoebill’s prey ranges from fish – notably the African lungfish – to snakes, frogs, water birds and even young crocodiles. In short, anything that fits the bill. And these unfortunate victims never know what hits them: the shoebill is a master of ambush, standing statue-still in the shallows for hours then lunging forward, with impressive speed for such a massive bird, to grab its prize.
A breeding pair requires a territory of around two square kilometres in which to build their large floating nest and lay a clutch of two to three eggs. They may appear devoted parents, but life for the youngsters is brutal, with the strongest hatchling bullying its siblings until it is the only chick left standing.
Today Africa harbours an estimated 5–10,000 shoebills, scattered across freshwater swamps from northern Uganda to southern Sudan. To find one, forget the famous big-five safari haunts (there are no shoebills in Kruger, Serengeti, Okavango or South Luangwa, for example). Instead take your binoculars to Uganda’s Murchison Falls, Zambia’s Bangweulu Wetlands or one of the other few wetland hideaways that this bird calls home. And be prepared to get wet.
To get the best out of your wildlife or safari experience, Travel Africa encourages the use of a good quality binocular. To further enhance the experience and capture great memories, take an iPhone adapter to connect your iPhone to your binocular.
This column is sponsored by Swarovski Optik, the premier range of optics for seeing wildlife in glorious close-up. To see their full range visit www.swarovskioptik.com
Mike Unwin is an award-winning travel writer and author who has an insatiable fascination with wildlife and animal behaviour.