Shoebill …

Many years ago I went to a farewell dinner for a surgeon. Naturally he gave a speech. He was a surgeon who was retiring but he was no retiring surgeon. In the space of a few minutes he had mortally offended every catholic in the place and alienated every woman. Hospital managers, health insurance funds, nursing staff all got a serve. If he ever regretted his retirement there was little chance that he would be welcome back.

But his ultimate scorn was for birdwatchers. You could safely assume he would not be spending the twilight of his days bird watching.

I can understand that. Bird watchers are weird. They are socially awkward and compare sizes … of lists that is. Now, of course, this is a bird watcher’s blog but it’s not a birdwatching blog, if it were it would consist of endless lists and no sane person would read it. You can find such blogs.

Lists, though, are remarkably democratic. A House Sparrow, a feral pigeon and the rarest bird in the world all contribute just one to the list. But are they really all equal? Would a birder ever send a photo of some trash bird to a birding friend and say “Look what I just added to my life list”?

On the other hand if it were rare, limited in range, five feet tall and known to include crocodiles in its diet …

It was about an hour and a half’s drive from Entebbe to the papyrus swamp at Mabamba Bay. We had been advised that our chance of seeing Shoebill was about 70%. To improve our odds we would go twice.

Our transport awaited …

We sent a sharp pair of eyes up into the crow’s nest …

And after a couple of hours we found our quarry …

Balaeniceps rex

King of the whale heads. Just standing there looking down at us. Which is what they do for long periods, waiting for some unsuspecting lung fish or baby crocodile to swim within reach, or even a duck. Then it’s all action, it lunges into the water, engulfs a bill full, ejects everything that it’s not interested in swallowing before decapitating anything that it is interested in swallowing and then swallowing it. Or so they say, just finding one is hard enough, it would be a rare privilege to witness what The Handbook of the Birds of the World calls its “violent method of fishing”.

Where the Shoebill fits in the evolutionary bush is uncertain. It was once lumped with the storks, it shares some characteristics with the herons but it is more likely, though, that its nearest relatives are the pelicans. For the moment it is a single species in a unique genus in its very own family, the Balaenicipitidae.

Heads up, camera ready …

It strides to the water’s edge …

and plunges, eyes protected by a nictitating membrane …

Up it comes, spilling water. Then discards vegetation until after a few minutes working on the contents of its bill it discards everything left in its mouth. It seems to have been unsuccessful and flies off to find a better spot …

I wasted no time sending the photos to my birding friends around the world. They gnashed their teeth and howled in pain.

One thought on “Shoebill …

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