We barreled down a red dirt road in the western countryside of Entebbe. In Uganda, the roadside was an active area where women balanced baskets on the crowns of their head wearing vibrantly patterned wraps. I closed my eyes, jostled, with each large bump, trying not to miss any of the rural farming sights, where middle aged children went to fetch water in the typical yellow jugs which seemed more fitting to hold gasoline than water. Children as young as three held hoes to help in the family gardens. The termination of the road led to a cove where a group of men gathered around empty boats. They’d been out of work for ten months due to the global pandemic. Their jeans were rolled at the knee as they stood in the red sticky mud. I lost myself under a tree of weaverbirds, whose loud chatter added to the chaos. The females pushed nests, presented and built by the males, out of the tree. The ground was littered with them. Golddiggers. The tree held political boards tied with rope showcasing voting options in the upcoming tense election. Uganda’s gem, the immense Lake Victoria, is known as a birding haven for rare species. Other countries can’t match the variety or number of endemic birds, existing only in this location. A birder’s paradise.
We hired a young man who led us to a long canoe. Everyone offered their wrist to help us balance as we loaded. I masked my thoughts of uncertainty as someone even offered to take my camera bag, which little did they know, held two or three thousand dollars worth of camera equipment that was CRUTIAL to my wildlife trip in Africa. As I thought of what might become sunken gear at the bottom of the lake, I handed over the bag to a villager as I struggled to keep my balance to get onto the boat. I never let anyone hold my camera bag. Trust, I told myself. I was trusting my life to these men in this rickety canoe. Upon further observation I noticed the boat held water at the bottom. I took the generously offered yet ridiculously looking life-vest as my thoughts flashed to angry hippos, crocodiles, and snakes that l knew might occupy this foreign land. Trust, I told myself again. I took my camera bag back with a shy smile and stabled it beneath my feet. We Mzungus (or endearingly labeled whities in the local language/ plural Wazungus) were the only ones wearing life vests.
As the boat left the shore, I turned behind me and noticed our point of embarkation getting smaller and smaller behind us. I lost myself in the back waterways and canals. I observed the soft texture of papyrus that fanned overhead like natural curtains, masking the adventure that loomed around every bend. Villagers used these waterways as taxi routes from their island homes to the mainland. Their boats held motorcycles and live chickens. I waved and smiled, met with bewildered looks that usually erupted into surprised friendly smile-backs and laughs. I readied my camera with a footlong Sigma wildlife lens and delighted myself at each floating colony of waterlily. Admiring the flowers intently, earned me my African name, when one of the Ugandans noticed my liking and called me Miss Water Lily the rest of the afternoon. He picked one of the long stemmed flowers from the lake bottom and presented it to me as a gift.
The scenery was spectacular, holding strange water birds in every direction. Hills rose in the far distance. Lake Victoria was the lifeblood of the region. Villagers relied on the invasive tilapia that the British introduced here for what little amount of current meat sustenance was available in the country. The hippos and crocodiles of the region had long been eliminated due to human presence. And I was here to photograph a few of the last remaining shoebill storks.
The rare and endangered shoebills stood like statues, rarely moving unless disturbed. They could reach up to five feet in height and have up to an eight foot wingspan. The motorboat captain keenly knew their favorite territory and how to sneak up on them as they hunted the banks of the marsh for lungfish. The birds pierced us with green eyes as we approached their isolated hunting ponds masked by draping ferns. We pulled back vegetation for a peek. The motorboat captain and my two young local Ugandan guides whispered facts about the shoebill that left me bewildered.
I’d only Googled the shoebill once before the adventure. So when we rounded a corner to find one standing without blinking it looked unrealistic . . . some might say, even prehistoric. To me, it looked like a pterodactyl. I kept expecting some sign of life. A breath, a blink, a wing-flap, but the bird just glared at us, then to the water beneath it.
This was my first bird photography hunt. Never before had I considered myself a “birder”. Instantly after I had photographed three different shoebills, my eyes were attracted to other birds of the swamp that had previously gone unnoticed: a blue breasted bee eater, intermediate egrets, purple herring, lapwing, and “walk on water Jesus birds”. I delighted at the tiny Kingfisher, which despite its royal name, was only as long as a small hand. They left their twigs to flutter weightlessly above the surface tension, looking for tiny fish, then fell weightlessly to dip into an attack. These close observations left a deeper impression of nature in my mind as I simultaneously mentally addressed the real threat that the endangered shoebill, and many other of these fabulous birds, like their hippo and crocodilian friends risked at the hands of human interference.