- 1 species in subSaharan Africa
- DR personal total: 1 species (100%), 1 photo'd
late great Arnold Small was an inveterate world birder. He was helping
to popularize "birding planet Earth" (as he termed it) back in 1976 —
when he wrote about seeing his 4000th world bird — at the time I was
just getting started as a birdwatcher in California. Even in that
article (Small 1976), he emphasized his delight in new families of
birds because they were so unique and different. And the monotypic bird
family that he loved the most — enough to bear its name on his
California license plate — was the strange, unworldly Shoebill (left)
of central Africa. Its full scientific name is Balaeniceps rex;
on Arnold's license plate this was shortened to "B REX." Arnold is no
longer with us, but seeing B REX has always been an important goal for
The Shoebill, called "Whale-headed Stork" in some
older literature, is a unique bird of uncertain affinities. As the old
name suggests, it was once thought to be a relative of storks but its
habit of flying with neck retracted and powder-down patches suggested
an affinity with herons. But skeletal and biochemical evidence now show
it is more closely related to pelicans (Sibley & Ahlquist 1990,
Ericson et al. 2006). Some (e.g., Sibley & Monroe 1990) reduced it
to a subfamily of the Pelecanidae, but their divergence was far back in
antiquity. I follow the Elliott (2002) and most recent authorities in
retaining it as a unique monotypic family.
Shoebill lives only in extensive papyrus swamps in the interior of
central Africa, occurring locally from s. Sudan to n. Zambia. Perhaps
it is most common in inaccessible wetlands of eastern Tanzania, but few
of its remote habitats can be reached without difficulty. The only
place it can be found with relative ease is Uganda. The Mbamba swamp on
Lake Victoria holds several pairs just a half-hour from the
international airport at Entebbe, and additional birds are strung out
along the Victoria Nile at Murchison Falls Nat'l Park — in northern
Uganda — where I took these photos. Habitat and Shoebills also occur in
Queen Elizabeth II Nat'l Park. One can drive to all these sites, but
often a boat is necessary to find the bird itself. I was fortunate to
be with Hassan Mutebi (reachable via his "Access Uganda Tours"
web site) who knew a spot on the Nile that we could drive to in a
4-wheel drive jeep, and thus approach reasonably close. Even then we
had to be lucky to have it fly to a spot I could snap photos; when
first discovered (photo below) it was a rather small dot in a rather
large papyrus swamp.
wonderful close-up (left, a great shot by Karen Shrader) shows the
incredibly broad "shoe" bill for which the Shoebill is named. The bill
has a major hook at the tip to help the bird deal with its primary prey
— lungfish. Although the Shoebill looks sluggish, and can stand
motionless for long periods as it waits for lungfish, it does have
powerful wings. It regularly soars on thermals as do pelicans and
storks. Vagrant Shoebills have appeared in many small swamps throughout
Uganda, and there were records of single birds in wetlands in Kenya
game reserves (Mara, Amboseli) in the 1990s. Such vagrants have
sometimes stayed for a month or two, delighting tourists.
live primarily in pairs, although groups may sometimes gather at
favored feeding spots. These favorite sites change over time. There was
a time, for example, when Shoebills could be expected on the boat ride
up the Nile to Murchison Falls itself. When I was there in July 2002,
however, we saw none from that boat although other groups had seen a
couple by chartering a boat to go downstream from the Paraa Lodge
vicinity. We were able to drive to a site at the delta where the
Victoria Nile meets the Albert Nile.
has begun to appreciate its Shoebill, and the attraction it has for
world birders. Injured birds are now housed at the Kampala Zoo, some of
which the government had confiscated from trappers and fisherman.
Postcards featuring the Shoebill are now readily available, but our
efforts to find a small carved Shoebill were not successful. The Gray
Crowned-Crane Balearica regulorum is the national bird of Uganda, but locals are beginning to learn that, for many, the Shoebill is even more exciting.
Photos: The first two photos of Shoebill Balaeniceps rex
were from the Victoria Nile in Murchison Falls Nat'l Park, Uganda, on
28 July 2002. Karen Shrader took her close-up from 10 feet away, in the
rain, Mbamba swamp on Lake Victoria, Uganda,in April 2010. Photos © Don Roberson and © Karen Shrader, used with permission, all rights reserved.
Bibliographic note: There is no "family book" per se, but a fine introduction to this family, with some fine photos, is in Elliott (1992).
A.. 1992. Family Balaenicipitidae (Shoebill) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott,
A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol.
1. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
Ericson, P.G.P., C.L.
Anderson, T. Britton, A. Elzanowski, U. S. Johansson, M. Kallersjo,
J.I. Ohlson, T.J. Parsons, D. Zuccon, and G. Mayr. 2006.
Diversification of Neoaves: Integration of molecular sequence data and
fossils. Biol. Lett. 2: 543-547.
Sibley, C. G., and
J. E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in
Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.
Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.
Small, A. 1976. The White-headed Piping-Guan or how I found my 4,000th life bird in Surinam. Birding 8: 145-148.