When to go
There are many reasons to come to Bangweulu – only one of which is the birding. So choose your season carefully…
January and February are the heart of the rainy season, when the waters are rising. It's the worst time of year for the small, biting lechwe flies and other insects, so insect repellent is vital. Arriving with a head-net, covering your face and neck below your hat, would not be going too far.
This is a great time for birding, as many of the residents will be in breeding plumage, and there will be lots of migrants around – although shoebills usually only arrive at the end of February. The lechwe are in the swamps at this time, whilst other mammals have retreated to the woodlands on the margins of the water.
Water levels peak in March, though the rains draw to a close only around April. From April to May the water levels start slowly to recede and travelling begins to get easier by the end of May. This is the best time to go for shoebills, which are often seen within sight of Shoebill Camp, along with countless other wading and water-loving species. Like many of these birds, visitors to Bangweulu will often spend a lot of time wading if they're keen to see shoebills at close range!
Towards the end of this period and into June and July, the waters pull back from the flat, seasonally flooded plains around the wetlands, exposing large areas of fertile, open grasslands – like the Chimbwi Plain. These attract huge herds of black lechwe along with tsessebe and other herbivores from the woodland margins. It's a great time for game drives, with night drives often yielding genets, side-striped jackals, civets and various mongooses. In the wetlands, the water has receded further and the shoebills have moved closer to the lake – so seeing them involves longer mokoro journeys from Shoebill Camp. That said, in early June I managed half a dozen sightings in one long day – and even later in July you are still almost guaranteed to see a shoebill if you apply enough effort. Though days are warm, the nights are very cold – with temperatures dropping to almost freezing.
In August and September the floodplains and outer reaches of the wetlands become even drier; Shoebill Camp is no longer an island, and most wildlife viewing is done on foot or by 4WD. The shoebills have retreated deep into the permanent swamps, and it takes a lot of determination (and a mini-expedition) to get close to them. The Lukulu River is the focus of much wildlife, whilst concentrations of storks and other birds form 'fishing parties' in the remnants of drying pools where fish and snails are stranded.
By October the land is parched and dusty everywhere except the deep in the heart of the wetlands, far from Shoebill Camp. In November and December the first rains bring some relief, as well as a flush of new grass on the plains, which attracts massive herds of black lechwe back from the wetlands, and tsessebe in more moderate numbers from the woodlands.