Bird watching safaris in Africa
Step into a safari vehicle and you’ll likely spot a couple of well-thumbed field guides on the dashboard. I’d wager that it’s the feathered, rather than animal variety, which will be the thicker. With an extraordinarily broad range of climate and habitat, sub-Saharan Africa holds a mind-boggling array of country-specific endemic and migrant bird species. Happily, you don’t need to be an experienced bird watcher to enjoy this glorious profusion of aerial life – just make sure you’ve a good pair of binoculars at hand.
All of us in the Aardvark Safaris team have discovered the excitement of birding. Whether it is sighting an eagle with a two-metre wingspan or settling into a hide to watch brilliantly coloured carmine bee eaters flit around their riverbank nesting holes, there are things to spot on safari you won’t see in many other places in the world.
Here are some of our birding highlights:
Richard – Kingfishers are among my favourite birds and although I’ve worked on rivers on and off over the years, I’ve seen few outside Africa. To see hundreds of pied kingfishers at what felt like five metre intervals on the Kazinga Channel in Uganda was particularly memorable. A mangrove kingfisher close to the South African coastline and Sodwana Bay was another prized sighting.
Sometimes birding isn’t just learning about birds. I remember standing with John Coppinger near his Tafika camp in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park and hearing the word crepuscular for the first time. John was telling us about bat hawks and how they were crepuscular (dawn and dusk) hunters. They needed to hunt on the margins of the daylight as the bats don’t fly during the day and the hawks can’t see at night. On safari and learning new words!
Lucinda – While working in Zambia I was fortunate to spend time in Liuwa Plains National Park – a vast area with few visitors, the second largest wildebeest migration in Africa, great predator action and fabulous birding. One evening, Robin Pope (founder of Robin Pope Safaris) asked me to set up sundowners by a lagoon for the guests. With a lagoon behind us and a water channel to the side, we enjoyed our drinks looking towards the sunset. As the sun dipped the pink sky turned dark with hundreds of pelicans flying overhead, in perfect formation, towards their night-time roost. Wave after wave flew in until we estimated nearly 1,000 had arrived. Whilst all of this was going on, we had half a dozen African skimmers cruising the water channel beside us. A truly memorable evening.
All in all, I saw more birds than I thought possible in Liuwa. The wattled cranes were beautiful and the crowned cranes always stunning, but there were also plenty of herons, egrets, storks, whistling ducks, terns, pratincoles, sand grouse even the odd secretary bird among my sightings. I was lucky enough to see white breasted bustard and the Dennam’s bustard. We saw a tawny eagle in the dawn light hiding a kill in a tree, and then there was the ubiquitous call of the fish eagle – something that for me is one of the sounds of Africa.
Jo – A mesmerising 20 minutes watching a pied kingfisher hover over the crystal clear waters of the Okavango Delta, every so often plunging in without so much as a splash, eventually flying away with its prey, is close to the top of my list. I don’t think I realised how lucky I was to see a Pel’s fishing owl on my first night ever in Africa while staying at Time + Tide Nsolo. Then there are the hideous marabu storks on the Kazinga Channel in Uganda – first time I saw them I was fascinated. It’s no wonder they are one of Africa’s ‘ugly 5’.
Alice – My top bird sighting was in Hwange while watching some elephants enjoying a bath. A Marshall eagle swooped on a guinea fowl just a metre from the car and shredded it there and then. To see the largest bird of prey in Africa so close was amazing. I’ve spotted several shoebills, a comical-looking creature seemingly left over from the dinosaur era, a few times. Usually seen in swampy areas in Zambia, Uganda and Rwanda, my best sighting was on some rubbish outside Entebbe …. a good reminder that wildlife doesn’t always stick to predicable patterns.
For sheer excess, Bird Island in the Seychelles goes on my list. From May to October, part of the island is home to millions of nesting sooty terns. It’s noisy (ear plugs essential for a good night’s sleep) but quite a spectacle. (Since Alice visited, the island is now run as a self-catering property, but it’s too good a spot not to mention on a bird blog!) In East Africa, the lakes of the Great Rift Valley provide some superb birding, with flamingos the stars of the show. Sitting by lakes Magadi and Natron and watching the profusion of pink is a lasting memory.
Francis – I’ve got too many….But for starters, the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia, was incredible. My first Pel’s fishing owl for one thing, loads of kingfishers, bee eaters, love birds, fish eagles, parrots, starlings, weavers, finches. Seeing the magnificently colourful Narina trogon and thousands of flamingos at Lake Bogoria in Kenya are also among my highlights. Although they’re plentiful, I enjoy seeing and hearing sand grouse coming to water – there’s something soothing about their ever-presence in Africa’s colourful cast of characters. I’ve enjoyed watching ostrich in Namibia and the Makgadikgadi Pans around Jack’s Camp have provided some superb sightings of painted snipe and loads of other waders.
As with land-based wildlife, birding is good throughout Africa, but there are some areas known for particular highlights – if you would like to include anything specific into your safari itinerary please let us know and one of our experts will be able to advise you.
We would be delighted to help you plan a bird watching safari in Africa. Our team of experts has travelled widely throughout Africa and the Indian Ocean and can offer expert advice on every type of safari from family and beach holidays to riding and primate safaris. Do get in touch – chatting to people by phone or email is what we do best. We listen, we explain, we answer all sorts of questions even those you didn’t know to ask, and finally we make suggestions. If this is your first time to Africa or your twenty first, we have a team standing by to help make the planning easy and the journey the best ever. Please get in touch whatever stage you’re at.