African birds are spectacular! Even the most uninterested safari goers may find themselves intrigued when they spot a brightly coloured or extravagantly plumed species, but there is so much more to learn, such as their fascinating behaviours or unique calls.
Whenever I discuss visiting a National Park or game reserve or even a RAMSAR wetland, I mention and recommend looking out for birdlife. I admit though that not everyone is interested in birds - let’s face it, most venturing to Africa on safari are seeking the ‘Big 5’ first and foremost!
However, I am certain that your guide is going to point out birds and he may get super excited about certain species if they are rare or magnificent and, whilst you may not have been a birder before, I pretty much guarantee that birds will start to become a lot more interesting to you after a while!
Africa has 2310 species of birds and just over half are endemic. Birds are also significant to African cultures and feature on the country’s flags, including the Egyptian eagle of Saladin, the crowned crane standing proudly on the Ugandan flag, the fish eagle on Zambias flag and the stone Zimbabwe bird on Zimbabwe's colourful flag.
Safari goers seem to be split into two different camps. There are those keen to expand their knowledge but don’t want to be too fanatical about every single minor LBJ (Little Brown Job), or every BBBUT (Big Brown Bird Up There) and I absolutely understand!
On the other hand, there are the serious birders. I have been on safari with some people who have ticked off every single bird they see including what sex it is / where exactly it was seen, and what it is doing! I once had two ‘avid birders’ so involved in a deep discussion about a LBJ or VDCB (Very Drab Coloured Bird) they hadn’t noticed the two leopards in the same tree and frankly were not that interested in the spotty things either!
Whichever camp you sit in, you can tailor your safari to suit your interests. If you are particularly interested in spotting birds on safari and would like to get some phenomenal images of those that you see, I wholly recommending having a private photographic guide with you, such as Albie Venter. He is a keen birder himself and will teach you how to take the best photos, getting the best out of your camera and making best use of the light etc.; this kind of guidance is invaluable with bird photography!
Here’s my top tips for how to enjoy spotting birds on your luxury safari to Africa:
Malawi is a very good destination for bird watchers as the country falls over both southern and central Africa and there are 650 species of birds including several endemic species, of which 10 are globally threatened. Uganda is another excellent bird watching destination, not only does it have the ‘Big 5’ of the animal kingdom, endangered mountain gorillas and chimpanzees, it has the highest number of recorded bird species (1066 confirmed species) including the bizarre and huge shoebill stork that was fascinatingly captured by David Attenborough's series The Story of Life.
South Africa is a ‘world in one country’ with semi deserts, a long coastline, the Drakensburg Mountains, riverine forests and bushlands – so there is a whole range of birds to be seen in different habitats.
The Liuwa Plains in Zambia are incredible for birdlife – flocks of pelicans and wattled cranes (endangered), crowned cranes, thousands of black-winged pratincole that settle around the dambos creating a black cloud as they swirl above. There is nothing so impressive as the quelea in Zakouma National Park in Chad. Literally millions and millions of quelea take to the skies along with storks and cranes and plovers and just about everything else, moving in tandem in a cloud that seems to have a hive mind.
For intriguing parrots and beautiful lovebirds, I have seen grey parrots in the Republic of Congo, rose faced lovebirds in Namibia, Meyers parrot in Botswana and red bellied parrot in Ethiopia, playing and showing off bouncing on the electrical power lines! The Lilian's lovebird can be found in Malawi and Zambia. Botswana also has some beautiful herons and you can see them perched on trees and bushes alongside the waterways of the Okavango Delta.
São Tomé and Príncipe sitting off the West African coast are known as the ‘African Galapagos’ and as such are a birders paradise. Finally, Ethiopia is a best-kept secret, an incredible country with fascinating people, landscapes, history and wildlife. It is incredibly rich in bird life with 550 species and many endemics - a birders paradise.
As you start to become more aware of the various African bird species, the first thing you notice is the vibrant colours; a veritable kaleidoscope, a rainbow of feathers! Take the superb starling, or the beautiful sunbird, it’s all in the name.
There is the ‘yellow-fronted’ this and ‘red-rumped’ that and then there are those with a metal /stone themes in the name such as malachite kingfisher, sulphur-breasted bushshrike, the amethyst sunbird, the silver bird, bronze sunbird, copper sunbird and the emerald spotted wood dove bringing up the ranks.
Then you notice the variety of the sounds and chirps. The birdlife may wake you in the morning when you hear mellifluous melodies, duets between doves, the white-browed robin chat or the fork-tailed drongo that imitates other birds but also acts as a look out for some animals, giving an alarm call and then stealing their food (very clever!).
There are chirps and hoots, thrills, singing and cawing and the hooting of owls. Some birds are named for the sounds they make, such as the cisticulars - the rattling cisticola, tinkling cisticola, wailing cisticola and the churring cisticola!
Apart from just identifying the bird, the interest also lies in their behaviours. Take the marabou stork, not exactly the most beautiful of birds, indeed it looks more like a dodgy loan shark when you watch them ‘hunt down’ African bull frogs or catfish that left trapped in an evaporating muddy puddle in the dry season! It is however interesting to watch, if a little macabre.
One colourful family are the rollers which include stunningly beautiful species such as the lilac breasted roller. This one is a show-off and everyone wants to get a good picture. They are easy to spot and often seen on your game drives - after the 47th one, they are referred to as the LBR! One really should take the time to stop and watch their behaviour too. Rollers get their name from their acrobatic skills and they are great to watch as they shoot up in the air after insects or to display. As much as their plumage and flaunting are beautiful, their voice and vocal talents are guttural and croaky – I guess you can’t have it all!
The weaver birds are also fascinating, the males have a really hard time! They spend a long time building a nest, finding the right grass, weaving it into the most beautiful of homes; different weavers build different styles and shapes.
There is a great amount of effort involved by the chap – this is no ordinary house build, he is architect and builder, he is superman with feathers and a super crotchety picky wife. Palm leaves and twigs, grasses with the correct flexibility properties and maybe a leaf or two, he weaves and knots them all to fit in the right dimensions and measurements.
Just when everything is ‘perfect’, the building inspector (a.k.a. the mate) comes along and scrutinizes it thoroughly. If it is not up to scratch (which happens often), then she snaps it down and hubby has to rebuild or make significant home improvements! Reminds me of friends who were building their home from scratch, and on completion, the husband insisted it was called ‘the weavers nest’, I wonder why!
Some African birds are named after people - Hildebrandt's francolin, Swainson's spurfowl, Shelley's francolin, Delegorgue's pigeon, Denham's bustard, Burchells sandgrouse ( there’s a Burchells zebra too) and Schalows turaco. Funky names appear too and there’s some joy in finding the most bizarrely named species.
Some of my favourite are the Moustached tinkerbird, whiskered tern, Abyssinian catbird (no they don’t look like cats and they don’t catch them either), the white-rumped babbler (well named because they are very noisy) and the cloud-scraping cisticola – what a name!
The Africa pitta is not a flat bread, but a medium-sized, long legged, stocky and brightly coloured bird that still remains elusive to my life sightings list. They like wet forest floors, snails and insects. Then there are the jubilantly named; the joyful greenbul and the Ruaha chat. Finally, the foxy lark and pink-breasted lark!
Then the dramatic names are just as intriguing; the cut-throat, the scaly-throated honeyguide, Grimwoods longclaw and the parasitic Jaeger which is also known as the Arctic skua. There is one seemingly in a panic named the flappet lark and the monotonous lark sounds like a terrible bore, but that’s probably unfair! Then one has to feel slightly sad for the middle child, the intermediate egret, and be surprised at the bird named an ‘exclamatory paradise-whydah’. I wonder what he does, maybe he has a penchant for bad language?
Last of all, I have to mention a common but plucky little bird, the blacksmith plover. Don’t just drive past and think he’s just a black and white bird like any other. Stay, sit and watch. I recall a very entertaining hour watching this brave and plucky bird defending her nest from a rhino. She gave the rhino a verbal ear bashing, lots of strutting and high-pitched vocals, and guess who won? Size doesn’t matter here!
At the end of a busy day of wildlife and bird spotting with the sunset going down on a splendid day on safari, I recommend you have a few G&T’s and challenge yourself to say ‘black-backed puffback’ and ‘black–winged lapwing’ quickly ten times over!
If you would like more information about tailor-made wildlife safaris to Africa please do get in touch. We'd be delighted to help you plan your dream journey! Or if you would just like to dream for now, you can do so at our Video Library.
Images by kind courtesy of Albie Venter, Ker and Downey Botswana, Angama Mara, Dumatau Camp Wilderness Safaris.