Bird watching in Africa

There’s a scene in the classic film, Out Of Africa, where Robert Redford’s yellow biplane swoops low over Kenya’s Lake Nakuru, sending an unending flock of flamingos sweeping and soaring into the sky. It’s a brief glimpse into just how spectacular bird watching in Africa can be – a wonderfully diverse, vibrantly colourful mix of the bird world’s most sublime and ridiculous; from flamingos and kingfishers to the dinosaur-esque shoebill stork.
Not all of Africa’s best birding is on Lake Nakuru’s grand scale; local birding experts will guide you on walks through Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains in search of tiny African firefinches, or into Uganda’s Kibale Forest where the air rings with calls from the evocatively named joyful greenbul and white-spotted flufftail. You’ll certainly be joyful when you combine bird watching in Africa with chimpanzee or gorilla tracking. Or with traditional mokoro canoe trips to spot the Big Five in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.

Where to go bird watching in Africa

Ethiopia

There are 830 species of bird in Ethiopia, of which 23 species are found nowhere else in the world. Couple this with a richly varied culture that has been uniquely untouched by the western colonisation of Africa, and indeed mass tourism, and you have a truly beguiling birding destination. Travel to the Bale Mountains, where Lake Awassa makes for a beautiful backdrop to some of Ethiopia’s loveliest avian inhabitants, including the brown snake eagle, African firefinch and malachite kingfisher. Guided hikes through the Sannete Plateau also take you to some of the best places in Ethiopia to spot the endemic Simien wolf.

Uganda

Winston Churchill once described Murchison Falls National Park as ‘Kew Gardens and the Zoo combined on an unlimited scale’. An understatement perhaps for a park that hosts over 550 species of bird as well as lions, elephants, giraffes, Cape buffalo, hippos and more. The big draw here is the rare, prehistoric looking shoebill stork, which wades through the park’s network of Nile waterways. You can also see the ‘dancing’ grey crowned crane, Uganda’s national bird.

While over a thousand species of birds call Uganda home – that’s almost one in 10 of the world’s total bird population – most birding vacations here also include the country’s impressive wildlife. So you’ll have the chance to track chimpanzees and mountain gorillas on foot through Kibale and Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks. If you prefer to get your adrenaline kicks in other ways, you can try white water rafting down the Nile alongside your avian adventures.

Zambia

It’s a little known fact that the largest mammal migration in the world isn’t the Great Migration of wildebeest across the savannah plains of the Serengeti and Masai Mara. Instead, the accolade goes to African giant fruit bats, which descend on Zambia’s Kasanka National Park in their millions in mid-October to late November each year. Following the bats are a plethora of Africa’s most impressive predatory birds, including rarely seen bat hawks, and a variety of eagles and vultures lured in by the plentiful pickings.

Bird watching vacations in Zambia will usually be combined with safaris through the sublime, and yet rarely crowded, South Luangwa National Park. Home to a relatively large population of leopards, as well as the Big Five, South Luangwa, often referred to as the finest wildlife reserve in Africa, is also the birthplace of the walking safari. No trip to Zambia is complete without the spine-tingling experience of taking in the sounds and smells of the savannah on foot.

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Ethiopia birdwatching holiday in Bale Mountains

Ethiopia birdwatching vacation in Bale Mountains

Discover Ethiopia's vast array of unusual birds

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Kenya

The vast flocks of flamingos which visit the soda lakes of the Kenyan Rift Valley are one of Africa’s most impressive wildlife spectacles. Two million flamingos descend on Lake Nakuru when algae conditions in the lake are just right – an astonishing sight. Flamingos are just one of the 450 species of bird that call Lake Nakuru National Park home. Safaris around freshwater Lake Naivasha not only reveal fish eagles and osprey, but also hippo, buffalo and giraffe, while Hell’s Gate National Park, next door to Naivasha, is also bastion for the bone-eating and rare lammergeyer or bearded vulture.

Botswana

In full flood, the mighty Okavango Delta is a birding paradise in the heart of the Kalahari Desert, welcoming thousands upon thousands of migratory birds to its lush waterways. Explore the sprawling grass floodplains of this vast inland river delta by traditional dugout canoe, or mokoro, and keep your eyes peeled for brightly coloured kingfishers – arguably as spectacular as the Delta’s famous elephants, hippos and lions – as well as Pel’s fishing owls, African jacanas, slaty egrets and western banded snake eagles.

Further north, in Moremi and Savuti, look out for beautiful lilac breasted rollers perched on branches and spot dramatic saddle billed storks by the Chobe River. The lunar surface of the Makgadikgadi Pans turn pink from November to March when the seasonal rains flood the salt pans, ushering in thousands of flamingos – wildlife phenomenon that is as spectacular as it is short-lived.

What does bird watching in Africa entail?

Don’t be put off by birding stereotypes that paint twitchers as fanatics, single-minded in their pursuit of a single species, bird watching vacations in Africa are about much more than just the birds. Instead they offer a more intensive wildlife experience than a standard safari; opening up the skies and treetops, taking you out on foot into the wilderness and introducing you to some of Africa’s most vibrantly-coloured and rarest wildlife as well as its most famous.

Remember, too, that while there are dedicated bird watching vacations to Africa, you don’t need to join one to enjoy the birdlife. If you’re traveling to Africa for a safari, alongside the big beasts, you’ll be dazzled by the colour and diversity of the birds you spot along the way – they might just be the unsung highlight of your trip. Africa specialists that create tailor made safari itineraries will be able to tweak and tailor your trip to include more or less time in each birding spot, to make birds the focus of your game drives or to include a bird watching walk from your camp or lodge. If you’re more of an enthusiastic novice then local guides will be happy to share their specialist birding knowledge with you, alongside a wealth of other African wildlife.
Whether you’re hiking through forest, over mountain terrain or across the savannah, peering through binoculars on a boat cruise, taking a dugout canoe trip, watching from a hide or from the windows of a 4x4 jeep, you can expect to be accompanied during the day by a knowledgeable, local naturalist and, on bird watching vacations, a birding expert. Early starts are commonplace on any wildlife watching vacation in Africa as many species are most active in the cooler early mornings and early evenings. And the dawn chorus is, quite simply, delightful.
Bird watching in Africa always involves more than just peering at birds through binoculars. In Ethiopia you can also expect some time spent exploring the markets in Addis Ababa, in Botswana you’ll travel through the Okavango Delta in dug out mokoros, and in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia you can take a walking safari. At Lake Naivasha National Park in Kenya you’ll see the awesome might of the Big Five, while in Uganda you have the chance to get up close to mountain gorillas and chimpanzees on foot.

Do I need any specialist equipment?

No bird watching vacation is complete without a good set of binoculars, so if spotting a wide range of birds, plus a variety of other African wildlife, is top of your vacation wish list you won’t regret investing in a decent pair. Good binoculars get you up close to the wildlife action, disturbing the animals you’re watching as little as possible.

As you’re likely to be doing a fair bit of walking a decent pair of comfortable, supportive walking boots will be invaluable. Treks in Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains are at altitude and can be strenuous, and even gentle walking safaris will be over uneven, often overgrown, ground.

When is the best time to go bird watching in Africa?

In Botswana the October to April summer months bring a wealth of lush foliage and an influx of migratory birds to the Okavango Delta. While this isn’t the best time to see other wildlife, with the right guides in the right places you’ll still have opportunity to spot the Big Five. In Ethiopia, travel in the green season between September and February for the best chance to see the country’s unique endemic species. Migratory birds join the feathery frolics from November. While rains occur during this time, they rarely cause much trouble – you’ll simply enjoy lusher landscapes, more birds and fewer tourists. Migratory birds come to Kenya from September to April, with the November to December short rains offering a backdrop of lush scenery, dramatic skies and quiet lodges, but enough rain to cause travel disruption. Uganda’s birds can be seen year round, with November to April bringing migrants into the parks. If you want to combine your birding with a trek to see Bwindi’s gorillas then bear in mind that permits in June to September get booked up months in advance. Travel to Zambia from October to late November and you’ll catch millions of giant fruit bats roosting in the Kasanka National Park and the scores of large raptors there for an easy meal. Walking safari bush camps are still open in South Luangwa at this time, although temperatures can get above 30°C during the day.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Richard Toller] [Flamingoes - Lake Nakuru: Xiaojun Deng] [Brown snake eagle: Bernard Dupont] [Flamingoes - Lake Nakuru: Xiaojun Deng] [Binoculars: Forest Simon] [White pelicans: Ray in Manila]
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