South Africa is one of the top birding destinations, not only in Africa but in the world. Andrew de Blocq, the Avitourism Project Manager for BirdLife South Africa, shares his expert knowledge of where to go and what you’ll see in South Africa.
South Africa features an incredible diversity in its 870 bird species, and includes an impressive array of birds that can be seen nowhere else. There are two iconic endemic families to South Africa – Rockjumpers and Sugarbirds – that make up part of the 49 individual endemic and near-endemic species. South Africa’s bird diversity is owed to the incredible variety of habitats available. So knowing where to go birding in South Africa is important if you want to find a particular species.
What Does South Africa Have To Offer The Nature Lover?
South Africa is a must-visit for any international birder or wildlife enthusiast. This is not only because of its birds and Big Five mammals but also because of its excellent tourism infrastructure. There is ease of travel and the prominence of English as a major language. And the range and competitive pricing of South African wildlife tours.
Photo Credit: Andrew de Blocq/BirdLife South Africa, Southern Ground Hornbill
Trips here could include time spent on safari in savanna bushveld or watching seabirds and whales breaching at the coast. They could involve a tour admiring the endless rolling dunes of the Kalahari desert and its unique species. Or ambling through tropical forest or scaling dramatic peaks in the Drakensberg mountains. Maybe exploring the world’s smallest floral kingdom in the fynbos – natural scrubland found only at the tip of South Africa.
A birding trip to the country can be exclusively about birds or it can be tailored to also include interests. That might be tasting some of the world’s best wines or delving into South Africa’s rich history. Every birding area has its own natural and cultural heritage that will inevitably rub off on you when you visit.
When To Go Birding In South Africa
A thorough birding trip to South Africa will take a minimum of three to four weeks. In that time span you should comfortably net a total of around 400-450 species. The best times for birding are during spring and early summer. This is when the Eurasian and intra-African migrants are present and the resident birds are breeding and vocal. Be aware that January and February can be hot and wet in the north-east of South Africa. This is where some of the most popular birding areas are, as well as many of the safari operations.
Locations For The Best South African Birding
The Greater Kruger National Park area
The Kruger National Park is the jewel in South Africa’s crown. It is rivalled perhaps only by the Maasai Mara in terms of an authentically African wildlife experience. The park itself is just smaller in area than some countries, such as Wales and Israel. But it’s bordered by private nature reserves, many of which have dropped their fences to encourage free movement of game. This greatly increases the available space for wildlife.
Photo Credit: Andrew de Blocq/BirdLife South Africa, Secretarybird
The park has an astounding list of over 500 birds, including some very charismatic and unique species. One of the iconic African species which is also evolutionarily unique is the Secretarybird. This long-legged raptor is a denizen of grassland habitats. There it strides over vast distances and uses its powerful kicks to prey on snakes, lizards and large insects. The park is known for its impressive array of birds of prey. These can be seen perched on large trees or soaring majestically over the bushveld. Some of the most impressive are the Martial Eagle, Africa’s largest eagle, and the totemic African Fish Eagle.
There are a number of endangered Vulture species in Kruger National Park. Also the enigmatic Pel’s Fishing Owl, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl (formerly called the Giant Eagle Owl) and the Bateleur. The latter was named after its unstable flight style which imitates a tight-rope walker. Other particularly impressive species include the gaudy Lilac-breasted Roller and Red-crested Korhaan with its comic courtship behaviour. There are also the ubiquitous, rosy-coloured Southern Carmine Bee-eaters, which wouldn’t be out of place at Mardi Gras.
Photo Credit: Andrew de Blocq/BirdLife South Africa, Southern Carmine Bee-eater
Kruger National Park owes its diversity to the changing habitat types. You will see these as you move through the different topographies, rainfall gradients and geological substrates. The wetter south west of the park is teeming with game and is dominated by savanna woodland and riparian fringes. The eastern half of the reserve has more open grassland habitats, while the broad-leafed mopane woodland starts to dominate as one moves north.
In the extreme north of the park there are a number of incursions of birds more typical of east and central Africa. These include Racket-tailed Rollers and the two Spinetail species, Böhm’s and Mottled. The Spinetails are dependent on the baobab trees (which are not trees, in fact, but succulent plants!).
All in all, the Kruger offers up some of the best birding in Africa. It is beset with wildlife and ever-changing landscapes. And it is served by an excellent network of roads and comfortable rest camps.
The Cape may not be as diverse as the Kruger National Park, but it is no less dramatic. In winter, the Cape is lashed by fronts that move up from the Southern Ocean. This resulted in it being given the moniker ‘Cape of Storms’ by early explorers. Nevertheless, birding in the Cape during spring and summer is very pleasant. This corner of the country has a Mediterranean climate, in contrast with the dry, dusty interior and tropical north east.
Photo Credit: Andrew de Blocq/BirdLife South Africa, African Penguin
The landscapes of the Cape are equally dramatic, moving from the imposing Cape Fold Mountains to the rugged coast. The hardy fynbos grows only here, on the area’s nutrient-deficient soils. Though it lacks the charismatic megafauna of other places in South Africa, it makes up in impressive floral diversity. It also has globally unmatched endemism. Indeed, the fynbos is the hottest botanical hotspot in the world. It is classed as the smallest of the six recognised floral kingdoms worldwide.
The fynbos has seven associated endemic birds, whose ranges are entirely restricted to the Cape. The most sought-after of these are the Cape Rockjumper and Cape Sugarbird. These are both members of two-species families that are endemic to the country. The Cape Sugarbird is quite easily seen in the stunning Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens in the heart of Cape Town. Cape Town is recognised as the most biodiverse city on earth. There birds can be admired set against the backdrop of Table Mountain National Park. The gardens are also a good spot for another endemic fynbos bird, the brilliant Orange-breasted Sunbird.
Photo Credit: Leon Marais, Cape Sugarbird, Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife And Custom Safaris
The Cape Rockjumper is a trickier customer. Though a guided walk at the sleepy seaside town of Rooi Els will usually yield views of them. You will see them there, moving from rock to rock on the hillside. If you listen carefully you may also hear the soft contact calls of the Cape Siskin over the nearby waves.
The last three fynbos endemics are more difficult to find. The unassuming Protea Canary is easily overlooked perched on protea bushes. Meanwhile, the Hottentot Buttonquail is only seen by flushing underfoot. The Victorin’s Warbler is a skulker of note, calling strongly but clinging to the densest vegetation. It remains out of view to all but the most persistent of seekers.
A Cape birding trip is never complete without a visit to the West Coast National Park. This is home to the internationally acclaimed Ramsar site, Langebaan Lagoon. The lagoon provides shelter to hundreds of thousands of migratory waders and resident waterfowl. And the surrounding strandveld (literally translated as ‘beach vegetation’) supports other attractive species. This is the spot to find Black Harrier, Southern Black Korhaan, and Grey-winged Francolins.
Photo Credit: Andrew de Blocq/BirdLife South Africa, Cape Town pelagic birding
The Cape also offers the unique opportunity to head to sea on a pelagic trip to view tubenoses. Cape Town pelagics are world-renowned due to the diversity of seabirds available. There is ease of viewing due to the relatively close continental shelf boundary. Clouds of tens of thousands of albatross, shearwaters, and petrels gather behind trawling vessels. This creates what must be one of the most underrated wildlife spectacles in the world.
In addition, the Cape offers access to the Tankwa desert, also known as the ‘gateway to the Karoo’. Here, within reach of Cape Town, are many dryland species characteristic of the plateau. These include several endemic lark species, eremomelas, coursers, and warblers. Birding in the Tankwa in spring is very rewarding as the fresh rains bring the flowering veld to life. But beware of the soaring temperatures in summer that send all life scurrying for shade from mid-morning onwards.
The Kalahari Desert offers an unparalleled vista of open landscapes. The red sand dunes roll endlessly towards the horizon and open up at night to a shimmering starry sky. The easiest access for birders is through the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, well served by multiple well-equipped rest camps. The KTP offers its own array of wildlife, but don’t expect nearly the same densities as the Kruger National Park. Nevertheless, there is an intriguing community of mesopredators to complement the lion prides and cheetahs. These include secretive species such as Brown Hyena, Cape Fox and Caracal. There are also Honey Badger, African Wild Cat, Bat-eared Fox, and Black-backed Jackals.
Photo Credit: Andrew de Blocq/BirdLife South Africa, Denhams Bustard
The birding in the park is extremely rewarding for a desert landscape, not least because in terms of birds of prey alone an impressive array of nearly 50 species has been recorded. These range from the domineering Tawny Eagles to the diminutive Pygmy Falcon. Other attractions are the Kori Bustard, the world’s heaviest flying bird, a parliament of owl species and Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters. There are also several larks and sparrowlarks on the gravel plains.
If you sit at one of the pumped waterholes you are usually rewarded with Namaqua and Burchell’s Sandgrouse. These descend in noisy flocks of sometimes many hundreds of birds. The Kubitje Quap waterhole in the north of the park is well known for its resident jackals. They have learned to specialise in hunting the sandgrouse and provide jaw-dropping photographic opportunities for patient viewers.
Last, but certainly not least, is KwaZulu-Natal province, know colloquially as KZN. This area is steeped in history as the seat of the Zulu Kingdom. The naming of Durban airport for King Shaka was a tip of the hat to the dynasty. This is again a diverse province, starting in the western interior with high altitude grasslands and rugged Drakensberg mountain range. It then descends into tropical forest and wild mangrove-dominated estuaries with warm-water beaches. The iSimangaliso park is widely considered the jewel in KZN’s birding crown. The endangered Southern Banded Snake Eagle is resident on forest edges here. And a whole host of forest specials can be found in the jungle-like undergrowth.
Photo Credit: Black-throated Wattle-eye, Sustain Wildlife And Birding Safaris
The coastal towns of St Lucia and Mtunzini are known to be birding hotspots. They have easy walking access at various boardwalks and trails. These are the best areas for exciting birds such as Spotted Ground Thrush, Black-throated Wattle-eye, and Livingstone’s Turaco. The northern extremes of KZN are typified by the scarce sand forest habitat. There are a number of restricted species resident here such as Plain-backed and Neergard’s Sunbirds. There is plenty bushveld habitat available as well. This can be found in well-appointed game reserves such as Phinda, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi and Mkhuze. These host big game as well as some bush birds not available in the Lowveld. Among that number, you can count Pink-throated Twinspot, Grey Waxbill, and Rudd’s Apalis.
In the Drakensberg, the crags and peak serve as a backdrop to a long list of endemics named after the range. These include the Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Prinia and Drakensberg Prinia. Other special species in the area include Ground Woodpecker, an entirely terrestrial woodpecker. Also, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Mountain Pipit, and the iconic Bearded Vulture, known as Lammergeier.
What Sets South Africa Apart For Birding?
There is a mouth-watering selection of birds waiting to be seen in South Africa. The country is well served by a number of local tour operators. In particular, the KwaZulu-Natal and Kruger Park areas have a network of community bird guides. These are individuals trained up from rural communities and they are the authorities on their local patches. They have been trained by BirdLife South Africa and their details can be found on the website. Whatever your interests and however passionate or casual your birding habit, South Africa has a lot to offer. You will find yourself wanting to go back again, and again, and again.
If You Want To Organise A Birding Trip In South Africa
The specialist local tour operators on Blue Sky Wildlife can answer all your questions and help you arrange a South African birding trip. In conjunction, the best areas to bird in South Africa are summarised in BirdLife South Africa’s birding routes. Together, these will make planning your itinerary a cinch.
Original Date of Publish: 2 April 2021