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Birds of the African Savanna: how to birdwatch on safari

birds of the African Savanna

People travel to Africa to see extraordinary animals – lions, leopards, and elephants. What can be overlooked are the spectacular birds seen on safari. Watching the flight of the colorful lilac-breasted roller can be as enjoyable for bird lovers as watching elephants at a watering hole.

What birds to expect on safari varies with the parks you visit and the time of year you are traveling. Most migratory birds begin arriving in Eastern and Southern Africa beginning in April, but this is also the rainy season with many camps closed until June. The dry season – late June to October – is better for wildlife viewing, and you’ll still see a lot of birds on safari. Choose the best travel time and safari destinations for you.

Secretary Bird, Tanzania

No matter where you go, and whether you plan to focus on birdwatching on safari or not, you will see many wonderful, new-to-you, species! We recorded 100 life birds on our first safari, and almost 50 on our second.

Birding on safari

If you are a bird photographer or a serious birder, look for birding specific tours in Africa. There are many groups that lead tours designed just for the hard-core birder. Alternately you might consider a self-drive safari to a IBA (Important Bird Area) or hiring a birding guide for a private safari.

For the rest of us – bird and wildlife lovers, or birders with non-birder traveling companions – you will need to fit birding into game drives and afternoons in camp. Not ideal for bird photography, but still an extraordinary adventure.

How to birdwatch on a game drive

  1. (Most important!) Let your guide know of your interest in the birds of Africa. Most safari guides are knowledgeable about all wildlife and are happy to share. Two of our guides thanked us for showing an interest in things other than the Big Five. There’s a lot of pressure on guides to provide good sightings to their guests, and your excitement over an unusual bird can be a relief to them.
  2. Have your binoculars ready. Carry lightweight binoculars on all game drives and around camp. Afternoons in camp are great for observing the local birdlife.
  3. Take advantage of vehicle stops to check thickets and trees. I had a great sighting of a speckled mousebird when our fellow travelers were watching a sleeping lion.
  4. We recommend carrying at least one camera with a quick telephoto lens. Grab a picture whenever you see an unusual bird. You can try to identify it later if there isn’t time for an ID on the game drive.
    • I carry a superzoom with Zeiss lens which works very well for capturing quick images of birds. Dave carries a dSLR with a variety of lenses. More on safari gear we carry here.
  5. Download a birding app before the trip or carry a pocket guide. This is optional as most lodges will have books about birds on safari, and some guides will bring a nature guide with them, but I like having a simple bird guide with me when I’m reviewing images.
  6. Always be alert for bird sightings. We saw three of our life birds at airports: Crowned Crane, Secretary Bird, and Silverbird.
  7. Lastly, but very important – respect your fellow travelers time. Safaris are expensive, often once-in-a-lifetime trips, so don’t monopolize the game drives. Understand that the truck will not stop for you to get the perfect photograph. If you’re easily frustrated by missed sightings, then book a dedicated birding tour.

Safari birding destinations and photos of African birds

We’ve traveled twice on safari in Africa, both times in September when the bird migration season was past, but we still saw some incredible birds. These safaris weren’t focused on bird life, but we managed to get some pictures of the special ones we saw. Hope you enjoy!

Note: almost all of these images were taken from an open safari vehicle during a game drive. No tripods or long lenses.

Birds of Botswana

Though there are no endemic bird species in Botswana, it is remarkable in having a great abundance of birds – 595 species as of 2019 according to Birdlife Botswana. These most popular wildlife safari areas – Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta, are also rich in birdlife.

Birds of Kenya

Kenya holds the record for the most bird species seen in a 24-hour period – 330! Though most of us can’t hope to see that many, the large variety of ecosystems in Kenya make it a birdwatching paradise.

Birds of South Africa

South Africa is often the easiest, and thus first, safari destination for travelers from Europe or North America, South Africa offers Big Five safaris in the Kruger area, but also has a dazzling seacoast with lots of birds to enjoy. There are 19 endemic species of birds in South Africa and 45 near-endemics, including the national bird, the Blue Crane.

Birds of Tanzania

The most popular safari destinations in Tanzania also offer great birding opportunities within the parks or close by. Tanzania has 34 endemic species, with many more migrating through.

Birds of Zambia

Zambia is fast becoming a popular safari destination. Many visitors to Zambia focus on the Livingstone area, close to Victoria Falls, but there are some outstanding parks all over the country.

GUIDEBOOK The Birds of East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi by Terry Stevenson Birds of East Africa is the first comprehensive field guide to this spectacular birding region–and one of the best to any region in the world. (this is a heavy book. We chose to leave some clothing at home to have room for this book…)
GUIDEBOOK Birds of Southern Africa by Ian SinclairBirds of Southern Africa continues to be the best and most authoritative guide to the bird species of this remarkable region. This fully revised edition covers all birds found in South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and southern Mozambique. (Amazon)
POCKET GUIDEBOOK Birds of Southern Africa by Ian Sinclair (pocket guide) With luggage constraints, this is the book we carry with us. Over 500 birds, with nice images for easy identification.
NONFICTION Birding Without Borders by Noah Strycker In 2015, Noah Strycker set himself a lofty goal: to become the first person to see half the world’s birds in one year. For 365 days, with a backpack, binoculars, and a series of one-way tickets, he traveled across forty-one countries and all seven continents, eventually spotting 6,042 species—by far the biggest birding year on record.
NONFICTION The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman As she travels around the world to the most cutting-edge frontiers of research, Ackerman not only tells the story of the recently uncovered genius of birds but also delves deeply into the latest findings about the bird brain itself that are shifting our view of what it means to be intelligent. – Kindle copy The Genius of Birds
FICTION (just for fun!) Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson A beguiling novel that does for contemporary Kenya and its 1,000 species of birds what Alexander McCall Smith’s Ladies Detective series does for Botswana (Amazon) Kindle copy (this would be a fun read for the long overseas flight) – Guide to the Birds of East Africa

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