Birds of the African Savanna: how to birdwatch on safari

People travel to Africa to see extraordinary animals – lions, leopards, and elephants What can be overlo.oked is the spectacular birds of the African savanna. 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 have lots of birds to enjoy. Choose the best travel time and safari destinations for you.

Secretary Bird in the Ngorongoro Conservation area of Tanzania. A remarkable bird seen on a wildlife safari.
Secretary Bird, Tanzania

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

Birding on safari

African Paradise flycatcher perched next to our room at Sanctuary Olonana in Kenya.

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 bird-watch 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 for you to use, 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. Keep alert for birds at all times. We saw three of our lifebirds 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 birdlife 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. Thee most popular wildlife safari areas – Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta, are also rich in birdlife.

  • Chobe National Park is well known for its elephant population but also hosts a wide variety of birds.
  • Okavango Delta is a haven for bird-lovers. The rare Wattled Crane and Slaty Egret can both be found in this area.
  • The Makgadikgadi salt pan is the most important breeding site for Greater and Lesser Flamingos

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.

  • The Rift Valley lakes are the best destinations for birdwatchers. Lake Baringo, Lake Naivasha, and the others are home to some of the 1000 bird species recorded in Kenya.
  • Head to the Masai Mara for a wildlife safari/birding adventure for the whole family. Though we only had three days in the Mara, and were with a group on nonbirders, we recorded 24 species, including a dozen lifebirds.

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 sea coast 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.

  • Kruger area, a must for Big Five enthusiasts, the park and surrounding reserves will delight birders as well. Read this introduction to the birding opportunities at Kruger.
  • The popular Garden route is great for enjoying stellar ocean views and coastal birds.
  • Kwandwe Private Game Reserve near Port Elizabeth boasts a population of the Blue Crane, now a threatened species due to loss of habitat.
  • Visitors to Cape Town should plan a visit to the Kirstenbosch Gardens to get good views of many varieties of sunbirds, some of the most beautiful African birds.

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.

  • The Serengeti is probably one of the most famous wildlife park in the world. Birders in the Serengeti will not be disappointed. More than 500 species of birds have been recorded within the park.
  • Ngorongoro Crater and Conservation area has a remarkable variety of ecosystems within a small area. You are almost guaranteed views of two large African birds- the Kori Bustard, the largest bird that can fly, and the spectacular Grey-Crowned Cranes.
  • Just an hour or so drive from the Ngorongoro Conservation area is the Lake Manyara National Park, known for flamingos but also home to over 400 other species of birds. Ask your guide to take you directly from the airport to Lake Manyara as it’s close by, and a great thing to do on your first day in the area.
  • Tarangire National Park is another great birding destination. The wetlands here attract many varieties of birds to enjoy.
  • End your time in Tanzania on the coast or take a hop over to Zanzibar for coastal birds.

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.

  • The Livingstone/Victoria Falls area -birdlife along the Zambezi river is great and easily seen on the quiet cruises most lodges offer. The Pel’s Fishing Owl is frequently found on the small islands on the river.
  • There are many other areas of Zambia great for birdwatching. One of the best is Lochinvar National Park, a small park on the Kafue floodplains where 428 species of birds have been recorded.

Recommended Reading for Birdwatchers on Safari

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

Birds of Africa. Photos of some of the spectacular birdlife seen on the African savanna. Birdwatcher on Safari
Birds of Africa. Photos of some of the spectacular birdlife seen on the African savanna. Birdwatcher on Safari
Birds of Africa. How to birdwatch on a photo safari in Africa. #birdsofafrica #birdsofsouthafrica #birdsofeastafrica
Birds of Africa. How to birdwatch on a photo safari in Africa. #birdsofafrica #birdsofsouthafrica #birdsofeastafrica

7 thoughts on “Birds of the African Savanna: how to birdwatch on safari

  1. Oh this is fabulous! I am so much a bird person and would automatically be as interested in the birds as the other wildlife. Just today I photographed a couple of Indian Hornbills. I was so excited.
    This is an amazingly comprehensive post, and very useful and that lilac breasted roller is pretty special!
    Alison

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