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 that are 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. Unfortunately, this is the rainy season with many camps closed until June. The dry season – late June to October – is better for wildlife viewing, and no worries, you’ll still see a lot of birds on the savanna. Choose the best travel time and safari destinations for you. Combine destinations to see water birds, and birds of the savanna.

Secretary Bird in the Ngorongoro Conservation area of Tanzania. One of the remarkable birds on safari.
Secretary Bird on the savanna, Tanzania
African Safari Ecosystems

Savanna: A savanna is a mixed grassland ecosystem. There are trees but they are typically spaced far apart, eg., the Serengeti plains
Wetlands: Flooded wetlands are areas regularly covered with water, eg., the Okavango Delta.

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.

How to Birdwatch on Safari

African Paradise flycatcher perched next to our room at Sanctuary Olonana in Kenya. One of my favorite of the birds on safari we found.

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. Most lodges will have books about birds of Africa, 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 with photos of birds of Africa

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.

  • 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 in East Africa 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 National Reserve 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 life birds. Here are a few birds of the savanna we saw in the reserve.

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 National Park 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.

  • 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 National Park is probably one of the most famous wildlife parks in the world. Birders in the Serengeti will not be disappointed. In fact, 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 because of the wetlands that attract many varieties of birds.
  • 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.

Traveling with a non-birder? Read our tips for birdwatching while traveling with friends.
And enjoy more of our wildlife adventures in Africa:
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 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
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31 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!

  2. This is such a cool post! My husband is obsessed with wildlife, so he would love this. These are some really unique birds! I love how colorful the lilac breasted roller bird is. And the tawny eagle is amazing! Thanks for sharing.

  3. gosh that Secretary Bird really caught my eye! definitely strutting around with true authority indeed! 😂😂

  4. Love this post on bird watching in Africa! It is so true that wildlife safaris to view animals always take predominance over bird-watching in the same area. Taking a camera with a quick telephoto lens is so important and the binocs of course. I love your colorful bird images – especially the unique Malachite Kingfisher and Little bee-eater. 🙂

  5. Not a bird person, but do love seeing all the different birds. So many beautiful birds to see on a safari in Africa. Beautiful pics of the birds!

  6. I have to be honest, it wouldn’t have ever really crossed my mind to keep an eye out for birds while on safari, but I’d definitely be missing out if I didn’t spot some of these beautiful creatures. They look absolutely stunning and it is a shame they are overlooked. Thanks for the great guide!

    1. You’re not alone, Hannah! Most people don’t really look for the birds, trees, or flowers. I can’t blame them with the extraordinary wildlife around! But noting the smaller details of Africa makes the trip extra rewarding!

  7. I am so, so impressed! We did try taking photos of birds on safari in Kenya, but I have nothing compared to your fantastic shots. I love seeing them all.

    In particular, I really like the lilac breasted roller – what incredible colours!

  8. I always love spotting interesting birds when I travel! I hope to one day take an African safari, so this post is super helpful. Love your tip about letting the guide know that you’re interested in birds (or to book a bird-focused tour).

  9. Our daughter is an ornithologist and a trip to the African Savanna for birdwatching would be a dream trip for her. If we went, we would be sending play by play comments back to her. I love the variety in the birds that you saw. And your tips for bird watchers are great. Especially about respecting the time of others on the safari.

  10. We travelled around Kruger independently, so not having to worry about what others did or didn’t want to see (though we did one night safari, because that was the only way you could see the park at night). It wasn’t unusual during the day for a car to stop behind us, and then we’d hear something like ‘They’re only looking a bird’ (said with a bit of disgust) before the other car moved on. I want time to enjoy what I’m looking at and trying to photograph, whether it is a bird, mammal, insect or whatever.

    So, I’d endorse your first point – tell the guide what you want to see. And in conjunction with that, try to find a company that specialises in what you want to see. I have worked as a guide, in Britain and in Europe, and it nearly always works out better if you can persuade your clients to tell you what they’d really like to see. Not that you can guarantee anything with wildlife, but even the guide is more likely to look out for something if he/she knows a client wants to see it instead of just looking out for the big obvious stuff, or the rare stuff.

    1. It’s great to have a guide who lets you enjoy more than just the obvious. But sometimes even the obvious is great. We took a birding day trip from Portugal a few years ago. At the end of the day the guide apologized for not finding rare birds. But to us ALL the birds we’d seen were new and beautiful.

  11. The interactive activities like bird banding and nest building sound like such a unique way to connect with nature, and the thought of experiencing sunset serenades while being surrounded by these beautiful creatures is simply magical.

  12. Due to unspoiled wilderness and vast plain lands, Tanzania is home to nearly 1200 bird species of which 34 bird species are endemic (species restricted to a small geographic area). Wherever you go in Tanzania, the fluttering of wings and birds chirping will be constant

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