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Africa’s Top Birding Destinations

With a quarter of the world’s 10 000 bird species either living on or migrating to the continent, it’s fair to say that Africa is a birding destination par excellence. From the world’s biggest bird – the ostrich – to some of its most familiar – flamingos, hornbills and parrots – the bird list of Africa is one that even includes penguins.

Okavango Delta is one of Africa's top birding destinations

Africa’s birds are famously colourful: a little bee-eater & malachite kingfisher.

Add to that the fact that nearly all birding in Africa takes place in national parks and game reserves where you’ll be watching wildlife too, and you have the ingredients for a unique and highly rewarding safari whether you are a bird photographer, bird watcher or just someone who enjoys nature.

Elephants and crocodiles in Botswana's Okavango Delta

Birding in Africa gives you a chance to see other wildlife species too.

Two big decisions need to be made however: when to go, and where to go. Each is as important: the ‘when’ part because although birding in Africa is always good, there is a migratory season when yet more birds arrive, and the ‘where’ part because the enormity of Africa gives us regions with very different birds. There is only a small overlap between, for example, the bird species of South Africa’s Kruger Park and the birds of Cape Town, which means it’s worth combining the two destinations for a greater diversity of birds.

Cape Town is top birding destination for penguins

There are penguins in Africa but you have to go to Cape Town for them.

Now the proviso: the best time for birding in Africa may not necessarily be the best time for wildlife viewing – or for the best weather, in the sense of it being mild and dry. Birding in Africa is usually at its peak during the Green Season (the rainy season) in terms of species number, density of birds and their behaviour – there’s a lot of birds and a lot of breeding during the Green Season.

You can read more about Africa’s safari seasons here but let’s look at Africa’s top birding destinations in more detail.

Central Africa – Zambia, Uganda & Rwanda

Birding heavyweights and an opportunity to see mountain gorillas as well – this is birding in Central Africa. Zambia makes a case for having perhaps the most bird species in a single African country and its northern forests border the Congo Basin. In fact, birding in the Congo is possible – several destinations exist for visitors to check off the Congo’s rainforest birds – but you can get an easier insight into central African birds in Uganda’s Bangweulu Wetlands. There’s excellent birding and wildlife at Bangweulu as well as the biggest prize – the Shoebill Stork – a highly sought-after bird that you’ll also find in Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, home to another 450 types of bird and many big game species. Go between late May and September for the driest and mildest weather.

Uganda and Zambia are top birding destinations for the Shoebill Stork

The primal-looking shoebill stork is restricted to central African wetlands.

Anywhere in Uganda is good for birds – the country has over a thousand different species – but for an alternative Central African birding experience – then Rwanda has burst onto the birding scene. Don’t be fooled by its pint-sized appearance – Rwanda’s small size makes travel easy and although most visitors go to the Bwindi rainforests to see gorillas, a birder would be better advised to travel to Nyungwe Forest and Akagera National Park for a winning combination of forest and savannah birds. Migratory birds are present between December and February, coinciding with a short dry season – also good for gorilla trekking.

East Africa – Tanzania & Madagascar

Tanzania may be more famous for its migrating wildebeest and Madagascar for its lemurs but both countries are great birding destinations too. In Tanzania the temptation is to go to the Serengeti but birders will appreciate the mixed habitats of Tarangire National Park and the Selous Reserve, especially since each is based around a river system. Tanzania is also well known for its flocks of flamingos, usually seen carpeting a Rift Valley lake. The flamingos are prone to moving around but Arusha National Park, the Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara and Lake Natron are destinations with more or less permanent populations of them. Go between November and April when migratory birds arrive – you’ll also catch the wildebeest migration in the southern Serengeti.

Africa's top birding destination for flamingos

Greater flamingos in classic habitat – occurring from Cape Town to the Rift Valley.

And then there’s Madagascar. Having slipped away from Africa many eons ago, its birdlife is quite unique – a third of Madagascar’s birds are endemic to the island. There are new families to see such as the Vangas and the Ground-Rollers as well as extraordinary animals ranging from chameleons to the nocturnal, long-fingered, tree-hugging Aye-aye. Head for Madagascar’s Masoala Forest for some of the island’s best birding; it’s the country’s largest national park as well as a World Heritage Site and you can also add beaches and coral reefs to your holiday. Madagascar is a tropical destination – go between August and November for the driest and mildest weather.

Southern Africa – Zambia, South Africa & Botswana

There’s a reason why there are a dozen field guides to the birds of Southern Africa – this region is one of the world’s most rewarding birding destinations. Botswana and Zambia are both rich in bird numbers while South Africa has the highest number of endemic and near-endemic bird species on the continent. These destinations have long been offering birding safaris and many lodges have specialist birding guides and excellent photographic hides as well.

Africa is top birding destination for the yellow-billed hornbill

Yellow-billed hornbills are common visitors to safari camps across southern Africa.

Birders are spoilt for choice in Zambia: the Lower Zambezi National Park brings together savannah and river birds while the Kafue National park offers a similar mix with the addition of the Busanga Plains – a vast wetland teeming with wildlife and home to pelicans, storks and cranes. Both destinations are renowned for their big game, and the South Luangwa National Park even more so and it’s the Luangwa where photographers can sit back and watch flights of Southern Carmine bee-eaters turn the air pink.

Southern carmine bee-eaters can be found in Botswana's Okavango and Zambia's Luangwa banks

Southern carmine bee-eaters at their nesting site in the Okavango’s panhandle.

Birding in Zambia is best between November and April – the Green Season – though wildlife watching is easier between June and October. The same is true for Botswana’s classic birding destinations – the Chobe River and the Kalahari Desert. But Botswana’s jewel in the crown, the Okavango Delta, floods during peak safari season (June – August) and along with its sister-wetland, the Linyanti, it makes for very good birding during Botswana’s dry and mild season.

Mokoro rides through the Okavango Delta's channels

Birding in Botswana’s Okavango Delta – ideal for seeing shy water birds.

And finally, there can’t be many places in the world where you can see an ostrich and a penguin, both in natural habitat, on the same day. Well, you can in South Africa – Cape Town to be precise for this example – but although the Cape has its own set of endemic birds, the top birding destinations in South Africa are the Kruger Park and KwaZulu Natal – both boasting well in excess of 400 bird species.

African fish-eagle rules Africa's Rivers

With a tiger fish in its talons, the African fish-eagle makes it clear who rules the Zambezi.

Go to the Kruger’s private reserves for a more personalised birding experience – the Sabi Sands and Thornybush are both excellent – and keep it private in KwaZulu Natal too. The Phinda Game Reserve is particularly good for both birds and mammals – you can even have the satisfaction of watching ox-peckers riding on rhinos – a rare sight in Africa today.

Both destinations are best for birding between November and April (coinciding with the driest weather for Cape Town) but if you don’t want the Green Season rain while you are birding, go to the Kruger and KwaZulu Natal between June and October.

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