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Introduction to birding in South and Southern Africa

The Region

The Southern African Birding region is generally regarded as including the countries of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Lesotho and Southern Mozambique. All the local field guides cover the birds of this region, which shares many species and unique families with East, Central and West Africa.

Overall over 900 species occur, of which 179 are either full endemics - or are near endemics, Southern Africa being by far the most convenient place to see them. A trip to South Africa allows one to see the majority of Southern African Bird species, and it is relatively easy to use South Africa as a base to explore the neighboring states of Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

Overview of birding conditions

Well developed infrastructure, excellent roads (in most places), a highly active local birding community and top quality guides ensure that a birding trip to South Africa will generally be enjoyable, hassle free and allow for a high proportion of quality time in the field. The bird diversity is high and many well known birding localities offer convenient access to excellent birding without the need for strenuous hikes. Accommodation is diverse, generally good, and very affordable for visitors from Europe and North America. The climate is generally pleasant; and across most of the region, winters are mild, although it can be hot in summer.

Birding Areas

Generally tours for birders concentrate on the following areas:
  • The endemic rich western cape floral kingdom (fynbos) and western semi-deserts regions in the Karoo and Bushmanland. The western floral kingdom is usually accessed from Cape Town, and offers about 40 - 60 "endemic" bird species on a short tour, and a good deal more on a longer trip further north to Bushmanland and the Kalahari. At least 3 days are required to see most of the specials in this area, and a typical tour involves fairly long distance travel by car. A southern oceans Pelagic outing is also highly recommended, and is rated amongst the best seabird pelagic experiences in the world.
  • The Eastern part of the Central plateau and Drakensberg Massif, which also offer a rich diversity of endemics and grassland specials, as well as waterbirds. The prime destinations are Sani Pass and Wakkerstroom, the former which includes an opportunity to visit the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho. A Minimum of three days is required to cover this biome adequately.
  • Eastern and Northern "Lowveld Bushveld" biomes, which offer the highest diversity of birds, but with a much smaller proportion of endemics. Large mammals also share these biomes, and favorite destinations include the Kruger National Park, Mkusi and Ndumu Game Reserves. Disadvantages in these area are sweltering heat (in summer) and the presence of Malaria, which is most dangerous in late summer (January to March)
  • The Central Bushveld. To the West and North of Johannesburg, there are a number of less-well known destinations that offer fine bushveld birding, with high species diversity. This area generally lacks the variety and numbers of large mammals as the Kruger National Park, but birding on foot is generally accommodated and the risk of Malaria is absent. In addition, a number of western specials and endemics, which are not found in the Lowveld are present. This area is particularly well suited to visitors who have a day or three to spare from Johannesburg or Pretoria. (See here for more)
  • Indigenous forests cover only a small percentage of the land area in Southern Africa, but offer a completely different suite of forest birds. Afromontane forests are scattered mainly along the Eastern Escarpment and coastal regions. Forest birding can be combined with a trip to Kruger (Magoebaskloof), or KwaZulu Natal (Ngoye, Dhlinza or Ntumeni Forests). It can also be combined with a visit to Sani Pass, on the Drakensberg Massif.

Birds

Many of Africa's unique and spectacular birds are easily seen in Southern Africa. Of the ten families of birds found only in Africa and related islands the following are found in Southern Africa.
  • Hamerkop
  • Secretary Bird
  • Guineafowl (2 species)
  • Mousebirds (3 species)
  • Turacos (Louries) (5 species)
  • Woodhoopoes
  • Ground Hornbills
  • African Barbets
  • Sugarbirds (2 endemic species)

Endemic Birds

South and Southern Africa is blessed with a large number of endemic birds. South Africa (usually taken to include Lesotho and Swaziland) has 53 endemic species, and across the whole region, there are 177 species which may be classified as endemics or near-endemics. Near endemics (we call them "Birders endemics") are those species that occur only marginally beyond the borders of the region. In most cases the areas where they do occur are relatively inaccessible and not much visited by birders.

For an annotated list of endemics click here.

Timing

The months of October through to December are the most productive months for birding Southern Africa, although heat and rain can be a problem. For the Western Cape, late August through to October are the best. For Bushmanland, autumn (March/April) is excellent.

However it should be noted that the seasons are not as dramatic as in Europe and North America, and excellent birding can be had at any time of the year. a midwinter tour to the bushveld north of Pretoria can be expected to produce 100 species a day, and 200 species in a few days is quite feasible. For those wanting to combine mammal watching with birding, the winter months are often excellent as drier, cooler conditions in the lowveld or northern bushveld areas, make for better mammal watching and a higher degree of comfort!

Birding Expectations

This is dependent on birders energy, skill level and knowledge support! If you want to get really crippling views of all birds you see, it is obvious that less time will be available to add more species to your list. If diversity is your goal, 200 species are possible in two summer days either in the Pretoria area, Zululand coastal plain, or Kruger National Park. 280 species can be seen in four days in high summer in the Pretoria area, or in 5 days in Kruger or Zululand. A two week tour which covers all the major biomes in Eastern South Africa would typically produce over 400 species, and 500 is possible for a tour group with high energy levels and a good guide.

As far as endemics are concerned, the Western and Northern Cape have more endemics than any other, but many parts of Eastern South Africa offer up to 60 endemics in a short visit.

In the wider Pretoria-Johannesburg area about 70 endemics are to be found, and at least 50 can be expected to be seen in four days of focused birding

Risk - Crime and Disease

South Africa is often regarded as being a dangerous country to visit. Indeed crime statistics in some of the urban ghettoes are very high. As is the case in other countries, crime tends to be concentrated in specific areas. Our birding tours do not travel through any high-risk area, and we are yet to experience a a single (even minor) incident of crime on any of our tours. In general the risks while on a birding tour are low - certainly no greater than those associated with birding in most areas of the world.

Malaria has recently been on the upsurge across most of Africa. This is partly due to successive wet years in the 1990's, as well as increasing resistance to anti-malarial drugs. The most dangerous period in terms of risk is late summer, where numbers of mosquitoes are at a peak. The health authorities in South Africa closely monitor malaria, and the "Malaria areas", are well known. Those wanting to bird in the Kruger National Park, or the Low-lying areas of Eastern Zimbabwe and Northern KwaZulu Natal should take precautions and consult a travel clinic well before departure.

Insect repellent, including specialized tick repellants are provided free of charge on all our tours. We strongly recommend that all clients take preventive steps with regard to mosquitoes and ticks.

Some tours visit areas where potentially dangerous animals are present. Walking in the bush with wild animals always has a small element of risk, which is higher in areas where the "big five" occur. Generally a guide, who is trained to deal with dangerous animals, accompanies tours to these areas.

Section Menu


Endemic list for Southern Africa (Annotated)

What to bring and other advice for birders.

Birding in and around Pretoria (including Gauteng and Johannesburg)

Trip reports: South Africa

Trip reports: Eastern South Africa

Trip reports: Eastern Endemics Circuit

Web Site Updated 31 May 2006 © Indicator Birding
e-mail: etienne@birding.co.za