African Ornithology & Bird-watching Holidays

The five-volume Birds of Africa illustrated no less than 1850 species. Spread across some 61 countries and island groups, it is an awesome total that is hard to comprehend, even though it is still less than that for either South America or Asia. Red Lark by Derek Keats from Johannesburg, South Africa / CC BY from Wikipedia Africa offers some of the easiest and toughest birding in the world. A trip to The Gambia is so simple to organise that you need only book a cheap package holiday and still see over 200 species. Yet at the other extreme, an expedition to a remote corner of Cameroon requires detailed planning and a great deal of stamina.
Field guides for Africa range from excellent to poor, although much improved models are currently in production for some areas. This is highly irritating when you are trying to tackle a Continent that hosts 16 bustards, 10 coursers, 10 sandgrouse, 11 honeyguides and 55 shrikes. No problem there you might think, but don’t forget the 36 cisticolas, 47 larks and 101 weavers! On a positive note, there are some excellent bird tapes and CDs, including Guy Gibbon’s South African set.

For those seeking an African birding holiday, below are five suggestions from the simple package holiday to the full-blown birding tour:


Size: 710,850 sq km
Total Bird List: 459 species
Trip Target: 230 (2 weeks)
Best Time to Visit: April to early May (breeding), November to February (winter)

Levaillant's Woodpecker by Francesco Veronesi from Italy / CC BY-SA from Wikipedia For those birders who keep a Western Palearctic list, a trip to Morocco is an absolute must. The reason for this is that a number of sub-Saharan species just have a toe-hold here, and can be found nowhere else in North Africa. These are Double-spurred Francolin, Dark-chanting Goshawk, Marsh Owl, Brown-throated Sand Martin and Black-crowned Tchagra. In addition, Morocco offers your best chance of seeing other scarce species such as Levaillant’s Green Woodpecker, Dupont’s Lark, Temminck’s Horned Lark, Rock Martin, Moussier’s Redstart, Tristram’s Warbler, Crimson-winged Finch and Desert Sparrow. 

The other breeding species to attract major attention is the endangered Northern Bald Ibis. On the verge of extinction, these can be seen on the coast at Oued Massa and Tamri (both near Agadir), where recent counts have totalled up to 200 – (and currently the only significant population known to exist in the wild). Other species to look for during the breeding season include Ruddy Shelduck, Baillon’s Crake, Barbary Partridge, Great Bustard, Bonelli’s Eagle, Spotted Sandgrouse, Eagle Owl, Black-crowned Finch-lark, Red-rumped Wheatear, Olivaceous Warbler, Desert Warbler, Orphean Warbler, Fulvous Babbler. 

Outside the breeding season from November to February, the main attraction is the possibility of seeing another of the world’s rarest birds – the Slender-billed Curlew. Although only one bird was seen during the 1994/95 winter on the marshes at Merdja Zerga (midway between Rabat and Tangier). Other birds in winter include interesting waterfowl such as Audouin’s Gull, Slender-billed Gull, Crested Coot, Red-crested Pochard and Marbled Duck.


Size: 1,251,282 sq km
Total Bird List: 836 species
Trip Target: 350 (2 weeks)
Best Time to Visit: Late November to February

Chessnut-bellied Sandgrouse by Arun Thangaraj / CC BY-SA from Wikipedia Just a few years ago this was a country that you might not have considered as suitable for a birdwatching holiday. However, it is now quite safe and combines amazing scenery with a wealth of birdlife including 29 endemic species. The route carved out by the bird tour companies consists of  a flight to Lake Tana – the highest lake in Africa, followed by a return to Addis Ababa (itself a good birding area). This allows an overland trip to the Awash National Park, where the bird list exceeds 400 species, and then onto the network of lakes to the south of Addis – Langano, Awasa, Abiata, Zwai and Koka. From here most tours move on to the Bale Mountains National Park, where some 14 endemic species can be found. After this a visit to the Wondoguenet Forest, with its thermal springs is an excellent finale to this trip.

Although many visitors will be seeing their first African birds, it is important to ensure that you do not miss the Ethiopian endemics including Thick-billed Raven, Ethiopian Bush-crow, Yellow-fronted Parrot, Black-winged Lovebird, Ruspoli’s Turaco, Abyssinian Longclaw, Abyssinian Catbird, Spot-breasted Plover, Rouget’s Rail, Wattled Ibis, Banded Barbet, White-billed Starling, Ruppell’s Chat, Golden-backed Woodpecker, White-throated Seedeater, Black-headed Siskin and Blue-winged Goose. In addition you should also try to see White-cheeked Turaco and Erckel’s Francolin.


Size: 580,367 sq km
Total Bird List: 1078+ species
Trip Target: 600+ (2 weeks) 700+ (3 weeks)
Best Time to Visit: Late November to February

White-billed Buffalo Weaver by Francesco Veronesi from Italy / CC BY-SA from Wikipedia Kenya has only six endemic species, but you can see over one hundred times that if you are well organised. My first visit to Africa consisted of a self-drive safari around much of Kenya in 1983. I saw about 290 species in three weeks and thought I was doing well. It was hard work and you imagine how I felt when I spoke to friends who saw over 600 in less time with an organised tour! Travelling around the country is not difficult, although if going independently, check with the Foreign Office to ensure that your route is safe.

Apart from the birds, you can expect to see some 50 or more mammals including all of  the ‘big five’. National Parks and Game Reserves to visit include Masai Mara, Amboseli, Tsavo and Samburu. The Rift Valley lakes are stunning with their variety and volume of birds. Lake Nakuru is an incredible spectacle, with several hundred thousand Lesser and Greater Flamingos congregating along the lake shore. Other lakes to visit are Baringo, Naivasha and Bogoria. It is also important to take in Mount Kenya and the Kakamega Forest, as these areas include a number of rare endemics. Another essential site is the Sokoke Forest north of Mombasa. This coastal woodland is home to the Sokoke Scops Owl and Sokoke Pipit and a number of other wary species. The coastal mangroves are also excellent areas to watch waders at low tide, including the amazing Crab Plover.

Other rare birds of Kenya that you should aim to see include Taita Thrush, Hinde’s Pied Babbler, Clarke’s Weaver, Sharpe’s Longclaw, Black and White Flycatcher and the elusive African Finfoot.


Size: 945,087 sq km
Total Bird List: 1038+ species
Trip Target: 575 (3 weeks)
Best Time to Visit: Late November to February

Ludwig's Bustard by Hans Hillewqert from Wikipedia Overshadowed by its neighbour to the north, Tanzania is much bigger, and has boundaries with some seven countries as well three massive lakes and the Indian Ocean. Despite its enormous bird list there are only 15 endemics to track down, although recent fieldwork has led to a further two species being discovered – both still to be formally named!

A typical visit with a birding tour would commence at Dar-es-Salaam and move west to the Kilombero River, where several rare endemics can be seen. Further north to the Mikumi National Park and on to the East Usambaras, and then  westwards again to visit the Ngorongoro Crater and Serengeti National Park. This last section of the trip should focus on the big game of the region – with a potential of some 40 plus mammals.

Important birds to see include Ashy Starling, Yellow-collared Lovebird, Rufous-tailed Weaver, Fischer’s Lovebird, Grey-breasted Spurfowl, Banded Green Sunbird, Nduk Eagle Owl, Usambara Ground Robin, Usambara Nightjar, Red-capped Forest Warbler, Loveridge’s Sunbird, Mrs Moreau’s Warbler, Pale-billed Hornbill, Rufous-winged Sunbird, Kilombero Weaver plus the two un-named cisticolas – of course!

South Africa

Size: 1,125,500 sq km
Total Bird List: 790+ species
Trip Target: 450 (3 weeks)
Best Time to Visit: October to February

Yellow-collared Lovebird by Chris Gin / CC BY from Wikipedia Having been birding in South Africa four times recently, I can thoroughly recommend it for either independent birding or with a group. The country is currently very popular with British tourists, so it is advisable to buy your air tickets well in advance. South Africa has 37 totally endemic species, with a further 21 that have more than 90 percent of their population within the country.

There are three main centres of bird-richness: the Cape and Karoo Desert, the Natal Coast and Drakensberg Mountains, and the Kruger Park and Eastern Transvaal. By spending a week in each of these areas and flying from Cape Town to Durban and Johannesberg you should be able to achieve a good score.

The Karoo supports a small number of birds, but they are worth finding. These include Red Lark, Karoo Korhaan, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler and Ludwig’s Bustard. Not too far away, the Cape Peninsula has breeding Jackass Penguins and Cape Gannets at Lamberts Bay, and Cape Rockjumper and Cape Sugarbird just outside Cape Town. A pelagic trip from here is a must, although expensive. On the east coast there are many reserves, but the best are Mzuze and Ndumu, with good wetland birding around St Lucia. Side trips to Lesotho (via the Sani Pass in a 4WD) and to Wakkerstroom are recommended. The Kruger Park can be very busy, but keeping to the northern end you can find the best birding, with local specialities such as Arnot’s Chat and Pel’s Fishing Owl.

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Keith Betton

Ornithologist & writer

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