You don’t have to be an avian expert in order to enjoy birding in Africa. It’s a daunting task, even for a seasoned birder: about 2100 species have been recorded in sub-Saharan Africa, 1400 of which reside nowhere else in the world! Even more unbelievable: some reserves and parks have recorded more than 500 bird species.
Now if you are an avian expert, there’s a good chance you already knew all of this! Rest assured, there are plenty of high-quality, specialist birding guides that we can book a tour with on your behalf.
So though you may not be an expert before or by the end of your safari, you should come away with a deeper appreciation for birdwatching by the end of your trip.
You’ll likely feel how Sidra Monreal describes it in her Conde Nast Traveler article “How I Accidentally Became a Birder” when she says the following:
“I found myself noticing more of the little details of my surroundings and, when I paid attention, I saw the most glorious things. No longer was I solely focused on the grass looking for the telltale spots of big cats… I found life everywhere, ready to be photographed and appreciated.”Sidra Monreal. “How I Accidentally Became a Birder.” Conde Nast Traveler
Here’s a clickable Table of Contents to help you navigate this Blog Post:
Birdwatching, admittedly, can be overwhelming at first. So instead of purchasing an absolute tome of bird book at the start, might we suggest our African Safari Field Guide. This field guide provides descriptions and drawings of some of the more common varieties of birds you will see on safari. It’s also a good way to learn the lingo.
Your guide will be essential when it comes to identifying birds and expanding both your knowledge and appreciation of them. Most guides have great knowledge about numerous species’ appearances and calls. In fact, a big reason why they know certain calls is because they often indicate that a predator is nearby!
But no matter how good your guide is, you won’t be able to truly appreciate bridwatching if you don’t have a good pair of binoculars. Binoculars give you the ability to see details, like plumage and flight patterns. They also help you to spot the bird in the first place; birds are often in thick brush or blend seamlessly with their background.
And if you want to keep a photo of a bird for posterity, your smartphone will almost never suffice. It’s important that you conduct research on both optimal binoculars and cameras for your trip. Talk to one of our safari consultants to get their opinion.
Though the best time of year to birdwatch does not generally align with best time of year to see wildlife, most parks in Africa have good birdwatching year-round. So unless you want to primarily visit Africa to birdwatch, you should be more than content with the resident bird life.
These endemic African birds typically inhabit riverine forests and broadleaf woodlands. Thus, they can be seen while you are in Tanzania (particularly Arusha National Park), but not in Botswana. They are recognizable by their long tails, beautiful green or violet plumage, nimble bounding in tree canopies and their shrill “barks.” Notable species include the Purple-Crested Turaco, Hartlaub’s Turaco and Schalow’s Turaco.
Rollers & Bee-Eaters
Rollers are fairly small, dimorphic, colorful birds that inhabit either woodland or savanna in both Tanzania and Botswana. They are quite noticeable and photo-friendly while on safari, not only because of their brightly colored plumage, but that they also tend to sit on prominent perches. They get their name from their rolling, aerial courtship. Notable species include the Lilac-Breasted Roller and the Borad-Billed Roller.
Bee-eaters are slender, dimorphic, brilliantly colored birds. They are distinguishable from Rollers by their thin, down-curved beaks. Their habitats vary from woodland to open savanna. Most breeding colonies nest in burrows along river banks; the Southern Carmines are a must-see if you plan on taking a boat ride in Botswana! Their diet includes bees and other insects. Notable species include the Southern Carmine Bee-Eater and the Little Bee-Eater (seen in both Botswana and Tanzania).
Starlings are medium-large passerines, meaning their talons are designed for perching. These passerines tend to have either bright yellow or red eyes and congregate in large flocks when not breeding.They can be tough to distinguish, as their glossy plumage can vary based on the angle of sunlight. Many species tend to adapt quickly to human activities, as they are often seen gathering food and flotsam at picnic and camp sites. Notable species include Burchell’s Starling (Botswana), Greater Blue-Eared Starling
(Tanzania, excluding the Serengeti region; Northern Botswana), and the Violet-Backed Starling (Botswana, excluding the south; Tanzania).
Hamerkops and weavers are the two bird species most-recognized for their nests. Most weaver species are small and have bright yellow plumage, though there are noticeable exceptions (Sociable Weaver, White-Headed Buffalo-Weaver). Most weavers feed on seeds, although they are occasional insectivores, returning caught insects for their nestlings. Each weaver has its own style of nest, some of which are quite sophisticated and/or contain lengthy entrances.
Notable species include Spectacled Weaver (Tanzania, excluding central; far north in Botswana), Red-Headed Weaver (northern and eastern Botswana; Tanzania, excluding east) and Village Weaver (Tanzania; Mashatu N.P. in Botswana).
Kingfishers are divided into three subsets: Cerylid, Alcedo, and Halcyon. Cerylid Kingfishers are large and relatively uncolorful; notable species include the Giant and Pied Kingfisher. Alcedo Kingfishers are, in comparison, much smaller, tend to have blue-and-orange plumage, and are most easily told apart by their beak pigment. Lastly, Halcyon Kingfishers are medium-sized and tend to have powder-blue feathers. Generally, you are likely to find Kingfishers wherever freshwater (especially rivers) meets forest.
Notable species include Malachite (Tanzania; northern & eastern Botswana), Pied (Tanzania; northern Botswana), and Woodland (Tanzania; northern & eastern Botswana).
Flamingos are divided into two species: Greater and Lesser. Both reside in similar habitats (salt lakes and lagoons) and are intra-African migrants. Lesser Flamingos are smaller, more intensely pink, and eat more algae than Greater Flamingos.
Herons, Egrets, Storks & Cranes
Herons & Egrets are large, long-legged wading birds with dagger-like bills. You are likely to see them foraging on lakeshores, pools and floodplains. Herons tend to be both larger than and more colorful than egrets. Notable species include the Goliath Heron (Tanzania; northern Botswana), Grey Heron (Tanzania; northern Botswana), Cattle Egret (Tanzania; Botswana), and Great White Egret (Tanzania; northern & eastern Botswana).
Storks, like herons and egrets, are large, long-legged wading birds. However, you can tell them apart while they’re in flight: unlike herons and egrets, storks fully extend their necks.Notable species include the Saddle-Billed Stork (Tanzania; northern Botswana) and the scavenging Marabou Stork (Tanzania; Botswana).
Cranes are similar to storks, but are recognizable by their smaller beaks and more erect postures. Additionally, they are renowned for their graceful, elaborate courtship “dances.” Notable species include the Wattled Crane (northern Botswana) and the Gray Crowned Crane (Tanzania; northern Botswana)..
Ostriches, Kori Bustards & Secretary Birds
Wild ostriches are found exclusively in Africa. They are unmistakable, not only as the world’s largest bird (many are over 7 ft tall), but that they are also completely flightless. You are likely to see the Common Ostrich in any arid savanna or semi-desert plains in either Tanzania or Botswana.
Like ostriches, Secretary Birds are African endemics. These raptors are incredibly unique, not only because of their long legs, but that they rarely leave the ground. You can find Secretary Birds in open savanna and grassland in both Tanzania and Botswana.
Kori Bustards are similarly large and cursorial (adapted to run), although less slender than Secretary Birds. Additionally, though mainly flightless, Kori Bustards have the distinction as the world’s heaviest flying bird. Kori Bustards can be found in semi-arid savanna and grassland throughout Botswana and northern Tanzania.
The three types of Hornbills your are most likely to see in Tanzania and Botswana are ground, yellow-billed and red-billed. Ground-Hornbills are mainly flightless; however, they aren’t truly cursorial, as they waddle instead of striding. You can see the Southern Ground-Hornbill in northern & eastern Botswana and throughout Tanzania. In contrast, yellow and red-billed Hornbills are smaller and are not flightless.
Yellow-billed Hornbills tend to be larger, while Red-Billed Hornbills have thicker beaks. Notable species include the Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbill (Botswana), Southern Red-Billed Hornbill (northern & eastern Botswana), and Northern Red-Billed Hornbill (northern Tanzania).
Africa is a haven for a variety of raptors, many of which only live in sub-Saharan Africa. You’ll find they’re often easier to identify in flight, as their plumage is easier to discern and each flies/soars differently.
Eagles are the largest of Africa’s raptors. Recognizable characteristics include long, fairly broad wings, feathered legs, powerful talons and a strong, hooked bill. Identifying them can be tough, as many of the species tend to have brown plumage and some juveniles will have different morphs (color).
Notable species include the Bateleur (Tanzania; Botswana), Martial Eagle (Tanzania; Botswana), African Fish-Eagle (Tanzania; northern & eastern Botswana), Long-Crested Eagle (Tanzania; northern Botswana), and the Tawny Eagle (Tanzania; Botswana).
Hawks, Buzzards, Harriers & Kites
There are several groups of Hawks, including Chanting Goshwaks, Accipters, and Buzzards. Chanting Goshwaks are identifiable by their rather long, red legs and their loud, cuckoo-like calls. Notable spcies include the Pale Chanting Goshawk (Botswana) and the Gabar Goshawk (Tanzania; Botswana).
Accipters have proportionately longer-tails and shorter, more rounded wings than Chanting Goshawks. They also tend to inhabit more densely wooded areas. Notable speices inlcude the Little Sparrowhawk (Tanzania; northern & eastern Botswana) and the (misnomered) African Goshawk (Tanzania; northern & eastern Botswana).
Buzzards tend to be larger than both Chanting Goshawks and Accipters. Their wings are fairly broad, while their tails are rounded. They also havefor their plumage diversity: telling buzzard species apart isn’t too tough! Notable species include the Augur Buzzard (Tanzania) and Steppe Buzzard (Tanzania; Botswana).
Harriers are large-tailed raptors with long, narrow wings and loose flight. Except for eagles, they are the largest raptors. They tend to be migratory, so you’ll likely not see them during the dry season. Notable species include Montagu’s Harrier (Tanzania; Botswana).
Larger kites can be confused with Harriers, while the smaller kites are unmistakable for their plumage (white, grey and/or black) and their red eyes. Notable species of the former include Black and Yellow-Billed Kites (Tanzania; Botswana); notable species of the latter include the Black-Shouldered Kite (Tanzania; Botswana).
Falcons & Kestrels
Falcons & kestrels are the smallest of the African raptors. Uniquely, they also possess a notch, on their upper bill which functions as a tooth. The smallest will tend to hover, while the larger species’ flight is fast and direct.
Notable species include the Common Kestrel (Tanzania), Amur Falcon (Tanzania, excluding western; Botswana, excluding eastern), and the Lanner Falcon (Tanzania; Botswana).
Vultures are arguably the most well-adapted scavenging bird, as their impeccable eyesight allows them to pick out large carcasses while effortlessly soaring thousands of feet above the ground. Some species are crafty; the Egyptian Vulture (northern Tanzania; northern Botswana) breaks ostrich eggs by throwing small rocks at them.
Notable species include Ruppell’s Vulture (Tanzania; Botswana), Lappet-Faced Vulture (northern & central Tanzania), and the Hooded Vulture (Tanzania; northern Botswana).
While most of the previous birds discussed are diurnal (active during the day) owls are primarily nocturnal. Their is a large variation in size, plumage and diet among owls, but a common characteristic is their incredibly acute hearing and their near-silent flight.
Notable species include the Pel’s Fishing-Owl (northern Botswana; parts of southern Tanzania), Spotted Eagle-Owl (Tanzania; Botswana), and Barn Owl (Tanzania; Botswana).