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Hartley’s top destinations in Africa for birding safaris

Bird watching holidays in Africa are unique, with around 2300 bird species found in Africa, you'll be kept busy almost every moment of your birding holiday. The standard of guiding is superb throughout the continent and you can be sure of a great experience. There are scheduled birding safari departures to specific destinations, but private custom bird watching tours are also available.

From Zambia with over 400 species of bird occurring in The Luangwa Valley, this is a stunning destination for any ornithologist. One of the top raptor spotting destinations in Africa is the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, shared between Botswana and South Africa.

Large populations of both Lesser and Greater flamingos breed in some of the Rift Valley Lakes, particularly Lake Nakuru in Kenya. The Rift valley also forms a “flyway’ for many species of migrant moving from southern Africa to Western Asia and eastern Europe.

In central Africa the Albertine Rift Valley of Rwanda and Uganda offers specialist tropical birds with many endemics. Uganda alone has a national checklist of more than 1000 species. “Special sightings” include the Ruwenzori Apalis, Ruwenzori Turaco and the Green-breasted Pitta. Uganda is also a good place to look for the enigmatic Shoebill.

Madagascar is another birding hotspot – of the approximately 290 species recorded on the island just over 100 are endemic – in other words they are found nowhere else on earth.

Further places to explore would be The Bale Mountains in Ethiopia; Mana Pools in Zimbabwe, the Cape Coastal areas, the Kwa Zulu Natal reserves and the Kruger National Park in South Africa, the Okavango Delta in Botswana and Etosha in Namibia to name a few.

When should we go birding?

The best time to see birds in Southern Africa is between November and March. These countries are all excellent destinations with many birding Safaris available: South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi.

In East Africa, the best time to go birding is January - March. Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia are all very popular birding destinations during these seasons.

West Africa offers a huge and exciting variety of birds and the best time to visit Cameroon, the Gambia and other destinations is during the European winter from November to March.

How to get a good bird’s eye view:

There are two elements essential to the enjoyment of any African birding safari – plenty of birds, and excellent guiding.  When asked by guests, what is needed for birding, a simple answer is a good pair of binoculars, a sun hat and a notebook if required.

More than anything you will need a good pair of bins / binos or for the uninitiated binoculars, as well as a bird field guide specific to your safari area.  Every naturalist using binoculars has an opinion on magnification, and there is never a shortage of advice as to what constitutes the best magnification for safari goers and birding.  Taken from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology here are 6 steps to choosing the correct binoculars

  • For almost any bird that crosses your path, a good pair of binoculars will show you fine details, make colours pop out of shadows, and improve your chance of identifying what you’ve seen. For most bird watchers, binoculars soon become almost an extension of their bodies.

  • Decide on your price range. Top-of-the-line binoculars give you a pristine image in a comfortable, durable package. Lower price ranges also offer some great options, thanks to technological advances in the last decade.

  • Pick a magnification. Deciding between 8x and 10x binoculars is a personal choice. In general 10x are better at distance birding. But it usually also means a narrower field of view, a slightly darker image in low light, and more noticeable hand-shake. An 8x gives you a smaller image that’s wider, brighter, and easier for finding and following birds. Test a lot of models. No two birders look through binoculars exactly the same way. Size of hands, shape of face, how you focus, how you carry the bins when you’re not using them—all matter. So pick up as many pairs as you can to get a feel for what suits you.

  • Look for bright, crisp, true colour. Image quality has an overriding importance. How bright are the bins? How sharp? How true are the colours? How well do they resolve details in a backlit image? Most optics stores are better lit than your average forest—find somewhere dark to compare low-light performance. In our ratings, pay special attention to the Clarity/Crispness score to decide on image quality. Note that because of poor image quality, we don’t recommend any compact-style binoculars with objective lenses smaller than about 30 mm.

  • Check the eye relief. Most binoculars have eyecups that retract to accommodate eyeglass wearers or extend to provide shading for those without. Look for durable, multi-adjustable eyecups. If you wear glasses, adjust the eyecups to their minimum position and make sure there’s enough eye relief—you shouldn’t see black rings around the image.

Review additional features and warranties. Pay attention to field of view and close focus, two measures that affect how much you’ll see. Also pay attention to durability, waterproofing, and warranty—many major optics companies now offer excellent warranties.

Recommended Birding books:

  • Birds of Southern Africa by Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey, and Warwick Tarboton:  This is a truly excellent bird identification guide. The illustrations are on par with the great Sibley guide of North America and they depict a range of plumage variations (such as differences in gender, age, or region.) This comprehensive list includes each of the 900 plus species which occur in Southern Africa.

  • Collins Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa:  The Collins Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa is an excellent book if you are visiting any of the countries in this this spectacular birding region, including Kenya and Tanzania.

  • Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa:  The eighth edition of this popular Southern African birding book has been updated to incorporate the information obtained since the previous edition relating to the birds of the region. 

  • Sasol Birds of Southern Africa:  The book features an advanced technique for improved field identification, and an extensive taxonomy featuring corrected misidentifications and recorded species splits that have occurred since the previous edition.

  • Birds of East Africa is the classic, indispensable field guide by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe covering the birds of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.

  • Beat about the Bush: This African birding book by Trevor Carnaby is the latest in the excellent ‘Beat About The Bush’ series in which the most common and interesting questions about the bush are answered, the kind of questions that a safari guide is often asked.

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SATSA No. 207

Hartley’s Safaris is registered with Southern Africa Tourism Association Registration number 207.


Hartley’s Safaris
South Africa (Pty) Ltd
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Copyright © 2016 Hartley's Safaris SA

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SATSA No. 207

The air holidays and flights shown are ATOL Protected by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Our ATOL number is ATOL 3958. Many of the flights and flight-inclusive holidays on this website are financially protected by the ATOL scheme. But ATOL protection does not apply to all holiday and travel services listed on this website.

Please ask us to confirm what protection may apply to your booking. If you do not receive an ATOL Certificate then the booking will not be ATOL protected. If you do receive an ATOL Certificate but all the parts of your trip are not listed on it, those parts will not be ATOL protected.

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