Africa: Top Ten Destinations for Bird Watching

In Birding the Dark Continent of Africa, I provided an overview of this superb continent. Now I will suggest my opinions for the first 10 African countries to visit, in descending order of priority.

Most first-time visitors to Africa understandably also wish to see the megafauna, so it makes sense to narrow it down to southern or East Africa.

1) SOUTH AFRICA

The number one country for a first time visit to Africa might well be South Africa. South Africa is an amazingly picturesque country with lots of mountains, beautiful white sand beaches and so much more. The overall experience of being in this country is wonderful and we find that birders often return here as often as they can, even once they’ve seen most of the birds. It’s a big country, though and takes many weeks of pure birding to get to grips with the species, which is of course a good excuse to return and to have another good time in a wonderful country.

South Africa has the Big 5, as well as an amazing diversity of smaller mammals. The Kruger National Park and the Zululand game reserves have considerable numbers of smaller mammal species as well. Given a 2-week birding tour starting in Durban and ending in Johannesburg, one will see all these mammals and also end up with a respectable bird list of around 400 species. Adding the Cape, one of the most scenically spectacular corners of the continent, you might add another 100-150 bird species, whales and more.

South Africa is relatively inexpensive, and has a vast network of friendly and comfortable B&B’s. It’s easy enough to bird the country on a self-drive, but it’s often more efficient to link up with a birding tour operator. For more reading about the essential parts of South Africa that need to be covered, I will post a series of suggested itineraries, below, in the If You Go box. If you have limited time and just want to see the big mammals and a ton of birds, then a tour of the Kruger Escarpment area is an excellent adventure.

Cape Town has some of the world’s best pelagic trips. This is a rare bird in South Africa though, Salvin’s Albatross (photo by Andre Stapelberg)

Cape Town has some of the world’s best pelagic trips. This is a rare bird in South Africa though, Salvin’s Albatross (photo by Andre Stapelberg)

 

2) TANZANIA

The alternative to starting first in South Africa is to do what my company calls “An Introduction to Africa,” which is a week in Tanzania. In fact, if you have more than about a week, Tanzania is arguably the best country to visit second but giving it at least 2.5 weeks if possible. By birding Tanzania, you’ll add a host of East African endemics, and also most of the 20 country endemics.  You can also see your first Miombo (south-central African) endemic birds in Tanzania. And, you’ll see a great many of Africa’s big (and small) animals, along with some of the continent’s most famous sites. These include the Great Rift Valley and its flamingo-filled lakes, the Serengeti with its relatively easy to see Big Cats & Wildebeest migration, Ngorongoro Crater and last but not least, Kiliminjaro, one of the world’s most massive isolated mountains. Africa’s highest mountain rises straight out of the wildlife-riddled plains below, to a dizzying 19,341 feet above sea level.

Cheetah in Namibia (Photo by Martin Benadie)

Cheetah in Namibia (Photo by Martin Benadie)

 

3) UGANDA

If in the long run you plan on visiting several other African countries as well, 12 days here is enough to generate the essential Ugandan birds (Shoebill, the Albertine Rift endemics, Green-breasted Pitta, etc.) plus mammals (especially Gorillas and Chimps but the country also has magnificent Colobus Monkeys and more). Even 19 days in Uganda would certainly not be wasted! In this little country called “The Pearl of Africa” you’ll find the people fluent in English and even friendlier than in other parts of Africa, and you’ll also see the Albertine (or Western) Rift, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the source of the Nile at Jinja, Africa’s biggest lake (Victoria) and vast Papyrus Swamps inhabited by Shoebill, a monstrous birds placed by some authorities in its own order because it’s so different from any other species on earth.

The monstrous Shoebill is best seen in Uganda but Zambia is also good for it ((photo by Ken Harris)

The monstrous Shoebill is best seen in Uganda but Zambia is also good for it (photo by Ken Harris)

 

4) CAMEROON

Next, a West African country is probably in order. Even if you’ve already done the first three countries mentioned above, if you now visit West Africa for the first time you’ll still get literally hundreds of life birds. West Africa is rougher than southern or eastern Africa and you’ll find that accommodation is more basic – but at most birding sites you’ll still get a (barely) adequate level of comfort including hot water showers – if you join an organized birding tour. Cameroon is arguably the best West African starter country, since you’ll see the country endemics, as well as the more widespread West African rainforest species, and also many Sahelian birds. If you’re a serious world birder, you’ll also need to visit one of the Upper Guinea Forest countries at some stage or another in your African birding career. Ghana is probably the best one because its local guides have staked out the birds there more than elsewhere on the Bulge of Africa, and it is English-speaking and all in all rather easy to visit. It is historically rich, but you’ll be sobered since the history is not pretty and is dominated by memories of the slave trade.

Ghana is less strenuous than Cameroon and if you only ever bird a single West African country, Ghana is not a bad one to choose. The third West African country that comes most highly recommended is Gabon. It has Lowland Gorillas, Mandrills, arguably West Africa’s best mammal viewing in general, and a huge diversity of birds, quite a number of which you won’t see in Cameroon or Ghana. It’s a pricey country but many people who are interested in wildlife as a whole rather than specifically birds make it their top West African country to consider. Two of Africa’s richest islands for endemic birds are within Gabon’s offshore territory – Principe and Sao Tome. These islands have many exciting birds found nowhere else in the world.

 

Gorilla (Silverback)

Gorilla (Silverback)

 

5) NAMIBIA

Namibia is a must-visit African country since it is so very unique, with the world’s oldest desert including the highest sand dunes in the world, which are a spectacular red color, other massive sand dunes coming right down to the sea, rugged desert mountains along the Namibian Escarpment, desert elephants and rhinos, one of the world’s greatest game parks and my personal favorite of all of Africa’s parks, the vast Etosha National Park. And, last but not least, Namibia has a whole bunch of birds that are only found there or in adjacent Angola.

While in Namibia, it is easy to foray briefly into Botswana to see PEL’S FISHING OWL, one of Africa’s most sought-after birds, Slaty Egret, a Botswana near-endemic, and tons more, in the nearby panhandle of the Okavango Delta. And, since you’re so close to one of the world’s most impressive waterfalls, Victoria Falls, a 2-day foray to this site either from the Zambian or Zimbabwean side is very worthwhile and will anyway add lots of new birds to your burgeoning list. I recommend something like an 18-days tour to bird Namibia/the Okavango/Victoria Falls. By the way, Botswana is the “Gabon” of southern Africa – expensive, not all that strategic for birds (after you’ve spent a couple of days there tacked onto your Namibian tour), but absolutely brilliant for those into general wildlife viewing and photography rather than just birds.

Pel’s Fishing Owl (photo by Mike Nelson)

Pel’s Fishing Owl (photo by Mike Nelson)

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Chris Lotz at southernmost point of Africa

Chris Lotz

Chris is the founder of Birding Ecotours and since childhood has been an incredibly enthusiastic birder. He particularly loves tracking down owls, but other favorite birds of his are falcons, harriers, pittas and, well, all Read More

Leave a Comment

  • Lajos Nemeth-Boka April 6, 2013, 17:05

    Hi, Nice list, but I mean are you serious not put Kenya among the top 3, or even as the No.1.???
    Nothing even coming close to the habitat diversity of Kenya, the only country where you have everything from real deserts to rainforests. Its not by accident, that even the daily world record was taken place in Kenya, and was never beaten. And than the big games, the landscape… not to mention that Kenya is the original safari country, with all its traditions. Furthermore if its not only about birds, but overall birding-satisfaction, than there is nothing really left to compare.
    Cheers, Lajos

    Reply
  • Chris April 8, 2013, 13:58

    Hi Lajos and others. Kenya is amazing and one can easily argue that it should be in the top 3! In many ways I agree with you. As far as strategically birding the African continent goes, I disagree with you, for the following reasons (and this is discussed in great detail during the rest of my blog post on “birding the dark continent of Africa”:
    1) Kenya has very few endemics
    2) this means that if you have limited time and money, it is better to bird Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia, rather than Kenya.
    3) If you bird these 3 adjacent countries mentioned, you’ll end up with most of Kenya’s birds anyway, along with the endemics of Ethiopia, Tanzania and the Western (Albertine) Rift.

    I’d say that if you will only ever visit one African country in your life, you should seriously consider Kenya. You are right that Kenya has an almost unbelievable concentration of birds – and the trip lists from Kenyan tours, as well as day lists you can get in Kenya, are among the highest in the world.

    Kenya is one of my personal favorite birding destinations, but I suggest birding the 3 neighbouring countries mentioned above if you’re a serious world lister, and omitting Kenya.

    It looks like the political situation in Kenya has improved a lot over the last 5 years, also making it an increasingly attractive destination

    Reply
  • Chris April 8, 2013, 14:04

    Further to what I said above in reponse to Lajos’ excellent contribution, I emphasize that I completely agree with you Lajos – except for the problem of lack of endemics…for a first or only visit to Africa, Kenya is a brilliant choice! But if you have limited resources for world travel, it might be more strategic to instead bird Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia – Kenya is, very very sadly, less essential than any of its neighbours to the south!

    Reply
  • Advantage Safaris Africa May 25, 2013, 16:26

    Thank you for the information about birding spots in Africa.I think Uganda,Rwanda and Tanzania are the best for East Africa.This region has many endemics and the forests have better infrastructure thus making birding easy.Most of the sought after birds like the Shoebill,Grauers rush warbler,Rwenzori turaco etc are commonly seen by keen birders with enough time to explore.
    Thank you

    Reply
  • Chris Lotz July 28, 2013, 09:40

    Thanks so much, Alexander, for your kind message, and I am delighted you liked the article!

    Reply
  • Ed Hutchings August 15, 2013, 16:15

    Hi Chris,

    Great selection, but I’m very surprised not to see The Gambia on the list. Nothing from North Africa either.

    All best,

    E.

    Reply
  • Chris August 15, 2013, 17:40

    Thanks Ed, for your comments! I would say Ghana has many of the Gambia’s birds, plus a whole lot more, hence my choice of that. But Gambia is of course very good!

    Yeah, I concentrated on sub-Saharan Africa really – North Africa has more affinities with Europe and the Middle East.

    Reply
    • Ed Hutchings August 15, 2013, 20:40

      Fair enough Chris, though for me it’s not about the number of species or endemics, etc. I’m interested in the individual, sometimes unique, habitats within each country and the ambience peculiar to that part of the world. That’s an essential element of birding for me. For example, I would never compare Morocco to Europe or the Middle East. The Atlas Mountains have a particular flavour all of their own.

      Reply
  • Chris August 16, 2013, 04:19

    Thanks Ed! Oh yes, Morocco is absolutely amazing – just beyond the scope of the blog I wrote. I really appreciate your kind input.

    Reply
  • Claudius October 9, 2013, 09:30

    One of the strangest and most wonderful birds is the Marabou stork. With a wingspan of up to 12 feet and up to 5 feet tall it is very impressive indeed. Sometimes called the ‘undertaker bird’ because of its look and demeanour it is well worth the photo. Found throughout central and southern Africa. I lived in Ethiopia for some years with a nesting tree just outside my gate. Though not the neatest of birds, certainly one of the most interesting.

    Reply
    • Chris Lotz October 10, 2013, 02:11

      Claudius, EXCELLENT commentary – thanks so much!!

      Reply
  • Herbert Opio January 10, 2014, 02:18

    Hello Chris,

    It’s fantastic that you actually mention Uganda which is a very interesting country for birding. The beauty is that the Savannah somehow ends in Uganda on its way from the East Africa to West Africa, and morphs into tropical rainforest just separated by the rift valley. So you’ll find Savannah birds and Tropical forest birds where you wouldn’t find then in many places. Plus water birds and a host of pale-arctic birds. That i guess is what makes both Uganda and Tanzania special for birders.

    Herbert Opio

    Reply
    • George Byomuhumuza March 16, 2017, 12:55

      Thank you Opio;actually Uganda is probably the best birding destination in the whole of Africa.

      Reply
  • Ben January 10, 2014, 07:49

    I believe Uganda should be no 1 because we have 11% of the world’s bird species, 50% of African and about 75% of east Africa’s species. Some our birds are endemic to Uganda. What criteria did you follow to give us a third position.

    Reply
  • Chris January 10, 2014, 08:30

    Thanks Ben. South Africa is an excellent value for money country and it’s we find it is easier to get a high quality trip with good accommodation, air conditioned vehicles, etc, for a good price, in this country than in Uganda. The infrastructure is much better so it’s far easier to get to the birding sites. It has more Endemics than any other African country. Uganda has only 1 Endemic although it’s a great place to find Albertine Rift Endemics. The birds in South Africa are mainly easy to see – Ugandan birds can take a bit more work to find – many forest birds. South Africa has incredibly wonderful scenery. These are some of the criteria I used in my personal top 10 sites – other criteria are discussed in the blog text as well. Trust me, I love Ugandan birding!! But it depends what criteria you use as to whether you call it number one or not.

    Reply
  • Mamerito (@Mamerito) January 11, 2014, 05:12

    Hi! Uganda accounts for 50% of Africa’s bird species, according to Birdlife International and Nature Uganda. Semuliki National Game Park, Mabamba Bay Wetland site & Budongo Forest provide excellent bird watching opportunities. For birding safari travel to Uganda, contact Pearl of Africa Tours & Travel [www.pearlofafricatours.com]for travel inspiration and planning!

    Reply