Birding Zambia: An Introduction

Lion and birds in Zambia

Leon Marais is a nature photographer and journalist who covers the wild and wonderful landscapes of southern Africa. He also serves as a guide in partnership with Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris. Photos courtesy Leon Marais / John Davies / Lawson’s.

Situated in the heart of south-central Africa, the country of Zambia is one of the region’s prime wildlife destinations. From the vast woodland and floodplains of Kafue National Park in the centre of the western ‘bulge’, to the great parks of the Luangwa Valley in the east, the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the north and the mighty Victoria Falls in the south, Zambia offers the discerning wildlife enthusiast a wealth of sights, sounds, wildlife and true wilderness.

Zambia is a landlocked country slightly larger than the State of Texas, with no fewer than eight different neighbours (Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, the DRC, Angola and Namibia). It is dominated by a plateau which gives it an average height of 1,200 meters (3937 feet) above sea level, and moderates the climate somewhat, making most regions a fair bit milder than they otherwise would be given the country’s position between the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn. Certain areas, such as the Luangwa River valley, a southern extension of the East African Rift system, and the Zambezi Valley, are much lower in altitude (300 meter / 984 feet a.s.l) and can be brutally hot during the summer. In terms of drainage, the Luangwa, Kafue and other rivers in the south flow into the Zambezi system, while to the north the rivers drain into the Congo basin.

Zambia - river and wildflowers

The climate is classified mainly as humid subtropical, with two distinct seasons: a hot summer rainy season, and a cooler winter dry season, though the dry season can again be divided into a cool dry season (May – August) and a hot dry season (September to October and early November). Much of the plateau has reasonable rainfall, averaging up to 1300 mm per year, while some regions have as little as 500 mm per year. Much of the country is covered by a broadleaf woodland type known as Miombo, interspersed with grassy ‘dambos’, or marshes. Miombo is incredibly rich, with some 8,500 species of plants, over half of which are endemic, and an associated avifauna component which is also fairly unique. Despite the dominance of the Miombo woodland, several other important biomes are also represented in Zambia, such as evergreen forest, Afromontane rain forest, savannah and wetlands.

Zmbia - road through forest

Zambia’s a human history is very similar to that of most of the region’s other countries, in that it was first occupied by San hunter-gatherers, the ‘First Peoples’ of Africa, who were then joined by Khoi pastoralists, followed by the arrival of the more powerful Bantu people from further north. Europeans began arriving in the 1800’s, most famously Dr David Livingstone, the first European to see the mighty falls on the Zambezi in 1855. In 1911 Zambia, then known as Northern Rhodesia, became a British colony, which it remained until independence in October 1964. Since the turn of the century the politics have stabilized and the country has seen a period of increased growth and prosperity, though of course it’s still a poor country by western standards.

Zambia Birding:

Zambia has a bird list of around 750 species, a fair number considering that most of the country falls under the Zambezian biome. It has only one true endemic species, Chaplin’s Barbet, though Black-cheeked Lovebird is near-endemic, occurring marginally across the border into Namibia (the status of birds in Namibia is uncertain). Considering the size of the country, the rates of endemism are very low, but where Zambia comes into its own in birding terms is the Miombo specials of south-central Africa, Zambia being one of the most accessible places for these species, and also offering a shot at some of the Congolese rainforest specials in the far north-west of the country. Another feather in Zambia’s cap is the Shoebill population of the Bangweulu Swamps, this strange, pale ‘stork’ being one of Africa’s most sought-after birds.

Zambia - birds in flight

In birding terms, Zambia can be divided into Eastern and Western regions.

Eastern Zambia includes several key birding and wildlife regions, such as the Bangweulu Swamps, home to the Shoebill and large numbers of endemic Black Lechwe; Kasanka National Park, famous for the millions of Straw-coloured Fruit Bats which arrive in early December; North and South Luangwa National Parks, two of Africa’s great big game parks; the pristine Miombo of Mutinondo Wilderness, the Shiwa Ng’andu estate, and several other smaller National Parks and game management areas such as Luambe National Park, Lukusuzi National Park. Major habitats include Miombo woodland, Mushito (a moist evergreen forest) and Papyrus swamp.

Some significant species include: Shoebill, Ross’s Turaco, Bocage’s Akalat, Anchieta’s Barbet, Bar-winged Weaver, Spotted Creeper, Wattled Crane, Miombo Scrub-Robin, Black-necked Eremomela, Anchieta’s Tchagra, Souza’s Shrike, White-winged Babbling Starling, Swamp Nightjar.

Zambia (Image courtesy Leon Marais-John Davies-Lawson’s)-6

The western ‘bulge’ of Zambia incorporates the capital city of Lusaka as well as Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World; the wilderness regions of Lower Zambezi and Kafue National Parks; some lesser known parks such as Lochinvar, Blue Lagoon and Liuwa Plain; and the exciting birding near the headwaters of the Zambezi River near the Congo border in the north-west. The western region is also where the endemic Chaplin’s Barbet can be found among the fruiting fig trees of the Choma district, and where the near endemic Black-cheeked Lovebird can be found in the dry woodland west of Livingstone. Some of these places are well developed in terms of tourism, others are distinctly undeveloped and require a hefty dose of the adventuring sprit, but either way Western Zambia is a must on the regional birding itinerary.

Some significant species include: Chaplin’s Barbet, Black-cheeked Lovebird, Livingstone’s Flycatcher, Shelly’s Sunbird, Black-collared Bulbul, Füllerborn’s and Grimwood’s Longclaws, Purple-throated Cuckoo-Shrike, Black-necked Eremomela, Laura’s Woodland Warbler, White-tailed Blue Flycatcher, Böhm’s Bee-eater, Barreed Long-tailed Cuckoo, Buff-throated Apalis.

Zambia Wildlife:

Zambia has a host of national parks, reserves and game management areas. Many of the smaller national parks are relatively unknown and have poorly developed infrastructure. South Luangwa, on the other hand, is well known as one of Africa’s great parks and is easily accessible by air charter from Lusaka. Most visitors to Zambia will pass through South Luangwa during their travels, and will be privy to some spectacular game viewing, particularly in the dry season when the shrunken Luangwa River supports one of the densest Hippo populations on the continent. Visitors to the other parks will however be rewarded with some incredible game viewing, often under conditions of incredible exclusivity, with few other human beings within hundreds of square kilometers.

Hippo

Zambia’s main wildlife region is the Luangwa River Valley in the east of the country. South Luangwa National Park is the most well developed, with a range of camps and safari lodges operating both within the park and on the eastern bank of the Luangwa River, which technically falls outside the borders of the park. Although game does cross the river from the west, most game drives take place within the park, where certain safari operators are allowed to conduct night drives. Highlights of South Luangwa include fantastic Leopard sightings, the massive Hippo and Nile Crocodile population (when the river is at its lowest in late winter the remaining pools are literally packed solid with Hippo’s), superb Elephant encounters, large Lion prides and Thornicoft’s Giraffe and Cookson’s Wildebeest, two subspecies which are endemic to the valley.

North Luangwa National Park is a less developed version of South Luangwa, with very few safari operators and plenty of untamed wilderness. The walking safari was pioneered in the Luangwa Valley and both North and South Luangwa National Parks offer superb walking opportunities.

Elephants

In the west the mighty Kafue covers some 22 500 km², one of the continent’s biggest national parks. Much of the park floods in the summer months, with the inundated floodplains attracting vast numbers of waterbirds. In the north are the Busanga Plains, a region of open grasslands that can provide some spectacular game viewing. Mammal diversity in Kafue is higher than in the Luangwa Valley and species to be seen include Lion (the Busanga Plains highly rated for sightings of this apex predator), Leopard, Cheetah, Wild Dog, Roan, Oribi and Red Lechwe in addition to the more usual African savannah species.

Other wildlife highlights in Zambia include the huge herds of endemic Black Lechwe on the margins of the Bangweulu Swamps, the wildebeest migration of Liuwa Plains, and the great general game viewing of Lower Zambezi National Park.

Zambia offers the discerning wildlife enthusiast a wealth of sights, sounds, wildlife and true wilderness.

Zebras

Leave a Comment