Home to more than 960 bird species (98 of which are endemic), Southern Africa is a veritable birder’s paradise. The region’s prolific birdlife is explained by its incredible array of unique habitats, ranging from the arid savannas of Namibia and Botswana to the lush coastal forests and fynbos of South Africa. For the purpose of this article, Southern Africa is defined according to leading bird guide Roberts Birds of Southern Africa, which covers the continent south of the Cunene and Zambezi rivers. This area includes Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland and parts of Mozambique.
Mkhuze Game Reserve, South Africa
Located to the northwest of Zululand’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Mkhuze is one of the best year-round birding sites in South Africa. It boasts a number of habitats ranging from acacia savanna to rare sand forest and provides a home for more than 420 species. With good roads and a series of excellent hides, it’s also easy to navigate. The sand forest is a great place to spot endemics like the pink-throated twinspot and the Neergaard’s sunbird, while guided walks through the park’s Fig Forest offer the chance to spot southern banded snake-eagles and broad-billed rollers. Nsumo Pan is a hotspot for waterbirds ranging from pink-backed pelicans to the elusive Pel’s fishing owl.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
In addition to being the country's premier safari destination, Kruger National Park is a legendary birding hotspot. While animal lovers keep an eye out for the Big Five, birders can go in search of the avian Big Six: the saddle-billed stork, the kori bustard, the martial eagle, the lappet-faced vulture, the Pel's fishing owl and the ground hornbill. Including these celebrities, the park is home to more than 500 bird species, some of which cannot be seen anywhere else in South Africa. Serious birders head to the Pafuri and Punda Maria areas in the far north of the park, where regional rarities occur in abundance. Seven Wilderness Trails and 11 viewing hides (two of which you can sleep in overnight) also allow for remarkable close encounters.
Cape Coast, South Africa
More than 100 seabird species have been spotted along the length of South Africa’s spectacular coastline, but when it comes to pelagic birding, the nutrient-rich waters of the Cape are second to none. At the fishing grounds south of Cape Point, trawlers attract a smorgasbord of species. Winter (May - September) is the most prolific season for pelagic birding trips, bringing with it exciting visitors from the Southern Ocean including the black-browed albatross, the northern royal albatross and the Antarctic prion. In summer, phalaropes, shearwaters and skuas are commonly seen, while a visit to Cape Town also provides the opportunity to visit a colony of endemic African penguins at nearby Boulders Beach.
Sani Pass, South Africa & the Lesotho Highlands, Lesotho
Located on the road between Underberg in South Africa and Mokhotlong in Lesotho, breathtaking Sani Pass is known for its high density of endemic bird species. Whether you join a birding tour or drive the 4x4 route yourself, you'll pass through a spectrum of habitats from riverine scrub and protea thickets into the mountains of uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park. Regional specials to look out for along the way include the bush blackcap, the Barratt's warbler, the Gurney's sugarbird and the Drakensberg rockjumper. Once you cross the border into the Lesotho highlands, Karoo scrub species such as the large-billed lark and the fairy flycatcher take over. Keep an eye on the skies for magnificent bearded vultures.
Caprivi Strip, Namibia
A narrow strip of land in the northeast corner of Namibia, the Caprivi Strip is bordered by the Okavango, Kwando, Chobe and Zambezi Rivers. Its tropical climate offers a sharp contrast to Namibia’s arid birding destinations and a chance to spot more than 450 species. Popa Falls is an area highlight, known for woodland species including the African wood owl and the African goshawk. Mahango Game Reserve is home to approximately two-thirds of Namibia’s bird species, including floodplain residents like the wattled crane and the rufous-bellied heron. Okavango Delta specials such as the slaty egret and the coppery-tailed coucal can also be spotted here, while migrants are common between November and April.
Walvis Bay, Namibia
Sheltered, shallow bays are hard to come by on Namibia’s dramatic coastline, but Walvis Bay ticks both boxes - making it one of Southern Africa’s most important coastal wetlands. It is a paradise for seabirds, shorebirds and waders, which often gather in aggregations of up to 150,000 birds at a time. Walvis Bay is known for its vast flocks of greater and lesser flamingos, and for its high density of intra-African and palearctic migrants. October to April offers the best chance to spot these visitors, with highlights including the chestnut-banded plover, the red-necked phalarope and the black-tailed godwit. Harbor cruises also offer the chance to spot petrels, skuas and great white pelicans.
Nyanga National Park, Zimbabwe
Part of the Eastern Zimbabwe Mountains Endemic Bird Area, Nyanga National Park is home to more than 300 different types of bird, including several rarities. Its patches of wet montane forest provide particularly good birding, harboring endemic species like the swee waxbill, the Barratt’s warbler and the Chirinda apalis. Other highlights include the vulnerable blue swallow, the Livingstone’s turaco and the taita falcon. The park is also known as a hiking destination and is therefore safe to explore on foot, giving birders and bird photographers the opportunity to get closer than vehicle safaris would typically allow. November to April is the best time to visit, although birding is good all year round.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
Arguably one of the best birding destinations on the continent, the jewel-like Okavango Delta boasts more than 500 recorded bird species. It is spectacular throughout the year, although those willing to brave the rains of the southern hemisphere summer (November to April) will be able to add intra-African and palearctic migrants to their resident sightings. Traditional dugouts or mokoros offer a soundless way to explore the Delta’s waterways, whose reeds provide a haven for kingfishers, cormorants and rails. Okavango specials include the slaty egret, the lesser jacana and the Hartlaub’s babbler, whilst Pel’s fishing owls and white-backed night herons are also much sought-after highlights.
Chobe River, Botswana
Over 450 bird species have been recorded in Chobe National Park, most of which can be seen on or near the mighty Chobe River. River cruises are a good way to make the most of potential sightings, while the optimum birding season runs from September to March. At this time, the arrival of visiting migrants increases the river’s resident bird population by up to 20%. Diversity is key here, with sightings ranging from kingfishers to waders to raptors. Large storks are frequently seen, including the marabou, the saddle-billed and the openbill; while the riverbanks provide nesting space for colonies of iridescent carmine bee-eaters. Rarities include the rock pratincole and the African skimmer.
Bazaruto Archipelago, Mozambique
Mozambique may be less geared towards birders (and tourists in general) than South Africa or Namibia, but there are nevertheless 15 Important Bird Areas within its borders. Washed with turquoise waters and famous for its scuba diving, Bazaruto Archipelago is also a birding hotspot with over 180 species recorded on its five main islands. It’s a winter migration destination for northern hemisphere waders like the lesser sand plover and the grey plover, making the austral summer the optimum time to visit. The islands of the archipelago also provide the opportunity to spot an array of colorful residents, including the Narina trogon, the African green pigeon and the locally rare Madagascar bee-eater.