5 Tips for Beginner Birdwatchers on an African Safari

When planning an African safari, it’s easy to get caught up in Big Five mania. However, there’s more to the continent’s wild places than elephants and rhinos. For those willing to take note, Africa is also home to a plethora of spectacular bird species - nearly 2,500 of them, to be exact. Ranging from the tiny Cape penduline-tit to the common ostrich (the largest bird on Earth), this wealth of avian life means that it is impossible for birdwatchers to be bored on safari. 

There’s nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a new bird species for the first time, or of finding a regional rarity where you least expect it. More than that, though, birdwatching (or birding, as it’s also sometimes known) gives you the excuse to spend hours surrounded by the tranquility of the African bush. It teaches you to delight in the little things, to sit quietly and revel in the spectacle of nature. In this article we look at five easy ways to enhance your birdwatching experience

  • 01 of 05

    Learn Your Birds

    Five Tips for Beginner Birdwatchers on an African Safari
    ••• Mangrove Kingfisher, South Africa. Jessica Macdonald

    If you’re new to birdwatching (or new to your intended destination), the first step is to familiarize yourself with the area’s birdlife. The best way to do this is to buy a regional bird book, and take the time to look through it before your safari. Start by learning how to differentiate key bird families. This means being able to tell your herons and bitterns from your kites and hawks; or your owls from your ducks and geese. Knowing the characteristics of each family is the first step to identifying the birds that you see in the bush. 

    Once you’ve identified which family a bird belongs to, there are several indicators that help you to pinpoint the exact species. The first of these is size and shape - is it a large bird, or a small one? A slender, long-necked bird or a robust bird with short legs? The shape and color of the legs and bill are also key identifying features. A sunbird, for example, has a long, curved beak; while a canary’s is blunt but powerful. Your bird book should also...MORE give you information about each species’ habitat and distribution, which can help you to make an accurate ID. 

    When learning your birds, pay special attention to the differences between male and female birds of the same species. Juvenile birds often look completely different to adults, and some (especially your birds of prey, or raptors) come in different color morphs. Many smaller bird species, like larks and pipits, look almost identical, and are most easily identified by their calls. Bird identification is a talent that takes decades to perfect - but don’t get discouraged. You’ll be surprised by how quickly you pick up the basics. 

  • 02 of 05

    Know Where to Look

    Five Tips for Beginner Birdwatchers on an African Safari
    ••• Pygmy Falcon in a Sociable Weaver Nest, Namibia. Jessica Macdonald

    Knowing where to look is almost as important as knowing what to look for. This means picking a safari destination that’s known for its birdlife - Mkhuze Game Reserve in South Africa and the Caprivi Strip in Namibia are two excellent choices. It also means learning where to look for certain species. This can be quite general: for example, secretary birds are usually seen in areas with plenty of open grassland, while African goshawks favor deciduous forests. It can also be more specific - for example, pygmy falcons are often seen in or around sociable weaver nests. 

    Head to dams and rivers to look for waterbirds, and keep an eye on the skies for soaring raptors. If you already have a list of species that you’d like to see, make sure to do your research in advance. Some of Africa’s most charismatic birds have a very small distribution. The endemic Cape parrot, for example, is restricted to small patches of afromontane forest in eastern South Africa. If it’s your first time visiting a...MORE reserve (or if you’ve never tried birdwatching before), the best course is to hire the services of a local bird guide

  • 03 of 05

    Choose the Right Binoculars

    Five Tips for Beginner Birdwatchers on an African Safari
    ••• Scanning for Birds, Namibia. Jessica Macdonald

    Binoculars are a birdwatcher’s best friend. Without them, it’s almost impossible to spot far-away birds, or to get a clear view of the characteristics that help with identification. There are countless options available, ranging in price from around $100 to $2,000 or more. Obviously, top-of-the-range binoculars by legendary brands like Swarovski and Leica deliver the best viewing experience, but it really isn’t necessary to bankrupt yourself. With that being said, saving up for a decent mid-range set is well worth the investment. 

    So, how to choose which binoculars are best for you? All binoculars have a set of numbers on them that look something like this: 8x32. The first number refers to their magnification, and the second refers to the width of the lens in millimeters. For birding, a magnification of between 8 and 10 is ideal. The wider the lens, the better - because wider lenses let in more light, which makes it easier for you to see detail in low light conditions. Try several...MORE models before you buy. You’ll want to assess each one for the clarity of the image, the ease of focusing and the focal range. 

    Birding can be tough on your equipment, so choosing a sturdy, waterproof set of binoculars is essential. Some models (like the recommended mid-rage Vortex Viper HD 8x42) include a lifetime warranty. 

  • 04 of 05

    Make the Most of Technology

    Five Tips for Beginner Birdwatchers on an African Safari
    ••• Photographing Rock Kestrels, Namibia. Grant Macdonald

    Consider investing in a good quality camera, so that you can record your sightings and work on identifying tricky species in the comfort of your own home. Essentials for a birding camera include a high ISO (the setting that enables your camera to achieve good photos in low light conditions) and a fast shutter frame rate. The more frames you can shoot per second, the more likely you are to get that perfect take-off shot. Magnification is also important, whether you opt for an SLR with a telephoto lens or a bridge camera with a good internal zoom. 

    If you plan on traveling with a smartphone or iPad, make sure to download a bird app. For those heading to Southern Africa, the best option is the Roberts VII Multimedia app. As well as a standard field guide, this app allows you to compare similar birds and play bird calls. It also helps with identification, provides a map of the region’s best birdwatching sites and allows you to create personal sighting lists. Whether you choose to use an app...MORE or more traditional notepad, keeping a list of the birds you’ve seen is a great way to maintain interest - be warned though, it’s addictive. 

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Get the Timing Right

    Five Tips for Beginner Birdwatchers on an African Safari
    ••• Spotted Eagle Owl, South Africa. Jessica Macdonald

    As with many things in life, timing is everything for birdwatchers. Different species are more active at different times of the day, so you’ll need to plan your safari accordingly. Generally, early morning and late afternoon are best, with many birds preferring to stay hidden during the hottest part of the day. However, raptors are often spotted riding the mid-morning heat thermals, while some birds  (like nightjars and certain owl species) only come out after dark. If you can, book at least one night drive so that you can get the best of both worlds. 

    Timing is also about picking the right season. Below the equator, summer brings an influx of seasonal migrants from the colder climates of Europe and Asia. Waterbirds leave when their habitats dry up, and return with the start of the rainy season. Often, the rains also coincide with the hatching of insects, which attracts insectivorous birds in their thousands. The right season depends on what species you’re looking for and where you’re...MORE going. Consult your bird book or travel guide, or consider asking the advice of a local birding group before planning your trip.