The Best Places for Birding Safaris
Where are the best safari destinations for birding safaris that showcase Africa’s spectacular avian diversity? Cape Town-based guest blogger David Bristow shares his top two favorites.
It’s always most rewarding when you plan a holiday around a theme, there’s even a book about it: wearing horse heads in foreign cities, agreeing to meet your friends in some foreign city, but not saying where, you get the idea. Easier ones could involve food and wine pairing or art galleries. Or birding safaris.
People who have been on safari more than once or twice invariably become bird fixated. While the big, toothed and furry creatures come and go fleetingly, there are always birds to watch.
The more you get to know the birds the more your safari guide will take you seriously, because they all do take it seriously.
Start with binos and books
You will need a good pair of bins, or binos, or for the uninitiated binoculars, as well as a bird field guide specific to your safari area. Bins and binos came in many shapes and sizes, but go for a small to medium pair (if they get too big holding them steady becomes a problem). All good photographic stores have them.
On the subject of field guides, one size does not fit all. You would need quite different guides for Southern, East and another for Ethiopia/the Horn of Africa if you’re headed that way (and you should be, but more later).
There are numerous great locations for birding safaris in Africa including the Kruger National Park in South Africa, Serengeti ecosystem in Tanzania, Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, Odzala rainforest reserve in Congo-Brazzaville (the peaceful one) and Damaraland in Namibia. However, if you want the best of the best, you want to book your seat to the Okavango Delta in Botswana or, or and, Bale Mountains in Ethiopia.
Okavango Delta: a haven for birds
For my money the Okavango is simply the best safari destination in the world. It is a mysteriously verdant wetland, the largest inland delta in the world, and chockablock with big game, small game and birds birds birds. The wetland is surrounded by the vast arid Kalahari Basin and it includes islands large and small encircled by skits of riverine forest.
The variety of habitats supports an unbelievable diversity of life, and the game lodges are not shabby at all. The list of birds is just too long to discuss, but it includes water birds, desert birds, bush birds, birds of prey – pretty much everything except sea birds (although you could see gulls and terns).
The bird specials of Ethiopia’s Bale Mountains
Bale is very different. It is a mountain stronghold, the alpine summit plateau at a bracing 4,000 meters or around 12,000 feet above sea level, creating a “secret world” wildlife refuge. The sides of the massif are cloaked in cloud forest where, incidentally, it is believe the humble but vital coffee bean originated. In one day you can tick more lifers here than just about anywhere else on earth.
Bale has the greatest concentration of endemic organisms (things that live only there), of any place of comparable size on the planet. One ace in the Bale pack is James Ndung’u, chief guide at Bale Mountain Lodge one of Africa’s outstanding birding guides.
The list of Bale bird specials includes the blue-wing goose, slender-billed starling, spot-breasted lapwing, chestnut-naped francolin, wattled ibis, thick-billed raven, white-cheeked turaco, blue-wing lovebird, streaky seedeater, black-faced citril, mountain thrush, Tucazze sunbird, yellow-bellied waxbill, Abyssinian oriole, Abyssinian eagle owl and Abyssinian white-eyed slaty flycatcher.
You are also guaranteed to see the Ethiopian wolf, rarest large predator in Africa that looks more like a fox or coyote but is more closely related to the American grey wolf. The lodge is the only one of its kind in the region and well worth visiting for its own sake, even if only to say you have.