During my 33-hour trip from Wisconsin to South Africa last November, I was excited to read this synopsis of the country in the 2017 book The Birder’s Guide to Africa by bird guide and conservationist Michael Mills:
“South Africa, for good reason, is probably [Africa’s] most-birded country. With more than 75 endemics and near-endemics and essentially two endemic bird families (rockjumpers and sugarbirds), it is among Africa’s top birding countries. Add to this Africa’s finest travel infrastructure, good food, low prices, easy birding in spectacular landscapes, fantastic game reserves, wineries, and a whole host of other tourist attractions, and you have a first-class destination for any birder.”
In fact, Mills developed a “Bird Importance Score” for the continent’s 68 countries and territories, considering bird endemism and diversity, safety, cost, ease of a traveler’s experience, and other factors. South Africa ranked second on his list, behind only Madagascar.
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My trip was quick — just over a week — and it was thrilling. I visited two high-end private nature reserves and in between made a quick stop on the southwestern coast, at a publicly accessible park called Stony Point Nature Reserve, to see endangered African Penguins.
At Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, located in the Western Cape province about two hours southwest of Cape Town, I was immersed in the fynbos biome in the Southern Hemisphere’s spring season.
The fynbos, an area of shrublands and grasslands found only in southwestern South Africa, is home to six endemic bird species and several other species that are strongly associated with the plant community. Cape Sugarbird, the males of which have a long, flowing tail, was the star attraction. And in agricultural fields nearby, I was treated to sightings of South African’s national bird, the Blue Crane.
For the second half of the trip, I stayed at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, a vast property in eastern South Africa on the edge of the even larger Kruger National Park. The pristine wilderness is home to the “big five” game animals — lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo — as well as giraffe, wild dog, hyena, zebra, wildebeest, waterbuck, impala, and many other animals.
Nearly 350 bird species have been recorded at Sabi Sabi. They include species from families familiar to North American birders, such as eagles, vultures, plovers, and ibises, as well as “exotic” birds like coursers, bulbuls, go-away-birds, and scimitarbills.
During the trip, I saw about 150 bird species, largely thanks to amazing guides — Ruaan Barnard at Grootbos and Lazarus Mahore and Louis Mkansi at Sabi Sabi. Thanks also to Sony for loaning me an RX10-IV camera to use during the trip. A few of the photos I shot with it appear in the gallery below (and others are in galleries on our website).
What follows are brief notes about a dozen of South Africa’s most iconic birds — the ones every traveling birder would hope to see. If you have the opportunity to make it to the country that Archbishop Desmond Tutu coined the “Rainbow Nation,” I guarantee you’ll come away with not only an expanded life list but also a new appreciation for our planet’s incredible wildlife.
The world’s largest hornbill, measuring up to 50 inches long and weighing as much as 13.7 pounds. Ranges from Kenya to South Africa, mostly confined to large reserves and national parks. Lives in groups of five to 10 individuals. Habitat: Savanna, woodland, grassland. Status: Vulnerable. Photo by Martin Mecnarowski/Shutterstock
Getting there: Several major airlines fly from North American cities to Johannesburg, and international and regional flights also go to Cape Town and Durban. The country has a very good system of roads.
Birding tours: Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, WINGS, Rockjumper, Tropical Birding, Field Guides, Eagle-Eye Tours, and other companies offer birding tours of South Africa. At least three companies offer pelagic birding excursions from Cape Town and other ports.
Safety: The country is generally safe for travelers, especially if you’re with a tour group. The usual precautions apply, including being careful where you go after dark.
Travelers’ vaccines: The CDC recommends most travelers receive vaccines for hepatitis A and typhoid. For some areas, including around Kruger National Park, a malaria vaccine is warranted.
For info about the places I saw, visit the websites for Grootbos Private Nature Reserve and Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve as well as Natural Migrations Wilderness Safaris. —M.M.
See Matt’s photos from South Africa’s Western Cape
See Matt’s photos from South Africa’s pristine Lowveld landscape
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