While many travellers head to Africa in search of the furry and fearsome Big Five, a growing number of visitors are arriving with their binoculars trained on something altogether smaller. For avid twitchers, Africa boasts some of the best birdwatching on the planet.

Realising that ticking every one of the world’s 11,000 species off their list is beyond their reach, “a lot of birders are now focussing on seeing every single bird family in the world,” explains Adam Riley from Rockjumper Birding Tours, who says that of the 240 bird families found worldwide “Africa has about a dozen bird families that occur nowhere else.”

Northern Masked Weaver [Photo: Avian Safaris]
South Africa’s Sugarbirds and Rockjumpers are unique on the planet. In the heart of Africa, the striking Shoebill is one of the highlights of Uganda, while Ghana is the best place to see Picathartes (rockfowls), Egyptian Plovers and Hyliotas. “Ghana is very popular, as it is the only country in West Africa that has good infrastructure, is very stable, is English-speaking and has a lot of the West African bird species that can’t be found anywhere else in the world,” adds Riley.

Cape Sugarbird [Photo: Adam Riley for Rockjumper Birding Tours]
And although more famous for its annual wildebeest migrations, Tanzania is a hotspot for birding in East Africa. While South Africa is home to around 850 species, Tanzania counts north of 1000, with the birdlife both prolific and diverse, particularly in the equatorial regions.

While the combination of superb birding and developed infrastructure sees South Africa and East Africa claim most of the continent’s twitching tourists, adventurous travellers are also beginning to venture further afield. “Rwanda is becoming very popular now. It is a small country with a lot of diversity,” says Riley. “It is really good for gorilla viewing, but also has excellent birds [and] many of them are endemic to what is known as the Albertine Rift Valley.”

Shoebill [Photo: Keith Valentine for Rockjumper Birding Tours]
Heuglin’s Francolin [Photo: Avian Safaris]
Ethiopia and Cameroon have also proven popular in the past for their array of rare species, but “political instability has meant that our tours to Ethiopia and Cameroon have had to be cancelled,” cautions Marje Hemp from tour operator Birding Africa.

Morocco is also growing in popularity, offering up a range of species endemic to the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert. Winter in the northern hemisphere is the best time to visit, thanks to the mild temperatures and added bonus of sighting over-wintering European migrants.

Choosing the right combination of destination and season is critical for a twitching safari. South Africa’s best birding is between October and March, with local species in breeding plumage and European and African migrants swelling the ranks of feathered subjects. The Western Cape region, in particular, boasts high degrees of endemism (species found nowhere else), and offers with the opportunity for pelagic birding on daylong boat trips south of Cape Point.

Regal Sunbird [Photo: Avian Safaris]
Uganda’s combination of gorillas, rainforests and birding has also helped to make it a sought-after destination for adventurous birders. “March until mid-June, and September to November, are good for sighting breeding resident birds. Then you can see them in breeding plumage, and much more easily as they have young ones to take care of,” explains Crammy Wanyama from Kampala-based Avian Safaris. “October to March is good for Palaearctic migrants.”

Many birders visit Africa with plans to do little more than stare down the barrel of their binoculars, but local operators cater for casual, enthusiastic and obsessive twitchers. “Most of the tours we offer are for the keen, but not too fanatical birder,” says Riley from Rockjumper Birding Tours. “Then we also offer a wide range of tours that appeal to soft-core birders who also want to spend a lot of their time and focus looking at wildlife or flowers or enjoying wine.”

Red-throated Alethe [Photo: Avian Safaris]
“Our tours all have a birding focus, but we are happy to include novices too as well as those who enjoy mammals and other wildlife,” adds Hemp. “’Listers’ will go for our more endemic bird tours. Our Cape Town day tours are aimed at both ‘listers’ and the novice birder.”

Red-throated Bee-eater [Photo: Avian Safaris]

John Segar

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