Rather than try to select a birding ‘top 10’ (almost impossible) I have selected 10 birds that anyone would be privileged to see on safari – with each also presenting a bit of a challenge. Each is colourful, localised, but not necessarily uncommon (but will likely stop even your guide in his tracks).
There is no shortage of suitable candidates but I am sure few would argue that all 10 are ‘show-stoppers’ on any safari:
1. Pel’s fishing owl
A large and distinctive owl found along major river systems below 1500m as well as lakes and even mangroves. Pel’s are extremely uncommon, and just as difficult to locate – not helped by the fact that they are nocturnal! Best locations are the Okavango Delta, South Luangwa, the Zambezi River, Murchison Falls and Selous GR.
2. Carmine bee eater (southern and northern)
A migratory species that can be seen between late September and March/April, generally near water in areas below 1200m. The southern carmine can be found at established breeding locations along river banks along the Zambezi River and the Okavango Delta region (Selinda, Linyanti and Savute) in Botswana, whilst the northern carmine can be seen in northern Uganda, north and east Kenya and the Selous GR in Tanzania.
3. Bearded vulture (or Lammergeyer)
Unfortunately extremely rare, these birds occur in mountainous terrain or volcanic craters and require precipitous cliffs for breeding – locations include the Drakensburg in South Africa, Simien Mountains (Roof of Africa) and the Great Rift Valley in East Africa.
4. Vereaux or black eagle
Black eagles can be found in rocky or mountainous country from 900 to 3500m above sea level in areas where their main prey, rock hyrax, occur. The highest concentration of these attractive eagles can be found in the Matobo Hills in Zimbabwe although they are widely distributed throughout southern, central and East Africa.
5. Crowned eagle
A distinctive forest-dwelling eagle with short, broad wings and long tail used for navigating through the forest canopy in search of prey. Large and very powerful talons. Rather uncommon but can be found in forested parts of southern and East Africa and in the tropical rainforests of West Africa.
6. Crimson-breasted shrike
This incongruous, bright red chested shrike is found predominantly in drier thornbush country - Hwange NP in Zimbabwe and Chobe NP and the Okavango region of Botswana. Not dissimilar in appearance to the more common black-headed gonolek of Uganda. A beautiful yellow variant can also be seen on occasion – beyond ‘special’.
7. Racquet-tailed roller
What sets this particular roller apart from all of the other stunning rollers are a pair of small ‘racquets’ at the end of the tail (and its relative rarity). Although listed as occurring across a swath of miombo woodland regions including southern Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe I can only vouch for three locations - Mana Pools NP in Zimbabwe, the Selous GR in Tanzania, and northern Kruger NP (Pafuri).
8. Flamingos (lesser & greater)
Hard to resist, these stunningly long-legged algae feeders are migratory, with their choice of water body determined by season and weather patterns – look for them in Arusha NP, Ngorongoro crater and Lake Ndutu in Tanzania, the alkaline lakes of the Great Rift Valley (breeding grounds at Lake Natron) and salt pans of Etosha in Namibia and Makgadikgadi in Botswana (and in small numbers in the Bazaruto Archipelago in Mozambique).
9. Abyssinian ground-hornbill
Cousin to the more widely distributed Southern ground- hornbill, with blue rather red on the face, the Abyssinian is found in much drier, semi-arid woodland and open grasslands in northern Uganda (Kidepo NP) and northwest Kenya as far south as Lake Baringo.
With a bill like a Dutch clog and gun-metal colouring this most incongruous stork-like bird is well worth the effort – try the Bangweulu Swamps in Zambia, Lake Albert and Murchison Falls NP in Uganda.
11. Vulturine guinea fowl
Found in the semi-arid bush country of northern Kenya (Samburu, Shaba, Buffalo Springs, Meru) this is a spectacular looking terrestrial gamebird boasting cobalt-blue and white breast feathers over a traditional black-and-white guineafowl plumage. They live in small flocks and are a genuine standout on safari.
Also on my list were the one-of-a-kind bat hawk, the pennant-winged nightjar, African grey parrot, crowned eagle, violet-eared waxbill, violet-backed (or plum-coloured) starling, and so many others…but I think each of the above would qualify on anyone’s list.
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