This article appears by kind permission of the author Keith Betton and Travel Africa magazine http://www.travelafricamag.com. Keith Betton is Chairman of the African Bird Club, and has travelled widely through the African continent. Minor modifications have been made to ensure compatibility with the ABC Checklist and the format used throughout the website.
Africa is an amazing continent for birdwatching. The mainland has recorded around 2,250 species, of which about 1,500 are found nowhere else. On top of this, Madagascar adds about another 100 endemic species, with a further 40 if you include the Indian Ocean islands. When given the challenge of writing about Africa's top ten birding sites I asked many people for their recommendations. Over 40 sites were suggested, and I have restricted myself to the mainland to describe ten of the best.
1. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda
No fewer than 23 of Uganda's 24 Albertine Rift endemic species are found here including globally threatened species such as African Green Broadbill Pseudocalyptomena graueri and Shelley's Crimsonwing Cryptospiza shelleyi, plus others such as Kivu Ground-Thrush Zoothera (piaggiae) tanganjicae, Oberlaender's Ground-Thrush Zoothera oberlaenderi, Dwarf Honeyguide Indicator pumilio, Lagden's Bush-Shrike Malacanotus lagdeni and Chapin's Flycatcher Muscicapa lendu. The area lies in the rugged Kigezi Highlands near the borders with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The habitat is mainly forest covering both mountain and lowland areas between 1,190-2,600 m. This altitudinal variation gives Bwindi some of the richest birding in Africa. Covering 33,100 ha, this is one of the largest forest areas in East Africa.
2. The Ocean off Cape Town, South Africa
Here the warm waters of the African coast mix with the cold Benguela Current which brings highly nutrient-rich waters up from the south, while strong winds create an upwelling that brings the nutrients to the surface. It is a prime fishing zone and trawlers provide a constant food source for pelagic birds. You have a very good chance of seeing species like White-chinned Petrel Procellaria aequinoctialis, Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus, Cape Gannet Sula capensis and Subantarctic Skua Catharacta antarctica. However, for most people the albatrosses are the key target - Shy Diomedea cauta, Black-browed D. melanophrys and both Atlantic D.(chlororhynchos) chlororhyncos and Indian Yellow-nosed D.c.carteri subspecies. The range of species is highest in the southern winter, when you can also see Southern Macronectes giganteus and Northern Giant Petrel M.halli, Pintado Petrel Daption capense, Antarctic Prion Pachyptila desolata and Antarctic Tern Sterna vittata. Occasionally you can also find rare albatrosses such as Wandering D.exulans, Southern D.(epomophora) epomophora and Northern Royal D.e.sanfordi and Grey-headed D.chrysostoma.
3. Mount Kupé, Cameroon
A total of 27 bird species are restricted to the montane forests of western Cameroon, Bioko, and eastern Nigeria. Fifteen of these have been recorded in the Mount Kupé forest, and two of them were first described from the mountain, the White-throated Mountain Babbler Kupeornis gilberti and the Mount Kupé Bush-Shrike Telophorus kupeensis. About 330 species have been seen around the mountain and in the 3,000 ha of habitat which surrounds it. Sadly there is much human encroachment to the mountain and much timber has been extracted. Key species in the area include Grey-necked Picathartes Picathartes oreas, Green-breasted Bush-Shrike Malacanotus gladiator, Monteiro's Bush-Shrike Malacanotus monteiri and Bates's Weaver Ploceus batesi. Access to the mountain is from Nyasoso, where the Mount Kupé Forest Project HQ is based.
4. Bale Mountain National Park, Ethiopia
At an altitude of 1,500 - 4,300 m these mountains are about 200 km south of Addis Ababa (although a lot further by road!). The nearest town is Goba. There are many habitats but the most impressive are the extremely high Afro-alpine grasslands of the Sanetti Plateau (the largest area of its type in Africa) where you can also see the rare Simien Fox hunting for Mole Rats. Target birds include the endemic Rouget's Rail Rougetius rougetii, Spot-breasted Lapwing Vanellus melanocephalus, Abyssinian Longclaw Macronyx flavicollis, Wattled Crane Bugeranus carunculatus and Eastern Imperial Eagle Aquila heliaca (in winter). The long road up the mountain trail is easily driven and is not steep. However you quickly feel the impact of high altitude on your lungs once you try to walk!
5. Caprivi Strip, Namibia
The Caprivi Strip is flat, featureless and blanketed in broad-leaf woodland, and well watered by Okavango and the Zambezi. Where the floodplains of these rivers cross the bird-rich tropical woodlands, such as in Mahango Game Reserve or along the Kwando River, they support a large number of birds. The river systems attract species such as Slaty Egret Egretta vinaceigula, Coppery-tailed Coucal Centropus cupreicaudus and Luapula Cisticola Cisticola (galactotes) luapula, African Skimmer Rynchops flavirostris, Rock Pratincole Glareola nuchalis, White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconotus, Pel's Fishing-owl Scotopelia peli. Other targets are the endangered Black-cheeked Lovebird Agapornis nigrigenis, Sousa's Shrike Lanius souzae and Sharp-tailed Starling Lamprotornis acuticaudus.
6. Djoudj National Park, Senegal
Djoudj is like an oasis in the Senegal River delta. The area is experiencing desertification and there has been an immediate effect on the ecosystem as sand dunes advance from the north-east and south along the river. The Grand Lac of Djoudj has slowly filled with sand over the years causing it to dry up quickly in any given year. Despite this, the park is one of the main habitats for migratory birds in West Africa. It hosts about three million birds per year composed of 366 different species including huge numbers of Garganey Anas querquedula, Northern Shoveler A.clypeata and Northern Pintail A.acuta. Such is the volume of birds that over 70,000 were ringed in the park in just two years.
7. Kruger National Park, South Africa
Comprising an area of two million hectares in the eastern Transvaal Lowveld, over 500 species have been seen in this famous National Park. This diversity includes a number of vulnerable or otherwise rare species, and of the 167 bird species designated in 1980 as 'vulnerable or warranting conservation attention', 102 are reported to occur or likely to occur in the park. Away from the campsites visitors are car-bound, however six Wilderness Trails can be explored on foot with rangers. In particular the northern sandveld areas of Pafuri and Punda Maria are favoured by birders and are less busy with other tourists. Target species include Southern Hyliota Hyliota australia, Bohm's Spinetail Neafrapus boehmi, Dickinson's Kestrel Falco dickinsoni and Pel's Fishing-owl Scotopelia peli.
8. The Rift Valley Lakes, Kenya
Surely Lake Nakuru has done more than any other place to promote the idea of birding in Africa to people the world over. Set in picturesque surroundings and bounded by the Mau escarpment, two craters and two ranges of hills, it is possible to see a pink mass of up to 1,400,000 Lesser Flamingos Phoeniconaias minor along the lake shore. Mixed in with them are up to 9,000 Greater Flamingos Phoenicopterus ruber, and around them are Sacred Ibises Threskiornis aethiopicus and African Fish Eagles Haliaeetus vocifer looking for scraps. The Lake is 140 km north of Nairobi, but a further 70 km north is the steaming Lake Bogoria with another flock of flamingos. However the best site of all for birding is a further 20 km north at Lake Baringo. Here you can stroll around the lake edge and in the woodland savanna with ease. A very wide range of species can be seen quickly, including Hemprich's Tockus hemprichii and Jackson's Hornbills T.jacksoni.
9. Murchison (Kabalega) Falls National Park, Uganda
Situated 250 km north-west of Kampala, this park is the best place in the world to see the Shoebill Balaeniceps rex - an incredible stork-like bird with an enormous boat-shaped beak. A launch makes regular trips 11 km upstream to the spectacular waterfalls where the Nile is forced through a gap merely 10 m wide. Below the Falls, there is a narrow strip of papyrus on both banks and two pairs of Shoebill regularly inhabit this area. Few people miss them and many ordinary tourists also get to see this much sought-after species that is actually in a genus of its own. There are plenty of other birds to see including Rock Pratincole Glareola nuchalis, and away from the river there is lush forest and river plains.
10. Tendaba Camp, The Gambia
About 150 km along the Gambia River, well away from the tourist areas along the coast, Tendaba Camp is a great place to get into the bush without roughing it too much. Jeep tours into the surrounding area are available, but much of the best birding is within walking distance of the camp. The Gambia River is easily explored by boat with good chances of seeing local specialities such as White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconotus, African Finfoot Podica senegalensis and African Blue Flycatcher Elminia longicauda. The whole area is good for birds of prey, particularly in winter.
There are so many great birding locations in Africa that you could fill a whole issue of Travel Africa with them all. For more information on Africa's priority bird conservation sites, consult the recently-published tome "Important Bird Areas in African and Associated Islands". Another great source of information is "Where to watch birds in Africa" by Nigel Wheatley although this is now out of print.
African Bird Club
The African Bird Club is the leading organisation concerned with the conservation and study of Africa's birds. It has over 1,000 members in 61 countries. It publishes an illustrated Bulletin every six months which includes papers on bird identification, distribution and conservation. ABC supports projects around Africa and has provided over £260,000 of help to projects.
Top 5 Tips for birding in Africa
Get good bird identification guides. Africa is well-covered by bird books with excellent illustrations, so to travel there without a bird book is pointless. To find the best guide for your destination look at the Book & Media Sales page. If you follow this link then WildSounds will donate 5% of any purchase you make to the ABC Conservation Fund.
Also there are many bird sound CDs and cassettes. Identifying bird calls will still be a challenge, but these will make the task easier. Using these recordings to attract a bird to you should only be undertaken in moderation to avoid unnecessary disturbance. A wide selection of recordings can also be found at Books and Media.
There is plenty of site information on the web. Use a search engine such as http://www.google.com to search the Internet for trip reports and other bird data. There is also a huge amount of information for each counry on the ABC website.
Use local bird guides to show you around. In many African countries there are local birdwatchers who will help you to find the birds. Some of these do this for a living while others do so voluntarily. Using a local guide will get you a bigger list - and quicker! Take a look at http://birdingpal.com
Finally - give yourself enough time! There are many places where you can see 100 species before breakfast - but be prepared to wait much longer for those hard-to-see forest skulkers.