Birdwatching in South Africa: Our Top 10 Bird Sightings
Everyone deserves to go on a trip of a lifetime & my turn came around 5 years ago when I went to South Africa on my honeymoon. A safari has been on my bucket list since I can remember & one of the reasons for this is my love of wildlife. In particular, I enjoy trying to spot the different bird species whenever I visit somewhere new. Over the years I have been very lucky to have seen the majority of bird species that live in or regularly visit the UK. Don’t get me wrong – I still love seeing our resident wildlife, but it’s still super thrilling to see something new. However, going abroad, particularly somewhere that is 12 hours away by plane & has a dramatically different climate & environment to what I’m used to, all meant I couldn’t wait to see what flora & fauna wonders I would find!
And wow it didn’t disappoint! We saw over 300 different species of wildlife. It was a hard choice, but here are my top 10 favourite bird sightings:
Orange-Breasted Sunbird on Table Mountain
We saw this stunning male Orange-breasted sunbird on our hike up Table Mountain. Just look at the colours of this small bird! It is actually endemic to the fynbos habitat of SW South Africa so wouldn’t be seen anywhere else. They mainly subsist on nectar from erica & protea flowers – hence the long, curved bill. This particular male bird was pretty tame & was quite happy to sit & have his photo taken!
2. African Harrier Hawk at Hermanus
This African Harrier Hawk was quite a surprise sighting – we were getting ready in our hotel room & spotted something very large moving about outside the window! The hawk had discovered a nest of young birds which he was picking off one by one. Despite being a bird of prey, the African Harrier Hawk is actually omnivorous as it will eat the fruit of the oil palm. However, it is most certainly designed to raid nests, as was seen here, as it can actually climb using its wings, feet & double-jointed legs to reach nests in cavities.
3. Pied Kingfisher at Knysna
Knysna is well known for its wetland lake habitats & it is where we saw a very large group of pied kingfishers diving for fish. The telephone wires stretching across the lakes made for ideal perching points to hunt from. I love their black & white plumage & we spent hours watching them hovering across the water & diving vertically to catch their prey. They don’t even need to sit down to eat their catch – they are quite capable of swallowing it whole as they fly!
4. Spotted Thick Knee at Port Elizabeth
Despite being a nocturnal bird, this Spotted Thick Knee decided to have a wander around someone’s front garden which made for a great photo opportunity! It’s long legs & brown speckled plumage make ideal camouflage, especially when nesting. The name ‘thick-knee’ apparently comes from the expanded tibiotarsal joint on its legs.
5. Glossy Cape Starling at Amakhala
Yes, I have included a starling in this list! We have thousands of common starlings in this country, but just look at the colours on this glossy starling! Whilst we were on safari, this beautiful bird was sat atop a bush with the sunlight catching his chest creating this stunning greenish-blue colour. Behaviour wise, glossy Cape starlings are very similar to our resident starling species, preferring to live in large groups, feed on the ground & regularly imitate sounds heard in the environment.
6. Black-Headed Heron at Hermanus
We spotted numerous Black-headed herons throughout our time in South Africa, but I just love this photo of one against the rapeseed fields. We mostly saw these herons by water where they stood in wait for fish or frogs. However, we also saw them in fields as we drove by, probably looking for insects, small mammals & birds. The heron stalks its prey by moving slowly through the grasses or reeds, swaying its head from side to side entrancing the victim. Once close enough, it stands dead-still before striking.
7. Secretary Bird at Amakhala
One of THE most incredible birds I’ve ever seen was this Secretary Bird. We spotted this one whilst on safari at Amakhala. It gets its name from its head feathers which are said to look like quill pens. It’s a pretty enormous bird, standing up to 4 feet tall & walks on extremely long legs up to 20 miles per day! We actually saw it in flight which was really funny as it doesn’t hold its legs up like other birds but just lets them dangle down. Secretary birds are birds of prey & favour snakes.
8. Malachite Kingfisher at Knysna
This probably has to be the most beautiful bird I’ve laid eyes on. The colours are just stunning. The Malachite Kingfisher is similar to the Kingfishers we see in the UK but are somehow even more colourful. I can still clearly remember the African sun reflecting off their metallic blue backs. We saw a few of these birds, always by water sitting on perches looking for fish. This one was sitting alongside a river amongst the trees, but we also saw them sitting in reed beds overlooking lakes.
9. African Darter at Amakhala
A strange looking bird, we saw a multitude of these African Darters on our journey, although always by water. This one was photographed on a river cruise we went on whilst on safari. This African Darter is often called a Snakebird because it is often seen swimming with only its neck above water. Unlike many other waterbirds, the feathers of the African darter do not contain any oil & so are not waterproof. This means its diving capabilities are enhanced, however, after diving for fish, the feathers become waterlogged. So it can keep warm & be able to fly, it needs to dry its feathers. This explains why we would often see the Darters sitting by the water spreading their wings & drying their feathers.
10. Brown Hooded Kingfisher
Finally, I have included the Brown Hooded Kingfisher in my Top 10. Yes, it’s another Kingfisher, but ever since I was young kingfishers have fascinated me & I’ve made it a mission to see as many types as I can. I find these Kingfishers particularly interesting as they are tree Kingfishers living in woodland rather than wetlands. It forages on the ground mainly searching for insects. We saw numerous Brown Hooded Kingfishers on our journey as we spent a lot of time driving through woodlands & grasslands. This one was perched right out in the open on a telephone wire!
My passion for birdwatching started when I was just 10 years old. I’ve always loved nature & wildlife & I’ve been so lucky to be able to tick off some pretty incredible animal sightings. As a busy mum I don’t have as much time as I would like to pursue my hobby at the moment, however, it is something I am looking forward to doing more of when my kids have grown up! I don’t believe you’re ever too old to do what you love, as proved by these inspirational individuals who have embraced life after 50.
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