The Guide to Bird Watching in the African Bush

You can imagine that if you head to Africa and plan to go on a safari, you have visions of the Big 5 in mind; lions, leopards and elephants are what they anticipate seeing, and hopefully are also what you get to see.

However, the feathered inhabitants in the African bush often get overlooked, and this is a real shame, seeing as how their sheer numbers and diversity are far greater than those of the mammals.

Where to start, though? That is the tricky part. It can be a daunting prospect setting out to try and identify a few hundred birds. But as Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” So too should birding. Start with a few basics, learn ten or twenty different birds, and hopefully this will be enough to pique your interest.

Learn these and I can almost guarantee you’ll start to want to know more…

  1. Emerald Spotted Wood Dove

eswd - wildeyeview

Photograph courtesy of Wild Eye View

The difference between a pigeon and a dove is pretty vague, so don’t even ask. Secondly, a number of them can look quite similar, so I thought I’d avoid those, also avoiding the green pigeon which, although beautiful, can be a difficult species to spot as it spends its time in the dense canopy of fruit trees.
The Emerald Spotted Wood Dove is an easily recognisable species. It spends much of its time on the ground foraging, and when startled flies off with rapid wingbeats. A patch of cinnamon is visible on the trailing edge of the wings at it flies.
The bird gets its name from the brilliant emerald spots seen on its wings, although the emerald is not as iridescent and is a little bit harder to make out when the bird is in shadow. In direct sunlight however, it certainly does look like two brilliant jewels are embedded in the wings. As DNA analysis and species classification has developed in recent years, so too have a number of birds had their names changed in order to keep up with the times, and the emerald spotted wood dove was changed to the emerald spotted dove, and then the far less romantic sounding green-spotted dove. Thankfully however, the powers that be reinstated the original name, and the emerald spotted wood dove is what it is today. You should see a number of these pretty little birds during your time here, whether in the camp or out on drive.

2. African Fish Eagle

Fish Eagle Sumeet Moghe

Photograph by Sumeet Moghe

One Africa’s – more iconic birds, the African Fish Eagle is often to be seen (and heard) soaring above the Sand River in front of the camp decks. A pair of them actually nest on the opposite side of the river, and their courtship flights during the breeding season are something to behold. Although it’s difficult to tell male from female on appearance, they can be distinguished when calling in duet, as the male has a higher pitched call than the female.

The Fish Eagle obviously gets its name from the fact that it eats fish, and so successful is it as a hunter that it only needs to spend about 1% of its day actually engaged in the activity of fishing. Having said that, these large eagles often find it easier to simply steal from other birds, and on many occasions I have seen them watching and waiting for a heron or stork to snatch up a fish, and then swoop down to scare the rightful owner of the catch away.

Look out for fish eagles flying above camp in the day time, or perched above a waterhole in the morning or evening.

3. Giant Kingfisher


Photograph by Marco Valentini

Continuing the waterbird theme, we thought we’d introduce the Giant Kingfisher. As the name suggests, this bird also catches fish, plunging into the water to spear them with its powerful sharp bill. A highly vociferous bird, the giant kingfishers of the river can often be heard uttering their nasal chatter as they fly.

The bird in the picture above is a female, identified by the russet only starting low down on her belly. The male giant kingfisher has the russet patch higher up towards his chin. If you imagine the male wearing a russet shirt and the female a russet skirt, it makes it easier to remember…

4. Grey Heron

grey heron - jj harrison

Photograph by J.J. Harrison

One of Africa’s more ubiquitous waterbirds, the grey herons are often found at large waterbodies, either wading in the shallows or perched on the bank or a prominent feature. Their colouration makes them almost impossible to confuse with almost any other heron here, except occasionally the black-headed heron, although since the black-headed heron is quite rare in these parts and doesn’t frequent water-side habitats as closely, the situation should not arise.

Looking at the photograph, it is easy to see how the body structure of the heron is perfect for stabbing at fish. The long neck provides the thrust and the sharp bill is the weapon.

5. Pied Kingfisher

Kingfisher Marco Valentini

Photograph by Marco Valentini

Another relatively ubiquitous bird, the pied kingfisher is significantly smaller than the giant (25cm vs 44cm) yet is far more numerous, with multiple individuals being found along most stretches of the river.
The pied kingfisher is difficult to overlook, as it fishes from a hovering position (flying stationary in one spot) above a pool, diving vertically onto its prey. Kingfishers (and other fishing birds) have a unique ability to compensate for the refraction of light through the water. In essence, the fish or prey species they are looking at under the surface is not actually where it appears to be, yet their brain makes calculated adjustments that sees them diving down to the right spot.

6. Purple Crested Turaco

Purple-crested_Turaco_Richard Daniels

Photograph by Richard Daniels

This is a bird that is heard far more than it is seen, but is worth including for its sheer beauty. A frugivore, it spends most of its time in the densely foliated canopies of the riparian trees that are found dotted throughout the bush, particularly the figs and Jackalberries. It’s loudkok-kok-kok call is usually the first giveaway of its presence, possibly followed by a brilliant flash of scarlet as it spreads its wings and flies to the next tree. The bright red pigment, Turacin, that forms this colour, is unique to the Turaco family, as is its counterpart, Turacoverdin, that gives some turacos their green hues.

7. White-Browed Robin Chat

Robin-Chat - dirk human

Photograph by Dirk Human

Another bird that is heard more than it is seen, the white-browed robin chat has a beautiful melodious call, which we often associate with the robins. This bird has also changed its name, as it used to be called the Heuglin’s robin (after German explorer Theodor von Heuglin) but it is its distinctive white eyebrow that gives it its name today.


Rich Laburn
Rich Laburn is filmmaker, photographer and writer who is based at Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. Spending his time capturing scenes of the wild and communicating the beauty of the African bushveld, he runs the Londolozi Blog as a way to entertain and engage people wishing to visit these wild lands.
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