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A Birder's Bucket List: South Africa's 10 Best Birds

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

South Africa is a birder's paradise, boasting one of the richest and most diverse avian communities on the African continent. While it may not hold the record for the sheer number of species, South Africa is home to an impressive number of endemics, birds found nowhere else in the world. With 18 endemic species within its borders, this figure jumps to 38 endemics and 30 near-endemics if you include Lesotho and eSwatini, two small nations nestled within South Africa's embrace. In this blog post, we'll embark on a journey to discover 10 of the most extraordinary birds that call South Africa home.

10 Best Birds to See in South Africa:

1. Cape Rockjumper (Chaetops frenatus)

Rockjumpers belong to the Family Chaetopidae, and there are two species in the Family. Rockjumpers are unique to South Africa (including Lesotho), and as such are very special birds. The Cape Rockjumper is confined to the Fynbos biome of the Western and Eastern Cape Provinces, inhabiting boulder-strewn slopes in Fynbos habitat, and is generally uncommon.

2. Drakensberg Rockjumper (Chaetops aurantius)

Another South African endemic, this Woodpecker has evolved to live where there are no – or at least very few – large trees. Found in high-altitude grassland, Karoo and Fynbos Biomes. Instead of making holes in dead trunks, they bore into soft earth, usually on undercut banks or road verges. Feeds almost exclusively on ants.

4. Cape Sugarbird (Promerops cafer)

Sugarbirds are like large, dull Sunbirds, belonging to the Family Promeropidae. As with the Rockjumpers, there are only two species in the family, and they are pretty much confined to South Africa, though Gurney’s Sugarbird does occur in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. The Cape Sugarbird male is spectacular, despite lacking anything like the colors of the Sunbirds, with a long, flowing tail. Cape Sugarbird is another ‘Fynbos endemic’, but much more common than the Cape Rockjumpers, easily seen wherever there are Proteas and Leucospermums in flower.

5. Blue Korhaan (Eupodotis caerulescens)

Another wonderful South African endemic, the Blue Korhaan occurs in the grasslands of central and eastern South Africa. Korhaans are basically small Bustards, in the Family Otididae. And the Blue Korhaan is perhaps the most colorful of the bunch, males sporting blue necks and bellies, with an intricate black and white face pattern. A pity it’s so hard to get close to them! They can be very shy, sinking down into the grass when you are still hundreds of meters away, but generally not too hard to find.

6. Blue Crane (Anthropoides paradisea)

It’s South Africa’s national bird. And what a good choice! It’s endemic to South Africa, apart from a small breeding population in Etosha, Namibia (and it’s not quite clear how those birds got there!). The Blue Crane is powder blue in color, with a white cap on the head. It appears to have a long, drooping tail when on the ground, but the ‘tail’ is actually made up of elongated secondaries and tertials, so is part of the wing. Their stronghold is the Western Cape, where they can be quite common, even in agricultural lands, and the range extends up through the Karoo and into the higher grasslands of the eastern part of South Africa.

7. Black Harrier (Circus maurus)

An endemic raptor! The exquisite Black Harrier is endemic to South Africa, though it can range as far as southern Namibia. It is generally found in the Fynbos, Karoo, and Grassland Biomes of South Africa, hunting rodents in typical Harrier fashion – quartering low over the vegetation, stooping suddenly to catch a rat or mouse. Although it ranges as far north as the grasslands of southern Mpumalanga, the Western Cape offers the best chances for this species, and De Hoop Nature Reserve and West Coast National Park are two of the best spots for this species.

8. African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus)

An endemic Penguin! And everyone loves Penguins… The endearing African Penguin is endemic to South Africa and Namibia, found along the coast from Walvis Bay area in the north to Port Elizabeth in the south-east. Major colonies are found at Boulder’s Beach near Cape Town and Stony Point near Betty’s Bay. The latter in particular is a great place to view Penguins as well as all four marine Cormorants (Crowned, Cape, Bank, and White-breasted) and a range of other bird species, as well as numerous Rock Hyraxes. Unfortunately, African Penguin numbers are declining due to various factors such as over-fishing and a shift in the distribution of their primary food fish species.

9. Knysna Turaco (Tauraco corythaix)

Turacos are terrific birds. They are endemic to Africa and, apart from the Go-Away Birds and Plantain-eaters, are all strikingly colourful. South Africa is fortunate enough to have its own endemic Turaco, the Knysna Turaco, a bird of South African forests. It’s found along the south-eastern coastal belt and the escarpment forests in the north-east. It’s usually not too hard to find, in the right habitat, and like all members of the Family is usually quite vocal. But it's not always easy to see, usually sticking to the canopy, where it blends in rather well. But a bit of effort will normally allow one to see the exquisite facial pattern, which resembles a performer all made up for a big show.

10. Southern Bald Ibis (Geronticus calvus)

Another endemic to South Africa! Even though it’s an Ibis, this is not your average ‘bin chicken’. It occurs in the grasslands of eastern South Africa, as well as Lesotho and far eastern eSwatini. It’s actually a striking bird, with dark blue glossy feathers and a distinct red and white head. They breed on cliffs, usually in large colonies. By day they can be found foraging in open grasslands, where they feed on insects, snails, frogs etc. It is in the same Genus as the highly endangered Northern Bald Ibis (Geronticus eremita).

11. Bonus bird - Long-tailed Widowbird (Euplectes progne)

This is not a rare or endemic bird but is the classic summer bird of South Africa's interior grasslands. The males are spectacular, with their long tails, and a typical summer scene in places such as Wakkerstroom or Rietvlei Nature Reserve always includes several males doing their phantom-like displays, flying low and slow over the grass, with tails in the 'down and flared' position, hoping to attract the attention of a female or two.

There's a lot more to see besides these birds on a South African Birding Safari! Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife, and Custom Safaris offers a range of small-group safaris and custom safaris in South Africa, giving you a chance to see a huge number and variety of birds, as well as some amazing animals.

Contact Lawson’s to make your African bird safari a reality

Phone: +27 13 741 2458

Before leaving the website, be sure to check out the Accommodation Directory for venues catering specifically to birders. We also encourage you to visit our Online Shop for gear and books at competitive prices.

Photos taken by Leon Marais

Cover photo taken by Tyron Dall


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