South Africa lies right at the southern tip of the African continent and covers a total area of 471 445 square miles. Divide the area by the 800 or so recorded species and you come up with a very rich birding destination indeed, with no fewer than 45 endemic bird species. The key factor in both the number of species and the degree of endemism is the diversity of habitats. It’s literally a world in one country, divided into seven different biomes, namely: arid and moist savannah; desert; forest; grassland; Karoo (a semi-desert type biome); and Fynbos (chaparral-type vegetation). While the savannah occupies much of Africa south of the tropics, and desert comes into its own in neighbouring Namibia, the other biomes are fairly unique and as such hold much interest for the international birder.
In birding terms, South Africa can be divided into Eastern, Western and Southern regions.
Eastern South Africa.
The Eastern region includes Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and parts of the Eastern Cape and Free State Provinces. This is generally the wettest part of the country and falls under the summer rainfall regime. The mild to warm climate means that this is where one will find the highest numbers of bird species. The north-east includes the Kruger National Park, home to around 500 recorded species, including a huge variety of Raptors, Hornbills, Roller, Shrikes, Barbets, Woodpeckers and so forth. Endemics and near-endemics are poorly represented here, in comparison to other parts of the country, but species count is incredibly high, and the birding is generally easy. The coastal plain in KwaZulu-Natal is also a rich birding area, and includes a few specials such as Pink-throated Twinspot and Rudd’s Apalis. The Drakensberg Escarpment runs down the eastern side of the country and, although the species count drops here as the altitudes increase, the numbers of endemics increase. Moving west from the Drakensberg the inland plateau is also a rewarding birding destination, and forms an integral part of any Eastern South Africa birding tour.
Significant Birding Spots: The Kruger National Park; Nylsvley; Magoebaskloof; Dullstroom; Mount Sheba; Blyde River Canyon; Wakkerstroom; Mkhuze Game Reserve; St Lucia and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park; Eshowe; Sani Pass.
A few significant species: Pel’s Fishing-Owl; Cape Parrot; Green Barbet; Rudd’s Lark; Blue Swallow; Long-tailed Widowbird; Secretarybird; Gurney’s Sugarbird; Bush Blackap; Drakensberg Rockjumper; Yellow-breasted Pipit; Blue Korhaan; Knysna Turaco; Bearded Vulture; Cape Vulture; Martial Eagle; Crowned Eagle; African Finfoot; Southern Bald Ibis.
Western South Africa.
The Western region becomes progressively drier as one moves from the center of the country towards the coast, with Namaqualand, the Southern Kalahari and the Richtersveld being particularly arid. This region is made up primarily of the Northern Cape Province, with small parts of both North-West and Western Cape adding to it. The species count here will be far lower here than that for an equivalent latitude in the eastern half of the country, but the levels of endemism are higher, making it a particularly important for the endemics seeker as part of a broader South African birding tour.
Significant Birding Spots: Lambert’s Bay; Tankwa Karoo, Brandvlei; Koa Dunes; Goegap Nature Reserve; Augrabies Falls National Park; Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park.
A few significant species: Cinnamon-breasted Warbler; Sclater’s Lark; Red Lark; Karoo Lark; Karoo Korhaan; Black-eared Sparrowlark; Ludwig’s Bustard; Sociable Weaver; Namaqua Sandgrouse; Karoo Eremomela; Rufous-eared Warbler; Fairy Flycatcher.
Southern South Africa.
The Southern tip of the country is one of the most important in terms of biodiversity. The unique Fynbos vegetation is part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, the smallest and richest of the world’s floral kingdoms. Fynbos (meaning ‘Fine Bush’) contains an incredible 1300 plant species per 10 000 square kilometers, many times more than the number found in an equivalent area of the South American rain forests. Although the botany is extremely rich, the bird numbers are relatively low, but this is more than made up for by the Fynbos endemics, and is a must for the international birder. To the east the Fynbos loses ground to more typical vegetation as the Southern and Eastern regions merge in the region of Port Elizabeth. For birders with sea legs a pelagic trip from Simon’s Town is highly recommended, particularly during the winter and spring period (July to October).
Significant Birding Spots: West Coast National Park; Cape Point; Boulder’s Beach; Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens; Rooi Els; De Hoop Nature Reserve; Agulhas plains; Bontebok National Park; Garden Route National Park.
A few significant species: Cape Rockjumper; Cape Sugarbird; Orange-breasted Sunbird; Cape Siskin; Cape Grassbird; Knysna Warbler; Victorin’s Warbler; Southern Tchagra; Black Harrier; Damara Tern; African Penguin; African Black Oystercatcher; Ground Woodpecker; Southern Black Korhaan.