Africa is absolutely vast, trailing only Asia in terms of surface area, of Planet Earth’s seven continents.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the “true” Africa in terms of biodiversity. This is not only where the big game lurks, but it is also where the incredible African endemic bird families can be found. Birding sub-Saharan Africa means you can see the bird families restricted to this continent, such as turacos (louries), mousebirds, Shoebill, Secretarybird, Hamerkop, ostriches, guineafowl (in the wild at any rate!), wood-hoopoes, rockfowl (picathartes), rockjumpers, sugarbirds, etc.
While geographically part of Africa, Madagascar is a world apart and is completely different from mainland Africa in terms of mammals, birds, and plants. It boasts six endemic bird families, not to mention the lemurs!
The Sahara and the Mediterranean zone of North Africa are more “Palaearctic” in their biodiversity and nature. This is essentially because the world’s largest desert forms an impassable barrier except for the remarkable bird species that actually migrate between Eurasia and sub-Saharan Africa each year. Many of these make it all the way to South Africa. Amur Falcon in fact makes the perilous journey (especially now with all the human threats along the way) all the way from the Far East to South Africa each year. The world’s longest river, the Nile, does cross the entire Sahara, flowing all the way from the Great Lakes region of central Africa to Egypt. This does allow some species an oasis along which to move through the otherwise impenetrable Sahara.
The Sahel is a vast zone of arid savanna just south of the Sahara that stretches from West Africa to East Africa. Everything from the Sahel southwards is the “true” Africa in terms of bird life, African mammals, and other fauna and flora. The Sahelian zone is well worth exploring, and on our birding tours we access its unique birdlife in several of our north-western and north-eastern African birding tours (e.g. Ghana and Cameroon in the west and Ethiopia in the east).
Moving further southward, in western Africa one pretty quickly reaches the lowland tropical rainforests, but in equatorial Africa these extend far to the east, all the way to Semliki in Uganda in fact. Gabon and Cameroon are two of the countries in which we access the spectacular equatorial forest (and Cameroon also boasts a wide variety of other habitats all the way to the arid savanna of the Sahel in the north).
In East Africa the topography, habitats, and wildlife are mind-blowingly diverse with the Great Rift Valley, the highest mountain in Africa, Kilimanjaro, moist evergreen Afro-montane forests, and an arid zone that interestingly shares quite a number of birds with arid south-western Africa. The East African and south-west African arid areas are completely disjunct from each other, but they are tied together biogeographically by their flora and fauna.
Traveling further southward one reaches the huge tracts of beautiful miombo (Brachystegia) woodland with its numerous avian endemics of south-central Africa. Strangely, the countries in this incredibly bird-diverse belt of Africa have been neglected by birders to a large extent. Nations such as Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, and Angola (which also has a large count of country endemics) have been inexplicably under-birded.
Eventually (on our southward birding and wildlife journey through the humongous continent of Africa), we find ourselves in southern Africa, a region consisting of South Africa, the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, Eswatini (Swaziland), southern Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia. This area is covered by many reptile, mammal, and bird field guides (including the pioneering Roberts Bird Guide and the more recent Newman’s and Sasol Field Guides). Southern Africa is an area with lots of unique bird species as well as some of the most spectacular and famous landscapes, e.g. Table Mountain, Cape Point, the Cape of Good Hope, the Drakensberg Escarpment, the Okavango Delta, Etosha Pan, and the Namib Desert, to name but a few.
Birding Africa: how to choose which countries to visit
Many British and European birders first experience Africa during one of the many popular cheap package holidays to The Gambia. The flight to The Gambia from Europe is short (indeed, The Gambia is closer to the UK than it is to South Africa), and joining a birding tour to this tiny country encompassing a narrow belt either side of the lower Gambia River is certainly a convenient and inexpensive way of seeing your first African birds, including desirable endemic families like turacos and mousebirds as well as the stunning Blue-bellied Roller, a lot of kingfishers, barbets, and other dazzlers. Egyptian Plover, one of Africa’s most sought-after bird species, should also be seen near Basse on any good birding holiday to The Gambia. Kotu Creek and the Banjul Peninsula are often birded first when staying at one of Kotu’s many hotels on The Gambia’s Atlantic coast. Tendaba and the Abuko Nature Reserve are also often included on birding itineraries to this country. While less popular, we encourage combining Senegal with The Gambia (a number of European birders talk about Senegambia) as it adds quite a lot of diversity. Senegal’s capital, Dakar, is on the Cape Verde Peninsula which is the westernmost point of the continent. While birding The Gambia (and Senegal) is immensely popular, we actually recommend that a better starting place for your African birding career (if you insist on West Africa) is Ghana. Ghana just has so very much more diversity than The Gambia/Senegal and is also relatively close to Europe as well as to North America; from New York to Accra the distance is about 5,100 miles/8200 kilometers, and from Accra to Cape Town it is about 4,600 miles/7200 kilometers (this also gives you an idea of how vast Africa actually is if you think about this for a minute!). Ghana is considered safe, is English-speaking, and has a huge variety of habitats. Do take a look at our Ghana tours here. Ghana also has the same birds mentioned above for The Gambia, plus it has a rockfowl (picathartes), Standard-winged Nightjar in Mole National Park (the largest game park in Ghana), and a staggering diversity of other birds and wildlife from the Sahel to lowland tropical rainforests. We run set-departure birding tours to Ghana, but we only run bespoke birdwatching tours to The Gambia (and Senegal), largely reflecting our recommendation to focus on Ghana from a strategic world-birding point of view.
Many birders of course also start with East Africa or southern Africa because both these regions have many comfortable hotels/birding lodges and, especially in the case of southern Africa, roads, compared to West Africa, which is “rougher”. Some of the biggest trip bird and mammal lists can be accumulated on Tanzania and Kenya birding tours, where a huge array of colorful (very!) and spectacular bird species can be seen with ease. Combining either (or both) these countries with Uganda or Rwanda will also allow you to see two great apes, Mountain Gorilla and Chimpanzee, not to mention a plethora of other primates such as spectacular-looking colobus monkeys. Uganda must be Africa’s richest country for birds, and the Uganda bird list actually matches that of Kenya, even though it is only half the size. A lot of birding tours are now going to Rwanda, a tiny nation which is also popular for gorilla trekking (and it’s usually less strenuous there than it is in Uganda, but it’s also a lot more expensive to purchase the gorilla trekking permits). Nyungwe National Park and Akagera National Park are two of Rwanda’s best-known parks and are hugely worth birding. Lake Kivu and Volcanoes National Park are also marvelous places to include on your birding tour to Rwanda. While we love Rwanda, we only run tailor-made birding tours there, as we recommend Uganda instead. Uganda allows you to see almost everything you will see in Rwanda (except for Red-collared Mountain-babbler and a couple of Albertine Rift endemics that are more easily seen in Rwanda than in Uganda) and so much more, e.g. Shoebill and African megafauna (including tree-climbing Lions, Leopard, etc.).
We probably recommend that you start your African birding career in South Africa, though. It has an amazing infrastructure of roads and wonderfully comfortable B&Bs. Also South Africa must surely be Africa’s best-value birding country. South African birding tours are really inexpensive, partly because it’s always just been a reasonably priced country and partly because of the currently weak currency. Namibia shares its currency with South Africa, so at the moment this is also one of the most reasonable destinations on the continent for a birdwatching tour if you’re looking for good value.
Two of the most exciting countries in Africa for world birders are Mozambique and Angola. Both of them have become far more accessible for birding tours than in the past. Both are poorly explored and keep turning up exciting new discoveries of the ornithological kind as birders start visiting them more often. We explore both these countries on our set-departure, small-group birding tours. When the DRC opens up to birders and becomes safe (hopefully in our lifetimes), it might be the most exciting country to bird in. Not only will we then get a chance to look for Congo Peacock and Yellow-crested Helmetshrike (we’ll arrange birding tours for both!), but there might be new (to science) bird species to be discovered.
This African birding introduction page is the place to just give a couple of tantalizing pointers, and it is not the place to detail any of the countries in Africa in which we conduct bird tours. If you want more detail please kindly click on any of the specific African destinations shown below. And if you want a custom-made African birding vacation (or adventure!) then do contact us here. Enjoy!
Testimonials from African Tours
Hi Dylan, Chris,Dr Liam MorrisonUK
I just wanted to email and say how much I enjoyed the day yesterday in and around Suikerbosrand – Dylan was a fantastic guide, unbelievably knowledgeable, very helpful (and patient!) and good company. We saw much more than I expected, and the flufftail was the icing on the cake! I would go out of my way to recommend you guys and Dylan in particular – thanks again for a thoroughly enjoyable day.
I will be in touch when I return to South Africa – even if just to set eyes on that pesky grass owl. . .!