I’m a new birder in Ohio, having lived here for less than two and a half years. I came to Columbus from South Africa…
Many birders ask the same question “when is the best time to visit South Africa for birds, African megafauna, plants, etc.”. Here we try to answer this…
This is part of a series of blogs to help birders decide when best to visit various countries. For example, when to go to avoid the rainy season, when to visit when the birds are singing and displaying, when the migrants are present, etc.
Much of Namibia has a typical desert climate. This means hot, dry summers (although often pleasant at night), and very mild winters (nicely warm during the day although cold at night). Parts of Namibia are ruggedly mountainous, and the higher reaches and plateaus can get particularly cold during winter nights. Where the cold seas (because of the Benguela current) meet the hot desert, fog develops. This means that the coastal desert, including towns such as Lüderitz, Walvis Bay, and Swakopmund, get very misty, mainly at night in summer, but the fog can linger for part or all of the day in winter. This cools things down, making the coast quite pleasant in summer but dreary in winter. As one moves only slightly inland, summer temperatures get very high, but tolerable to many people since it’s a dry heat.
Not all of Namibia is a desert, of course. As one travels north-east, and especially as one moves eastwards along the Caprivi Strip in northern Namibia, it can be humid and hot. Therefore travelers including the bird-rich, finger-like Caprivi Strip in their birding itinerary need to be prepared for hot, humid temperatures in summer (but very pleasant conditions in winter).
Remember, of course, that the southern summer is from December through February, with winter being June through August. Spring (September through November) and fall (or, as Namibians usually call it, autumn) are usually pretty mild months to travel to Namibia, although less predictable (e.g., spring can see early summer weather or late winter weather).
While in wet parts of the world one needs to avoid the rainy season, the same certainly does not apply in Namibia or Botswana. The “rainiest” season in Namibia is generally from December through March, but thunderstorms or rain showers rarely last long enough to interrupt the birding significantly. And thunderstorms in Namibia are a joy to behold, and they lower the temperatures nicely. They’re usually short-lived, and the birds often come out in force soon after a thunderstorm, especially when this prompts alates (flying termites) to emerge – these insects are massively nutritious for birds and even a lot of (normally) non-insectivorous birds eat them.
We actually operated a tour during the rainiest month in recorded history in Namibia (during March some years back), and not even that prevented us from finding all our bird and mammal targets. We waded through a river that only flows once every few years to get to our Dune Lark site, while watching Namibians play in water they virtually never see. Our vehicle did get stuck in mud a couple of times (not for long, though). What a trip filled with amazing experiences! Namibia was far greener than usual. It was a highly successful, and fascinating, trip.
If you don’t like heat, it’s best to avoid Namibia in late spring and summer. However, the intra-African and Eurasian migrants are only present at this time of the year, so if you don’t mind putting up with some heat your bird list will be augmented. Some of the migrants start arriving in September, many of them only arrive in October, and quite a number of cuckoo species only arrive in November. Tropical waterbirds such as Dwarf Bittern, Allen’s Gallinule, Lesser Moorhen, Striped Crake, etc., move into areas only when they seasonally flood, typically from January through March. This seasonal flooding doesn’t happen every year, though; arid areas have unpredictable rainfall cycles.
The localized species (endemics and near-endemics) of Namibia (and Botswana) are present year-round, which is why a lot of birders visit Namibia in winter, despite the lack of migrants. The advantage of winter is that temperatures are mild (but chilly at night and sometimes all day long near the coast because of the fog). Not only is this more pleasant for us humans, but the birds also stay active throughout the day in winter because of the cooler temperatures. So one doesn’t have to stop birding for the hot middle-of-the-day hours. But, of course, day length is shorter, so there are fewer hours of daylight to fit everything in.
August and September are perhaps the busiest months in Namibia, not only because temperatures are so pleasant but also because it’s the peak vacation time for Europeans, including all the Germans who visit Namibia. Accommodation in Namibia can be in very short supply during these months. We tend to block-book our tours 18 months ahead, but even then we don’t always land the exact accommodation we first choose.
Winter is the dry season, and toward the end of the dry season (July, August, and September) game is more concentrated around waterholes and the grass is shorter, making viewing of these animals easier. It’s not quite as simple as that in neighboring Botswana, though. The Okavango Delta lies just to the south of Namibia’s Caprivi Strip. The Okavango’s waters sink into the deep sands of the Kalahari (which is a semi-desert), forming a humongous inland delta. This delta floods several weeks after the rainy season because of the time it takes for the water to move downstream. Some lower Okavango lodges actually have the most water in July during a typical year and can be flooded until October, so for birders and nature enthusiasts visiting during this time it’s the wrong season if you want the wildlife to be concentrated around the remaining pools. High-season rates generally apply in the Okavango from July to October, though, because temperatures are so pleasant. Summer is hot, but (like in Namibia) migrants are present, and it is often considered the superior time to visit (for birders) because of this.
So, in summary, Namibia and Botswana are great year-round. But when you visit will depend on your personal preferences and goals. There are certainly other countries which should not be visited year-round, but these two can be!