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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 question in enough detail to cater to different specific interests.
We’ll start in the Fairest Cape. The Cape is different from the rest of South Africa and is the only part of the country that has winter rainfall. Most of the country has summer rainfall, although the Garden Route has year-round rainfall. The Western Cape has a Mediterranean-type climate with a macchia-type vegetation. This scrubby vegetation is the richest place on the planet for plant diversity (per square mile) and has more species per unit area even than the Amazon basin! This vegetation is called fynbos or Cape Flora. This, the Cape Floral Kingdom, is the smallest but richest plant kingdom on the planet (and is definitely worth writing home about). Therefore, while we focus mainly on birds, we can’t ignore the plants in this part of the world (not to mention that the birds are also affected by the plants, as discussed below). While the famous Protea and Erica species bloom throughout the year depending on species, the greatest number of them are in flower in July and August (late winter). So plant enthusiasts often visit at this time of the year. Arguably the world’s most spectacular displays of desert flowers, which can form vast carpets containing every color of the rainbow in Namaqualand north of Cape Town, are usually best in August and to a lesser extent in September. However, the timing of these displays does vary and can occasionally happen even in October, November, December, etc. (its rare for these floral carpets to be spectacular outside of August/September, though, and some August/September seasons are more disappointing than others).
The plants (when the majority of them are in flower) and winter rainfall definitely affect the birds in profound ways. Quite a number of Cape birds actually start breeding in late winter and early spring (basically from July through October, mainly in August and September) because the most food is available at this time because of the rain. This includes nectar-feeding birds such as the highly localized, beautiful Orange-breasted Sunbird and Cape Sugarbird, which breed when nectar is most abundant. It also includes insect-feeding birds because insects are more prevalent when the greatest numbers of flowers are in bloom and when the rains are falling. For example, it is much easier to find Cape and Agulhas Clapper Larks when they’re giving their spectacular (and truly bizarre) displays over the fynbos or Karoo scrub. And Knysna Warbler, a spectacularly localized South African endemic that is Vulnerable (IUCN), sings like crazy during this period. In winter it is more difficult to locate Knysna Warbler by its quiet contact call.
The problem, of course, is that it’s neither pleasant nor easy birding in the rain. While Cape rain typically falls as drizzle, which doesn’t pose a humongous problem, it’s still not pleasant trying to bird when it drizzles for two or three days at a time. That’s why we compromise and often run our Cape birding tours in October (or November or early December), when many birds are still singing and displaying even though it’s past their peaks, but the weather is more pleasant for us humans. Also much of the rest of South Africa is best in October and even more so in November and early December, when spectacular whydahs, widowbirds, and bishops are in full breeding plumage and are displaying and singing. October is actually a good compromise if you want to bird both the Cape and eastern South Africa.
A great many intra-African and Palearctic (Eurasian) migrants augment South Africa’s bird species list in the austral summer. These birds are largely present from October through March (basically the southern summer), but naturally the exact arrival and departure dates of these migrants varies from species to species. However, a spring or summer trip during the above-mentioned months basically means you’ll get a substantially bigger species count than during a winter trip.
A lot of general nature enthusiasts prefer to visit southern Africa at the end of the dry season, when animals tend to be concentrated around the waterholes and are also easier to see because the grass is shorter. However, quite frankly, on our birding tours, which we often run in the spring and summer because the migrants are present, we still do find all the big (and small) mammals that Africa is famous for anyway. And the grass is a lot greener. Here we’re basically talking about eastern South Africa rather than the Cape, because that’s where the big game parks and animals are. The Cape does have some incredible species, though, such as the neat-looking Cape Mountain Zebra, the strikingly marked Bontebok antelope, etc. The Cape, Hermanus, and the Garden Route are famous for very close inshore Southern Right Whales, which are best seen between June and December. Great White Sharks, which the southern Cape is also famous for, are best seen in winter, especially in July and August when they can be seen breaching.
Some of the world’s best pelagic birding trips for seabirds run from “Cape Town” (or more specifically from Simonstown on the southern Cape Peninsula, about an hour’s drive south of Cape Town). These are brilliant year-round, and we usually find a minimum of four albatross species at any time of year, for example. But in winter there are larger numbers of pelagic species and there’s a bigger chance of seeing rarer albatross species (with lots of luck we can encounter more than four albatross species on a 1-day pelagic trip – this is more likely to happen in winter). In winter there can also be vast numbers of individual birds, especially Antarctic Prions, Pintado (Cape) Petrels, etc. Why is winter so good for these pelagic trips? Probably the main reason is that sub-Antarctic species fly north during the southern winter and find themselves near Cape Town. Please be aware that this is not called “the Cape of Storms” for nothing, though, and in winter conditions can be unpleasant on the small pelagic boat. But the seas can get awfully rough any time of the year because of strong winds – Cape Town is notoriously windy.
Although we’ve gone into great detail about a lot of the specifics, you won’t go wrong by visiting South Africa literally during any of the twelve months of the year. It’s definitely not one of those countries that has a narrow window of time during which the birding is good. Rainfall is rarely heavy enough to interrupt birding for long, even during the rainiest season, so for example it’s not one of those “rainforest-type countries” which need to be avoided in the wet season.
South Africa has the best weather in the world. That’s not an exaggeration. We challenge you to find a place with a better climate than sunny South Africa. Much of the country lies on a high-altitude plateau, so it doesn’t get too hot even in mid-summer. (Some of the high-mountain areas get rather cold, in fact, and snow falls each winter in the Drakensberg and the Cape Fold Mountains). The coast from Durban north through Zululand, as well as the Kruger National Park, does get very hot and humid in summer, though. South African winters also tend to be quite mild, but please be aware that houses and smaller hotels and B&B’s are not always heated, so even though it often doesn’t get much below freezing it’s not all that much warmer inside. So if you don’t like cold you might consider a spring, summer, or fall trip. Some areas, however, such as Kruger, Zululand, and the Kgalagadi/Kalahari, are ever so mild in winter (the latter area gets cold at night, though).
Please have a look at our South African birding, wildlife, and photographic tour.