South Africa’s got over 800 species of bird, many of them indigenous, making it one of the best birding destinations on the planet.
Here are 15 gorgeous birds that twitchers seek out while on bird-watching expeditions in South Africa’s forests, mountains, wetlands, plains and deserts.
1. Blue Crane
We have to start with the blue crane, because it is the national bird of South Africa, after all. Also known as the Stanley Crane or Paradise Crane, this endangered bird lives in grasslands and wetlands in various parts of the Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and Western Cape.
2. Secretary Bird
This unusual critter looks like a hawk and a stork got together and had a baby. It’s a voracious eater and hunter and likes to consume snakes and other reptiles, plus amphibians, tortoises, rats and even other birds. Its long, stalk-like legs are useful for walking through tall grass seeking prey. Secretary birds don’t fly often, but will walk up to 20 miles in a day.
3. Shaft-Tailed Whydah
This small sparrow-like bird has extra-long tail feathers that are four times the length of its body. But not for long: they are shed after mating season. The wydah can be found along South Africa’s northern border.
Its name translates to “acrobat” or “tumbler,” which is fitting for one of the most colorful and majestic of eagles. Commonly sighted at Kruger National Park, the bateleur spends most of its day soaring at low altitude in a slow rocking motion, scanning the open savannahs and grasslands for small mammals.
5. Violet-Eared Waxbill
This tiny but vividly-colored finch is also known as the Common Grenadier. Found in dry scrubland throughout South Africa, it’s also a common house pet.
6. Crested Barbet
The crested barbet is one of the most memorable birds of South Africa. It’s got spotted and mottled plumage, a distinct crest, a thick bill, and a shrill voice. Travelers can spot them in Madikwe Game Reserve.
7. Southern Carmine Bee-Eater
The southern carmine bee-eater is one of 20 separate bee-eater species endemic to Africa. A migratory bird, it lives in South Africa during the summer months, then flies to equatorial parts of Africa during the winter in flocks of up to 10,000. It gets its name from its diet, which consists mainly of insects (including bees).
8. Knysna Turaco
Also known as Schalow’s Turaco or the Knysna Loerie, this bird is known for its neon blue-and-green plumage and punk-rock haircut. It lives in evergreen and riverine forests; watch for it if you take an excursion to the Zambezi RIver/Victoria Falls area.
9. Pied Kingfisher
It’s hard to miss the pied kingfisher, due to its bold black-and-white coloring and tendency to hover over lakes and rivers looking for food. Once it finds a fish, crustacean or water insect, it dives headfirst into the water to gobble it up.
10. Bush shrike
The Afrikaans name of this photogenic little bird is bokmakierie, which comes from the melodius “bok bok mak kik” song the bird sings. It lives in a wide variety of habitats, from remote karoo to urban parks and gardens.
11. Cape Sugarbird
The Cape sugarbird gets its name from the geographic area it inhabits — the southern and and western Cape provinces — and also from its diet. It has a long, curved bill, which is ideal for drinking sweet nectar out of tubular flower buds.
12. African “Jackass” Penguin
Though it gets its nickname from its donkey-like bray, the African penguin is really quite charming. They can be seen waddling around beaches and islands from the Namibian border all the way to Port Elizabeth.
OK, so the ostrich is not necessarily a “gorgeous” bird (though beauty IS in the eye of the beholder) but it deserves a mention as it’s the largest and most noticeable bird in the country. There are wild populations in various game reserves (and on Cape Point), but ostriches are also domesticated and farmed for meat, eggs, feathers and leather.
14. Pel’s Fishing Owl
As the picture above implies, this majestic owl is a bit secretive and shy. In fact, it’s so hard to spot that it’s considered the “holy grail” of birders. A threatened species, the owl is found in various South African reserves and parks, such as Kruger, Phinda and Mkuze.
15. Lilac-Breasted Roller
Another long-tailed bird, the lilac-breasted roller can be seen perched in the treetops, when it’s not swooping and diving for insects, snails and lizards. Large-ish and rainbow-colored, the roller has a harsh, ugly cry that contrasts with its beautiful plumage.
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