Birding in our national parks

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When it comes to excellent birding, Southern Africa should be on every birdwatcher’s bucket list

Southern Africa, south of the Zambezi and Cunene rivers, hosts more than 950 bird species, of which more than 10% occur only in this subregion. South Africa hosts about one tenth of the world’s and almost a third of Africa’s bird species. Avitourism (travelling birdwatchers) is growing in our country, with an influx of international tourists visiting Southern Africa too. Ecotourism, including avitourism, has the potential to alleviate poverty by bringing money into the economy through employment. This type of ecotourism attracts domestic and foreign tourists to visit and experience a country’s natural environments while promoting and supporting the conservation of its biodiversity. South Africa’s 19 national parks offer excellent birding, with each park representing the habitat biomes that they respectively conserve.

Of the 700 regularly seen terrestrial bird species in South Africa, at least 640 can be found in our national parks, with 13 of the 18 species endemic to South Africa and another 19 of the 20 species endemic to South Africa, Lesotho and eSwatini (formerly Swaziland). A further 56 species are endemic to Southern Africa, bringing the total number of Southern African endemics found in the parks to 88 species. While the northern parks are the most species-rich, the southern parks have the highest proportion of endemic birds. It is no wonder that 12 of the 19 national parks make up, or are contained within, a BirdLife South Africa Global Important Bird and Biodiversity Area. While the parks are especially well known for their relatively easy access to viewing large mammals, the spectacular bird diversity and numbers is often overlooked or under-appreciated.

Northern Region

Drakensberg rock-jumper. Photo: Maans Booysen

The northern region parks in Limpopo and Mpumalanga are typical of the Limpopo River valley and Lowveld bushveld. The woodlands and open savannas have a number of species occurring at the southern end of their eastern and central African ranges. This includes species such as Dickinson’s kestrel, Pel’s fishing owl and Rudd’s apalis. The extensive size of these savanna parks and their adjacent buffer zones offers protection for birds that require large home ranges, such as lappet-faced vulture, martial eagle and southern ground-hornbill. The spectacular rolling grasslands and Drakensberg escarpment of the Golden Gate Highlands National Park offer an exciting mixture of highland endemic species, including bucket-list birds such as southern bald ibis, bearded and Cape vultures, ground woodpecker and the Drakensberg
rock-jumper.

Arid Region

The habitats of the five arid region parks have an interesting mix of Kalahari savanna, Karoo shrubland, open sandy dune fields, and the rugged mountains and cliffs of the Orange River Gorge. Large
trees are generally scattered or absent so that the region is particularly rich in terrestrial bird species, including bustards, korhaans, sandgrouse and larks. However, a good diversity of raptors can also be seen, particularly in the Kalahari system. The relative openness of the habitat offers birders the opportunity to observe fascinating interactions between species, such as a gabar goshawk or lanner falcon ambushing prey at a waterhole, a secretarybird beating a large snake, or a Cape cobra investigating the chambers of a sociable weaver nest while being bombarded by the weavers and an associated pygmy falcon.

Frontier Region

Five frontier region parks in the Eastern and Western Cape represent the Albany thicket, Nama-Karoo and yellowwood forest biomes. Landscapes are dense thicket, dwarf sub-desert shrublands and succulent karroid vegetation, with primary and secondary yellowwood forest in the two coastal parks. Addo Elephant and Garden Route National Parks’ coastal sections are important for coastal seabirds and waders, particularly the Algoa Bay islands, which host breeding African penguin, Cape gannet, Cape cormorant, African black oystercatcher, and Roseate, Antarctic, Caspian and swift terns. Tracts of yellowwood forest host forest bird species, including Knysna turaco, Narina trogon, Knysna and olive woodpeckers. Secluded sections of the Keurbooms River and Grootrivier host white-backed night-heron, African finfoot and
half-collared kingfisher.

Cape Region

The five Cape region parks in the Western Cape province represent the Fynbos Biome within the Cape

Southern double-collared sunbird. Photo: Maans Booysen

Floral Kingdom and the Succulent Karoo Biome. The landscapes are characteristic of mountain and lowland fynbos. The Fynbos Biome hosts seven endemic birds, namely the hottentot buttonquail, Cape rock-jumper, Cape sugarbird, Victorin’s warbler, orange-breasted sunbird, protea seedeater and Cape siskin. Other species closely related to the fynbos are Cape spurfowl, Cape bulbul, southern double-collared sunbird, southern tchagra and southern boubou. The coastal components of these parks are important for endemic and threatened coastal birds, specifically the African penguin, Cape gannet, African black oystercatcher, and bank, Cape and crowned cormorants, as well as large numbers of Palearctic migrant waders.

Written by: Dr Rob Little, FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology and author of Birding in South Africa’s National Parks.

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