“Everything in Africa bites… but the safari bug is worst of all”.
No truer words have been spoken – waking up each day in Kruger on a self-drive safari, is a happy day. There is much to see in Kruger National Park, located in the north-eastern part of South Africa, with its 20,000 km2 offering a sanctuary to 148 recorded species of mammals, 114 reptile species, 50 fish species and over 500 different species of bird. It’s a guarantee that you’ll have some magical sightings of birds in Kruger National Park.
Not a day went by where we didn’t spring out of bed, excited for what the day would hold in store for us. Having spent three months in Kruger, we were fortunate to experience some amazing opportunities to watch, learn and photograph the birds in Kruger National Park. Along with the birds, we’ve also written about our experiences amongst the animals in Kruger National Park.
A White-headed and white-backed vulture share rites at a buffalo carcass
Video: Birds in Kruger National Park
Rare Birds in Kruger National Park
Sansparks, the official site for South African National Parks, lists the holy grail of six rare birds to be sighted in Kruger. We were quite pleased with our sightings, capturing four out of a possible total of six.
These six rare birds are the:
- Kori bustard
- Martial eagle (still on our to-see list)
- Lappet-faced vulture
- Pel’s fishing owl (still on our to-see list)
- Saddle-billed stork
- Southern ground hornbill
Martial eagle (copyright canva)
Pel’s fishing owl (copyright canva)
Southern ground hornbill
Sansparks offers a map of Kruger National Park locations or ‘bird hotspots‘ where there is a higher likelihood of sighting these elusive bird varieties. As you probably already know, there’s no guarantee of a sighting and it’s often down to being in the right place, at the right time. A good dose of lady luck can swing things in your favour.
An African spoonbill strikes it lucky
African Bird Identification in Kruger
Being full-time travellers, it’s not feasible for us to carry around armfuls of wildlife and travel books. However, it’s not an issue nowadays as pretty much everything is downloadable, whether it relates to a country travel-guide, bird/animal identifier, digital maps or just a good bit of nighttime reading.
This ‘little bee eater’ may be small but he has plenty to say
When in Kruger on safari, you’ll want to know not only where you are, but of course what bird species you are looking at. As mentioned before, there are over 500 different species of birds in Kruger National Park. Remembering the name of each bird may be tough, however, if you have great reference material right at your fingertips it makes the job much easier.
The KrugerExplorer app absolutely fits the bill by providing comprehensive information on flora/fauna identification, Kruger National Park driving routes, campsites, sightings and much more. It certainly is worth consideration and is money well spent.
Getting around is made a whole lot easier with the Tracks4Africa Guide app. This app superimposes real-time position on a map showing your location and with points of interest along the way. It’s designed to function off-line. To be honest, Tracks4Africa have great reference material covering all of Southern Africa.
Fancy some great bed-time reading? In the mood for an African inspirational story? Pick yourself up a copy of ‘Cry of the Kalahari’, it’s a brilliant read.
Cry of the Kalahari: an autobiography of two young Americans who in the mid 1970s, caught a plane to Africa, bought an old Land Rover and drove deep into the Kalahari Desert where they lived for seven years amongst the wildness of nature.
Photographing Birds in Kruger National Park
We travelled through Kruger National Park during the winter and spring, prior to the rains. The countryside was very dry and the sparse foliage offered some good opportunities to spot birds that were taking refuge in the branches. My standard photography rig is a Sony a7III with the Sony 200-600mm telephoto lens. When capturing images of birds in the open, I let the Sony continuous auto-focus do all the tracking work. However, throw some obstacles in the path and I needed a different game plan. It’s back to basics.
A black-backed puffback eyes us warily from a thorn bush
Reverting to Direct Manual Focus (DMF) allows me to manually push the focus point onto the bird itself and not have the camera tricked into thinking I want focus on the closer thorn bush. Just to be sure, I activate Focus Peaking to confirm the focal range. It is a killer combo.
Kruger Park Birds
Most of our images of birds in Kruger National Park were captured from the car window, but not all. Within the campsites, we would wander about, cameras in hand. Sometimes the birds were quite comfortable having us reasonably close and we were lucky enough to grab some unhurried shots. Other times, it would be a flap of wings and just a fleeting glimpse.
Greater blue eared starlings are regular visitors in the Kruger bushcamps
Spotting birds from a moving vehicle is a particular skillset in itself but nothing that can’t be mastered with a bit of practice, concentration and a healthy interest in birding. Here are some of our favourite images and for those that come with a story, I’ve included a few words.
The lilac-breasted roller is probably the most well known of the five roller varieties that can be seen in Kruger. You can see why this little guy gets a lot of attention – he’s been blessed with stunning plumage. The rollers like to sit in the trees and swoop down to quickly feed on insects and fly back to their perch.
Lilac-breasted roller with beetle
Beautiful coloured plumage
Distinctive colours make for easy identification
This cute, multi-coloured white-fronted bee-eater is a resident of Kruger and easily distinguished from other bee-eater’s by its black ‘eye mask’.
During our safari drives, we would watch them in the trees close by the water, waiting for insects to skim the surface.
Doing what bee-eaters do!
The ‘cutie’ of this group has to be the malachite kingfisher. We were crossing a river with some high river reeds close by and stopped mid-stream to watch a malachite kingfisher with absolute focus on watching for fish in the water below. What really was amazing was that in the wind, the reed he was sitting on along with his body pivoted about his head, which maintained position. (see the video)
I was lucky to see this giant kingfisher quite a distance away high up in the trees over the water. You can see that it blends well with the busy background. The image isn’t that sharp as the distance between us was about 60m.
We’d often see the pied kingfisher hover about 10m above the water, with head down before plunging down in search of fish.
Pied kingfisher in full focus
Brown Hooded Kingfisher
The brown-hooded kingfisher
From this illustrious group of raptors, we sighted the African fish eagle, tawny eagle, bateleur, African hawk-eagle and brown snake eagle (image not included due to poor quality).
African Fish Eagle
We watched this African fish eagle deliver half a catfish to its solitary chick in its nest. It then flew a distance away to enjoy the remaining half of the spoils.
African fish eagle coveting a catfish
We spied a tawny eagle in a tree that was staring hard at a point not far in front of our vehicle. Soon after, it swooped down to the road and started feeding on a small number of wasps. Its eyesight must be phenomenal as the distance between bird and prey must have been close to 40 metres.
Tawny eagle completing pre-flight checks
Face-off! Not hard to guess the outcome here.
What is immediately evident when identifying the bateleur is its colourful plumage, orange legs and reddish-orange beak. It is known to scavenge more food than it hunts. We rounded a corner to find a Bateleur mid-road, picking at some small pieces of fur. It wasn’t in a hurry, preferring to finish the snack before taking flight.
We spied what I think is a juvenile bateleur eagle but I have to admit, this one was pretty hard to identify. Feel free to comment if you know otherwise.
Juvenile bateleur eagle
Within 100 metres of leaving camp, we observed a pair of African hawk eagles close by the track. The mating pair hunt together with one bird flushing out prey and the other despatching it. Never under-rate teamwork.
What seemed to a bird tracking continually over our car whilst we were driving, turned out to be a yellow-billed kite. Maybe he was hoping we would scare some prey out into the open.
Yellow-billed kite on the lookout
African Harrier Hawk
We watched this African harrier hawk carry out a thorough search of the openings in this tree, all the while being harassed by a starling who must have had a nest close by. These hawks have double-jointed knees which assist them in raiding tree holes for prey. Although normally seen with a yellow face, when distressed the face turns red as we witnessed here.
African harrier hawk dived-bombed by a starling
This Verraux’s eagle-owl was well camouflaged on the trunk and we nearly drove past him. Even with the rumbling of the diesel engine, he continued to snooze, not even raising an eyelid.
Verraux’s eagle owl
Pearl Spotted Owlet
Not sure if this little guy deserves a place amongst the raptors but for the sake of this post we’ll elevate him to the same status. This tiny pearl spotted owlet emitted a high pitch call which allowed us to find his location. Interestingly, the species has a pair of black spots on the back of its head to protect it and deter attacks from larger birds.
A pearl-spotted owlet keeping a watchful eye out
Whether circling overhead or milling about a carcass, vultures are not as macabre as they are portrayed to be. They are scavengers preferring fresh meat to old, but a little smell won’t deter them. Did you know that many vultures are now found on the endangered species list, having fallen prey to the poisons laid out by farmers?
A white-headed vulture (left) with white-backed vulture sharing the spoils
A couple of hooded vultures double-checking the other
Other Birds in Kruger National Park
I’ve shared some other interesting images of the different birds in Kruger National Park so you can appreciate what captivating subjects they make.
The iridescent colours of the green wood hoopoe seen here inspecting the bark for grubs
A small bead of water following a bath, has caught the attention of a blue waxbill
African spoonbill pauses his foraging for a shot
A white-bellied sunbird takes a momentary break
Yellow-billed oxpeckers attempt to out-stare a buffalo
A stately grey heron stands absolutely still during the search for fish
A lesser striped swallow standing proud
The common southern masked weaver throws a cheeky look my way
Hiawatha? No, it’s a crested barbet
The red hornbill showing a few tricks of his own
A green-winged pytilia hides in the lower branches of a bush
Birds in Kruger National Park – That’s a Wrap
These are just a very few of the many, many varieties of birds in Kruger National Park that call this vast expanse home. Although the large game is interesting to observe, don’t forget that there is a whole smaller ecosystem right around you that is nothing short of bedazzling.
If you are undecided on where to go bird watching in Southern Africa, then head to Kruger National Park.
Have you had some magical sightings of birds in Kruger National Park? Do you have a favourite bird species? Would really enjoy hearing about it – feel free to leave a comment below.
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