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South Africa: My Top 25 List - part 1 of 2

posted by Tim Avery at
on Tuesday, June 18, 2013 

It seems like just yesterday I was working on my top 25 birds to see in Peru--that was over a year ago.  Africa wasn’t even on the horizon, it was September when I bought a field guide to start learning the birds and we decided it would be something we could do.  Months ago I started making this list, booking flights, hotels, safaris, day trips, etc.  I kept thinking I will wait to post this till it is closer to the trip, and now its just over 2 months away, so I think its time to start posting more about this trip.

In all we will be in southern Africa for just under 3 weeks.  We are going to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Botswana.  South Africa is where the majority of the trip will take place, primarily in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Kruger National Park.  The end of our trip we will use Zambia as a base for several days and visit both Zimbabwe and Botswana on day trips.  The birds of Africa are simply put--stunning.  Peru had a remarkable bird list, and the species there were truly incredible.  I would argue that southern Africa rivals South America in terms of quality and uniqueness of birds.  What it lacks in overall quantity, it more than makes up for in those other qualities.

Choosing a Top 25 was both easy and difficult.  The first time I thumbed through the field guide I easily picked out 50 species that struck me as amazing.  From there is was difficult to whittle those down to 25--and even harder to decide where they fell.  When I have created these list in the past I have had these same issues, but in the end I work it out and the list just falls into place.  Without further adieu, here are the first 15 of my top 25 birds to see in Southern Africa.

# 25 - Violet-eared Waxbill by Hans Stieglitz

I’ll be honest, there are only 2 reasons this bird made the list.  First is its called a waxbill--a rather unique name.  The 2nd is that it has a reasonably beautiful little bird.  The latter is what caught my eye when I was flipping through the book.  The bright violet color on the head with a  red bill really stand out against the clean brown body.  Throw in the purple-blue undertail and rump and its really a sweet looking little bird.

• • •

#24 - Bateleur by cyrusbulsara

The name alone (as with several other species on this list) earned this bird its initial placement on the list.  The fact that its a bad-ass raptor only solidified its place.  It’s truly unique shape in flight, and overall pattern really make it a stand-out species.

• • •

#23 - Southern Masked Weaver by Chris Eason

Weavers are one of the earliest birds of Africa I have memories of--besides the obvious one--the Ostrich.  I remember watching a special on African wildlife and seeing these birds flock to trees and building hanging basket nests.  They were colorful, loud, and intriguing.  Despite how common this species is, I am excited to see these gems.

• • •

#22 - Cape Sugarbird by Alan Manson

Sugarbirds are the African equivalent to the new world hummingbirds.  Only they are bigger, don’t flap at a high rate of speed, and in general are slower in their movements, making them easy to watch.  This species is endemic to the Fynbos biome of the southern tip of the continent.  Aside from its yellow undertail, its markings are reminiscent of a thrasher, but with a long tail like a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher.   It’s a wicked looking bird that should be an easy pick up in Cape Town.

• • •

#21 - Hamerkop by TheLilacBreastedRoller

My comment earlier about names hold true for this species, pronounced hammer-copf.  Also known as the Hammerhead, Hammerhead Stork, and a host of other names its head shape is unique in the bird world.  Its a rather drab bird by all accounts--but the unique head makes it a must see for anyone going to southern Africa--and it should be an easy pick up as well.

• • •

#20 - Pennant-winged Nightjar by Terathopius

When you read the name I hope that was enough along with the picture to understand my reasoning for this species making the cut.  In Peru it was the Lyre-tailed Nightjar--Africa’s epic bird of the night doesn’t have a wicked tail, but instead it has wicked wings.  I don’t know if this is one I’ll actually get to see.  They start arriving in southern Africa when we are there, and being nocturnal always makes for a tough get.  But 3 night time safari drives may give me the luck needed!

• • •

#19 - Pin-tailed Whydah by snowmanradio

For some reason I have a thing for birds with long or unique tails.  They give the bird lots of character and being so unique when most birds have short tails they have some mystique about them that draws me in.  The Pin-tailed Wydah is one of those. Other Wydah birds also have unique tails, but the thin streamers this species projects, along with its stark black-and-white pattern and red bill really give it a unique look.  And yes I know this species can be found in several parks and towns in California and also Florida (all introduced)--seeing the real thing in the wilds of Africa seems like a better experience.

• • •

#18 - Yellow-billed Oxpecker by Steve Garvie

If you’ve ever watched a National Geographic special, or anything related to the wildlife of Sub-Saharan Africa, you’ve likely seen an oxpecker.  This ubiquitous family is the one seen hanging onto and riding larger mammals picking at the bugs they carry.  The more common Red-billed Oxpecker is similarly patterned, but I chose the less common cousin as a must-get.  Another remnant in my memories as a youth watching videos of the wildlife on the savannah.  It’s not an overly stunning creature, but the bills are pretty cool looking, and the fact they hitch a ride on others animals to feed make them a worthwhile chase.

• • •

#17 - African Green Pigeon by Johann du Preez

I showed my wife this bird recently, and her comment was, “it’s just a pigeon...” Okay yes, it is a pigeon--but it’s not just any pigeon, its GREEN!  How many green pigeons have you seen?  When I came to this species in the field guide the first time I just stared at it for a moment and thought to myself, “that’s a cool pigeon.”  Enough said.

• • •

#16 - Long-tailed Widowbird by Attis1979

Remember my comment a few birds back about long-tailed birds having some mystique that drew me to them?  Well this might be the most intriguing.  It’s Red-winged Blackbird meets, horse mane.  Do I really have to make a case for this bird being on the list?  What it would be like to see a few of these dragging their epic tails in flight across a field.  Fingers crossed!

• • •

#15 - Secretarybird by Steve Garvie

This was an easy decision to make the top 25 list..  It’s half  bird of  bird of prey and  half long-legged wader or crane.  Visually speaking at least.  This bird dances around the savannah looking for prey.  It is rare, it is a truly unique species, and although it is grouped  with other diurnal raptors within Accipitriformes, it is also in its own family Sagittariidae.  It’s just a really cool bird all around.

• • •

#14 - Kori Bustard by Stig Nygaard

Often regarded as the world's heaviest flying bird, tipping the scale at up to 44 lbs, this species is the poster child for the family--often seen in Zoos around America--where I first saw one when I was younger.  It’s a classic species associated with semi-arid Africa, and although considered rare in most places, they are still fairly common in national parks and protected reserves.

• • •

#13 - Narina Trogon by Patty McGann

When I was 15 and first laid eyes on an Elegant Trogon in Cave Creek Canyon in southeast Arizona I was hooked on these tropical specialties.  Common throughout the tropics worldwide, this species is mostly associated with Central and South America, and and southeast Asia.  But there are 3 species in Africa, including one in southern Africa which was a surprise to me.  This lone wolf in the southern part of the continent was a must have on my top 25, and my fondness for trogons only added to appeal.  If I get lucky and add this species to my life list, it will be the 3rd continent I’ve had a trogon on.

• • •

#12 - Cut-throat by Dick Daniels

Somehow the first couple times I looked through the book this species evaded me.  But I was looking at some trip lists from folks in Kruger National Park when I saw this species name pop up.  The “Cut-throat”! That’s a name--I envisioned a bird with a red throat but it wasn’t till I googled it and saw that the bird really stood out, like its throat had been sliced with a blade and let bleed.  The name was apt, and I knew this was a bird I wanted to see.  It isn’t common anywhere that I will be, but it does get reported from time to time so I can always hope.

• • •

#11 - Red-billed Quelea by Antero Topp
(see video below)

If you have an interest in birds of the world, and some of the back stories with some of the more widely known species, this is one that you may--or honestly should know about.  And why is that?  Because this is the most abundant bird in the world with more than an estimated 1.5 BILLION (with a b) nesting pairs.  Some estimates put the species at over 10 billion total individuals.  Its so numerous that an eradication campaign that wiped out nearly 200 million individuals did not appear to have any effect on the overall population in the long term (however many other species apparently suffered major population reductions due to the control operations).  My interest in the species is that I want to see the most abundant bird in the world--because one day it may not be so abundant (Passenger Pigeon anyone?).  I was first introduced to this species on the BBC documentary Planet Earth, where it was referred to as a plague. The sky can be blackened as flocks of millions work their way across farm fields and other food sources, eating until there is nothing left.  I felt a picture didn’t do enough justice, so found this video that hopefully gives you an idea of why this species is so spectacular and came in at number 11 on my top 25 list.

These 15 birds are ones that I find remarkable, but there are 10 more that top out my list of the birds I want to see more than any other on my trip to southern Africa this fall.  I'll share those in the near future--some may surprise you, some may not seem all that spectacular, but for me they are all top notch!

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Blogger JoyfulJewel said...

Wow is all I can say. What a fantastic trip you have planned. Wishing you the best luck finding all of these and many, many more.

June 18, 2013 at 9:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How can you decide??? They are all so amazing. And how can you learn all these birds? I am still struggling through the birds here in Utah.

June 19, 2013 at 8:19 AM  
Anonymous Jen said...

the video is incredible, it reminds me of starlings

June 19, 2013 at 11:18 AM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

@JoyfulJewel: Thank you! Glad you enjoyed, more on the way!

@Anonymous: They are all amazing--its really just a matter of things that stand out to me. Learning the new ones is hard, there are lots of birds out there, and I usually learn a lot before the trip s I go on, but a year later can hardly remember a lot of the names.

@Jen: that was my first thought too--it would be amazing to see in real life *fingers crossed*

June 19, 2013 at 3:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have a great trip. I lived there (zambia and s africa) for 25 years, the bird life is fantastic. Looking forward to seeing the rest of the birds on your top 25 list. It's going to be tough to select just 25!

June 23, 2013 at 1:45 AM  

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