Experience the excitement of birdwatching in Botswana

There is a lot to recommend about birdwatching in this African country! Botswana is an ideal place to escape the crowds and, at the same time, indulge in some of the best game-viewing and birding that can be experienced anywhere. Large portions of the country are arid, or even desert, while other areas are covered in swamps and pans. In-between there is a variety of woodland. These different habitats go a long way to explain why the country’s bird checklist is so long.

Map showing the location of BotswanaOne must be prepared for very hot, and very wet in some areas, summers with winter being a lot milder. When travelling by car one must be prepared for a variety of obstacles. Decent roads are few and are mainly found in the more densely populated areas in the south and south-east of the country. A 4X4 vehicle is highly recommended and, in some areas, it is best if you travel in convoy with another vehicle or vehicles.

Male Violet-eared Waxbill
Male Violet-eared Waxbill

There are numerous places to go birdwatching in Botswana and a few have been highlighted in this article.

Chobe National Park

The Chobe National Park is in the north of Botswana and has the Chobe River as its northern boundary. It is a large reserve covering some 11,700 square kilometres. Although the reserve can be accessed from the north-east and south you need a 4×4 to navigate the rough roads when accessing it from the south. The weather ranges from mild in winter to very hot in summer. The wettest months are January and February.

Before talking about the abundant birdlife, it is only fitting to mention the large herds of mammals that occupy this reserve. These include Cape Buffalo, African Elephant and Burchell’s Zebra. Elephant are super abundant at times with over 100,000 being present in the park at times. Other mammals that are present include Puku, Greater Eland, Giraffe, Roan Antelope, Southern Reedbuck, Impala and many more.

The checklist of birds that may be found in the Chobe National Park tops 450. The Chobe River attracts numerous waterbirds as does the Mababe Depression. Birds to look for include African Darter, Reed Cormorant, Slaty Egret, Rufous-bellied Heron, Saddlebilled Stork, Wattled Crane, African Jacana, Lesser Jacana, Pygmy Goose and both White and Pink-backed Pelican. Other herons include Black-crowned Night Heron and Squacco Heron. The magnificent African Fish-Eagle is also likely to be seen. If possible, one should try and take a boat trip on the Chobe River as this will reward you with unforgettable sightings of both birds and game. This is the best way to see Rock Pratincole and African Skimmer.

The rest of the reserve also provides excellent birding and is particularly good for raptors. Some raptors you might see include Ayres’ Hawk Eagle, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Red-necked Falcon, African Hobby, Dickinson’s Kestrel and Bat Hawk. Owls are also well represented with Giant Eagle Owl, Wood Owl, Pearl-spotted Owlet, African Scops Owl and Pel’s Fishing Owl being recorded. Western Banded Snake-Eagle is one of the specials to be found.

Orange-river Francolin
Orange-river Francolin

In the grassland and bushveld look for Rosy-throated Longclaw, Bradfield’s Hornbill, Southern Ground Hornbill, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, White-bellied Sunbird, Marico Sunbird, Amethyst Sunbird, Long-tailed Starling, Burchell’s Starling, Hartlaub’s Babbler, Collared Palm Thrush, Chirping Cisiticola, Arnot’s Chat and the list goes on and on!

There is a variety of accommodation available in and around the park. These include lodges and camp sites. Be aware that the park has many potentially dangerous mammals such as Lion, Elephant, Spotted Hyena, Cape Buffalo and Hippo so one must be vigilant. The reserve is located in a malaria area, and it is strongly recommended that you take precautions against it.

Makgadikgadi Pans

The Makgadikgadi Pans are fed by the Nata and Boteti Rivers and have an average depth of only a few centimetres, and they may often be totally dry. The entire pan system is over 16,000 square kilometres in extent. The Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is 3,900 square kilometres in extent. The neighbouring vegetation consists of grasslands, acacia trees and mopane woodland. At times huge numbers of Blue Wildebeest, Burchell’s Zebra, and Springbok are present. Other mammals include Greater Kudu, Impala, Common Eland, Giraffe, Red Hartebeest and Steenbok. Over 230 species of birds have been recorded.

Sua Pan is a great spot for birding and one can easily tick off an extensive list of waders, desert species and raptors in a day. At times large numbers of Greater and Lesser Flamingo breed in Sua Pan. Four species of Sandgrouse can be ticked. Other waterbirds include White Pelican, Pink-backed Pelican, Pied Avocet and Black-necked Grebe.

The more arid areas around the pans are home to several species of larks including Monotonous Lark and Clapper Lark. The grasslands are home to many interesting species such as Red-billed Spurfowl, Ostrich, Kori Bustard, Double-banded Courser, Spotted Thick-knee, Orange River Francolin and Black-bellied Korhaan.

The surrounding bush gives you opportunities to tick off Meyer’s Parrot, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, and various Owls such as Barn Owl, Giant Eagle-Owl, Spotted Eagle-Owl, African Scops Owl and Pearl-spotted Owlet.

Travel in this region is best done in a 4×4. Make sure that you carry sufficient water, fuel and food as there is nothing available. There is no accommodation in the Park but camping is permitted. Remember that the abundant wildlife attracts predators and campsites aren’t fenced so be on your guard!

Moremi Game Reserve

Moremi Game Reserve is located on a piece of land that extends into the Okavango Delta. It is around 4,600 square kilometres in extent. There are several habitats that make up Moremi including grassland, woodland and flood plains. A vehicle with high ground clearance is required and a 4X4 is definitely the preferred option.

Marabou Storks on an elephant carcass
Marabou Storks on an elephant carcass

Around 300 species of birds have been recorded in Moremi. One of the highlights is to take a boat trip to go and see the heronries at Gadikwe and Txaxanika. Here one may see a number of species of heron along with Open-billed, Marabou and Yellow-billed Storks. While travelling along the channels through the reedbeds you should look for warblers and cisticolas. You may also see Swamp Boubou, Saddle-billed Stork, African Spoonbill, White-rumped Babbler, Pygmy Goose, Hamerkop, White-backed Night Heron and Goliath Heron. African Fish Eagle will almost certainly be present.

The woodland areas will yield numerous species such as Crimson-breasted Shrike, Red-billed Helmet-Shrike, Black-bellied Korhaan, Fan-tailed Flycatcher and a variety of sunbirds and starlings. A number of species of owl are present as is Mozambique Nightjar. A number of raptors might be seen including Western-banded Snake Eagle, Tawny Eagle, Bateleur, Martial Eagle and Wahlberg’s Eagle.

The floodplains are another rewarding area to visit. See if you can organise a canoe trip and look for African Finfoot, Lesser Jacana, White-crowned Lapwing, Comb Duck, Pygmy Goose, Slaty Egret, African Darter, Golden Weaver and Brown-throated Weaver. Getting a sighting of an African Skimmer would be a bonus!

The two types of accommodation in and around Moremi offer you two vastly different choices. You can stay at an expensive up-market lodge or camp in a very modest camp site. Of course, Moremi is also home to a wide variety of mammals including a rather large Elephant population. The “road” network in the park is very rough and can be a real challenge, if not impassable, during the rainy season.

A colony of Carmine Bee-eaters
A colony of Carmine Bee-eaters

Okavango Delta

The Okavango Delta is a vast wetland and the main attraction in Botswana. It is home to a wide variety of birds, mammals and other wildlife. The actual delta is around 16,000 square kilometres in size. This vast area is serviced by numerous lodges and other accommodation that offer trips into the delta. There are probably one to two hundred tour options to choose from. The write-up for Moremi (above) gives you a good overview of what to expect when touring the Delta.

Lake Ngami is another great place to go birdwatching in Botswana
Lake Ngami is another great place to go birdwatching in Botswana

Final thoughts on birdwatching in Botswana

I think that Botswana is one of the best destinations for a safari in Africa. The mammal populations are big and the game reserves are extensive in size. Birders will appreciate the different habitats that will be encountered that enable one to tick off an extensive list of birds. When visiting Botswana one can take the expensive option of flying into upmarket lodges who will provide tours to really great areas. The other option, which is only feasible for residents of the greater southern Africa, is to go camping in a suitable vehicle. If this route is chosen then plan your trip well and make sure that you carry more than enough water, fuel and food. It is also recommended that you take precautions against malaria.

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