Africa

Birdwatching in Zimbabwe is rewarding as is the game viewing

Are you interested in going birdwatching in Zimbabwe. If so, do it. You won’t regret it. Zimbabwe is a land-locked country located more or less in the middle of southern Africa. It has been through tough political times but is otherwise a friendly place and well worth visiting. Apart from the birds and other wildlife to be seen one can also visit places such as the Great Zimbabwe ruins, Victoria Falls, Lake Kariba and the many game and nature reserves.

Map showing the location of ZimbabweThe country experiences very hot summers and cool to cold winters. The rains mainly fall in spring. Zimbabwe generates income from the tourist industry and there is no shortage of accommodation and tour options.

Where to go birdwatching in Zimbabwe

A large portion of Zimbabwe is not over-utilised, and one can encounter wildlife almost anywhere. The national parks are worth visiting and some of them are described below. If you wish to make the most of your trip then we suggest that you hire a car and explore the reserves and countryside on a self-drive safari. This is definitely not the only option as there are plenty of local tours available. These might be in a 4X4 vehicle, on foot or on a boat. Whichever you choose keep your binoculars and bird field guide handy as you are about to see some really exciting birds.

A few of the many great birdwatching locations

Matobo National Park

Approximately 50 kilometres south of the city of Bulawayo lies the Matobo National Park. It is a fascinating area that is dominated by granite outcrops. It is a wonderful place to explore on foot. There is a network of dirt roads leading through the outcrops which are called “kopjes” locally. A highlight of a visit to the park is to walk up to the grave site of Cecil Rhodes, and others, which gives you a great view of the surrounding countryside. Spend some time looking for the colourful lizards that are to be found on and under the boulders on top.

The Matobo Hills occupy around 43,000 hectares. This includes a 16,500-hectare game reserve containing a variety of mammals including Rhino. The Matobo Hills are home to a dense population of leopards although they are not seen too often. It also has a huge population of dassies (rock rabbits) which happen to be the favourite prey of the Verraux’s (Black) Eagle. This area is a stronghold for these beautiful eagles as the hills and trees provide plenty of breeding spots.

Over 300 species of birds have been recorded in the reserve and this includes over 30 species of raptor. Apart from the Verreaux’s Eagle you might see Augur Buzzard, African Fish-Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Rock Kestrel, Lanner Falcon and African Harrier Hawk. A number of owl species are also present.

Other birds to look for include Boulder Chat, Mocking Chat, Familiar Chat, Orange-breasted Bush Shrike, Freckled Nightjar, White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Neddicky, Cape Longclaw and Rattling Cisticola. There are a few dams amongst the hills and although they are not known for there waterbirds you may still be able to tick species such as Sacred Ibis and Saddle-billed Stork.

The Matobo Hills National Park is easily accessed from Bulawayo. There is some accommodation within the park. The camp at Maleme Dam makes a good base from which you can explore

Hwange National Park

The Hwange National Park is located 20 km off the main road from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. Along with Mana Pools Game Reserve it is one of the best game and bird viewing reserves in Zimbabwe. The reserve is 14,651 square kilometres in extent much of which is not accessible to visitors.

Summer temperatures can soar up to 40 degrees Celsius. The winter, which is also the dry season, is milder but still warm during the day. The predominant habitat is sandveld which may be covered with bush or woodland. There are also large areas of grassland.

The Park supports large numbers of mammals such as African Elephant and Cape Buffalo. Other mammals to be seen include Black Rhino, White Rhino, Hippo, Burchell’s Zebra, Giraffe, Warthog, Blue Wildebeest and the mighty Sable Antelope. Predators such as Lion, Cheetah, Leopard and Wild Dog may be encountered.

Grey Crowned Crane in Hwange Game Reserve
Grey Crowned Crane in Hwange National Park

Over 400 species have been recorded in Hwange National Park and, like many of the reserves in Zimbabwe, a wide variety of raptors may be seen. Raptors which you might see include Martial Eagle, African Hawk-Eagle, Dickinson’s Kestrel, African Hobby and Montagu’s Harrier.

The water sources and grassland are good places to look for larger species such as Saddle-billed Stork, Marabou Stork, Woolly-necked Stork, Wattled Crane, Grey Crowned Crane, Kori Bustard, Denham’s Bustard, Red-crested Korhaan and Black-bellied Korhaan. Smaller birds include Natal Francolin, Red-billed Francolin, Swainson’s Francolin and Coqui Francolin.

The woodland areas are particularly good for birding. Hornbills are quite common and Bradfield’s, Southern Yellow-billed, Crowned and Grey may be seen. The highlight would be a sighting of the Southern Ground Hornbill. Smaller birds include Crimson-breasted Shrike, Miombo Rock Thrush, Meves’s Starling, Broad-tailed Paradise Whydah, Stierling’s Barred Warbler, Miombo Double-collared Sunbird, Fan-tailed Flycatcher and many, many more.

Racket-tailed Roller
Racket-tailed Roller

Hwange National Park lies within a malaria area so precautions should be taken. There is a network of dirt roads, some of which may take some careful navigating to get your car through in one piece! There are several accommodation options in and around the park. The Parks Board run some camps in the park while most of the privately run lodges are on the outskirts. If you get an opportunity, it is worthwhile going on a night drive or a guided walk.

Mana Pools Game Reserve

The Mana Pools Game Reserve is a piece of that is more or less untouched by man. It is 219,000 hectares in extent and is bordered on the north by the mighty Zambezi River. The river also forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

This game reserve is prime game viewing habitat, particularly in the dry winter months, when huge numbers of game such as African Elephant and Cape Buffalo congregate near the river.

Bronze-winged Courser
Bronze-winged Courser

Mana Pools is a remote destination and is normally reached by car from the road linking Harare with Kariba. It is essential to take more than enough supplies with you and this includes petrol or diesel as there is no reliable supply within 2 hours of the reserve. There are a few lodges and camping grounds in the reserve.

The bird checklist is around 370 species. It is a good place to visit for those who keep a southern African checklist as some species found here are near the southern end of their range.

Along the Zambezi River there are always some interesting and sought-after birds to be found. Look for Dwarf Bittern, African Finfoot, Three-banded Plover, White-crowned Plover, African Skimmer, Red-winged Pratincole, Water Thick-knee, Long-toed Plover and many more. Other birds to be seen near the river include the beautiful Carmine Bee-eater.

Birds of prey are particularly common with Western Banded Snake Eagle being one of the specials for the area. You should be able to tick off Bateleur, Yellow-billed Kite and perhaps Verreaux’s Eagle further inland near the escarpment.

The savanna and bush habitats are home to many more species. Shelley’s Sunbird might be seen and is regarded as a special for the area. Other sunbirds include Purple-banded, Amethyst, Scarlet-chested and White-bellied. Some of the shier birds found in thickets are Sombre Bulbul, Thrush Nightingale, Bearded Robin, Red-throated Twinspot and Yellow-spotted Nicator.

Some of the other birds to look for are Lilian’s Lovebird, Pennant-winged Nightjar as well as Bohm’s and Mottled Spinetails.

One of the attractions of the park is the ability to walk in the park without a guide. There are two things that you should be aware of before doing this. Firstly, you need a permit and secondly you really must be familiar with you might encounter while being out in an African wilderness. There are numerous lions and leopards in the park and the Elephants and Buffalo also pose a serious risk should you encounter them.

Chimanimani National Park

The Chimanimani National Park straddles the Zimbabwe border with Mozambique. The Zimbabwean side only covers 215 square kilometres. This is a rugged mountainous spot that draws birders to see some of the specials found there.

Over 180 birds have been recorded in the park including Swynnerton’s Robin-Chat and Chirinda Apalis which are possibly the most sought-after birds. Other species that may be seen are Augur Buzzard, Shelley’s Francolin, White-tailed Flycatcher, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Blue Swallow, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Miombo Rock Thrush and Verreaux’s Eagle.

There are no roads within the reserve so be prepared to do some walking! This is a rather remote area, so it is advisable to go in a group. There is a small camp site in the reserve. Entering the Zimbabwe side of the reserve does not allow you to cross into Mozambique.

Victoria Falls and Zambezi National Park

The Victoria Falls are spectacular, and its worth sacrificing a bit of birding time to go and see them. The Zambezi National Park lies just west of Victoria Falls and is 56,000 hectares in extent. The reserve is located on the southern bank of the Zambezi River. There is a wide variety of accommodation in and around the town of Victoria Falls. Before covering the National Park it is important to mention that the elusive Taita Falcon is sometimes recorded in the series of gorges below the falls.

The habitat consists of riverine woodland near the river with drier Kalahari sand woodland elsewhere. A variety of game can be found in the reserve including Lion, Leopard, Cheetah and African Elephant.

Rufous-bellied Tit
Rufous-bellied Tit

Over 400 species of bird have been recorded in the reserve, but this number is probably inflated with birds recorded outside the borders of the actual reserve. The river attracts a number of waterbirds, and you may be able to tick Rufous-bellied Heron, White-crowned Night Heron, Black Egret, Openbill Stork, African Fish-Eagle and Osprey along with many others.

Collared Palm-Thrush is found nearby any clumps of palm trees. Brown Firefinch may be found in association with the more common Blue Waxbill. Marabou Stork, Dickinson’s Kestrel, Black-cheeked Lovebird, Kori Bustard, Olive Bee-eater, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Broad-billed Roller and many more.

Ayres Hawk-Eagle
Ayres Hawk-Eagle

Final thoughts

Zimbabwe is a fascinating country and is particularly geared up for tourists. There are plenty of accommodation options available in or near the best birdwatching locations and many of these provide various types of tours. There are a wide variety of field guides to the birds of southern Africa which includes Zimbabwe, but there are also a few dedicated to the country. It is an affordable country to visit particularly for those in Europe and North America.

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