Five Birds You’ll Only See on Safari

By Sarah Gold July 24, 2019

While nearly everyone who’s dreamed of an African safari knows about the remarkable mammals that live in Africa’s game parks (especially the iconic Big Five), fewer realize that these vast nature preserves are also one of the best for birders. In fact, hundreds of stunning wild bird species make their homes in the savannahs, river deltas, and deserts of southern and East Africa, many of them—no pun intended—largely unsung. Here are just a few birds that you might be lucky enough to spot on a Micato luxury safari.

Common Ostrich

Seen in Kruger National Park, South Africa and Etosha National Park, Namibia

An ostrich walks through a field
Common Ostrich by Past Micato Traveller Bruce Fryxell

Its name notwithstanding, there’s nothing at all “common” about this bird. Not only is it the world’s largest—adults can be nine feet tall and weigh more than 300 pounds—but its long, powerful legs can sprint at speeds of up to 43 miles per hour (sometimes using their stubby wings as rudders; they cannot fly). They’re typically seen in groups of less than a dozen birds, browsing for roots, shrubs, seeds, and sometimes insects and lizards among desert scrub and beneath acacia trees. When threatened, ostriches often run away, but they can also lie low and press their necks to the ground in order to be less visible. This behavior likely gave rise to the myth that the birds bury their heads in the sand.

Malachite Kingfisher

Seen in Chobe National Park and Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana

A malachite kingfisher sits on a branch
Malachite Kingfisher by Micato Safari Director George Meyer

One of the region’s smallest kingfishers (it tops out at about five inches high), this jewel-like bird has magnificent colouring—including an iridescent green-blue head reminiscent of its namesake mineral, and a long, scarlet beak which it uses to spear small fish and aquatic insects. It’s commonly seen hunting alongside rivers and lakes, perched on papyrus reeds and twigs that overhang the water; once it spots prey, it darts down with lightning speed, sometimes returning to its perch to beat its prize into submission before swallowing it.

Secretary Bird

Seen in Tarangire and Serengeti National Parks, Tanzania

A secretary bird keeps watch in a field
Secretary Bird

With a quill-crowned, eagle-like head and body mounted on long stork-like legs, this bird is one of East Africa’s most unusual-looking avian species. Secretary birds—whose moniker may have come from their resemblance to desk clerks with pens tucked behind their ears—are typically seen striding in pairs or small groups through grasslands and desert scrub, looking for food (mainly small rodents and reptiles, or sometimes smaller birds or eggs). They are most famous as hunters of snakes—which they kill by fiercely stomping and kicking with their long legs. Though they spent most of their lives on the ground, they can sometimes be spotted roosting in acacia trees in the evening.

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Seen in Kruger National Park, South Africa, and Etosha National Park, Namibia

A Lilac-breasted roller sits on a bush
Lilac-Breasted Roller by Micato Safari Director Peter Githaka

Though the violet-coloured chest feathers are what give this uniquely gorgeous bird its name, its plumage actually incorporates a rainbow of hues: turquoise and cobalt blue, fuschia, electric green, and dusky rose. It’s usually seen perched solo on low-hanging tree branches, scanning the ground for food (like beetles and other insects); but lucky Micato safari travellers have spied males engaged in their dramatic aerial courtship dance, in which they make spiralling kamikaze-style dives toward the ground.

Masked Weaver Bird

Seen in Maasai Mara National Game Reserve and Amboseli National Park, Kenya

A masked weaver sits on a tree branch
“Southern Masked Weaver (Ploceus velatus) male …”by berniedup is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Long before they spy these birds—with their vivid yellow plumage offset by black “mask”-like faces—safari travellers usually become acquainted with their striking nests, which dangle in clusters from game-park tree branches like so many rustic Christmas ornaments. These teardrop-shaped pouches are carefully crafted by male weavers from reeds and grasses, often within a single day, in order to attract females. Once he’s finished his spec home, a male will advertise his project to potential mates with calls and fluttering wings, but he may need to build several nests before a female is satisfied enough to move in, line the nest with her own feathers, and lay her eggs.

Gray Crowned Crane

Seen in Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania and Amboseli National Park, Kenya

A grey crowned crane walks through the grass
Grey Crowned Crane by Micato Past Traveller Bob Mellor

The national bird of Uganda, this tall, majestic bird with its crest of stiff golden feathers can often be seen soaring over grasslands and marsh in groups of 20 or more—a regal sight, given its nearly seven-foot wingspan. On the ground, the cranes tend to spend most of their time foraging for insects and small reptiles, sometimes by following behind herds of antelope or gazelle and snapping up prey disturbed by their hooves. During breeding season (which corresponds with local rains), the cranes partake in elaborate mating dances, repeatedly bobbing their heads, honking, and swooping around one another with outstretched wings.

Birders can easily find their bliss on a Micato Safari, whose expert, African-born guides have deep knowledge of the region’s ecology and wild birds. To learn more, contact a Micato Safari Specialist and start planning your custom bird-viewing holiday.

Interested in planning a bird-viewing trip?

Up Next: 6 Locations to Consider for the Best Safari in Africa