On a recent safari trip in Malawi’s Liwonde National Park, the “Big Five” animals associated with Africa’s national parks were nowhere in sight. That’s when I began noticing the birdlife. In just one hour our group spotted a myriad of avians, including a little bee-eater seated on an acacia branch, a colony of hadeda ibis perched atop a tree canopy, and a flock of trumpeter hornbills flying overhead.
Game drives, it turns out, don’t have to be all about lions and elephants. Some of the world’s smallest (and often, not so small) winged wonders are often fluttering about right before our eyes.
Here are eight extraordinary avians to keep an eye out for on your next African game drive, or African safari with Nat Hab.
Africa’s aerial acrobat
Photographers love these little beauties for their wildly colorful plumage, a remarkable array of shades that often includes a lilac throat, rusty cheeks, and an olive or greenish-blue crown. The bird’s short neck and large head add to its eye-catching appearance. Still, what’s really amazing about lilac-breasted rollers are the aerial stunts that have earned them their name. They often engage in some acrobatic side-to-side rolling while flying at high speeds, and perform a series of quick, shallow swoops, typically while courting or defending their territory.
Look for these inquisitive avians wherever you find trees or other tall vantage points that make it easier for them to hunt for prey. The higher the perch, the better. Sometimes they’ll even set up on the backs of large herbivores, including elephants, while hunting for insects, spiders, and scorpions.
Although they’re Kenya’s national bird, lilac-breasted rollers are also prevalent in places like South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, and Etosha National Park in Namibia.
African Fish Eagle
The voice of Africa
Also known as the African sea eagle, these large bald-eagle relatives are a regular sight around the continent’s inland open waters, including East Africa’s Lake Victoria and southern Africa’s Orange River. Their preferred fishing method involves using the powerful talons of their feet to catch fish right off the water’s surface, and then bringing it up to a perch to feed.
As the national bird of many southern and eastern African countries, including Malawi, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, they’re fairly high in number (about 300,000 in total) and easy to spot and identify, thanks to their dark and chestnut body plumage and feathery white heads. But what makes them stand out is their loud, high-pitched call: a reverberating “wheeee-ah-kleeuw-kleeuw-kluuu” that’s so distinct it’s become known across the continent as the “Voice of Africa.”
The great garbage collector
Although it’s not going to be winning any beauty contests, the world’s largest flying stork is still a sight to behold. At approximately 59 inches tall the marabou stork is the average height of a 10-year-old human, but looks a lot older. There’s even an African legend that says God ran out of parts when he was creating the continent’s animals, so he used whatever was leftover and turned it into the marabou stork. Nicknames of this bald-headed avian include both the “undertaker bird” and the “nightmare bird” for the way it appears from behind, with its cloak-like wings, skinny white legs, and hunched posture.
Thanks to its enormous beak and a penchant for eating anything and everything, it’s also known as the “great garbage collector.” You’ll often see marabou storks hanging around landfills or wherever there’s a lion’s kill, and in places like Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, and South Africa’s Lake Mavuya.
Despite their unsightly appearance, Marabou storks help keep their local ecosystems healthy by feeding on dead and decaying matter that could otherwise spread diseases.
Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill
Africa’s flying banana
Africa’s hornbill birds gained notoriety when Zazu, a red-billed hornbill, served as Mufasa’s uptight royal advisor in Disney’s “The Lion King.’ But it’s hard to picture a southern yellow-billed hornbill (the red-billed’s cousin) as having any kind of chip on its shoulder, especially with a nickname like the “flying banana.”
It’s a moniker referring to the bird’s downwardly curved yellow-beak, a feature that’s offset by its mostly black-and-white plumage. Southern yellow-billed hornbills also make an unusual “cluck-clucking” call that often turns into a cacophony as other hornbills join in.
A mid-size bird, they nest in the cavities of trees when they’re not foraging for ground seeds, insects, and spiders. Southern yellow-billed hornbills reside in dry thorn fields and broad-leafed woodlands throughout places like South Africa’s Mala Mala Game Reserve and Botswana’s Chobe National Park.
WWF is working with South Africa’s Mabula Ground Hornbill Project to provide artificial nests for southern ground hornbills (another Southern yellow-billed hornbill cousin), whose numbers are in decline.
Pel’s Fishing Owl
The phantom avian
It’s one of the world’s largest owls, as well as the second largest in Africa. But despite its size, the Pel’s fishing owl—which gets part of its name from its almost exclusive diet of aquatic vertebrae—is notoriously difficult to spot. Not only is the bird notably shy, but it’s also mostly nocturnal, both qualities that have some wildlife enthusiasts referring to this avian as the “phantom owl.” Listen for its haunting, deep horn-like call on moonlight nights around slow-moving rivers, where it roosts in the nearby trees.
Adult owls are typically a rich ginger-rufous color, with loose and long feathers around its head and large, dark eyes. Its ear tufts are hardly visible, making it seem like they’re non-existent.
Although spotting a Pel’s fishing owl is rare, your chances increase near the Mara River in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, and along northeastern Namibia’s Caprivi Strip.
Africa’s avian “apartment” dwellers
Weaver birds are the planet’s only avians that can tie knots, using both their beak and feet to lace together intricate nests that are sturdy and secure. The Sociable Weaver, however, takes nest building to a whole other level. Using a variety of materials like twigs for the roof, dry grasses lined with fur and other fluff to form individual chambers, and sharp bits of straw to protect its entryways, the sociable weaver is responsible for one of the largest bird-built structures on earth.
Their communal nests can weigh up to a ton, be up to 20 feet wide and 10 feet tall, and are similar to human apartment buildings, with a hundred or more pairs of breeding sociable weavers living side-by-side in their personal chambers. Each enormous living quarter is also specially created together to protect against rain and sunshine.
Keep an eye out for these works of art—and their residents—across southern Africa, especially within the Namib and Kalahari deserts.
Grey Crowned Crane
Africa’s dancing beaut
They’re regal and majestic, not to mention natural dancers. Africa’s grey crowned cranes stand about three feet tall and are easily identifiable by their long legs, a grey, black, white, and red color scheme, and a crown of gold plumage. You’ll often see them flying overhead by the dozen, their necks and long wings extended and their feet stretched out behind them, in the skies of South Africa’s Midlands and the wetlands of Uganda’s Rukiga District. In fact, they’re Uganda’s national bird, appearing front and center on the country’s flag.
Although extraordinary to look at on their own, grey crowned cranes tend to draw even more crowds when they start dancing, a mix of head-bobbing, bowing, jumping, and wing fluttering that’s an important part of their courtship rituals. Unlike other crane species, crowned cranes also perch in trees around wetlands and savannahs—a trait that makes these unique avians somehow even more impressive.
King of the Marshlands
With their wide-set bills that resemble a Dutch clog (hence, “shoebill”), statue-like demeanor, and striking, pale-blue eyes, shoebills are in a league all their own. Not quite a stork, more similar to a heron, they’re the only extant species of Balaenicipitidae in existence.
Shoebills stand up to five feet tall and are a stealth “stand-and-wait” type of hunter, sussing out just the right moment to snatch snakes, catfish, and even young turtles up within their large, cavernous bill.
You’ll often see these grey birds feeding alone in shallow waters and marshlands, standing on their long legs perfectly still for hours at a time. Many people find the Shoebill’s unmoving stance and prehistoric appearance admittedly disconcerting, but they’re said to be quite docile with humans.
Look for them in Uganda’s freshwater lakes and Bigodi Swamp near Kibale National Park, and Rwanda’s Akagera National Park.