Birding Southern Africa

Brown-hooded Kingfisher (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

We just returned from our most ambitious vacation ever, an eleven week birding tour of South Africa and the neighboring countries of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. We called this a birding tour, and our primary goal was certainly birds, but you can’t explore a new continent and not pay attention to the other wildlife, which in Africa means mammals. 

One of our favorite African mammals, the Springbok (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Any trip of this length involves a lot of numbers, and here are some of our more significant ones. Our flights to Africa and back ran about 27 hours each, from Tucson to Dallas (2 hours), from Dallas to Doha, Qatar (15 hours) and from Doha to Cape Town (10 hours). In addition we took four flights within Africa, from Cape Town to Kimberly, from Kimberly to Johannesburg, from Johannesburg to Windhoek, Namibia and from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe to Johannesburg. With those flights our total airmiles for the trip was 28,000.  We also drove rental cars around South Africa and from Namibia on the west coast of Africa east to Botswana and Zimbabwe, more than 6,500 miles in total. We took more than 13,000 photographs, although the best ones were taken by Prudy using her iPhone 13.  Birders record the birds they see using an app called eBird, and we recorded 149 different lists of birds with a total of 462 species.

13 lions under a tree in Chobe National Park, Botswana (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

We didn’t keep track of butterflies or flowers, but we did record 75 different mammals, including the big five (lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros), as well plenty of others equally as dangerous. In Africa, humans are relatively far down the food chain. We also found several of Africa’s 500 species of snakes. Fewer than 200 snakes are found in southern Africa, but twenty of these are deadly. The Puff Adder probably accounts for the most bites, although the venom is slow-acting so few fatalities are recorded, compared with the Black Mamba whose venom can kill in less than 30 minutes. Another interesting snake we saw is the Mozambique Spitting Cobra, a reptile that, in addition to injecting venom through bites, also spits its venom at victims, aiming for the eyes. While most venomous snakes avoid contact with humans, the spitting cobras have a bad habit of entering homes at night and biting occupants on their face. This is a major problem in luxury game lodges where many tourists apparently have been bitten. 

Leopard in Kruger National Park, South Africa, looking at Impala (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The deadliest animal in Africa to humans, however, is the mosquito which is responsible for perhaps a million annual deaths. Hippopotamuses and crocodiles kill more humans than any of the big five, and among the big five elephants and buffalo kill more humans than lions, leopard or rhinoceros. In a one-on-one encounter a cape buffalo is more likely to kill a lion than vice versa, but when lions hunt in large prides, they can readily kill anything they want. 

Southern Carmine Bee-eater with a bee, Botswana (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Our driver on a daytime safari in Chobe National Park in Botswana had heard there was a pride of 17 lions hanging out together near the river, so he made a special effort to find them for us. We were in an open jeep with no windows or doors, and it was a hundred degrees in the shade.  We looked and looked with no success, and were about to give up when the driver found 13 of them, all lionesses, dozing together in the shade of a small tree.  He stopped the jeep fifteen feet from the lions so we could take photos.  The driver assured us that lions never attack humans in a car, regardless of whether or not there were windows and doors, but fifteen feet seems perilously close to 13 lions, and they began yawning and showing their impressive teeth. A few days earlier we had been charged by an angry elephant who felt our car was too close, so we were more than a little nervous.  But it was a hot day, and the lions all went back to sleep.

This article originally was published in the December, 2022 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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