An Introduction to Birding in Kruger
Kruger Park Birding

Kruger Park is a compelling experience for those open to the drama of the natural world. The vast plains, woodland savanna and riverine gallery forests are a deceptively tranquil stage upon which life and death are ever at odds, yet the tension between these opposing forces sustain a balance in the bushveld with a peculiar mix of robustness and sensitivity.

Birding Index: Facts and Resources

Considering that a Martial Eagle can take on prey heavier than 30kg, it's no surprise that isolated incidents are reported of the large African birds of prey attempting to seize children in the fields near rural homesteads.

The philosopher Julian Huxley believed that birds are, in many ways, more highly evolved than us. They symbolise freedom. We can admire and envy the way their wings lift them beyond the baggage that goes with our bigger brains.

Birds are intriguing - they keep us alive to the mysteries of the universe. How do they navigate during migration routes of thousands of kilometres?

How does the Lesser Spotted Eagle from Eurasia time its arrival in Kruger with the first summer rains? How does the Amur Falcon* know when and where to begin congregating with its fellow travellers for its return flight to Russia after the last summer rains, and how exactly does it get home - its migration route to southern Africa is well documented but nobody seems to have seen it fly back!

Bateleur.The Bird of War

The Bateleur is a majestic short-tailed snake-eagle seen throughout Kruger, cruising low over the tree canopy searching for carrion or live prey. It is a powerful bird in indigenous folklore and its appearance at certain times was seen as a prediction of calamity. According to Xhosa traditionalists the Bateleur, inqanga, was known as the bird of war, or the intaka yamadoda, a bird of men. Its name comes from its habit of beating its wings against its body to make a sound like the assegai being struck against a shield.

The Bateleur was viewed with great superstition by warriors, because of its custom of descending onto the battlefield to pluck the eyeballs of those who'd been killed in the fighting. It was considered especially unlucky to suffer the defilement of having a Bateleur excrete upon one. If this happened to a warrior, he was immediately removed and sent to a diviner for purification or it was feared that the entire army would face disaster (see Endangered Species, Bateleur Mythology and Snake-Eagles).

Why does a Fork-tailed Drongo attack an African Cuckoo whenever it comes too close, but is unable to resist raising that cuckoo's chick as one of its own - even when it murders its own offspring? And while we're on cuckoos - what makes the Diderick Cuckoo use the Lesser Masked-Weaver as a foster parent, while the Black Cuckoo prefers the Southern Black Flycatcher, amongst others (see Cuckoos - Nature's bad mothers)?

Another unanswered question is why White-crowned Lapwing have never been seen on the Letaba River while they are common on the nearby Olifants and on all other rivers in the north. It is no surprise that birds are so deeply embedded in the folklore of every culture in the world. In Africa we have a rich bird mythology with one of the dominant themes being their role as messengers between the worlds of the living and the dead.

For thousands of years, birds have been used by traditional healers who are guided by ancestral spirits in curing the sick or casting spells. Vulture parts in particular are in demand. They have a strong association with death and dreams, and more frivolously, vulture muthi is reputed to help the gambler pick the winning horse at the races. Conservationists are concerned that some species - like the Southern Ground-hornbill - may be pushed into extinction because of their mythical potency. Traditional healers argue that it's not in their interests to allow this to happen. Have a more in-depth look birds and muthi.

Peregrine Falcon.Fastest Flyer

The world's fastest bird is the Peregrine Falcon, which can hit speeds of over 300km an hour during its dramatic swooping dives. There is a resident population of Peregrines breeding near Lanner Gorge in northern Kruger. The best place to see the Peregrine Falcon is along Nyala Drive (S64) and in the Makuleke Reserve north of the Luvuvhu River.

Kruger's Rarest Birds
Species identified by the Avian Demography Unit as being rare in both Kruger and the rest of South Africa.

Where best to see them
Dickenson's Kestrel
Makuleke and Parfuri areas
Racket-tailed Roller
Punda and Pafuri
White-breasted Cuckooshrike
Punda Maria
Arnot's Chat
Dense mopane woodland around Punda Maria
Meves's Starling*
Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers
Black-bellied Starling
Crocodile Bridge area
Pink-throated Twinspot
North-eastern sandveld
Lemon-breasted Canary
Luvuvhu River

African Rail.One of the pleasures of birding in Kruger on a regular basis is the shifting relationship between the familiar and the strange. One depends on the visual affirmation of the Bateleur to know one is in Kruger. It's taken for granted that the Tshokwane-Satara Road (H1-3) will be teeming with Lilac-breasted Rollers and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills.

However, one never knows just what is around the next corner.

There is always the possibility of seeing something unusual, or out of place - like the incongruous sight of a Sooty Tern photographed near Satara, thousands of kilometres away from its home on the East African coast and Indian Ocean islands.

The balance between the expected and the unexpected is influenced mostly by climatic cycles which affect the availability of food. During a particularly dry or wet year there may be a noticeable influx of species not commonly found in Kruger.

Then there's the excitement of the rare sighting as opposed to the unusual sighting. Among the rarest birds in Kruger is the African Pitta* - the only verified sighting of which has so far been on the Letaba River, but it may also occur along the Luvuvhu River in the north.

Common Ostrich.Savanna Olympics

The Common Ostrich* is not only the largest bird but is also the fastest creature on two legs. Olympic runners sprint at about 36km/h to do the 100 metres in 10 seconds. The Common Ostrich*, capable of speeds of up to 70km/h, would do the 100 metres in just over 5 seconds. A cheetah, the fastest animal on earth, can manage brief spurts of up to 114km/h, or just over 3 seconds for the 100 metres..

We acknowledge in particular AC Kemp of the Transvaal Museum, whose research has created a framework for understanding the factors affecting Kruger's birdlife. We have also leaned heavily on the insights of Dr Ian Whyte who has shared his extensive knowledge of the Park and its birds.

Best Birding Guide to Kruger Park