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Migratory birds in South Africa

This blog about migratory birds in South Africa was written by student Shannon Scullion, part of our Bushwise Professional Field Guide course.

4 min read

One of things that I have always loved about the South African bush is the birdlife. Spotting and identifying birds is one of the major highlights for me at Bushwise and in the bush in general. 

As a child, my family and I would head to Kruger National Park every Christmas holiday for about 2 weeks of bliss. My dad in particular had an incredible passion and knowledge of birds in South Africa. He taught me that even in the hottest part of the day when everyone else is praying for an unlikely glimpse of a leopard sleeping in a tree or a pride of lions in a dry riverbed, there are always weird and wonderful birds flying around that are often overlooked. 

Migratory birds returning to South Africa

A European bee-eater, a migrating bird species here in South Africa, sits perched on a branch. These birds are very bright and colourful, distinguished from other bee-eaters by their light blue chests and yellow throats.

There are about 850 species of birds in South Africa, of which about 100 are migratory. These migratory birds spend their lives in a number of ways from travelling between mountain and ground level, to flying throughout the African continent or even across borders and oceans. They only spend some of their time in South Africa, usually in spring and summer. The lengths these birds go to survive and reproduce always leaves me with a sense of disbelief and wonder. 

Every year, thousands of Palaearctic-African migrants travel to South Africa, coming all the way from Asia and Europe. They begin arriving in August, just in time for spring. Research by National Geographic revealed that up to 4.5 billion birds, representing around 185 species, fly from Europe and Asia in the north to southern Africa and back every year. 

For birds, migrating is about surviving

A pair of broad-billed roller, an inter-African migrant, sit perched on a branch. This bird is very colourful, with purple and blue body feathers and a bright yellow bill.

They travel all this way to improve their chances of survival during seasons when conditions become unfavourable. Most of them are insect- or seed-eaters, travelling thousands of miles as the seasons change to seek out these precious resources. Some of these types of migratory birds we can expect to see in South Africa include numerous waders, steppe eagle, steppe buzzard, white stork, European roller, European bee-eater and barn swallow.

Another category of migratory birds are the Intra-African migrants, 35 species of which have been recorded in South Africa. These birds will land in South Africa coming from Northern or Central Africa to breed. These migrants are chasing the differing rainfall patterns around Africa, coming to South Africa for the summer rainfall and abundance of food. While they are here, they will spend their time breeding, often returning to the same place as previous years to brood using their unfathomable memories. 

The return of summer migrants

A Wahblerg's eagle flying towards it's nest, carrying a twig in its mouth.

I’ve written this blog in October, at the beginning of spring. Some of the intra-African migratory birds that have already returned are the Wahlberg’s eagle, red-chested cuckoo and yellow-billed kite. A monogamous pair of Wahlberg’s eagles will have one to five nesting sites in their territory and will use the same nests for up to 28 years!

I’m still keeping an eye out for the rest of the birds who we can still expect to see as it continues to heat up here in the Lowveld. These include the African reed warbler, greater striped swallow, African pygmy kingfisher, Diederik cuckoo, southern carmine bee-eater and woodland kingfisher. The one I’m most excited to see is the woodland kingfisher – a stunningly colourful and vocal bird that is our sign that summer has well and truly arrived in the bush. Every year, they announce themselves within a day or two of the 8 November. 

Migratory birds can travel up to tens of thousands of kilometres on their annual journeys. Their survival is dependent on the availability of well-connected networks and chains of undisturbed habitats along their migration routes. They need these routes to refuel, rest and feed. Sadly, habitat degradation, fragmentation and loss are a huge threat to these birds. 

Celebrating World Migratory Bird Day

The sunsets on another beautiful day in the African bush.

World Migratory Bird Day is a day that brings awareness and starts the conversation about one of the many reasons we all need to come together to protect and conserve the natural environment. This year’s theme is light pollution, something that also impacts migratory birds’ journeys by disorientating them when they fly at night. 

So, I will leave you with a request, please be mindful at night and turn all of your lights off so that these incredible travellers can make it safely back to us this year! 

Learn more about birds, from the endemic and rare to the migratory and exotic, on a Bushwise course.

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