Intro to birds in Zambezi National Park
The Zambezi National Park is home to around 400 different species of birds, making this national park a birder’s paradise. Located just upriver from the Victoria Falls, it makes the park very accessible to many visitors who wish to come indulge themselves in wildlife. The Zambezi National Park is 140,000 km of pure wilderness and is divided into two parts by the Kazangula Road.
The northern half of the park is accessible via the “Zambezi River Game Drive”, which borders the Zambezi River, making it a perfect location for wading birds, shorebirds, and multiple birds of prey, including the African Fish Eagle.
The southern half of the park, accessible by driving along the “Chamabondo Game Drive”, includes open grasslands, woodlands, and mixed shrub vegetation giving visitors a multitude of landscapes and different environments to search for birds. Birdlife in the Zambezi National Park is great all year round, but the best time of the year for birding is from November to April when most of the European and North African Birds migrate down to Southern Africa.
Not only do you get more species of birds but it is also peak breeding season, where a lot of resident species begin growing their breeding plumage, showing off the vibrant colours and fancy decorated feathers.
When searching for birds it is always best to head out for a game drive in the early morning or late afternoon when it’s not too hot and most birds are out looking for food!
Photography credit to Federico Acevedo.
#1 White-Fronted Bee-Eater
White-fronted Bee Eater (Merops bullockoides) is a common, but still beautiful, species found throughout sub-equatorial Africa. Bee-Eaters are known for their vibrant multi-coloured plumage and slender bodies, making them great birds to photograph. Although at a glance most bee-eaters look very similar, they do have different coloured plumage making them distinguishable.
White-Fronted Bee-Eaters have a mainly green body with a yellow belly and a white and crimson throat. They also have a black mask extending from their beak past their eyes. Another notable difference from most bee-eaters is that they lack elongated tail streamer feathers.
White-Fronted Bee-Eaters live in large colonies, sometimes up to 200 individuals can make up a single colony, meaning you will have plenty of opportunities to photograph them if you encounter one.
They are very active, often perching for a couple of seconds before taking off to catch more food so you will have multiple chances to catch them in action.
#2 Lilac-Breasted Roller
Another common resident of the Zambezi National Park, the Lilac-Breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus) with beautiful vibrant colours. You will often find these guys in open woodlands and grass savannas, as long as there are trees.
Often perching on branches of leafless or dead trees they are usually found alone or in pairs. Easily identifiable with its bright light blue feathers, bright teal crown, with thick white brows and, like the name suggests, lilac-coloured breast feathers. While their colours might not extremely bright when they are perched, their real colours flash brightly when they take flight.
When they leap off their perch and take to the skies, they reveal flashy metallic blue and bright pink feathers on their wings. Whenever you come across a Lilac-Breasted Roller, and it doesn’t fly away, it is a perfect chance to admire and photograph this colourful bird.
It also gives you a second to prepare for that majestic take-off, and it’s definitely worth the wait.
#3 Cape Glossy Starling
The Cape Glossy Starling (Lamprotornis nitens) is another species of bird you can expect to encounter in woodlands and savannas, preferably arid regions.
Often found foraging in pairs, or roosting communally, the Cape Glossy Starling can look similar to other species of glossy starlings but recognizable by it’s uniform green and very glossy colour and bright orange almost copper eyes. Another way to tell these guys apart from the other species of glossy starlings is by listening for their unique call, which is a slurred warble “trrr-chree-chrrrr”.
If you are lucky enough you will catch one of these guys perching on a branch with the sunlight reflecting off their extremely glossy feathers and flashing their very bright colours.
#4 Shaft-Tailed Whydah
The Shaft-Tailed Paradise Whydah (Vidua regia) is a small songbird that is as interesting as it is beautiful. They are what is known as a brood parasite, meaning females will lay their eggs in the nest of a different species and let that bird raise its young.
In the case of the Shaft-Tailed Whydah, their host of choice is the Violet-Eared Waxbill, mimicking their song in efforts to infiltrate the nest. Whydahs are also known for the elegant long tails male to grow during the breeding season.
During the breeding season, which peak time is from January to April, males grow 4 long tail feathers that is almost twice the length of their body. They will fly around from branch to branch to display their long tail feathers in order to attract females.
If you’re lucky, you’ll manage to witness this breeding display which makes great photos or just a spectacle to watch. These guys can often be seen in dry grasslands and dry acacia savannas, where they have room to display their long tail feathers.
#5 Long-Tailed Paradise Whydah
Another species of Whydahs that is a common resident in the Zambezi National Park is the Long-Tailed Paradise Whydah (Vidua paradisaea). These guys are another example of brood parasites, mimicking the calls and songs of their host species, the Green-Winged Pytilia.
Being a species of Whydah, the males grow extensive long elegant tail feathers to attract females to breed. Peak breeding season for the Long-Tailed Paradise Whydah is from February to May.
Their breeding plumage is very similar to that of the Broad-tailed Paradise Whydah but can be differentiated by the sleekness of the tail feathers and the roundness of the tips. The Long-Tailed Paradise Whydah’s tail feathers are slimmer and have a pointed tip while the Broad-Tailed Paradise Whydah has a much broader tail feather with a round tip.
They can be found in a similar environment as the Shaft-Tailed Paradise Whydah in dry grasslands and dry acacia savannas. Just like the Shaft-Tailed Whydah, they fly from perch to perch to show off that lengthy tail feather and get the attention of a female, they also land on the ground from time to time.
#6 Golden-Breasted Bunting
The Golden-Breasted Bunting (Emberiza flaviventris) is a small songbird with remarkable black and white head pattern with a striking yellow colour extending from its throat down to its chest. A common resident found in open woodlands and savanna areas of the Zambezi National Park normally seen alone or pairs.
They can be seen feeding on the ground looking for small seeds or small insects and spiders. The Golden-Breasted Bunting is generally very tame and will stay perched on branches for quite some time, making it excellent to take various different photos.
Males and females are very similar in colour, females being just a bit duller in colour. These small songbirds tend to be very vocal to be attentive for their call, which is a loud whistled “weechee weechee weechee” or “sweet-cher, sweet-cher, sweet-cher”.
#7 Pied Kingfisher
While driving along the Zambezi River through the Zambezi National Park you will certainly encounter the Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) fishing in the river. The Pied-Kingfisher is the most common species of Kingfishers in Southern Africa but also one of the most unique. What makes the Pied Kingfisher so unique?
Out of all the Kingfisher species found in Africa, the Pied Kingfisher is the only one who hunts its prey by hovering above the water and then diving straight down into the water. Their abundance means you will be sure to find one around any large enough body of water, like the Zambezi River in the Zambezi National Park.
They spend most of the day perching on a branch overlooking the river searching for food and resting, but every couple of minutes they will take to the sky and hover in place for a couple of seconds before dive-bombing into the river, perfect for some action shots mid-flight. After a couple of attempts, they will return to a branch or log to rest for a couple of minutes and then attempt it all over again.
So if you missed it the first time just stick around for a couple of minutes and you’ll get another shot and if you’re lucky, it will surface with a fish.
#8 Giant Kingfisher
Another great species of Kingfisher to photograph is the Giant Kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima). The Giant Kingfisher is largest species of Kingfishers in all of Africa, measuring about 42 to 46 cm in length.
The Giant Kingfisher is quite easy to ID, it has a large shaggy chest, a uniform black back with small white dots, and a brown chest. Breeding season for the Giant Kingfisher changes depending on the country they reside in.
In Zimbabwe, the breeding season takes places from August to March when the water levels are lower which concentrates their food source making it easier to catch.
Giant Kingfishers are almost always seen perching on branches and logs along the riverbank scanning the waters for possible prey so keep your eyes open when driving along the river.
#9 Secretary Bird
The Secretary bird (Sagittarius serpentarius) is one of the Zambezi National Parks hidden gems and one of the parks most interesting bird species to come across.
The Secretary Bird is a bird of prey that hunts from the ground using its extremely long, stork-like, legs. Unlike most birds of prey, which hunt while in flight, the Secretary Bird walks around scanning the ground for any possible prey and will then kick or stomp it, stunning or killing its prey. The Secretary Bird can most often be found along with the open grassland areas along the Chamabondo Game Drive in the southern half of the park.
If you do manage to find one of these beautiful birds walking around then make sure to get a good look at its striking face. The Secretary Bird got its name from the blackhead feathers that stick out from behind its head, resembling a secretary with a pen or pencil behind their ear.
So if you head out into the southern half of the park, keep a lookout along the open grassland for this striking bird of prey.
#10 Kori Bustard
Another resident you can hope to see in the southern part of the park is the Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori), the largest flying bird in all of Africa, and the heaviest bird capable of flight in the world. The Kori Bustard is another ground-dwelling bird commonly found looking for its next meal in the open grassland savanna sections of the park.
The male Kori Bustard can grow to around 150 cm, weighing an average of anywhere from 7 kg to 18 kg. They also have a wingspan of about 275 cm, giving them enough power to be able to fly. Although they have the ability to fly they prefer to walk in search of food because their large size takes a lot of energy for them to fly they only fly if they need to escape danger.
The Kori Bustard is shy in nature and normally very skittish, fleeing at the first sign of danger, so approach them with caution to not scare them off.
If you can get close enough to photograph them, you will see how they slowly forage for food along the grass looking for large insects and small vertebrates.
(BONUS) #11 African Fish Eagle
This list would be incomplete without talking about the African Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) the national bird of Zimbabwe. African Fish Eagles are commonly found in Sub-Saharan Africa, near large bodies of water, like the Zambezi River, making it a common resident in the Zambezi National Park.
It is easy to ID with an unmistakable appearance, its body is mostly brown with black wings, and a uniform white head, similar to an American Bald Eagle. The African Fish Eagle is also known for its very distinctive call, which many say it embodies the spirit of Africa, heard everywhere around large lakes and rivers.
They are usually spotted perching high in the trees along the river bank, scanning the water for prey often alone or in pairs. The significance of the African Fish Eagle goes back to Shona traditions. In the Shona culture, birds were seen as messengers and because Fish Eagles were found around large bodies of waters with plentiful wildlife and rich environments, they believed the Fish Eagle was a messenger of life and brought prosperity.
So if you happen to be driving around the Zambezi River, definitely keep an eye out for this magnificent and significant bird of prey.
Are you interested in learning more about African birds? Become part of our research team by joining the Wildlife Research and Conservation project in Victoria Falls.