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All the delights of winter birding in the Kruger Park

The birds of the Kruger National Park are one of the greatest attractions for both local and international visitors.

This is undoubtably one of the best birding destinations in the world. In summer, nomads, intra-African, Eurasian and Palearctic migrants boost the Park’s already impressive bird list, in some years swelling the numbers to over 500 species.

That said, Kruger is a stellar all-year round birding destination. In fact, there’s an interesting Kruger winter bird migration route with several species from the Drakensberg Escarpment journeying down into the Park during the colder months. Winter is your only time to tick the likes of Fiscal Flycatcher, Cape Batis and African Stonechat, and ‘specials’ such as the White-starred Robin, Green Twinspot, Guernsey’s Sugarbird, Grey Cuckooshrike and Marico Flycatcher off a Kruger bird list.

If you’re new to birding, then dive right in because watching a Bateleur eagle soar across the blue skies, witnessing a majestic adult Saddle-billed stork feed its ungainly baby or spotting a tiny Scops Owl sleeping in a tree may just turn out to be one of your most memorable Kruger Park sightings

There are several reasons why many birders love a winter Kruger birding trip, and it can be one of the best times to visit the Kruger National Park. While mornings can be crisp, days are dry and mild, often with pleasant midday temperatures. This means that you can range farther on all-day routes without worrying about heat and humidity. It must be remembered that many of Kruger’s prized and rare bird species are residents, and sparseness of the winter bushveld makes it easier to get great sightings and photographs. For instance, in the winter-bare woodlands it is notably easier to spot more woodpeckers and smaller raptors such as goshawks and sparrowhawks.

During May and June, as the dry season sets in, ephemeral pans created by the summer rains start to shrink and disappear, wildlife, including the birds start to congregate along the permanent water courses. During a single stop at a large perennial waterhole, it’s not unusual to be able to identify 20 to 30 species of waterbirds including multiple species of storks, ibises, ducks, crakes, egrets, herons, various waders and the African Spoonbill. Often the African Fish Eagle will be nearby and there’s a chance of seeing kingfishers, swallows and swifts, grouse, doves and pigeons as well.

Throughout the Park, deciduous trees and bushes lose their leaves and the long grasses turn brown and flatten. This improves your visibility from the road and makes it easier to get fantastic bird sightings. It’s a good time to focus on spotting the ground-dwelling birds, keeping a lookout for the stately Secretary Bird stalking prey and the massive Kori Bustard, South Africa’s heaviest flying bird. A bird encounter you will never forget is coming across the charming but sadly, endangered Southern Ground-Hornbill. You’re likely to see it in a small, family group of up to six birds, walking around the lightly wooded grasslands, hunting for lizards, small mammals and large insects. This distinctive bird is the largest hornbill on earth and is instantly recognisable with its handsome jet-black plumage, yellow eyes and impressive scarlet-red throat wattle. The female can be distinguished by a violet-blue patch on her throat.

Bird photography can be very satisfying during winter as the light is good and brightly coloured birds such as the rollers, bee eaters, starlings and sunbirds stand out wonderfully against the background of brown and golden hues. Many of Kruger’s aloe species flower during the winter months, attracting a haze of insects and a number of birds species. Spending some time at a stand of bright flowering aloes with your camera can help you snap vivid close-up images of birds such as the Red-winged Starling, Black-headed Oriole, and Collared, Scarlet-chested and White-bellied sunbirds who come to feed on the abundance of nectar.