See our Kruger Birding Guide 2011 for detailed descriptions of all the best driving routes in Kruger Park, complete with birding calendars and bird habitat maps.
The Kruger National Park is home (either permanently or as a warming summer vacation destination) to over 500 species of birds. Our avian friends don't just inhabit treetops and the air above us; they make homes on and in the ground, in bushes and in and near water. Some don't even make homes at all, preferring to use those of other birds (as cuckoos do), or, like the ever-flying house martin, to stay airborne for as much time as possible.
Some are active mostly during the day; others have adapted to fly and hunt in the dark. They dine on nectar, honey, seeds, fruits, foliage, insects, other birds, fish, reptiles and mammals (both dead and alive). They may live in groups, like the red-billed quelea that breeds in colonies of thousands of birds, or can lead an almost solitary existence. With such abundance and variety, getting to grips with Kruger's birdlife can be a challenge for both experienced and novice birders.
Birds can be very quick to adapt to changes in their environments and particularly to the influence of humans and other animals. Here in Kruger you will find birds like spotted eagle owls and thicknees standing on roads so they can easily eat insects while nightjars will sit on tar roads after sunset for warmth. Redwinged starlings are seen around Letaba's reception in December, enjoying the feast provided by cars arriving covered in dead insects. At this time you will also see European and lilac-breasted rollers perched almost every 100m along roads throughout the park, again waiting for insects to be killed by passing cars.
Red-billed oxpeckers feed on ticks on the backs of antelope, giraffe and zebra while yellow-billed oxpeckers will even roost on their buffalo and rhino 'hosts'. Cattle egrets scoop up the grasshoppers and other insects brushed aside as elephant and other large mammals walk through grass and often hitch a ride on their foodprovider too. Some honeyguides will lead small mammals, and even humans, to beehives in the hope that the animal will break open the nest and allow the bird to feed on the wax and grubs inside. Many vultures rely on other birds or mammals (and even helicopters involved in culling operations!) to locate the site of a potential meal.
There are two key parts of a bird's anatomy which can quickly reveal information about its habitat and diet. The length, size and shape of their legs and feet indicate where and how they are likely to live. Are they long in comparison to their body (like the grey heron which wades in water, or the kori bustard which strides through long grass)? Are the legs extremely short like those of swallows or swifts who rarely walk? Are the claws webbed for swimming in water?
The size and shape of the bird's bill provide clues about its diet. Is it curved like a sunbird, to reach deep into flowers to feed on nectar, or an African hoopoe which prises grubs and caterpillars from the ground? Is it hooked like a bird of prey, perfectly honed for killing and tearing flesh? Is there a gap between the mandibles, like the open-billed stork which enables it to deal with a diet of bivalves? Ken Newman, one of South Africa's most well-known ornithologists, recommends you make four additional key observations, to help quickly identify birds.
The whole of the Kruger National Park offers a rich variety of birds and, unlike some of the park's other wildlife, most resident bird species can be seen across all regions of the park, and also within rest-camps themselves. There are a number of bird-hide getout points that provide ideal spots for birdwatching and the guided bush walks offered by many of the rest camps can also provide a good opportunity to get close to birdlife. It is always worth looking for birds - birders often spot a lot of game because they drive slowly and may, when stopping for a dove, end up seeing a lion on the other side of the road which everyone else would have rushed past.
In Newman's Birds of Southern Africa (Sappi) the author's beautiful illustrations, descriptions of characteristic markings and behaviours and the clear distribution maps, make identification a relatively simple task. A more concise option is the localised Newman's Common Birds of Kruger National Park (Southern Book Publishers). Roberts' Birds of Southern Africa is somewhat unwieldy as a field guide but, for serious bird enthusiasts, it serves as an unrivalled, classic, reference.
There are numerous other field guides, including a range of high quality titles from Sasol, as well as interactive CDs (offering audio clips of birdcalls) on the market. Most provide similar information but ordered or presented in different ways; before investing your cash spend time with each one, seeing which you feel most comfortable with.