Big Six birds
Did you know?
Pel’s fishing owl eats fish, frogs, and the occasional baby Nile crocodile.
South Africa has more than 800 birds, a number that rivals the entire continent of North America’s bird count.
And here’s a fun list of Big Six birds that would even intrigue non-birders. They’re easy to see (except for one), spectacular and are all found in the Kruger National Park.
The lappet-faced vulture is the largest scavenger in Africa. From its scaled feet to the top of its bare pink head, it stands one metre tall. And its wingspan is truly enormous – up to three metres across, second only to that of a wandering albatross.
Then there’s the colourful saddle-billed stork, which has a similarly impressive wingspan (2.7 metres). In fact, this bird is the giant of the stork family. If you're lucky (it's endangered, so not that common to see), you'll see it stalking in shallow streams and ponds, hunting for small fish and frogs.
The martial eagle, South Africa's biggest eagle, is probably the most powerful of the Big Six. You’ll immediately recognise it by its dark head and wings, speckled white belly and imperious air. It can swoop down on animals as large as a medium-sized goat or baby impala and carry them away. Look for it in open savannah areas.
Then there’s the Kori bustard – said to be the world’s heaviest flying bird (although Europe’s great bustard gives it a run for its money). Specimens have been recorded as weighing 19 kilograms. It stalks about the veld like a cricket groundsman checking the wicket. Actually, it is hunting for unsuspecting lizards and small rodents.
The southern ground hornbill, also an endangered species, is another distinctive bird. It sometimes uses its impressive red wattles to make booming noises very early in the morning, as well as noises that sound disturbingly like lion grunts. This hornbill eats frogs, snails, lizards, snakes and the occasional small mammal.
Then there is the Holy Grail of Big Six birding – Pel’s fishing-owl, a beautiful, reddish-brown creature. Rare and secretive, it often eludes keen birders and perversely reveals itself to people who don’t know what a treasure they’re seeing.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
SANParks Central Reservations
Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111
How to get here
These birds are found in the Kruger National Park, but not exclusively. There are daily flights to Nelspruit and Hoedspruit, which are very close to Kruger entrance gates. Alternately, a drive from Johannesburg or Pretoria will take approximately five hours. Take the N4 towards Nelspruit, and follow the signs from there, but it's advised you consult a map as the Kruger Park is large and your route will depend on which camp you're heading for.
Best time to visit
Summer (October to March) is the best birding time in South Africa as that's when migrant species also visit.
Tours to do
You can book game drives with a guide in the Kruger National Park. The night drives are especially worthwhile for game, though if you're looking for birds in particular, you'll see more on a morning drive.
It's best to have your own car in the Kruger National Park, so you should consider hiring one.
Length of stay
To give yourself the best chance of seeing these large (but sometimes elusive) birds, set aside about three days. As a bonus, you'll see far more than the Big Six birds.
Where to stay
The Kruger National Park has a wide variety of campsites, self-catering accommodation and luxury lodges. There are also adjoining private game reserves like the Sabi Sands, the Timbavati and Klaserie, all containing very well-known luxury bushlodges. Your best chance of seeing Pel's fishing-owl is in the far north of the park, near the Punda Maria camp.