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TThe Big 6 birds are the largest and most eye-catching avians you can see in the Kruger National Park: the lappet-faced vulture, the saddle-billed stork, the martial eagle, the colourful ground hornbill, the kori bustard and the enigmatic Pel’s fishing owl.
South Africa has more than 800 bird species, a number that rivals the entire continent of North America’s bird count. The Big 6, however, intrigue even non-birders. They’re easy to see (except for one), spectacular to look at, 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 a metre tall. And its wingspan is truly enormous – up to three metres across, second only to that of a wandering albatross. They are listed as ‘endangered’, so seeing them is always a treat.
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, 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 6 – and it’s listed, sadly, as ‘vulnerable’. 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 weighing 19kg. 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 classed as ‘vulnerable’ on the IUCN listing of threatened 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 6 birding – Pel’s fishing owl, a beautiful, reddish-brown creature. Despite being in IUCN’s ‘least concern’ category, it’s frequently the hardest to find. Rare and secretive, it often eludes keen birders – then perversely reveals itself to people who don’t know what a treasure they’re seeing.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
SANParks Central Reservations
Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111
How to get here
These birds can all be found in the Kruger National Park, although not exclusively. There are daily flights to Mbombela (formerly 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 Mbombela and follow the signs from there. However, it’s advisable to follow a map, as the Kruger Park is very 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.
It’s best to have your own car in the Kruger National Park, so hire one if necessary.
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.
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 6.
Where to stay
The Kruger National Park has a wide variety of campsites, self-catering accommodation and luxury lodges to suit a range of budgets. There are also adjoining private game reserves like the Sabi Sands, the Timbavati and Klaserie, all containing well-known luxury bush lodges. Your best chance of seeing Pel’s fishing owl is in the far north of the park, near the Punda Maria camp.