Migratory Birds | They are back

South Africa is well known for its birdlife, with close to +/- 850 species recorded in the country, of which around 100 (give or take) are migratory, in other words, they don’t call South Africa their permanent home but rather spend some parts of the year beyond our borders.

These migratory birds will generally arrive from around August with peak arrivals in December or January and then departing again by late-March, early-April back to either their breeding grounds or non-breeding grounds.

Some of these birds come from far away lands, e.g. Russia, Mongolia, the Arctic Ocean to escape the harsh northern Hemisphere winters which will be experiencing driving snow and rain, not a great place for most birds. Some may also come from slightly closer to home such as Sub-Saharan Africa and then come down to South Africa to breed.

All the way from Europe

The birds coming down from Europe and Asia are referred to as Palearctic Migrants and these birds will come here purely to feed and escape the colder climate an example would be the Willow Warbler, a tiny bird weighing in at around 9 grams. It is hard to imagine this tiny thing is flying close to around 28,000km round trip between its breeding grounds in Europe and Russia to feed in sunny South Africa.

Did you know: “More than 100 migratory birds species have been recorded in southern Africa, with 44 Palearctic migrant species (Europe, Asia, northern Africa and the northern and central parts of the Arabian Peninsula) and 35 Intra-African migrant species having been recorded in South Africa.” – BirdLife South Africa

Probably the most travelled of the migratory birds is the inland Southern Africa Afro Palearctic Migrant the Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis).

African all the way

The birds coming in from within the African continent are the Intra-African Migrants. They will be spending the time in South Africa breeding, some even use the same place year after year, that is how strong that memory is of the place where they raised the last of their brood. A good example here is the Woodland Kingfisher, this bird’s call is one of those quintessential summer bird sounds that begins the moment they arrive (November 14-16 in Makuleke, northern Kruger National Park). Their journey begins in Central Africa such as Angola, Cameroon, Southern Sudan and Nigeria to name a few countries and they will then proceed to set up their territories find a mate or rekindle the connection with their partner from the last breeding season. This will continue until their departure in April/ May leaving a very silent place behind them.

Migratory Birds

“With much less known about intra-African migratory systems in comparison to Palearctic patterns, drivers and conservation concerns, the intra-African bird migration project is all the more important. This initiative is currently being advanced as part of a postdoctoral research project at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.”

Keeping it local

The last group of migrants is the very local group which will migrate within the country’s border. They are the Altitudinal Migrants, they breed up on the Highveld in the summer and for the colder winter months move down to the lower-lying areas in the Lowveld to take advantage of better weather conditions with much milder weather where they will feed and then return to breed again on the Highveld. The African Stonechat is one such species, this bird enjoys high altitude grasslands with scattered bush and in winter will move down to Makuleke and occupy a similar habitat on the Limpopo floodplain where it will enjoy the mild weather and continue to feed.

Migratory Birds

So, with all this movement of birdlife and the arrival of summer, this is now a perfect time to get those binoculars out, get travelling and make a date with some of these new international arrivals and put those ID skills to the test!

If you want to learn more about migratory birds, why not try your hand at our EcoTraining Migratory Birds Quiz.