Birding in Malawi

Birding in Malawi

If, like us, you have a love of our feathered friends and the sparrow and crow watching in your garden has gotten a little stale, have a little read of the special birds that can be found in Malawi and start planning your next exotic birding holiday.

Malawi is home to over 650 different species of birds and the shape of Malawi is long and thin, offering two very different areas of birdlife – the northern highlands, the southern forested area and of course, the aquatic birdlife along Lake Malawi.

Birdlife of Lake Malawi

Let’s start with the Lake. This blog would be amiss without mentioning our national bird found all along the lakeshore, the African Fish Eagle – an exquisite and powerful bird weighing up to 3.6kg and measuring up to 75cm in length. The African Fish Eagle is a master of its craft, perching high up in the trees, their eyesight is said to be 8 times as powerful as a humans’ and this is how they spy their prey in the clear lake water. They swoop down to the water, sometimes completely submerged, and grab the fish in their strong talons before returning to their perch to feed. The unmistakeable large dark brown bodies, snow white heads and yellow faces and feet are iconic in these parts and they often provide entertainment for tourists with their near-constant hunting routines and echoing calls. Spot the African Fish Eagle at Pumulani.

African fish eagle hunting, Lake Malawi
Photo credit: Mike Varndell

Now this next bird, although not a bird you will typically find around water, has recently been nesting on one of our very favourite islands, Nankoma Island which is home to the beautiful Blue Zebra Island Lodge. This very special bird is none other than the elusive African Pitta. The African Pitta, formerly known as the Angola Pitta, is a migratory bird who travels from Uganda and Kenya to southern Africa to breed in the rainy months of November and December. Incredibly rare and hard to spot, the Pitta is the holy grail of any African birding list. The male, as with all birds, are the most beautiful, with vibrant yellow, blue, turquoise, green and red plumage.

It was soon discovered that this male was not alone on the island, and in fact had brought his wife along. They created two breeding nests in the thick forest in the centre of the small island and lived quite contently for two months before beginning their journey back up north. We hope they will be back next year.

African Pitta, Malawi
Photo credit: Simon Cousins

Birdlife of Southern Malawi

Now we will focus on the southern region of Malawi. Malawi homes two endemic bird species, the endangered yellow-throated apalis and the Thyolo alethe.

The Thyolo alethe, a thrush-like bird, can be found in the montane and forested areas of Mulanje and Thyolo. They have a rusty olive-green coloured back and wings, contrasting the white underbody. A glimpse of one of these will be a big tick off your bird list with the total population to be estimated at only 2,500-4,000. The yellow-throated apalis are somewhat more eye-catching with vibrant lime green and yellow plumage; this species can also be found in the montane area of Mulanje (total population estimated at 1,500-6,000). Get yourself on a hike up Mount Mulanje, Malawi’s answer to Kilimanjaro, to try catch a peek of these special residents.

Yellow Throated Apalis in a tree, Malawi
Photo credit: Nicolas Van der Hauwaert

Moving slightly more north, but still in the southern region, you will find the Pel’s fishing owl. A unique and funny looking bird, this fine specimen can be found in the Malawi wilderness near rivers and lakes. Often seen in Liwonde National Park, the Pel’s Fishing Owl is one of the largest owls in the world with a wingspan of over 1.5m. As their name suggests, they feed on fish and catch their prey in much the same way as a fish eagle, swooping down from their lookout in the tall overhanging trees – but fish are not their only prey, they also feed on frogs, crabs and it’s even been known for them to go for a baby Nile crocodile! These ginger feathery creatures are a sight to behold, catch a glimpse of one at Kuthengo Camp.

Fishing Owl, Pels in Malawi
Photo credit: Simon Cousins

The Trogons… Here in Malawi we are the proud home to two of these rare species, one being the bar tailed trogon and the other, the narina trogon. Both sport a vibrant red and green plumage and are most commonly found in moist, montane forested areas with an abundance of their primary diet, insects, caterpillars, beetles and even small reptiles and rodents. If it’s the narina trogon you’re looking for, keep south in Liwonde National Park and stay at Mvuu Lodge to try to find the narina trogon that has been glimpsed in the area and even right by the lodge on one occasion.

Northern Malawi birds

Now this is where we go right up north. The bar-tailed trogon, with noticeable barred stripes on the tail can be found up in the northern highland region of Malawi, in Nyika National Park. Stay at Chelinda Lodge and ask your guide to take you on a special birding walk to find this rare beauty, be sure to pack your hiking shoes as he won’t stop at anything until he finds you this unique resident.

Narina Trogon, on a branch Malawi
Photo credit: Simon Cousins

Whether you’re into the big birds of prey or the little colourful guys, (or even the LBJs if you’re a hardcore birder), one thing we know for sure is that Malawi’s birdlife will not disappoint. The abundance of species and gorgeous backdrop, the cacophony of chirrups and squawks and fluttering wings will ensure you’re in twitcher heaven and your binos will be glued to your eye sockets.

But don’t take my word for it, get yourself over here and take a journey through our prized national parks to meet our special feathered friends.

If you would like to know more about birding in Malawi, contact us today.