Many African countries claim to be a birdwatcher’s paradise but Malawi’s credentials in this field are especially impressive. Around 650 different species have been identified with 10% not being seen in other parts of southern Africa. Rather more than 80% of the recorded species breed in the country while the remainder are migratory, mostly from Europe with some from Asia.
For a series of image galleries showing a large number of Malawi’s most beautiful birds, visit the Malawi pages of the Planet’s Alive website run by wildlife photographer Marie-France Grenouillet.
There is a wide variety of birds in Malawi from the very large Marabou stork (over 150 cm/59 inches) to tiny birds like the locust finch (less than 10 cm/4 inches). One look at Malawi’s geographical position and its range of environments quickly explains why this is so. The country’s central position, close to the equator, puts it clearly on the route of those migratory birds which seek to exploit the conditions in contrasting hemispheres. The juxtaposition of mountains, plateaux and river plains, to say nothing of swamplands and lakes, cater for the habitat demands of all manner of birds. Malawi must certainly be a destination favoured by the true ornithologist as well as by those who are simply enthralled by the sight of such a colourful and extraordinary array of birds in this relatively small country.
Although a particular species of bird is not usually confined to a single habitat, most species favour a particular haunt which satisfies its feeding, nesting and cover needs. Unlike many mammals, which need the protection of a game reserve, birds can be seen almost anywhere across Malawi that the conditions are suitable. But it is in the national parks, wildlife reserves and forest reserves that the most natural habitats are found, hence they are often the first choice of those visitors to Malawi who wish to experience the winged wealth of the country. It is also in the parks that expert guiding will be available.
There is no single season of the year for birdwatching. However, to see the biggest range, which will include migrants, the period towards the close of the dry season (late September) to the end of the wet season (April) gives the greatest opportunities. This is, of course, the northern hemisphere’s winter. Perhaps best of all are the months of November and December, before the rains set in at their heaviest and when the plumage of many birds is at its most colourful.
Birds can be seen at every location in Malawi, including the cities. Below gives an indication of some of the species that can be seen in which main habitats types, and links to some of the primary birdwatching locations.
Around the Lake
Lake Malawi attracts a number of birds which favour either the water and islands or the particular vegetation of the shorelands. Pride of place must be given to the African fish eagle, Malawi’s national bird. There are more concentrations of fish eagles here than anywhere else in the world. This magnificent bird, which has a black body with white head, neck and tail feathers, is easily spotted as it dives to take fish from just under the surface of the waters. If not seen, its loud cry will be heard as it perches on a waterside tree or skims over the lake.
Along the lakeshore, palms attract the collared palm thrush and palm swifts, while the mighty boababs have their mottled spinetails with wonderfully swept back wings. Pied kingfishers dive to take small fish and, where there are reeds, golden and brown-throated weavers can be seen. Very prominent, especially on the off-shore islands, are white-breasted cormorants, although the reed cormorant is much less commonly seen. By far the most impressive bird, for its sheer size, found near the lake is the giant Marabou stork.
Vast numbers of birds inhabit Malawi’s wetlands and riverine areas. Elephant Marsh, Lake Chilwa, Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve and even the larger dambos, such as the Mpatsanjoka near Senga Bay, are rewarding haunts for birdwatchers.
Squacco and green-backed heron inhabit Elephant Marsh, but the ruby-bellied or rujous-bellied heron can be seen on the more accessible Mpatsanjoka dambo. Hamerkops, with their characteristic crests, feed in the shallows of Lake Chilwa. White pelicans and flamingos are regularly sighted on Lake Chilwa and in Elephant Marsh. These great birds look most attractive in their breeding plumage when the, usually white, feathers of the body have a pink flush. Another big and beautiful bird of the dambos is the crowned crane but it is becoming rare.
Vwaza is noted for its duck and geese populations which include white-faced and knob-billed ducks and spurwinged geese, as well as the smaller Egyptian goose.
The larger rivers, such as the Shire and the Bua, have their own specialities. The exposed sand cliffs near Chikwawa are home to carmine bee-eaters, known for their beautiful pale cinnamon underparts. Giant kingfishers are also seen along the Shire but the smaller half-collared kingfisher is to be found mostly near heavily wooded river banks such as those in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve.
These woodlands, also known as miombo, are the characteristic vegetation of much of Malawi. A number of bird species are seen only in these habitats and some of the best viewing can be had in the Dzalanyama Forest to the south-west of Lilongwe.
Scimitar-billed wood hoopoes, with their extraordinarily curved bills, solitary Souza’s shrikes and Whyte’s barbets are seen here. Boehm’s flycatcher is not seen elsewhere in southern Africa and two rarities are the blue-headed weaver and Stierling’s woodpecker. Another weaver bird, whose nest has a long spout and always looks just a little untidy, is the red-headed weaver found in the Dzalanyama Forest and elsewhere.
There are numerous species of brightly coloured sunbirds found in the Brachystegia woodlands. Red and blue sunbirds, the green-headed and Oustalet’s sunbirds are just three which are not usually seen in the rest of southern Africa. Of the pipits, the wood pipit is common but the lighter coloured bushveld pipit is a very rare visitor.
The miombo rock thrush, despite its name, is not confined to rocky areas of the woodlands but the boulder chat is often seen in the Mchinji area where there are rocky outcrops. Two visitors to these woodlands are the European nightjar, often seen near Thyolo in the wet season, and the garden warbler. A long distance and rare visitor is the European blackcap which keeps to altitudes above 300 metres (1000 feet).
Mixed savannah woodlands
Two national parks, Liwonde and Lengwe, provide this habitat. Just as the vegetation is mixed, so too one can expect to find a particularly wide variety of birdlife. Commonly found are long-tailed glossy starlings, hornbills, both red-billed and crowned, and white-browed sparrow-weavers. More restricted is the attractive Lilian’s lovebird, only seen in Liwonde. Where these woodlands are cut by rivers, Pel’s fishing owl may be present. Again, Liwonde is the most likely place for a sighting.
Down in the Lower Shire Valley, and especially in Lengwe, is the yellow-billed hornbill. It is hardly ever seen outside this area but is quickly recognised by its especially large yellow bill. A rare summer visitor is the hobby falcon which hunts for small birds and bats at dusk. Another hunter is the rather larger long-crested eagle, a relatively common bird not only in the parks but also by the roadsides. During the day it may be seen perched on a tree but in the early morning it will be soaring high into the sky.
Rocket-tailed rollers are uncommon but worth looking out for as their blue underparts catch the sun’s light. Even more rare is the largest of the rollers, the purple roller; another pretty bird with mixed colours. At the opposite end of the scale of sightings is the Mozambique nightjar. It feeds from exposed sandy surfaces and even from dirt roads. Even more likely to be seen is the Cape turtle dove.
There are a few but important areas of evergreen forest which provide a different habitat for birds from the more common deciduous woodlands. Evergreen forest zones tend to be relatively small and distinct, such as those on Nyika and the Kalwe Forest near Nkhata Bay, as well as in the Thyolo and Mulanje area.
One of the species associated with these habitats but are not found elsewhere in southern Africa is the grey-olive bulbul, seen especially on Nyika. Several other birds of the same family, placid bulbuls, yellow-streaked bulbuls and stripe-cheeked bulbuls, are also here in the evergreen forests. They are not especially easy to see but their whistling calls are distinct.
An uncommon bird is Sharpe’s akalat. Not easy to see unless one gets a glimpse its white belly, this bird is of the same family as the robin but is not seen in the rest of southern Africa. Neither is the olive-flanked robin, but it is quite likely to be sighted on the Viphya Plateau, in Nyika National Park and around Mulanje. Two other birds not seen in southern Africa outside Malawi are the moustached green tinkerbird, a member of the barbet family with a distinctive white moustache, and the bar-tailed trogon. The trogon is stunningly and beautifully coloured even down to its silver tail with black bars.
Another bird of the evergreens, which is something of a rarity and not easy to spot, is the blue-mantled flycatcher. On the other hand, the green coucal is not only more common but can be identified by its large yellow bill, green tail and white underbelly.
Mountains and hills
The truly upland areas like Nyika and Mulanje clearly offer a distinctive habitat but so to do the inselbergs (small hills) that are scattered across the country. The inselbergs are home to a number of raptors which delight in the rocky vantage points these hills provide. Among these birds are the black eagle, the relatively common lanner falcon and the more rare peregrine falcon. The last named is most likely to be seen in the Mulanje area. Among other inhabitants of the rocky inselbergs and other hills are the rock or mountain cisticola, the large striped pipit and the mocking chat. The pipet has the habit of flying off into a tree when it’s disturbed and pretending to be a branch. Mocking chats, like others in the same family, have distinctly different male and female colours.
Of the birds of the mountains, some are unique to their particular home areas in Malawi. On Nyika, Denham’s (or Stanley’s) bustard, the red-winged francolin and the wattled crane are in this category, although there have been sightings of the bustard on the Viphya Plateau and in the Kasungu National Park. All of these birds are attracted to Nyika’s grasslands. On the more rocky parts of Nyika the augur buzzard is to be seen.
On Mulanje Mountain, the common quail, unfortunately, isn’t common and the red-tailed flufftail is also rare but worth looking out for. The Eurasian swift is a visitor in summer but the rock martin is a resident.
Around and about town
As has been said, birds know no boundaries even when they are fiercely territorial. Not surprisingly, the larger towns such as Lilongwe and Blantyre have their own resident bird populations. For example, three owls are seen around the capital city. The pearl-spotted owl and Scops owl are fairly common but the giant eagle owl can be seen near to its haunts in the Nature Sanctuary. Blantyre boasts the crested barbet and the pennant-winged nightjar. Showing no preference, the sharp-billed honeyguide may be seen in both cities.
The popularity of Malawi for birdwatching is well known. Apart from the very variable range of habitats which attracts such a wide variety of species, the country has another attraction for those interested in sightings. Malawi is a relatively small and it is quite possible to visit a great number of different habitats to see the riches of birdlife even on a quite short stay in the country.
Places offering Birdwatching
Chimwenya Game Park is a serene, beautiful and privately owned 500 acre game park, in one of the last remaining indigenous forests inteh Shire HIghlands.
Chintheche offers some of the best beaches on Lake Malawi, with a collection of luxury lodges right by the shore.
Thirty miles north of Nkhotakota is the settlement of Dwangwa, a useful place to stock up and refuel when travelling up and down the lakeshore.
Dzalanyama is approximately 40 km from Lilongwe and covers the steep range of hills which bear the same name. It's a beautiful natural environment to explore and enjoy.
Elephant Marsh is part of the flood plain of the River Shire. Though now devoid of elephants it is still home to a fantastic array of birdlife.
Kasungu National Park is an 800 sq mile area of natural woodland and bush with stretches of open grass. Poaching has reduced numbers but there is still wildlife to be seen.
Lake Chilwa is Malawi’s second biggest lake, home to unique fishing villages and a designated wetland of international importance because of the huge bird populations it supports.
Lake Malawi National Park is the world's first freshwater national park and world heritage site, situated at Cape Maclear.
Lengwe National Park is 350 sq miles of dense vegetation with good birdlife and a number of mammal species to be seen. It is only an hour or so from Blantyre.
Likoma Island sits on the far side of the Lake Malawi in Mozambican waters. The island is home to stunning beaches and lodges, with access by boat or aircraft.
Lilongwe is Malawi’s capital. The Old Town is distinct and has the appearance of a traditional African settlement, whilst the City has much in common with other twentieth century urban developments around the world.
Liwonde is perhaps the most popular of all of Malawi's game parks. The River Shire flows along its western border, allowing boat safaris to discover the Big 5 and an array of birdlife.
The Lower Shire Valley is an extension of the Rift Valley and home to no less than three national parks/wildlife reserves.
Majete Wildlife Reserve is a unique conservation and tourist destination for all visitors. An amazing success story of recovery and restoration, and now home to the Big 5.
A massive 100,000 ha area of Mozambique land which runs to the eastern shore of Lake Malawi forms the Manda Wilderness Community Reserve.
The Mangochi Lakeshore is a strip of southern Lake Malawi where many popular hotels and resorts offer beachside accommodation.
The Marelli Islands group, consist of three uninhabited islands that are protected as part of the Lake Malawi National Park. They are 3 km from the Senga Bay shore.
Monkey Bay is considered to be one of Malawi's main lake ports, and is where the famous Ilala ferry docks and begins its weekly sojourn up and down the Lake
Mount Mulanje is Malawi's highest peak. At 10000ft (3000m), Mulanje dwarfs all that surrounds it. It lies to the east of Blantyre and is easily accessible.
Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve is little neglected in terms of wildlife but the landscape includes scenic rocky outcrops and rivers cutting through impressive gorges.
Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve is one of the two large wildlife areas in Central Malawi. A true wilderness, it has a promising future after recent mass restocking.
Ntchisi Forest Reserve contains some of the last remaining indigenous rainforest in Malawi. Some trees tower thirty metres overhead.
Nyika is Malawi’s largest park. Superb wildlife and landscapes in one, it offers breathtaking, unique, scenery combined with wonderful safaris.
Salima is an important service and trading centre set back from Lake Malawi whilst Senga Bay has a stretch of sandy beach with a range of hotels, lodges and campsites.
Tea has been grown at Thyolo, south-east of Blantyre, since 1908 and the primly trimmed bushes (strictly, trees) give the whole area the appearance of a neatly kept but vast garden.
The forested Viphya is a wonderful area for those seeking a combination of stunning scenery and solitude, with opportunities for trekking, mountain biking and various other activities.
Vwasa Wildlife Reserve, an area of marsh and plain, with a few rocky outcrops, is all of 400 sq miles (1000 sq km) and lies along the Zambian border north-west of Mzuzu.
Known for its views, Zomba Plateau is a great slab of a mountain with vast tracts of cedar, pine and cypress and criss-crossed by streams with tumbling waterfalls and still lakes.
Safaris in Malawi offer thrilling wildlife viewing by a choice of methods and in an amazing variety of environments, but without the crowds of mass tourism.
Volunteering with wildlife is a becoming more common as Malawi continues to be at the forefront of wildlife conservation in Africa.
Game viewing from a boat can be extremely successful as many animals are less concerned about what's close to them on the water than what's close to them on the land.