For a relatively small country, Malawi harbours some impressive avian riches. Dominic Couzens reveals the best places to go. Image copyright Ben Cranke.
alawi is a small country that punches well above its weight as a birdwatching destination. Part of the reason is the sheer, delightful practicality: distances are manageable, there is some excellent accommodation, the people are famously friendly, it is very safe and, above all, it has eclectic birdlife. The country is like a supermarket. While many of the species are well-known brands, throughout the store are a range of very rare and localised specials that are as easily available as the more routine fare. The specials are found in all the main habitats, but particularly the evergreen forest in the far north and south. With more than 650 species found in a country half the size of the UK, the possibilities for birding are many. However, here are the best sites:
1 Senga Bay
Lake Malawi is about 580km long from north to south, so it seems only appropriate to include at least one spot on its shores. The best for birds is probably Senga Bay, just to the east of Lilongwe and easily reached. The scarce Böhm’s bee-eater is arguably the highlight, but in a nearby marshland the uncommon rufous-bellied heron occurs, along with occasional ducks such as the white-backed duck and African pygmy goose (yes, it’s a duck). Otherwise, there is a decent range of typical species and, of course, you can enjoy seeing the lake’s truly incredible variety of fish while snorkelling.
2 Liwonde National Park
This hot, lowland reserve, with its elephant, hippo and crocodiles, feels like a typical African safari destination, but in true Malawi style, holds a rich range of special birds that are difficult to see elsewhere. The park is astride the Shire River that drains Lake Malawi to the south, attracting some thrilling species such as the African skimmer, Pel’s fishing owl and white-backed night heron, which you may search for on boat safaris. Add in a dazzling array of localised birds such as the Lilian’s lovebird, Böhm’s bee-eater and brown-headed barbet, as well as large numbers of commoner African waterbirds (ducks, herons, storks and ever-present fish eagles), and you have a superb all-round site.
3 Mount Mulanje
After visiting Thyolo and Zomba, Mount Mulanje will come as a pleasant surprise, particularly if you enter by Ruo Gorge. The imposing hillside cloaked with large chunks of dense forest will cheer your heart and make you want to skip to the 3001m summit of this impressive inselberg. The path is adventurous, there is a rushing river and, of course, it teems with birds. They are harder to see than in the smaller woodland patches, but the thought of good populations of Thyolo alethe, silvery-cheeked hornbill, yellow-throated apalis and many others should bring you here. Scarce and black swifts swoop over the crags.
4 Thyolo Mountain
There is hardly any forest left here, and while that is a tragedy, it does mean that, for a birdwatcher, some very rare montane species can be found easily, including the eponymous Thyolo alethe (related to the European robin.) While this is a skulker, the green-headed oriole — a rarity to bring shivers down every African birder’s spine — haunts the treetops. Other good birds include the African broadbill and bar-tailed trogon, and they are all quite easily seen on a single visit.
5 Viphya Plateau
This upland area, also known as the Viphya Mountains, lies just south-west of the large town of Mzuzu, in central-northern Malawi. It isn’t as good as Nyika, but does hold some Afro-montane forest, miombo, scrub and grassland within endless pine plantations. It plays host to some captivating birds, although many are, perhaps, beloved mainly by real enthusiasts. Among these are the singing cisticola, southern citril, white-eyed slaty-flycatcher and Bertrand’s weaver.
6 Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary
It is a small reserve — at just 150 hectares — a little scruffy and surrounded by the urban sprawl of Malawi’s capital, but anywhere that allows you to catch up with the African broadbill, so tricky in many places, is sacred ground to birders. Several other excellent species are easy to see here, including African black duck, occasional African finfoot and the gorgeous red-throated twinspot, and there are many glittering beauties such as the scarlet-chested sunbird and Schalow’s turaco to keep the casual visitor interested.
7 Zomba Plateau
This highland region, rearing to 1800m above Zomba town and the surrounding plain, is a popular tourist area, with hiking, rock-climbing, fishing and horse riding. Amid the lakes and waterfalls, there are also a few remnant patches of forest that play host to some highly sought-after birds, with the showy white-winged apalis (found in very few places worldwide) and yellow-throated apalis (only found in Malawi) as the stars. Other interesting evergreen forest birds include the white-starred robin, Malawi batis, white-eared barbet and green twinspot, and there are a host of bulbuls and warblers to entertain the enthusiast.
8 Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve
The irresistibly named white-winged babbling starling is the ornithological poster-boy for this park to the south-west of Nyika, along the Zambian border. The starling occurs in the tall miombo woodland, mainly on slopes, and moves around in flocks in the treetops making — you guessed it — babbling sounds. There are plenty of other good species here, including the localised racket-tailed roller. Visitors will also enjoy the plentiful game and lots of commoner birds such as eagles and parrots.
9 Dzalanyama Forest Reserve
You don’t watch birds in Africa for long before you learn to appreciate the value of miombo woodland (well-spaced Brachystegia trees on poor soils) for a range of specialised birds. This area, only an hour west of the capital, is Miombo Central, one of the finest areas of its kind in the world. There is a veritable host of unusual species here, which have the exciting habit of appearing in large, fast-moving mixed flocks. Periods of quiet are broken by birding pandemonium. The many specials here include the pale-billed hornbill, Souza’s shrike, Stierling’s woodpecker and miombo tit and you never know which cluster will include which species. There are also wet areas with a completely different range of delights. Even with no other species present, Dzalanyama would be worth a visit just to see the Anchieta’s sunbird, one of Africa’s most strikingly beautiful birds, which feeds on the proteas.
10 Nyika National Park
The largest and most famous wild site in Malawi, this is a mixture of montane forest and rolling grassland situated on a high-altitude (2000m) plateau in the north-west. The air is fresh, the scenery stunning and the diversity of birds — 400 species — is the highest in the country. And you have big herds of game thrown in. The grassland birds include the gorgeous blue swallow, various spurfowls, Denham’s bustard and wattled crane, while in the forests you can find endless bulbuls, sunbirds, warblers and flycatchers. Most sites in this large area are easy to reach by road, quite a bonus in Africa
For tips on how to become a better birder, read more of this feature in the latest edition of Travel Africa magazine, available to purchase here.