Zambia justly plays proud host to a word-class assortment of natural wonders: the breathtakingly powerful Victoria Falls, the rough-and-tumble Zambezi River and the gorgeous Kariba, Tanganyika and Mweru lakes.
Adding to this impressive list are several national parks of rapidly rising prominence, home to a plenitude of birds and mammals under the increasingly vigilant guard of rangers, conservationists and nature-oriented tour operators. And given the country's distracting ecological opulence, it can be hard to know where to focus – especially for birders.
Abutting the tourist town of Livingstone in the south of the country, the small, easy-to-access Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, which includes the Zambian side of Victoria Falls and a short stretch of the upper Zambezi, gets its fair share of feathered friends such as plovers, skimmers and swifts. And from the viewing deck of the remote and perfectly perched Taita Falcon Lodge on the edge of the Batoka Gorge, a few kilometres downstream from Livingstone, lucky gazers may spot, for example, a rare and elusive Taita falcon nesting in cracks of the gorge's high walls.
However, you need to head further inland for Zambia's true wilderness gems, where vast expanses of protected land promise real reward to any amateur ornithologist ready to reach for them.
Kasanka National Park and Bangweulu Wetlands
Kasanka National Park, located in northern-central Zambia and world famous for its millions of roosting fruit bats, was the country’s first park to be placed under private management. Since 1990, Kasanka Trust Ltd has worked in partnership with government wildlife services and the surrounding communities to superintend and promote the park, responsibilities that have also been extended to the adjacent wetlands around Lake Bangweulu. It is this latter habitat, especially the floodplains on the southern and eastern edges through which the Lukulu River flows, that is a particularly powerful draw for birdwatchers.
Amid the scores of waterfowl and plains birds species in both Kasanka and Bangweulu, the star attraction is the rare shoebill, a tall stork-like bird with a shoe-shaped beak that forages for catfish in the shallow waters. Bangweulu is said to be the world's best place for scouting the shoebill, an undertaking made easy at Shoebill Island Camp, a safari-tent facility set in the middle of the swamps from which small poled boats push through endless channels in search of these trusting and approachable birds.
Kafue National Park
Despite being the largest national park in Zambia and the second largest in Africa (after Mudumu National Park in Namibia), Kafue National Park is not well known. Most people who do visit Kafue, located in the southern centre of the country, head to Busanga Plain in the north of the park. This vast and pristine tract is flooded for much of the year, providing excellent provender for some of the greatest wildlife diversity of any national park on the continent, including hundreds of bird species, many kinds of antelope and the big game that feed on them, such as lions, leopards and cheetahs.
Part of the somewhat neglected southern stretch of Kafue National Park, though, is dominated by Lake Itezhi-Tezhi, an inland sea created by the dammed Kafue River that has given rise to superbly scenic, land- and water-based wildlife-watching experiences. Travelling with professionals like Wildside Tours, which has an extensive range of eco-friendly excursions and programmes targeting Kafue, will ensure that your eyes stay peeled for fish eagles, spoonbills and herons, among many others.
It is in Kafue that two of Zambia's most precious birds have been spotted. The Zambian barbet (aka Caplin's barbet) is the country's only endemic bird and, due to its small population and disappearing habitat, has been listed as a vulnerable species (likely to become endangered). The bright red feathers around its eyes and noisy cackle are hard to miss once identified. Southern Kafue is also one of the few places in the word to spy the colourful black-cheeked lovebird, also listed as vulnerable. Its parrot-like shrieks and bright-green body easily give it away.
Liuwa Plains National Park
In the far west of the country, Liuwa Plains National Park is a remote and virtually untouched wilderness that is best visited in the company of an established operator; try Robin Pope Safaris, the Virgin Holiday Responsible Tourism winner in 2011.
Liuwa is known principally for being on the trail of a massive annual migration. Every year in November, wildebeest and zebra move south from Angola across Zambia's plains, stalked by large and impressive clans of hyena, as well as wild dogs, cheetahs and lions. As its name implies, and notwithstanding the unusual suffrutex (dwarf shrub) forest that covers large areas at higher elevations, Liuwa is wide-open country, which allows for bush-loving nature lovers to witness animal interactions without affecting outcomes.
Birders to Liuwa will be treated to glimpses of many winged critters that are rare in Zambia, such as the pink-billed lark, white-cheeked and blue-breasted bee-eaters, and red-crested and white-bellied korhaans. Generally speaking, though, the real delight here is the open country, which reveals spectacular numbers of waterbirds – crowned cranes, slaty egrets, whiskered terns and many more – foraging in the receding pools as the flood waters recede into the dry season.