Africa - Malawi


Malawi is a relatively small country, only 94,000 km², compared with its principal neighbours Zambia (752,000 km²) and Mozambique (784,000 km²). It is also comparatively densely populated, with over 9 million people, more than in Zambia. Nevertheless, Malawi is a most worthwhile wildlife destination, with a diversity of accessible habitats and an excellent variety of species, including several near-endemic birds and an array of both Palearctic and Intra-African migrants too.

Malawi is dominated by its lake (formerly Lake Nyasa); which flanks the upper two thirds of the country. The river Shire drains Lake Malawi southwards to enter the Zambesi in Mozambique. The western highlands, from the Nyika plateau in the North southwards comprise the western flank of the African Rift Valley. Southern Malawi has a number of important isolated massifs and outcrops, notable for their residual montane rain forests, which harbour some of the country's most notable species. These mountains include Mulanje, Cholo, Soche, Zomba and Chiradzulu.

The birding habitats of the country must all be visited in order to appreciate the species diversity of this peaceful, pleasant and scenic country. Lake Malawi itself attracts relatively few water birds but the often rocky shores have their hyrax colonies and attendant Black Eagles Aquila verreauxi and the lake itself is fished by the ubiquitous Fish Eagles Haliaetus vocifer. Lake Chilwa, near Zomba, is comparatively small and much shallower than Lake Malawi. It is a key locality for migrant and wintering Palearctic waders, including Great Snipes Gallinago media and a wide range of storks, herons, raptors and passerines.

The Shire river valley is intensively cultivated but there are excellent wildlife areas (including Liwonde, Lengwe and Mwabvi national parks and the Elephant Marsh). Notable bird species here include Mottled Spinetail Telecanthura ussheri, Giant Kingfisher Megaceryle maxima, Boehm's Bee-eater Merops boehmi and Livingstone's Flycatcher Erythrocercus livingstonei.

Bohm's Bee-Eater Merops boehmi  ©Dylan Vasapolli Birding Ecotours

Low-lying areas of the Shire valley have Mopane woodland, home to a wide range of widespread species such as Red-billed Hornbill Tockus erythrorhynchus. More rewarding ornithologically is the widespread Miombo Brachystegia woodland, characteristic of areas above 1000 metres, although much reduced in extent by deforestation. The Miombo endemics include Thick-billed Cuckoo Pachycoccyx audeberti, Racket-tailed Roller Coracias spatulata, Pale-billed Hornbill Tockus pallidirostris, Whyte's Barbet Buccanodon whytii, Bennett's WoodpeckerCampethera bennettii and Souza's Shrike Lanius souzae.

Miombo woodland  ©Martin Benadie Birding Ecotours

It is perhaps the remaining areas of montane evergreen forest that provide the biggest attraction to visiting birders. This scarce habitat is declining in extent, so much so that some of its flagship species are now regarded as globally endangered. They are two small chats, the Cholo Alethe Alethe choloensis of Mts Mulanje and Thyolo, and the East Coast Akalat Sheppardia gunningi of the northern Lake Malawi shore and also the Spotted Ground-thrush Zoothera guttata of the Shire highlands. Related species of interest are the White-chested Alethe Alethe fulleborni of the Nyika forests, and the Olive-flanked Robin Alethe anomala of Mulanje and the northern mountains.

Other noteworthy species of the mountain forests include the White-winged Apalis Apalis chariessa of Mulanje and the Shire highlands, the Green-headed OrioleOriolus chorocephalus of Mts Cholo, Soche and perhaps Chiradzulu, Bertram's Weaver Ploceus bertrandi of the forest fringes throughout and the Red-faced Crimsonwing Cryptospiza reichenovii found in most evergreen forests.

Great efforts are being made to save the endangered mammals that can be found in a number of parks including Liwonde famed for its Black Rhino. It is also home to elephant and hippo. Majete Wildlife Reserve is being ‘re-stocked’ and will offer the ‘big five’ to visitors.

Nkhotakota, to the east of the region near the Lake, is one of two large game areas in the Central Region. Its vast 700 square miles (1800 sq km) consists of rugged terrain crossed by a number of rivers. Most of the reserve is miombo woodland with large patches of tall grasses and occasional areas of rainforest. A true wilderness the reserve is difficult to access because there are few roads or driveable tracks. The range of mammals is as good as anywhere in Malawi, including civet, genet, serval, leopard and lion although the environment makes viewing difficult. Jackal and Hyena abound.

Across the parks and wild areas of the country one can still find Buffalo and zebra and a number of antelopes including bushbuck, grey duiker, kudu, grysbok, klipspringer and reedbuck. Roan and eland can also be seen, particularly in Nyika, whilst Liwonde and Kasungu are the most likely places to spot sable and waterbuck. The rarest species, Livingstone’s suni and the beautiful nyala are found in Lengwe.

Lake Malawi has more than 700, mostly endemic fish speies and the Shire River through Liwonde and Majete also supports good fish populations including sungwa and tiger fish, whilst the Bua in Nkhotakota has mpasa (lake salmon) are popular with anglers.

Malawi is also a great destination for the botanist with more than 400 orchid species as well as many flowering shrubs and a variety of water lillies.

Prime wildlife viewing sites include Lake Chilwa Wetlands (Map) which is a tropical lake without an outlet, the second largest lake in Malawi located in the southern region of the country. The lake and its beautiful wetland is roughly 40 km across and 60km from north to south. In normal years, one third of the lake is open water, one third is swamp and marsh, and one third is floodplain. Lake Malawi National Park (Map) marshes are a home for hippopotami, crocodiles, jacanas, ibises, egrets, kingfishers, Cormorants, Fish Eagles, Herons, Black Eagles and much more. Of course Liwonde National Park (Map) mentioned above is a must-see location.

Birding Ecotours

Major Source: Fatbirder

Map Source: Googlemaps™

Photo Source: Birding Ecotours


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Checklist of birds for Africa - Malawi
Birding hotspots for Africa - Malawi