South Luangwa National Park is respected by birders and twitchers alike as a year-round birding hotspot in Zambia that offers a wide variety of feathered beauties. A particularly special time for birding in the park is during the Emerald Season when the summer rains that fall from around December to March turn the vegetation a luscious green and birds busy themselves with feeding, breeding and nesting.

The small pied cuckoo or Jacobin cuckoo is a brood parasite species, which means it lays its eggs in another species’ nest to be raised as their own © Mike Unwin

Homing over 400 bird species, along with several types of migrants, enjoying a successful birding experience along with a traditional wildlife safari is completely possible in the South Luangwa, as the Unwin family discovered recently while on a Zambian safari with Robin Pope Safaris.

A three-banded courser or Heuglin’s courser use their characteristically long legs to hunt and chase down insects © Mike Unwin

Mike Unwin brought his family on safari to the South Luangwa where they stayed with us at Luangwa Safari House, on the banks of Luangwa River. During the Unwin’s visit over December and January, the river was overflowing from the annual summer rainfall, which was particularly heavy this year.

Along with elephants swimming in the cool water, young zebra and impala calves chasing each other in the lush grasses and wild dogs bounding through shallow lagoons on the hunt, the family were treated to excellent bird sightings while on boating and driving safaris.

A yellow-billed stork keeps its bill immersed and slightly open to catch fish, worms and other small aquatic life that it stirs out of the mud with its feet © Mike Unwin

The park was abuzz with the movement of wings and cacophony of calls from a variety of bird species, all very busy fishing and catching insects, performing mating rituals in breeding plumage and building nests for their young.

A little-bee-eater will wait patiently on a low perch until it spots a bee or wasp, which it will catch mid-air and return to the branch in order to hit it repeatedly until the sting falls off © Mike Unwin

As an avid birder, Mike was impressed by the number and variety of birds the family were able to spot during their time in the park: “The birdlife was especially rich and, with the breeding season in full swing, it was as much about sound as sight. Above the familiar chorus of bush-shrikes, bulbuls and bush-chats, we could hear the voices of seasonal migrants: the ringing laughter of the woodland kingfisher and cheerful ‘Hello Georgie!’ of the emerald cuckoo.”

The brown-hooded kingfisher is hard to miss with its colourful combination of red beak and bright blue back, wing panel and tail feathers © Mike Unwin

Mike was thrilled to watch some of the shyer feathered characters, all enjoying the plentiful food that Zambia’s the Emerald Season brings to the South Luangwa: “Elusive water birds such as painted snipe and little bitten joined herons, egrets and ibises to stalk the puddles. And when the air filled with flying termites, we saw birds of all kinds down tools in a mass feeding frenzy – bulbuls, weavers, drongos, swifts, broad-billed rollers and even a passing hobby, all flocking to the bonanza.”

The dwarf bittern is an uncommon intra-African migrant, which follows the seasonal rains and the bounty of insects that they stir up © Mike Unwin

June this year is set to be a special month for bird lovers that thrive on the thrill of searching for Africa’s most elusive feathered species. A top safari guide from Robin Pope Safaris will be leading a special Shoebill Safari in Zambia’s Bangweulu Swamps, to track and hopefully find this fascinating water bird.

Shoebill storks are listed as vulnerable and the Bangweulu Swamps offer a well-protected refuge for them © Robin Pope Safaris

Along with exploring the remote wilderness of Bangweulu, this eight-day safari will also take you to the South Luangwa National Park and Kasanka National Park, where a wonderful variety of bird and animal life are to be encountered every day.

Interested in learning more about the shoebill? Read 5 Africa’s Swamp King – 5 Interesting Facts About the Shoebill