The Beginner's Guide to Birding in Akagera!

Rich in biodiversity with jaw-dropping landscapes, Akagera National Park is one of Africa's best kept secrets. With lions reintroduced in 2015 and plans for the return of highly endangered black rhino, the Rwandan government are working hard at bringing back the area's big-five status.

Ornithologists and bird enthusiasts have long known about Rwanda's abundance of birds. The country boasts 728 species, with at least 525 of those residing in and around the lakes, woodlands, and savannas of Akagera.

Of that astounding number, there are a wide-variety of birds that come in all different colours, shapes, and sizes.  In this article, I have highlighted some of the most common species you might see on a one-day safari in Akagera. There are certainly other species -not least the highly elusive and prehistoric looking shoebill - that are equally if not more impressive than those on this list. But I've attempted to compile a guide to the species that the average tourist safari-goer has a 50% or greater chance of spotting.

African Fish Eagle

With its contrasting white/brown plumage, the African Fish Eagle is similar in appearance to the American Bald Eagle. This spectacular and aggressive fishing bird is perhaps the most commonly spotted eagle in Africa . The chances of observing this beautiful raptor are very high and expect to find pairs nesting close to water sources. They also have a very distinct call.

Village Weaver

Of all the birds on this list, the Village Weaver is the one species you're guaranteed to see. That's because you'll find many of these birds nesting in the trees in and around the visitor centre (where you will need to sign-in before entering the main park). Easily identified by their bright yellow colour, big red eyes, and black hood.

Lilac-breasted Roller

One of Akagera's most vibrantly coloured birds, the Lilac-breasted Roller will not go unnoticed. Despite its name, the Lilac-breasted Roller is most identifiable for the electric blue plumage it possesses on its under parts. Bold and beautiful, they drop onto ground prey from prominent perches such as roadside poles. This species, like all rollers, is renowned for its rolling flight display.

African Jacana

Widespread and common residents of freshwater ponds and lakes, the African Jacana is a long-legged, long-toed waterbird which walks and feeds on floating vegetation, especially water-lilies. Also known as the "Jesus Bird" for its seeming ability to walk on water, the African Jacana has a striking chestnut and white plumage with a powder-blue bill and frontal shield.

White-browed Coucal

Bulky, with a dark crown and face separated by a long white eyebrow with pale streaking extending onto a brown-rufous back. Often found around water in a wide range of rank vegetation, thickets, bushed and wooded grassland. A conspicuous bird and a cuckoo relative (though non-parasitic), the White-browed Coucal also has a variety of harsh kak notes.

Fork-tailed Drongo

A small and inconspicuous glossy-black bird with bright orange eyes. Best distinguished for its forked tail, this species of drongo is common and widespread at forest edge, open-wooded country, and semi-arid bush. As featured in David Attenborough's Africa series, the Fork-tailed Drongo has been made famous for its mischievous ability to mimic other animals including large birds of prey and meerkats.

Saddle-billed Stork

In contrast to the other stork on this list, one of the more aesthetically pleasing birds. The Saddle-billed Stork is a very large black and white wader with a long tri-coloured bill. The yellow part of the bill resembles a saddle, hence the name. Often solitary but sometimes found in pairs, this beautiful bird can be found mostly around Akagera's wetlands.

African Grey Hornbill

The most commonly spotted of all the hornbill family in Akagera. Pairs and groups are widespread and common residents in woodland, bushed and wooded grassland. Like most hornbill species, they exhibit dramatic courtship displays in which they rock on perches, point their bills skywards, and flick open their wings. Females have a purplish-red tip to their long curved bill.

Long-crested Eagle

Possibly the second most commonly spotted eagle in Akagera (after the African Fish Eagle), this bird is easily identified for its bright yellow eyes and long crest of feathers, which often wave around in the wind. You'll most likely spot the Long-crested Eagle perched at the top of roadside poles and trees, waiting to swoop on unsuspecting rodents.

White-faced Whistling Duck

A long-legged, long-necked duck that is well-named since they frequently attract attention with their loud far-carrying whistling. They appear largely dark in flight but it is easy to spot the chestnut coloured neck and distinct white face at a closer glance. The White-faced Whistling Duck is a gregarious species with small to large flocks gathering around Akagera's great lakes.

Woodland Kingfisher

A beautiful little bird with dove-grey, black, and bright blue plumage in addition to a striking red and black bill. Contrary to the latter part of its name, the Woodland Kingfisher is often found well away from water, frequenting wooded areas where it preys upon insects, lizards, and, on occasion, smaller birds. Singles and pairs are widespread and common.

Palm-nut Vulture

Along with the African Fish Eagle and Osprey, the Palm-nut Vulture is one of three fish-eating raptors that can be found in close proximity to Akagera's lakes. Very different in shape to other vulture species with a bold black and white plumage, it will often perch on tree branches with a hunched appearance. They have long bills for fishing and a large area of bare-pinkish skin around the eyes.

Cattle Egret

Not everyone's favourite but an interesting bird nonetheless. A short-legged heron with mostly white plumage and a buff-orange wash on the head, back and breast. The Cattle Egret is a classic game-hugging bird that is often seen hunting for small animals flushed out of the ground by larger mammals including elephant, hippopotamus, and buffalo. It is not uncommon to see one of these birds perched upon their symbiotic companions.

Little Bee-eater

Pretty little birds with mostly green plumage and a yellow throat. Little Bee-eaters have a short, narrow blue stripe just above the black eyemask and again over the throat patch. When perched, they sit in a fairly upright position with slowly wagging tail. They prey mostly on insects, snapping them up with an audible click. Pairs or family groups are common in bushed and wooded grassland.

Marabou Stork

Enormous stork and commonly thought of as the ugliest bird species not just in Rwanda, or Africa even, but the world! They're easily identified for their naked pink-reddish head and neck with scabby black spots. The Marabou Stork is massive in flight with one of the largest wingspans of all birds. They'll also eat just about anything from small mammals to carrion.

Grey-crowned Crane

An attractive and very conspicuous bird, the Grey Crowned Crane is the national bird of Uganda. This species is mostly grey with dark-chestnut, black and white wings, but is most notable for the bristly golden crown on its head. While this large crane will range well away from wetter areas to feed, the best chances of observing this impressive bird are around lakes and inundated grasslands.

Helmeted Guineafowl

The Helmeted Guineafowl is a distinctive spotted gamebird easily identified by an upright bony casque on top of the head with electric blue face and red-tipped wattles. This comical species has been known to stop traffic, with its stubbornness over making way for vehicles. Commonly spotted on the ground and in large flocks, they frequent a wide range of grassland, bush country and woodland.

Bare-faced Go-away Bird

These charismatic birds are the open country relatives of the vibrant turacos. The Bare-faced Go-away-bird is so named for its loud onomatopoeic calls. Quite slender with black face, white neck and breast and a tall grey crest, they are commonly found in pairs and often confide in open woodland and bush country. 

Goliath Heron

At 152cm (60") high, this is the world's largest heron and is a common resident of Akagera. Aside from its massive size, this leggy bird is easily recognizable for its spear like bill and warm chestnut head and hindneck. Singles and rarely small groups are widespread. Despite their size, they can remain relatively unnoticed to the inattentive eye.

Spur-winged Goose

Spur-winged Geese frequent mostly around freshwater sources and are easily distinguished by size and plumage. A large long-necked goose, but not particularly attractive with a bare warty red face. In their slow and laboured flight, they display a long white bar along the leading edge of the wing. Their flight call is a repeated variably rapid double wheezy note, almost like a hiccup.

Other commonly spotted species:

  • African Darter

  • African Wattled Lapwing

  • Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

  • Common Squacco Heron

  • Crowned Lapwing

  • Eastern Grey Plantain-eater

  • Great Egret

  • Grey-backed Fiscal

  • Hamerkop

  • Lappet-faced Vulture

  • Little Egret

  • Long-tailed Cormorant

  • Osprey

  • Pin-tailed Whydah

  • Red-billed Firefinch

  • White-backed Vulture


Big thanks to Shelly Anne Rosen and Paul Karemera of Intore Expeditions for sharing some of their beautiful photos for this blog post. Those without watermark are Copyright © Leigh Woods 2017 with all rights reserved.

Akagera's Unsung Animals

Akagera is a sizeable national park comprising a wide variety of biomes including swampland, savanna, low mountains, plains, woodland, and thicket. The area's rich biodiversity is undoubtedly down to its broad spectrum of terrain.

The park is home to four of Africa's "big-five", including buffalo, elephant, lion, and leopard. Regions encompassing dense bush allow some of these species to remain well hidden, and it's not entirely uncommon to leave the park without spotting any of the latter three.

Chances of observing the newly introduced lions aren't necessarily guaranteed, and you be surprised how easily an elephant can conceal itself when feeling unsociable. Leopard are mostly nocturnal and can be elusive as a woodpecker riding weasel when they want to be (we've all seen that photo).

But don't despair. There are plenty of fascinating animals where the odds are overwhelmingly in your favour - in terms of viewing opportunities. The list below contains mostly large mammals, with a couple of interesting reptiles for good measure. For birds, you can refer to my previous post, A Beginner's Guide to Birding in Akagera.

Consider yourself pretty unlucky if you don't see any of the following:


One of the largest animals you'll observe in Akagera, and more or less a given that you'll see plenty. Hippos spend most of their days in and around water, with the park's population frequenting mainly around the large lakes. They'll stray further inland during the cooler hours of the evening, and spend most of the night grazing before heading back toward the wetlands. The best place to find these hefty ungulates are on Hippo Beach, where you can also stop for lunch or to use the restroom.

Interesting fact: Despite their affiliation with water, hippopotamuses can't actually swim! They walk along the bottoms of lakes and rivers where they'll hold their breath for up to seven minutes!

Cape Buffalo

The cape buffalo is without doubt the one species from the "big-five" that you'll almost certainly to spot on a day trip to Akagera. They're notoriously grumpy, with older males aka "duggaboys" being particularly bad-tempered. Males and females are similar but are easily distinguishable by looking at the horns. Where male's horns fuse together into a "boss" over the forehead, the females do not. You'll likely spot these imposing bovids in big groups consisting mainly of females and younger bulls. Older males tend to break off from the herd and spend much of their time wallowing in mud.

Interesting fact: Buffalo are probably the most dangerous and highly feared of all the big-five due to their frightening combination of bad temperament and enormous power!

Olive Baboon

The largest of all primates found within the Akagera wilderness is the olive baboon. Also known as the anubis baboon, this old world monkey is the most wide-ranging of all baboons. One major factor toward their success is  their omnivorous and non-fussy diet. They have been recorded eating a large variety of plants, invertebrates, small mammals and birds. The olive baboon's social structure is known as an oligarchy, with troops of up to 150 individuals led by an elite group of males. Chances of spotting them are very high!

Interesting fact: Female olive baboons often form long-lasting social relationships with a male in their troop, known as a "friendship". These nonsexual friendships benefit both the male and female. The male benefits as these relationships are usually formed soon after immigrating into the troop, helping him to become socially accepted. The females benefit as the male will sometimes "babysit" for her.

Nile Crocodile

Akagera is home to the second largest reptile on earth, surpassed only by the saltwater crocodile. Look out for these enormous prehistoric-looking beasts along the water edges of Akagera's beautiful lakes. Sexual dimorphism is prevalent, with females growing to be about 30% larger than males. Though they feed only a few times a year, Nile crocodiles are opportunistic and highly aggressive apex predators that are fully capable of taking down just about any species within their range.

Interesting fact: An unusual behaviour of this fearsome predator is its caring nature as a parent. Where most reptiles lay their eggs and move on, both Nile crocodile parents will ferociously guard their nests until the eggs hatch.

Plains (Burchell's) Zebra

You may be surprised to learn that there are four different species of zebra! Akagera is home to the most common of all, the plains or, Burchell's zebra. This species is easily distinguishable from others because it is the only one that has stripes which join around the belly. Zebra can be found all over Akagera, but best chances of spotting them are in the northern plains. You'll likely observe them forming aggregations with other species such as topi, warthog, and impala.

Interesting fact: A typical plains zebra family consists of a male, called a stallion, several females, called mares, and their young. When male zebra reach adolescence, they break off from the herd and form bachelor groups until they are ready to take over their own harem.


The most common and widespread of all antelope in the park, impala are pretty, medium-sized antelope that are quite hard to miss.  Males sport long, slightly spiralled horns which they used to do battle with one another over mating rights during the rutting season. Females do not possess horns and are often found in large groups with one alpha male leading his harem of up to 300! During breeding season, you'll often spot several males forming a bachelor herd.

Interesting fact: Impala communicate in several ways, but the most impressive are through olfactory methods. Males produce a scent from pre-orbital glands on their foreheads to advertise their status to rivals. Both female and male impala are also thought to produce scents from their metatarsal glands to indicate their whereabouts to disbanded herd members when evading predators.

Masai Giraffe

Like zebra, there are four species of giraffe which have also been divided into nine subspecies! Akagera plays host to the largest in the family, the Masai giraffe. The park was not originally an area where giraffe congregated. Those that now grace the plains and savannas of Akagera are the offspring of a small group introduced in 1986 from Kenya. Giraffe live in social groups known as temporary associations, and you'll likely spot several browsing together in areas densely populated with acacia trees.

Interesting fact: A giraffe's heart can weigh up to 14 kg! A series of special one-way valves in their necks regulate blood flow to the brain. Without these valves, the blood pressure in the giraffe's head would be immense when it bends over, enough to cause brain damage.


Made famous by the character Pumba in the Lion King, warthog's tend to be high on most safari-goer's bucket lists. They are mostly diurnal and can be seen all over the park where they spend most of their time grazing on short grass. It's very common to see male and female warthogs together, with up to 7 piglets close by. The warthogs of Akagera tend to be quite skittish and often distance themselves from vehicles quite quickly. As they run away, you'll notice they lift their tails entirely upright which is used as a "follow me" signal for their young.

Interesting fact: In areas with large populations of predators, warthog piglets have a very high mortality rate. Females will typically give birth to 3-5 piglets with usually only one or two making it to adulthood.

Defassa Waterbuck

One of the largest antelope species in the park and also very common and widespread. Waterbuck are so named because they are a highly water-dependent species, and are rarely spotted more than a few kilometres from any aquatic source. They also have been observed fleeing into water in order to evade predators such as lion, hyena, and leopard. Waterbuck have very distinct markings with long necks and a mainly grey/brown shaggy coat with white patch on the rear.

Interesting fact: Waterbuck take longer to mature than any other antelope species. While males become sexually active at around the age of six years, females reach maturity within two to three years. 

Topi (Tsessebe)

The second most prevalent of all antelope species in the park, the topi, or tsessebe, is also the fastest. Both males and females have slightly angled horns with a dark brown coat and black patch that runs from the forehead all the way down their elongated snout. They are a highly sociable species and can often be observed grazing in the arid grasslands and savannas in the north of the park. During mating season, you may see males standing alone in small territories whilst waiting for females to enter their domain.

Interesting fact: Both male and female topis will often rub their heads against the ground (to spread scent from facial glands), roll around in earth, and stir up mud with their horns. They have also been observed using their hooves to smear mud over their bodies, which is thought to help rid themselves of parasites.

Vervet Monkey

Very commonly spotted primate not just in Akagera, but all over Rwanda from the mountains of Musanze to Kigali city suburbs. These cheeky little old world monkeys definitely fit their mischievous label. They have been noted for very having human-like characteristics including hypertension, anxiety, and even alcohol dependence! Social groups can range from 10 to a whopping 70 individuals. Males are fairly easily distinguished from females for their large, electric blue scrotum!

Interesting fact: Vervets are highly intelligent creatures and are well-known for their wide-range of communication and alarm calls, specifically in regard to particular predator sightings. 

Common Eland

The common eland is the largest antelope species in Akagera and second largest in the world (after the giant eland). Eland bulls can grow to enormous sizes and weigh up to a tonne! Both males and females have thick spiralled horns that are ridged. Due to their colossal size, they are the slowest of all antelopes but can jump to a staggering three metres high! While the common eland can be found in massive herds of up to 500, you'll most likely observe them moving in much smaller groups in Akagera.

Interesting fact: In some areas, common eland are notorious for killing lions whilst defending themselves and their young against predation. For this reason they have been nicknamed by many as "The Lion Killers".

Other interesting species to look out for:

  • Blue Monkey
  • Bohor Reedbuck
  • Bushbuck
  • Common Duiker
  • Klipspringer
  • Oribi
  • Roan Antelope
  • Side-striped Jackal
  • Sitatunga
  • Spotted Hyena
  • Water Monitor

Mostly nocturnal species in Akagera:

  • Caracal
  • Civet
  • Galagos (Bushbaby)
  • Genet
  • Serval