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The Common sand piper, a migratory bird to East Africa

Bird migration to East Africa from other parts of the world

Each year, millions of birds migrate long distances across the world to East Africa.  Most bird species migrate to the region through flyways, which refer to well-established routes. The birds travel from Europe, Central Asia, the Americas, the Mediterranean region, and the East Atlantic to the East African region.

What are migratory birds?

Migratory birds are bird species that make a seasonal movement, mostly from Northern and Southern parts of the globe, via a designated route. These birds usually make fantastic voyages annually, particularly during the non-breeding season.

Palearctic migrants refer to bird species that breed in Asia or Europe but seasonally migrate south during the non-breeding season. Bird migration to East Africa could be broadly categorized into three main groups, namely waterbirds, raptors, and landbirds. 

·        Waterbirds (also known as aquatic birds)

They are bird species that live on wetlands or around wetlands. Most of these birds ecologically depend on water bodies.  These birds can thrive in freshwater habitats, although some species of waterbirds can still inhabit marine environments. Moreover, some waterbirds can be more aquatic or terrestrial than others. Adaptations among these birds can vary depending on their respective territories. 

Waterbirds in East Africa have adopted various strategies to enable them to exploit the variety of East African wetlands. The onset of the rainy season is a crucial trigger for migration among waterbirds.  Some common types of waterbirds that migrate to the East African region include grebes, cormorants, pelicans, storks, ibises, flamingos, swans, and ducks.

·        Birds of prey (Raptors)

Birds of prey include eagles, falcons, hawks, and vultures. Eastern Africa is an ideal habitat for numerous species of birds of prey. There are dozens of raptors migrating to the region via the Suez, most of which come to the African continent in winter.  Migrant species vary in nature and size.  Raptors that come to East Africa are either nocturnal or diurnal.  The latter primarily hunt on sight, while the former hunt by using hearing and sight. Raptors can either hunt on their prey or consume food they have not killed.  An example of the latter is the vultures that prey on carcasses and sometimes wounded animals.  Some raptors that migrate to Africa (not necessarily East Africa) include black kite, Griffon’s vulture, Egyptian vulture, Pallid Harrier, Hen Harrier, Marsh Harrier, long-legged buzzard, honey buzzard, Steppe eagle, red-footed falcon, and kestrel among others.

·        Landbirds

Landbirds include bird species such as swallows, common cuckoo, songbirds, and the turtle dove.  These birds can breed in farmlands and agricultural areas, and then cross the vast Sahara desert to East Africa’s open savannahs where they winter in large groups. These birds have remarkably complex, long-distance migration cycles.  Nevertheless, landbirds are more vulnerable to prevailing environmental changes than resident species.  Upon arriving in East Africa, these birds can concentrate together temporarily before dispersing into suitable habitats.  As such, their conservation is quite challenging.

Birds that migrate to East Africa

East Africa has one of the richest avifauna in the world. Close to 200 Palearctic migrants have been spotted in the region. Some of such bird migration to East Africa include the following:

1. Black stork (Ciconia nigra)

East Africa Migrating birds Black stock
Black stork resting (Image by Kurt K. from Pixabay)

The large bird belongs to the vast stork family of Ciconnidae. It measures 95 to 100 cm (approximately 40 inches) on average from the beak to the tail. Black storks have distinctive white underparts, and overall black plumage pointed red beak and long red legs.  They are widespread despite being among the uncommon bird species.

Black stocks breed in scattered spots across Europe. The breeding sites include Spain, Portugal, and other eastern and central areas of the larger European continent. The long-distance migrant migrates to the tropical sub-Saharan area during the non-breeding season. It nevertheless avoids flying over the Mediterranean Sea when migrating to Africa on its way to East Africa. Black storks usually migrate to East Africa from August to October.

2.      The African skimmer (Rynchops flavirostris)


The tern-like bird belongs to the Laridae family of birds. It inhabits the rivers, lagoons, and lakes of sub-Saharan Africa. The migrating bird has a black back, long wings, crown, and hindneck. Its forehead and remaining body are overly white. The African skimmer is regarded as an intra-African migrant. 

African skimmers come to East Africa when water levels in the lakes and rivers have fallen substantially. They mostly prefer migrating to the region at the onset of the long, dry season. They mostly choose this season since it coincides with their breeding season. Once the breeding is over, these birds move northwards in readiness for the rainy season. Although IUCN lists it as Near Threatened, some conservationists claim the species could be vulnerable or even endangered.

3. The ruff (Calidris pugnax)

Medium sized ruff (Image by Bishnu Sarangi from Pixabay)

The medium-sized wading bird breeds in wet meadows and marshes across northern Eurasia. It is highly migratory, and it lives in large flocks in its respective winter grounds.  East Africa is one of the favorite wintering grounds for this bird. Overly, the bird has a potbelly and a long neck. Males are way larger than females.

It breeds in Asia and Europe and then migrates to Africa via a flyway that takes them through the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Huge flocks of this bird then travel to East Africa and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

4. Common sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos

The Common sand piper, a migratory bird to East Africa

This tiny Palearctic wader has white underparts, greyish-brown upperparts, and short yellowish feet and legs. It breeds in temperate Asia and subtropical Europe. The bird migrates to East Africa annually at the fall of the breeding season.  Hundreds of common sandpipers gather at the Palau region for breeding before migrating to East Africa via the Suez. The waterbird prefers migrating to East Africa’s freshwater wetlands. It is a gregarious bird often seen in large flocks. 

5. Wood sandpiper (Tringa glareola)

The wood sandpiper (Image by Vinson Tan ( 楊 祖 武 ) from Pixabay)

The mid-sized waterbird has a brown back, a short bill, and long yellowish legs. It differs from other sandpipers thanks to its white rump patch. It breeds in the Scottish Highlands and subarctic wetlands. It migrates to freshwater bodies across East Africa after the breeding season, where it inhabits during wintering. They are mainly found in singles or small flocks. It is also uncommon for the wood sandpiper to mix with other bird species.

6. Common Greenshank (Tringa nebulari)

The waterbird is prevalent throughout northern Europe. The migratory bird prefers to winter in sub-Saharan Africa, specifically in East Africa’s wetlands. It is brown in winter and grey-brown while in breeding plumage. They have a striking resemblance to marsh sandpipers while in water.

7. Ospreys and Cuckoo

Like all of the Palearctic migrants, ospreys winter in Africa and move back in Europe from March onwards. It is females who usually start the migration then followed by males and their young. Compared to other migrating birds, ospreys are slower in migrating, probably because they make stopovers at their favorite feeding sites. A famous osprey traveled for 7,000 kilometers (4,350 miles) from Finland to Kenya. Unfortunately, the bird died after being trapped in a fishing net.

Another bird, a Mongolian Cuckoo, named Odon also traveled for 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) from China to Kenya. It shows that bird migration to East Africa is vital to the survival of various avian species. 

While East Africa is an excellent migration destination for birds, most of these migrating bird species are vulnerable to poaching and a variety of environmental threats. As such, conservative action needs to be taken to protect these species.

David Okul is an environmental management professional with over 10 years experience on donor projects, conservation, forestry, ecotourism, and community-based natural resources management. When not working on  active environmental management projects, I spend my time writing for Silvica on a variety of topics.