The endangered Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco is found only in southern Ethiopia. Photo: Sunbird
Millions of years ago eastern Africa was subjected to immense and violent volcanic activity. As unimaginable forces pushed the earth’s crust upwards in a gigantic dome, great fissures opened in the center causing large areas to sink back while the outer edges continued to rise. The resulting slash in the surface of the planet became the Rift Valley, the geographical feature that dominates this corner of Africa and runs right across Ethiopia.
The highland plateau that formed on either side of the Rift represents the continent’s largest area of Afro-alpine habitat and contains some of the most spectacular scenery in Africa. Isolated for thousands of years, these regions have seen the evolution of many distinct forms of life. Mammals such as the Giant Root Rat and the secretive Ethiopian Wolf haunt a stark and beautiful landscape full of strange and unusual plants. More than 800 birds have been seen in the region, and some of them can be found nowhere else in the world. We hope to encounter many of these endemics as we travel along the Rift Valley floor and across highland areas rightly christened “the roof of Africa”.
Ethiopia, the point where Africa meets Arabia, sits at a cultural and historical crossroads. The combination of history, stunning scenery, and above all a fascinating and easily accessible wildlife makes Ethiopia a superb destination for a birdwatching tour, even more so now with the publication of a truly excellent field guide, the first to fully cover the region.
Day 1: Participants should arrive in Addis Ababa no later than today. Night in Addis Ababa (hereafter simply “Addis”).
Day 2: We’ll begin by driving across the city and over the Entoto Hills, escorted as we go by hordes of Yellow-billed Kites, which fill the skies above Addis. As we clear the extensive Eucalyptus plantations that cloak the hills, the Soluta Plain opens out before us, a wonderful mosaic of small fields, grassland and villages. We’ll encounter our first endemic birds here, with White-collared Pigeon and Wattled Ibis quite common in places. There will be Thick-billed Ravens in some of the villages and we should also see a few Blue-winged Geese on roadside pools, with Erlanger’s Larks and perhaps Black-headed Siskins on the roadside verges. Non-endemic species include Groundscraper Thrush, Thekla Lark, Red-breasted Wheatear, and African Quailfinch, and the plains are home to many wintering visitors from farther north, including Isabelline and Northern Wheatears, Ortolan Bunting, and Red-throated Pipit. Augur Buzzards should be sitting on roadside poles and perhaps a Pallid Harrier will sweep low over the fields.
We should reach our lodge perched right on the edge of the immense Jemma Gorge at Debre Libanos in time for lunch. We’ll spend the afternoon on foot exploring this dramatic landscape. The gorge is patrolled by flocks of Rüppell’s Vultures and other raptors may join them including Tawny and Verreaux’s Eagles, and Lanner Falcon. If we’re lucky we may be treated to an eye-level view of a mighty Lammergeier. There will be more endemics to look for as this rocky habitat is home to White-billed Starling, Abyssinian Black Wheatear, and Rüppell’s Black and White-winged Cliff Chats. We’ll also see our first endemic mammal here, as the gorge is frequented by a troop of the bizarre Gelada Baboon complete with some of the impressively maned males. Night at Debre Libanos.
Day 3: We’ll leave very early to visit another part of the Jemma Gorge. Even more impressive than at Debre Libanos, our road will take us into the gorge and across the Jemma River, a tributary of the Blue Nile. We’ll stop on the way to see Erckel’s Francolin, which can be quite common here, and also to look for the endemic and scarce Harwood’s Francolin, a species restricted to the valleys of Blue Nile tributaries. We may encounter a Walhberg’s Eagle or a Fox Kestrel as we descend and once on the valley floor we’ll look for Half-collared Kingfisher, Vinaceous Dove, Foxy Cisticola, Black-winged Red Bishop, Cinnamon-breasted Buntings, Speckled-fronted Weaver and the endemic White-throated Seedeater among many other species. There is a distinct western African influence on the avifauna here which may produce such birds as Copper Sunbird, Black-faced Firefinch, or even the endemic Lineated Pytilia. Later in the day we’ll climb back out of the gorge to return to Addis. Night in Addis.
Day 4: We’ll leave Addis early to avoid the traffic and stop for breakfast at a delightful lakeside hotel in the town of Debre Zeit. We’ll bird one of the many small lakes around the town, where we may see a selection of waterfowl including Comb and White-backed Ducks, along with a huge gathering of Marabou Storks. Later we’ll continue down the Rift Valley towards Lake Langano. We’ll notice White-backed and Hooded Vultures overhead and before long vivid Superb Starlings and White-headed Buffalo Weavers at the roadside. We’ll make a few stops, including one at Lake Zwiay, where we’ll find a good selection of waterbirds. A roadway built out into the lake as a landing place for fishing boats also gives us access to the rich waterside vegetation. Birds here are very confiding and will include Great White Pelican, hordes of Hammerkops, Yellow-billed Stork, African Spoonbill, African Jacanas, African Darter, White-faced and Fulvous Whistling Duck, and African Pygmy-goose. Wintering Whiskered and White-winged Terns join the flocks of Grey-headed Gulls, and in the flooded grasslands there will be wintering Yellow Wagtails, including the distinctive Black-headed race. Over the years this site has turned up some surprises and we look carefully for anything unusual such as Black Heron, Allen’s Gallinule, Lesser Jacana or Lesser Moorhen.
We’ll reach our lakeside hotel in the afternoon and spend the rest of the day birding the extensive hotel grounds for Von Der Decken’s, Northern Red-billed and Hemprich’s Hornbills, Red-fronted Barbet, Bearded Woodpecker, Little Rock Thrush, White-winged Black Tit, Rattling Cisticola, Beautiful Sunbird, Buff-bellied Warbler, Red-billed Firefinch, Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu, and Rüppell’s Weaver. It’s usually possible to find Slender-tailed Nightjars and Greyish Eagle Owl at their day-time roost and this will be the first chance we have of finding the delicately marked Clapperton’s Francolin. Night at Lake Langano.
Day 5: After an early breakfast we’ll drive the short distance to another Rift Valley lake, Abiata. Although water extraction has reduced the lake level, the shore can still hold good numbers of waterbirds including huge numbers of both Greater and Lesser Flamingos, a variety of waders including Kittlitz’s Plover and Temminck’s Stint, and Common, Black-crowned and occasionally Wattled Cranes. The lawn-like lake edge is ideal habitat for thousands of wintering Yellow Wagtails, while the adjacent acacia woodland is home to Black-billed Woodhoopoe and Black Scimitarbill.
Later we’ll spend time exploring more of the vegetation fringing Lake Langano at a point where a large cliff runs down to the water’s edge. Mocking Cliff Chats move down from the cliff to start their day feeding around the bushes and this is a great place to see the beautifully-colored African Pygmy Kingfisher. The distinctive calls of Ethiopian and Slate-colored Boubous and Sulphur-breasted Bush-Shrike will join the chorus, and vivid Blue-breasted Bee-eaters will be zipping around the cliff face. We may even find a roosting Verreaux’s Eagle Owl. Leaving Lake Langano behind we’ll travel farther down the Rift Valley to Lake Awassa and our comfortable lodge right on the lakeshore, arriving in time for lunch.
Our lodge grounds have a distinctly tropical feel and are a great place to look for birds. We’ll spend the afternoon searching the lake edge vegetation for waterbirds such as Black Crake, the dashing Malachite Kingfishers, the drab Lesser Swamp Warbler, and Thick-billed Weavers. Small pools along the lakeshore are good places to find wintering waders such as Marsh Sandpiper while papyrus beds can hold migrants such as European Marsh, Great Reed and even Basra Reed Warblers. Elsewhere in this pleasant setting we should find Blue-headed Coucal, Red-throated and Eurasian Wrynecks, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Double-toothed Barbet, White-rumped Babbler, the dapper Spotted Creeper, Black-headed Batis and Brown-throated Wattle-eye. Night on Lake Awassa
Day 6: We’ll begin the long climb up into the Bale Mountains, a drive that will take us out of the Rift Valley and through some spectacular scenery. We’ll first cross extensive areas of wheat fields where we’ll stop to look for Red-chested Swallow as well as groups of migrant Lesser Kestrels or European Bee-eaters. The level agriculture gives way to more rugged highlands as we gain altitude. Once more we’ll start to see flocks of White-collared Pigeons and Wattled Ibis along the roadside and Dusky Turtle Doves become common. We’ll make a stop to see a Cape Eagle Owl at a traditional roost site followed by a walk through the rich juniper woodland surrounding the Bale Mountain National Park headquarters. We’ll look in particular for the little-known Abyssinian Owl and perhaps a roosting African Wood Owl or Montane Nightjar, and we’ll probably encounter the impressive endemic Mountain Nyala and Meneliks Bushbuck. Night in Goba.
Day 7: We’ll spend the whole day on the Sanetti Plateau, a wonderful Afro-alpine habitat of pools and small lakes, low flowering bushes, beds of tiny alpine flowers and spikes of Giant Lobelias. Rouget’s Rails are remarkably tame up here (we’ll have seen dozens by the end of the day) and we’re bound to see Chestnut-naped and Moorland Francolins. Elsewhere we’ll encounter more Blue-winged Geese on the pools along with Spot-breasted Plovers, flocks of Black-headed Siskins and Red-throated Pipits, Alpine Chat, African Snipe, and, with luck, a pair of the stately Wattled Crane that usually breed up here. Augur Buzzards perch on top of the Giant Lobelia flower spikes and a sighting of a Ruddy Shelduck, Golden Eagle or a flock of Red-billed Choughs reminds us of this region’s strange Palearctic affinities. Despite all these avian attractions the star of today’s show may be the elegant Ethiopian Wolf. This endangered canine clings to a fragile existence only here and in the Simien Mountains to the north. Its main prey is the comical Giant Root Rat, which is plentiful on the plateau and it’s quite common to see wolves actually hunting these goofy rodents.
Leaving the high moorland behind, we’ll descend into good forest and wander slowly downhill searching for White-cheeked Turaco, Abyssinian Woodpecker, Mountain Thrush, Abyssinian Catbird, Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher, skulking Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Brown Woodland Warbler, White-backed Black Tit, Slender-billed Starlings, Brown-rumped Seedeaters, and Yellow-bellied Waxbill among many others. We may also find the local Bale race of Brown Parisoma, considered by some to be a full species. Night in Goba.
Day 8: We’ll retrace our steps across the plateau, following the highest all-weather road in Africa. Up here the views can be awe-inspiring, especially just as we leave the highlands to descend back into forest. We’ll have another chance to look for any forest birds missed yesterday, as well as new species such as Crowned Eagle, Abyssinian Hill Babbler, Black-and-White Mannakin, or the tiny Abyssinian Crimsonwing. Our destination is the town of Negelle and we expect to arrive in the late afternoon, having driven through landscapes of endless acacia woodland and dramatic valleys. Night in Negelle.
Days 9-10: In the early 1890’s a certain Prince Ruspoli collected a stunningly beautiful turaco somewhere in Ethiopia. Unfortunately he died before he could reveal the exact location and it was not until the 1940’s that the world finally came to know where Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco could be seen. This striking bird remains rare and much sought after, confined to a relatively small area around Negelle and we’ve allowed plenty of time to make sure we see it. Nearby can be found another range-restricted endemic, although nowhere near as colorful as the turaco. Sidamo or Liben Lark is yet another bird restricted to a tiny area in Ethiopia and is found only on the open grassy plains close to Negelle. There are perhaps no more than 100 individuals left, making the lark one of Africa’s rarest birds. We’ll arrive early in hopes of seeing the lark performing its display flight and then have a cooked breakfast out on the plain before seeing what else we can find in this interesting habitat. The short grassland is very much to the liking of Somali Short-toed Larks which can be very numerous. Crowned Plovers are common and are often joined by groups of Black-winged Plovers, and with luck we may come across a few Temminck’s Coursers. Harriers also love the open plain and both Pallid and Montagu’s can be expected while it’s sometimes possible to see hundreds of Lesser Kestrels moving through. Plain-backed Pipit and Pectoral-patch Cisticola are also resident and groups of striking White-crowned Starlings can be surprisingly approachable.
If the rains have been good there should be a large lake on the edge of the plains and this is often a favorite place for flocks of Abdim’s Storks. We could also find a variety of migrant waders here from Pacific Golden Plovers to Collared Pratincoles. The road south from here leaves the plain behind and enters the mix of acacia and Commiphora habitat that dominates so much of southern Ethiopia. Here we’ll be looking for Salvadori’s Seedeater, a delightful endemic known to occur in this habitat. Other birds could include Egyptian Vulture, Grasshopper Buzzard, Red-and-yellow Barbet at its nest holes in a termite mound, Foxy Lark, Black-headed Oriole, Rosy-patched Bush shrike, Shelley’s Starling, lots of Pied Wheatears, Boran Cisticola, the beautiful Purple Grenadier, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Shelley’s Rufous Sparrow, and Somali Bunting. Nights in Negelle.
Day 11: Leaving Negelle we’ll embark on a journey that takes us in a wide loop through the south of Ethiopia and to the town of Yabello. We’ll depart very early to arrive at the Dawa River shortly after dawn. As our ground crew prepare breakfast we’ll wander along the river edge looking for two special birds: African White-winged Dove and Juba Weaver. Although not endemic, both have a very restricted range within the Horn of Africa. There may be flocks of Black-faced Sandgrouse coming to drink and we’ll be keeping a close eye on the many sunbirds to pick out Hunter’s and Black-bellied. Pygmy Batis will be flitting around the trees and feeding flocks could include Pringle’s Puffback, Somali Crombec, Yellow-vented Eremomela, and Northern Brownbul.
Our road takes us through some fine habitats. Gangs of the incandescent Vulturine Guineafowl roam through the scrub and we are guaranteed at least one encounter. This is good bush shrike country and in addition to seeing Grey-headed and Sulphur-breasted Bush-Shrikes, we have a very good chance of finding the Red-naped, a rare species found only in parts of East Africa.
As we get closer to Yabello we’ll cross the invisible line that marks the start of bush-crow country and we will not have travelled too far before we see our first Stresemann’s Bush Crow, Ethiopia’s iconic and most sought-after endemic. Once in their range, these remarkable birds can be quite common, moving around in small groups. Occupying almost the same small restricted area is another endemic, White-tailed Swallow, and we’ll be looking for these dashing dark blue and white birds skimming around the acacia trees. We’ll plan to reach our comfortable lodge close to Yabello before dark. As dush approaches we’ll look for Donaldson Smiths Nightjar and African Scops Owl on the extensive grounds, and we may also find a Somali Galago bouncing around the trees. Night near Yabello.
Day 12: There is a group of species found only in the dry thorn scrub that extend down through eastern parts of Ethiopia and Kenya. These include the skulking Short-tailed Lark, Scaly Chatterer, Bare-eyed Thrush, Spotted Palm Thrush, Magpie Starling and the gorgeous Golden-breasted, Tiny Cisticola, Pale Prinia, and Black-capped Social Weaver. In addition we hope to see Eastern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Gabar Goshawk, Bateleur, Somali Courser, African Orange-bellied Parrot, D’Arnaud’s Barbet, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Banded Parisoma, White-bellied Canary, and Northern Grosbeak Canary. There will also be more chances to study the endearing Stresemann’s Bush Crow as there is usually a party feeding on the grounds of our lodge. Night near Yabello.
Day 13: Leaving Yabello early, we’ll begin our long drive north. We’ll pass through one of the main coffee growing regions, a lush, verdant part of the country where we may see White-necked Stork, Ayers Hawk-Eagle, or Great Sparrowhawk. We’ll reach Awassa in time for lunch on the lakeside. After lunch there will be time to explore the area once more, perhaps with a visit to the fish market. If the massive fig trees here are in fruit we’ll be looking for hulking Silvery-cheeked Hornbills, Double-toothed Barbets, and Abyssinian Orioles and we’ll also scan the water’s edge for Purple Gallinule or a secretive Allen’s.
Continuing north we’ll once more reach Lake Langano but this time we’ll turn off to visit the eastern side of the lake and the wonderful lodge at Bishan Gari. Surrounded by giant fig trees and located right on the lakeshore, Bishan Gari is a great place to explore. We’ll spend the last part of the day looking for a variety of birds including Lemon Dove and end the day watching the sun set over the lake as Senegal Thick-knee and perhaps Heuglin’s Courser put in an appearance. After dark we may be able to locate the resident pair of African Wood Owls. Night at Bishan Gari.
Day 14: Shortly after dawn flocks of Yellow-fronted Parrots fly from their roost to perch in the acacias in front of the lodge, giving us fantastic views of this colorful endemic. We’ll then wander the trails through the forest, searching the undergrowth for skulking species such as Scaly Francolin, Abyssinian Ground Thrush, Red-capped Robin Chat, and the secretive Green Twinspot, while in the towering fig trees we may find Western Banded Snake-Eagle, Tambourine Dove, Narina’s Trogon or Scaly-throated Honeyguide. After lunch we’ll drive back to the main Addis road, keeping an eye open on the way for Clapperton’s Francolin, Abyssiniam Ground Hornbill, or Red-shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike and then travel north and east to the town of Nazaret. Night in Nazaret.
Day 15: The temperature in this region rises quickly as the day progresses so we’ll start before dawn to reach our first birding stop. Evidence of geologically recent volcanic activity will become very obvious as we approach the extinct Fantale Crater, and we’ll stop at the edge of a vast lava flow to look for Chestnut-eared and Chestnut-headed Sparrow-Larks, Blackstart, the endemic Sombre Chat, Bristle-crowned Starlings, Shining Sunbird and Striolated Bunting. Continuing northeast, we’ll cross the plains of Awash National Park to reach Bilen Lodge, located on the same spot where Wilfred Thesiger camped on his journey to follow the route of the Awash River, and with huts based on the same design as those built by the local Afar tribe.
In the afternoon we’ll search the immediate vicinity of our lodge for regional specialities such as Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, Yellow-breasted Barbet, Ethiopian Swallow, Black Scrub Robin, Northern Crombec, and Nile Valley Sunbird, and we should not have to go far to find at least one Arabian Bustard as this normally rare bird appears to be quite common here. Nearby we’ll search the open scrub for wintering migrants from the north including perhaps Black-eared Wheatear, Rufous Scrub Robin, Siberian Stonechat, and Eastern Olivaceous, Upcher’s, Barred and Ménétries’s Warblers. A few African Collared Doves can be found among the much more numerous African Mourning Doves, the gentle purring calls of which will provide a constant soundtrack to our time at Bilen. Gaudy Abyssinian Rollers and Black-throated Barbets will be found among the taller acacias and the lodge overlooks a large marsh covered in dense reeds where Saddle-billed Storks are regular and flocks of Northern Carmine Bee-eaters sometimes hawk for insects. Animals we should see include the tiny Salt’s Dikdik and perhaps a long-necked Gerenuk or a Lesser Kudu. As dusk falls the car-alarm calls of Slender-tailed Nightjars will fill the now cool night air. Night at Bilen Lodge.
Day 16: After an early morning spent around the lodge, we leave for Awash National Park, stopping on the way at a vast plain where we should see Somali Ostrich and a variety of raptors, including perhaps a Saker. In the past this region has produced some surprises, such as Pale Rock Sparrows and Bimaculated Larks. Reaching the Park, we’ll drive slowly across the grassland and open savannah. This is good shrike country and we are bound to see several large Somali Fiscals, as well as Southern Grey, Woodchat and Isabelline Shrikes. We’ll also be on the lookout for bustards and may see a Kori Bustard striding through the grassland perhaps with a Northern Carmine Bee-eater hitching a ride on its back. Other bustard species present here are Buff-crested, White-bellied and Hartlaub’s. In some years Harlequin Quail are numerous here, flushing from the side of the track as we drive by. As the day draws to a close we’ll reach our lodge located right on the edge of the impressive Awash River Falls. Night at Awash Falls Lodge.
Day 17: Within a few hours of sunrise, Awash Park turns into a shimmering haze of savannah as temperatures soar. This means that the bird life is most active just after dawn and we’ll make sure we’re out before first light to catch all the activity. In the open grasslands we’ll look for Secretary Bird, Red-winged and Singing Bush Larks, Desert and Ashy Cisticolas; if we’re lucky, we may see an elegant African Swallow-tailed Kite drifting over the trees. Flocks of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse can be found anywhere, and in the denser areas of scrub we’ll look for Gillet’s Lark, Red-fronted Warbler, Green-winged Pytilia, and Grey Wren Warbler, while raptors vary from the tiny Pygmy Falcon to the massive Lappet-faced Vulture. If there has been rain we should also see Eastern Paradise and Straw-tailed Whydahs, the males in striking breeding plumage. This is also a good place for mammals and there will be groups of Beisa Oryx and the endemic Soemmering’s Gazelle out on the plains.
Leaving Awash behind, we’ll begin our drive back to Addis, arriving there in the late afternoon. We’ll have rooms at a hotel so we can repack, and after dinner we’ll transfer to the airport in time for our flights back home.
Updated: 28 November 2012
- 2013 Tour Price Not Yet Available
- (2012 Tour Price $4650)
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a modest discount. Details here.
* This tour is organized by our British company, Sunbird. Please review the explanation of our Sunbird pricing here.
This tour is limited to 12 participants with one leader and one local guide. Both will accompany the tour irrespective of group size.
Single rooms are limited in some areas.
Participants who prefer to join the group flying out from London should contact the WINGS office.
Those wishing to visit cultural and historical sites in the north of the country, such as the rock-hewn churches at Lalibella, should contact the WINGS office.