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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Ethiopia: The Roof of Africa

Tuesday 23 October to Friday 9 November 2018
with Steve Rooke and Merid Gabremichael as leaders

Price: $5,600*

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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 upward 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 known as 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 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. This combination of history, stunning scenery, and, above all, fascinating and easily accessible wildlife makes Ethiopia a perfect destination for a birding tour—even more so now with the publication of a truly excellent field guide, Birds of the Horn of Africa, the first to fully cover the region.  

Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Addis Ababa. Night in Addis. 

Day 2: We’ll begin by driving northwest from Addis to the town of Debre Libanos. As we travel we’ll see our first birds: Yellow-billed Kites and Hooded Vultures patrolling the skies. We’ll cross relatively high-altitude habitat and on the roadside fields and pools may find our first endemics in the form of Blue-winged Geese or Wattled Ibis. From Debre Libanos we’ll visit the edge of the mighty Rift Valley at a spot where a gash in the side of the escarpment gives us superb views down into the valley. Here we should see the bizarre Gelada Baboon precariously feeding on the edge of dramatic cliffs, and this is also the one of the best sites to find the endemic Ankober Serin. This rather plain bird was only discovered in 1976 and appears to be restricted to the very edge of the Rift Valley escarpment. Night in Debre Birhan. 

Day 3: We’ll leave very early this morning to visit the impressive Jemma Gorge. After a drive across relatively flat farmland, this spectacular gorge will open up before us, revealing some wonderful scenery. Our road will take us down into the gorge and across the Jemma River, a tributary of the Blue Nile. We aim to reach here just after dawn, as this is when the endemic Harwood’s Francolin is most vocal. This species is restricted to the valleys of the Blue Nile tributaries and shares its home with the more numerous Erckel’s Francolin. There will be more endemics to look for in this rocky habitat, where White-billed Starling, Abyssinian Black Wheatear, Rüppell’s Black Chat, and White-winged Cliff Chat are all possible. Descending to the valley floor, we’ll drive through crops that are the nesting ground for striking Black-winged Red Bishop and Speckle-fronted Weaver, stopping at a small side stream where we’ll spend a pleasant few hours. Here we’ll look for a number of more western species that are at the edge of their range, such as Vinaceous Dove, Green-backed Eremomela, Copper Sunbird, Black-faced Firefinch, and Yellow-fronted Canary. Common and Crimson-rumped Waxbills will be dropping in to drink, and we’ll scan these flocks hoping to see the near-endemic Red-billed Pytilia. This spot can be alive with birds—the endemic White-throated Seedeater is present, along with numerous Bush Petronias, and in the past we have seen up to six species of kingfisher, including Half-collared Kingfisher. Wire-tailed Swallows and African Paradise Flycatchers zip up and down the stream, gaudy Village and Vitelline Masked Weavers buzz around the bushes, and dainty Mountain Wagtails and Three-banded Plovers pick their way along the streambed. Retracing our steps, we’ll look for any raptors patrolling the skies, in particular Fox Kestrel, which is regularly seen here. Night in Debre Birhan. 

Day 4: From Debre Birhan we’ll travel to the ancient town of Ankober, perched on the very edge of the Rift Valley. Staring eastward into the vast valley is an awe-inspiring experience, and we’ll pause to admire the majestic view before the road takes us past the site of an ancient royal palace and then drops down into the valley. The vegetation changes dramatically as we descend, and we are soon among hot, dry acacia, a distinct change from the cool uplands we’ve left behind. We are now in the realm of another of Ethiopia’s range-restricted endemic birds, Yellow-throated Seedeater.  As well as the enigmatic seedeater, we may encounter some other new birds, such as Eastern Grey Plantain-eater and Chestnut-crowned Sparrow Weaver, before we climb back up out of the valley and return to Debre Birhan for lunch. 

In the afternoon we’ll head south, eventually dropping down into the part of the Rift Valley we had gazed down upon earlier. On the way we may stop at several lakes to search for a variety of waterbirds, including Black Crowned Crane and White-backed, Comb, and Maccoa Ducks. Night in Nazaret. 

Day 5: 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 relatively recent volcanic activity will become very obvious as we approach the extinct Fantale Crater, and we’ll stop at the edge of a vast area of brown volcanic ash to look for Chestnut-eared and Chestnut-headed Sparrow-Larks, Blackstart, Bristle-crowned Starling, Shining Sunbird, and Striolated Bunting. However, our target bird here is another endemic, although perhaps not the most inspiring one—the aptly named Sombre Chat, a bird that blends perfectly with the dark ash it inhabits. Continuing northeast, we’ll cross the plains of Awash National Park to reach our lodge, located close to the spot where Wilfred Thesiger camped on his journey to follow the route of the Awash River. In the afternoon we’ll search the immediate vicinity of our lodge for regional specialties such as Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, Yellow-breasted Barbet, Ethiopian Swallow, Black Scrub Robin, Northern Crombec, and Nile Valley Sunbird. Arabian Bustard is a species that is now hard to find over much of its previous range; thankfully, numbers in this region remain good, although it is a secretive bird and will require some searching. We’ll also explore the open scrub for wintering migrants from the north, including perhaps Black-eared Wheatear, Rufous Scrub Robin, and Eastern Olivaceous, Upcher’s, Barred, and Ménétries’s Warblers. A few African Collared Doves can be seen among the much more numerous African Mourning Doves, whose gentle purring calls provide a constant soundtrack to our time here. Gaudy Abyssinian Rollers and Black-throated Barbets will be found among the taller acacias, and our 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, and scanning the marsh fringes just after dawn may reveal a nocturnal Lion or two skulking off to their daytime hideaway. As dusk falls, the car-alarm calls of Slender-tailed Nightjars will fill the now cool night air. Night at Anamalia Lodge. 

Day 6: After an early morning around the lodge we’ll leave for Awash National Park, perhaps stopping on the way to visit a vast plain where we should see Somali Ostrich and a variety of raptors, with luck including a Saker. In the past this region has produced surprises such as Grasshopper Buzzard, Pale Rock Sparrow, and Bimaculated Lark. On reaching Awash National 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 spot a Kori Bustard striding through the grassland, perhaps with a Northern Carmine Bee-eater hitching a ride on its back. Other species present here are Buff-crested, White-bellied, and Hartlaub’s Bustards, and in some years Harlequin Quail are numerous, flushing from the side of the track as we drive by. As the day draws to a close, we’ll reach our lodge, which is located right on the edge of the impressive Awash River Falls. Night at Awash Falls Lodge. 

Day 7: Because bird life is most active just after dawn, we’ll make sure we are out just before first light. In the open grasslands we’ll look for Secretary Bird, Red-winged and Singing Bush Larks, and Desert and Ashy Cisticolas. Flocks of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse can be found anywhere, and in the denser areas of scrub we’ll look for the little-known Gillet’s Lark, along with Red-fronted Warbler, Green-winged Pytilia, and Grey Wren Warbler, while raptors range 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 their striking breeding plumage, and there may be a few wintering Madagascar Bee-eaters lingering before their journey south to breed. This is also a good place for mammals, and we’ll expect to see groups of Beisa Oryx and the endemic Soemmerring’s Gazelle out on the plains.

Leaving Awash, we’ll retrace our steps to Nazaret and then turn south to Lake Langano. We’ll make a few stops, including one at Lake Zwiay, where we’ll find a good selection of waterbirds. This famous photo spot is where local fishermen bring their catch ashore, in turn attracting large numbers of amazingly tame Great White Pelicans and Hamerkops. Grey-headed Gulls and White-winged Black Terns also gather, and the flooded lakeside vegetation is alive with Yellow-billed Storks, Squacco Herons, African Fish Eagles, African Darters, African Jacanas, African Pygmy Geese, White-faced Whistling Ducks, and jeweled Malachite Kingfishers. Migrant Yellow Wagtails of a variety of eastern races will be walking around our feet, along with Wood Sandpipers and Spur-winged Plovers, and over the years we have found a variety of scarcer species here such as Black Heron, Lesser Jacana, Lesser Moorhen, and Allen’s Gallinule. We’ll reach our lodge, situated on the western shore of the lake, in the afternoon and spend the rest of the day birding within the grounds, where we might find a variety of species that include 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 Nightjar and Greyish Eagle Owl at their daytime roosts, and this will be our first chance to see a delicately marked Clapperton’s Francolin. Night at Lake Langano.  

Day 8: We’ll begin the day with another walk around the lodge grounds. Mocking Cliff Chats move down from the adjacent cliff to start their daytime 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 Shrikes will join the dawn chorus, and vivid Blue-breasted Bee-eaters will be zipping around the cliff face. We may even find a roosting Verreaux’s Eagle Owl. After an outdoor breakfast on a lakeshore terrace we’ll travel the short distance to another Rift Valley lake, Abiata, located in the Abiata-Shala National Park. Although this lake is suffering from water extraction and the surrounding land from overgrazing, the lakeshore can still hold good numbers of waterbirds, including huge numbers of both Greater and Lesser Flamingos, a variety of waders such as Kittlitz’s Plover and Temminck’s Stint, and Common, Black  Crowned, and occasionally Wattled Cranes. The lawn-like lake edge is ideal habitat for hundreds of wintering Isabelline Wheatears, while the adjacent acacia woodland is home to Black-billed Woodhoopoe and Black Scimitarbill. Leaving Lake Abiata, we’ll travel farther down the Rift Valley and then climb up the escarpment, heading for the Bale Mountains and the town of Goba, a drive that takes us through even more spectacular scenery. To begin, we’ll 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. As we gain altitude, the level agriculture gives way to more rugged highlands; we’ll start to see flocks of White-collared Pigeons and Wattled Ibis along the roadside, and Dusky Turtle Doves will become common. Freshly plowed fields are a mecca for Erlanger’s Larks, which are frequently joined by larger Thekla Larks, while Red-breasted Wheatears and Groundscraper Thrushes can be numerous. We’ll also stop at the national park headquarters, where we’ll look in particular for the little-known Abyssinian Owl and perhaps some roosting African Wood Owls or Montane Nightjars. We’ll also encounter the impressive endemic Mountain Nyala and Meneliks Bushbuck. Night in Goba. 

Day 9: We’ll spend the whole day up on the Sanetti Plateau, a wonderful Afro-alpine habitat of pools and small lakes, low flowering bushes, beds of tiny alpine flowers, and towering spikes of Giant Lobelia. Rouget’s Rails are remarkably tame up here, and we’ll have seen dozens by the end of the day. We’re also bound to see Chestnut-naped and Moorland Francolins. Elsewhere we’ll encounter the classic highland endemics: Blue-winged Geese on the pools along with Spot-breasted Plovers, and flocks of Black-headed Siskins feeding by the roadside. Moorland Chats are everywhere, and wintering Green Sandpipers and Red-throated Pipits frequent the many pools. Wattled Cranes breed here, and we hope for a sighting of at least one of these stately birds. Augur Buzzards and Lanner Falcons perch on top of the Giant Lobelia flower spikes, and a sighting of a Ruddy Shelduck or a flock of Red-billed Choughs reminds us of this region’s strange Palearctic affinities. Overhead there should be a steady passage of raptors, with migrant Steppe Eagles common, and at any time a mighty Lammergeier could drift past. Yet despite all these avian attractions the star of today’s show may well be the elegant Ethiopian Wolf. These endangered canines cling to a fragile existence only here and in the Simien Mountains to the north. Their main prey is the comical Giant Root Rat, which is  plentiful on the plateau, and it is quite common to see wolves hunting these goofy rodents. Leaving the high moorland behind, we’ll drop down into a forested area 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 Starling, Brown-rumped Seedeater, 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 10: We’ll retrace our steps across the plateau, following the highest all-weather road in Africa. Up on the roof of the continent the views can be breathtaking, especially as we leave the highlands to descend into some rich forest. Here we’ll have another chance to look for any forest birds we might have missed the day before, as well as new species such as Crowned Eagle, Abyssinian Hill Babbler, Black-and-white Mannikin, and the tiny Abyssinian Crimsonwing. Our destination is the town of Negelle, where we expect to arrive during the late afternoon after driving through superb landscapes of endless acacia woodland and dramatic valleys. Night in Negelle. 

Days 11–12: In 1893 the Italian nobleman Prince Ruspoli collected a stunningly beautiful turaco somewhere in Ethiopia. Unfortunately the prince was trampled to death by an elephant before he could reveal the exact location, and it was not until the 1940s 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 we’ll look for another endemic, although one nowhere near as colorful as the turaco. Liben or Archer’s Lark, another bird largely restricted to a tiny area in Ethiopia, is found on the open grassy plains close to Negelle. There are perhaps no more than 200 pairs left in this region and a few more recently discovered at a site in the north of the country. It is also now thought to be the same species as Archer’s Lark, known from Somali. This is one of Africa’s rarest birds, and we’ll arrive early to hopefully see the lark performing its display flight before we enjoy a cooked picnic breakfast out on the plain. The short grassland is very much to the liking of Somali Short-toed Larks, which can be numerous here. Crowned Plovers are common, often joined by groups of Black-winged Plovers, and with luck we may come across a few Temminck’s Coursers. Harriers, both Pallid and Montagu’s, also love the open plain, and 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 White-crowned Starlings can be surprisingly approachable. Although not an endemic (it also occurs in northern Kenya), this striking starling can be seen readily only in this region. 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, from Pacific Golden Plovers to Collared Pratincoles. 

The road south 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, Red-and-yellow Barbet at its nest hole in a termite mound, Three-streaked Tchagra, 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 Sparrow, and Somali Bunting. Nights in Negelle. 

Day 13: Leaving Negelle, we’ll embark on a journey that will take us in a wide loop through the south of Ethiopia and to the town of Yabello. We’ll leave very early to arrive at the Dawa River shortly after dawn. As our ground crew prepares another picnic 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. There may be flocks of Black-faced Sandgrouse coming to drink, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on the 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. Moving on, we’ll drive through other interesting habitats. Gangs of 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, we have a very good chance of finding Red-naped Bush-Shrike, a rare species found only in parts of East Africa. As we get nearer to Yabello, we’ll cross the invisible line that marks the start of Bush-Crow country, and we’ll not have traveled too far before we’ll see our first Stresemann’s Bush-Crow, Ethiopia’s iconic and most sought-after endemic. Once we are in their range, we’ll find that these remarkable birds can be quite common, moving around in small groups. Occupying almost the same small restricted area as another endemic—White-tailed Swallow—these dashing dark blue and white birds should be skimming around the acacia trees. We’ll aim to reach our lodge close to Yabello before dark. As dusk approaches, we’ll stay out in the extensive grounds to look for Donaldson Smith’s and Plain Nightjars and African Scops Owl, and we may also find a Somali Galago bouncing around the trees. Night near Yabello. 

Day 14: We’ll have all day to look for birds in the Yabello region. Found only in the dry thorn scrub that extends down through eastern parts of Ethiopia and Kenya is a group of species that includes Short-tailed Lark, the skulking Scaly Chatterer, Bare-eyed Thrush, Spotted Palm Thrush, Magpie Starling, the gorgeous Golden-breasted Starling, Tiny Cisticola, Pale Prinia, and Black-capped Social Weaver. In addition we’ll hope to see Eastern Pale Chanting and Gabar Goshawks, Bateleur, Grey Kestrel, 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. It has been found that temperature is the key to this bird’s limited distribution, and their large rugby-ball-shaped nests are obvious, perched right on top of flat-topped acacias to keep cool. Recent studies have shown that the local race of Chestnut-naped Francolins here are in fact a full species, Black-fronted Francolin, and we’ll devote some time looking for them. Night near Yabello. 

Day 15: Leaving Yabello early, we’ll travel due north. This will be a long drive because the road is currently being rebuilt and we can expect the extensive construction to slow our progress. Our route takes us up into one of the main coffee-growing regions, a lush, verdant part of the country, and we may see White-necked Stork, Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle, or Great Sparrowhawk along the way. By mid-afternoon we should reach Lake Awassa and our comfortable lodge on the lake shore. The lodge grounds have a distinctly tropical feel and are a great place to look for birds. We’ll spend the rest of the afternoon searching the lake-side vegetation for waterbirds such as Black Crake, the dashing Malachite Kingfisher, the drab Lesser Swamp Warbler, and Thick-billed Weaver. Small pools along the shoreline are good places to find wintering waders such as Marsh Sandpiper, while papyrus beds can hold migrants such as European Reed, 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 at Lake Awassa. 

Day 16: Leaving Awassa, we’ll return to Lake Langano but this time we’ll turn off to visit the eastern side of the lake and the wonderful Haro Lodge. Surrounded by towering trees and located right on the lake shore, Haro is an excellent place to wander around. We’ll spend the last part of the day looking for a variety of birds, including Lemon Dove, and watching the sun set over the lake as Senegal Thick-knee and perhaps Heuglin’s Courser put in an appearance. Night at Haro Lodge. 

Day 17: We’ll begin early where noisy Guereza Colobus and Silvery-cheeked Hornbills herald the dawn. Shortly after dawn, flocks of Yellow-fronted Parrots fly from their roost to perch in the acacias, giving us ideal views of this colorful endemic. A sumptuous breakfast will prepare us for a walk through lush forest and across open grassland, all on good trails. In the forest we’ll be 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. Later we’ll explore another area of lake shore and surrounding farmland, keeping an eye open for Clapperton’s Francolin, Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, or Red-shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike. Night at Haro Lodge. 

Day 18: There will be time in the morning to look for any species we may have missed before we set out to join the main Rift Valley road once more and drive north to Addis. We’ll stop at another lodge on the western shore of Lake Langano to search for day-roosting Slender-tailed Nightjar and Greyish Eagle Owl, and we should also have time to make a return visit to Lake Zwiay. When we reach Addis, we’ll check into a hotel close to the airport, where we’ll have access to dayrooms ahead of our transfer to the airport later this evening and where the tour ends. 

Updated: 13 December 2017

Prices

  • 2018 Tour Price : $5,600
  • Single Occupancy Supplement : $370
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Notes

This tour is organized by our British company, Sunbird. Information on Sunbird and an explanation of Sunbird tour pricing can be found here.

* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.

Maximum group size 12 with two leaders. Both leaders will accompany the tour irrespective of group size.

Single rooms are limited in some areas.