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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ethiopia: The Roof of Africa

2017 Narrative

It began in Addis. A shiny new toll road took us quickly to our first main stop at Debre Zeit and Lake Cheleleke where a variety of waterbirds included White-backed, Maccoa, and Comb Ducks. The sky was peppered with thousands of Marabou Storks and we located a pair of Black-crowned Cranes out in the flooded vegetation. With a variety of raptors floating overhead, various waders feeding at the water’s edge, and many common passerines in the bushes, this provided a nice introduction to our birding. Driving south down the Rift Valley we came to Lake Zwiay where we got to grips with more waterbirds – Great White Pelicans, Hamerkops, an ‘umbrellaring’ Black Heron, African Pygmy Geese, lots of Fulvous and White-faced Whistling Ducks, and a few Hottentot Teal were some of the highlights while scanning the Grey-headed Gull flock revealed two Slender-billed Gulls – a rare bird down here. Northern Carmine Bee-eaters skimmed over the water and a delightful African Pygmy Kingfisher sat motionless just a few feet away. Malachite and Woodland Kingfishers provided more local colour.

Reaching our lodge at Lake Langano and spent the rest of the day wandering around the grounds. A roosting Northern White-faced Scops Owl was a real treat, as were (at the other end of the owl size spectrum) the pair of Verreaux’s Eagle Owls. Other highlights included Masked Shrike, Ruppell’s Weaver, a fine pair of Red-throated Wrynecks sitting still for the telescope, and, as dusk fell, a few fly-pasts by Freckled Nightjar.

Strong winds highlighted the worsening situation at Lake Abiata, whipping up a huge dust storm off the dry, open mudflats that was once covered in water. This made seeing anything there almost impossible, although a group of obliging Temminck’s Coursers were a welcome sight. The dust stayed with us most of the way to Awassa where, having checked in to our hotel, we spent the rest of the afternoon birding in the wooded grounds and along the lake edge. Highlights here included an Allen’s Gallinule which showed well for what is normally a skulking species, and the usual Black Crakes were as entertaining as ever. Purple Heron, Purple Gallinule, Lesser Swamp Warbler, and Blue-headed Coucal were some of the other species which showed well. The Spotted Creepers were unusually shy to start with but eventually we had superb views of a pair, beautifully camouflaged on the tall grey-barked acacia trees. 

The long climb up to the Bale Mountains took us through open wheat fields where roadside birds included Red-breasted Wheatears and Red-throated Pipits. A walk around the woodland at Dinsho produced Abyssinian Long-eared Owl and a pair of dozing African Wood Owls, as well as our first looks at Abyssinian Catbird, Abyssinian Ground Thrush and White-backed Black Tit. We also had great views of Mountain Nyala, Menelik’s Bushbuck and Warthogs. The clouds swirled in and out throughout our time on the Sannetti plateau but when the sun did poke through we managed to find up to seven Ethiopian Wolves, including one hunting Giant Root Rats. Amongst the heathland, Giant Lobelias and open pools we watched endemic Blue-winged Geese, Spot-breasted Plover, Rouget’s Rails, and Black-headed Siskins, with raptors including Lammergeier, numerous Steppe Eagles, and Lanner Falcon.

Crossing the plateau once more, we entered the lush and moss-covered Harrena forest where Abyssinian Hill Babbler, Grey Cuckoo-Shrike, Abyssinian Crimsonwing, Black-and-white Mannikin, and Yellow-bellied Waxbill kept us busy. We also watched White-cheeked Turacos bouncing around the trees, taking flight to reveal their crimson flight feathers. Later that same day we had our first look at the fabled Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco – a two turaco day! Our base for the next few days was Negelle from where we ventured out to a selection of different habitats. Searching the open Liben Plains we found the Liben Lark, one of the rarest birds in Africa, along with Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, Plain-backed Pipit, Somali Short-toed Lark, Pectoral-patch Cisticola, and White-crowned Starling. This whole area gave us some great birding with highlights including Martial Eagle, African Hawk Eagle, Eleanora’s Falcon, Grey Kestrel, Brown-tailed Rock Chat, Northern Brownbul, White-crested Helmet Shrikes, Somali Crombec, Salvadori’s Seedeater, Juba Weaver, and Black-bellied Sunbird. It was this region that also gave us one of the tour highlights as we watched a male Hartlaub’s Bustard performing its display flight, and the superb views we had of another Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco no doubt helped it win the bird of the trip. The drive to Yabello took us first to the Dawa River, a perfect spot for a cooked field breakfast and to see more special birds of the region including African White-winged Dove, Yellow-vented Eremomela, Pringle’s Puffback, Pale Prinia, and Pygmy Batis. Continuing we passed through mile after mile of acacia woodland with such delights as Vulturine Guineafowl, Golden-breasted Starling, and an obliging pair of Red-naped Bush-Shrikes along the way. Once in the Yabello area we entered the domain of two very special endemics – Stresemann’s Bush Crow and White-tailed Swallow, and we had wonderful views of both, with one of the swallows collecting mud and nest building inside a local hut. We became one of the first tour groups to see (eventually) the recently split Black-fronted Francolin, and other key species down here included a small group of Somali Coursers, Pygmy Falcon, Northern Grosbeak Canary, a Tiny Cisticola indulging in a strange wing-flicking display, Bare-eyed Thrush, Short-tailed Larks, Banded Parisoma, Chestnut Sparrow, Black-capped Social Weavers, and White-bellied Canary. 

Taking the long road north we came once more to Lake Langano, this time visiting the eastern shore and the wonderful Haro Lodge where we spent two nights. Wandering through the towering fig trees and across open grassland we found prehistoric-looking Abyssinian Ground Hornbills, a Scaly-throated Honeyguide giving its strange call, Red-capped Robin Chat, endemic Yellow-fronted Parrots showing really well in the early morning sun, and Banded and Double-toothed Barbets.  The lake shore right in front of the lodge was also of interest with Saddle-billed Stork strolling sedately past, and noisy Senegal Thick-knees. Heading north via the town of Nazaret we encountered a dramatic change of scenery as we dropped down towards the Awash plains. The remnants of the massive Fantale Volcano dominate the skyline, and the surrounding countryside with vast flows of lava and pumice still evident. In this rather grey landscape we found the equally grey endemic Sombre Chat along with its close look-alike cousin, Blackstarts. Striolated Buntings, Southern Grey Shrike, Nile Valley Sunbirds, and Mouse-coloured Penduline Tits were just a few of the other species seen here. Moving on we crossed the plains to reach our small lodge perched overlooking the dry savanna and large marsh. On the way in sharp eyes picked up a Caracal which sat still long enough for everyone to get a good view while early the following morning, careful scanning of the marsh turned up a single Lioness. Birding in this area was productive and our first foray gave us Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Black Scrub Robin, fleeting views of Ménétries’s Warbler, Eurasian Turtle Doves, Abyssinian Rollers, Yellow-breasted Barbets, Shining Sunbird, and Ethiopian Swallows, along with frustrating views of Dwarf Bittern in the gathering dusk. One of the key species here is Arabian Bustard and we were found our first within a few minutes of leaving the lodge the next morning, to be followed by both Lichtenstein’s and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, and then another Arabian Bustard, and then three more out on the Aledege Plains, where we also saw distant Somali Ostriches and a small herd of Sommering’s Gazelles. Awash plains were very quiet but we managed to get good views of Madagascar Bee-eater, Gillet’s Lark, Red-fronted Warbler and Rosy-patched Bush Shrike, although perhaps the highlight was finding the little-known Star-spotted Nightjar after darkness had fallen.

Leaving the baking hot plains we returned to Addis and then on to Debre Birhan. From here we first visited the mighty valley of the Jemma River. Birding down in the Jemma valley is always fun - the scenery is stunning for one thing, and there is also a good selection of birds. The endemic Harwood’s Francolin was found typically standing up on a rock calling in the early morning sun. Erckel’s Francolin were also here, and Ruppell’s Black Chats and Cinnamon-breasted Buntings were much in evidence. The small stream at the bottom of the valley provided the perfect location for another field breakfast and the list of birds here included Half-collared Kingfisher, Copper Sunbird, Black-winged Red Bishop, Bush Petronia, the endemic White-throated Seedeater, Village Indigobirds, and Speckle-fronted Weavers. This place is a magnet for birds coming to drink, and we were very pleased when a Red-billed Pytilia dropped in to join the Crimson-rumped Waxbills and Red-billed Firefinches. Three-banded Plovers and Grey and Mountain Wagtails picked their way along the stream and a variety of dazzling dragonflies buzzed up and down, including the very large red Anax species, all against a soundtrack of calling Vinaceous Doves. Elsewhere in the valley we found a fine Fox Kestrel perched up for the telescope, Eurasian Wryneck and African Pied Wagtails.

As the tour drew to a close we still had three endemics to see. We drove through the town of Ankober perched right on the edge of the Rift Valley escarpment and descended into a much drier habitat where, amidst the dust and rubble of yet another new road project, we found a pair of Yellow-throated Seedeaters followed by three White-winged Cliff Chats perched up as we retraced our steps.  The dramatic setting of Gemessa Gebel – a vast crack in the Rift Valley escarpment which gave stunning views down into the Valley was where we caught up with the rather plain Ankober Serin, and where we effectively ended our Ethiopia birding. After that it was back to the hotel, lunch and then the drive to Addis, and various flights home. We had got through some very unseasonal rain, long and dusty drives, detours, and varied accommodation to see a lot of Ethiopia and all of its endemic birds.

 -        Steve Rooke

Created: 27 November 2017