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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ethiopia: The Roof of Africa

2015 Narrative

Although part of the country was in the grip of a drought, most of this year’s tour visited regions that were in places decidedly lush, and we even experienced heavy rain on two mornings. Our first day was spent along the Rift Valley lakes of Chekeleke, Ziway and Langano. Lake Chekeleke was unusually low, no doubt a result of the lack of rains, and open water was extremely limited. We still managed to get the tour list off to a flying start though, with two brief Black-crowned Cranes, multitudes of ducks buzzing around and a pair of wondrous African Paradise Flycatchers performing for us. The sheer numbers of Marabou Storks seen today was an incredible sight, even for those who were familiar with them, while the three Ferruginous Ducks were less expected. Moving onto Lake Ziway, and after a very satisfying lunch, the marshes alongside the fish market provided a birding spectacle that took many people’s breath away. White Pelicans and Marabous were feet away, and a nice selection of waders and various Yellow Wagtail races scuttled around the muddy fringes. Our lodge on Lake Langano gave us a roosting Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, and a dusk nightjar excursion produced at least eight Slender-tailed Nightjars hawking around us and a Freckled Nightjar calling but not quite coming into view. Birding the grounds that evening and next morning resulted in a delightful array of species, including Little Rock Thrush, Little Weaver, Clapperton’s Francolins, Bearded Woodpecker and the endemic form of Red-throated Wryneck. A roosting Verreaux’s Eagle Owl chose a much nearer tree than yesterday and gave scope-filling walkaway views, pink eyelids flashing as it gazed nonchalantly over at us, but the most unexpected highlight was an adult pale morph Eleonora’s Falcon circling over us. We explored the acacia woodlands in the Lake Abiata area and dug out some White-winged Black Tits among others before arriving at our lakeside hotel in Awassa. This is another excellent area, and as well as the usual and much hoped for Spotted Creeper, a pair of White-backed Ducks treated us to good views as they blew bubbles and fed a few feet from us while a newly fledged family of Allen’s Gallinules paraded for us. An incredible six Blue-headed Coucals were also found, including a couple of uncharacteristically showy individuals perched out on telephone lines!  Other highlights here include the most approachable Malachite Kingfishers you could wish for, African Pygmy Kingfisher, African Yellow Warbler, confiding Black Crakes, a clumsy Purple Swamphen, flocks of Thick-billed Weaver and Lesser Swamp Warbler.

Moving up into the Bale Mountains, we stopped for great views of Red-chested Swallow and Cape Eagle Owl before heading into the relict forest near Dinsho for superb views of Abyssinian Owl, African Wood Owl and a pair of roosting Montane Nightjars, as well as, not one, but two close encounters with a Serval, moving stealthily through the forest. The endemic Mountain Nyala also showed well in good numbers. The Sanetti Plateau is an otherworldly place, and morning clouds gave way to glorious weather and a truly memorable experience. Little groups of Chestnut-naped and Moorland Francolins led their chicks away from the highest road in Africa, and Rouget’s Rails, Black-headed Siskins, Spot-breasted Plovers and Blue-winged Geese were numerous. The highlight for many was the incredible nine Ethiopian Wolves we saw, including one young animal digging for prey within 10 meters of the bus! The comical periscopic heads of Giant Root Rats peered out of their burrows while the sun shone, and Lanners and Steppe Eagles filled the skies. The forest between the plateau and our hotel gave us great views of the localised form of ‘Bale’ Brown Parisoma, and Abyssinian Woodpecker, Abyssinian Ground Thrush and White-cheeked Turaco all showed well. Leaving the highlands the following day, we descended through the vine-filled Harena Forest where a couple of Abyssinian Crimsonwings fed near us, and African Hill Babbler sat in full view. Black and White Mannakins joined the more numerous Yellow-bellied Waxbills lower down, and the day was not over until we had found the legendary Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco in the extensive acacia woodlands before reaching Negelle.

Birding around Negelle proved to be excellent. Liben Lark showed incredibly well, interacting with the much more numerous Somali Short-toed Larks, and our spot for Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco proved as reliable as ever with four birds performing well. Other highlights here included a singing Salvadori’s Seedeater, three White-tailed Swallows well away from their normal range, breeding Juba Weavers, Northern Brownbulls, Foxy Lark, Shelley’s and White-crowned Starlings. The drive down to Yabello was just as productive, with Vulturine Guineafowl being a regular roadside bird. Black-faced Sandgrouse paraded in front of us near the Dawa River, and Pringle’s Puffback and Grey Kestrel were also found at the roadside. A pair of Yellow-vented Eromomelas moved about the low scrub near our breakfast spot, while Hunter’s Sunbird, Pygmy Batis and Pale Prinia shouted at us from the acacia tops. The highlight however was the highly range-restricted African White-winged Dove. Further along the road, we found a very showy Red-naped Bush-Shrike near a wonderfully busy colony of Black-capped Social Weavers. Moving down into the Yabello area, we were greeted by a flock of the irrepressible Stresemann’s Bush Crows bounding around just inside their invisible thermocline. Also here were more White-tailed Swallows, a couple of Somali Coursers and an unexpected herd of Burchell’s Zebras.

Arriving at our lodge, nocturnal wanderings produced a brief Donaldson Smith’s Nightjar and a showy African Scops Owl. Our time in the Yabello area produced many of the regions specialities. Three-streaked Tchagra, Short-tailed Larks, Golden-breasted Starlings, Bare-eyed Thrush, Temminck’s Coursers, Tiny Cisticola and Northern Grosbeak Canary all vied for our attention, with yet more Stresemann’s Bush Crows around the lodge grounds. The long drive north was enlivened by stately Abyssinian Ground Hornbills and the occasional roadside raptors, but by the time we arrived at Bishangari Lodge we were ready for a rest in these comfortable and bird rich surroundings. The lakeshore and huge fig trees around this area are a bit of a paradise, and our extended stay here this year enabled us to fully explore the surroundings. Around 80 Yellow-fronted Parrots delighted us at dawn, along with several Abyssinian Orioles and Double-toothed Barbets, a Narina Trogon and a host of wetland species. A troop of Olive Baboons entertained us and 11 Hippopotami were a surprise. From Lake Langano, we had a brief foray to Lake Abiata to enjoy the spectacle of around 450 Common Cranes and tens of thousands of Flamingos and another opportunity to visit the marshes at Lake Ziway. This time we were treated to incredible views of a Great Sparrowhawk and a handful of us were lucky enough to see a Lesser Jacana creep through the marsh, before the Great Sparrowhawk flew through the area and put paid to any further views!

Moving further north along the Rift Valley, our next area was in the Awash region, and we began by birding the stark larva flows around Mt. Fantale, eventually getting great views of the endemic and highly-localised Sombre Rock Chat. Moving into the savannah and semi-desert areas, it was apparent that the drought had taken effect with very little grass on the plains. This did however make finding bustards rather straightforward and we immediately scored an Arabian Bustard on our way to our comfortable lodge, where Banded Martin, Ethiopian and Wire-tailed Swallows hawked around the restaurant while Yellow-breasted Barbets fed literally just feet away from us. Also seen around here were confiding Grey-headed Batis, Ménétries’s Warbler, Nile Valley Sunbird, Red-faced Warbler, Saddle-billed Stork, Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, Black Scrub Robin, Somali Ostrich and a further three Arabian Bustards. Perhaps most unexpectedly were the Lion prints we found not far from the lodge, followed by hearing a roaring Lion as night fell. A salutary reminder that we were out in the wilds! Moving on to the Awash Falls area, despite the harsh conditions and infiltration by local herdsmen, we managed to find a couple of Gillet’s Larks giving their thin calls from dense bushes and eventually showing well, a pair of Heuglin’s Coursers escaping the sun under a bush, several White-bellied Bustards, a couple of Buff-crested Bustards and yet another Arabian Bustard! Despite the lack of grass the herds of Beisa Oryx and Sommering’s Gazelles were all looking remarkably healthy, and illustrated just how well adapted to this harsh environment they are.  We even had an Aardwolf trot across the road and a group of Bat-eared Foxes slinked away into the bush, while Spotted Hyenas calling around our lodge added much excitement to the proceedings!  

The journey north from Awash to Debre Birhan via Addis was made slightly easier by the building of a new expressway, and we arrived at dusk to our final hotel in this highland town. The first destination was the hugely impressive Jemma Valley, and we quickly found both Harwood’s and Erckel’s Francolins, the former being restricted to these canyon slopes along the Blue Nile tributaries. Rüppell’s Black Chat and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting also appeared, and we moved down into the valley floor to have breakfast at a spot we have been visiting for several years. A truly magical little area, a few hours in the morning here produced an impressive list of birds. These included the hard-to-find Red-billed Pytilia, a local rarity in the form of Black-faced Firefinch, the always scarce Half-collared Kingfisher, Vinaceous Dove, White-throated Seedeater and Bush Petronias. Away from the stream, Speckle-fronted Weavers and Black-winged Red Bishops delighted us, White-billed Starlings treated us to excellent views, as did White-winged Cliff Chats. On our final day our site for Ankober Serin turned up trumps, even in driving rain and gale force winds as two of these enigmatic finches fed just feet from our bus as we cowered inside.

With time for a spot of roadside birding on the way back to Addis, we enjoyed stunning views of Lammergeiers and Groundscraper Thrushes before arriving back out our hotel in time for a relaxing shower and evening meal before catching our flights home.

Updated: November 2015