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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Ethiopia: The Roof of Africa

Tuesday 22 October to Friday 8 November 2019
with Steve Rooke and Merid Gabremichael as leaders
Tuesday 27 October to Friday 13 November 2020
with Steve Rooke and Merid Gabremichael as leaders

Price: $5,600* (10/2019)

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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 drive northwest from Addis to the town of Debre Birhan, seeing our first birds from our vehicles as Yellow-billed Kites and Hooded Vultures patrol the skies. We’ll cross relatively high-altitude habitat where roadside fields and pools may have our first endemics: Blue-winged Geese, Wattled Ibis, and Erlanger’s Lark. From Debre Birhan we’ll visit the edge of the mighty Rift Valley and have fantastic views from a spot where a gash in the side of the escarpment exposes the valley. Here we should see the bizarre Gelada Baboon, precariously feeding on the edge of dramatic cliffs.  It is as well one of the best sites to see the endemic Ankober Serin, a rather plain bird discovered in 1976 and apparently 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 driving across relatively flat farmland, this truly spectacular gorge opens up before us, revealing some magnificent scenery.  We’ll continue into the gorge and across the Jemma River, a tributary of the Blue Nile. We aim to reach the gorge just after dawn, as daybreak 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 with White-billed Starling, Abyssinian Black Wheatear, Rüppells Black Chat, and White-winged Cliff Chat all possible. Descending to the valley floor, we’ll drive through crops that are the nesting ground for the striking Black-winged Red Bishop and Speckle-fronted Weaver.  We’ll stop at a small side stream to look for a number of more western species on 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 Red-billed Pytilia. This spot can be alive with birds; the endemic White-throated Seedeater may be present, along with numerous Bush Petronias, and, in the past, we have seen up to six species of kingfisher including Half-collared. 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 stream bed. Retracing our steps, we’ll look for any raptors patrolling the skies, in particular the Fox Kestrel which is regularly here. We’ll also stop at the Jemma River to search the banks for Senegal Thick-knees. In recent years a few Egyptian Plovers have also been found. 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 eastwards into the vast valley is an awe-inspiring experience, and we’ll pause to soak in the breathtaking view before the road takes us past the site of an ancient royal palace 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 Yellow-throated Seedeater, another of Ethiopia’s range-restricted endemic birds.  As well as the enigmatic seedeater, we may encounter other new birds such as Eastern Grey Plantain-eater and Chestnut-crowned Sparrow Weaver before we continue down into the Rift Valley, heading for the town of Awash and the entrance to Awash National Park. We’ll travel on to our lodge located on the Awash River, next to the impressive Awash Falls.  Once we have checked in, we’ll venture out into the National Park as the afternoon temperatures begin to drop.

In this parched environment birds can be hard to find, but we should soon see Madagascar (Olive) Bee-eaters zipping around the bushes and bizarre male Eastern Paradise Whydah’s performing their bouncing display flight. In the more open savannah we’ll notice Somali Fiscals sitting on bush tops, along with Woodchat, Turkestan, and Southern Grey Shrikes. We’ll be looking for Buff-crested Bustards seeking shade beneath the bushes as well. Out on the plains we may locate a stately Kori Bustard, perhaps with a Northern Carmine Bee-eater hitching a ride on its back, and—if we are lucky—a Secretarybird. There will be mammals to search for as well, including the striking Beisa Oryx and the endemic Soemmerring’s Gazelle. We’ll enjoy the sights and sounds of this rich environment until the sun sets and then begin a slow drive back to the lodge, keeping an eye open for any nightjars on the tracks. In particular we’ll be hoping for a sighting of the rare and little-known Star-spotted Nightjar. Night in Awash National Park.

Day 5: Temperature rises quickly as the day progresses, so we’ll start early to travel north to the Aledegge Plains. This vast open expanse of grassland is an excellent place to see one of the special birds of the region, Arabian Bustard, and it is possible to see large numbers of them here. The plains are also home to Somali Ostrich, as well as Grasshopper Buzzard, Montagu’s Harrier, Black-headed Plover, Yellow-throated and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, and Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark. In the past we have seen a few rare winter visitors here such as Pale Rock Sparrow and Bimaculated Lark.

A short distance away we enter a region of scattered acacia scrub, home to the distinctive Afar tribe. We’ll search for Yellow-breasted Barbet, Ethiopian Swallow, Black Scrub Robin, Northern Crombec, and Nile Valley Sunbird. We’ll also search 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 found among the much more numerous African Mourning Doves, the gentle purring calls of which provide the background soundtrack to our time here. We should also find Gaudy Abyssinian Rollers and Black-throated Barbets among the taller acacias. The site of an old, now defunct lodge overlooks a large marsh covered in dense reeds where Saddle-billed Storks are regular visitors and flocks of Northern Carmine Bee-eaters sometimes hawk for insects. Animals we should see include the tiny Salt’s Dik-dik and perhaps a long-necked Gerenuk or Lesser Kudu.  Night in Awash National Park.

Day 6: We’ll make another early start to be out just before first light in order to catch all the activity. In the open grasslands we should find Red-winged and Singing Bush Larks and Desert and Ashy Cisticolas. In the denser areas of scrub we’ll look for the little-known Gillet’s Lark, along with Rosy-patched Bush-shrike, Red-fronted Warbler, Green-winged Pytilia, Grey Wren Warbler, and raptors ranging from the tiny Pygmy Falcon to the massive Lappet-faced Vulture.

Leaving Awash, we’ll begin our journey south. Evidence of relatively recent volcanic activity will become obvious as we approach the Fantale Crater of an extinct volcano, and we’ll stop at the edge of a vast area of brown volcanic pumice to look for Chestnut-headed Sparrow-Lark, Blackstart, Bristle-crowned Starlings, Shining Sunbird, and Striolated Bunting. The tiny Mouse-colored Penduline Tit is also frequent here; however, our endemic and primary target bird—albeit not the most inspiring one—is the aptly named Sombre Chat, a bird that blends perfectly with the dark pumice it inhabits.

We’ll continue south down the Rift Valley towards Lake Langano, making a few stops along the way, 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 which, in turn, attracts large numbers of amazingly tame Great White Pelicans and Hamerkops. Grey-headed Gulls and White-winged Black Terns also gather here, 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 jewelled Malachite Kingfishers. Migrant Yellow Wagtails of a variety of eastern races will no doubt walk around our feet, along with Wood Sandpipers and Spur-winged Plovers. Over the years we have found a variety of scarcer species here such as Black Heron, Slender-billed Gull, Lesser Jacana, Lesser Moorhen, and Allen’s Gallinule. We’ll reach our lodge, situated on the western shore of the lake, in the late afternoon and spend the rest of the day birding within the grounds, looking 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, among others. It’s usually possible to find Slender-tailed Nightjars and Greyish Eagle Owl at their daytime roosts, and this will be our first chance for a delicately marked Clapperton’s Francolin. We’ll also try for Freckled Nightjar once darkness falls. Night at Lake Langano. 

Day 7: We’ll begin 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 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 is suffering from over-grazing, the lakeshore can still hold a good number 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 Wattled Cranes. The lawn-like lake edge is ideal habitat for Temminck’s Courser, and there is often a small group of wintering Stone Curlew here, as well as numerous wintering Isabelline Wheatears. The adjacent acacia woodland is home to Black-billed Woodhoopoe and Black Scimitarbill. 

Leaving Lake Abiata we’ll travel further down the Rift Valley then climb the escarpment heading for the Bale Mountains and the town of Goba, a drive that will take us through 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 and European Bee-eaters. Freshly ploughed fields are a mecca for Thekla Larks, while Red-breasted Wheatears and Groundscraper Thrushes can be numerous. The flat agricultural terrain then gives way to more rugged highlands as we gain altitude. We start to see flocks of White-collared Pigeons and Wattled Ibis along the roadside, and Dusky Turtle Doves become common. We’ll also stop at the National Park headquarters where we’ll be looking in particular for the little-known Abyssinian Owl, the hulking Cape Eagle 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 8: We’ll have a whole day to spend on the Sanetti Plateau, an exotic and enticing Afro-alpine habitat of pools and small lakes, dense, low flowering bushes, beds of tiny alpine flowers, and towering spikes of Giant Lobelias. Rouget’s Rails are remarkably tame up here, and we’ll have seen dozens by the end of the day. We’re bound to see Chestnut-naped and Moorland Francolins as well. Elsewhere we’ll encounter the classic highland endemics, with Blue-winged Geese in the pools along with endemic Spot-breasted Plovers and flocks of Black-headed Siskins feeding by the roadside. Moorland Chats are everywhere, and the many pools often have wintering Green Sandpipers and Red-throated Pipits in attendance. Wattled Cranes breed up 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 Chough 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 can drift past. Yet, despite all these avian attractions, the star of today’s show may well be the elegant Ethiopian Wolf. This endangered canine clings to a fragile existence only here and in the Simien Mountains to the north. The wolf’s primary 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 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 9:  We’ll retrace our steps across the plateau, following the highest all-weather road in Africa. On the roof of this continent, the views can be breathtaking, especially as we leave the highlands.  We’ll descend into rich forest where we’ll have another chance to look for forest birds that 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, which we expect to reach during the late afternoon after a drive through superb landscapes of endless acacia woodland and dramatic valleys. Night in Negelle.

Days 10-11: In 1893 the Italian nobleman Prince Ruspoli collected a stunningly beautiful turaco somewhere in Ethiopia. Unfortunately the prince died—trampled to death by an elephant—before he could reveal the exact location of the exotic bird, 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 in the region to make sure we see it. Nearby can be found another endemic, although one nowhere near as colorful as the turaco. Liben Lark was also thought to be restricted to a tiny area in Ethiopia including the open grassy plains close to Negelle, but recently a few were discovered at a site in the north of the country. It is now thought to be the same species as Archer’s Lark known from Somali; regardless, it’s one of Africa’s rarest birds.  We’ll arrive early, hopefully to see the lark performing its display flight before we enjoy a cooked picnic breakfast out on the plain. We’ll then see what else we can find within this interesting habitat. The short grassland is very much to the liking of Somali Short-toed Larks, which can be very numerous here. 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, both Pallid and Montagu’s can be expected, 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 only really be seen 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 here, from Pacific Golden Plover to Collared Pratincole.

The road south leaves the plain and enters a 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 their nest hole in a termite mound, Three-streaked Tchagra, Foxy Lark, Black-headed Oriole, Shelley’s Starling, many Pied Wheatears, Boran Cisticola, Purple Grenadier, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Shelley’s Sparrow, and Somali Bunting. Nights in Negelle.

Day 12: Leaving Negelle, we’ll embark on a journey that takes us in a wide loop through the south of Ethiopia 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. Both, although not endemic, 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. There will be Pygmy Batis flitting around the trees, and feeding flocks could include Pringle’s Puffback, Somali Crombec, Yellow-vented Eremomela, and Northern Brownbul. Moving on, our road will take us through excellent habitat where 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 travelled too far before we’ll 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. The grounds of our lodge are an excellent place to see this bird as well as Donaldson-Smith’s and Sombre Nightjars and African Scops Owl. We may also find a Somali Galago bouncing around the trees. Night near Yabello.

Days 13-14: We’ll have all day to look for birds in the Yabello region. There is a group of species only found in the dry thorn scrub that extends down through eastern parts of Ethiopia and Kenya, and these species will be the focus of our attention during our stay here. These will include Short-tailed Lark, 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 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 on top of flat-topped acacias to keep cool. Recent studies have shown that the local race of Chestnut-naped Francolins is in fact a full species—Black-fronted Francolin—and we’ll devote some time looking for these. Nearby is another bird with a restricted range—the little-known Masked Lark—and we hope to spend some time looking for it on a remote open plain.  Nights near Yabello.

Day 15: Leaving Yabello early, we’ll travel due north. This will be a long drive, as the road is currently being rebuilt, and we can expect the extensive roadworks to slow our progress. We’ll enter one of the main Ethiopian coffee-growing regions—a lush, verdant part of the country—where we may see White-necked Stork, Ayers Hawk-Eagle, or Great Sparrowhawk along the way. By mid-afternoon we should reach Lake Awassa and our comfortable lodge on the lake shore. Our 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 lakeside vegetation for waterbirds such as Black Crake, dashing Malachite Kingfishers, the drab Lesser Swamp Warbler, and Thick-billed Weavers. 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 the main road to visit the eastern side of the lake and the spectacular Hara Langano Eco Lodge. Surrounded by towering trees and located on the lake shore, Hara Langano is a fabulous 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 Hara Langano Eco Lodge.

Day 17: Hara Langano offers exceptional accommodation as well as its abundant birdlife and wildlife, and we have allowed two nights to savor it. We’ll begin early, as 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 fantastic views of this colorful endemic. We’ll then enjoy a sumptuous breakfast, which will stand us in good stead as we have a walk ahead of us 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 alive with waterbirds, and in the surrounding farmland we’ll be keeping an eye open for Clappperton’s Francolin, Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, and Red-shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike. Night at Hara Langano Eco Lodge.

Day 18: There will be time in the morning to look for any species that 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 Nightjars and Greyish Eagle Owl, and we should also have time to make a return visit to Lake Zwiay. Later we’ll reach Addis and check into a hotel close to the airport. We’ll have access to dayrooms there ahead of our transfer to the airport later in the evening where the tour will conclude.  

Updated: 07 December 2018

Prices

  • 2019 Tour Price : $5,600
  • Single Occupancy Supplement : $480
  • 2020 Tour Price Not Yet Available

Notes

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

Questions? The Tour Manager for this tour is Erin Olmstead. Call 1-866-547-9868 or 520-320-9868 or click here to email.

* 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.

Note: For those wishing to visit some of the cultural and historical sites in the north of the country, such as the rock-hewn churches at Lalibela, we can arrange a pre- or post-tour extension. Please contact the WINGS office for details.

 

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