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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ethiopia: The Roof of Africa

2018 Narrative

Leaving the traffic and attendant pollution of Addis behind us, we began our journey to Debre Birhan. As this was the very first day there were lots of things to look at, including some of our first endemics with some obliging White-winged Cliff Chats and Blue-winged Geese taking pride of place. From Debre Birhan we ventured out along the edge of the mighty Rift Valley to look for Ankober Serin, one of many range-restricted endemics we were to see on the tour. It took two visits to catch up with this, but the impressive Gelada Baboons and a dance troop provided some distraction on the first visit!

The wonderful Jemma Valley is always an impressive sight to behold. After some anxious moments we were soon ‘scoping a fine Harwood’s Francolin, its call competing with that of the nearby Erckel’s Francolins. Elsewhere on the edge of this massive gorge we saw endemic Rüppell’s Black Chat, Abyssinian Black Wheatear, and White-billed Starlings. Our time down in the bottom of the valley gave us a great selection of birds including a surprise Egyptian Plover on the river edge. The small stream where we stopped for the first of many field breakfasts was alive with birds. Black-faced Firefinch was a highlight here, and other notable birds included Black Stork, Grey Kestrel, Vinaceous Dove, Grey-headed, African Pygmy, Pied, and Malachite Kingfishers, White-throated Seedeater, Bush Petronia, Yellow-fronted Canary, and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. Leaving Debre Birhan we travelled to Ankober and from there dropped down the impressive Rift Valley escarpment to look for the endemic and range-restricted Yellow-throated Seedeater, which we found along with a few other special birds such as Eastern Grey Plantain Eater. Retracing our steps we moved on to Nazaret and from there into the dark and inhospitable areas of volcanic pumice around the base of the Fantale volcano. Here we found the aptly named endemic Sombre Chat, along with Blackstarts, Striolated Bunting, Shining and Nile Valley Sunbirds, and Mouse-coloured Penduline Tit. The large Lake Besaka held a good number of birds including a single Saddle-billed Stork, Yellow-billed Storks, and Purple Heron, while Madagascar Bee-eaters zipped around us picking off dragonflies.

Visits to the Aledegge Plains, the area around the now defunct Bilen Lodge, and Awash National Park itself produced a succession of great birds. The plains were alive with Arabian Bustards – we managed to count 15 in the end, some of which were decorated with Northern Carmine Bee-eaters. Somali Ostrich, perched Lappet-faced Vultures, Grasshopper Buzzards, Black-headed Plovers, and Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks were some of the other highlights out in this open habitat. Searching the scrub around the old Bilen Lodge we found the target species of Yellow-breasted Barbet, Black Scrub Robin, and Ménétriés’s Warbler, as well as Black-throated Barbet and gaudy Abyssinian Rollers. We discovered Awash National Park to be full of cattle and goats, more so than I have ever seen before. This reflected just how dry it had been in the surrounding area and birding in the Park was not easy as a result. However Gillet’s Lark showed very well, as did Buff-crested Bustard, Red-fronted Warbler, numerous Somali Fiscal Shrikes, Grey-headed Bush-shrike, Eastern Paradise and Straw-tailed Whydahs, Grey-headed Batis, and Rosy-patched Shrike.  Wild mammals had largely deserted the Park but we did manage to find a few Beisa Oryx and some Soemmerring’s Gazelles.

Heading down the Rift Valley we stopped at Lake Zwiay where there was a wealth of waterbirds to keep us occupied with Black Heron worthy on mention, as was the stop at a strawberry farm for freshly made smoothies. The first of two lodges on the shores of Lake Langano turned up Slender-tailed and Freckled Nightjars at dusk and some superb views of Clapperton’s and Crested Francolins the next morning, along with a plethora of hornbills, Striped Kingfisher, Black Scimitarbill, Red-fronted Barbet, Black-winged Lovebirds, Cardinal Woodpecker, Mocking Cliff Chat, Little Rock Thrush, and Little Weavers. The long drive up into the Bale Mountains was broken by a stop at Dinsho where a walk in the woods gave us a bit of an owl fest with African Wood, Cape Eagle and Abyssinian Owls all showing well – there was also a Montane Nightjar thrown in for good measure.  The highlands were very productive for us with the surrounding forest and farmland holding such delights as masses of Wattled Ibis, Abyssinian Woodpecker, Abyssinian Catbird, White-backed Black Tit, and Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, while a brief roadside Serval was a real surprise.

Once up on the Roof of Africa we marvelled at the wonderful scenery and plant life and enjoyed great looks at some lone Ethiopian Wolves. There were flocks of endemic Black-headed Siskins and Spot-breasted Plovers, and eventually everyone caught up with the elusive Giant Root Rats. Other highlights up here included a pair of Wattled Cranes in flight, numerous Rouget’s Rails, and some close Moorland Francolins, as well as plenty of raptors. Leaving the plateau behind we entered the lush Harrena Forest where birds ranged from the massive African Crowned Eagle to the tiny Abyssinian Crimsonwing. En route to Negelle we had our first encounter with Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco, which followed on nicely from seeing White-cheeked Turaco’s earlier in the day. We had two full days to explore the varied habitats around Negelle. It took a long walk on the vast Liben Plains to locate the Liben Lark, one of Africa’s rarest birds, and other species found on this grassy expanse included Kori Bustards, Montagu’s Harriers, Somali Short-toed Lark, Plain-backed Pipits, and numerous White-crowned Starlings. Nearby there was a huge Martial Eagle on the ground grappling with an equally huge snake, and a nice selection of waders including some Collared Pratincoles.

Travelling further south we found the rather smart Salvadori’s Seedeater after some searching and elsewhere in the Negelle area we located African Hawk Eagle, Hartlaub’s Bustard, Coqui Francolin, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Red-and-yellow Barbets, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Shelley’s Starling, Black-bellied Sunbird, Shelley’s Sparrow, Northern Brownbul, Brown-tailed Rock Chat, Somali Crombec, Juba Weaver, and smart Chestnut Weavers to mention a few. A group of White-winged Widowbirds was something of a surprise as we rarely record this species on the tour. A return visit to the tradional Prince Ruspoli Turaco site paid off as we had our best views yet of this stunning bird. The journey to Yabello took us via the Dawa River where we had another excellent field breakfast. The flowering acacia trees here were alive with birds and included Pygmy Batis, Yellow-vented Eremomela, Pale Prinia, Pringle’s Puffback, Red-naped Bush-shrike, and Vitelline Masked and Lesser Masked Weavers.  A pack of Vulturine Guineafowl was one of the highlights of the rest of the journey, and as we neared Yabello we found our first Stresemann’s Bush Crows. 

We had a bird-filled day amongst the plains and hills south of Yabello. The day started with the recently described Black-fronted Francolin showing well over breakfast, along with trees dripping with several species of starling. This was followed by some amazing raptor passage as we found ourselves surrounded by Lesser Kestrels and Steppe Eagles. Further highlights included two seldom seen species - Walhberg’s Honeyguide, and Grey-headed Silverbills, along with Somali Courser, Foxy and Short-tailed Larks, Bare-eyed Thrush, Spotted Palm Thrush, Banded Parisoma, Chestnut Sparrows, Purple Grenadier, Black-capped Social Weavers, and Northern Grosbeak Canary. The other special bird of this region, White-tailed Swallow also performed really well for us with a group of about 15 zipping around, and perching in, the acacia trees close to our lodge.

Heading north we reached Awassa and our comfortable lakeside accommodation. Here we found Spotted Creeper without too much trouble, and other highlights included African Pygmy Geese, Great Sparrowhawk, loads of Black Crakes, Allen’s Gallinule with young, Blue-headed Coucal, Brown-throated Wattle-Eye, and Red-faced Cisticola. It was also a great place to look at and be looked at by Guereza Colobus.

Having missed out on Half-collared Kingfisher earlier in the tour, we decided to swing by Wondo Genet for lunch, a move that paid off as we had fantastic views of the kingfisher there, along with a very obliging Lemon Dove. Our final destination was the very comfortable Haro Lodge. A wonderful walk in the nearby forest produced some great birds including Double-toothed and Banded Barbets, African Olive Pigeon, another Lemon Dove, Scaly-throated Honeyguide (on a day that also included Greater and Lesser Honeyguides), Red-capped Robin Chat, Abyssinian Ground Thrush, Green Twinspot, Narina’s Trogon, and some very close Heuglin’s Coursers. Highlights around the lodge included Senegal Thick-knees, roosting African Scops Owls, Giant Kingfisher, Black Scimitarbill, Red-shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike, White-winged Black Tit, and Ruppell’s Weaver, while nearby the lake shore was alive in places with waterbirds and waders.

Heading back to Addis a detour through Abiata Shala National Park gave us lots of distant flamingos, some much nearer Temminck’s Coursers and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, a group of wintering Stone Curlews, and a very smart White-headed Vulture sitting on the ground. We had lunch overlooking an impressive volcanic crater lake at Debre Zeit but our last stop, Lake Chalalaca was a real disappointment as we found excessive water extraction had reduced it to a mere shadow of its former self, although the hundreds of Marabou Storks seemed still find the place to their liking. And then it was back to Addis to check into a hotel for a few hours, a final meal and departure for flights home.

Created: 07 January 2019