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Ethiopia Birding Tour 22 Dec 2007 5 Jan 2008,
The usual desire to get away from UK during the Christmas period coupled with an interest in new places and cultures led us to explore the possibilities of visiting Ethiopia. The country has a bird list exceeding 850 and also is home to 32 (+/-) endemics with additional splits occurring with some regularity. Our initial interest had been stimulated at the 2006 Bird Fair and this was magnified during discussions with Mark Sutton, who we met in Brazil, whose enthusiastic descriptions of the country and its birds encouraged us further. We were not to be disappointed.
The principal UK company with experience of organising birding trips to Ethiopia is Jenner Expeditions who had gained our interest in the first place. Just a few e-mails and amendments were required before a full-blown two week tour was agreed upon covering the UK school holidays in December 2007 & January 2008. All of the arrangements through this organisation were smooth and painless and I can recommend them wholeheartedly. Their ground arrangements were managed by Adonay Tours of Ethiopia through whom we were to meet our birding and tour guide Negussie Toye and his driver Mesfin. Everything on the ground was taken care of with professional ease, especially when problems inevitably occurred.
Initially we had arranged to fly to Addis with Lufthansa but they suddenly changed their schedules and cancelled our flights. Fortunately I was able to arrange alternative flights with KLM which, as well as proving to be cheaper also gave us an extra day in Ethiopia for which Jenner’s were able to extend our tour.
Flights cost £450 per person.
Tour cost £2110 per person including all hotels, food, driver, guide and a Toyota Landcruiser for the whole trip. We felt that this represented very good value for money.
All guiding was carried out by Negussie up until Dec 31st when Meseret Mekurea took over. Bird guides in Ethiopia are hard to come by and we were fortunate to have the services of two good guides such as these. Negussie was the consummate organiser as well as being an excellent bird finder and excellent company. He had an obvious aura of command that allowed him to dismiss inquisitive hordes of children with a single word, something that I was to discover was not so simple as it looked. Coupled with a tranquil disposition he was a pleasure to be with. Meseret was great company: a garrulous and very knowledgeable trained ornithologist who took on every bird search as a personal mission of discovery. Both guides were clearly anxious that we should both gain the maximum from our tour, which I believe we did. A final word must be reserved for our driver Mesfin who seemed to possess infinite patience coupled with unlimited stamina and about whom we shall always retain fond memories.
There is no single bird guide that covers Ethiopia alone nor one for NE Africa. We regularly referred to:
Birds of Africa South of the Sahara by Sinclair & Ryan (ISBN 1-868-72857-9) - this proved to be invaluable despite the misleading nature of some of the illustrations caused by attempting to present the most common forms of species that occur over a wide area and may show significant variation.
The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals - this is an excellent book for the complete beginner (and maybe beyond) who is interested in the mammal species that may be encountered from time to time.
Ethiopia – The Bradt Guide by Philip Briggs – not only does the authors love for the country shine through but he is also a birder and provides heaps of advice regarding sites and species. This book should be an invaluable companion for anyone visiting Ethiopia.
I bought a copy of the Cartographia map of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. This was about as much use as a 1:2,500,000 map might be but was woefully inadequate for anything other than general orientation. Thankfully Mesfin, our driver, coped admirably without needing any input from me. If a more detailed map is required then refer to the appropriate section in the Bradt guide.
Visas are readily obtained on arrival from UK. There is a simple form to complete together with a payment of $20 each – despite other advice it turned out that passport photos are unnecessary. The process was completed with customary Ethiopian politeness and charm.
Local currency is the only form of currency readily acceptable anywhere in Ethiopia other than the major hotels. It cannot be obtained in advance so it is best to change your money in the airport. Very few hotels outside of the capital will be able to change any money at all so it is best to get all that you need here. The rate when we were there was 10 birr to the dollar. Budgeting is quite difficult as prices really are very cheap with a beer typically costing 10 birr or less and a meal being available for 15 – 25 birr, although prices in Addis can be expected to be higher
All of our accommodation was arranged in advance, though not entirely successfully as we were to learn. The custom in Ethiopia is not to pay for accommodation in advance but to settle your bills on departure. However, where you do pay in advance then your rooms will be guaranteed. This would not normally be a problem but may be in holiday periods.
Do not expect high class tourist style hotels as you won’t find them apart from one or two in Addis. Do expect hotels with distinctive character and genuine warmth and friendliness, as experienced throughout the country. Anyone who has been on birding holidays off the beaten track will find all of the hotels that we used quite acceptable and some were very comfortable indeed. All offer en-suite accommodation if required (not always an African preference) and most had hot showers. Many of them are referenced in the Bradt guide but just for additional information:
Ghion Hotel, Addis Ababa – part of the government owned chain of hotels and popular with tour groups. It is very comfortable with good facilities and grounds, well situated for the airport and access to the city. It has a fairly comfortable bar but the restaurant isn’t as good as it seems to think it is and I would recommend the bar snacks as preferable.
Bekelle Molla Hotel, Lake Langano – a fairly rustic hotel with a lively character in an excellent setting. The rooms are in bungalows that are fairly basic but comfortable enough. A very good restaurant was complemented by a lively bar and attentive service.
Wabe Shabelle Hotel, Goba – another part of the government chain of hotels providing very comfortable rooms in an almost empty hotel. The restaurant served a set menu that was simple but tasty enough and the bar was very comfortable.
Green Hotel, Negele Borena – described as very basic and indeed it was but for a couple of nights it is bearable and can be perversely enjoyable. It has no restaurant but food can be cooked by arrangement. A splendid outdoor bar is complemented by Ethiopian jazz music over the PA and is wonderfully atmospheric.
Hagere Miriam Hotel, Hagere Miriam – a motel style hotel with good clean rooms and great showers, just when really needed. Once more there was an outside bar and restaurant with a really great atmosphere, excellent food and cheaper than might possibly be imagined.
Pinna Hotel, Awassa – this is a very good hotel with excellent and comfortable rooms and a classy restaurant, bar and bakery alongside.
Wabe Shebelle Hotel, Wando Genet – this hotel was an amazing contradiction offering excellent rooms and facilities in wonderful surroundings with obliging staff, yet having one of the worst restaurants that we encountered on the trip. The design of the restaurant has to be seen to be believed, owing much to Russian architecture of the early 70’s. The food that we were offered was clearly believed to be something superior with veal schnitzel, beef in gravy etc on the menu, yet it was virtually inedible when presented largely due to the quality of the meat. On the one lunchtime that we were there they “only” had Ethiopian food available, which was excellent; thereby lies a simple lesson. The rooms are very good with really a nice terrace to sit on and watch the birds and animals passing by. Their outstanding feature is the showers that are fed directly from the hot spa and are simply exhilarating.
Liesak Guest House, Debre Zeit – once more this is a very good hotel with a modern feel lacking only in the absence of a bar or a restaurant. Debre Zeit has plenty of bars and restaurants, however and this is really no particular drawback to a most comfortable hotel.
Ethiopian food was a revelation for us being completely different from anything we had experienced in Africa before; it is also plentiful despite what we may have expected. Wherever possible eat local food and ignore any pseudo-European offerings. A dish of wat complete with injera will have you coming back for more every time. Also recommended are tibs and kitfo, although make sure the latter is cooked not raw.
Ethiopian coffee really is the best that I have ever tasted, and I generally drink very little of the stuff. When made properly it will have been roasted and ground fresh before brewing and is quite different from any other that I have tasted. Tea is also readily available for those who prefer it. Bottled water is available everywhere. Alcoholic drinks are very cheap with local beers being very tasty, especially when available on draught, and local gin being very acceptable. I believe that local “speciality” spirits are to be avoided, which we did.
We took mosquito nets and plenty of Malarone with us as advised. In two weeks we saw two mosquitoes – the first was dead and the second soon followed it. This was due to a combination of the time of year and mostly being at high altitude. In some places where we stayed mosquito nets were provided so they are clearly a problem at other times of the year.
For the less well-equipped hotels loo roll, a hand towel and soap will come in handy. As usual we had too many clothes – as long as it didn’t smell too much then it was fine seemed to be a rule of thumb; many of the roads are very dusty so you’ll soon get dirty again.
Mobile ‘phone coverage was patchy for us and texting is barred within Ethiopia for security reasons. This left us cut off from the outside world for two weeks, which on balance was preferable. Most hotels have a decent power supply so electronic gadgets, batteries etc can easily be recharged. Do not forget your camera – Ethiopia is a very photogenic country in so many ways.
A ‘scope and tripod is vital on the grasslands, mountains and lakes. Mine had more use than on almost any other previous birding trip.
(Note – where species are referred to bold indicates an endemic (and life bird) and underline indicates a life bird for us.)
Sat 22nd Dec
After an overnight stay at a formulaic airport hotel in Manchester a 3.30 a.m. rise saw us presenting ourselves for check-in at 4.00 a.m. along with scores of other optimistic travellers. Jeannine’s constant concerns regarding KLM (after a couple of problems many years ago) were once again dispelled as we were efficiently ticketed through to Addis Ababa. An unremarkable flight got us to Amsterdam on time and subsequently on board the onward flight. Unfortunately the temperature in Amsterdam at that time was -7oC which meant that traffic was moving slowly and all aircraft had to be de-iced before take-off resulting in a 1 hour delay.
The trip to Addis Ababa via Khartoum was comfortable and pleasant enough, and the crew had managed to make up 30 mins by the time we finally landed. We only had the rigours of Ethiopian bureaucracy to deal with then we would be rolling. We needed to obtain visas, change travellers cheques into local currency, collect our luggage and make our way through passport control and immigration. This whole process took just 25 minutes, which was astonishing and couldn’t be equalled in the UK I’m sure.
We were met by our guide Negussie and driver Mesfin and efficiently transferred the short distance to the Ghion Hotel where we had a quick beer before crashing out at midnight ready for our early start the next day.
Sun 23rd Dec
An early breakfast was followed by piling into the car and heading off towards Debre Libanos. On the way we stopped off at the Solouta plains and their associated grasslands which was an excellent place to begin our experiences of Ethiopian birds. One of the first things that was noticeable was that, in general, the birds were very confiding allowing not only very good views but excellent photographic opportunities to those who are so inclined. In my case, unfortunately, I had only recently treated myself to a new camera and so hadn’t become conditioned to being in a permanently photographic mode; hence I have no shots of this area. Suffice it to say that amongst the birds that we did see here and along the way were White-collared Pigeon, Wattled Ibis, Nianza Swift, Cape Crow, Botta’s Wheatear, Isabelline Wheatear, Pied Wheatear, Ortolan, Erlanger’s Lark, Red-throated Pipit, Spot-breasted Plover (our only sightings of this species), Abyssinian Longclaw, Black-headed Siskin, Groundscraper Thrush, Mountain Thrush, Brown-rumped Seedeater, Alpine Chat, White-winged Cliff-chat, Ethiopian Cisticola, Pectoral-patch Cisticola, Lanner, Steppe Buzzard, Black-winged Lapwing, Thekla Lark, Swainson’s Sparrow, Streaky Seedeater, Yellow Bishop, Augur Buzzard, Red-billed Oxpecker, Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Cinnamon Breasted Bunting, Blue-winged Goose, Yellow-billed Duck, White-backed Vulture and Ruppell’s Vulture. Jeannine’s sharp eyes picked out an African Quail-finch in a nearby ploughed field, which was an excellent spot and the only sighting of this species during the whole trip.
We pushed on towards Debre Libanos gorge which we accessed through a small motel cum coffee shop/restaurant on its edge. The views were quite spectacular and stimulated much photo taking. Care was needed whilst scrambling around as there were some quite precipitous drops in unexpected places. Before taking a most welcome lunch we were able to notch up Mocking Cliff Chat, Willow Warbler, Fan-tailed Raven, Red-rumped Swallow, Northern Wheatear, Rock Martin, Lammergeier, Verreaux’s Eagle on a nest with young, Thick-billed Raven, Ruppell’s Black Chat and Egyptian Vulture. A troop of Gelada Baboons were then seen on the nearby escarpment and, whilst good views were obtained they continued to be wary of any attempted approach so photography wasn’t possible.
A lunch of sega tibs (lamb chops on the menu but actually spicy chopped lamb) with injera was a tasty introduction to proper Ethiopian food.
We retraced our journey a little, encountering a feeding group of Geladas which included a couple of impressively marked males. The dominant one was a fine specimen who consistently refused to allow clear shots to be taken of him by subtly manoeuvring his body to be just facing in the wrong direction at all times. Moving on we then took the turning down towards the Debre Libanos Monastery, a fairly unedifying area but with surprisingly rich bird life in the nearby woodland. In particular White-cheeked Turaco are reasonably common and like to drink from a running pipe nearby (a useful photographers stake-out) that is used as a washing place for locals. Other birds encountered here included Mountain Thrush, Baglafecht’s Weaver, Tropical Boubou, Speckled Mousebird, Banded Barbet, Montane White-eye, Tacazze Sunbird, Variable Sunbird, Ruppell’s Robin-chat, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Slaty Flycatcher, African Paradise Flycatcher, Brown Woodland Warbler, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, African Dusky Flycatcher, Black Cuckooshrike, Common Bulbul, Hooded Vulture, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Hemprich’s Hornbill, White-rumped Babbler, Lemon Dove, Abyssinian Woodpecker, Nubian Woodpecker, Black-winged Lovebird, Northern Puffback, White-billed Starling, Lesser Honeyguide and Pallid Harrier. On the drive back to Addis a couple of brief stops added Black-shouldered Kite and Three-banded Plover to the list.
A modest over-priced dinner was followed by a sound sleep.
Day 1: 97 species and 31 lifers and 14 endemics.
Mon 24th Dec
An early start seemed to catch the restaurant staff unawares and after eventually having an ordinary breakfast we set off south heading towards the Rift Valley. We stopped at Melka Konture, an important archaeological site where many of the earliest fossils of hominids had been found. Being somewhat Philistine in outlook we preferred to concentrate upon the bird life which was fairly rewarding: Dusky Turtle Dove, Indigo Bird, Blue Rock Thrush, Ethiopian Black Wheatear, Helmeted Guineafowl, Common Crane in flight, Laughing Dove, Barn Swallow, Pied Crow, Red-eyed Dove, Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Common Fiscal, Gull-billed Tern, Mocking Cliff-chat, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Montagu’s harrier, Red-tailed Rock Thrush, Common Kestrel, Sand Martin, Red-billed Oxpecker, Namaqua Dove, Northern Black Flycatcher, Little Rock Thrush, Reichenow’s Seedeater, Long-crested Eagle, Red-cheeked Cordonbleu, Chiffchaff and Ruppell’s Starling.
Another enjoyable lunch of injera and kai wat was taken at a restaurant in Butajira before we moved on, stopping at various grasslands in the valley and finding the following: Wattled Starling, Red-billed Firefinch, Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Striped Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Woodchat Shrike, Lesser Kestrel, Rufous-crowned Roller, Little Grebe, Sacred Ibis, Wire-tailed Swallow, Mountain Wagtail, Plain-backed pipit, White-browed Sparrow-weaver, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-lark, Black-crowned Plover, Black-billed Wood-hoopoe, Maricco Sunbird, Yellow Wagtail, Bearded Woodpecker and Cut-throat.
We moved on through the town of Ziway towards Lake Ziway and its fishing jetty. This is about as touristic as it gets in this part of Ethiopia, which isn’t much thankfully, but rowing boat rides etc were being offered together with plenty of kids scavenging in general. Scraps of food and fish are often scattered around which leads to most birds being very confiding, resulting in the irresistible temptation to take lots of photographs. Thanks be to the development of digital photography and the money that it must have saved me!
We stayed around this site for some time and amongst the species that we recorded were: Grey Heron, Lilac-breasted Roller, Little Bee-eater, Marabou, Great White Pelican, Hamerkop, Black-headed Gull, African Darter, Long-tailed Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Bronze-winged Jacana, Wood Sandpiper, Black Crowned Crane, Squacco Heron, Western Marsh Harrier, White-winged tern, African Fish Eagle, White Wagtail, Spur-winged Plover, Ruff, Woodland Kingfisher, Village Weaver, Grey-backed Fiscal, Superb Starling, Fork-tailed Drongo, Orange-bellied Parrot, Black-chested Snake-eagle, African Pygmy Falcon, White-bellied Go-away Bird, African Grey Flycatcher, Red-billed Hornbill, Hoopoe and Black-capped Woodpecker.
We then moved on to the Hotel Bekelle Molla on the shores of Lake Langano where we caught the sunset and watched a Slender-tailed Nightjar flitting over the restaurant whilst enjoying an evening beer.
Day 2: 94 species, 169 trip total, 39 lifers.
Tues 25th Dec
A traditional christmas morning was enjoyed with a pre-breakfast walk amongst the acacia woodland beneath the cliffs alongside the hotel, and this proved to be quite rewarding. As well as seeing a number of species of birds we also encountered numerous Warthogs and spotted a lone Caracal making its way along the cliff. Birds in and around the woodland included: Mocking Cliff-chat, Hadada, Tawny Eagle, Little Rock Thrush, Tropical Boubou, Rufous Chatterer, Marico Sunbird, Swainson’s Sparrow, Spectacled Weaver, Slate-coloured Boubou, Vitelline Masked Weaver, Black-cheeked Waxbill, Red-breasted Wryneck, Boran Cisticola, Masked Shrike, Saker Falcon, Rattling Cisticola, Cardinal Woodpecker, Red-fronted Barbet, Black Bishop and Red-faced Crombec.
A good breakfast (eggs again) was followed by a visit to the Abiata-Shala National Park. Although a NP this area is quite degraded and extensively settled by cattle-grazers limiting the main interest to the lakesides and one or two areas of thin woodland. Close by the viewpoint, which is populated by a small horde of children attempting to sell souvenirs we searched for any obliging passerines and were quite surprised to come across a confiding Three-banded Courser which allowed excellent close views as well as amateurish attempts at photography. Other birds in this area included: Van der Decken’s Hornbill, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Striped Kingfisher, African Collared-dove, Buff-bellied Warbler, Brubru, Northern White-crowned Shrike, Little Weaver, Northern Masked Weaver, Black-headed Batis, White-headed Buffalo-weaver, Mouse-coloured Penduline Tit, Reichenow’s Seedeater, Green-backed Eremomela, Wattled ibis, Abyssinian Ground-hornbill and Hemprich’s Hornbill. The occasional Ostrich proved to belong to the local farm so had to be left off the list much to my chagrin.
Lunch was taken at the Wabe Shabelle hotel, also on the shore of Lake Langano and from the balcony here we were able to pick out Lesser Black-backed Gull, Grey-headed Gull, White-winged Tern, Little Grebe, Marabou, Common Sandpiper, and a Heuglin’s Gull loafing on the water. In the grounds were Black-billed Barbet, Red-fronted Barbet, Masked Shrike and Fork-tailed Drongo.
We then moved on to the shoreline at the northern end of Lake Abiata. This is a saline lake and salt was being harvested slowly and laboriously by a number of local women and children. The lakeside provided ideal conditions for flamingos and we weren’t to be disappointed. A number of bird species were present including both Greater and Lesser Flamingo, the latter in the great majority, Gull-billed Tern, Ruff, Common Sandpiper, Kittlitz’s Plover, Little Stint, Temminck’s Stint, Little-ringed Plover, Great White Pelican, Little Egret, Northern Shoveler (in their hundreds), Pallid Harrier, Marsh Sandpiper, Montagu’s Harrier and Red-knobbed Coot. Also seen in and around the woodlands near this area were Great Spotted Eagle, Pygmy Falcon, African Paradise Flycatcher, White-winged Black Tit, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Egyptian Vulture, White-backed Vulture and Common Redstart.
Pre-prandial drinks were once again accompanied by a display from the Slender-tailed Nightjar, with dinner and another comfortable night to follow.
Day 3: 98 species, 216 trip total, 49 lifers
Wed 26th Dec
A long journey awaited us today so a prompt start was required – eggs for breakfast again, then on the road to Shashamene for provisions and fuel. These having been obtained we bade farewell to tarmac roads and headed off towards the Bale mountains and Goba.
The road here was very difficult mainly due to the fact that it was being widened and improved by numerous international agencies, so we had to get around long stretches of road works, often involving driving off-road. Naturally this also meant that any opportunities for birding along the way were zero. The consolation is that in a couple of years this road will be really very good. Eventually we hit open country and drove and birded our way along for many hours, taking a picnic lunch on the way – plenty of eggs again, the birders staple. Habitations outside of the few small towns were scarce yet a phenomenon peculiar to Ethiopia began to dawn upon us. No matter where we stopped, even in the bleakest of places where we had seen no signs of humanity for ages, as soon as we got out of the car and looked through our binoculars there would be a small group of children standing alongside, having appeared as if from out of the earth. These kids were no problem simply looking on with inquisitive interest as to why these folk had come to their favourite bleak escarpment to gaze at the skies through tubes.
A roadside pool provided sightings of African Black Duck, Yellow-billed Duck and Gull-billed Tern, and later a halt at a local stake-out produced excellent views of Cape Eagle owl as well as first views of Red-winged Starlings.
Overall the journey took 8 hours on the road and covered some 200km before reaching Goba and the Wabe Shabelle hotel. Along the way we had also encountered Great Spotted Eagle, Bare-faced Go-away Bird, Tawny Eagle, Long-crested Eagle, Thick-billed Raven, Red-throated Pipit, Black-winged Lapwing, Augur Buzzard, White-collared Pigeon, Somali Crow, Groundscraper Thrush, Eastern Black-headed Oriole, Ruppell’s Robin-chat, Buff-breasted Warbler, Grey Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Ruppell’s Vulture, Mottled Swift, Egyptian Vulture, Rouget’s Rail, Thekla Lark, Rock Martin, Blue-winged Goose, Stout Cisticola, Black-headed Siskin, Chestnut-naped Francolin, Little Sparrowhawk, Alpine Swift and Black Stork amongst many others. On the steady descent towards Goba we were surprised to see a lone Simien Wolf which ambled along steadfastly ignoring us and eventually crossing the road a short distance ahead of the car. This provided a number of opportunities for snaps which clearly showed the array of ear tags that it was carrying as a part of the monitoring programme for this seriously threatened species.
We checked into our rooms in the Wabe Shebelle hotel where a decent dinner was washed down with a couple more relaxing beers in a comfy bar with a loudly hectoring TV as the only drawback.
Day 4: 59 species, 232 trip total, 54 lifers.
Thurs 27th Dec
Today we were to visit the Sanetti Plateau along the highest all-weather road in Africa which allowed us to depart a little later due to its height (4200+m) and the accompanying low temperatures keeping most animals fairly inactive until the sun took effect. Thick fleeces and woolly hats are highly recommended for this part of the tour. Having stocked up with breakfast eggs and a picnic lunch we headed up the steady climb out of town. We stopped at a mid-point near Dinsho (?) where an area of trees and cultivation provided shelter for the birds and eventually managed to track down our quarry, the endemic Abyssinian Catbird. The bird could be heard but was proving very elusive, although we did get great views of Abyssinian Ground-thrush and another endemic, White-backed Tit, as we searched. Eventually the bird did give acceptable views and then, as always proceeded to display out in the open once we had clinched it. As well as a Tawny-flanked Prinia, Abyssinian Woodpecker and Ruppell’s Robin-chat a near endemic Bale Parisoma then emerged to provide our hat-trick within 40 minutes. We pressed on to the plateau which is an impressive sight being quite windswept and fairly barren, yet managing to support quite a number of animals. Numerous small rodents, rats or gerbils of some sort, could be seen scurrying into their holes as we passed and later we encountered a small number of Giant Mole Rat poking their heads out of their burrows. These various rodents were the main food source for the wolves and it wasn’t too long before we encountered a lone female loping along, clearly hunting, and whilst giving us a wide berth was generally taking very little notice of us.
We stopped off at a number of places including some small pools in the vain hope of finding spot-breasted lapwing or wattled crane. We did, however, see Streaky Seedeater, Chestnut-naped Francolin, Moorland Francolin, Hooded Vulture, White-backed vulture, Rouget’s Rail (everywhere), Botta’s Wheatear, Black-headed Siskin, Wattled Ibis, the ubiquitous Alpine Chat, Stout Cisticola. Lammergeier, Augur Buzzard, Pintail, Shoveler, Blue-winged Goose, Yellow-billed Duck, African Snipe, Lanner Falcon, Steppe Eagle, Golden Eagle, Red-billed Chough, Long-legged Buzzard and Marsh Sandpiper. The encounter with Golden Eagle was quite spectacular providing incredible close-up views that couldn’t be readily obtained elsewhere, and then the bird landed alongside three Steppe Eagles to compare and contrast. Once again, and even up here, small numbers of Ethiopian children acting as goatherds would appear from nowhere in what must have been a most inhospitable climate.
On our descent towards Goba we paused at a couple of promising sites and added to the list with Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Chiffchaff, Black-winged Lovebird, Brown Woodland Warbler and Tacazze Sunbird. Although the day hadn’t produced a long bird list the Sanetti Plateau is a fabulous place to visit and the brief sightings of wild wolves were priceless. We finished the day with another reasonable dinner and a couple more beers.
Day 5: 44 species, 244 trip total, 63 lifers.
Fri 28th Dec
A cool and misty start to the day saw us making an early departure en route to Negele, some 280km away on dirt roads, which eventually took some 10.5 hrs of driving by the seemingly inexhaustible Mesfin.
Our return to the Sanetti Plateau was an anticlimax with it being largely shrouded by low cloud and as a result very cool and devoid of birds or mammals with the exception of a Green Sandpiper, Greenshank and solitary Marsh Sandpiper looking somewhat lost near the summit. We finally emerged into sunlight then embarked on the tortuous descent eventually passing through the fascinating Harena Forest. Before reaching here we had good views of Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk for which this area is renowned. Lots of mammals were seen hereabouts with numerous groups of Salt’s Dikdik as well as Warthogs and a lone Bush Pig that scampered across the road. Birds appeared to be relatively scarce in this heavily wooded area although many more would certainly have been found with more careful exploration.
We paused for coffee, and in my case an exciting encounter with local sanitation, in Dola Mena before pressing on through fairly uninspiring countryside. This soon gave way to wooded hills and valleys however and a pleasant enough journey was interspersed with our lunch break together with frequent stops to look at and for birds. We stopped for some time at a site called Boubou(?) where Ruspoli’s Turaco was frequently found, but for us there was no site of this enigmatic bird, nor many others for that matter. Negussie was a little disconcerted with this but said that we would search hard for them the next day. The Turaco has normally been sought alongside the Genale River close to the town by the same name, but this has involved a 4km hike through rough terrain and has not always been successful. The small but growing band of bird guides in Ethiopia have put a lot of effort into finding new sites and this seems to have proven successful. The birds do skulk, unlike some of their cousins, and feed actively so that it is often a case of finding sources of appropriate fruit that leads to the bird. Unfortunately very little is known about their feeding habits (or any others) so this can be a little hit and miss.
Before eventually arriving at the dusty town of Negele Borena we had managed to see a fair number of species amongst which were: Chestnut-naped Francolin, Brown Saw-wing, White-billed Starling, Dark-capped Bulbul, Northern Brownbul, Variable Sunbird, Black & White Mannikin, Silvery-cheeked Hornbill, Fork-tailed Drongo, Black-crowned Tchagra, Black Flycatcher, Steel-blue Whydah, Lesser-striped Swallow, White-crowned Helmet-shrike, Red-headed Weaver, Golden-breasted Starling, Grey-headed Batis, Violet-backed Starling, Vitelline Masked Weaver, Shelley’s Starling, Red & Yellow Barbet, Slate-coloured Boubou, Black-billed Wood-hoopoe, African Ring-necked Dove, Magpie Starling, Red-billed Buffalo-weaver, Rufous-crowned Roller and Pallid Flycatcher.
We finally arrived at the Green Hotel which fully lived up to its description as “very basic”, but it was also the best in the town by a long chalk, so we just got on with it. Negussie arranged with a local lady to obtain and cook some food for us which, when it arrived, was great and went down nicely with still more bottles of local beer served as always by friendly and enthusiastic waiters.
Day 6: 59 species, 263 trip total, 68 lifers
Sat 29th Dec
In order to get to the key Ruspoli’s site that Negussie knew we needed to leave early, replete with an egg breakfast as usual. We headed North on the Kibre Mengist road aiming for the site at around the 55km mark. We spotted many birds from the car during the journey but we were focussed upon this key species for now. Our journey came to a fairly abrupt halt, however, when two Prince Ruspoli’s Turacos suddenly flew across the road in front of us and we hurriedly evacuated the car in hot pursuit. We could see the birds briefly flicking through the trees although they were very elusive, but eventually we could see where they had taken up position from where they we flying out to feed briefly before zipping back. Patience and silence proved worthwhile as more confiding views were gained; they seemed to be completely silent which would make finding them even more difficult at this time of year, so we were all very pleased with this find. In total there were 6 birds to be seen and, shortly after returning to the car one was seen to fly across the road ahead of us and perch up in a nearby tree, feeding greedily and giving excellent views. [I don’t know if this site has a name but it was at 40.6km N of Negele Borena (or 10km N of Bitata) on the Kibre Mengist road.]
We had no need to proceed further north so turned around and ambled back to the hotel, birding opportunistically along the way. Amongst the other species that we saw that morning were Tawny Eagle, African Thrush, Feral Pigeon, Crowned Plover, Black-billed Wood-hoopoe, Shelley’s Starling, White-bellied Bustard, White-crowned Shrike, Wattled Starling, African Harrier Hawk (or Gymnogene), Orange-breasted Bush-shrike, Violet-backed Starling, Grey-headed Batis, Greater Honeyguide, Slate-coloured Boubou, Brown Snake Eagle, White-headed Vulture, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Red & Yellow Barbet, Grey-headed Bush-shrike, Yellow-spotted Petronia, Dusky Flycatcher, Ruppell’s Weaver, Tree Pipit, Golden-breasted Starling, Red-throated Crombec, Black-headed Batis, Bateleur, Red-headed Weaver, Lesser Whitethroat, Northern Puffback and Rosy-patched Bush-shrike. Its encouraging to see what you can find when you’re focussed on seeking out one specific bird.
Mid-day was getting quite hot so we took ourselves back to the hotel for some light refreshments and tasty wat misto, and then rested up until it was cool enough in mid-afternoon to venture out once more. We visited the grasslands near to Route 44, close to the army compound, to look for larks and more. Generally birds were present only in small numbers but the quality was excellent. Hundreds of hirundines were arranging themselves along the wires close by, with their customary to-ing and fro-ing and presenting some identification challenges initially. The large majority were Lesser-striped Swallow with Barn Swallow and Wire-tailed Swallow also well represented. Close study eventually revealed two White-tailed Swallows, a primary target further South, as well as a couple of Ethiopian Swallows which kept the trip list ticking along quite nicely.
Larks were our main objective around here however and we proceeded to walk across the grasslands in line abreast seeking out any slight movement. Isabelline Wheatears were once again present causing numerous false alarms. We had been joined by three curious boys who were clearly amused by what we were doing and one of them pointed out a bird in the grass. Unexpectedly this ran out to reveal itself as a Temminck’s Courser, which was a pleasant surprise, and then proceeded to give confiding views. Eventually Jeannine’s eagle-eyes spotted something in the long grass and after much confusion and bickering (par for the course) we got the scope on the general area and searched. Slowly but surely a Sidamo Lark revealed itself, showing the short rufous tail clearly but with the head markings being quite difficult to see. We had long views of the bird, which is notoriously spooky, and then started to search the rest of the grassland. This effort was highly unproductive with no signs of the short-toed lark anywhere so we returned to the car and back to the hotel for a cold beer. Other birds that were seen included Cyprus Wheatear, Plain-backed Pipit, Rufous-tailed Rock-thrush, White-crowned Starling, Red-tailed Shrike, Desert Cisticola, Taita Fiscal, Grey-capped Social-weaver, Reichard’s Seedeater, African Open-bill, and Spur-winged Plover.
Before dinner we returned to this area and scoured around a small local lake in search of nightjars, but completely in vain, and we wondered whether the completely moon-free sky had any part to play in this. Walking through scrub thickets at night by the light of a torch is an experience not to be missed, however. We ended the day with more good food, cold beer and a further night of luxury.
Day 7: 69 species, 293 trip list, 77 lifers.
Sun 30th Dec
Another long journey awaited us today with the 300km transfer to Yabello so a prompt start was required following the welcome, if obligatory, eggs for breakfast. The journey was quicker than might have been anticipated thanks to a very new road that passes through Wach Tie to Route 6 some 12km north of Mega, with the trip up the R6 also being quick. Even so the journey took 9+ hours including stops.
Along the way we stopped at a number of places as opportunity presented itself getting good sightings of African Grey Hornbill, Yellow-necked Spurfowl, White-crowned Starling, Kori Bustard, Gabba Goshawk, White-browed Coucal, Yellow-billed Hornbill, Grey Wren Warbler, D’Arnaud’s Barbet, Pale Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Pygmy Batis, Northern Grey Tit, Black-throated Barbet, Golden-breasted Starling, African Pygmy Falcon, Shelley’s Starling and Cyprus Wheatear amongst other more regular species. We later stopped at a “roadhouse” in Melka Guda for locally brewed coffee then proceeded to the bridge over the Dawa River. This river provides a belt of water through hot and arid land acting as a magnet for birds and birders alike, the latter in the hope of picking up a couple more specialist species. One of these which is allegedly virtually guaranteed, Juba Weaver, was nowhere to be seen despite the extensive time that we spent searching. In fact the heat of the day was clearly keeping many birds down but we did manage to connect with Dodson’s Bulbul, Namaqua Dove, Blue-naped Mousebird, Yellow Bellied Eremomela, Green-winged Eremomela, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Village Weaver, Baglafecht’s Weaver, Black-billed Wood Dove, Emerald-spotted Wood Dove, Lanner Falcon, Green Heron, White-winged Turtle Dove, Green Sandpiper, Bateleur and Black-capped Social-weaver.
On the rest of the journey we managed to see Vulturine Guineafowl in very large numbers with one flock of 30+ birds, Ruffle-crowned Starling, Shelley’s Rufous Sparrow, Streseman’s Bush-crow, Abyssinian White-eye, Hunter’s Sunbird, Maricco Sunbird, Somali Crombec, Tawny Pipit, White-rumped Babbler, Somali Fiscal, Three-streaked Tchagra, Gillett’s Lark, Tawny Eagle, Buff-crested Bustard and Brown Saw-wing. There were no White-tailed Swallows, nor any others, to be seen anywhere so our single sighting at Negele had been quite fortuitous as it turned out.
Tired and fairly dusty we arrived at the Yabello Motel ready for a shower and a drink. Clearly today was a busy day with large trekking groups making their way out of Addis for the holiday weekend and when we went to collect our keys we found ourselves the victims of some enterprising Ethiopian capitalism. The manager claimed that our office had rung to cancel the rooms the previous day so they had been let to someone else. This was patently nonsense and the obvious scenario was that she had been offered a better price by someone else, so took it. The kindly driver of another group volunteered to give us his room but this had no bathroom and, after two days in Negele it became obvious that it was unacceptable to Jeannine. Despite having driven all day in demanding conditions Negussie and Mesfin declared that we would head north to Hagere Miriam, only another 110km away!
Thankfully road conditions were good and the traffic fairly quiet as we made our way north. We had already seen all of the expected target species for the area so hopefully lost nothing in that account (we did learn later that there was a new site for Degodi Lark 80km south of Yabello, but we wouldn’t have known that even if we had stayed) which made the transfer even more logical, if only we could find accommodation over what was proving to be a very busy weekend. Negussie then pulled an iron out of the fire by managing to contact the owner of a hotel in the town, who was actually in Addis at the time, and getting him to pull some strings to make a room available for us when we arrived two hours later. This had been a heroic drive by Mesfin who then had to find some accommodation for himself nearby. Never has a clean room and refreshing shower felt more welcome! As it turned out this was an excellent place to stay in a lively and friendly town with the hotel facilities being really very good and the food excellent again. A restful night followed a hectic and rewarding day, thankfully.
Day 8: 67 species, 323 trip total, 86 lifers.
Mon 31st Dec
As we were now well north of our original schedule we could take our time in transferring to Awassa and the very comfortable Pinna Hotel. This part of the R6 road passes through intensively agricultural areas that offered no real opportunities for birding and where there was the road was so busy to make it quite hazardous.
We reached the shoreline of Lake Awassa which is quite extensive very interesting with lots of birding opportunities, but it also gets very hot around the middle of the day so I needed to take some care. Herons and Marabou were everywhere together with many watchful Vervet monkeys and hordes of Willow Warblers. The shoreline was particularly active with the commonly seen waders and many gulls, largely Grey-headed. The main attraction for many of the birds is the local fish market but for many others it was obviously the proliferation of insects, and for these we seemed to be acting as the main bait. During the course of our prolonged visit the presence of many Yellow Wagtails (whose races we gave up attempting to separate) became more and more obvious. They could eventually be seen flying in large flocks across the lake, obviously on migration, and arriving in numbers that were in the thousands; I have never seen so many wagtails in one place before in all of my life.
Past the area where the fish market is held is quite a small reed-bed with a number of shallow pools and on each of our visits to this area it proved to be very productive. Patient scrutiny of the reeds revealed the presence of a number of gallinules with Common Moorhen in some abundance. Eventually two African Purple Gallinules showed themselves and, whilst we were watching them an Allen’s Gallinule crept into view to be complemented minutes later by two Black Crakes strutting by. On the reeds a number of Bronze Manikins fluttered about and a Lesser Swamp Warbler then gave very confiding views. Other birds seen there included Silver-cheeked Hornbill, Hooded Vulture, White-backed Vulture, Common Stonechat (of the albofasciatus black-breasted race), Augur Buzzard, Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Red-headed Weaver, Rufous Chatterer, Banded Barbet, Saddle-billed Stork, Woodland Kingfisher, Spur-winged Goose, Intermediate Egret, White Wagtail, Wattled Starling, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Bruce’s Green pigeon, Spectacled Weaver, Nubian Woodpecker, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Peregrine Falcon and Pallid Harrier.
That evening we met Meseret who would be taking over bird-guiding duties from Negussie, who had to return home to deal with family matters.
Day 9: 72 species, 339 trip total, 90 lifers
Tues 1st Jan
To all birders the first day of the New Year means a new year list to get off to a flying start and we are no exception, so we were eager to ensure that we didn’t overlook those species that might have seemed to become common. We bade a fond farewell to Negussie who had looked after us splendidly so far and passed into the tender mercies of Meseret. Thankfully he was very keen to please as well as being a good birder and bird finder (a necessary attribute where I am concerned).
We spent the first part of the morning around the shores of the lake once more, where Yellow Wagtails continued to be everywhere. Jeannine’s keen eye quickly picked out a Spotted Redshank on the shoreline to get us off to a good start and the usual subjects cranked up the list in double quick time. We made our way around to the reed-fringed area once again and it continued to provide some good birds as well as additions to the list. The gallinules and crakes showed themselves well once more, much to Meseret’s delight and then we had a flurry of “brown jobs” amongst the reeds that took us some minutes in sorting out. There were thousands of Willow Warblers in the general area as well as wagtails, and they were also present here, but clearly standing out were a Chiffchaff, Lesser Whitethroat, Savi’s Warbler, Eurasian Reed Warbler, Great Reed Warbler and Upcher’s Warbler, all seen well and quite confiding, as well as a Blue-naped Coucal. This was quite an exciting half hour as might be imagined. We eventually tore ourselves away and searched the rest of the grounds for suitable targets, adding Blackcap to the warbler list on the way. Before rejoining the car and rehydrating we also connected with Common Sandpiper, Spur-winged Plover, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Ruppell’s Starling, Bronze Manikin, Common Waxbill, Rufous-throated Wryneck, Black Flycatcher, Abyssinian Woodpecker, Double-toothed Barbet, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Grey Woodpecker and Scaly Babbler.
Once refreshed we headed north once more, pausing at the Awassa River bridge on the edge of town where we saw Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Great Egret, Hottentot Teal and Augur Buzzard amongst others. Along the road we stopped (hazardously) a couple of times to add Black-headed Heron, Grey-backed Fiscal and Cape Crow to the list. Eventually we passed through Shashamene once again following the road to Wando Genet where we checked into the Wabe Shebelle forest lodge, which offered very comfortable accommodation in magnificent surroundings. Here we were going to be trying to track down a few specialist species aiming for quality rather than quantity.
After lunch and a short rest we undertook a fairly long hike in the hills accompanied by a local guide. The environment was really very nice although obvious signs of increasing deforestation were around. Despite being told that the areas were probably going to be replanted the presence of groups of workers taking accurate measurements with theodolites suggested otherwise. The clear highlight was eventually hearing then catching glimpses of Yellow-fronted Parrot. A patient wait of half an hour eventually produced good ‘scope views of the head and chest, but this is a seriously elusive bird. Also seen were Great Sparrowhawk, Tambourine dove, Mountain Buzzard, Grey-backed Camaroptera, African Grey Flycatcher, Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike, Spotted Flycatcher, Thick-billed Raven, Abyssinian Ground Thrush, Collared Sunbird, Thick-billed Weaver, White-cheeked Turaco and Mountain Wagtail. A speciality of this area is semi-collared kingfisher which we searched for just before dusk around the stream and swimming areas. Despite the entertainment of various challenging and original approaches to crossing streams we continued to draw a blank as far as the bird was concerned.
A couple of very pleasant drinks were accompanied by some truly awful pseudo-European food then followed by a sound nights sleep. (I like to read outside for an hour or so before going to bed, enjoying the local and natural sounds, and was just a little disconcerted when a Spotted Hyena strolled past within 2m of me, giving me barely a glance as it passed. These are surprisingly large animals close to and have a fearsome reputation and it was only as it ambled past that I realised what it was.)
Day 10: 102 species, 357 trip list, 96 lifers
Weds 2nd Jan
Morning found us up at first light in search of the difficult to find kingfisher. The likely target areas were visited first only to find that work was going on to divert the water flow and scare of any bird within miles. We then tried a number of other areas but without any signs of success we gave up and returned for breakfast. Suitably replete we returned to the hills for another lengthy and enjoyable trek. Birds were few and far between but when they were found were all the better for that. After a couple of hours we finally tracked down our main target Narina Trogon, which isn’t vocal at this time of year so extremely difficult to find. Only the detailed knowledge of the local guide got us to the probable territory and eventually good views of the bird were obtained.
Ethiopian Orioles were abundant as were Dusky and Slaty Flycatchers and every small bird seemed to turn out to be willow warbler. An African Harrier Hawk, Steppe Buzzard and another Great Sparrowhawk livened up things a little before the heat of the day forced us back to the hotel by 11.00.
The weather was hot that a leisurely lunch was in order, this time of Ethiopian food and actually very good, before some rest until the heat had died away sufficiently to allow more birding. Much of this time was spent enjoying the antics of the silvery-cheeked hornbills that occupied many of the trees and were indulging in much boisterous bickering. We searched around a number of sites still hoping to find the elusive kingfisher, including a partially-built plant for bottling water where we were surprised to encounter a pair of Woolly-necked Storks. On returning empty-handed we turned a corner and the guide had the briefest of glimpses of our target bird speeding away along an excavated ditch. Despite spending much time around here scouring every cranny we were out of luck this time, leaving with one more gap on our list.
More welcome cold drinks and awful food followed.
Day 11: 42 species, 366 trip list, 98 lifers
Thurs 3rd Jan
Our holiday was rapidly coming to a close but there were still many birds waiting to be seen. Jeannine tends to hit the “birding wall” around this stage and this trip was no exception, so my enthusiasm had to be sufficient for both of us. We left the lovely surroundings of Wando Genet and slowly made our way towards Debre Zeit (Bishoftu) with stops along the way. Lunch was taken at the excellent Ziway Tourist Hotel, of which special mention must be made. They offered an extensive and tempting menu all at very reasonable prices (of course) which were quite the best that we had on the trip, and many had been very good indeed. A visit here for lunch or dinner comes with my hearty recommendation.
Most notably we revisited the quay at Lake Ziway for further close-up views and photo-opportunities. Along the main road we had many opportunities for stops as birds were sighted including Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Pallid Harrier, Montagu’s harrier, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Common Buzzard, Lilac-bellied Roller, Black-chested Snake-eagle, Black-billed Wood-hoopoe, Black-tailed Godwit, Banded Martin, African Citril, Little Ringed Plover, African Snipe, Glossy Ibis, Three-banded Plover, White-faced Whistling Duck, Plain-backed Pipit, African Spoonbill, Common Crane, Kittlitz’s Plover and Goliath Heron.
We meandered into Debre Zeit late in the afternoon and settled in for one night at the very comfortable Liesat Guest House Minor panic set in when we discovered that they didn’t have a bar but a five minute amble down the road soon overcame that difficulty.
Day 12: 91 species, 378 trip list, 99 lifers
Fri 4th Jan.
This was to be our last night in Ethiopia so we intended to make the best of the day’s birding opportunities. After a good and early breakfast we caught the morning light on the edge of Lake Chaleklaka which gave excellent wildfowl watching with rafts of birds gradually becoming visible as the sun got up. Amongst the species were many ducks in large numbers as well as some in small parties. Amongst the birds seen were Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Tufted Duck, Red-billed Quelea, Red-knobbed Coot, Little Grebe, Southern Pochard, Whinchat, White-backed Duck, Red-billed Teal, Cape Teal, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Red-throated Pipit, Sedge Warbler, Maccao Duck, Vitelline Masked Weaver, Black-crowned Crane, Black-headed Heron, Greater Flamingo, Western Marsh Harrier and White Stork.
We then attempted to access Lake Kiroftu but this appeared to be almost totally enclosed by private resort developments so we gave it a miss and moved on to Lake Hora which offers good woodland edge birding as well as useful amenities. Here we had a really good couple of hours searching through the trees and seeing hundreds of birds including African Citril, Common Redstart, Red-billed Firefinch, Hemprich’s Hornbill, Common Fiscal, Northern Masked Weaver, Abyssinian White-eye, Black-billed Barbet and hundreds of Willow Warblers. Pink-backed pelicans were on the water and a couple of waders frequented the shore together with an elusive warbler that remained a mystery to return to one day.
For lunch we went to Dreamland which overlooks yet another of the areas lakes, this time Lake Bishoftu to allow us more gentle perusal of the regular water birds while we had our meals. The day was getting even hotter so we made our way slowly back to Addis Ababa and its massed traffic, with a fortunate sighting of an Abdim’s Stork along the way ending up as our final trip tick of the tour. We made our farewells with Meseret and the stalwart Mesfin and settled in to the Ghion Hotel once more for our final night.
Day 13: 51 species, 388 trip list, 100 lifers.
Sat 5th Jan
Our final day was an anticlimax from our own choosing as we had been offered a cultural tour of the city for the day but declined in favour of simple rest. Given the impending holiday (Ethiopian Christmas) this turned out to be wise as the streets were choked with traffic for most of the day. A little gentle birding around the hotel revealed two endemics, Wattled Ibis and Black-winged Lovebird in the grounds as a pleasant farewell.
An evening transfer to the airport was followed by a comfortable and uneventful return to the UK via Amsterdam, accompanied by many happy memories.
Our trip was quite experimental from our viewpoint as we had only met one person who had been to Ethiopia before; hence it was also quite exciting. Our preconceptions of the country were wildly wide of the mark and we were positively delighted with the experiences that we had, as always some better than others. I had gone with the hope of seeing around 350 species and, thanks to fairly extensive visits to Kenya in the past had only hoped for about 60 new ones. To see 390 species well, including 25 endemics, and to gather in another 100 lifers to my meagre list was quite exceptional. To also return with treasured memories of a truly remarkable country was an immeasurable bonus.