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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ethiopia: The Roof of Africa

2019 Narrative

Despite turning up in Ethiopia at the same time every year, things are never the same and you never know what you are going to find. We arrived this year to discover the effects of a prolonged rainy season – everywhere was incredibly lush and green, more so than I can recall seeing ever before. This promised that some birds at least would be in breeding plumage, and indeed many were.

Driving out of Addis through the ever-growing conurbation we were reminded just how much this country is changing. But we were soon into some birds, with endemic Blue-winged Geese at some pools that also held a breeding male Yellow-crowned Bishop. Other stops gave us a group of endemic White-winged Cliff Chats, and a brief Black Duck which pulled off an amazing vanishing act. Further on a small abattoir had an adjacent field full of various corvids, Yellow-billed Kites, a few Rüppell’s Vultures, which were joined by Lappet-faced and White-headed Vultures. A visit to the very edge of the Rift Valley gave us absolutely stunning views down into the valley but also superb views of the scarce Ankober Serin, as well as close encounter with Gelada Baboons.

Our day in the Jemma valley was worth the very early start and we all managed views of Harwoods Francolin, along with the more numerous Erckel’s Francolins. Our breakfast stop had a pair of Foxy Cisticolas right in front of us and this traditional birding spot gave us a variety of birds including the endemic White-throated Seedeater, Copper Sunbird, Yellow-fronted Canary, and Bush Petronia.

Down by the river some sharp eyes picked up a very distant perched bird of prey which we pretty much decided was a Fox Kestrel, something confirmed when it took off and was joined by another, the pair banking in the strong sunlight to reveal their bright reddish brown upperparts and long tails. There were also vivid Black-winged Red Bishops and Speckled-fronted Weavers in the roadside crops, some African Pied Wagtails on the river edge, and an African Harrier Hawk perched in a tree. Climbing out of the valley for the return journey to our hotel, we found some more endemics - a pair of Erlanger’s Larks right in front of us, and, after some searching, a couple of Abyssinian Longclaws.

Leaving the high country we dropped down into the Rift Valley heading for Awash National Park. The journey treated us to some awesome scenery as we descended into the Rift and various stops for birds produced a couple of Yellow-throated Seedeaters, Eastern Grey Plantain Eaters, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow Weaver, and as we approached Awash, a small group of Black-crowned Sparrowlarks, a surprise addition to the Sunbird Ethiopia list from further to the north.

There is no denying that Awash National Park is suffering from overgrazing from local tribal livestock. Despite that we picked up a single Arabian Bustard along with Kori and Buff-crested Bustards, Olive Bee-eaters, displaying male Long-tailed Paradise Whydahs, Gillet’s Lark, and Rosy-patched Bush Shrike.  Mammals were really scarce; a result no doubt of the influx of domestic animals, but we managed to find a few Sommering’s Gazelles and Beisa Oryx. There were some big mixed flocks of Red-billed Queleas, Chestnut Sparrows, and Cutthroat Finches, and staying out after dark gave us great views of Star-spotted Nightjars.

Exploring the area around the old Bilen Lodge we found Black Scrub Robin, Upcher’s and Menetries’s Warbler, and Nile Valley Sunbirds. Leaving Awash we made several stops on our way to Lake Langano. The first was by Lake Beseka where we found a couple of aptly-named Sombre Chats. We spent a while at Lake Zwiay, not only to enjoy a delightful al fresco lunch but also to scan for birds on the lake edge. There was a nice mix of herons, egrets and other water birds to look at – there were plenty of Great White Pelicans and Hammerkops in evidence, along with wintering White-winged Black and Whiskered Terns.

African Jacanas picked their way over the water plants, and vivid Malachite Kingfishers were joined by the much larger Pied Kingfishers while a few Northern Carmine Bee-eaters zipped over the water. A slightly rearranged itinerary took us from Langano down to Awassa. Here birding on the edge of the lake produced the hoped-for Spotted Creeper, along with Blue-headed Coucal, while the papyrus beds held Little Bittern, Allen’s Gallinule and Purple Swamphen. The fish market was buzzing with activity and we were treated to a fine Goliath Heron standing motionless in the reeds.

Leaving Awassa we set out on the long drive south to Yabello. The journey took us up out of the Rift Valley and through the verdant coffee growing region before dropping down to the drier countryside that surrounds Yabello. Here the acacia scrub is punctuated by towering slender termite mounds and the region presented us with a whole host of new birds. The two endemic stars of the region – Stresemann’s Bush Crow and White-tailed Swallow – both showed well and we went on to find the recently-split Black-fronted Francolin, Somali Courser, Ashy Cisticola, Tiny Cisticola, Northern Grosbeak Canary, Black-capped and Grey-headed Social Weavers, Banded Parisoma, and lots of Short-tailed Larks, to mention a few. Venturing further afield we visited another wide-open plain where we immediately found what we were looking for: a pair of Masked Larks which showed really well. Our changed itinerary allowed us to visit an area of woodland seldom looked at by birdwatchers and we were rewarded with an incredible group of 13 Prince Ruspoli’s Turacos, surely something of a record. Along the way we stopped for Hunter’s Sunbird, Yellow-vented Eremomela, Acacia Tit, and Pringle’s Puffback and on reaching the Dawa River we were treated to a very tame African White-winged Dove.

Negelle was an excellent base from which to explore the surrounding countryside. The Liben Plains gave us two Liben Larks, one which showed particularly well. We also picked up Temminck’s Courser, Collared Pratincole, and Somali Short-toed Larks here, along with many White-crowned Starlings. Birding in the ‘hidden valley’ of the Genale River we found some distant Juba Weavers on the other side of the river, but the Black-bellied Sunbird was more obliging, and we shared breakfast with a Pearl-spotted Owlet. We also enjoyed close encounters with a gang of White-crested Helmet Shrikes and the somewhat underwhelming Brown Rock Chat.  Elsewhere in this region we found three African Spoonbills, a group of Garganey, and a single White Stork at the small lake on the plains, both Pallid and Montagu’s Harrier, Black-chested Snake Eagle, Grey Kestrel, and Eurasian Hobby. Our bustard count for the area comprised of Kori, Buff-crested, White-bellied, and Hartlaub’s Bustards, and a Wahlberg’s Honeybird close to Negelle was a nice surprise.

The drive from Negelle to Goba took us through some amazing countryside and we made several stops, one being rewarded with a group of four Red-billed Pytilias, a normally shy bird that can be hard to find. Once we reached the Harrena Forest we found Yellow-bellied Waxbills, a single Black-and-White Mannikin, and a few Tambourine Doves feeding on the roadside. After hearing reports of many people not seeing Ethiopian Wolves this year on the Sanetti Plateau we were not hopeful. However, our fears were unfounded as we had fantastic views of a group of three – a welcome sight although there is no doubt that numbers of this beautiful creature are declining. The usual plateau suspects also put in an appearance with Ruddy Shelduck, Spot-breasted Lapwings, Black-headed Siskins, and the endearing Giant Root Rat, plus a variety of raptors including Lammergeier, Steppe Eagles, Augur Buzzards, and Lanner Falcon. Cinnamon Bracken Warbler showed well on the way down from the plateau, and a visit to the forest at the National Park headquarters gave us the hoped-for Abyssinian Long-eared Owl and African Wood Owl, although we needed to wait until the next day to catch up with Cape Eagle Owl.  Rouget’s Rails were surprisingly scare on the plateau but we caught up with a few close to Dinsho. A return visit to the forest here produced good views of Abyssinian Catbird, White-backed Black Tit, and Brown Woodland Warbler, as well as close views of Mountain Nyala and Menelik’s Bushbuck.

We ended our tour by returning to Lake Langano but this time the east side of the lake and the well-appointed Hara Lodge. Here we added to our owl list with a couple of African Scops Owls in the grounds, and the adjacent forest and flooded grasslands of the lakeshore gave us a rich mix of birds. Highlights included good views of Banded Barbet, Double-toothed Barbet, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Abyssinian Ground Thrush, Red-capped Robin Chat, and lots of Sharpe’s Starlings feeding in a fruiting fig tree with Slender-billed Starlings. There we numerous Silvery-cheeked Hornbills also enjoying the fig-feast and we played hide and seek with Narina’s Trogon while a female Red-shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike complemented the Black Cuckoo-Shrike seen the day before. Down at the lake edge there was a nice mix of waders including more Collared Pratincoles.

Our last day still had a lot of birds for us despite over two weeks in the country. We picked up about 20 Mosque Swallows on our way out of the lodge and a visit to another lodge, closed for refurbishment, produced three Clapperton’s Francolins, Greyish Eagle Owl, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl (making nine owl species for the tour), Masked Shrike, and White-winged Black Tit. Our lunch stop turned up a pair of Northern White-faced Scops Owls and a return visit to Lake Zwiay gave us a group of five Black Herons, up to six Hottentot Teal, and the hoped-for Black Crowned Cranes. A flooded field alongside the expressway held about 20 Common Cranes and a bunch of Southern Pochard and then before we knew it, we were back into Addis and the main tour came to an end.

Steve Rooke

Created: 06 January 2020