BEST OF ETHIOPIA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Best of Ethiopia: Day 1 Our tour begins this morning at Addis Ababa. This famous African city, commonly referred to simply as Addis, is situated on the flanks of the Entoto Mountains at an altitude of 2400m, and Marabou Stork, Yellow-billed Kite, Hooded and White-backed Vultures, Dusky Turtle Dove and Pied Crow are likely to be amongst the birds we see within the city limits.
We shall drive out of the city and onto high plateau country en route to Debre Birhan for a two nights stay. This high altitude country is a traditional mixture of pasture, hay meadows and grain fields. Small ‘tukul’ villages of the thatched-roofed, earthen-walled houses that are so typical of Ethiopia dot the landscape and robed shepherds stride across the uplands while tending their livestock.
Along the way, we should have our first chance to see such endemics as Blue-winged Geese and Wattled Ibis feeding in the moister pastures. Other new species during the journey are likely to include Augur Buzzard, Speckled Pigeon and Cape Crow.
This afternoon we will visit the lip of a massive and spectacular escarpment that overlooks a vast section of the upper reaches of the Blue Nile drainage system. The scenery here is truly awesome. The star avian attraction here is the localized endemic Ankober Serin, first described as recently as 1976, which typically inhabits the steep slopes but also often visits flatter areas adjacent to the clifftops while feeding or drinking. The precipitous cliffs are also home to the impressive Gelada Baboon and we should encounter a troop of these handsome primates as they forage along the cliff tops, while Rock Hyraxes sun themselves on the cliff faces.
Other birds we are likely to find this afternoon include the endemic White-collared Pigeon, Erlanger’s Lark and Ethiopian (or Black-headed) Siskins, and the near-endemic Brown-rumped Seedeater, as well as the restricted-range Moorland (or Alpine) Chat and Red-breasted Wheatear, plus Thekla Lark, Fan-tailed Raven and Streaky Seedeater.
Best of Ethiopia: Day 2 Today we must be up very early in order to find the exceedingly localized endemic Harwood’s Francolin. The birds call in their restricted habitat zone along the escarpments of the upper Blue Nile drainage at first light and afterwards, so this is the best time of day to locate them.
We are in for a real scenic feast today at the Jemma Valley as we look down from an immense escarpment out over a huge basin complete with lower ridges and large, well-watered valleys. Now this truly is what one imagines the ‘Roof of Africa’ should be like!
Amongst the other specialities that we are likely to encounter on the escarpment are such endemics and near-endemics as Erckel’s Francolin, Rüppell’s Black Chat, White-winged Cliff Chat, Ethiopian Cisticola and White-billed Starling, as well as the striking Fox Kestrel and Abyssinian Wheatear (which becomes a near-endemic if Schalow’s Wheatear is treated as a distinct species).
Down in the lower parts of the valley we will be concentrating on the near-endemic Red-billed (or Lineated) Pytilia, while other good birds include Half-collared Kingfisher, Blue-breasted Bee-eater (here of the form lafresnayii, sometimes split as Ethiopian Bee-eater), the pretty little Foxy Cisticola, Stout Cisticola, the near-endemic Swainson’s Sparrow, the restricted-range Rüppell’s Weaver and the endemic Yellow-rumped (or White-throated) Seedeater.
Additional species of particular interest that we have a first chance to see at the Jemma Valley include Bearded Vulture (or Lammergeier), which may be seen sailing past at close range, the restricted-range Black-billed Wood Hoopoe, the restricted-range Hemprich’s Hornbill, the near-endemic Ethiopian Boubou and the restricted-range Shining Sunbird. We could also come across the striking Verreaux’s Eagle.
There are many other birds to be found in the Jemaa Valley and its surroundings, but all are widespread and we can expect to see them elsewhere during the tour, so it is important to focus today on the specialities that we really need to see here and not be distracted by these less significant species during our first full day in the field.
Widespread birds we may well encounter for the first time today include Egyptian Goose, Yellow-billed Duck, African Sacred Ibis, Western Cattle and Little Egrets, Grey Heron, Hamerkop, Rüppell’s Vulture, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Common Kestrel, Spur-winged Lapwing, Three-banded Plover, Common Greenshank, Green and Common Sandpipers, Red-eyed, Laughing and Namaqua Doves, Nyanza Swift, Grey-headed and African Pygmy Kingfishers, African Grey Hornbill, Black-billed Barbet, Northern Puffback, Northern Fiscal (which was formerly lumped with Southern Fiscal under the name Common Fiscal), African Paradise Flycatcher, Common Bulbul, Brown-throated and Rock Martins, Wire-tailed and Red-rumped Swallows, Common Chiffchaff, Singing Cisticola, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Abyssinian White-eye, Greater Blue-eared (and possibly Lesser Blue-eared) Starling, Red-winged Starling, Groundscraper Thrush, Abyssinian (or Mountain) Thrush, Common Redstart, Little and Blue Rock Thrushes, Mocking Cliff Chat, Northern, Isabelline and Pied Wheatears, Variable Sunbird, Bush Petronia, Speckle-fronted, Vitelline Masked and Village Weavers, Northern Red, Black-winged Red and Yellow Bishops, Red-collared Widowbird, Cut-throat Finch, Red-billed Firefinch, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Crimson-rumped Waxbill, Village Indigobird, Pin-tailed Whydah, Western Yellow, Grey and Mountain Wagtails, African (or Grassland), Long-billed, Tree and Red-throated Pipits, Yellow-fronted Canary and Ortolan and Cinnamon-breasted Buntings.
Best of Ethiopia: Day 3 Today we will descend into the Great Rift Valley as we head for Lake Langano for a two nights stay.
We will stop along the way for some birding at Lake Zwai. At this superb spot, African Fish Eagles soar overhead or utter their distinctive yodelling calls from prominent perches. Pied Kingfishers hover over the water surface and tiny Malachite Kingfishers cling to the papyrus stems, while emergent vegetation provides suitable habitat for Black Crakes and handsome African Jacanas balance on the floating lily pads. Where the local fishermen bring their catch ashore we can watch remarkably tame Marabou Storks and Hamerkops. Flocks of Great White Pelicans are frequently present.
Other birds we may well find at Lake Zwai (or elsewhere in the Rift Valley) include Fulvous and White-faced Whistling Ducks, Spur-winged Goose, Knob-billed Duck, Red-billed and Hottentot Teals, Yellow-billed Stork, Squacco and Purple Herons, Great and Intermediate Egrets, Glossy Ibis, Pink-backed Pelican, Reed (or Long-tailed) Cormorant, African Darter, Western Marsh Harrier, the superb Black Crowned Crane, Black-winged Stilt, Black-tailed Godwit, Marsh and Wood Sandpipers, Little Stint, Ruff, Collared Pratincole, Grey-headed, Black-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Whiskered and White-winged Terns, and Sand Martin (or Bank Swallow). There is a good chance of seeing Black Heron here, and we may see one shade the water with its wings held in characteristic umbrella fashion, while from time to time we turn up a Lesser Jacana, an Allen’s Gallinule or even a Lesser Moorhen at Zwai or one of the other wetlands we visit in Ethiopia.
Best of Ethiopia: Day 4 At Lake Langano we shall explore the attractive acacia woodland, open areas and thickets, and some beautiful groundwater forest that features many large fig trees. The lake itself holds fewer waterbirds than most other major Rift Valley lakes.
There is a rich suite of specialities in this area, including such endemics and near-endemics as the gorgeous White-cheeked Turaco, the raucous Yellow-fronted Parrot, the pretty little Black-winged Lovebird and White-rumped Babbler. Other special birds include the restricted-range Clapperton’s Francolin, the sought-after Red-throated Wryneck and the uncommon and localized White-winged Black Tit.
Other species we may well find in the Langano area include Southern Pochard, Saddle-billed Stork, African Harrier-Hawk, Gabar Goshawk, Ring-necked, Tambourine and Lemon Doves, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Speckled Mousebird, the lovely Narina Trogon, Black Scimitarbill, the huge and somewhat grotesque Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Silvery-cheeked and Von der Decken’s Hornbills, Red-fronted and Yellow-fronted Tinkerbirds, Bearded Woodpecker, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Green-backed Honeybird (uncommon), Western Black-headed Batis (formerly lumped in Eastern Black-headed and called Black-headed Batis), Slate-coloured Boubou, Grey-backed Fiscal, Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike, Black Saw-wing (the form here is sometimes split as Brown Saw-wing), Common House Martin, the smart Rüppell’s Robin-Chat, Red-capped Robin-Chat (uncommon), Common (or Rufous-tailed) Rock Thrush, Northern Crombec, Willow Warbler, Rattling Cisticola, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Buff-bellied Warbler, Eurasian Blackcap, Northern Black Flycatcher, Red-billed Oxpecker, Marico and Beautiful Sunbirds, Baglafecht, Little and Lesser Masked Weavers, Black-cheeked Waxbill, Black-and-white Mannikin and African Citril. We also have a good chance of finding a roosting Greyish Eagle-Owl. Scaly Francolin, Western Banded Snake Eagle and Green Twinspot also occur here, but can be tricky to see.
Mammals are likely to include Olive Baboon and the splendid Guereza (or Eastern Black-and-white Colobus) with its shaggy mane and long shaggy tail.
Providing time permits, we shall also pay a short visit to Lake Abiata, a shallow soda lake surrounded by sparse acacia scrub. Abiata is notable for its thousands of Lesser and Greater Flamingos. Amongst the shorebirds and other waterbirds present at the lake, we can expect to see Pied Avocet, Kittlitz’s Plover and Gull-billed Tern.
Best of Ethiopia: Day 5 After some early morning birding at Lake Langano we shall soon leave the Rift Valley and climb steadily upwards through the southeastern highlands to Goba for a two nights stay. Our journey will take us across the montane grassland, where we will stop to look for Red-chested and Grey-rumped Swallows, and then, as we climb higher, we enter juniper woodland before reaching the moorlands of the Bale Mountains. We will also stop at regular sites for African Black Duck and Red-knobbed Coot.
We shall break our journey at the Bale Mountains National Park headquarters at Dinsho, where we will see our first Bale birds and mammals. The magnificent Bale Mountains National Park was set up to protect two endemic mammals, the Gedemsa (or Mountain Nyala), which is found nowhere else, and the Ethiopian Wolf. The park is also home to fourteen of Ethiopia’s endemic birds and offers superb birding opportunities in the Afro-alpine moorlands and highland forests.
Here we shall be searching in particular for roosting nightbirds, thanks to the skills of our remarkable local guide, and these are likely to include the impressive Cape Eagle-Owl (the local form and others are sometimes split as Mackinder’s Eagle-Owl), the poorly-known Abyssinian Owl and Montane Nightjar, and quite possibly also African Wood Owl and Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl.
We can also be sure of seeing the beautiful Gedemsa or Mountain Nyala, the last of the African big game species to be discovered, and the attractive endemic Ethiopian Highlands (or Menelik’s) Bushbuck. All the mammals here are very approachable and the Common Warthogs are positively fearless.
Best of Ethiopia: Day 6 Today we shall drive close to the summit of the Bale’s highest peak, Tullu Deemtu (4377m), as we cross the Sanetti Plateau, by way of the highest all-weather road in Africa, where the spikes of giant lobelias punctuate the moorland like huge exclamation marks. Elsewhere the rolling grasslands are interspersed with patches of juniper, tree-heath and Hagenia woodland, whilst at the foot of a dramatic escarpment lies the still extensive Harenna Forest.
A high priority will be sighting the red coat of an Ethiopian Wolf against the grey moorlands. (Interestingly the latter, which used to be called Simien Fox, was thought to be either a fox or a jackal, but genetics have shown it is actually more closely related to the wolves and coyotes.) We should get good views of this signature species, in spite of the fact the population has declined in recent times owing to infection from canine distemper brought in by domestic dogs. As in so much of Ethiopia, human encroachment in the Bale is an ever-increasing threat to the area’s wonderful wildlife.
We should also be able to watch the strange, buck-toothed endemic Giant Root-Rat feeding at the entrance to its burrows, while numerous Blick’s Grass Rats and other rodents scamper across the moorlands. Other likely mammals include Bush Duiker, Ethiopian Klipspringer and the endemic Ethiopian Highlands (or Starck’s) Hare.
Among the avian endemics and near-endemics we shall be concentrating on here are the perky Rouget’s Rail, the attractive Spot-breasted Lapwing, Chestnut-naped Francolin, Abyssinian Woodpecker, Ethiopian (or Abyssinian) Oriole, Abyssinian Catbird, Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher, White-backed Black Tit and Abyssinian Longclaw, as well as the restricted-range Moorland Francolin (which becomes an Ethiopian endemic if Elgon Francolin of East Africa is treated as specifically distinct) and Abyssinian Ground Thrush. We should also come across the Bale form of the Brown Parisoma, which is occasionally split as Bale Parisoma.
Other birds we shall be looking for include Steppe Eagle, Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, African Snipe, African Olive Pigeon, Dark-capped Bulbul, African Stonechat, African Dusky Flycatcher, Cinnamon Bracken and Brown Woodland Warblers, African Hill Babbler, Montane White-eye, Slender-billed Starling, the localized Sharpe’s Starling, Tacazze Sunbird, Abyssinian Crimsonwing, Yellow-bellied Waxbill and Yellow-crowned Canary. Two mainly Palearctic species, Ruddy Shelduck and Red-billed Chough, breed here, with Ethiopia representing their only Afrotropical outpost. Less common raptors include the magnificent African Crowned Eagle, Long-crested Eagle, Golden Eagle (rare here at its only sub-Saharan outpost), Black (or Great) Sparrowhawk and Mountain Buzzard.
Best of Ethiopia: Day 7 We shall return to the Sanetti Plateau for some final birding and wolf-spotting today before descending into the Harenna forest for further exploration. Afterwards we continue southwards through the farmlands and areas of juniper and broad-leaved forest of the remote mountains of Sidamo until we reach the remote town of Negelle for a two nights stay.
Around the Genale River we enter prime habitat for the endangered endemic Ruspoli’s (or Prince Ruspoli’s) Turaco. By carefully checking the large fruiting figs we should come across this stunning and charismatic creature (which we can also see around Negelle itself). The turaco has a fascinating history as its discoverer, the Italian Prince Eugenio Ruspoli, was killed in 1893 by an elephant that he had shot at and wounded. He died before he could describe the turaco’s location (the type specimen was discovered in his baggage) and the species was not rediscovered until the 1940s.
Best of Ethiopia: Day 8 From our base at Negelle we shall explore a vast open area of grassland surrounded by acacia and Commiphora bush and low stands of whistling thorn. The more common grassland species are Plain-backed Pipit and the restricted-range Somali Short-toed Lark, but our main target, the rare and skulking, near-endemic Archer’s Lark will take more searching for. The population of the latter in this area was formerly treated as specifically distinct under the names Liben or Sidamo Lark. We shall make good use of the early morning as the Archer’s Larks (which one of our leaders heard the local reserve guard referring to as ‘The Very Running’!) will almost certainly be most active while it is still cool. (We may see one or more in display flight, but more likely we will have to walk some way before we track one down as it scurries along looking for its breakfast.) We should also find Black-winged and Crowned Lapwings, the restricted-range Somali Crow (or Dwarf Raven) and Pectoral-patch Cisticola, and we have a reasonable chance of coming across Temminck’s Courser and possibly even Caspian Plover.
The surrounding bushland is favoured by three restricted-range species – Shelley’s and White-crowned Starlings, and Shelley’s Sparrow, as well as Speke’s Weaver.
Other important birds we shall be seeking out in the Negelle region include the endemic Salvadori’s Seedeater as well as such restricted-range specialities as Dodson’s Bulbul, Boran Cisticola and Bristle-crowned Starling.
Species of wider distribution include Grey Kestrel, Yellow-necked Spurfowl, Kori Bustard, White-browed Coucal, Lilac-breasted Roller, Red-and-yellow Barbet, Orange-breasted (or Sulphur-breasted) and Grey-headed Bushshrikes, Black-headed Oriole, Northern Brownbul, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Red-faced Crombec, Yellow-breasted Apalis (the form here is sometimes split as Brown-tailed Apalis), African Thrush, Violet-backed Starling, Purple Grenadier, Reichenow’s Seedeater and the handsome Somali Bunting.
Best of Ethiopia: Day 9 Today we will travel from Negelle to Yabello for a two nights stay. Along the way, we should find three restricted-range specialities, White-winged Collared Dove, Somali Crombec and Yellow-vented Eremomela, along the banks of the Dawa River. A fourth such species, Juba Weaver, is also possible.
We will also have the opportunity to make stops in the acacia and Commiphora bushland and more open grassy areas typical of this dry southern region of the country. This will give us our first chances for the many restricted-range specialities that occur in the broader region around Yabello.
Best of Ethiopia: Day 10 This interesting part of Ethiopia has an avifauna broadly similar to that of northern Kenya, but in addition is home to three endemic species that are found only here in Sidamo province.
The discovery of the extraordinary Stresemann’s Bushcrow, described in 1938, represents one of the most remarkable ornithological events in Africa and we shall be eagerly looking out for our first party of these strange birds that recall starlings as much as corvids. Nowadays they generally favour areas where cattle roam (although once it must have been wild ungulates) and it is fascinating to follow the birds as they wander along turning over dried cowpats with their long bills in their search for juicy invertebrates.
The second star-endemic attraction of the area is the enchanting White-tailed Swallow, which was first described in 1942 from the small town of Mega by Con Benson, then a British Army officer posted there during the successful campaign to throw out the invading Italians from Ethiopia. The species favours more open bushland with tall termite hills, which are favoured nest sites along with culverts and even local houses.
Lastly, the extremely localized and endangered endemic Black-fronted Francolin (a recent split from Chestnut-naped) is also restricted to this part of Ethiopia, where it clings to a precarious existence owing to clearance for subsistence agriculture. We have an excellent site for it and so should be able to see this little-known species.
In addition, a suite of restricted-range specialities in this superb area includes the striking Vulturine Guineafowl, the handsome Somali Courser, the smart Red-naped Bushshrike, Pringle’s Puffback, Pale Prinia, the furtive Scaly Chatterer and Northern Grosbeak-Canary. With luck, we will come across the uncommon Magpie Starling (a nomadic species we could also encounter in the Negelle region).
As well as these prize birds, there are many other birds of particular interest in the Yabello area and we shall be looking out for the increasingly uncommon White-headed Vulture, Eastern Chanting Goshawk, Three-banded (or Heuglin’s) Courser, Black-faced Sandgrouse, Red-bellied (or African Orange-bellied) Parrot, Donaldson Smith’s Nightjar, Red-fronted and D’Arnaud’s Barbets, Pygmy Batis, Three-streaked Tchagra, Taita Fiscal, Ethiopian Swallow, Short-tailed and Foxy Larks, Tiny Cisticola, Banded Parisoma, Red-fronted Warbler, Grey Wren-Warbler, African Bare-eyed Thrush, the gorgeous Golden-breasted Starling, Rufous Chatterer, Spotted Palm Thrush, Acacia (or Northern Grey) Tit, Eastern Violet-backed and Hunter’s Sunbirds, Grey-capped and Black-capped Social Weavers, and White-bellied Canary. We will also have another opportunity to find the rather uncommon Red-winged Lark.
Widespread species that we may well encounter include Black-winged (or Black-shouldered) Kite, Brown Snake Eagle, Bateleur, Shikra, Bare-faced Go-away-bird (the local form is sometimes split as Brown-faced Go-away-bird), African Scops Owl, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Purple (or Rufous-crowned) Roller and White-crested Helmetshrike.
Mammals are rather sparse, but we should see Plains (or Common) Zebra, the endearing Guenther’s Dik-dik, Bright’s Gazelle and the handsome, long-necked Southern Gerenuk.
Best of Ethiopia: Day 11 After some early morning birding in the Yabello area we will travel north to Lake Awassa for an overnight stay.
Best of Ethiopia: Day 12 Lake Awassa is a freshwater lake, quite different from the alkaline lakes to the north, surrounded by patches of remnant forest. The star attractions here are the very localized African Spotted Creeper and the extraordinary-looking endemic Thick-billed Raven (which is widespread but more regularly seen here than at most other localities on our itinerary).
Other species we may well come across at Awassa include the pretty African Pygmy Goose, White-backed Duck, African Spoonbill, Hadada Ibis, Goliath Heron, Little Grebe, White-breasted Cormorant, Common Moorhen, African Swamphen, Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Blue-headed Coucal, Woodland Kingfisher, Double-toothed Barbet, Eastern Grey Woodpecker, White-browed Robin Chat, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Brown-throated Wattle-eye and Thick-billed (or Grosbeak) Weaver.
From Lake Awassa we return to Addis Ababa, where the tour ends this evening.