As we climb higher, we enter juniper woodland before reaching the moorlands of the Bale Mountains where 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. Species that we are likely to see include our first endemics such as Blue-winged Goose, Wattled Ibis, White-collared Pigeon, the extraordinary-looking endemic Thick-billed Raven, White-backed Black Tit, Ethiopian Cisticola, Abyssinian Catbird, Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher, Abyssinian Longclaw and Ethiopian Siskin.
In the magnificent remnant Juniper and Hagenia forests around the park headquarters 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. Other woodland and forest edge species include Northern Puffback, Common Chiffchaff, Brown Woodland Warbler, Eurasian Blackcap, Heuglin’s White-eye, Abyssinian Ground Thrush, African Dusky Flycatcher, Rüppell’s Robin-Chat, Tacazze Sunbird, Baglafecht Weaver, African Citril and Yellow-crowned Canary. 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.
Swift Ethiopia: Day 2 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, White-cheeked Turaco, Abyssinian Woodpecker and Ethiopian (or Abyssinian) Oriole as well as the restricted-range Moorland Francolin (which becomes an Ethiopian endemic if Elgon Francolin of East Africa is treated as specifically distinct). 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 the magnificent Bearded Vulture, Steppe Eagle, Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Wattled Crane, African Snipe, African Olive Pigeon, Nyanza Swift, African Stonechat, Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, African Hill Babbler, Slender-billed Starling and Yellow-bellied Waxbill. 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.
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.
Swift Ethiopia: Day 4 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 Black-billed Wood Hoopoe, Dodson’s Bulbul, Boran Cisticola and Bristle-crowned Starling.
Species of wider distribution include Helmeted Guineafowl, Coqui and Crested Francolins, Yellow-necked Spurfowl, Black-headed Heron, Black-winged Kite, Egyptian Vulture, Kori and White-bellied Bustards, Spur-winged, Crowned and African Wattled Lapwings, Ring-necked Dove, Emerald-spotted Wood Dove, White-bellied Go-away-bird, White-browed Coucal, Blue-naped Mousebird, Lilac-breasted Roller (here of the blue breasted form lorti), Little Bee-eater, Eurasian Hoopoe, Northern Red-billed, Von der Decken’s, Eastern Yellow-billed and African Grey Hornbills, Nubian Woodpecker, Red-and-yellow Barbet, Lesser and Grey Kestrels, Grey-headed and Western Black-headed Batises, Grey-headed, Orange-breasted (or Sulphur-breasted) and Rosy-patched Bushshrikes, Black-crowned Tchagra, Slate-coloured Boubou, Brubru, Northern White-crowned Shrike, Isabelle and Red-tailed Shrikes, Taita Fiscal, Black-headed Oriole, Fork-tailed Drone, African Paradise Flycatcher, Acacia Tit, Mouse-coloured Penduline Tit, Northern Brownbul, Ethiopian Swallow, Northern and Red-faced Crombecs, Willow and Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, Yellow-breasted Apalis (the form here is sometimes split as Brown-tailed Apalis), Grey-backed Camaroptera, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Pale White-eye, Wattled, Golden-breasted, Superb, Bristle-crowned and Violet-backed Starlings, African Thrush, Northern Black Flycatcher, Common Nightingale, Common Redstart, Collared, Marico and Tsavo Sunbirds, Yellow-spotted Petronia, Red-billed and White-headed Buffalo-Weavers, Red-headed Weaver, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Purple Grenadier, Pin-tailed and Straw-tailed Whydahs, Tree Pipit, Reichenow’s Seedeater and the handsome Somali Bunting.
Swift Ethiopia: Day 5 Today we will travel from Negelle to Yabello for a two nights stay. Along the way, we should find four restricted-range specialities, White-winged Collared Dove, Gillett’s Lark, Somali Crombec and Yellow-vented Eremomela, along the banks of the Dawa River. Another 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.
Swift Ethiopia: Day 6 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, Three-streaked Tchagra, 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). At night we stand a good chance of seeing Donaldson Smith’s Nightjar and African Scops Owl.
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 White Stork, White-backed and Lappet-faced Vultures and the increasingly uncommon White-headed Vulture, Black-chested and Brown Snake Eagles, Bateleur, Tawny Eagle, Gabar Goshawk, Eastern Chanting Goshawk, Shikra, Buff-crested Bustard, Three-banded (or Heuglin’s) Courser, Black-faced Sandgrouse, Namaqua Dove, Bare-faced Go-away-bird (the local form is sometimes split as Brown-faced Go-away-bird), Klaas’s Cuckoo, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Alpine Swift, Purple (or Rufous-crowned) Roller, Blue-breasted (sometimes split as Ethiopian) Bee-eater, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Red-fronted, Black-throated and D’Arnaud’s Barbets, Bearded Woodpecker, Red-bellied (or African Orange-bellied) Parrot, Pygmy Batis, Red-naped Bushshrike, White-crested Helmetshrike, Somali Fiscal, Foxy and Short-tailed Larks, Rock Martin, Rattling, Ashy and Tiny Cisticolas, Red-fronted Warbler, Grey Wren-Warbler, Rufous Chatterer, Banded Parisoma, Red-winged Starling, Bare-eyed Thrush, White-browed Scrub Robin, African Grey Flycatcher, Spotted Palm Thrush, Variable, Eastern Violet-backed and Hunter’s Sunbirds, Chestnut Sparrow, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Grey-capped and Black-capped Social Weavers, Little and Vitelline Masked Weavers, Green-winged Pytilia, Black-cheeked Waxbill and White-bellied Canary. If we are lucky we may find one or more of the following; Somali Ostrich, Secretarybird, Red-winged Lark and Grey-headed Silverbill.
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.
Swift Ethiopia: Day 7 After some early morning birding in the Yabello area we will travel north to Lake Awassa for an overnight stay.
Swift Ethiopia: Day 8 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 endemic Banded Barbet and Black-winged Lovebird alongside the very localized African Spotted Creeper.
Other species we may well come across at Awassa include White-faced Whistling Duck, White-backed Duck, Spur-winged Goose, the pretty African Pygmy Goose, Little Grebe, Marabou Stork, Hadada Ibis, African Spoonbill, Squacco, Grey, Purple and Goliath Herons, Great, Intermediate and Little Egrets, Hamerkop, Great White and Pink-backed Pelicans, Reed and White-breasted Cormorants, African Fish Eagle, Black Crake, African Swamphen, Allen’s Gallinule, Common Moorhen, African Jacana, Black-headed and Grey-headed Gulls, Whiskered and White-winged Terns, Mourning Collared Dove, Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Blue-headed Coucal, Woodland, African Pygmy and Pied Kingfishers, Double-toothed Barbet, Lesser Honeyguide, Eastern Grey Woodpecker, Brown-throated Wattle-eye, Grey-backed Fiscal, Common Bulbul, Brown-throated, Sand and Common House Martins, Lesser Swamp and Sedge Warblers, Buff-bellied Warbler, White-rumped Babbler, Abyssinian White-eye, White-browed Robin-Chat, Beautiful and Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, Spectacled Weaver, Northern Red Bishop, Red-billed Firefinch, Common Waxbill, Bronze Mannikin and Thick-billed (or Grosbeak) Weaver. Sometimes there is a Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl in residence.
From Lake Awassa we return to Addis Ababa, where the tour ends this evening.