ULTIMATE ETHIOPIA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Ultimate Ethiopia: Day 1 Our Ultimate Ethiopia birding tour begins this morning at Addis Ababa airport. 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 first drive around the edge of the city and then out 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.
Ultimate 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 and Black-billed Barbet.
Passerines include 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.
Ultimate Ethiopia: Day 3 This morning we will descend the dramatic Ankober escarpment. The Ankober escarpment provides truly spectacular views over the Awash valley and the southern part of the Danakil Depression far below. Here at 3000m (9843ft) the cliffs are broken by vegetated slopes and terraces covered in tree heaths and other Afro-alpine plants. At times clouds swirl up from the valley below to envelop the cliff tops.
We shall break the journey at Melka Ghebdu, a reliable site for the endemic Yellow-throated Seedeater, as well as the endemic Banded Barbet, the restricted-range Yellow-breasted Barbet, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weaver and Red-headed Weaver.
Afterwards, we will continue to descend from the highlands into the vast Awash River lowlands for an overnight stay in the Bilen area. We will have most of the afternoon in this interesting area, which is inhabited by Afar people who were formerly nomadic herders but now live a more settled existence, although they continue to use the long, rounded thatched dwellings that they used while moving from one area of pasture to another.
The open grasslands and acacia bushlands here are home to the stately, but declining and now much-sought-after Arabian Bustard, while other good birds include such restricted-range specialities as the huge Somali Ostrich, Hartlaub’s Bustard, African Collared Dove (uncommon), Grey-headed Batis, the little-known Gillett’s Lark, Chestnut-headed Sparrow-Lark, Somali Bulbul, Blackstart, Black Scrub Robin, Somali Fiscal and Nile Valley Sunbird. The dry plains also hold some interesting mammals, including Hamadryas (or Sacred) and Olive Baboons, Grivet Monkey, Common Warthog, Salt’s Dik-dik, Soemmering’s Gazelle and Beisa Oryx. With a bit of luck, we will also encounter Northern Gerenuk and Northern Lesser Kudu. Interestingly, the Golden Jackals of Africa have recently been split off as a distinct species, African Golden Wolf, on the basis that their genetics place them closer to the wolves and coyotes. There is a good chance of seeing this newly ‘promoted’ wolf in this area.
At dusk, we will visit a pool where we have an excellent chance to see flocks of Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse arriving after dusk to drink.
Ultimate Ethiopia: Day 4 After spending most of the morning in the Bilen area we will drive a little to the south for an overnight stay at Awash Falls Lodge in Awash National Park.
Over 400 species of birds have been recorded in Awash National Park. The terrain is mostly a mosaic of grassland and acacia scrub but the Awash River flows through the area and supports some thin strips of riverine forest in places. Close to our lodge are the impressive Awash Falls and the deep pools just below the falls hold some impressive Nile Crocodiles.
Birds of the park that we will be looking for this afternoon and evening include the restricted-range Star-spotted Nightjar, the beautiful Rosy-patched Bushshrike, the restricted-range Red-winged Lark and the diminutive Mouse-coloured Penduline Tit. If we are in luck we will encounter the lovely Scissor-tailed (or African Swallow-tailed) Kite or a Grasshopper Buzzard.
A distinct advantage of Awash (and indeed all national parks we visit in Ethiopia) compared to many other African parks is that one is allowed to go birding on foot owing to the virtual absence of dangerous mammals.
More widespread birds we may well encounter during our visit to the Awash region (including the Bilen area) include Helmeted Guineafowl, Crested Francolin, Harlequin Quail (usually uncommon), Black-headed Heron, Secretarybird (uncommon), Egyptian and Lappet-faced Vultures, Tawny Eagle, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, African Fish Eagle, Pygmy and Lanner Falcons, Harlequin Quail (uncommon), Buff-crested and White-bellied Bustards, Spotted Thick-knee (uncommon), Black-headed Lapwing, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Mourning Collared Dove, Emerald-spotted Wood Dove, White-bellied Go-away-bird, Slender-tailed and possibly Plain Nightjars, Blue-naped Mousebird, the superb Abyssinian Roller, Striped Kingfisher, the wonderful Northern Carmine Bee-eater (which sometimes uses the backs of bustards or even ostriches as a convenient lookout!), Little Bee-eater, Eurasian Hoopoe, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Northern Red-billed and Eastern Yellow-billed Hornbills, Black-throated Barbet, and Nubian and Cardinal Woodpeckers.
Passerines include Black-crowned Tchagra, Brubru, Northern White-crowned, Isabelline, Steppe Grey, Woodchat and Masked Shrikes, Fork-tailed (or Common) Drongo, Singing Bush Lark, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark, Barn Swallow, Ashy and Desert Cisticolas, Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Rüppell’s, Superb and Wattled Starlings, White-browed Scrub Robin, African Grey and Spotted Flycatchers, Common Nightingale, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Yellow-spotted Petronia, Red-billed and White-headed Buffalo Weavers, Red-billed Quelea, Green-winged Pytilia, African Silverbill, Long-tailed (or Eastern) Paradise and Straw-tailed Whydahs, and Tawny Pipit.
We may also encounter the intra-African migratory Abdim’s Stork either in this area or elsewhere during our travels. Mammals are few here, but we may well see Yellow-spotted Hyrax.
Ultimate Ethiopia: Day 5 After some early morning birding in Awash National Park we will drive through the Rift Valley to Lake Langano for a two nights stay. Before leaving Awash behind we will visit an area of lava desert which holds the rare, near-endemic Sombre Rock Chat and Striolated Bunting.
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 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, 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.
Ultimate Ethiopia: Day 6 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.
Ultimate Ethiopia: Day 7 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.
Ultimate Ethiopia: Day 8 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.
Ultimate Ethiopia: Day 9 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 three 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.
Ultimate Ethiopia: Days 10-11 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, Brown-tailed Rock Chat, Bristle-crowned Starling and Juba Weaver. With luck, we will also encounter Black-bellied Sunbird.
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.
Ultimate Ethiopia: Day 12 Today we will travel from Negelle to Yabello for a four 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.
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.
There are so many special birds to be found in the Yabello region, and quite a few of them require time to find. In consequence, we devote more time to this area than other bird tours, enabling the Birdquest group to explore key habitats that bus-based groups cannot reach or have insufficient time to visit.
Ultimate Ethiopia: Days 13-15 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, the poorly-known the Masked Lark (which is only found in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, and even then only sometimes seen on speciality Kenyan birding tours such as our own), 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). If conditions allow, we will also visit an area where three more restricted-range specialities, the superb Heuglin’s Bustard, Somali Bee-eater and Donaldson-Smith’s Sparrow-Weaver, can be found.
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.
Ultimate Ethiopia: Day 16 After some early morning birding in the Yabello area we will travel north to Lake Awassa for an overnight stay.
Ultimate Ethiopia: Day 17 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.
Before we leave the Awassa region behind we will visit another wetland area that usually holds the splendid Wattled Crane, as well as the lovely Black Crowned Crane and wintering Common Cranes, and also an area of grassland that is the last stronghold of the handsome endemic Swayne’s Hartebeest. Afterwards, we will head for Welkite for an overnight stay.
Ultimate Ethiopia: Day 18 Today we will visit the Gibe Valley National Park (also known as ‘Gibe Gorge’, although it is more of a broad, deep valley than a gorge as such). This is the most reliable site during the tour for the near-endemic Abyssinian Waxbill and also offers another chance for the endemic Red-billed (or Lineated) Pytilia. We also have a fairly good chance for both Bar-breasted and Black-faced Firefinches, and even slim chances of finding the superb Egyptian Plover and the localized Reichard’s Seedeater. Other birds here may well include Senegal Thick-knee, Vinaceous Dove, Eastern Plantain-eater, Giant Kingfisher, Lesser Striped Swallow, Familiar Chat, African Pied Wagtail and Bronze Mannikin. The main section of our Ultimate Ethiopia birding tour ends after dinner this evening at Addis Ababa.
GONDAR & SIMIEN EXTENSION
Ultimate Ethiopia (Gondar & Simien): Day 1 We will spend the night at Addis Ababa.
Ultimate Ethiopia (Gondar & Simien): Day 2 Early this morning we will take a flight northwards to the ancient city of Gondar, seat of one of the most important dynasties in Ethiopia’s long and rich history. As we approach Gondar airport we will fly in over the huge expanse of Lake Tana, which is widely considered the source of the Blue Nile (although the head of the longest of the minor rivers that flow into the lake is the technical source).
From Gondar, we head up into the Simien Mountains for an overnight stay, passing through farmlands punctuated by small villages and patches of introduced eucalyptus woodland. Eventually, after lunch and after purchasing our entry tickets at the Simien National Park headquarters, we will drive through the park gates and at last come to some natural habitat, a strip of juniper and tree-heath forest, grasslands and scrublands that extends all the way along the steep and dramatic northern face of the Simien massif.
The Simien escarpment is definitely the most scenic, and indeed most famous, series of viewpoints in all Ethiopia and we will surely want to take a good many photographs as vista after vista unfolds. Plenty of upland Ethiopian endemic and near-endemic birds occur here, and by now they will seem like old friends.
The greatest wildlife spectacle and experience of the Simien is not, however, avian, but rather mammalian in nature, and what a spectacle it is! We may well have seen a small troupe of Gelada Baboons in the Debre Birhan region at the start of the main tour, but here the herds run into the hundreds. Indeed it is quite possible to come across 300-500 together!
What is more, unlike the rather timid baboons around Debre Birhan, these Geladas are largely unconcerned by humans, so will often allow a very close approach. If you move slowly, and don’t make too much eye-contact (which the Geladas consider aggressive) it is easily possible to get right in amongst the horde and sit or lie amongst them as they go about their business. Seeing the big males with their extraordinary ‘hairstyle’ and pink-red chest-blaze at close range is quite marvellous. Most of the time they tear off the short herbage and munch away or groom each other’s fur, but every now and again there is a fight between males, mating or some very amusing playing among the many youngsters. Mothers walk past with babies on their backs and indeed the entire panoply of Gelada life goes on all around you.
We can honestly say that the Simien Gelada experience is unforgettable and right up there with visiting the much better-known Gorillas of Uganda and Rwanda.
Ultimate Ethiopia (Gondar & Simien): Day 3 This morning we will travel to Chenek Camp, a national park guard post further to the northeast. The scenery around Chenek is even more awesome than further west, with huge peaks, crags and cliffs in the foreground and distant granite domes below the Simien escarpment.
The Chenek area is the best place for finding the endangered Walia Ibex, which we should encounter this morning. Hopefully, we will see some big males with huge curving horns. There is even a slim chance of another encounter with Ethiopian Wolf.
The Thick-billed Ravens at Chenek have become very used to people and will tolerate a very close approach, making for some great photographs. Raptors regularly glide past and Bearded Vultures (or Lammergeiers) often give stunning close-range views. Other regulars at Chenek include Rüppell’s Vulture and Tawny Eagle.
After spending much of the day in the Simien Mountains, we will head back to Gondar for a two nights stay at a good hotel, perched on a hill with a spectacular view across the city.
Ultimate Ethiopia (Gondar): Day 4 We will set out early today in order to start our exploration of a lower-lying area before the day heats up. The habitat here is a mixture of ‘farmbush’ and natural woodland, and our main target is the restricted-range White-headed Babbler, a species that occurs only in parts of eastern Sudan and parts of western Ethiopia and Eritrea. This little-known speciality has been seen by very few birders.
As well as the White-headed Babbler, we should see a number of species of wider distribution, some of which, in Ethiopia, are restricted to the western regions. These include Woolly-necked Stork, Grasshopper Buzzard, Vinaceous Dove, Black-billed Wood Dove, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Green Bee-eater, Green Wood Hoopoe, Meyer’s Parrot, Rose-ringed Parakeet, the striking Black-headed Gonolek, the localized White-winged Black Tit, Green-backed Eremomela, Yellow White-eye, Lesser Blue-eared Starling, Northern Grey-headed Sparrow and Black-rumped Waxbill. We also have a chance of finding the crepuscular Bronze-winged (or Violet-tipped) Courser.
Ultimate Ethiopia (Gondar): Day 5 This morning, before we head for the airport, we will pay a visit to the famous royal enclosure in Gondar, sometimes known as ‘The Camelot of Africa’, which seems a rather strange choice of analogy given the blood-thirsty and decidedly ‘uncollegiate’ history of the Solomonic dynasty! Nonetheless, the complex is quite extraordinary and most unexpected for anyone who imagines that subSaharan Africa produced no great civilizations. Ethiopia, with its nearly 2000 years of Christianity and long period of Judaism prior to that, is the great exception to this generalization.
The Solomonic dynasty of Ethiopia dates back to the meeting of the Queen of Sheba with King Solomon in Jerusalem in the 10th century BC, and the subsequent birth of their son, Menelik I, but it was only much later, and after a long interruption to the dynastic rule, that the city of Gondar was founded by the Emperor Fasilides in about 1635 AD. It remained the capital of Ethiopia until 1855. Its role as a bastion against Muslim invaders continued until 1887, when ‘Dervish’ invaders from Sudan sacked the city and burned most of its churches.
We will explore the impressive Castle of Fasilides and the palaces of his successors, all of which are built solidly in stone and look very impressive, recalling the fortified palaces of Europe and the Near East, but with an African flavour.
Our tour ends with a midday flight to Addis Ababa.