A remarkable bird with a remarkable history, Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco is found only in a small part of southern Ethiopia. Photo: Steve Rooke
Millions of years ago eastern Africa was subjected to immense and violent volcanic activity. As unimaginable forces pushed the earth’s crust upwards in a gigantic dome, great fissures opened in the center causing large areas to sink back while the outer edges continued to rise. The resulting slash in the surface of the planet became the Rift Valley, the geographical feature that dominates this corner of Africa and runs right across Ethiopia.
The highland plateau that formed on either side of the Rift represents the continent’s largest area of Afro-alpine habitat and contains some of the most spectacular scenery in Africa. Isolated for thousands of years, these regions have seen the evolution of many distinct forms of life. Mammals such as the Giant Root Rat and the secretive Ethiopian Wolf haunt a stark and beautiful landscape full of strange and unusual plants. More than 800 birds have been seen in the region, and some of them can be found nowhere else in the world. We hope to encounter many of these endemics as we travel along the Rift Valley floor and across highland areas rightly christened ‘the roof of Africa’.
Ethiopia, the point where Africa meets Arabia, sits at a cultural and historical crossroads. This combination of history, stunning scenery, and above all a fascinating and easily accessible wildlife makes Ethiopia a perfect destination for a birdwatching holiday, even more so now with the publication of a truly excellent field guide to the Birds of the Horn of Africa, the first to fully cover the region. Steve Rooke returns in 2016 to lead Sunbird’s 21st tour to Ethiopia.
Day 1: The tour begins with a flight from London to Addis Ababa, arriving there in the evening. After arrival we’ll transfer to a hotel for the night. Night in Addis.
Day 2: We begin our tour by driving south from Addis down the African Rift Valley to Lake Langano, escorted as we go by hordes of Yellow-billed Kites that fill the skies above Addis and beyond. We’ll stop in the town of Debre Zeit to do some birding on one of the many small lakes around the town where we may see a selection of waterfowl including Comb Duck and White-backed Duck, along with a huge gathering of Marabou Storks. Later we’ll continue down the Rift Valley towards Lake Langano. We’ll notice White-backed and Hooded Vultures overhead and before long vivid Superb Starlings and White-headed Buffalo Weavers at the roadside. We’ll make a few stops, including one at Lake Zwiay where we’ll find a good selection of waterbirds. This famous photo spot is where local fishermen bring their catch ashore, which in turn attracts large numbers of amazingly tame Great White Pelicans and Hamerkops. Grey-headed Gulls and White-winged Black Terns also gather and the flooded lakeside vegetation is alive with Yellow-billed Storks, Squacco Herons, African Fish Eagles, African Darters, African Jacanas, African Pygmy Geese, White-faced Whistling Ducks, and jewelled Malachite Kingfishers. Migrant Yellow Wagtails of a variety of eastern races walk around our feet, along with Wood Sandpipers and Spur-winged Plovers, and over the years we have found a variety of scarcer species here such as Black Heron, Lesser Jacana, Lesser Moorhen, and Allen’s Gallinule. We’ll reach our lodge situated on the western shore of the lake in the afternoon and spend the rest of the day birding in the grounds looking for a variety of birds including Von Der Decken’s, Northern Red-billed and Hemprich’s Hornbills, Red-fronted Barbet, Bearded Woodpecker, Little Rock Thrush, White-winged Black Tit, Rattling Cisticola, Beautiful Sunbird, Buff-bellied Warbler, Red-billed Firefinch, Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu, and Rüppell’s Weaver. It is usually possible to find Slender-tailed Nightjars and Greyish Eagle Owl at their day-time roost and this will be the first chance we have of finding a delicately marked Clapperton’s Francolin. Night at Lake Langano.
Day 3: We’ll begin the day with another walk around the lodge grounds. Mocking Cliff Chats move down from the adjacent cliff to start their day feeding around the bushes and this is a great place to see the beautifully coloured African Pygmy Kingfisher. The distinctive calls of Ethiopian and Slate-coloured Boubous and Sulphur-breasted Bush Shrikes will join the dawn chorus and vivid Blue-breasted Bee-eaters will be zipping around the cliff face. We may even find a roosting Verreaux’s Eagle Owl. After breakfast outside on a lake-shore terrace, we’ll travel the short distance to another Rift Valley lake, Abiata located in the Abiata-Shala National Park. Although this lake is suffering from water extraction, and the surrounding land from over-grazing, the lakeshore can still hold good numbers of waterbirds including huge numbers of both Greater and Lesser Flamingos, a variety of waders including Kittlitz’s Plover and Temminck’s Stint, and Common, Black-crowned and occasionally Wattled Cranes. The lawn-like lake edge is ideal habitat for hundreds of wintering Isabelline Wheatears while the adjacent acacia woodland is home to Black-billed Woodhoopoe and Black Scimitarbill. Leaving Lake Abiata behind we’ll travel further down the Rift Valley to Lake Awassa and our comfortable lodge right on the lake shore, arriving in time for lunch. Our lodge grounds have a distinctly tropical feel and are a great place to look for birds. We’ll spend the afternoon searching the lake edge vegetation for waterbirds such as Black Crake, dashing Malachite Kingfishers, the drab Lesser Swamp Warbler, and Thick-billed Weavers. Small pools along the lake shore are good places to find wintering waders such as Marsh Sandpiper while papyrus beds can hold migrants such as European Reed, Great Reed and even Basra Reed Warblers. Elsewhere in this pleasant setting we should find Blue-headed Coucal, Red-throated and Eurasian Wrynecks, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Double-toothed Barbet, White-rumped Babbler, the dapper Spotted Creeper, Black-headed Batis and Brown-throated Wattle-eye. Night at Lake Awassa.
Day 4: From Awassa we leave the Rift Valley as we begin the long climb up into the Bale Mountains, a drive that will take us through some spectacular scenery. To begin we cross extensive areas of wheat fields where we’ll stop to look for Red-chested Swallow as well as groups of migrant Lesser Kestrels or European Bee-eaters. The level agriculture gives way to more rugged highlands as we gain altitude. We start to see flocks of White-collared Pigeons and Wattled Ibis along the roadside and Dusky Turtle Doves become common. Freshly ploughed fields are a mecca for Erlanger’s Lark, which are frequently joined by larger Thekla Larks, while Red-breasted Wheatears and Groundscraper Thrushes can be numerous. We make a stop to see a Cape Eagle Owl at a traditional roost site, to be followed by a walk through the rich juniper woodland surrounding the Bale Mountain National Park headquarters. Here we are looking in particular for the little-known Abyssinian Owl and perhaps some roosting African Wood Owls or Montane Nightjars, and we’ll also encounter the impressive endemic Mountain Nyala and Meneliks Bushbuck. Night in Goba.
Day 5: We have a whole day to spend up on the Sanetti Plateau, a wonderful Afro-alpine habitat of pools and small lakes, dense, low flowering bushes, beds of tiny alpine flowers and spikes of Giant Lobelias. Rouget’s Rails are remarkably tame up here and we’ll have seen dozens by the end of the day, and we’re bound to see Chestnut-naped Francolins and Moorland Francolins. Elsewhere we’ll encounter the classic highland endemics with Blue-winged Geese on the pools along with Spot-breasted Plovers, and flocks of Black-headed Siskins feeding by the roadside. Moorland Chats are everywhere and the many pools often have wintering Green Sandpipers and Red-throated Pipits in attendance. Wattled Cranes breed up here and we hope for a sighting of at least one of these stately birds. Augur Buzzards and Lanner Falcons perch on top of the giant lobelia flower spikes and a sighting of a Ruddy Shelduck or a flock of Red-billed Chough reminds us of this region’s strange Palearctic affinities. Overhead there should be a steady passage of raptors, with migrant Steppe Eagles common, and at any time a mighty Lammergeier can drift past. Yet despite all these avian attractions the star of today’s show may well be the elegant Ethiopian Wolf. This endangered canine clings to a fragile existence only here and in the Simien Mountains to the north. Its main prey is the comical Giant Root Rat which is plentiful on the plateau and it is quite common to see wolves actually hunting these goofy rodents. Leaving the high moorland behind, we drop down into some good forest and wander slowly downhill searching for White-cheeked Turaco, Abyssinian Woodpecker, Mountain Thrush, Abyssinian Catbird, Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher, skulking Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Brown Woodland Warbler, White-backed Black Tit, Slender-billed Starlings, Brown-rumped Seedeaters, and Yellow-bellied Waxbill among many others. We may also find the local Bale race of Brown Parisoma, considered by some to be a full species. Night in Goba.
Day 6: Today we retrace our steps across the plateau, following the highest all-weather road in Africa. Up here on the roof of the continent the views can be breathtaking, especially as we leave the highlands to descend into some rich forest. Here we’ll have another chance to look for any forest birds missed the day before, as well as seeking some new species such as Crowned Eagle, Abyssinian Hill Babbler, Black-and-White Mannakin, or the tiny Abyssinian Crimsonwing. Our destination is the town of Negelle and we expect to reach there during the late afternoon, having driven through some superb landscapes of endless acacia woodland and dramatic valleys. Night in Negelle.
Days 7 - 8: In 1893 the Italian nobleman Prince Ruspoli collected a stunningly beautiful turaco somewhere in Ethiopia. Unfortunately he died, trampled to death by an Elephant before he could reveal the exact location and it was not until the 1940’s that the world finally came to know where Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco could be seen. This striking bird remains rare and much sought after, confined to a relatively small area around Negelle and we’ve allowed plenty of time in the region to make sure we see it. Nearby can be found another endemic, although one nowhere as colourful as the turaco. Sidamo or Liben Lark is yet another bird largely restricted to a tiny area in Ethiopia and is found on the open grassy plains close to Negelle, and with perhaps no more than 200 pairs left in this region with a few more recently discovered at a site in the north of the country. This is one of Africa’s rarest birds and we’ll arrive early to hopefully see the lark performing its display flight before we enjoy a cooked picnic breakfast out on the plain. We’ll then see what else we can find in this interesting habitat. The short grassland is very much to the liking of Somali Short-toed Larks which can be very numerous here. Crowned Plovers are common and are often joined by groups of Black-winged Plovers and with luck we may come across a few Temminck’s Coursers. Harriers also love the open plain and both Pallid and Montagu’s can be expected while it’s sometimes possible to see hundreds of Lesser Kestrels moving through. Plain-backed Pipit and Pectoral-patch Cisticola are also resident and groups of White-crowned Starlings can be surprisingly approachable which, although not an endemic, can only really be seen in this region. If the rains have been good there should be a large lake on the edge of the plains and this is often a favourite place for flocks of Abdim’s Storks. We could also find a variety of migrant waders here from Pacific Golden Plovers to Collared Pratincoles. The road south from here leaves the plain behind and enters a mix of acacia and commiphora habitat that dominates so much of southern Ethiopia. Here we’ll be looking for Salvadori’s Seedeater, a delightful endemic known to occur in this habitat. Other birds could include Egyptian Vulture, Red and Yellow Barbet at their nest hole in a termite mound, Three-streaked Tchagra, Foxy Lark, Black-headed Oriole, Rosy-patched Bushshrike, Shelley’s Starling, lots of Pied Wheatears, Boran Cisticola, beautiful Purple Grenadier, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Shelley’s Rufous Sparrow, and Somali Bunting.
Day 9: Leaving Negelle we embark on a journey that will take us in a wide loop through the south of Ethiopia and to the town of Yabello. We’ll leave very early to arrive at the Dawa River shortly after dawn. As our ground crew prepare another picnic breakfast we’ll wander along the river edge looking for two special birds – African White-winged Dove and Juba Weaver. Both, although not endemic, have a very restricted range within the Horn of Africa. There may be flocks of Black-faced Sandgrouse coming to drink and we’ll be keeping a close eye on the sunbirds to pick out Hunter’s and Black-bellied Sunbirds. There will be Pygmy Batis flitting around the trees and feeding flocks could include Pringle’s Puffback, Somali Crombec, Yellow-vented Eremomela, and Northern Brownbul. Moving on our road takes us through some good habitats. Gangs of Vulturine Guineafowl roam through the scrub and we are guaranteed at least one encounter. This is good bush-shrike country and in addition to seeing Grey-headed and Sulphur-breasted Bush Shrikes, we have a very good chance of finding Red-naped Bush-Shrike, a rare species found only in parts of East Africa. As we get nearer to Yabello we cross the invisible line that marks the start of Bush-Crow country and we will not have travelled too far before we see our first Stresemann’s Bush-Crow, Ethiopia’s iconic and most sought-after endemic. Once in their range, these remarkable birds can be quite common, moving around in small groups. Occupying almost the same small restricted area is another endemic - White-tailed Swallow - and we’ll be looking for these dashing dark blue and white birds skimming around the acacia trees. We’ll aim to reach our comfortable lodge close to Yabello before dark. Set in extensive grounds, we’ll stay out as dusk approaches to look for Donaldson Smiths and Plain Nightjars and African Scops Owl and we may also find a Somali Galago bouncing around the trees. Night near Yabello.
Day 10: We have all day to look for birds in the Yabello region. There are a group of species only found in the dry thorn scrub that extend down through eastern parts of Ethiopia and Kenya and these will be the focus of our attention today. These will include the skulking Short-tailed Lark, Scaly Chatterer, Bare-eyed Thrush, Spotted Palm Thrush, Magpie Starlings, gorgeous Golden-breasted Starlings, Tiny Cisticola, Pale Prinia, and Black-capped Social Weaver. In addition we hope to see Eastern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Gabar Goshawk, Bateleur, Grey Kestrel, Somali Courser, African Orange-bellied Parrot, d’arnaud’s Barbet, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Banded Parisoma, White-bellied Canary, and Northern Grosbeak Canary. There will also be more chances to study the endearing Stresemann’s Bush-Crow. It has been found that temperature is the key to this bird’s limited distribution, and their large rugby-ball shaped nests are obvious, perched right on top of flat-topped acacias to keep cool. Night near Yabello.
Day 11: Leaving Yabello early this morning, we begin our drive north. This will be a long drive as the road is currently being rebuilt and we can expect the extensive roadworks to slow our progress. Our drive takes up into one of the main coffee growing regions, a lush, verdant part of the country where we may see White-necked Storks, Ayers Hawk-Eagle, or Great Sparrowhawk along the way. We’ll reach Awassa in time to have lunch on the lakeside. After lunch we continue north, back to Lake Langano but this time we turn off to visit the eastern side of the lake and the wonderful lodge at Bishan Gari. Surrounded by giant fig trees and located right on the lake shore, Bishan Gari is a great place to wander around. We’ll spend the last part of the day looking for a variety of birds including Lemon Dove and end the day watching the sun set over the lake as Senegal Thick-knee and perhaps Heuglin’s Courser put in an appearance. Night at Bishangari.
Day 12: Bishangari is such a wonderful place to stay that we have allowed two nights to really savour the location. Our day will begin early as noisy Guereza Colobus and Silvery-cheeked Hornbills herald the dawn. Shortly after dawn flocks of Yellow-fronted Parrots fly from their roost to perch in the acacias right in front of the lodge, giving us fantastic views of this colourful endemic. We then enjoy a sumptuous breakfast (Bishangari is famous for its food) which will stand us in good stead as we have a good walk ahead of us through lush forest and across open grassland, all on good trails. In the forest we’ll be searching the undergrowth for skulking species such as Scaly Francolin, Abyssinian Ground Thrush, Red-capped Robin Chat, and the secretive Green Twinspot, while in the towering fig trees we may find Western Banded Snake-Eagle, Tambourine Dove, Narina’s Trogon or Scaly-throated Honeyguide. Later we’ll explore another area of lake shore and surrounding farmland keeping an eye open for Clappperton’s Francolin, Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, or Red-shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike. Night at Bishangari.
Day 13: There will be more time in the morning to look for any species we may have missed before we set out to join the main Rift Valley road once more and drive north to the town of Nazaret. Although today is essentially a travelling day, we’ll have time to make stops at places we have already visited, such as Lake Zwiay to see if anything new has turned up or to once again enjoy the spectacle of all those waterbirds. Night in Nazaret.
Day 14: The temperature in this region rises quickly as the day progresses, so we’ll start before dawn to reach our first birding stop while it is still relatively cool. Evidence of relatively recent volcanic activity will become very obvious as we approach the extinct Fantale Crater, and we stop at the edge of a vast area of volcanic ash to look for Chestnut-eared and Chestnut-headed Sparrow-Larks, Blackstart, Bristle-crowned Starlings, Shining Sunbird and Striolated Bunting. However the main bird we are looking for here is another endemic, although perhaps not the most inspiring one – the aptly named Sombre Chat, a bird that blends perfectly with the dark ash it inhabits. Continuing northeast, we cross the plains of Awash National Park to reach our lodge. Located on the same spot where Wilfred Thesiger camped on his journey to follow the route of the Awash River, and with huts based on the same design as those built by local Afar tribe, Bilen Lodge offers a taste of real Africa – we may even hear distant Lions calling at night. In the afternoon we’ll search the immediate vicinity of our lodge for regional specialities such as Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, Yellow-breasted Barbet, Ethiopian Swallow, Black Scrub Robin, Northern Crombec, and Nile Valley Sunbird. Arabian Bustard is a species that is now hard to find over much of its previous range, but thankfully numbers in this region remain good, although it remains a secretive bird that will require some searching for. We’ll also search the open scrub for wintering migrants from the north including perhaps Black-eared Wheatear, Rufous Scrub Robin, and Eastern Olivaceous, Upcher’s, Barred and Ménétries’s Warblers. A few African Collared Doves can be found among the much more numerous African Mourning Doves, the gentle purring calls of which provide a constant soundtrack to our time at Bilen. Gaudy Abyssinian Rollers and Black-throated Barbets will be found among the taller acacias and the lodge overlooks a large marsh covered in dense reeds where Saddle-billed Storks are regular and flocks of Northern Carmine Bee-eaters sometimes hawk for insects. Animals we should see include the tiny Salt’s Dikdik and perhaps a long-necked Gerenuk or a Lesser Kudu. As dusk falls the car-alarm calls of Slender-tailed Nightjars will fill the now cool night air. Night at Bilen Lodge.
Day 15: After an early morning spent around the lodge, we leave for Awash National Park, perhaps stopping on the way to visit a vast plain where we should see Somali Ostrich and a variety of raptors, including perhaps a Saker. In the past this region has produced some surprises, including Pale Rock Sparrows and Bimaculated Larks. Reaching the Park, we’ll drive slowly across the grassland and open savannah. This is good shrike country and we are bound to see several large Somali Fiscals, as well as Southern Grey, Woodchat and Isabelline Shrikes. We’ll also be on the lookout for bustards and may see a Kori Bustard striding through the grassland, perhaps with a Northern Carmine Bee-eater hitching a ride on its back. Other species present here are Buff-crested, White-bellied and Hartlaub’s Bustards. In some years Harlequin Quail are numerous, flushing from the side of the track as we drive by. As the day draws to a close we’ll reach our lodge located right on the edge of the impressive Awash River Falls. Night at Awash Falls Lodge.
Day 16: Within a few hours of sunrise, Awash Park turns into a shimmering haze of savannah as temperatures soar. This means that the bird life is most active just after dawn and we’ll make sure we are out just before first light to catch all the activity. In the open grasslands we’ll look for Secretary Bird, Red-winged and Singing Bush Larks, Desert and Ashy Cisticolas. Flocks of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse can be found anywhere, and in the denser areas of scrub we’ll look for the little known Gillet’s Lark, along with Red-fronted Warbler, Green-winged Pytilia, and Grey Wren Warbler, while raptors range from the tiny Pygmy Falcon to the massive Lappet-faced Vulture. If there has been rain we should also see Eastern Paradise and Straw-tailed Whydahs, the males in striking breeding plumage. This is also a good place for mammals and there will be groups of Beisa Oryx and the endemic Soemmering’s Gazelle out on the plains. After breakfast we’ll set out for the drive through Addis and on to Debre Birhan. Although this is a long drive, the road is good with some of it on a traffic free toll road and we should reach our comfortable hotel by late afternoon. Night in Debre Birhan.
Day 17: We’ll leave early to visit the impressive Jemma Gorge. After driving across relatively flat farmland, this truly spectacular gorge opens up before us revealing some wonderful scenery. Our road will take us down into the gorge and across the Jemma River, a tributary of the Blue Nile. We aim to reach the gorge just after dawn for this is when the endemic Harwood’s Francolin is most vocal. This species is restricted to the valleys of the Blue Nile tributaries and shares its home with the more numerous Erckel’s Francolin. There will be more endemics to look for here amidst this rocky habitat with White-billed Starlings, Abyssinian Black Wheatears, Rüppells Black Chat, and White-winged Cliff Chat all possible. Descending to the valley floor, we drive through crops that are the nesting ground for striking Black-winged Red Bishops and Speckle-fronted Weavers to reach a small side stream where we spend a pleasant few hours. Here we’ll be looking for a number of more western species that are on the edge of their range such as Vinaceous Dove, Green-backed Eremomela, Copper Sunbird, Black-faced Firefinch, and Yellow-fronted Canary. Common and Crimson-rumped Waxbills will be dropping in to drink, and we’ll scan these flocks hoping to see the endemic, Lineated Pytilia. The spot can be alive with birds – the endemic White-throated Seedeater is present along with numerous Bush Petronias and we have seen up to 6 species of kingfisher here including Half-collared Kingfisher. Wire-tailed Swallows and African Paradise Flycatchers zip up and down the stream, gaudy Village and Vitelline Masked Weavers buzz around the bushes, and dainty Mountain Wagtails and Three-banded Plovers pick their way along the stream bed. Retracing our steps we’ll be looking for any raptors patrolling the skies and in particular for Fox Kestrel which is regularly seen here. Night in Debre Birhan.
Day 18: For our final day we have something of a visual treat in store. From Debre Birhan we travel to Ankober, a town perched right on the very edge of the Rift Valley escarpment. Staring eastwards into the vast Rift Valley is an awe-inspiring experience and we’ll pause to admire the amazing view before our road takes us past the site of an ancient royal palace and drops down into the valley. The vegetation changes dramatically as we descend and we are soon amongst hot, dry acacia, a distinct change to the cool uplands we left behind. We are now in the realm of another of Ethiopia’s endemic birds that inhabits a restricted range, Yellow-throated Seedeater. As well as the enigmatic seedeater we may encounter some other new birds such as eastern Grey Plantain Eater and Chestnut-crowned Sparrow Weaver before we climb back up out of the valley and return to Debre Birhan. From there we make a short detour along a good fast road to a popular stopping point where there is a huge gash in the edge of the Rift Valley escarpment. Here we should see the bizarre Gelada Baboon, precariously feeding on the edge of dramatic cliffs, and also the rather plain Ankober Serin. This, our final endemic bird, was only discovered in 1976 and appears to be restricted to the very edge of the Rift Valley escarpment. Later we begin our return journey to Addis. We’ll check into a hotel for dinner and the chance to re-pack before transferring to the airport to connect with our flight back to London where the tour ends on day 19.
Note: For those wishing to visit some of the cultural and historical sites in the north of the country, such as the rock-hewn churches at Lalibella, we can arrange a pre- or post-tour extension. Please contact the Sunbird office for details.
Updated: 17 December 2015