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 centre causing large areas to sink back while the outer edges continued to rise. The resulting slash in the surface of the planet became known as 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, 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 returns to lead his 26th tour of this fascinating country.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Addis Ababa. Night in Addis.
Day 2: We’ll drive north-west from Addis to the town of Debre Birhan. As we travel we’ll see our first birds with Yellow-billed Kites and Hooded Vultures patrolling the skies. We’ll cross relatively high-altitude habitat and the roadside fields and pools may have our first endemics in the form of Blue-winged Geese, Wattled Ibis, or Erlanger’s Lark. From Debre Birhan we’ll visit the edge of the mighty Rift Valley and a spot where a gash in the side of the escarpment gives us fantastic views down into the valley. Here we should see the bizarre Gelada Baboon, precariously feeding on the edge of dramatic cliffs, and this is also the one of the best sites to see the endemic Ankober Serin. This rather plain bird was only discovered in 1976 and appears to be restricted to the very edge of the Rift Valley escarpment. Night in Debre Birhan.
Day 3: We’ll leave very early this morning 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 here just after dawn, as 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’ll 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’ll spend a pleasant few hours. Here we’ll look 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 into drink, and we’ll scan these flocks hoping to see the near-endemic, Red-billed Pytilia. This spot can be alive with birds – the endemic White-throated Seedeater is present, along with numerous Bush Petronias and, in the past, 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 look for any raptors patrolling the skies, in particular for Fox Kestrel which is regularly seen here. We’ll also stop at the Jemma River to search the banks for Senegal Thick-knees, and in recent years a few Egyptian Plovers have also been found here. Night in Debre Birhan.
Day 4: From Debre Birhan we’ll travel to the ancient town of Ankober, perched right on the very edge of the Rift Valley. Staring eastwards into the vast valley is an awe-inspiring experience and we’ll pause to admire the amazing view before the road takes us past the site of an ancient royal palace then drops down into the valley. The vegetation changes dramatically as we descend, and we are soon amongst dry acacia, a distinct change to the cool uplands we’ve left behind. We are now in the realm of another of Ethiopia’s range-restricted endemic birds, 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 continue down into the Rift Valley, heading for the town of Awash. Once here we enter Awash National Park and begin our journey to a lodge located on the Awash River, right next to the impressive Awash Falls. Having checked in to the lodge, we’ll venture out into the National Park as the afternoon temperatures begin to drop. In this parched environment birds can be hard to find, but we should soon see Madagascar (Olive) Bee-eaters zipping around the bushes and bizarre male Eastern Paradise Whydah’s performing their bouncing display flight. In the more open savannah we’ll notice Somali Fiscals sitting up on bush tops, along with Woodchat, Turkestan and Southern Grey Shrikes. We’ll be looking for Buff-crested Bustards seeking shade beneath the bushes, and out on the plains we may locate a stately Kori Bustard, perhaps with a Northern Carmine Bee-eater hitching a ride on its back, and if we are lucky a Secretarybird. There will be mammals to search for as well, including the striking Beisa Oryx and the endemic Soemmerring’s Gazelle. We’ll stay out until the sun sets, and then begin a slow drive back to the lodge, keeping an eye open for any nightjars on the tracks. In particular we’ll be hoping for a sighting of the rare and little-known Star-spotted Nightjar. Night in Awash National Park.
Day 5: The temperature in this region rises quickly as the day progresses, so we’ll start early to travel north to the Aledegge Plains. This vast open expanse of grassland is an excellent place to see one of the special birds of the region, Arabian Bustard, and it is possible to see up to double figures of this large bustard here. The plains are also home to Somali Ostrich, and other species we’ll be looking for include Grasshopper Buzzard, Montagu’s Harrier, Black-headed Plover, Yellow-throated and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, and Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks. In the past we have seen some rare winter visitors here such as Pale Rock Sparrow and Bimaculated Larks. A short distance away we enter a region of scattered acacia scrub, home to the distinctive Afar tribe. We’ll spend time in this region searching for Yellow-breasted Barbet, Ethiopian Swallow, Black Scrub Robin, Northern Crombec, and Nile Valley Sunbird. 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 here. Gaudy Abyssinian Rollers and Black-throated Barbets will be found among the taller acacias and the site of an old, now defunct 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. Night in Awash National Park.
Day 6: We’ll make another early start to be sure to be out just before first light to catch all the activity. In the open grasslands we’ll look for Red-winged and Singing Bush Larks, Desert and Ashy Cisticolas. In the denser areas of scrub we’ll look for the little-known Gillet’s Lark, along with Rosy-patched Bush-shrike, Red-fronted Warbler, Green-winged Pytilia, and Grey Wren Warbler, while raptors range from the tiny Pygmy Falcon to the massive Lappet-faced Vulture.
Leaving Awash, we begin our journey south. 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 brown volcanic pumice to look for Chestnut-headed Sparrow-Larks, Blackstart, Bristle-crowned Starlings, Shining Sunbird and Striolated Bunting. The tiny Mouse-coloured Penduline Tit is also frequent here although our main target bird is another endemic, although perhaps not the most inspiring one – the aptly named Sombre Chat, a bird that blends perfectly with the dark pumice it inhabits.
We continue and soon find ourselves heading south down the Rift Valley towards Lake Langano. We’ll make a few stops along the way, 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, Slender-billed Gull, Lesser Jacana, Lesser Moorhen, and Allen’s Gallinule. We’ll reach our lodge, situated on the western shore of the lake, in the late afternoon and spend the rest of the day birding within the grounds looking for a variety of species 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’s usually possible to find Slender-tailed Nightjars and Greyish Eagle Owl at their day-time roosts and this will be the first chance we have of finding a delicately marked Clapperton’s Francolin. We will also try for Freckled Nightjar once darkness falls. Night at Lake Langano.
Day 7: We’ll begin the day with another walk around the lodge grounds. Mocking Cliff Chats move down from the adjacent cliff to start their daytime 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 on a lakeshore 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 Temminck’s Coursers and there is often a small group of wintering Stone Curlews here, as well as lots of wintering Isabelline Wheatears, while the adjacent acacia woodland is home to Black-billed Woodhoopoe and Black Scimitarbill.
We continue to Lake Awassa and check in to a hotel located on the lake edge. Our hotel grounds have a distinctly tropical feel and are a great place to look for birds. We’ll spend the rest of the afternoon searching the lake-side vegetation for waterbirds such as Black Crake, dashing Malachite Kingfishers, the drab Lesser Swamp Warbler, and Thick-billed Weavers. Small pools along the shoreline 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 8: Today we continue south on a long drive to the Yabello and although today is mainly a travelling day, there will be birds to look for as we climb through one of the main coffee growing regions into a lush, verdant part of the country where we may see White-necked Storks, Ayers Hawk-Eagle, or Great Sparrowhawk along the way. As we near Yabello we cross an invisible line that marks the start of Bush-Crow country and we will not have travelled too far before we’ll 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 the grounds of our lodge are an excellent place to see this bird. Set in extensive grounds, our lodge is also a good place to look for Donaldson Smith’s Nightjars and African Scops Owl and we may also find a Somali Galago bouncing around the trees. Night in a lodge near Yabello.
Days 9-10: We’ll have two days to look for birds in the Yabello region. There are a group of species only found in the dry thorn scrub that extends down through eastern parts of Ethiopia and Kenya and these will be the focus of our attention during our stay here. These will include Short-tailed Lark, skulking 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. Recent studies have shown that the local race of Chestnut-naped Francolins here is in fact a full species, Black-fronted Francolin, and we’ll devote some time looking for these. Nearby is another bird with a restricted range – the little known Masked Lark and we hope to spend some time looking for this on a remote open plain. Nights in a lodge near Yabello.
Day 11: Leaving the Yabello region we head east towards Negelle. 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 strikingly colourful bird remains much sought after and we will make a stop at some remnant forest this morning with the hope of finding it. Carrying on we cross miles of prime acacia forest as our road will take 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, we have a very good chance of finding Red-naped Bush-shrike, a rare species found only in dry parts of East Africa. At the Dawa River 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. 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. 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. Night in Negelle.
Days 12-13: We have two days to explore the Negelle area. If we failed to find Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco previously we have another site close to the town. Nearby can be found another endemic, although one nowhere near as colourful as the turaco. Archer’s or Liben Lark is another bird largely restricted to a tiny area in Ethiopia and is found on the open grassy plains close to Negelle, with a few more recently discovered at a site in the north of the country. It is also now thought to be the same species as Archer’s Lark known from Somali. 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 within 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. 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. Although not an endemic (it also occurs in northern Kenya), this striking starling 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 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, Shelley’s Starling, lots of Pied Wheatears, Boran Cisticola, beautiful Purple Grenadier, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Shelley’s Sparrow, and Somali Bunting. Nights in Negelle.
Day 14: Our journey continues today as we head for the lush Harenna Forest. The countryside will offer some birding opportunities and we’ll stop to look for the near-endemic Red-billed Pytilia and we have yet another chance of finding Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco. As we enter the Harrena Forest we drive slowly as new birds are to be found. Overhead there might be a mighty Crowned Eagle while White-cheeked Turacos bounce around the tree-tops. We’ll look for dainty Tambourine Doves feeding along the road edge and flocks of Yellow-bellied Waxbills may contain Black-and-white Mannikins or Abyssinian Crimsonwing. The calls of Abyssinian Orioles echoes around the trees and rich song of Abyssinian Hill Babbler betrays the presence of this skulking species. Our home for the night is the luxurious Bale Mountain Lodge which is surrounded by dense forest.
Day 15: Leaving early we climb up through the forest, breaking out onto the edge of the Sanetti Plateau where we are greeted by stunning views. We’ll spend the morning crossing the plateau, a wonderful Afro-alpine habitat of pools and small lakes, dense, low flowering bushes, beds of tiny alpine flowers and towering 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 and Moorland Francolins. Elsewhere we’ll encounter the classic highland endemics with Blue-winged Geese on the pools along with endemic 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 are plentiful on the plateau. Leaving the high moorland behind, we’ll drop down into a forested area and wander slowly downhill searching for Abyssinian Woodpecker, Mountain Thrush, Abyssinian Catbird, Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher, skulking Cinnamon Bracken Warbler, Brown Woodland Warbler, White-backed Black Tit, Slender-billed Starlings, and Brown-rumped Seedeaters among many others. We may also find the local Bale race of Brown Parisoma.Night in Goba.
Day 16: Leaving Goba we begin our decent back down to the Rift Valley. We’ll stop at the National Park headquarters where we’ll be looking in particular for the little-known Abyssinian Owl, the hulking Cape Eagle Owl, and perhaps some roosting African Wood Owls or Montane Nightjars, and we’ll also encounter the impressive endemic Mountain Nyala and Meneliks Bushbuck.
Driving down through more spectacular scenery we pass flocks of White-collared Pigeons and Wattled Ibis along the roadside and Dusky Turtle Doves become common. Freshly ploughed fields are a mecca for Thekla Larks, while Red-breasted Wheatears and Groundscraper Thrushes can be numerous. We’ll 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. Eventually we reach the Rift Valley and drive north to our final destination , the wonderfully appointed Hara Lodge on the shores of Lake Langano.
Surrounded by towering trees and located right on the lake shore, Haro 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 watching the sun set over the lake as Senegal Thick-knee and perhaps Heuglin’s Courser put in an appearance. Night at Haro Lodge.
Day 17: Haro is such a wonderful place to stay and where we have allowed two nights to really savour the location. Today 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, giving us fantastic views of this colourful endemic. We’ll then enjoy a sumptuous breakfast which will stand us in good stead as we have a 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, Narina’s Trogon or Scaly-throated Honeyguide. Later we’ll explore another area of lake shore alive with waterbirds and surrounding farmland, keeping an eye open for Clapperton’s Francolin, Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, or Red-shouldered Cuckoo-Shrike. Night at Haro Lodge.
Day 18: There will be 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 Addis. We’ll stop at another lodge on the western shore of Lake Langano to search for day-roosting Slender-tailed Nightjars and Greyish Eagle Owl and we should also have time to make a return visit to Lake Zwiay. Later we’ll reach Addis and check into a hotel close to the airport where we’ll have access to dayrooms ahead of our transfer the airport later this evening and where the tour ends.
Updated: 25 November 2019