Complete Ethiopia Trip Report, March 2017

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20 MARCH – 09 APRIL 2017

By Vincent Ward

Ethiopia is a legendary African birding destination, with a unique diversity of habitats in addition to its wealth of bird and mammal species. Of the 28 target endemics we saw 26, including the sought-after Ruspoli’s Turaco, Stresemann’s Bushcrow, and White-winged Collared Dove. The smaller and harder-to-find endemic canaries (my personal favorites) were seen, the highlights being White-rumped,Yellow-rumped, Yellow-throated and Salvadori’s Seedeaters. Despite the drier than usual conditions we managed a respectable 463 species in three weeks.

 

Day 1, 20 March 2017. Addis Ababa

The first stop on our three-week birding itinerary was the gardens of the Ghion Hotel. The standout highlights included Tacazze Sunbird, Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Yellow-crowned Canary, Eastern Grey Woodpecker, Brown Parisoma, and Black Sparrowhawk. Also seen were the lovely, endemic Black-winged Lovebird and Brown-rumped Seedeater.

Next we headed to the grasslands near Addis Ababa Bole International Airport. This unassuming patch of grassland is home to several highland endemics: Rouget’s Rail, Thick-billed Raven, White-collared Pigeon, and Wattled Ibis. Other specials seen included Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle, Lanner Falcon, Red-throated Pipit, Stout Cisticola, and Grey-backed Fiscal.

Gerfersa Reservoir was visited in the drizzly afternoon. The waterbody itself held waterfowl like African Black and Yellow-billed Ducks, Northern Pintail, and Northern Shoveler. The grassy fringes attracted Black-winged Lapwing, Augur Buzzard, White-collared Pigeon, Red-breasted Wheatear, Groundscraper Thrush, Ethiopian Siskin, and Blue-winged Goose.

Day 2, 21 March 2017. Sululta plain and Debre Libanos

We left the sprawl of Addis Ababa behind us as we headed to the Sululta plain. The plain was particularly dry, but we located the target endemic species of Erlanger’s Lark, Blue-winged Goose, Rouget’s Rail,Abyssinian Longclaw, and Ethiopian Cisticola. The plain also held Thekla Lark and four species of WheatearRed-breasted, Pied, Northern, and Isabelline.

The highland streams on the drive to Debre Libanos were home to a variety of migrant waders and waterfowl, such as Spotted Redshank, Black-tailed Godwit, and Northern Shoveler.

The grounds of our overnight stop, the Ethio-German Park Hotel, had a troop of several dozen gelada baboons. The hotel looked out over the spectacular Blue Nile valley, and we watched as several Vultures, including Rüppell’s, Griffon, and Bearded, soared at eye level.

In the afternoon we birded the grounds of the local monastery. The slopes above the church held a long list of sought-after specials: Rüppell’s Black Chat, Banded Barbet, Eastern Grey Woodpecker,Ethiopian Oriole, White-rumped Babbler, White-cheeked Turaco, Brown-throated Wattle-eye, White-backed Black Tit, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, and Abyssinian Ground Thrush.

Day 3, 22 March 2017. Jemma Valley

We arrived at the rim of the monumental Jemma Valley at dawn and met up with the local “francolin” spotters. They took us to a clearing below some vegetated scree slopes, and we waited for the prized flocks of Harwood’s and Erckel’s Francolins to appear. After a short wait we were rewarded with stunning views of these usually secretive birds. The cliff tops above us were good roosting sites for White-billed Starlings.

Further towards the valley floor we had great views of Bush Petronia, Fox Kestrel, Dark Chanting Goshawk, and Abyssinian Wheatear.

We had lunch at the river on the valley bottom. A wide variety of seedeaters came to drink in the midday heat. Malachite, Pied, and Giant Kingfishers and Senegal Thick-knee were also seen along the river’s course.

Day 4, 23 March 2017. Ankober Escarpment

Early morning birding in the Ethio-German Park Hotel and around the Portuguese Bridge gave us great views of Abyssinian Woodpecker, a species we had dipped at Debre Libanos.

The long drive to Debre Birhan took us along the rim of the Jemma Valley, past endless teff fields and isolated highland streams. The landscape delivered a variety of wheatears and the highland specials we had come to know in the past days. A few patches of eucalyptus trees delivered views of migrant warblers and Brown Parisoma.

In the afternoon we drove to the fabled Ankober Escarpment. Despite the help of the knowledgeable local guides and because of the very poor weather we failed to locate the eponymous serin. The cliffs did, however, have its characteristic large troops of geladas.

Day 5, 24 March 2017. Melka Ghebdu

We descended the Ankober plateau down into the Melka Ghebdu area. The drop in elevation had an associated noticeable change in temperature and vegetation.

Once down in the shade of the riverside acacias we watched a wide variety of birds coming to drink or feed in the riparian scrub. The top species included Nubian Woodpecker and Black-billed and Yellow-breasted Barbets. The star, however, was the highly range-restricted, endemic Yellow-throated Seedeater, several of which came to drink in the heat of the day.

After a day of hot, dusty birding we ascended the plateau again to overnight at the Ankober Palace Lodge, built on the site of the former palace of Emperor Menelik II. The grounds held three species of “red-winged” StarlingsRed-winged, Slender-billed, and White-billed.

Day 6, 25 March 2017. Awash and Ali Dege Plains

The morning started with a distant calling Cape Eagle-Owl and a spectacular sunrise over the Rift Valley. Early morning birding around the lodge delivered several Abyssinian Catbirds, among other species.

The Melka Ghebdu area delivered a spectacular Sombre Rock Chat. We navigated the maze of roads associated with the new highway (currently under construction) and onto the hot Danakil Desert.

The savanna of Ali Dege Wildlife Reserve delivered the star bird of the day, Arabian Bustard, along with Singing Bush Lark, Somali Ostrich, Black-chested Snake Eagle, and Dark Chanting Goshawk. The mammals were equally exciting, and we saw, among others, beisa oryx, Soemmerring’s gazelle, gerenuk, side-striped jackal, and Grevy’s zebra.

The volcanic hot springs at Doho Lodge (our stop for the night) attracted a variety of waterbirds as well as an abundance of aerial species (swallows and swifts) drinking on the wing.

Day 7, 26 March 2017. Awash National Park

We started our day with breakfast overlooking the hot springs before driving out to Awash National Park.

The only stop was to chase the beautiful Nile Valley Sunbird. A patch of acacias just outside of the hot springs lodge held several confiding, singing males, chasing their prospective mates.

The drive into the park delivered such specials as Scissor-tailed Kite, Arabian and Grey-headed Bush-shrike and Buff-crested Bustard. We slowly birded our way through the acacia thickets and grassland to the Awash Falls Lodge with its stunning view of the Awash River and its three waterfalls.

The lodge grounds held such specials as Beautiful and Nile Valley Sunbird, Northern Crombec and Pallid Swifts.

Day 8, 27 March 2017. Awash National Park

In the early morning we headed into the acacia woodlands of the Awash National Park. The cool weather made for some great birding and “mammaling”. The following raptors were seen: Gabar Goshawk, Dark Chanting Goshawk, and Pygmy Falcon. Other species included Somali and Northern FiscalsNile Valley Sunbird, Arabian and Kori BustardsNubian Woodpecker, Gillett’s Lark, Ashy Cisticola, and Somali Bunting.

The mammals for the day included lesser kudu, Salt’s dik-dik, Soemmerring’s gazelle, olive and hamadryas baboons, beisa oryx, crested porcupine, bat-eared fox, and golden jackal.

We ended a very busy day of birding with drinks overlooking the Awash Falls.

Day 9, 28 March 2017. Great Rift Valley

After soon early birding at Awash Falls Lodge we drove to Lake Basaka. After a lot of searching we found Sombre Rock Chat, and its lookalike, Blackstart.

After a quick lunch we birded the shoreline of Lake Zway, which held a wide variety of waders, ducks, gulls, and terns.

The next stop was the western edge of Lake Langano. The grounds of the Wabe Shebelle Langano Resort Hotel had Greyish Eagle-Owl and Slender-tailed Nightjar.

The road to the eastern shoreline delivered Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, breeding Banded BarbetBlack-billed Wood Hoopoe, Nubian Woodpecker, Black-headed Oriole, Yellow-fronted Parrot, andBlack-winged Lovebird. Our lodge grounds were equally rich in birds and also held a good variety of mammals: common duiker, guereza, Ethiopian genet, and hippopotamus.

Day 10, 29 March 2017. Lake Langano and Bishangary forest

Before light we enjoyed a chorus of Slender-tailed Nightjars. The day started with breakfast on the shores of Lake Langano. We watched a huge variety of waterbirds feeding around local fishermen working in the shallows of the lake.

Then we headed to Bishangary forest, which delivered a long litany of some amazing birds: four species of barbets, Black-winged Lovebird, Black-headed and Abyssinian Orioles, Black and Red-shouldered Cuckooshrikes, Black-billed Wood Hoopoe, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Narina Trogon, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Little Sparrowhawk, Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, and Silvery-cheeked Hornbill. Mammal species we saw while birding included Gambian sun squirrel, common duiker, and olive baboon.

In the afternoon we did some birding around the resort. Violet-backed Starling, Isabelline Wheatear, and Emerald-spotted and Blue-spotted Wood Doves were the highlights.

We ended the day with dinner at the lakeside, watching the local herd of hippopotamus and a pair of swimming Nile monitors.

Day 11, 30 March 2017. Lake Langano to Wondo Genet

We had breakfast at the lakeside, with African Fish Eagles giving their iconic calls.

The drive to neighboring Lake Abiata gave views of Von der Decken’s Hornbill and Thomson’s gazelles. At the lake itself there were thousands of Pied Avocets, Black-necked Grebes, Little Stints, andGreater and Lesser Flamingos.

We arrived in Wondo Genet at lunchtime. There was a pair of African Wood Owls in the hotel grounds, while the surrounding forest held specials such as Half-collared Kingfisher, Green-backed and Lesser Honeyguides, Black Sparrowhawk, Brown-throated Wattle-eye, Black-headed Oriole, and Black-winged Lovebird.

Day 12, 31 March 2017. Wondo Genet to Goba

Our morning walk in the forest netted views of Yellow-fronted Parrot, Brown Parisoma, African Wood Owl, and White-headed Vulture.

We made several stops along the way to Goba to search for Red-chested Swallow, but only one possible individual was very briefly seen. One of these stops yielded Slender-billed Starling breeding under a road culvert.

The major stop along the way was for the Mackinder’s subspecies of Cape Eagle-Owl (sometimes treated as separate species). The largest of the recognized subspecies, it is an impressive bird.

Up in the Bale Mountains we had views of species not seen since leaving the Western Highlands: Rouget’s Rail, Wattled Ibis, Blue-winged Goose, and Spot-breasted Lapwing.

At our accommodation in Goba we had our first Dark-capped Bulbul of the trip.

Day 13, 1 April 2017. Sof Omar Caves

The day started with the long drive to the Sof Omar Caves. The trees around the site held Bristle-crowned Starling as well as White-browed Coucal and Slate-colored Boubou. Further down the valley we found Brown-tailed Rock Chat, Northern White-crowned Shrike, Great Reed Warbler, and Pygmy Batis. After a long wait we finally had a brief view of our target for the day, Salvadori’s Seedeater. These birds flew off and joined a much larger group. We enjoyed fantastic views as a few birds came to sit above us. After lunch we started the drive back to Goba.

Day 14, 2 April 2017. Sanetti Plateau

The day started at the headquarters of the Bale Mountains National Park. The local ranger took us into the juniper forest and put us onto a magnificent Abyssinian Owl. On the walk back we were able to spot some of the local endemic mammal species, Menelik’s bushbuck, bohor reedbuck, and mountain nyala.

Then we headed onto the high altitude Sanetti Plateau, where we had sightings of four Ethiopian wolves. A female wolf approached our vehicle before pursuing and catching an endemic Ethiopian narrow-headed rat. The plateau’s lakes held members of the regionally isolated population of Ruddy Shelduck in addition to African Snipe, Blue-winged Goose, and Spot-breasted Lapwing. The plateau also held Red-billed Chough and Moorland Francolin.

Day 15, 3 April 2017. Genale Valley

Today was the day we were targeting the very highly-prized Ruspoli’s Turaco.

We left the hotel early and headed over the Sanetti Plateau, seeing another five Ethiopian wolves along the way. A few stops in the lower mature forest yielded Yellow-bellied WaxbillsWhinchat, African Emerald Cuckoo, and Sharpe’s StarlingScaly Francolin was seen along the road.

Once in the Genale Valley, we stopped at the first of several known sites of the turaco. It was frustratingly quiet with no fruiting trees to keep the birds around. The same scenario played out at the next few spots. It was all down to one last site on the far edge of the known range. And here the local guide got us onto a gorgeous pair of Ruspoli’s Turaco instantly! We were able to follow the birds as they fed through the canopy for an amazing 20 minutes. The species did not come without a price, though, namely a flat tire, but we finished the day with a huge sense of accomplishment.

Day 16, 4 April 2017. Liben Plain

Today we set out to the Liben Plain, getting Somali Crow and White-crowned Starling along the way. The road-sided waterbodies held waterbirds, including Red-billed Teal and African OpenbillEthiopian Swallows were seen roasting on the roadside telephone wires. The open areas had a number of Kori Bustards and Abdim’s Stork.

The plain itself held a large number of Somali Short-toed Larks and Plain-backed Pipits. After an hour of hard searching we also located a confiding pair of Sidamo Larks that allowed us within five meters of them.

In the afternoon we birded in transformed acacia woodlands/farmland with acacias. The list in this habitat included Straw-tailed Whydah, Temminck’s Courser, Buff-crested Bustard, Red-backed Shrike,Somali Crombec, Shelley’s Starling, Foxy Lark, Yellow-spotted Petronia, and Yellow-necked Spurfowl.

Day 17, 5 April 2017. Negele to Yabello

We had our first species for the day, Bristle-crowned Starling, at our breakfast stop in Negele. The day’s route took us from the flat Liben Plain up an escarpment of granite inselbergs with their associated woodlands, then down into savanna. There was an abundance of raptors along the way, from a large Martial Eagle being mobbed by an African Hawk-Eagle to the diminutive Pygmy Falcon. A brief stop along the muddy red Dawa River gave us the hard-to-find White-winged Dove and Juba Weaver. Further highlights along the drive included Vulturine GuineafowlGolden-breasted StarlingBlack-capped Social Weaver, and Purple Grenadier. The reptiles we saw included a massive cobra and a Nile monitor, and the mammals Günther’s dik-dik.

At sunset we headed out to look for night birds, getting within a meter of a Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar. But an approaching thunderstorm ended our nocturnal outing.

Day 18, 6 April 2017. Yabello

Our first species for the day was Speke’s Weaver breeding in a tree at a police checkpoint. We were soon joined by police officers, who were intrigued by what we were looking at!

The Yabello Wildlife Sanctuary held an abundance of interesting species. Our specials for the day included Dodson’s Bulbul, Short-tailed Lark, Somali Courser, Taita Fiscal, Spotted Palm ThrushWhite-bellied and Northern Grosbeak CanariesRed-naped BushshrikeYellow-breasted Apalis, and our final barbet species, Black-throated Barbet. Raptors included Bateleur, Shikra, and Eurasian Hobby. Undoubtedly, our two highlights were the very sought-after, endemic Stresemann’s Bushcrow and White-tailed Swallow. We finished the morning with a group of five Abyssinian Ground Hornbills.

In the afternoon we birded closer to Yabello. The local woodland held a variety of sunbirds and bushshrikes. The standout species were: Bare-eyed ThrushSteel-blue Whydah, and Grey-headed Batis. At sunset we moved to a site that had Pearl-spotted Owlet.

Day 19, 7 April 2017. Awassa

We did very little birding today, as we had to slowly navigate the under-construction main highway north to Awassa. After a full day’s drive there was little time left to bird the United Africa Hotel grounds before sunset.

Day 20, 8 April 2017. Awassa to Welkite

The hotel grounds offered several specials, but few compared to the African Spotted Creepers actively feeding in the taller trees, which also held hundreds of Marabou StorksBlue-headed Coucals hid in the lakeside vegetation, along with numerous migrant warblers. The lake held an abundance of waterbirds, such as African Pygmy GooseAllen’s Gallinule, and Black Crake.

The legendary Awassa fish market was a hive of activity as hundreds of gulls, terns, and marabous competed for fish scraps. Ayres’s Hawk Eagle was seen soaring high above the throng of activity.

We then set out for Welkite, which involved an ascent out of the Rift Valley and up onto the Western Highlands.

Day 21, 9 April 2017. Gibe Gorge

We made an early start to drive to the Gibe Gorge. The morning started with birding along the northern side of the Omo River. The riverside vegetation held Black-and-White Mannikin and Abyssinian Waxbills feeding with other small seedeaters. Some of the larger trees held sunbathing Senegal Coucals. We then crossed over the road bridge and walked to the opposite bank. The walk delivered the regionally-endemic Yellow-rumped Seedeater and Northern Grey-headed Sparrow. While waiting for our target species we had sightings of Saker Falcon and several species of kingfisher. As it got warmer, seedeaters came down to drink in the cool pools along the shoreline. The most notable ones included Bar-breasted FirefinchWhite-rumped Seedeater, and Exclamatory Paradise Whydah.

On the drive back to Addis Ababa we were treated to a large group of feeding vultures. There were six species in the flock: Griffon, Rüppell’s, White-backed, Lappet-faced, Hooded, and White-headed Vultures. Once back in Addis Ababa we had our final views of some of the highland species, such as Thick-billed Raven and White-collared Pigeon.

 

Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.