I will be giving a presentation on Birding in Ethiopia at the 2016 Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in May. A number of the photos I include in this blog will also be shown at the presentation. However, this blog is more comprehensive view of our trip. Hope you enjoy the journey.
This blog covers the first ten days of our trip. We covered a lot of ground and saw a lot of birds. I will be posting Part 2 of the trip hopefully by the end of May 2016 – lots going on between now and then.
ETHIOPIA – THE LAND WHERE MAN BEGAN
We arrived in Ethiopia in the late evening, the day before our bird tour with Birdquest began. Our hotel (Hotel Lobelia) was located near the airport and being as it was a Saturday night, we heard a lot of partying go on below us. I would definitely stay at this hotel again if we were to return to Ethiopia – good price and located near the airport.
In the morning we woke to the call for morning prayers. This was not the only time we heard the call to prayers. At one stop, the calls began before daylight. Ethiopia is both Muslim and Christian.
Addis Ababa from our hotel room window in the morning
Needless to say, the country is not what I expected. While I had done homework on the birds I would be seeing (Jack’s sister bought me the Birds of the African Horn for my birthday two years earlier), I didn’t check out anything about the country itself. I was in for a surprise. I thought the country would be essentially undeveloped with a few tribes here and there and a few cities. Nope – at least not along the roads we traveled during our tour.
Ethiopia has the second highest population of any African Country. Over 96.0 million people live in the country, with Nigeria having the highest population. That is a lot of people for a country the size of Alaska. For comparison purposes, Alaska has a population of 738,432 (as of July 2015).
Ethiopia superimposed over Alaska
While it felt as though we saw all 96.0 million people on our trip, we only visited a small region of the country – that portion accessible by roads, and mainly south of Addis Ababa. Of course I imagine most of the population lives along the road system, with the possible exception of nomadic tribes.
Red arrows show the route we took on our trip
So where do all these people live in Ethiopia. Despite several large cities (e.g., Addis Ababa – the capital with 3,384,569 people according to the 2007 population census), they live in the countryside. Doesn’t matter if the countryside is flat (see later photos) or mountainous (as evidenced in the photos below)- the local people have found a way to develop the land.
Most of the country’s natural habitat – at least the part we visited – is essentially gone, replaced by agricultural fields. Even the national parks are “farmed”, and the lands grazed by cattle, goats, horses, donkeys, and sheep. With over 90% of the population earning its living from the land, you can understand why so little natural habitat remains. These people are subsistence farmers – growing wheat, corn, and sorghum, although coffee is the country’s primary export. These farmers raise cattle, sheep, goats (most tended by children) – spending their day searching for something green; with donkeys and camels the beasts of burden. If people are not tending their terraced fields by hand then they are hauling water – often from streams shared with the animals and people washing their vehicles.
One of the MANY goats in the country
And speaking of donkeys, Ethiopia has the third largest population of donkeys in the world. First is China, followed by Egypt. These animals are used for service. We saw many donkeys pulling carts loaded with people and/or goods. The driver generally had a whip in their hand and used it liberally. I would not want to be a donkey in Ethiopia.
With so many of the people living along the road system the roads are used as “trails”. So as we were driving down the road, our driver was dodging people, dogs, donkeys, horses, cows, sheep, goats, and an occasional other vehicles.
Chaos in the streets
Motorized and non-motorized sharing the road
People walking alongside the road. In some cases, they actually walk on the road.
The ever present cart pulled by a donkey
You could find almost anything on the carts
We didn’t always see these tuk-tuks (or whatever they are called in Ethiopia). Note people walking on the road.
We think it must have been market day since there were so many carts on the road
This young man was helping to keep the load moving
Every time we stopped the local kids materialized out of nowhere and stood in awe. Often adults, would come and greet us. Many children wanted “pens”, which we learned can mean food, money, or pens. Some of the kids came right out and asked for money. A hand gesture towards the mouth indicated they wanted food. I wouldn’t be surprised if these kids got only one meal a day, if that. We saw few obese people in the country. In fact, the country is experiencing its worst drought in 30 years, with over 10% of the population starving – over 9 million people. That is a lot of hungry people.
These kids wanted “pens” and I just happened to have some pens I had purchased in South Africa. I didn’t want to keep them as they were not the best writing pens. I was more than happy to share them with the kids. I’ve never seen kids so happy before. Probably shouldn’t have given them anything as it just encourages them to continue to beg. Maybe I should have asked for something in return, but I’m not sure what they could have given me. Maybe a goat?
Most people seemed to welcome us with open arms – happy to see us. However, there were occasional stares or angry gestures. An occasional person who would stick out his or her tongue.
These people are poor – dirt poor. Many kids had no shoes, or their shoes were plastic sandals. Many wore tattered clothes, including in the highlands (elevations of 6-8,000 feet common and up to 13,000 feet) where I generally wore my coat to stay warm.
Note the plastic shoes worn by several of these kids.
In the country, some people live in the iconic African round huts constructed of upright wood poles covered with mud and straw and thatch roofs.
However, most homes (generally near or in cities) were constructed of concrete blocks with metal roofs or poles and mud. And they do like their fences.
Their fences come in all different shapes, sizes, and material.
Pole and mud house. This one has holes all over it. We were told they do this for decorative purposes.
This was actually a store. We didn’t see any of the typical “shopping centers”. I’m sure there are probably one or two in Addis Ababa, the capital, or maybe other large cities. This is the typical kind of stores you would see – people trying to eek out a living selling whatever they could.
Now for the birds. I saw a total of 469 birds in Ethiopia, of which approximately 279 were new birds – life birds. I enjoyed the birding in Ethiopia as there were no rain forests with dense, dark under-story vegetation where the birds can hide or skulk. Not that all birds were easy to see. While we did have one or two days of forest birding, most of the time we were in open areas. The total trip list was 518 species of birds. So you can see, I did miss some of the birds.
I would love to go back to the country to bird, but the constant barrage of kids while birding puts any damper on the thought of such a return. Not that I don’t like kids, but it is very distracting when you are trying to bird. And they always gravitate to the women first, and me being the only woman on the trip – yep, you guessed it. I must admit that at one location we birded everyone got a taste of the kids, with me actually being the last person to be approached. One kid tried to grab something out of my bag – my bird book – which did not make me a happy birder. I am embarrassed to say I was a little rude to the group of children, but I had lost my patience with them by then.
There were eight birders on the trip, the guide, the drivers, and the local guide. Jack and I were the only Americans. There was a Brit from Hong Kong, a German living in Switzerland, a guy from the Netherlands, a guy from Wales, and two guys from England. Our guide was Hungarian. I was the only woman; two of the guys were younger than yours truly.
So began our journey through Ethiopia.
In the morning, after breakfast at our hotel, we got a free shuttle back to the airport to meet the rest of our group. We were told to go into the arrival terminal to meet the others as most of the group was arriving that morning. When we got to the arrival gate a military guard prevented our entrance. Hmmm, we thought, now what? We tried to explain we needed to go inside to meet our group. He told us to go through the entrance for departures. However, we realized this would not get us where we needed to be. Another member of our group wandered outside and was not allowed back in. So all three of us waved our arms and banged on the windows to try and get the attention of our group. The group eventually wandered outside and introductions were made and we were off.
After checking out the birds at the airport – several new birds for us – we went to the Ghion Hotel in the city for (another) breakfast and garden birding. Birding the gardens, we found some more life birds – well okay, life birds for me. I’m not sure about the others.
Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher (endemic) . Don’t you just love it when birds come out into the open and pose for you. I got a lot of great shots of this bird.
Montane White-eye feeding on bread crumbs outside the hotel
Our first stop for the night was in Debre Libanos. We did bird en-route, first stopping at a wetland area . We saw a number of life birds there including the Blue-winged Goose (another endemic). I didn’t get good photos of the bird until much later, and was glad we got to see the bird again. We did see a lot of Wheatear species along the way. Ethiopia is the place to go to see Wheatears. In fact, the Northern Wheatear, which breeds in Alaska, winters in places like Ethiopia; and Ethiopia is where I finally saw the bird (but no photos).
Wattled Ibis (endemic)
Moorland Chat – a fairly common species
Mocking Cliff-Chat. I had hoped to see this species in Southern Africa but could not locate the bird. We saw it several different times in Ethiopia. Woohoo!!!
Dark Chanting Goshawk. We had a lot of raptors in Ethiopia. So many more than in Southern Africa.
The place we stayed was very primitive. Our mattresses (we had two) were placed on elevated cement blocks. The room was dark and dreary, the showers lukewarm. The place did have a commanding view of the Jemma River Valley; and there were plenty of raptors flying over head, including several vulture species and numerous Yellow-billed Kites. The kites flew so close you felt like you could reach out and touch one or ten. The flowering trees provided nectar for sunbirds (yay sunbirds). The vegetation surrounding the lodge held numerous passerine species. While the sleeping and eating (we had spaghetti with tomato sauce for lunch) were marginal, the birding was exceptional.
From Debre Libanos we headed to the Jemma River Valley in search of more birds. Before descending into the valley, our first stop was in search of the Harwood’s Francolin. This was not an easy bird to see and we had some locals who wanted to help us find the bird, but actually caused the bird to move further away. We finally did get good views of the bird (although no good photographs – at least not by me).
Once reaching the valley floor, we parked near a stream were we birded up and down the stream. Lots of birds were coming to the stream in search of water and, in some cases, food.
Bruce’s Green Pigeon
Pied Kingfisher. This was not a life bird for me in Africa. I first saw this species in Bhutan. Of all the kingfishers we saw in Africa, this was the most common on our trip.
Stripped Kingfisher. We first saw this species in Namibia.
We stopped along this water course. Luckily there was some water in the stream in places, which drew in birds including the kingfishers and the pigeon. While we were birding, a nomadic farmer and his kids were bringing their herd of goats down the stream bed.
Blue-breasted Bee-eater up high on the cliff along the stream
Our group checking out the Gelada Baboons and the Fox Falcons on the way back up from the Jemma River Valley
Looking down into the Jemma River Valley – just a little bit of ag going on.
Ankober Serin (endemic). When our guide was pronouncing the name of this bird, I kept thinking he was saying “Uncle Bar”. Our guide is Hungarian and half the time I couldn’t understand him (his accent), and the other half of the time I couldn’t hear him.
We spent the night again in Debre Libanos, but at a different hotel. Most of the hotels/lodges we stayed at would not get even a three star rating. This place wasn’t too bad, although the electricity did go out in the morning, which delayed our departure.
Our hotel for the second night. The electricity was out in the morning so we got a later than normal start as we were waiting for breakfast.
We left Debra Libanos and headed towards our stop for the night – Debra Birhan. While waiting for a van to be packed with our luggage, we did bird the hotel grounds and observed the ever present Yellow-billed Kite, and a Hooded Vulture.
Yellow-billed Kite feeding on something good
Hooded Vulture waiting for the thermals
In route, we headed across a plateau, stopping at several rivers/streams along the way, and an occasional wetland.
On their way to market? The every-present donkey. Love how they are carrying the Ethiopian Flag. Maybe off to watch a soccer game?
The women all wore colorful long skirts (except for one woman I saw wearing a dress whose hemline was just above the knee, and a few woman waitstaff who wore pants)
Groundscraper Thrush with either food or nest material in its bill
Donkeys pressed into service – carrying crops to market
At one stop we had prolonged (only because our guide was taking a gazillion photographs) looks at the bird I most wanted to see in Ethiopia – the endemic Spot-breasted Lapwing. In this non-breeding flock there were at least 60 lapwings.
Spot-breasted Lapwing (endemic)
Martin, Janos, and Johan photographing Spot-breasted Lapwings. These cows had other ideas and wanted to quench their thirst.
We arrived at Debra Birhan for a late lunch, checking into our hotel room (one of the nicest ones of the trip), and headed out again north to edge of an escarpment (Gemassa Gedal).
View of Debra Birhan from our hotel room
Ethiopian Rock Hyrax
A silhouette of our group at the escarpment
I did a little shopping here as some locals were selling hats, bags, and other items made from goat and horse hair. I bought two hats – one for myself and another as a gift for a friend – for $20. I probably made it more difficult for others to get a bargain on these items, but considering the level of poverty in the country and how much I spent on the trip, $20 was nothing to me.
We left our hotel at Debra Birhan early, and descended into the Rift Valley. There were a couple of places along the way where I would have preferred to walk as the road was narrow and in poor condition, but we made it without mishap.
Once in the valley we parked and our local guide and driver made a field breakfast for us. Our field breakfasts always consisted of oatmeal and scrambled eggs. I’m not much of a scrambled egg fan (too many trips where that was all you got for breakfast), but these scrambled eggs were delicious. They added something to the eggs to give them flavor. Yum. I always looked forward to breakfasts in the field.
While breakfast was being made we birded the immediate area, enjoying the birds and the locals with their camels.
Speaking of camels …
We got great views of the rare and little-known Yellow-throated Seedeater (endemic).
Who says hay/straw piles can’t be decorative?
We stopped along the roadside so Rob could have a potty break and these children from a nearby school came running.
This Bearded Vulture (which we also saw in Lesotho) was sitting on this post right along side the road. What great views.
Close-up of the Bearded Vulture. You can see how it got its name.
These were some of the houses we saw on our trip down into and out of the Rift Valley (in the village of Ankober).
After visiting this area of the Rift Valley, we ascended back up to the plateau and stopped back at our hotel for lunch and to collect our luggage. From there we had a long drive taking us along the outskirts of Addis Ababa to the town of Nazret for the night. En route we did spend about an hour birding at Lake Chaleleka. There we saw a lot of waterbirds and our first and only, Black Crowned Cranes. What beautiful birds. I think I like them better than the Grey Crowned Cranes. Unfortunately the birds (two) were too far away for a decent photo.
We left Nazret before dawn and made our way towards Awash National Park. Along the way we stopped at the barren lava flows by Lake Beseka to bird. Here our target bird was the Sombre Rock Chat and we got some great views (and photos) of this bird. A very nondescript bird, but it does blend in nicely with the lava rocks.
Lava flow by Lake Beseka
Sombre Rock Chat
Shining Sunbird in vegetation adjacent to the lake and lava flows
I liked how decked out this bike was
While we were birding the area, our local guide and driver were busy fixing another delicious field breakfast. We were treated to more than food, as there were a lot of raptors flying overhead, and birds on the lake – plus a crocodile or two.
From Lake Beseka we drove into Awash National Park. At the gate we picked up our park ranger – gun and all. We birded the park as we drove towards our accommodations for the night – Awash Fall Lodge. Both our local guide and our Birdquest guide noted how dry it was in the park (as I mentioned earlier, Ethiopia is experiencing its worst drought in 30 years). And dry it was.
Open under-story of the park – good for finding birds…
… like this Buff-crested Bustard
Our lodging for the night – pretty rustic.
Oryx (aka Gembock). We didn’t see much in the way of mammals while in Ethiopia.
Arabian Bustard – very similar to the Kori Bustard
Awash National Park
Heuglin’s Courser. This bird was spotted by another birding group. Now sure how they found it as it was very well hidden.
Martin, Janos (our guide), and Johan seeking to better photograph the Heuglin’s Courser
Awash National Park – little or no ground vegetation. In some parts of the park the land is grazed by cattle and goats.
Awash National Park
Awash National Park
Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu
Sunset in Awash National Park
We spent the morning birding Awash National Park finding many great birds.
White-bellied Bustard (male)- we saw a good number of these birds in the park
Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse pair
Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse (male)
Mystery bird – Female Purple Grenadier???
We left the park and headed towards Bilen, where we would stay the night. We did a little late afternoon birding near the lodge and were rewarded with some birds coming to a nearby watering hole. We birded there until dusk.
Siding of one of the houses near our lodge
Up close view
Ah green ground vegetation
Our little adobe hut
Jack relaxing on the deck. We did not have many opportunities to relax. You took them where you could.
African Mourning Dove
Sunset over the wetland pond we were birding
In the morning we birded the grounds adjacent to the lodge, getting a couple of new life birds before heading onto our next location.
Chestnut-headed Sparrow- Lark
After leaving Bilen, we headed to the Ali Dege Plains, adjacent to Awash National Park. This area is generally a vast grassland, but with the drought and overgrazing, the area was barren, with almost no vegetation. Sad.
This area seemed even more dry and barren than Awash National Park
Not much vegetation for birds or mammals (or for man, for matter)
Got to see the Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse again. I really like these birds (Sandgrouses).
More great views of the Arabian Bustard.
We soon left the Ali Dege Plains and headed towards Lake Langano for the evening. This was a great place to bird. Wish we were here for more than one night.
African Orange-bellied Parrot
Countryside near Lake Languno
Our room for the night at the Simba Hotel – not too bad
The next day we began birding on the hotel grounds. This was a very birdy location, probably due in part to its close proximity to fresh water.
These local dogs were curious, but stayed back. Many of the dogs in the country looked alike – only about three different breeds (or so it seemed).
Little Rock Thrush
White-winged Black Tit
Speckled Mousebirds. I just love the way these birds hang onto branches.
Love these trees and the mostly open under-story
Look at that “red” throat
Superb Starling gathering dirt/grit for itself or nesting material?
Striped Kingfisher. This “tree” kingfisher goes after grasshoppers primarily. Not the typical “fish” seeking water kingfishers that we are familiar with.
Ruppell’s Starling – Ethiopia has some beautiful starling species.
Von der Decken’s Hornbill (that name is a mouthful)
White-bellied Go-away-birds. These birds weren’t calling as much as their cousins the Gray Go-away- bird we saw in Southern Africa. That is a good thing as their call is annoying – sounds like babies crying/whining.
Now that is a one large bill (Hemprich’s Hornbill)
Pair of Northern White-faced Owls.
Northern-White-Faced Owl close-up
Superb Starling preening
Caught this lizard defecating
Later in the morning we birded the acacia woodlands around the Abijata-Shalla National Park headquarters. We added a few new birds to our list, and saw a few animals (although we were told most had been imported), but otherwise it was relatively quiet here.
This piece of wood looked like a dragon
park habitat – dry
Not a native ostrich
Our group in search of birds – follow the leader (with Rob in his perpetual shorts and tank top)
Cutthroat Finch – This bird’s name is appropriate
From there we headed to a hotel on the shores of Langano Lake, where we would stay the night. This was another nice hotel, with individual cabanas. Following lunch, we headed to Lake Ziway in search of waterbirds. Here I hoped to get a glimpse of the Black Heron (but luck was not on my side – again as I missed seeing the bird in Namibia).
One of many houses we encountered on the way to our lodging for the night
White-bellied Go-away Bird
These two were just outside our chalet
Northern White-crowned Shrike
Yellow Wagtail. There were several sub-species of Yellow Wagtails in Ethiopia.
Cardinal Woodpecker – this guy was on the grounds of our lodge, providing us a great view.
Blue-breasted Bee-eater on a wire at the lodge adjacent to Lake Ziway
There were a lot of Great White Pelicans at the lake
Great White Pelican
Great White Pelican
Unfortunately with the drought, and despite the green grass, there were several dead horses
As well as dying horses. So sad to see.
Blacksmith Plovers/Lapwings are everywhere
African Fish Eagle
Our group surrounded by a lot of curious kids and several dogs.
In addition to lot of pelicans, this is a favorite area of Marabou Storks
Was fun to watch this one drinking
Marabou Stork drinking water
In the morning we headed to Lake Abijata, which our Birdquest guide said was significantly lower (water level) than in previous years. We had to walk a ways out onto the soda lake bed to get to the water. The lake bed was spongy and I had this fear of disappearing into the lake, under the ground we were walking upon.
The area out to the lake was dry, dry, dry.
The actual lake bed …
… up close
Here is our group walking on the lake bed. You can see the lake water in the background
Occasionally we would come upon these open areas – scary to me. I didn’t want to fall in and disappear.
Egyptian Vulture feeding on something long dead
The beautiful Lilac-Breasted Roller
After birding the soda lake, we then left for Bales National Park, in the highlands. We stopped for lunch at the park headquarters, then birded the surrounding area. A local guide/park ranger took us to find three different owl species: Abyssinian Owl, Cape Eagle Owl, and African Wood Owl. What a great day to bird for owls – a trifecta.
We saw this guy – Thick-billed Raven – in a tree at our hotel.
The vegetation in the park was quite lush. This area must be getting some precipitation.
Our group checking out the owl
Oh so green – such a contrast from the lowlands
I love black and white dogs – including this one. Can I take him home with me?
We are looking at the Cape Eagle Owl, and Martin (Mr. Photographer of the group) is showing the local kids the photos he has taken of the owl. They were very inquisitive.
We spent some time checking out this owl. Unfortunately it was across the hill from us and so my photos are marginal.
Can you see the Cape Eagle Owl?
This is how they hobble their horses to keep them from wandering away. Unfortunately there is little slack in the ropes resulting in friction, and thus rubbing, on their leg(s).
Wattled Ibis – can you see the wattle?
We went back to our hotel (one of the worst ones on the trip) and had dinner (one of the worst ones on the trip). There was another bird group staying at the hotel and they were quite noisy. I could hear the conversations of the people in the room next to us into the late evening, so I finally put in my ear plugs. The ear plugs didn’t shut out their voices totally, but better than without them.
We started the day in the town of Goba and headed up to and over the Afro-alpine Sanetti Plateau, into the forest zone – birding along the way (of course).
Rouget’s Rail (aka Bale Chicken)
Lucky for us this is one rail that isn’t skulking around in the vegetation. We got some great views (and photographs).
This part of Ethiopia – the Bale Mountains – was green and beautiful
Here is the vehicle we used throughout the trip
Afro-alpine Sanetti Plateau
The road leading down into the forest zone
As I mentioned, Ethiopians do like their fences
This contraption is used to collect honey. At first I thought it might be used to trap birds.
Okay so we did have some forest birding.
Silvery-cheeked Hornbill (male)
Silvery-cheeked Hornbill (female)
After spending part of the day birding in the forest zone, we headed back to Goba for the night.
Afro-alpine Sanetti Plateau. This is a beautiful, and desolate area of Ethiopia. Desolate in that few people live here.
Afro-alpine Sanetti Plateau
Before I forget, Jack ate something nasty the night before (a green salad) and didn’t feel well in the morning. Before heading down into the forest zone, we made a stop for him at the top of the plateau and everyone got off the bus. We also used this time for a bathroom break. I told the guys to go the right of the bus so I could have the left side of the bus to do my business. As I was pulling down my pants, I noticed movement out in the field. I raised up (both my legs and my pants) and looked through the binoculars. There on the near horizon was the elusive Ethiopian Wolf. No one else had seen the wolf at this point. So I zipped up my pants and went around the bus to ask if anyone was interested in seeing the Ethiopian Wolf. Everyone rushed to the my side of the bus and proceeded to view that wolf, along with its mate.
The views of the wolf where not great as it was some distance out. But everyone was happy nonetheless. On the way back to our hotel from the forest zone, I noticed another Ethiopian Wolf alongside the road. I yelled for the driver to stop and everyone got much, much better looks (and photographs) of the wolf. We watched it on the left side of the road for a few minutes before it calmly moved to the right hand size of the road and proceeded to hunt. The hunt was not successful, but fun to watch. What a beautiful animal.
Afro-alpine Sanetti Plateau
The guys snipe hunting. They did see the snipe. This alpine area is reminiscent of alpine areas in Alaska – very boggy vegetation.
Don’t know the name of these flowers, but they were pretty.
More alpine vegetation
Johan and Jack
STAY TUNED FOR Days 11-19 of our trip.
No matter where you are in the world, it is always
“A GREAT DAY TO BIRD”.