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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
In route, we headed across a plateau, stopping at several rivers/streams along the way, and an occasional wetland.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
We spent the morning birding Awash National Park finding many great birds.
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.
In the morning we birded the grounds adjacent to the lodge, getting a couple of new life birds before heading onto our next location.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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).
After spending part of the day birding in the forest zone, we headed back to Goba for the night.
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.
STAY TUNED FOR Days 11-19 of our trip.