Birding Africa












Trip Report

Birding Ethiopia
14 November - 18 December 1999

A trip report by:
Michael Mills (1), Claire Spottiswoode (1), Duan Biggs (2),Gus Mills (3) and Peter Osborn (4)

(1) Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch, 7701, South Africa
(2) P.O.Box 106, Skukuza, 1350, South Africa
(3) Private Bag X402, Skukuza, 1350, South Africa
(4) Burns Farm, Fordyce, Banffshire, AB45 2DL, United Kingdom

Please email Mike, Claire or Duan for a print-friendly Word version of this trip report
There is also a quicker-downloading, photo-free version on Mike's web site

See also:
Complete, annotated checklist of birds recorded
Annotated checklist of mammals recorded


1. Introduction
Pre-trip Planning - General Information - Water Supply - Food - Health - Money - Accommodation - Climate - People - Time - Getting Around - Car Hire - Travel Logistics - Flights - Public Busses - Taxis - Security - Birds- Endemic Birds by Habitat- Useful Reading - Acknowledgements

2. Detailed Itinerary
3. Annotated Bird List
4. Annotated Mammal List


The members of our tour party changed quite considerably from the original planning, and MM only finalised arrangements in October. Our group consisted of four South Africans, namely Michael Mills, Gus Mills, Claire Spottiswoode and Duan Biggs and one Brit, Peter Osborn. Michael started planning this trip in about March of 1999. Gus had been invited to attend a workshop entitled "Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Strategy Workshop - Charting a future for Ethiopia's Afroalpine flagship". This was organised by his friend, Dr Claudio Sillero (hereafter Claudio), in the Bale Mountains National Park, Ethiopia, from 18-21 November 1999. It sounded like a perfect opportunity to visit one of the African countries we wanted to travel in most. Michael started reading up and planning an itinerary, and spread the news amongst friends in order to find some travel companions. In particular, Claudio helped tremendously in planning the trip, most especially with car hire arrangements, for which we are most grateful.

General travel and introductory topics are well covered in both the general travel guides, the Bradt Guide by Phillip Briggs (1997 edition) and the Spectrum Guide (1995 edition).

One of our biggest hassles was taking in enough fluids, particularly in Gambela. Non-carbonated mineral water is hard to find in Ethiopia, and it may be wise to stock up when in Addis Ababa, where it is sold quite widely, albeit at a price (min 1 USD per 1.5l bottle). Additionally, it is advisable to have a reliable and efficient water purification device. This was one thing we skimped on, an omission that we later bitterly regretted. Chlorine tablets are fairly effective, but the taste is not very pleasant, and good drinking water can make the world of difference to the enjoyment of the trip. Inexpensive and widely available bottled drinks include beer, carbonated mineral water (Ambo) and Pepsi, Mirinda and 7-Up, and the Coca-Cola equivalents. A great change from these is freshly squeezed, cheap fruit juice available at some bars and pastry shops, as well as excellent strong and sweet black coffee and spicy tea.

The Ethiopian stable, injera (a sour, thick pancake made of an endemic grain, tef) and wat (a stew, usually spicy and containing meat - often goat) seems to be available everywhere, and is cheap and filling, if not to everyone's taste. Most of the cheap, small, private hotels also offered pasta or other western dishes. The larger towns had pastry shops supplying very good doughnuts, cakes and different types of bread. Highly recommended are government hotels and the smarter, larger private hotels. They generally serve excellent western meals such as a large plate of steak and chips for between US$1 and US$2. The Ethiopia Hotel in Gambela was particularly good.

Malaria occurs in the moister, lower-lying areas of Ethiopia, and we all took prophylactics (Lariam). The sanitation related diseases Hepatitis A and E, and typhoid occur widely, but taking the appropriate inoculations can reduce the risk of contracting these diseases. A yellow fever vaccination is compulsory, and a vaccination certificate must be submitted with your visa application. While we were also fairly careful with what we ate and drank, we still managed to pick up some nasty diseases between the five of us. One of us came down with hepatitis A after returning to South Africa. In retrospect, we were quite daft not to have had a Hepatitis A innoculation before leaving. Briggs also has some good advice that should not be taken lightly.

The Ethiopian currency, the Birr, was trading at an exchange rate of 8.1 Birr to 1 US$ during Nov/Dec 1999. It is safest to take US$ travellers' cheques and some cash. Money can be exchanged at any branch of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia and at some government hotels. Exchanging money was usually a lengthy process, but we never encountered any unpleasantness. In our experience the quickest place to exchange money was on arrival at the airport. N.B. Departure tax is US$10 and has to be paid in US$ cash.

We used budget accommodation throughout our trip. Cheap hotels averaged between US$2 and US$3 per night. If the first hotel we visited looked uninhabitable, we generally found something slightly better after a look around. We are particularly grateful to our driver Abebe in this regard. At many of the hotels, especially those in more remote areas, hygiene conditions were appalling. Camping out in the bush was more pleasant. The Bradt guide contains information on all classes of accommodation. Generally prices of upmarket accommodation change little, but smaller and cheaper accommodation is a continuous state of flux, so information may become quickly outdated. The driver of your vehicle is likely to have good knowledge on which hotel best suit your requirements. The Debre Damo Hotel (Asmara Road) in Addis Ababa provided for good, cheap accommodation and excellent, friendly service. The only clean accommodation in Gambela appears to be the rather expensive Ethiopia Hotel. The manager kindly permitted us to camp in the hotel grounds, after a little persuasion, allowing us to leave the spectacularly squalid hotel where we spent our first few nights.

Rain falls mainly from June to October, making road travel very difficult at times. We are let to believe that the best time to visit for bird watching is between September and December. We hardly encountered any rainy weather except for brief showers at Debre Libanos and Gambela. The highlands have a temperate climate and can get very cold at night, dropping well below freezing in high-lying areas such as the Bale and Simien mountains. If you are going to camp in the Bale mountains, warm gear is essential during winter. The rift valley and lowlands are warm, even in winter, so take suitable clothing. The western lowlands around Gambela are tropical and unpleasantly humid and hot, even during the dry season. At night, temperatures dropped little, making it very difficult to sleep. It is advisable to take a mosquito net if planning to visit Gambela, or be prepared to pitch your tent in your hotel room.

On the whole people were incredibly friendly and helpful, though sometimes so-called 'faranji hysteria' - excessive attention towards foreigners - while usually good-natured, did hinder birding somewhat, particularly at Debre Libanos, Nechisar and at a lake near Dire Dawa. Naturally, the more popular tourist destinations attract very persistent beggars.

One of the first Ethiopian peculiarities we encountered was their different, yet practical, time system. Ethiopian time runs on a twelve-hour clock, staring at around sunrise (6 a.m.) and completing the first cycle at around sunset (6 p.m.). Thus when dealing with locals you need to make sure that you are referring to the same time - there is always six hours difference.


Car Hire
We were very fortunate with car hire. Claudio kindly organised us a very favourable deal for the first 23 days of the trip, of a Toyota Landcruiser and driver from Rocky Valley Safaris in Addis Ababa. Our driver, Abebe Sbesbe, was wonderful - not only an excellent driver, but also an extraordinary Landcruiser mechanic, and a great personality with a marvellous sense of humour. Abebe looked after his car (and us) very well. Although it was fairly old, he kept it running smoothly for the full duration of the trip, despite taking some very rough roads. After 23 days of travelling with Abebe, we would strongly have recommend Rocky Valley Safaris, and most particularly Abebe. Regrettably, and for reasons that remain unclear, our trip caused much unhappiness with Rocky Valley Safaris and put us in a position of great disfavour. Hence, we hesitate to recommend this travel outfit to anyone wishing to arrange an expedition-style trip to Ethiopia.

Travel Logistics
The road conditions in Ethiopia are generally very poor, and it essential that any birding group hire a 4x4 if they intend to visit areas anywhere off the main roads. Road repair was underway between Addis and Debre Zeyit (and ultimately to Awasa and Djibouti), and between Addis and Jimma and Addis and Woldiya. We generally found a 400km trip to be a whole day's drive. It appears to be imperative to carry extra fuel containers as backup, as often the supply of fuel is uncertain in the more remote areas. We were however informed that fuel was far more widely available than it had ever been before, and that things were steadily improving in this regard. Road signs appeared to be virtually non-existent, and of course in this respect Abebe's knowledge was invaluable. Our maps (a Michelin Map of North-East Africa, and a government-printed map) were fairly accurate but suffered from the evident limitations of their small scale.

The very modern and well-organised fleet of Ethiopian Airlines cover an extensive network of internal flights. We took one internal flight, from Addis to Gambela at US$100 per person, payable only in USD (travellers' cheques accepted).

Public Busses
Good information on the public bus service is available in the Bradt Guide. Public busses are a very cheap way of getting around (about US$10 to travel the 700km (3 days) from Gambela to Addis). We only used this form of transport from Gambela to Addis. Due to the poor road conditions, the busses understandably move slowly. The busses are full, but not at all overloaded, and those we took were safely driven. We certainly found bus travel to be a great way to soak up the cultural atmosphere of Ethiopia and talk to the locals.

We used local taxis in Jima and Addis Ababa. The minibus taxis, which follow fixed routes, are much cheaper than the sedan taxis. We found hotel staff in Addis Ababa to be very helpful with regards to taxi routes.

During the time of our visit, the border dispute with Eritrea made the extreme north of the country, including the historical area around Axum, out of bounds. This region is of considerable historical interest, although doesn't lie on the standard birding circuit. At the time of our visit, was trouble with Somali bandits made the road from Bale to Negele (in the south-east) out of bounds, and a trip down to Bogol Manyo (on the Kenyan border) was also impossible , due to rebel activity from the Oromo Liberation Front. Driving from Yavello towards Negelle, we were forbidden to proceed beyond Melka Ghubda, thus precluding looking for two localised endemics, Sidamo and Degodi Larks. The areas affected by banditry and rebel activity presumably change quickly, so local advice should probably be sought once in the country. Even if safety is not a problem, some of the more remote areas, especially towards Somalia in the east, should be visited with at least two vehicles. It would also be advisable to be completely self-sufficient with respect to petrol and water. The situation of unrest during our visit seemed well controlled. Abebe had the valuable foresight to take us to the local authorities in Yabello to get a letter of permission to travel eastwards towards where the OLF was active. There were military roadblocks in this area of unrest, where officials informed us of the situation and ultimately prevented us from entering certain areas that were said to be dangerous. Incidentally, many men outside of the large towns openly carry automatic weapons, although fortunately were without exception friendly and welcoming!

About 840 species have been recorded in Ethiopia, of which about 30 are endemic to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Most of these endemics are quite easy to see (they are listed per habitat below), and are concentrated in the central and southern parts of the country. Ethiopia also boasts numerous near-endemics, which include Erckel's, Moorland and Chestnut-naped Francolins, Sombre Rock-chat, Black-billed Woodhoopoe, White-winged Dove, Jubaland Weaver, Somali Short-billed Crombec, Gillett's Lark, White-rumped Babbler and Red-breasted Wheatear.

Highland grasslands: Wattled Ibis, Blue-winged Goose, Rouget's Rail, White-collared Pigeon, Spot-breasted Lapwing, Abyssinian Longclaw, Black-headed Siskin
Rocky areas and cliffs, mainly in the highlands: White-winged Cliff Chat, White-billed Starling, Ruppell's Black Chat, and Thick-billed Raven
Forests, mainly in the highlands: Yellow-fronted Parrot, Black-headed Forest Oriole, Abyssinian Woodpecker, Black-winged Lovebird, White-cheeked Turaco, Abyssinian Catbird, White-backed Tit, Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher, Banded Barbet.
Other species:
Degodi Lark: Dry bushland around Bogol Manyo in the extreme southwest
Sidamo Lark: Open grassy savannah in the Negelle area, in the southwest
Stressman's Bush Crow and Whitetailed Swallow: Arid Acacia savannahs around Yabello, in the far south
Salvadori Serin: discovered in 1980; restricted to the area around Sof Amor, with recent records from the area between Negelle and Bogol Manyo
Ankober Serin: cliff faces and adjacent grasslands, mainly on the Ankober Escarpment in the Ankober area
Harwood's Francolin: large river valleys in the central highlands; most accessible along the Jemmu river
Ruspoli's Turaco: Remnant forest patches in the south of the country; highly localised; best seen at Arero forest
Nechisar Nightjar: one specimen collected as a roadkill from the Nechisar National Park.

The two bird books we had on the trip were Ber van Perlo's Illustrated Checklist of the Birds of Eastern Africa and Zimmerman, Turner and Pearson's Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania. Although van Perlo was great to have as it is the only book to illustrate all of Ethiopia's birds, it contains numerous inaccuracies. The distribution maps are understandably approximate, but were nonetheless extremely helpful. Zimmerman et al. was great to have on the trip. Whenever there was confusion, Zimmerman et al. solved the problem. The illustrations were generally very accurate, and the text superb. An excellent publication that gives detailed vegetation information as well as more background on the areas and good birding info is Important Bird Areas of Ethiopia: a first inventory by Tilahun, Edwards, and Wgziabher, and published by the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (1996). Wheatley's Where to Watch birds in Africa (Helm, 1995) gives only very brief overview of the main sites. Additionally, we consulted three very helpful trip reports: Shirihai & Francis, Baha El Din & Baha El Din, and the classic by Webb et al. We took both the Bradt Guide to Ethiopia by Phillip Briggs (1997 edition) and the Spectrum Guide to Ethiopia (1995 edition) on our trip. The Bradt guide offered excellent practical information on where to stay and eat and how to get around, whereas the Spectrum guide generally gave better information on vegetation, rainfall, geography and history.

This trip would have been impossible without the help of many people. We would especially like to thank Dr Claudio Sillero of the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme and of Oxford University for his extremely generous help and hospitality. We are also very grateful to our excellent driver, Abebe Sbesbe of Rocky Valley Safaris. Steve Rooke of Sunbird kindly provided us with information and lent us a trip report when we met him in Wondo Genet, and Prof. Rolf de By (The Netherlands) and Dr Peter Ryan (South Africa) assisted us with references before our trip. We're also grateful to Drs Roger Safford and Nigel Cleere (U.K.) for identifying our Star-spotted Nightjar photos from Nechisar, and to Louis A. Hansen (Denmark) for providing further references about Gambela.

Detailed Itinerary

We four South Africans arrived in Addis Ababa early on the 14th, after our seven-hour flight from Johannesburg. Abebe (our driver) met us at Bole International Airport with our hired vehicle. We went straight to the Debre Damo Hotel in Asmara Road (recommended by Claudio), where we made bookings for later in the trip, and they kindly allowed us to leave some supplies for the Gambela section of our trip in their storeroom. In the hotel yard we notched up the first of our lifers, Brown-rumped serin. After visiting a supermarket to get some basic supplies, including bottled, non-carbonated water, we headed northwards out of Addis towards Debre Libanos. We made our first stop for a walk on the Solulta Plains, after about 30km. Amongst the many common species we found the only Ortolan bunting of the trip. Other species of note included a large flock of Black-winged plovers, and five endemics namely Black-headed siskin, Abyssinian longcalw, Blue-winged goose, Wattled ibis and White-collared pigeon. Further on we found our first Common cranes feeding in small flocks in the grasslands, and had a Lammergeyer pass low over the car. At the town of Muka Turi , we turned eastwards and headed towards the spectacular Jemmu river valley. Half-way down the descent into the valley, we stopped near a large white cliff face on the left-hand side of the road. Here we were rewarded with Ruepell's black chat, Hemprich's hornbill, White-billed starling and Abyssinian black wheatear. On reaching the valley floor we headed straight to the Jemmu river, stopping on the way for Speckle-fronted weaver and African silverbill in agricultural lands. We spent the last hour of daylight birding around the bridge at the river. At dusk we continued on to Alem Katema, one hour's drive further. We stayed in a cheap hotel at Alem Katema on Abebe's recommendation, although it may in retrospect have been more pleasant to camp at the Jemmu River.

Up at about 4:30, we left for the Jemmu River arriving just before sunrise. Our main target bird here was the highly localised endemic, Harwood's francolin. We crossed the bridge and followed the road for about 100m. At about 7am we heard the first francolins calling a long way upstream. We left the road and made our way to the river's bank. After about 30 minutes we located an individual on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the river, from where it was calling. We managed to get good views, and later saw one calling from an exposed branch on the edge of some adjacent cultivated fields, and one walking in the open in the riverbed. Other birds seen during the course of the morning, along the river and in the surrounding vegetation, included Vinaceous dove, Grey-headed batis, Montagu's harrier, Black-billed barbet, Nubian shrike, Crimson-rumped waxbill and Bush petronia. After a few hours we made our way back to the main Addis - Bahar Dar road, stopping for Blue-breasted bee-eater and Nyanza swift at the "white cliffs" along the escarpment. On reaching the road we turned northwards and continued on to Debre Libanos, stopping along the way to admire a troop of Gelada baboons for an hour or so. Soon after arrival it started to rain quite heavily, so we waited a while till the storm had passed. After paying our entrance fee to the local pastor, we made our way into the surrounding forests. Here we notched up Rufous-chested sparrowhawk, White-cheecked tauraco, Singing cisticola, Abyssinian slaty flycatcher, White-backed tit, Lemon dove, Slender-billed starling, Banded barbet (a pair in a fig tree along the small stream just below the monastery - they were nesting just above the showers) and Black-headed forest oriole. Before returning to Addis we made a brief stop at the Portuguese Bridge, were we had rather distant views of White-winged cliff chat, and Blue rock thrush. After dark we made our way back to Addis (about three hours), where we spent the night in the Debre Damo Hotel.

Male Gelada Baboon near Debre Libanos

We started early on our way to Sheshemene, making various birding stops along the way. The first of these was at Lake Hora, Debre Zeyit. The most interesting species here were Bruce's green pigeon and Gull-billed tern. Our next stop was at Lake Ziway, where African pygmy goose was the most notable of our finds. Between Lakes Ziway and Langano we took a short walk in some good looking woodland, and were rewarded with Black-billed woodhoopoe, Northern black tit, Lesser whitethroat and many others. Shortly afterwards we saw the first of many groups of Abyssinian ground hornbill. The grounds of the Wabe Shabele Hotel at Lake Langano, produced numerous roosting Slender-tailed nightjars, Little weaver and Little rock thrush. We then made our way to Wondo Genet, not far from Sheshemene, were we birded in the late afternoon. At Sheshemene we saw our first impressively equipped Thick-billed raven. The Wondo Genet hotel grounds were unproductive so we made our way up to the quarry, stopping on the way to admire Abyssinian ground thrush on the open forest floor, and a single Black-winged lovebird perched on top of a tree. The forested gorge above the quarry produced our main target species, Yellow-fronted parrot. Their shrieks revealed their presence and we managed to locate a number of birds, including a pair coming out of their nest hole. We spent the night in the "Abyccinia Hotel" in the nearby village and had quite a good meal at the Wondo Genet Hotel. Whilst having dinner there we were fortunate to meet up with the Sunbird group lead by Steve Rooke, who kindly gave us some useful information, including the Shirihai & Francis trip report.

We started early and were treated to a lovely Golden jackal along the road near Shashemene. We made a few birding stops on the way to Dinsho, headquarters of the Bale Mountains National Park (BMNP). One was at the well-known African long-eared owl stakeout (at the rectangular stand of Eucalyptus trees, 53km towards Goba from the Goba turn-off Shashemene), and others for roadside views of Mountain Nyala, Rouget's rail and Red-billed Chough. Claudio Sillero was at the park headquarters to meet us and showed us where to set up camp. We spent the afternoon birding in the forest around the park headquarters, finding Menelik's bushbuck, Abyssinian ground thrush, White-backed tit, noisy groups of Abyssinian catbird, Chestnut-naped francolin and Brown woodland warbler. In the late afternoon one of Claudio's colleagues kindly took us to a nearby Ethiopian wolf den. Here we were treated to views of two cubs and two adults, with Stout cisticola and a single Serval cat only briefly arresting our attention. On the way back to Dinsho, after dark, we flushed two Montane nightjars from the road.

Ethiopian Wolf

We spent the early morning around the park headquarters. Cinnamon bracken warblers skulked in the thick scrub, and a pair of Mountain buzzards was also present in the area. During the rest of the morning we sat in on the beginning of the wolf workshop, where we learnt a great deal about the problems facing the conservation of the Ethiopian wolf. In the afternoon the workshop started in earnest, so we headed up into the Web Valley (25km SW of Dinsho, at 3500m altitude). The scenery was spectacular, and equally so the birds and other animals, which included Abyssinian hyrax, Starck's hare and numerous Ethiopian wolves. Carefully checking all the eagles in the area, we managed to find one individual of Africa's only known Golden eagle breeding population. Spot-breasted plovers and Rouget's rail were fairly numerous on the open meadows, and we also saw a pair of Wattled cranes with a large chick. As it was getting late a pair of Moorland francolin crossed the road in front of us to round off a most enjoyable afternoon. Once back at the park headquarters we met up with the fifth member of our group, PO, who had just arrived from England. At night we heard, from the camp site, Montane nightjar and African wood owl calling.

We got off to an early start for the long (time-wise) drive to Sof Omar, about 140 km east of Dinsho. We made a few stops along the road where we spotted birds such as White-rumped babbler, and where some bridge reconstruction was necessary. Our most significant stop en route was made about 20km before Sof Omar, that produced, amongst others, Dodson's bulbul (Pycnonotus barbartus dodsoni), Somali golden-breasted bunting, Nightingale, Olivaceous warbler and Northern grey tit, and a putative Salvadori's serin (very brief views). On reaching the edge of the dry river valley at Sof Omar we got out and walked down the road to the riverbed. On the way we were rewarded with a pair of Brown-tailed chats on the road verge. However, we didn't dawdle, as we could hear serins calling from the Acacias in the riverbed below. On reaching the riverbed the serins stopped calling for a while and our attention was shifted to Shining sunbird, Pygmy batis and a number of more common species. Shortly the serins started calling again, and we managed to track them down, confirming them to be the highly localised Salvadori's serin. At first they frustrated us, showing only for poor views, but after a bit of persistence we all obtained very good views. After having a quick but highly recommendable look at the mystical caves (not an easy task to negotiate as the locals were in discord since the previous chief had passed away recently), we started on the long drive back to Dinsho. The most notable sighting on the way back was a strikingly graceful male Pallid harrier.

The Sanetti Plateau from Mt Tullu Deemtu (4337m), Bale Mountains National Park

After some discussions the night before, we had to make a slight change in plan and decided to go to the Harenna forest for the night. To be able to do this we needed a guide. We left around 11am, as we could only inform the parks officials of our intent in the morning. En route to Harenna we crossed the Sanetti plateau where the crisp air, icy cold lakes and giant lobelias treated us to a highly memorable visual display. Ruddy shelducks, Pintail and Shoveller added some colour to the waters, and we also saw another Golden eagle near Mt Tullu Deemtu, the highest peak in southern Ethiopia (4337m). On the southern side of the plateau we started descending through the various zones of vegetation such as giant heath forest, bamboo forest etc. After we had descended some way we took a suitable track and found a spot along a stream where we could set up camp. It was already getting dark so there was little time for birding. After dark we went for a fairly uneventful night drive, with African civet being our most interesting find, and a leopard called close to our camp all night.

Giant Lobelias on the Sanetti Plateau

At sunrise we started birding along the main road through the forest. During the morning we saw a number of forest species, but the highlight was undoubtedly African hill babbler, which was often heard calling from the mid- and lower-strata. CS also saw Narina trogon, and a Grey woodpecker us caused some confusion as it did not show the ostensibly characteristic barring on the wing and tail edges, which distinguish it from the similar, but absent, Olive woodpecker. At around midday GM and some of the other "workshoppers" met us briefly for lunch and a bit of birding. After lunch we ascended onto the Sanetti plateau, where were fortunate to see two solitary Ethiopian wolves hunting for small mammals. In the juniper-Hagenia forest just on the Sanetti side of the juniper plantations just south of Gobe, we stopped for a short while, and quickly managed to track down our target species, Abyssinian woodpecker, as well as plenty of Abyssinian catbirds, White-backed tits and Cinnamon bracken warblers. As it started getting dark, we headed back to Dinsho.

The Harenna forest, Bale Mountains National Park

After we bade Claudio and others goodbye, we headed back into the rift valley, stopping en route for PO to tick African long-eared owl. Our initial plan was to stop for the night at Awasa and bird around the lake. However, as we were approaching Awasa the weather looked poor, so we decided to press on southwards. We reached Agere Maryam some time after dark, and spent the night in a rather dingy hotel (with a red light at the front door!). The day was noteworthy for its lack of birds. Grey-backed fiscal near Awasa was the most interesting.

Peter, Gus, Claire, Duan, Abebe and Mike, just north of Yavello

A much better day than the previous. We continued south towards Yavello, making our first stop on reaching more open, dry country. Here we were rewarded with Spotted morning warbler, Shelley's starling, Common rock-thrush and numerous others. A superb Green-backed eremomela was a welcome surprise. A bit further, a yell of STOP-STOP-STOP brought us an abrupt halt near a pair of startlingly woodhoopoe-shaped (in profile!) Golden-breasted starlings, on top of an acacia. Further south, about 50 km out of Yavello, the interesting flight pattern of White-crowned starling caused us to stop, accompanied by our first Stresseman's bush crow. During the rest of our time in the area we saw many more. At Yavello we had a good lunch at the Star Restaurant found a suitable hotel for the night and then paid a visit to the local administration offices, where Abebe obtained for us a letter which allowed us to move freely through the area. It was worth the wait, not only for Barefaced go-away, but also because the letter was invaluable when we later needed to get through some official roadblocks. After sorting all this out we headed back northwards for about 10 km before turning right onto the well-signposted Did-tuyara Ranch track, where we hoped to find White-tailed swallow. On the way we found Kori Bustard on the side of the road. At the housing complex (about 3 km from the main road) we were granted permission to do some birding on the ranch. We took the left-hand fork beyond the houses and drove down into an acacia-filled valley. Bush birds abound and we saw the first Blue-naped mousebirds and Orange-bellied parrots of the trip. We were also rewarded with our main target, White-tailed swallow, when DB spotted a single individual some distance away, flying over the woodland. Although the bird was quite far away, the light was excellent and we obtained good views. Other notable species seen here were Stresseman's Bush-Crow, Red-necked falcon and Black-bellied Korhaan. We then returned to our hotel in Yavello just before dark.

Bush-crow habitat at Did-tuyara

We left Yavello at sunrise, first popping into Steve Rooke's site for White-tailed swallow, but without success. We had to make do with Chestnut sparrow and Rosy-patched shrike. We then headed for Arero, stopping along the way if we saw something of interest. In the roadside thorn-veld we found Kirk's dik-dik, Tiny cisticola, Pale prinia, Banded parisoma, Black-faced waxbill and numerous others. On reaching Arero we obtained permission to visit the nearby forest. After passing a small patch of Juniper-Olive forest just north of Arero, we passed through a more open area where we found Black-capped sociable weaver and Black woodhoopoe. We however pushed on to the main forest where we hoped to find the highly localised Ruspoli's Tauraco. A 1991 article (including a good map) by Yilma Dellelegn (Walia 13: 29-35) was very helpful here. After travelling some distance into the forest, we made a stop and walked a while. Shortly afterwards a tauraco was spotted in a roadside Juniper. The bird was elusive and we chased after it for some time, only glimpsing it, but its white crest indicated that it was most definitely Ruspoli's. Not satisfied with our views we continued a short while on and were soon rewarded with excellent views of a single bird, giving an intriguing almost squirrel-like rattling call. Once the bird had moved off we reassessed our situation. In order to get an early start the next morning we decided to head back towards Arero and camp nearby in the forest. We picked a roadside campsite on a road branching off to the left of the main road, seeing a pair of Lesser Kudu along the way.

We started on the very poor road to Melka Ghuba at around 6 am. Our first stop produced Abyssinian scimitarbill and Pringle's puffback. Thankfully we joined up with a much better new road which goes via Wachile. About 200m after joining the new road we stopped where there was a clearing from the roadworks on the right hand side. A flowering Erythrina tree hosted a number of sunbird species, including Hunter's, Shining and Eastern violet-backed. While mimicking a Pearl-spotted owl I managed to attract a number of birds, such as Pringle's puffback, into a nearby bush. Suddenly a black-and-white Laniarius shrike popped out of the foliage and training my binoculars on it I saw flashed of red behind the head as it hopped agitatedly around - Red-naped bush shrike! Unfortunately it didn't stay long and we were left with the feeling that we could have had better views. We pushed on to Wachile, spotting Ethiopian swallow when we had to stop at a checkpoint in Wachile village. We stopped for breakfast soon after Wachile and found Black-throated barbet and Eastern yellow-billed hornbill. A bit later we had Brown-necked raven overhead. Between Hudat (Black-capped Sociable Weaver in the village) and Melka Ghuba we made a quick stop and found Somali long-billed crombec and Yellow-vented eremomela. By the time we reached Melka Ghuba it was already hot and there was little bird activity. We went into town and were told at the checkpoint that we could go no further, for safety reasons. We returned to the vicinity of the river and worked hard to find Three-streaked tchagra, Red-fronted warbler and Rufous bush chat in the low scrub. DB also found Heuglin's courser. However, we could not find White-winged dove anywhere. As we were about to turn back to Wachile at about 4pm, CS spotted a dove perched on top of a tree across the river. It took flight and we could clearly see the white in the wing. We decided to stay a short while longer and were soon rewarded with nearby views. In good spirits, we headed back for Wachile. After a few kilometres we were elated to find a flock of Vulturine guineafowl on the roadside - our only group of the trip. As time was running low we sped back to Wachile without stopping and set up camp a few kilometres beyond the village.

At sunrise we started on our way to Yavello. We made a few stops along the way, but saw nothing of particular interest. We stopped for breakfast at the Red-naped bush shrike spot, hoping to locate it again. I heard a species of Laniarius calling in the nearby bushes and it proved to be our bird. We were treated to superb views of this secretive species as it skulked around the thick vegetation. A few hundred metres down the road we located Bare-eyed thrush and, some time later, White-bellied canary and a Heuglin's courser roadkill. We reached Yavello around midday, stopping for a leisurely lunch before continuing to Konso. The first section of the Konso road was very good and we quickly completed the first 80 km. However the last 40 km stretch was in poor condition and we had to move slowly. Along this stretch we spotted a single Lichtenstein's sandgrouse sheltering in the shade of a bush, but not much else. The scenery was however spectacular and it was special to see the ancient agricultural techniques of the locals. We reached Konso just before dark and checked into the hotel on the left-hand side of the road, just before the traffic circle.

We spent the morning visiting some of the local villages with a guide, Alemitou, from the Konso Culture Office. At around 10am we headed through rolling hills to Arba Minch, stopping briefly for a roadside view of Woodchat shrike, African openbill and White-headed vulture. We had an excellent lunch at Rosa's restaurant, and stocked up of pastries before entering Nechisar NP. We paid our entrance and camping fees at the park headquarters and obtained permission to do a night drive. It is important to note that the park entrance fee is for single entry only. For example, if we wanted to go back to Arba Minch for a meal we would have to pay to re-enter! The park officials also wanted us to take a guide. As we didn't have any room and saw no need for it, we insisted that Abebe was our guide and that he knew his way around the reserve. They seemed happy with this, so we went to set up camp in the groundwater forest along the Kulfo river. By the time we had done this it was almost dark and there wasn't much time for birding. The most interesting record was a Yellowbill calling from just across the river, and Freckled nightjar and Verreaux's eagle owl calling after dark.

The Nechisar Plains

The first two hours were spent birding along the forest edge adjacent to the river. It was a very frustrating morning - Double-toothed barbet flashed overhead, Bruce's green pigeon was heard only, and we could not locate Banded wattle-eye which was calling nearby. PO saw Half-collared kingfisher along the river, but not much else. As it was a weekend, a number of local children were in the reserve, and a group of them took to following us around very noisily, hindering our bird-watching and causing much irritation. Somewhat fed up with them we left for the Nechisar plains, crossing the spectacular "bridge of heaven" along the way. Perched on a tree on the banks of Lake Abaya was a single Osprey, and in the bush we found a small flock of Chestnut weavers. On the plains were herds of Grant's gazelle, Plains zebra and Swayne's hartebeest. For lunch we made our way to the shores of Lake Chamo, passing herds of cattle and small settlements on the way. Settlement by locals seems to be a big problem in most of the reserves we entered in Ethiopia, although it is illegal. The area around Lake Chamo was particularly heavily settled, and although we did see a Long-legged buzzard we decided to head for the hot springs for a more peaceful lunch. We spent the heat of the day in the shade along the Semale River, where we saw Scaly-throated honeyguide. A quick visit to the hot springs produced nothing of great birding note, and we decided to head back onto the plains. Heading towards the "Bridge to heaven" we turned right onto a track just beyond the plains. There were few birds around, but the scenery was breathtaking and we thoroughly enjoyed the sunset from our vantage point. Once it was dark we took out the spotlight and our camera gear. The first few nightjars we saw were all Slender-tailed. After a short while we saw a small dark nightjar in the road in the road. From what we could see, it was definitely different. I connected the spotlight to my portable battery, and CS and I slowly made our way towards the bird. CS took a few photos while I held the spotlight. She then took the spotlight, making her way to its front, while I stalked around the back. I then got close enough to throw my jacket over it and pick it up. We checked the wing and tail pattern with all the nightjars illustrated in Van Perlo and Zimmerman. None except for Star-spotted matched, but it is meant to have two conspicuous patches on the throat which our bird lacked. After taking photographs and field notes, we released it. Once back home it was positively identified as Star-spotted with the help of Roger Safford and Nigel Cleere; please also see the following publication: Mills, M. & Spottiswoode, C. 2000 Photospot: Star-spotted Nightjar. African Bird Club Bulletin 7(2): 141-143.) We then continued on back to camp. We saw many nightjars, but all were Slender-tailed, and by the end of the evening we had seen 21. Lions roared around out tents all night; we also heard African wood Owl calling and, some distance downstream, a Pel's Fishing Owl.

Star-spotted Nightjar

Once again we birded in the forest along the river around our campsite. This time we had much better luck, having good views of Double-toothed barbet, African thrush and Banded wattle-eye. At about 09h00 we left Nechisar NP and headed towards Sheshemene, and then onto Awasa. We arrived at Wabe Shabele Hotel No. 2 in the early afternoon, and birded the gardens and lake frontage. The most interesting species seen were Black egret, Fawn-breasted waxbill (one sub-adult), Hunter's sunbird, Black-winged lovebird, Scaly-throated honeyguide, Gull-billed tern and Banded barbet. There were also large flocks of Silvery-cheeked hornbill in the fruiting fig trees, together with a few Violet-backed starlings. We then moved onto Hotel 1 to try and find a Spotted creeper for PO, which we managed to do successfully, as well as a single Blue-headed coucal. After dark we drove to Lake Langano where we pitched tent at the excellent camp site (hot showers included) of the Bekele Mola Hotel.

Up early for some birding around the lake, we made for the area where we had heard thick-knees calling during the night - they proved to be Senegal. We saw a good number of species, including Northern black tit, White-winged cliff chat, Abyssinian black wheatear, Banded barbet, African pygmy kingfisher, but only Ruppel's weaver was new for us. We then drove directly to Addis, seeing en route Common crane, Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse and Chestnut sparrow, and arrived at midday. After visiting the Ethiopia Airways office and shopping for supplies, we had a superb lunch at the nearby Ras Hotel. Leaving Addis we headed north to Debre Birhan. Arriving after dark, we spent the night at the very pleasant Hellen Hotel.

Escarpment near Ankober

Up early again, we headed straight for Ankober, stopping along the way for White-winged cliff chat (9.8km from the Helen Hotel in Debre Birhan). We didn't spend too much time as we wanted to get to the spots where other groups had seen Ankober serin. We spent a good few hours walking along the cliffs, and in the adjacent grasslands and cultivated fields where others had had success. Luck was however not on our side, and we left Ankober only at midday without having found our target species. Our rewards included a flight view of Erckel's francolin along the escarpment, Lammergeier, White-winged Cliff Chat just below Ankober village, and other highland species such as Blue Rock Thrush, Verreaux' Eagle and Ruppell's Black Chat. We continued past Ankober and down the escarpment, making our next stop at Melka Ghebdu River (there is no village!). In the first tree we stopped under was a calling serin. We managed to locate it and it proved to be the highly localised Yellow-throated. We saw a number of individuals in the acacias along the river, as well as Yellow-breasted barbet. (Francis and Shirihai write in their trip report that Yellow-throated serin may in fact be a hybrid between Yellow-rumped and White-bellied. The amount of yellow and its positioning of the chest/breast/throat varied quite a lot between the different individuals we saw, adding strength to this argument.) We then moved on towards Awash, knowing that we had a lot of driving still to do. After some time we passed through an area of dry thorn scrub and made stops for Hamadryas baboon (a wonderful animal), three separate Arabian bustards, Eurasian wryneck, Common ostrich, Great grey shrike and Egyptian vulture. As we continued the track became progressively less distinct, and we started losing our way. We obtained directions form a number of the local Afar people, but only on our fourth were we successful. By the time we were put back on the correct route it was already getting dark and we still had some distance to cover, so we were reluctant to stop. We flushed many nightjars off the road, and also saw a single Violet-tipped courser, a seldom-recorded species in Ethiopia. We arrived at Metahara at about 21h00 and checked into one of the numerous hotels. Although the trip between Ankober and Awash/Metahara provided fantastic scenery and some very good birding, it clearly has its risks. Webb et al. were, by their own admittance, lucky to find their way as easily as they did, and we were informed by locals that the previously most direct road to Awash had washed away and was impassable. The condition of the road is very poor, and careful consideration should be made about taking this route. An obvious advantage would be to have a driver whom had done the trip before, but even so, allowance should be made for a full day to complete this trip.

The road from Ankober to Awash

We drove eastwards from Metahara, completing the 40km trip to the entrance of Awash NP by 06h30. Our aim was to go straight to Mount Fentalle, but to do so we needed a guide. Unfortunately there were no guides available at the time, so we organised to pick a guide up early the next morning, and decided to bird the Awash plains and Awash River instead. Before reaching the open grasslands, we passed an area interspersed with bush. Here Ashy cisticola was common, and we saw a number of Straw-tailed whydahs in breeding plumage. Our first stop on the grasslands was made when we saw some small larks flying around adjacent to the road. After repeatedly flushing the birds and finally having one perch briefly on top of a bush, we positively identified them as Singing bush lark. Not long afterwards we started seeing Red-winged larks perched on the isolated bushes scattered across the plains. Amazed by the grace and elegance of African swallow-tailed kite, which was hunting over the grasslands, and Somali fiscal perched on top of acacias, we slowly made our way to the Awash River. We spent most of the day in this area, only going to Kereyou lodge around midday for some drinks. Frustratingly we saw very little in the area, the highlights being Thrush nightingale, Bruce's green pigeon, Banded wattle-eye in the thickets along the river. We drove back to the entrance gate to be out by 6:30 pm and enquired about the possibility of taking a night drive in the area; unfortunately, we were refused permission to do so. Instead, we drove back to Metahara and continued on for about 15km, and took a track leaving the road soon after crossing the railway. We drove along for about 10 km, without seeing a single nightjar, and so decided to cut our losses and head back to Metahara. Mammals at Awash included Soemmering's gazelle and Beisa oryx on the plains and Lesser kudu and Salt's dik-dik in the thicker bush.

We met our guard at the entrance to Awash NP at 06h00, and headed straight for Mount Fantalle, approaching from the west of Metahara. Just west of Metahara the main road passes through Lake Beseka on the lava flow from Mount Fantalle's 1820 eruption. We stopped here briefly to admire a pale grey Western Reef Heron, a rare inland vagrant to Ethiopia. We reached the rim of the crater at about 09h00 (10km from the main road, before it really heated up. Boran cisticola was common in the surrounding bush, their distinctive calls revealing their presence. I (MM) then walked along the crater rim, to the right of where we parked, in the hope of finding Sombre rock chat. All I could find was a single Fox kestrel flying along the rim of the crater, giving great views of its upper-, and under-wings. Without finding the rock chat I returned to the car. We were just about to leave when a group of chats was spotted some way down the crater rim, directly below where we had parked at 1560m a.s.l. Scoping them we confirmed them to be Sombre rock chat. Happily we descended, stopping en route for another pair of Sombre rock chat at 1250m. On reaching the base of the mountain we flushed some larks from beside the track. After careful observation we confirmed them to be Gillett's. Previous groups have reported them from the Awash plains, but according to Zimmerman et al., they are birds of hard stony ground and sparse thorn-country, and not grasslands. This type of habitat abounds on the lower slopes of Mount Fentalle, and it may be worthwhile checking this area for Gillett's in the future. Lastly we saw a group of vultures around a carcass shortly after the junction with the road north from , including 5 Egyptians and Lappet-faced. We then started on the long journey to Harer in the east. Some 60km east of Awash we stopped along a narrow, steep-sided stream where a pair of Bristle-crowned starlings were perched on the telephone/power line. We arrived at Hirna just after dark, and spent the night here.

The rim of the crater at Mount Fantalle

We drove straight from Hirna to Dire Dawa without stopping. The habitat in this area was quite different, so we continued past Dire Dawa for about 5km towards Somalia. Along a dry gully we found Blackstart, and on the edge on an adjacent field, Somali fiscal. We then returned to Dire Dawa for lunch at the Ras Hotel (Upcher's warbler in the gardens), and thereafter dropped PO off for his flight back to Addis. Then onto Harer, stopping along the way at a large lake 4km east of the Dire Dawa turn-off, which held Garganey, Pintail, Shoveller, Eurasian wigeon, Black-tailed godwit and Little ringed plover. We spent the afternoon visiting the historically fascinating city of Harer, and in the evening were treated to a hyaena feeding ceremony by the famous "Hyaena-Man" of Harer, an event that was particularly meaningful to GM.

The hyena-man of Harar

This was a day of a lot of driving and little birding. Nothing noteworthy was seen, other than Bristle-crowned starling at the roadside. It took all day to drive from Harer to Awash.

Giant Phasmid near Dire Dawa

Passing Lake Beseka, we saw Western reef heron again. Driving straight to Debre Zeyit, we visited Lakes Bishoftu (Tufted duck and Booted eagle), Bishoftu Guda (Black-billed barbet) and Cheleleka (Red-billed teal and Great crested grebe). Thereafter we visited Akaki wetlands, about 30km south of Addis. Unfortunately most of the lakes were on the far side of the river, so we could not get close enough to identify most birds. We did however see quite a few Black-crowned cranes. We spent the night at Debre Damo Hotel, and had a farewell dinner for Abebe and GM, who was returning to South Africa the following day.

Egyptians Plovers in Gambela

GM flew to South Africa, and MM, CS and DB took the thrice-weekly flight to Gambela, stopping in Jima. Coming in to land at Gambela the sky was very hazy from the smoke of many bush fires, but we could see that extensive woodlands covered the area. We managed to hitch a lift to the Ethiopia Hotel in Gambela (about 15km) on an aid vehicle, as there is no formal transport between the two. We enquired about camping, but the receptionist said that it was under no circumstances possible to camp at the hotel. Disappointed, we went to the Tourist Hotel, where we spent the first three nights. (However, the noise from the bar, heat of the rooms and filthy ablution facilities made things very unpleasant. Eventually we returned to the Ethiopia Hotel and were permitted to camp after speaking to the manager - to whom we are most grateful, as this was a vast improvement and made the last few days of our stay far more pleasant!) Our first destination was the National Parks office, where we had been given the name of someone who could give us advice. As we were crossing the bridge over the filthy little stream that runs through town, I heard CS behind me exclaim "EGYPTIAN PLOVER"! Rendering us almost speechless was a trio of plovers on the squalid bank below. We moved off the bridge (Steve Rooke had told us that people had been arrested for birding from the main bridge in Gambela) and enjoyed views of these splendid birds in their filthy surrounds - quite a contrast. Each time we crossed the bridge during our stay we kept a special look out for them, but only saw them on three other occasions. We then proceeded to the park office to track down our contact. He was, however, very elusive and although we visited two different offices about five times each, we never found our man. Before it got dark we walked out of town along the Itang/Dembidolo road, quickly notching up Little green bee-eater and Brown-backed woodpecker before it got dark.

The Gambela-Dembidolo road

During our time at Gambela we managed to cover the area near the town quite extensively on foot and by hired bicycle. We'll deal with this area section by section, but for a more detailed and fully referenced account, please also see the following article: Spottiswoode, C. & Mills, M. 2000 Records from Gambela, western Ethiopia. African Bird Club Bulletin 7(2): 97-100. Click here for an online version of this article on the African Bird Club's homepage.

Additionally, we have a detailed sketch map of the Gambela area, showing all the sites described below. We hope to post a version here soon, but in the interim please free to email us for a copy if you are interested.

Dembidolo/Itang road: Within easy walking distance of the town, there is some good woodland. Further from town there are some impressive granite domes which rise out of the flat planes. Foxy cisticola, Green-backed eremomela, Chestnut-crowned sparrow-weaver and Little green bee-eater were common here. Other species seen were a pair of Gambaga flycatchers in a fig tree on the first rise out of town, Red-throated bee-eater along a small stream, Brown-rumped bunting in a newly-burnt open area, Black-faced firefinch, Black woodhoopoe, Yellow-breasted hyliota, Black-headed gonolek and Pygmy sunbird.

Baro River downstream of Gambela: there was a narrow track running westwards from the town, following the banks of the river. Red-throated bee-eater was seen along the riverbanks, as well as Senegal thicknee. In some of the remnant thickets along the river we saw a single Snowy-crowned robin-chat. Seedeaters abound in the grassy areas, and included Fawn-breasted and Black-rumped waxbill and also a single family of Bar-breasted firefinch. Blue-headed coucal was common. There is also a road further away from the river (the continuation of the road passing the petrol station), heading out of Gambela in this direction. First it goes through the floodplain (Moustached warbler and Blue-headed coucal) and then quickly peters out to a narrow track which went through a patch of fairly tall, moist woodland. In the woodland we saw Black-faced firefinch, Yellow-breasted hyliota, Black-billed wood dove, a group of five Swallow-tailed bee-eaters, Green woodhoopoe, Lizard buzzard, Pygmy sunbird and Black-rumped waxbill.

Metu road: this road goes through mature woodland, and hosted many of the species seen along the Itang/Dembidolo road. Additionally, we recorded Levant sparrowhawk, Brown babbler, Black-billed wood dove and Grey woodpecker. Additionally, CS and DB saw a single Bittern in the floodplain just upstream from the main bridge across the Baro river.

As we were travelling by bus, there were almost no opportunities for birding. Sightings of interest were of a flock of Black Crowned cranes between Jima and Addis, and of numerous Banded Barbets in the town of Metu.

We visited the National Museum, Mercato (an extensive market) and other spots around Addis Ababa, before flying back to South Africa on the 18th.

Annoted list of birds recorded
Annotated list of mammals recorded


About Birding Africa

Birding Africa is a specialist birding tour company customising tours for both world listers and more relaxed holiday birders, and combining interests in mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, plants and other natural history. Our guides know the continents birds like few others; we've written two acclaimed guide books on where to find Southern Africa's and Madagascar's best birds and will guide you to Africa's and Madagascar's most diverse birding destinations. Birding is more than our passion, it's our lifestyle and we are dedicated to making professional best value trips filled with endemic species and unique wildlife experiences. Since 1997, we've run bird watching tours in South Africa and further into Africa for individual birders, small birding groups and top international tour companies. We've run Conservation Tours in association with the African Bird Club and work with and consult for a number of other top international tour companies and the BBC Natural History Unit

For feedback from our guests, please see our tour information pages. For trip reports, please see our Trip Reports page.

This website is maintained by Birding Africa.
Copyright © 1997-2012 Birding Africa

Please do not use any text, images or content from this site without permission.
Black Harrier photograph courtesy of Keith Offord.
© Birding Africa

[African Tailorbirding CC (CK2003/020710/23) trading as Birding Africa]
4 Crassula Way, Pinelands 7405, Cape Town, South Africa.


Home and News - Tour Calendar - Trip Reports - Client Comments - Conservation - About Us - Contact Us