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Ethiopia, Nov-Dec 2009

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Old Wednesday 18th August 2010, 11:18   #1
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Ethiopia, Nov-Dec 2009

With apologies for the delay in posting it, this is a report of a 3-week private tour to Ethiopia I took from November 23 to December 17, 2009. Although I wanted to see and photograph as many of the Abyssinian endemics as possible, I also wanted to spend a significant amount of time in mountain areas that would increase my chances of decent photos of Ethiopian Wolf, Gelada and Walia Ibex. In order to do this I had to sacrifice time searching for some endemics, like Sidamo Lark and some of the seedeaters (although we did find Salvadori's Serin in an unexpected location, see below).

The itinerary was designed with Rockjumper Birding Tours, a company I've worked with on several trips. I knew my guide Markus Lilje from a previous trip to Namibia and was confident of his abilities, even though this was his first time in Ethiopia; we also had two excellent local drivers with good knowledge of birds and sites.

Ethiopia is unique among African countries in almost every possible aspect. Its birdlife stands out for its wealth of endemic species: 32, if we include Eritrea and consider the whole Abyssinian region, without the absurd partition that deprives Ethiopia of access to the sea. It is also the one place in the world to see such rare and extraordinary mammals as Ethiopian Wolf, Gelada and Walia Ibex, and being nowadays the only safe and accessible destination in the Horn of Africa, it offers the opportunity to see many other species restricted to this region, closed to travelers until quite recently.

People are also different from other African countries. Abyssinia has a Christian tradition that dates practically from the times of the Apostles, and most people profess the Orthodox Christian faith, in its unique Ethiopian tradition. Churches and rites are unlike any other in the Christian world.
From what I saw, Ethiopians tend to keep to themselves and don’t show much interest in foreign visitors. In a few places children would try to sell their small handicrafts, but other than that we were rarely approached. They are also not the most cheerful people I have met in Africa. Especially in the south, it can be very difficult to photograph people in Ethiopia (at least, interesting-looking people); women would often their faces when seeing a camera, and most of my enquiries for permission would be met with a negative. In rural areas throughout the country, men often carry firearms, the AK47 being a favorite, and in the Afar region it was mandatory to carry armed protection with us. However, we never experienced any trouble and at no time did we have the slightest feel of danger.

Traveling in Ethiopia is relatively straightforward, but a 4x4 vehicle is highly advisable, as well as a driver who knows his way around. The roads around Addis Ababa are excellent, but as one gets away from main cities they often become difficult, especially after rain. We never found military or police checkpoints and were never stopped by the police; the only time when we were close to having a problem was with the authorities in the Simien Mountains National Park. Professional photographers are required to pay an extra fee to work in the park, and the equipment (I was carrying a very conspicuous 800mm lens with a heavy tripod) prompted park rangers to stop us on three occasions. I tried to stay away from the arguments, but according to our very capable guide and translator, we got close to being fined; he mentioned the photographer’s fee to be 3,000 US$!

Comfortable accommodation is available almost everywhere we went, and food is usually good. Ethiopian traditional cuisine is delicious if one is a little adventurous; most tourist hotels assume that foreign visitors won’t even try it, and instead offer a bland version of Western food, but traditional dishes are often available if asked for. The one exception regarding both accommodation and food was the infamous Green Hotel in Yabello, which has become something of a joke among travelers, but even this wasn’t really too bad.

The one field guide to the region is Birds of the Horn of Africa, by Redman, Stevenson and Fanshawe, published by Helm. It came out shortly before my trip, and I was a little disappointed to find that it’s just a version of Helm’s previous Birds of East Africa, with the addition of the region’s endemics. However, it is a good and useful book in the format of text and map facing the plates.

Also from Helm, Birds of Ethiopia and Eritrea by John Ash and John Atkins is an excellent atlas covering in detail the distribution and status of every species recorded in the two countries. The introduction and the chapter on the history of ornithology in the region are especially interesting.

Birding Ethiopia by Behrens, Barnes and Boix, published by Lynx, is a guide to the country’s birding sites, nicely illustrated with good photos. Although I couldn’t test it in the field (it was released after my trip) it’s very well written and the descriptions and directions are accurate and easy to follow.

A new book is expected to be released at the British Birdfair this month (August 2010): Where to watch birds in Ethiopia, by Claire Spottiswoode et al, published by Helm.

As usual, the Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals is the reference guide for its subject, although the more I use this book, the less I like it. Although the species descriptions are thorough and readable, the “mute” distribution maps and the arbitrary use of common and scientific names seem designed to confuse the reader.

Lonely Planet’s Ethiopia and Eritrea is in my opinion the best and most practical travel guide, both in its contents and its size. However, Bradt’s Ethiopia is written in a more personal way by Philip Briggs and can be very entertaining. It also covers more deeply aspects of wildlife and birdlife.

(More to follow. I attach photos of a few endemics; the whole photo collection from the trip can be seen in the new photo section at
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Old Wednesday 18th August 2010, 11:44   #2
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I am looking forward to more! Judging by the quality of your images I can see why they wanted to charge you the photographers fee.
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Old Wednesday 18th August 2010, 14:02   #3
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Agreed - wonderful photographs and looking forward to hearing more details.


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Old Wednesday 18th August 2010, 15:46   #4
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Great photos from an area we don't see many from.
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Old Thursday 19th August 2010, 11:34   #5
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Ethiopia report, part 2

Thanks for the praise! Here's part 2:

Addis Ababa to Bale National Park

My flight arrived from Rome on November 23 and upon arrival I saw my first Thick-billed ravens as I left the airport for the center of the capital, Addis Ababa (or Abeba; as often with countries with a different alphabet, spelling of places can vary). I stayed at the Ghion Hotel, nice and not too noisy considering its closeness to the city center. It has well-tended gardens in which I could see my first endemic Abyssinian Slaty Flycatchers, plus White-browed Robin-chat, Tacazze and Crimson-breasted Sunbirds, Baglafecht Weavers (mostly out of breeding plumage), and Dusky Turtle-dove. I took the opportunity to visit the National Museum (where the famed Lucy skeleton is exposed) and the Natural History Museum; the latter is rather small and many of its stuffed specimens are moth-eaten to the point of being hard to identify, but it has a good collection of birds and, best of all, a truly impressive Walia Ibex male with an unbelievable set of horns.

The next day I met Markus and our local driver, Demi, at the hotel reception and drove toward the chain of lakes that dot the Rift Valley south of the capital. Shortly after dawn we arrived at the Chelek-cheke wetland, where I first noticed how strangely tame many of the birds could be. Scanning the shore revealed Ferruginous Duck as the most interesting thing, and groups of White-faced and Fulvous Whistling Ducks behaved normally even when we got really close. Then we continued to Debre Zeik, a large lake surrounded by woodland. It was still early in the morning and several local people were taking a swim, sharing the waters with apparently oblivious Pink-backed pelicans, Red-knobbed Coot, and Hottentot Teal. On a group of huge fig trees by the shore, a group of Bruce’s Green Pigeon was feeding just a few meters from us. As our presence attracted the curiosity of local people, the almost absurdly tame nature of these birds became even more apparent. African Paradise Flycatchers of the ferreti subspecies chased each other and caught insects just a meter away from us. As the sun started hitting harder we moved to Koka Dam, where we had a very nice breakfast on a terrace overlooking the lake. On the wooded slope right under us we saw our only endemic Barred Barbet of the trip, plus Eurasian Wryneck, Mocking Cliff-chat and an interesting assortment of passerines and raptors.

On the same route south, Kaka Dam had an impressive array of shorebirds, so tame that sometimes we almost stepped on them. The grassland along the shore had many Yellow Wagtail, some of the feldegg subspecies, Plain-backed Pipit, and several species of plover. Lake Zeway was particularly impressive: a huge gathering of Marabou Storks hung around the jetty waiting for discarded fish from the returning fishermen, and on the shallow marsh at the end of the road large numbers of shorebirds and waterbirds fed a few meters away in the middle of the day. A Black Egret made an obliging performance of its unique and apparently very effective fishing technique, surrounded by African Spoonbill, Marsh Sandpiper, Common Snipe, Glossy Ibis, Hottentot Teal, Malachite Kingfisher, and large numbers of White-headed Whistling Ducks and White Pelicans. Not exactly rare or “specialty” birds, but their numbers and tameness made the place really special, so much that we came back a few days later, after our visit to Lake Langano. On the other hand, this was the only place in Ethiopia where I got a little annoyed by the many idle teenagers (only boys; girls could be seen working hard in the fields nearby) constantly hovering around us and on occasion disturbing the birds. I found the best strategy to tip the smartest-looking one to keep the rest at bay.

A one-hour drive after lake Zeway we arrived at the town of Awassa, on the shore of its namesake lake. Our hotel, the Awassa Lakeside, had large wooded gardens, and we still had enough light to find Nubian Woodpecker, Red-throated Wryneck, Silvery-cheeked Hornbill and, a surprise, a female Narina Trogon. Groups of Guereza Colobus were very tame, as were Grivet Monkeys, the attractive local subspecies of the Cercophitecus aethiops complex. These gardens are known as a reliable site for Spotted Creeper, but daylight was fading and we postponed its search until the next morning, when we had excellent views of this bird right from our breakfast table.

We left early in the morning to the nearby Lake Awassa, busy with large numbers of people walking and jogging along the shore. A narrow concrete pier runs into the lake, and we saw several Malachite Kingfishers hanging around totally oblivious to the many joggers and even whole families walking their dogs just a few meters from them. A few African Pigmy Geese and White-backed Duck swam among the dense grass and reeds of the lake shallows, where we also saw Sedge Warbler and Black Rail.

After checking out from our hotel we paid a visit to the Awassa Fish Market, generally regarded as a good spot for birds, but we found it quite disappointing with just a few pelicans and Marabou storks hanging around for fish scraps; maybe it just wasn’t the best time of the day. As we left the town of Awassa, by mid morning and right in the middle of a busy road, we had the surprise of a White-tailed Mongoose running across and disappear behind a bar’s fence.

Our next stop was Goba, on the foothills of the Bale Mountains and the gateway to Bale National Park. On the way there, some 90 km on the road we stopped at a well-known Cape Eagle Owl site. We scanned the rocks for some time without success, but the place was very scenic and the first really quiet spot on the trip, so we stopped for lunch. Our first endemic Wattled Ibis showed up, as well as a female Pallid Harrier. From here the way up towards the village of Dinsho was mostly grassy slopes and mountain pastures where we found Red-breasted Wheatear, my only endemic Abyssinian Longclaw on the trip, Erlanger's Lark, and Black-winged Lapwing. As we gained altitude, the weather started to get cloudy and mountain-like. We soon spotted our first highland endemics: Spot-breasted Lapwing, Rouget’s Rail, Chestnut-naped Francolin and Blue-winged Goose, before grassland and alpine meadow gave way to forested slopes and the juniper and hagenia woodland so characteristic of Bale.

Shortly before the village of Dinsho we saw a distant group of one male and three female Mountain Nyala. Endemic to the Ethiopian highlands, this was the last of the great antelope to be described to science, in 1908. Bale National Park remains its main stronghold, the rest of its populations having been reduced to a remnant by hunting and habitat loss. Within the park limits they seem to have lost at least part of their shy nature, and can be seen with relative ease. Later on we were lucky to find two mature bulls near the road, as we made a lengthy search for the person responsible to sign our passes to the Park. By then it was raining heavily, and rain would be with us intermittently for the rest of our stay. Wabe Shebelle Hotel, our accommodation in Goba, was comfortable if a little cold, with a strangely oversize dining room where one felt pretty small. From there it was a 45-minute drive to the Sanetti Plateau, where we would spend the better part of the next three days.
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Old Friday 20th August 2010, 14:28   #6
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Ethiopia report, part 3

The Sanetti Plateau

Lying between 3,800m and 4,377m above sea level, this is part of the famed “Roof of Africa”, and one of the most extraordinary natural places I have ever visited. It may lack the numbers of animals found in other better known African reserves, but the birds and mammals that can be seen here are so unique, and its African moorland habitat so dramatic, that this place should rank as a top world destination for any nature and wildlife enthusiast. It’s a pity that so few visitors make it to the plateau, and in fact it may be one of the main causes of its decline, since the revenue obtained is probably not enough for the government to effectively maintain its protection. The plateau is reached driving south from Goba through patches of forest that give way to open moorland covered in ericas and stubbed with giant lobelias. Although in the middle of the National Park, free-roaming cattle and goats can be found almost everywhere, and the effects of overgrazing are apparent in many areas.

Perhaps the most obvious reason to visit Bale National Park, and the plateau in particular, is the Ethiopian Wolf. In few other places can one see a large, beautiful and extremely rare predator openly showing its behavior in broad daylight. They tend to ignore vehicles as long as you keep reasonably quiet, and the fact that they feed almost exclusively on small prey means that they spend most of their time hunting; with a little patience it’s very possible to see them capture one of the thousands of rodents that seem to infest the plains. Of these I could identify three distinct species: the obvious, big and endemic Giant Mole Rat, which looks like a weird mutant hamster, and at least two more smaller, mouse-like species. In theory, another potential prey of the wolves is Starck’s Hare, a large and attractive endemic species that was relatively common, but seemed confident in its speed and quite unconcerned by the wolves. You can read about the Ethiopian wolf, its unique biology and its plight for survival at the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme (

The birdlife is equally interesting, the plateau containing almost all of Ethiopia’s highland species. The multitude of diurnal rodents supports big numbers of raptors: Lanner Falcon is very common, together with Augur Buzzard in both its “regular” and black form, the latter typical of mountain areas. This is also the only place in sub-Saharan Africa where Golden Eagle can be seen, and we had excellent views of at least three specimens. Another Palearctic species that has here its only African breeding site is Ruddy Shelduck, and Red-billed Chough has also a relict population here. The endemic Blue-winged Goose, a species highly specialized in short-grass open habitat, is also frequently seen near small ponds, always in pairs. Although relatively approachable as far as open-habitat birds go, they weren’t anywhere as tame as the birds in the lowland wetlands. We located a pair of Wattled Crane hunting for frogs in the grassland, and got brief but decent views of a shy Moorland Francolin pair near the aerial by the road that climbs to the plateau. We also finally got our Cape Eagle Owl, on top of a rock on a very misty morning. Birding the patchy juniper forest area between Goba and the plateau we found birds like Abyssinian Catbird, White-cheeked Turaco, and Cinnamon Bracken-Warbler.

Among the highland endemics found in Bale, Spot-breasted Lapwing was my favorite, one of the most unusual and beautiful members of its family. It was usually found in small groups, never far from water, and although not terribly shy they always retired to a safe (and frustrating) distance when approached. Other endemics very common in the plateau were Black-headed Serin, found in much larger flocks than lower down near Goba, and the ever-present Moorland Chat. This nondescript little bird is curious and confiding, and seems to enjoy some kind of symbiotic relationship with the Giant Mole Rat. On the rare occasions when we saw one of these large rodents out of their holes, collecting grass or arranging the entrance of a burrow, at least one chat would be waiting for the worms and small insects that the rat exposed when digging. At least on one occasion, the chat would be joined by a pair of Thekla Lark, which in Ethiopia is largely a montane bird. We also saw a few flocks of visiting Red-throated Pipit.

The weather up in the plateau was changing almost to a maddening point. In typical high mountain form, within minutes it could go from sunny (rarely) to cloudy, with sudden bursts of rain and even hail, and then so foggy that it was difficult to drive. The one road that traverses the plateau connects Goba with Negele, and was often busy with buses carrying people between both towns. For some reason, these vehicles carried loudspeakers on their roofs, blasting shrill African music at full volume for all to hear. Apart from these, traffic was scarce except for a few horsemen; we didn’t find a single tourist during our three days there. Men that looked like park rangers were sometimes seen walking along the moorland, apparently collecting stool samples. Wolves and other wildlife pretty much ignored vehicles, but would immediately run away from men on foot or on horseback.

From Bale to Yabello.

After our third and last morning on the Sanetti Plateau, we continued on the road south across the Harenna Forest, a beautiful and still pristine montane woodland, its huge trees covered in moss and lichen. The forest is sparsely populated, with a few small scattered villages along the road, and reportedly there are still Wild Dog, Leopard and even Lion living in it: a car coming in the opposite direction told us they had seen a lion lying by the road a few kilometers back. After some 30 km the forest gave way to flat, open acacia and thorn savanna on the way to Negele. Here we found ourselves for the first time in a place that really felt remote and wild, where we would drive for hours without crossing another vehicle. It was also very hot compared with the high altitudes we had just left behind. A few stops produced a wealth of woodland birds: XXX, XXX, XXX. We also saw a woodland patch full of what looked like giant tubercles from which protruded tiny thorny bushes. These things looked like nothing we had seen before, as if out of a 50’s sci-fi movie.

The one important stop on our way to Negele was a wadi on the Genale river that supports Ethiopia’s (and the world’s) best-known population of Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco. Arguably the most beautiful and sought-after of the country’s many endemics, the tale of its discovery seems out of an Emilio Salgari novel. Prince Eugenio Ruspoli was an Italian nobleman who together with Captain Vittorio Bottego attempted to open a route to lake Albert by traveling up the Juba river. Ruspoli first collected the bird sometime in1893, but later that same year he was killed by an elephant, leaving no notes about his travels. The specimen reached Europe and the bird was named after its collector, but no one knew exactly where it came from until another bird was seen in the early1940s. The Genale river population itself was not discovered until the 1970s.

We arrived at the site in the mid afternoon; the place is well known among international birders and Markus had very detailed directions, but still we were surprised by how quickly he located the first bird. It took him about four minutes, long before I had stretched my legs after the long drive. The riverside area is covered in relatively open riparian forest, dotted with large fig trees where the fruit-eating turacos seek their food. Unfortunately these trees are very dense and although we could get relatively close to the bird, it was difficult to get a clean view of it. We followed it for a while as it flew from tree to tree flashing its gorgeous red wings, and after that found up to three other birds within the same area. Other interesting birds included a single Salvadori’s Seedeater, which was a surprise since it doesn’t seem to have been previously recorded here, and the habitat felt quite different for the rocky areas where it is supposed to occur.

As we continued our drive toward Negele we found our first Leopard Tortoise of the trip. These widespread and adaptable African tortoises reach their largest sizes in Ethiopia, especially in the highlands. Later on we would find even bigger specimens in places so dry and barren that it was a wonder that they could survive.

In the late evening we started to use our torches on the roadsides, and we found large numbers of Salt’s Dikdik and a pair of galagos inside a thick thorn bush. We couldn’t be certain, but they seemed to be Senegal galagos. Dikdik taxonomy would be a cause for debate during the following days, as we saw several different animals looking somewhere in between Salt’s and Guenther’s, in an area where the two species’ ranges overlap. As we approached Negele we also found an African Wild Cat and a White-tailed Mongoose.

We spent the next day driving the area between Negele and Yabello searching for two of Ethiopia’s best-known endemic birds: Stresseman’s Bush Crow and White-tailed Swallow. Both species are entirely restricted to the scrubby savanna around Yabello, a habitat that seems to have no unique features, and nothing that really sets it apart from other very similar landscapes throughout Ethiopia or, indeed, Africa. The one thing that seems special to this range is the abundance of strangely tall (up to five meters) and thin termite mounds. It really seems odd that birds usually as far-traveling as swallows should be contained within such a small area. An even more range-restricted bird is Sidamo Lark, confined to Liben Plain, a small grassland area near an army base east of Negele. We did a brief search for it early in the morning that unfortunately yielded no results.

White-tailed Swallow is relatively common in its tiny range and we found it without difficulty (it looks pretty much like any other small swallow), and soon came upon the first flock of Stresseman’s Bush Crow. These birds have been subject to taxonomic debate ever since they were first described in 1938, looking somewhere in between crows and starlings. They behave much like babblers, moving around in nomadic small flocks, and seem to live in close association with the near-endemic White-crowned Starling. We saw them feeding together, but the starlings were much more confiding and we also saw them in and around villages. The dry acacia and scrub savanna supported many other interesting birds: Temminck’s Courser, Pigmy Falcon on thorny bushes, Golden-breasted Starling, Foxy Lark, African Orange-bellied Parrot and, as we approached Yabello, flocks of Vulturine Guineafowl. At dusk we also saw a young Verreaux’s Eagle Owl with the remains of a hare. In this area we saw the only dikdiks that were unmistakably Günther’s.
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Old Friday 20th August 2010, 19:33   #7
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Old Friday 20th August 2010, 21:00   #8
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An excellent read with some fantastic images Ignacio!!!
The unique wildlife and large number of endemic birds makes Ethiopia a very tempting destination.

Looking forward to more!
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Old Saturday 21st August 2010, 09:18   #9
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Ethiopia report, part 4

Thanks again!

Lake Langano to Awash National Park and the Afar region

The long drive from Yabello to Lake Langano, heading north towards Addis Ababa until we found ourselves back to the central Rift Valley lakes, took almost all day. We arrived in the late afternoon to the pleasant Wabe Shebelle Hotel on the northern shore of the lake, and still had time to see our first endemic Black-winged Lovebirds right from the hotel grounds, together with Little Rock Thrush and Mocking Cliff-chat feeling at home on the hotel’s concrete blocks. In the morning, we found the gardens to be full of very tame Superb and Rüppell’s Starlings, feeding together with pairs of Von der Decken’s and Hemprich’s hornbills. Following the escarpment behind the hotel one could walk into dry acacia woodland very similar to the one found in the south, with very tame Little Bee-eaters as well as Abyssinian Wheatear, Brubru, and migrant Masked Shrike. The shore of Lake Langano is rocky with little vegetation, with only a few distant marshy areas, and there were few waterbirds to be seen. We drove north to the nearby Lake Zeway, where we could see an assortment of birds similar to our first visit. Unfortunately, by now the shallow swampy area left of the jetty was almost dry and most birds concentrated a little further away.

On our second morning at the lake we started the long drive towards Awash National Park. Shortly after Langano we came upon a roadside carrion that concentrated Egyptian, Rüppells, White-backed and Lappet-faced vultures. We drove down the western wall of the Rift Valley stopping for lunch at the pleasant town of Nazret, after which the landscape became increasingly arid as we approached the land of the Afar, one of the oldest and most distinct of the Ethiopian ethnic groups. Dark and slim, most men wear the traditional white cotton tunic (nowadays often complemented with military trousers and t-shirts) and afro hairstyle, together with a large, curved dagger (jile) on their belts. They are mostly nomadic, living in small portable huts, although in the last few decades there has been a tendency to settle down around a few fertile areas. The Afar have a reputation of being unruly and violent, and almost all adult men carry a firearm, mostly AK-47. In the past they had a penchant for killing and castrating strangers, but nowadays they mostly leave foreign visitors alone. However, they frequently engage in clashes between rival clans, or with neighboring ethnic groups like the Kereyu, mostly due to territorial disputes for herding.

Both the Afar and the Kereyu take their livestock within the limits of Awash National Park, where the effects of indiscriminate herding are very apparent. Once the soil is stripped from grass cover by overgrazing, thorny bushes take over and overgrow to the extent of shading the ground, preventing further growth of anything else. We saw endless extensions of former savanna habitat degraded into dense, lifeless thorn, that sadly carried on well inside the theoretically protected national park. Indeed, cattle and goats could be seen grazing along Beisa Oryx and Soemmerring’s Gazelle. When deep in Afar territory it is mandatory to hire an armed guide for protection, usually an Afar himself. Ours was wearing his full traditional attire, Kalashnikov included. Once we were inside the park, his place was taken by a uniformed ranger, who was also a capable and willing wildlife guide.

We stayed at the Kereyu Lodge, 12 km from the park’s gate, perched on the edge of a gorge overlooking a scenic waterfall. This place is thoroughly desecrated by the Lonely Planet guide, but we actually found it very nice. Perhaps it has been recently refurbished; the small bungalows were very comfortable, with more than adequate bathrooms and electricity running in the evenings. The food and the service at the little restaurant were excellent, and the views and the location were truly beautiful.

Established in 1966 and covering 765 km2, Awash National Park is the most accessible savanna reserve in the Horn of Africa, justly renowned as a top birding destination: six resident species of bustard and a wealth of dry savanna birds, including many raptors, can be seen in the park. Some very interesting mammals can also be seen here, but never in great numbers. You are allowed to drive your own vehicle, as long as you carry a park ranger with you, but you’re not supposed to leave the car except at designated areas. Driving is allowed between sunrise and about two hours after sunset, allowing time for night spotlighting which could be quite productive; Bat-eared Fox seems to be quite common, and we saw two groups very well. We did most of our birding and game-searching along the Bilen Plains near the lodge, which was a very good area for bustards, and oWhite-f the six possible species we saw Arabian, Kori, White-bellied and Buff-crested. Small numbers of Beisa Oryx were the most frequently seen large ungulate, together with even smaller numbers of the rare and localized Soemmerring’s Gazelle. Nowadays Awash is the only accessible place in the world to see this endangered beautiful antelope, endemic to the Horn of Africa. Salt’s Dikdik was again very common along the roads inside the park, and although mostly nocturnal they could be often seen resting in the shade of a bush, almost always in pairs. Lesser Kudu prefers dense brush habitat and proved very shy; we saw a few females with their young running across the road, and caught some glimpses of a male through thick cover. Even at night they were really skittish.

One of the animals I was really looking forward to see and photograph was Hamadryas Baboon, a species restricted to mostly inaccessible parts of the Horn of Africa and southern Arabia. Although often kept at zoos (it was widely used as a research animal until the 80s), it is rarely photographed in the wild. A large troop seems to have its territory around the rocky cliffs near the Fulwoha Hotsprings, and we found them feeding behind the cover of bushes by the road. They were quite skittish and only offered good views when crossing the road. Luckily, the day we left the park we came upon a large troop feeding on the main road, that allowed us to pull over relatively close to them. Driving back to the lodge area we saw our first Arabian Bustard striding along an open acacia area. We had briefly seen Rosy-patched Bush Shrike near Yabello, always inside dense cover, but here a gorgeous male finally perched in the open and gave us excellent views.

Our next stop in the Afar region was Bilen Lodge (, a really nice little place situated on a hill overlooking a vast reedbed surrounding the Bilen hot springs. The surrounding landscape is very similar to that of Awash, but the springs create a small network of swamps and wet grassland that support some different birds. We were the only guests at the lodge, which is comfortable and well-serviced, with thatched huts fully equipped with bathroom and electricity. The only problem was the mosquitoes; I don’t think I have ever seen or been bitten by so many. Repellent didn’t seem to deter them, and they always seemed to be able to find that one spot where you hadn’t applied it, even if it was on top of your head through your hair. Dinner time was particularly bad, so much that we rushed it and gulped our food so we could run to cover inside our huts.

Great birding could be done walking around the lodge, although we were warned not to wander too far, whether due to predators or dangerous Afar tribesmen I’m not sure. Actually, it’s bee reported that not so long ago a guest might see lions from his hut, emerging from the reedbeds in the evening, but that possibility seems long gone. We did see Spotted Hyenas when spotlighting at night around the lodge, apart from African Wild Cat (we actually saw one in plain daylight), and Golden Jackal. We also saw our first Gerenuk while spotlighting at night near the lodge. Birds around the lodge included Liechtenstein’s Sandgrouse, Yellow-breasted Barbet, White-headed Buffalo-Weaver, Northern Crombec, and Shining Sunbird in the flowering bushes by the restaurant. Stripeless Ground Squirrel was also quite common but shy not far from the camp.

Searching the area around Bilen we found Black Scrub Robin, a lifer that had eluded me in several previous African destinations. A small marsh supported good numbers of Yellow-billed Stork, White-faced Whistling-duck and Painted Snipe. We found a huge male Abyssinian Ground Hornbill striding along a grassy area. Tawny Eagle and Lanner Falcon were the common raptors in the area. We continued to find Salt’s Dikdik, and family groups of Gerenuk seemed to be relatively common in the area, although always very shy. A visit to the extensive Bilen plains provided very distant views of Somali Ostrich and Grevy’s Zebra.

One of the best finds of the trip was Egyptian Nightjar, a winter visitor that according to Ash & Atkins (2009) has only been recorded once in the country before. We followed directions given to Markus by Cuan Rush, another Rockjumper guide who had previously spotted them on an area by the road from Bilan to Addis Ababa. On our first visit, the afternoon before traveling to Addis, we flushed at least three of them, but even if we saw them land they would run away through the rocks, so it became impossible to spot them again on the ground, especially since light was fading fast. The morning after we came back to the same place, and after another couple of frustrating flushes I finally managed to locate one lying on the ground. Its camouflage was so perfect that taking my eyes off it for a second risked losing it for good. It was very alert and didn’t allow for a close approach.
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Old Saturday 21st August 2010, 10:31   #10
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Thanks for posting what is a great read! Perhaps I shouldn't just pick out one species, but the Liechtenstein’s Sandgrouse is an amazingly coloured bird.

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Old Saturday 21st August 2010, 12:54   #11
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This is a great trip report. I want to go to Ethiopia!
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Old Sunday 22nd August 2010, 13:19   #12
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What a tremendous read - started planning a trip to Ethiopia just last week. prob c.3 weeks in Jan/Feb 2011 - it just HAS to go ahead now!!

Still in the very early planning stages, but if anyone is even the least bit interested in going, please drop me a PM and I can keep you up to date with prices/itinerary/dates etc, etc and we can take it from there.

Next installment please.......


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Old Monday 23rd August 2010, 08:17   #13
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Ethiopia report, part 5

Do not hesitate Paul, you won't be disappointed. Such an amazing country for birding!

Simien Mountains National Park

The last section of the trip took us to the other main mountain area of the country, for which we drove all the way back to Addis Ababa and then took a flight to the northern ancient city of Gonder (or Gondar). Here a new driver picked us up at the airport, a young and energetic guide with a good knowledge of the park and its birds. The 100 km drive north, from Gonder to the gateway of the National Park at Debark, was the most taxing section of the whole trip, a slow and bumpy ride along a gravel road, with many long stretches in poor condition. However, about 10 km before Debark the road starts to climb and soon offers the first impressions of the mountains. The Simien range is formed by several plateaus separated by large river valleys, studded with a number of peaks reaching above 4,000m. The national park proper covers the massive escarpment that bounds the western plateau, cut by many steep gorges and overlooking the extensive plains north towards Eritrea. Although lying at similar altitude, it is a more abrupt and jagged landscape than Bale, offering some of the most spectacular scenery to be found anywhere in Africa.
We got our permits at the park’s headquarters in Debark, where the rules stated that professional photographers must pay an extra fee; but since I'm not included within that category, I didn’t worry about it.

Our accommodation during our stay in the Simiens was Simien Lodge (, 22 km east of Debark on the one dirt track that runs through the national park. The drive to the lodge is still slow, but amply compensated by the beautiful views of and landscape, mostly made of grassy steep slopes dotted by Erica woodland patches, with the Simien peaks in the background. On one of these slopes we saw our first troop of Gelada, just around the bend from the lodge, which is located on top of a hill offering excellent views of the surrounding grassland. At 3,260 m, Simien Lodge claims to be the highest hotel in Africa, and it certainly feels that way; just the walk uphill from the main building to the bungalows could be pretty hard on legs and lungs. In fact, altitude sickness is a strong possibility all through the Simiens (we met a couple of trekkers in some trouble), and although we enjoyed sunny weather for most of our stay, it could get really cold at nights. Apart from our lodge there are several campsites along the road, popular with the many hikers that come to explore the mountains on foot.

The Simien Mountains are often not included in standard birding itineraries, due to the fact that most of the bird species can also be found in Bale, and the big mammalian attraction, the Gelada, can be seen in more accessible areas. However, my main target of the Simien Mountains was the endemic and endangered Walia Ibex, found nowhere else and reduced nowadays to a population of no more than 600 animals. Formerly considered a subspecies of Alpine Ibex, it was almost wiped out by hunting in the 1960s; the National Park was created in 1969 in part to help preserve this species. Females and young, including some adolescent males, could be seen by the trail’s side near the campsite in Chennek. Early in the morning, females could be seen sharing the steep cliffs with Gelada troops, and later in the day they would move together into the grassy plains to graze. Adult males tend to stay apart outside the breeding season, and in order to find them we had to drive much further away. Sometimes we saw them not far from the road, but getting close enough for photos required climbing after them, which can be demanding above 4,000m, especially if you are carrying a 800mm lens with its tripod. Careful approaches could sometimes be successful, but on the whole big males were much more shy and wary than females and young.

Ethiopian Wolf has a remnant population of some 50 individuals in the Simiens, but they are far more elusive than in Bale, and rarely seen. The other big animal attraction of the mountains is the Gelada, and these are impossible to miss. We saw troops from the road on every drive to and from Simien Lodge, but in order to spend time among them the best was to locate them early in the morning as they emerged from the cliffs where they always spend the night. Troops would hang around the cliffs for a couple of hours grooming, socializing, napping and warming in the morning sun, and then move away into the plains to find the fresh grass that is their almost only food. Geladas are related to baboons, but have enough characteristics to set them apart as to belong to their own genus. Like baboons, they are highly social animals that live in large groups, sometimes comprising up to 200 individuals. Each troop is comprised of family units formed by an adult male, his females and their offspring.

Being among a large troop of geladas, in a setting framed by the cliffs and peaks of the Simiens, is one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever lived. Adult males look truly fearsome at close quarters, but they will completely ignore you as long as you move quietly, and don’t show even the slightest curiosity about you or your belongings (a backpack left on the ground would be instantly torn apart by, say, Olive baboons). Trying to photograph them can be surprisingly frustrating; they spend most of their time sitting down, plucking grass with their short, sturdy fingers, usually facing away from the sun (and therefore the camera). Interactions are usually limited to vocal exchanges and grooming. Geladas have the most extensive vocal repertoire of any primate, and keep a constant, low volume chatter that sounds so much like human mumbling that we kept constantly looking over our shoulder, expecting to find a group of old women gossiping behind us.

Geladas are much more placid than baboons, but clashes within a troop occur from time to time. The most frequent cause seemed to be a young adult male rising trouble by approaching one or several females, who would react screaming and charging the offender. If the young male persisted, their adult male might intervene, in a frenzy of screaming and running. However, actual physical contact was avoided and we never witnessed an actual fight. Trying to witness these encounters could be difficult in a large troop spread over hundreds of square meters; we soon learned to identify and follow lone young males looking for trouble, but these outbursts lasted just a few seconds and were very difficult to capture. In most cases, those involved ended up grooming each other in an appeasing manner.

Birds in the Simien mountains include many of the highland species found in Bale, but to me the main avian attractions were Lammergeier, which we saw daily flying over the cliffs at Chennek, and Thick-billed Raven. The latter, although relatively common, is one of the most amazing birds I have seen. I knew they were big (probably the largest passerine in the world), but at close quarters they really appear enormous, and that bill is just unreal. The similar White-necked Raven found in Eastern and Southern Africa is dwarfed in comparison. They are confiding and quite cheeky, and would get really close as soon as they saw us producing our lunch from our bags.
Other interesting species found in the area were two near-endemics, the very shy Erckel’s Francolin and the striking White-rumped Babbler, whose range just extends into Sudan. Both could be seen around Sankaber Camp, a popular spot for trekkers.

After our three nights in the Simien Mountains we took again the grueling drive back towards the ancient city of Gonder, on the southern foothills of the Simiens, where we spent a whole day visiting its historical attractions. Once the capital of the Abyssinian empire, Gonder is today the fourth largest city in the country and offers a very interesting and well-preserved mix of architectural styles, from the imperial castles contained within the walls of the Fasil Ghebbi Royal Enclosure to hints of 1930s Italian Art-Deco that can be seen in the central piazza. To our delight, while visiting the buildings at the ancient imperial compound we saw our first endemic White-winged Cliff Chat of the trip, offering close views and apparently feeling at home on the ancient stone walls. The also endemic White-collared Pigeon was common within the compound, even inside the buildings.

The well-known ancient church of Debre Birhan Selassie is the only church of its period that survived the destruction brought about by the Muslim dervishes during the late 19th Century Mahdist War. According to the legend, the church was saved by a beehive that was nesting on a nearby tree and chased the Mahdists away. It had bee founded in 1690, and has been rebuilt in at least two occasions until its present form. Its beautifully decorated walls and ceiling are probably the best-known and most photographed example of religious painting in Ethiopia. We were very lucky to arrive when a local Orthodox singing ceremony was going on.

Conclusion: Ethiopia should rank high on anyone with a serious interest in African birds. It offers not only the chance to see, often at very close quarters, many endemic species but also a host of species either restricted to the horn of Africa or difficult to find elsewhere. More common African species are also present, often so tame that seeing them is a delight even wen they are not lifers. And although not having the numbers and variety of more traditional East African destinations, the uniqueness of the Ethiopian mammals amply make up for it. Traveling around is relatively comfortable and very safe in my experience, and the variety of habitats and landscapes is a constant bonus to the eyes.

I remind you that you can see the whole photo collection from the trip in the photo section at Feel free to email any questions to [email protected]

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Old Monday 23rd August 2010, 12:51   #14
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Thanks so much for posting this informative and exciting trip report about places that not so many birders get to visit.
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Old Monday 23rd August 2010, 17:53   #15
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I've been thinking about a trekking trip in the Simien Mountains; I think you might just have made my decision for me!
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Old Tuesday 24th August 2010, 09:30   #16
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Great report and fantastic photos, Ignacio! Your report brings back many good memories for me of this fantastic country and all its very special wildlife.

I have never managed to get to the Simien Mountains before and, so, have yet to see Walia Ibex, so this will now firmly be on the cards for my next visit!

Kind regards
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Old Tuesday 24th August 2010, 13:04   #17
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magnífico, Ignacio
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Old Wednesday 25th August 2010, 18:52   #18
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Originally Posted by Jose Gomez Aparicio View Post
magnífico, Ignacio
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