Ethiopia - birding "the Roof of Africa" - 20 March - 8 April 2011

Published by Chris Lotz, Birding Ecotours (info AT


Top 10 birds: Prince Ruspoli's Turaco, Streseman's Bush-crow, Harwood's Francolin, Spot-breasted Lapwing, Rouget's Rail, Arabian Bustard with Northern Carmine Bee-eater on its back, Abyssinian Long-eared Owl, Yellow-fronted Parrot, Liben (Sidamo) Lark, Banded Barbet

Top 5 mammals: Ethiopian Wolf, Gelada Baboon, Hamadrayas (Sacred) Baboon, Mountain Nyala, Gerenuk

Top 5 sights: Bale Mountains including the Sanetti Plateau (with its high-altitude desert, giant ericas and lobelias) and the sprawling Harenna Forest, Great Rift Valley with lakes and volcanoes, Awash Falls and remote Afar Plains, heights of Ankober to lowlands of Melka Ghebdu, steep Jemma Valley.

Day 1, 20 March: Ethiopia and South Africa have almost identical total bird species counts (just over 840), and these countries stand out as the two African countries with the highest endemic bird counts. Not surprisingly, then, our first day (along with most days to follow) was full of endemics, even though it involved only relaxed birding from our base in Addis Ababa, an intriguing high-altitude city with a population of about 3.5 million people. In the morning, we visited the Gefersa Reservoir where we were introduced to many of Ethiopia's more common endemics and specials, including WATTLED IBIS, WHITE-COLLARED PIGEON, ERLANGER'S LARK, THEKLA LARK, ABYSINNIAN LONGCLAW, ETHIOPIAN CISTICOLA, PECTORAL PATCH-CISTICOLA,ABYSINNIAN SISKIN, RED-BREASTED (BOTTA'S) WHEATEAR, MOORLAND CHAT and many others.

Beautiful but widespread GROUNDSCRAPER THRUSH provided much entertainment - interestingly abundant throughout the high altitude grasslands of Ethiopia. We also found our first of many Eurasian migrants, such as the abundant YELLOW WAGTAIL, numerous RED-THROATED PIPIT and our first migrant warblers. En route from Gefersa, we stopped for the first WHITE-WINGED CLIFF-CHAT of the trip, an endemic we would see numerous times, along with its more widespread but equally attractive cousin, MOCKING CLIFF-CHAT. After lunch, we birded the grounds of our hotel, the Ghion, for more star birds including BLACK-WINGED LOVEBIRD, DUSKY TURTLE-DOVE, ABYSINNIAN SLATY FLYCATCHER, RUPPELL'S ROBIN-CHAT, TACAZZE SUNBIRD, ETHIOPIAN BOUBOU, THICK-BILLED RAVEN, BROWN-RUMPED SEEDEATER AND STREAKY SEEDEATER. All in all a relaxed but yet exciting day of birding.

Day 2, 21 March: we headed north from Addis Ababa to the famed Sululta Plains where we stopped for an amazing suite of endemics such as the bizarre BLUE-WINGED GOOSE, the equally strange ROUGET'S RAIL (much less shy than most rails), the fabulous SPOT-BREASTED LAPWING (along with BLACK-WINGED LAPWING), WATTLED IBIS and many others. Other good but widespread species included shorebirds such as GREEN SANDPIPER and TEMMINCK'S STINT, our first of a huge count of raptors (48 during the entire trip) - LANNER and PEREGRINE FALCONS. We then proceeded to Debre Libanos, a fascinating Ethiopian Orthodox Monastery, and birded the nearby forest for some further star birds including LEMON DOVE, CINNAMON BRACKEN-WARBLER (providing fabulous, close-up views), WHITE-CHEEKED TURACO, BANDED BARBET, ABYSINNIAN ORIOLE and WHITE-BILLED STARLING. Around the Ethio-German Hotel where we were to spend the night, the birding excitement continued with LAMMERGEYER, ERCKEL'S FRANCOLIN, LITTLE ROCK-THRUSH, LESSER WHITETHROAT, RUPPELL'S BLACK CHAT, WHITE-WINGED BLACK TIT and CINNAMON-BREASTED BUNTING.

Just before reaching our hotel, we also found our first troop of the fascinating GELADA (bleeding heart) BABOONS - although they are strictly vegetarian, they look even more vicious than most other baboons. They have amongst the biggest vocabularies of any ape, including lots of non-verbal gestures such as displaying their pale eyelids and of course showing their teeth!

Day 3, 22 March: over breakfast overlooking the spectacular Jemma River Valley and during a short walk to the fabulously scenic Portuguese Bridge area, we found some star birds such as EGYPTIAN VULTURE, NYANZA SWIFT, ORTOLAN BUNTING, STOUT CISTICOLA, BLACK-WINGED LOVEBIRD and many others.

After breakfast, we made our spectacular, steep descent into the Jemma River Valley. This hot, dry valley is a world away from the cold heights we had spent the night at. It is striking and awesome in Ethiopia how everything can change so extremely rapidly - scenery, temperatures, the whole atmosphere and of course the suite of bird species. As we descended the pass, we found SIFFLING CISTICOLA, ABYSINNIAN WHEATEAR and SPECKLE-FRONTED WEAVER. At the river were birds like SENEGAL THICKNEE, BLACK-BILLED BARBET, FOXY CISTICOLA and many others.

Day 4, 23 March: we left early to find HARWOOD'S FRANCOLIN, which is conspicuous just after dawn but which becomes tough for the rest of the day - and we obtained excellent views along with the more common ERCKEL'S FRANCOLIN. After lunch, we went in the opposite direction to dizzying altitude for another star bird, ANKOBER SERIN.

We lacked in quantity today but compensated for this by the high quality of the species seen. We did also encounter our first HEMPRICH'S HORNBILL and OLIVE BABOON today.

Ankober Serin country
Ankober Serin country


Day 6, 25 March: yet another fascinating, and extremely bird-rich, day! We drove through some of Ethiopia's most remote country to get from Ankober to Awash National Park - birding the amazing Afar Plains and finding a rich diversity of birds such as ABDIM'S STORK, YELLOW-NECKED FRANCOLIN, ARABIAN BUSTARD -one with a NORTHERN CARMINE BEE-EATER riding on its back, KORI BUSTARD, BLACK-HEADED LAPWING (arguably THE most spectacular plover species), CHESTNUT-BELLIED SANDGROUSE, stunning AFRICAN ORANGE-BELLIED PARROT that joined us at our picnic lunch, BARE-FACED GO-AWAY-BIRD, WHITE-BELLIED GO-AWAY-BIRD, BLUE-NAPED MOUSEBIRD, MADAGASCAR BEE-EATER, ABYSINNIAN ROLLER, BLACK-BILLED WOOD-HOOPOE, ABYSINNIAN SCIMITARBILL, BLACK SCIMITARBILL, five hornbill species including ABYSINNIAN GROUND and VON DER DECKEN'S, BLACK-THROATED BARBET, YELLOW-BREASTED BARBET, GREATER HONEYGUIDE, BLACK-CROWNED SPARROW-LARK, GREY WREN-WARBLER, our first of three batis species (GREY-HEADED), NILE VALLEY SUNBIRD, beautiful WOODCHAT SHRIKE, SLATE-COLOURED BOUBOU, ROSY-PATCHED BUSH-SHRIKE, CHESTNUT WEAVER, WHITE-RUMPED BABBLER and WHITE HELMET-SHRIKE. In the late afternoon we arrived at Awash Falls in great anticipation of birding this fine national park.

Day 7, 26 March: this was another AWESOME day filled with spectacular birds, such as SOMALI OSTRICH, LESSER SPOTTED EAGLE, PYGMY FALCON, ARABIAN BUSTARD, WHITE-BELLIED BUSTARD, BUFF-CRESTED BUSTARD, the Sahelian AFRICAN COLLARED-DOVE, BRUCE'S GREEN PIGEON, SINGING BUSH LARK, GILLETT'S LARK, CHESTNUT-BACKED SPARROW-LARK,CHESTNUT-HEADED SPARROW-LARK, BORAN CISTICOLA, ASHY CISTICOLA, EASTERN OLIVACEOUS WARBLER, PALE FLYCATCHER, AFRICAN GRAY FLYCATCHER, WHITE-THROATED ROBIN (IRANIA) - we found good numbers of this migrant and they were no doubt on passage through the country during our tour in late March/early April, like COMMON WHITETHROAT which we also saw very big numbers of - MOUSE-COULERED PENDULINE-TIT, four of Africa's most beautiful sunbirds (EASTERN VIOLET-BACKED, NILE VALLEY, BEAUTIFUL and SHINING), SOUTHERN GREY SHRIKE, SOMALI FISCAL, WOODCHAT SHRIKE again, three stunning bush-shrike species, NORTHERN MASKED WEAVER and CUT-THROAT FINCH. A night drive generated PLAIN NIGHTJAR and SLENDER-TAILED NIGHTJAR - both of which we managed to catch individuals of for observation "in the hand" before release. Good mammals today were SOMMERING'S GAZELLE, BEISA ORYX, SALT'S DIK-DIK, UNSRIPED GROUND SQUIRREL and GREVY'S ZEBRA (unfortunately the zebra was very distant).

Day 8, 27 March: today we went to Lake Ziway and other wetland sites and encountered a host of waterbirds such as BLACK CROWNED CRANE, COLLARED PRATINCOLE, AFRICAN SNIPE and several other shorebird species, three tern species including GULL-BILLED, nine heron species, five stork species, LESSER JACANA along with its more abundant counterpart, AFRICAN JACANA, six duck/goose species including FULVOUS WHISTLING DUCK and AFRICAN PYGMY GOOSE, WESTERN MARSH-HARRIER and many others. Other highlights today were GREATER SPOTTED EAGLE, LICHTENSTEIN'S SANDGROUSE, three roller species, YELLOW-BREASTED BARBET, BUFF-BELLIED WARBLER, NORTHERN BLACK FLYCATCHER, BLACKSTART, BLACK-HEADED BATIS, PYGMY BATIS, striking MASKED SHRIKE and GREEN-WINGED PYTILIA - before overnighting at Lake Langano, another Great Rift Valley Lake.

Day 9, 28 March: Around Lake Langano we located some star birds such as EGYPTIAN VULTURE, WHITE-HEADED VULTURE, CLAPPERTON'S FRANCOLIN, BLUE-SPOTTED WOOD-DOVE, RED-FRONTED WARBLER, MASKED SHRIKE, RED-FACED CROMBEC and many others. We looked at day roosts of three excellent nocturnal birds, GRAYISH EAGLE-OWL, VERREAUX'S EAGLE-OWL and SLENDER-TAILED NIGHTJAR. En route to Wondo Genet, where we would spend two nights, we found COMMON NIGHTINGALE, WHITE-WINGED BLACK TIT, MOUSE-COLOURED PENDULINE-TIT, GRAY-BACKED FISCAL and in a forest patch near Wondo Genet itself we had NARINA TROGON and SCALY-THROATED HONEYGUIDE. Also in the area were massive SILVERY-CHEEKED HORNBILL, MOUNTAIN WAGTAIL, RUFOUS-NECKED WRYNECK (we found many of these during the trip but may have been too late for the migratory Eurasian Wryneck, which sadly we failed to locate this time), beautiful RED-SHOULDERED CUCKOO-SHRIKE and (as always) many others.

Day 10, 29 March: although the forests above Wondo Genet have been almost completely destroyed by charcoal-makers, surprisingly many forest birds are still present in the remaining scattered trees and the list of birds we saw today included many sought-after forest species. We found the likes of ABYSSINIAN GROUND-THRUSH, ABYSINNIAN WOODPECKER, LEMON DOVE, TAMBOURINE DOVE, subtly beautiful BROWN WOODLAND-WARBLER, WHITE-CHEEKED TURACO, GREEN-BACKED HONEYBIRD, GRAY-HEADED WOODPECKER, GREY CUCKOO-SHRIKE, plus a few good species not strictly associated with forest, such as DOUBLE-TOOTHED BARBET, YELLOW-FRONTED TINKERBIRD, AFRICAN YELLOW WARBLER, BROWN-THROATED WATTLE-EYE, WHITE-RUMPED BABBLER, SPOTTED CREEPER, ABYSSINIAN ORIOLE, TACAZZE SUNBIRD (this long-tailed sunbird is amazingly abundant in Ethiopia), BLACK-AND-WHITE MANNIKIN, BROWN-RUMPED SEEDEATER and STREAKY SEEDEATER. Great raptors included MOUNTAIN BUZZARD, IMPERIAL EAGLE and AFRICAN CROWNED EAGLE. The day ended extremely well with three YELLOW-FRONTED PARROTS coming to their roost site, where we were waiting for them patiently as dusk approached! Good mammals in the Wondo Genet area were fabulous-looking BLACK-AND-WHITE COLOBUS MONKEYS (along with numerous VERVET MONKEYS), GAMBIAN SUN SQUIRREL and a SPOTTED HYENA that visited our hotel each night.

Day 11, 30 March: we started the day with good sightings of SCALY FRANCOLIN (which we only managed to hear the previous day). We also found AFRICAN GREEN PIGEON, YELLOW-FRONTED PARROT again, BLACK-WINGED LOVEBIRD, WHITE-CHEEKED TURACO and others. During breakfast at the hotel, we saw BROWN PARISOMA. We stopped at a day roost of CAPE (MACKINDER'S) EAGLE-OWL (the largest subspecies, which is endemic to Ethiopia) and obtained fine views of this powerful rabbit- and hyrax-eating species, then proceeded to the Bale Mountains National Park where within a couple of hundred metres of each other were shown by a local guide day roosting AFRICAN LONG-EARED OWL and a pair of AFRICAN WOOD OWLS - awesome! RED-BILLED CHOUGH, with only a tiny isolated population south of the Sahara here in the Bale Mountains, provided some entertainment. Today in the Bale Mountains we also saw some star mammals such as MOUNTAIN NYALA, KLIPSPRINGER, MENELIK'S BUSHBUCK, BOHOR REEDBUCK and others.

Day 12, 31 March: shortly after leaving our hotel, we got brilliant perched views of an immature AFRICAN HOBBY. On the ascent up to the heights of the fabled Sanetti Plateau, we found confiding coveys of CHESTNUT-NAPED FRANCOLIN, and on the top after much searching we found a few of the red-winged MOORLAND FRANCOLIN. The upland desert atop the Sanetti Plateau generated two ETHIOPIAN WOLVES, along with this species' main prey, GIANT MOLE-RAT together with the smaller ETHIOPIAN MEADOW RAT. Here at the top of the plateau we also found WATTLED IBIS, BLUE-WINGED GOOSE, SPOT-BREASTED LAPWING and GOLDEN EAGLE (again, an isolated sub-Saharan African population, like the Chough). On the other side of the plateau, as we descended into the sprawling Harenna Forest, we found BALE PARISOMA, AYRES' HAWK-EAGLE, AFRICAN EMERALD CUCKOO, ABYSSINIAN GROUND-THRUSH, CINNAMON BRACKEN WARBLER, RUPPELL'S ROBIN-CHAT, WHITE-BROWED ROBIN-CHAT, WHITE-BACKED BLACK TIT, ABYSSINIAN CATBIRD, SLENDER-BILLED STARLING and many others - these are all absolutely star birds.

Giant Lobelias high on the Sanetti Plateau
Giant Lobelias high on the Sanetti Plateau

Day 13, 1 April: today we were due for a long but fascinating drive back over the Sanetti Plateau, through the Harenna Forest again, and eventually to the arid south of Ethiopia, where we could look forward to two nights at the worst "hotel" imaginable (on some tours we avoid this but also then miss some great birds!). This morning the Harenna Forest generated ABYSSINIAN CRIMSONWING for a couple of tour participants. Later, we found BROWN SNAKE-EAGLE, EASTERN CHANTING GOSHAWK which replaced the DARK CHANTING GOSHAWKS we had been seeing a lot of, awesome ORANGE-BELLIED PARROT, NORTHERN BROWNBUL, YELLOW-BREASTED APALIS, GREY WREN-WARBLER, GREY TIT-FLYCATCHER and many other dry land birds. We were extremely surprised to find a NARINA TROGON along a dry river bed in semi-desert country. Stunning RED-AND-YELLOW BARBETS sat atop the monstrous (towering over people) red termite mounds. UPCHER'S WARBLER and GREAT REED WARBLER added to our burgeoning list of migrant warblers. Other migrants included THRUSH NIGHTINGALE, COMMON WHITETHROAT (indeed very common on this trip probably because we caught them on passage to Europe). Three robin-chat species today included a new trip bird, RED-CAPPED ROBIN-CHAT. Three fabulous starlings included probably the world's most exotic-looking and vividly-colored starling, the extremely long-tailed and multi-colored GOLDEN-BREASTED STARLING, which made its relatives look dull even though they were themselves splendidly-hued species - SUPERB, SHELLEY'S and VIOLET-BACKED STARLINGS. There were a few CHESTNUT WEAVERS, one of several species we saw with disjunct populations in south-western and again in north-eastern Africa - in arid zones. In the late afternoon we eventually reached our site for one of the trip's most fabulous birds, PRINCE RUSPOLI'S TURACO, obtaining great views. We added DWARF MONGOOSE to our mammal list today.

Day 14, 2 April: one of the first birds we saw today - brilliant views - was what is generally regarded as the next African bird that is predicted to go extinct, SIDAMO (LIBEN) LARK, with not many more than 100 individuals left in a miniscule patch of grassland. We could in fact lose an entire genus, which is a lot worse than losing a single species, since the South African and Somalian species in the same genus as the Ethiopian Sidamo Lark (genus Heteromirafra) are also critically endangered and could also quite easily be lost at some point. An area perhaps the size of a football field had been "fenced off" for this species by small and ragged-looking Acacia thorn-bushes but the "fence" was all broken and due to the drought the tiny area meant for the lark was the only area full of cattle - the rest of the Liben Plains where this lark lurks being even more overgrazed. Apparently a significant sum of money from the British Birdfair has now very recently been awarded to add to the existing conservation efforts for this species. Let's hope - right now we could see for all intents and purposes no protection in place for this species and the locals do need to graze their half-starving cattle somewhere (although where will they go when that tiny field is denuded of grass as well?). The whole area was experiencing a drought and was still anticipating the "short rains" which had not yet fallen, and trucks were bringing water into the area for the locals - quite an eye-opening experience - their animals also looked like they were on the verge of starvation. Lifting the spirits slightly by taking our minds off this imminent extinction event, was the presence of other life-birds for the tour participants, such as FOXY LARK, SOMALI SHORT-TOED LARK, WHITE-CROWNED STARLING (a large and strikingly-marked starling closely-related to the southern African endemic Pied Starling), SHELLEY'S RUFOUS SPARROW, REICHENOW'S SEEDEATER, the incredibly localized Ethiopian endemic WHITE-TAILED SWALLOW, handsome AFRICAN BARE-EYED THRUSH, SPOTTED MORNING-THRUSH, PALE PRINIA and three cisticolas (BORAN, RATTLING and TINY). A dubious split, DODSON'S BULBUL, was also encountered in this area. Star ground birds were TEMMINCK'S COURSER, WHITE-BELLIED BUSTARD (close views of this species that has a similar disjunt distribution to the Chestnut Weaver - mentioned earlier) and BLACK-FACED SANDGROUSE. We were lucky to stumble across a VERREAUX'S EAGLE-OWL trying to get some shut-eye and also our first LILAC-BREASTED ROLLER.

Day 15, 3 April: we had some nice raptors today such as BATELEUR, EASTERN CHANTING GOSHAWK, GABAR GOSHAWK, extremely close views of melanistic OVAMBO SPARROWHAWK, IMPERIAL EAGLE, PYGMY FALCON and GRAY KESTREL (adding to our growing list of raptors which reached a total of 48 species by the end of the trip - including vultures but excluding owls!). A close sighting of a covey of YELLOW-NECKED FRANCOLIN was good, as were views of PEARL-SPOTTED OWLET, BLACK-THROATED BARBET, D'ARNAUD'S BARBET (plus two other barbet species we had seen already), JACKSON'S HORNBILL, NUBIAN WOODPECKER, TAWNY PIPIT, SOMALI CROMBEC, BANDED PARISOMA, PYGMY BATIS, SCALY CHATTERER, SOMALI (NORTHERN GREY) TIT, EASTERN VIOLET-BACKED SUNBIRD, HUNTER'S SUNBIRD, COLLARED SUNBIRD, MARICO SUNBIRD, PRINGLE'S PUFFBACK, striking MAGPIE STARLING, five true weavers including JUBA (SALVADORI'S), AFRICAN WHITE-WINGED DOVE, WHITE-BELLIED CANARY, SOMALI GOLDEN-BREASTED BUNTING and beautifully-colored PURPLE GRENADIER. We stopped and looked at two adjacent trees one of which had a colony of GREY-HEADED SOCIAL WEAVER and the other a colony of the beautiful BLACK-CAPPED SOCIAL WEAVER. As if the day could not get better, as we approached Yabello, we found our first of several of one of Ethiopia's most charismatic and sought-after endemics, the characterful STRESEMAN'S BUSH-CROW. This is a species of enigmatic taxonomy who's closest relatives might be the ground-jays of the Middle East. STAR-SPOTTED NIGHTJAR and THREE-BANDED (HEUGLIN'S) COURSER were the two stars of our short night drive.

Streseman's Bush-crow by Anne Walker
Streseman's Bush-crow by Anne Walker

Day 16, 4 April: we started with extremely close views of the awesome RED-NAPED BUSH-SHRIKE, and we also located other fine birds like SPEKE'S WEAVER, NORTHERN GROSBEAK-CANARY, BLACK-FACED WAXBILL, BLACK-BREASTED SNAKE-EAGLE, EURASIAN HOBBY, JACOBIN CUCKOO, BLACK CUCKOO, DIEDERICK CUCKOO, MOTTLED SWIFT, RED-FRONTED WARBLER, TAITA FISCAL, SOMALI FISCAL and many others. SHORT-TAILED LARK with its disproportionaly large bill, striking face-pattern, spectacularly confiding nature and fascinating hole-digging behavior entertained us nicely. One of the day's absolute highlights was a mixed flock of two spectacular species, STEEL-BLUE WHYDAH and STRAW-TAILED WHYDAH. Our night drive generated two owl species, including a new one, the diminutive AFRICAN SCOPS OWL, as well as SOMALI GALAGO (BUSH-BABY). GERENUK was another real mammal highlight today. These long-necked antelopes stand on their hind legs and rest their front legs on Acacia tree branches while they forage on the upper leaves - this can really look comical and one can only grin while looking at these weird antelope going about their business. There is nothing else like it!

Day 17, 5 April: as we began our arduous trek back towards Addis Ababa from the arid south, so we began for the first time in the trip struggling to add new species to our list, but did find a few nice ones such as COMMON SNIPE, AFRICAN CUCKOO and RED-FRONTED BARBET. We were then to spend a relaxing two nights at Awassa. Guenter's Dik-dik were quite plentiful.

Day 18, 6 April: the Awassa Fish Market is a fascinating place to go just for the bustling spectacle of MARABOU STORKS, terns, HAMERKOPS and a host of other birds picking up scraps from within metres of the people bringing in their catches. Out on the lake we saw both pelican species, and around we saw seven heron species, numerous different shorebirds, six kingfishers, BLUE-HEADED COUCAL, RED-FACED CISTICOLA, SPOTTED CREEPER, the beautiful white form of AFRICAN PARADISE FLYCATCHER which was in fact seen most days of the trip, RED-HEADED WEAVER (East African form - also seen on numerous days) and various others. We decided to return to Wondo Genet to find AFRICAN HILL BABBLER which we had missed previously, and obtained fantastic views this time, along with a few other good birds including LITTLE SPARROWHAWK, MOUNTAIN BUZZARD, AFRICAN CROWNED EAGLE BANDED BARBET, DOUBLE-TOOTHED BARBET and various others. HIPPO was the only new mammal for the day.

Day 19, 7 April: we continued back towards Addis Ababa, spending the last night of the tour proper at the stunning Dreamland Hotel poised on the rim of the crater lake at Debre Zeit. Here we found some time to relax and enjoy many of the common birds, along with a few new trip birds such as SOUTHERN POCHARD and SHIKRA. We added ORIBI to our mammal list

Day 20, 8 April: back to Addis where we relaxed - Chris returned home and the others went on to Entebbe to begin a Uganda birding tour. Many thanks to Jay and Bob for making this an exceptionally fun and awesome trip.