REVIEW OF BIRDING ETHIOPIA by 10,000 BIRDS (April 11, 2010)

REVIEW OF BIRDING ETHIOPIA by 10,000 BIRDS (April 11, 2010)
`Birding Ethiopia. A Guide to the country’s birding sites’. Ken Behrens, Keith Barnes, Christian Boix
The blurb on the back of this beautifully-produced new book poses a very targeted question that will almost instantly separate the people reading it into two very distinct camps: “Interested in seeing some of Africa’s most incredible endemic birds, from Stresseman’s Bush-Crow and Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco to Rouget’s Rail and Spot-breasted Lapwing?“.
If the answer is – or might possibly be at any time in the future – ‘Hell, yes’, then without a doubt you’re going to want this book very badly indeed. If the answer is “Hell, no”, then this could well be the book that changes your mind.
Why? Because Ethiopia is one of the most species-rich countries in Africa (which makes it very species-rich indeed), it has thirty-four endemics (if you include Eritrea) many of which are highly range-restricted – you can see virtually the entire world range of the Critically Endangered Liben/Sidamo Lark by standing in the center of the tiny Liben Plain, and ‘Birding Ethiopia’ is one of the very best, mouth-watering Where to… type birding guides I’ve seen.
Produced and backed by Lynx Edicions, the Barcelona-based publishers whose primary claim to fame is the brilliant (and very expensive) ‘Handbook of the Birds of the World‘ (Volume 15 is on its way apparently), ‘Birding Ethiopia’ is a superb guide to a country that was for a very long time closed to foreigners and which most non-birders (and probably many birders) will still think of in terms of famines and vicious wars. Few tour companies included it in their itineraries until recently, and if wildlife enthusiasts had heard of Ethiopia at all it was probably from television programs on the mounting threats to the existence of the Endangered Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Wolf or the Endangered Mountain Nyala.
Yet Ken Behrens and his colleagues have put together a book that is packed with information on far more than just the best birds, has photographs (more on which later) of most of the endemics, and precise directions (including in a number of cases GPS co-ordinates which will surely be THE way that most specific sites are pinpointed in the future) to the country’s twenty-six top locations. These are listed under three geographic regions: The Northwest (which includes Addis Ababa); the Great Rift Valley; and the south (which includes Bale Mountains NP). Twenty-six sites may not sound a lot, incidentally, but there’s enough information within each site account to make the book seem to be detailing much more, and just to have information on some of the most remote birding spots in Africa -check out the route to Bogol Manyo for example – is quite remarkable anyway.
How, you might be tempted to ask (I certainly was), can the authors have gathered this information at all?
All three are tour guides based in Cape Town and work for Tropical Birding, that’s how. While I admit that I’ve never been birding with ‘Tropical Birding’ and never been to Ethiopia – which means I can’t sensibly comment one way or the other on how accurate the book is – you don’t have to have been to a country to recognize a bewildering achievement when a guide book is in your hands, or to just know that the comprehensive accounts on ‘Speciality birds of Ethiopia’ (all twenty-two pages of them!), conservation, local people, accommodation, driving conditions, health and safety, and a very interesting look at potential splits that covers three pages and that I’m nowhere near qualified to talk about (but if you go to Ethiopia take notes on which lark you see and where you see it as a pile of ‘armchair ticks’ may well be yours in the years to come) will be spot-on and are written from first-hand experience. And from the way the book reads and the references to Trip Reports given in the introduction Behrens et al have not only been able to draw on their own knowledge of Ethiopia and its fabulous birds but on the experiences of such birding luminaries as Nik Borrow, Hadoram Shirihai, Claire Spottiswoode, and Steve Rooke (a fortunate position to be in – these are some of the most knowledgeable birders around).
In fact ‘Birding Ethiopia’ reads somewhat like a long and detailed Trip Report and I mean that in the most positive sense. Where to… guidebooks have developed at a huge pace in recent years but the very best (in my opinion anyway) still have the feel of the old black and white A4 photocopied reports that I used to order over the phone and receive by mail in pre-internet days. They were full of energy, peppered with directions like”turn left at the old building and look for the dead tree”, and were written by birders who almost seemed amazed to find themselves in such exotic locations. ‘Birding Ethiopia’ has precisely that sense of wonderment and enthusiasm that some more text-heavy birding guidebooks have managed to lose and is wonderfully fresh and vital throughout.
It is – at the same time – a world away from those old long-gone A4 sheets of paper I referred to of course. Today’s digital printing processes are light years more advanced than even those of twenty years ago, and Lynx Edicions really should be congratulated for so lavishly producing what – in all fairness – will probably not be a major seller for them. The paper they’ve used is crisp, white, and very clean. The design is simple but modern and just right for a book of this type. The cover is made from a lightweight but durable-feeling card that cradles the contents extremely well. It’s an excellent all round-package, but – from a production POV – it’s the maps and the photographs that really ensure this book has a place in the upper tier. I’ve no idea what software the name-checked African Geographic used to produce the topographical maps but they are superb and appear almost 3D, with the country’s many mountains and rivers clearly depicted: somehow the overlaying text is never lost in the detail, which is remarkable. The maps are actually quite beautiful in a way I can’t quite describe, but will surely become a standard that future publishers will have to aim for.
If I’m not sure why a map should seem ‘beautiful’ to me, I’ve no such problem knowing why the photographs can be so described. They are almost without exception absolutely stunning. Printing is not the only process to have benefited from the digital revolution, and the photos included here are sharp, full of color and detail, and reproduced in a way that surely suggests that most – if not all – are digital. And what a selection! The majority seem to have been taken by Ken Behrens (darn these over-achievers making the rest of us feel so ordinary!) and endemic after cracking endemic jostle for space with near-endemics and non-breeding Palearctic visitors. I won’t list all of them, but standouts include the full-page Banded Barbet on page 3, full-page Rosy-patched Bushshrike on page 88, full-page Sidamo Lark on page 133, the half-page Black-winged Lovebird on page 140, the 3/4 page Stresseman’s Bush Crows on page 155, plus images of Abyssinian Siskin, Foxy Lark, Arabian Bustard, Rouget’s Rail, Vulturine Guineafowl, Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar. If your juices are pumped by color, then the 3/4 page plate of the endemic lafresnayi form of Blue-breasted Bee-eater (a potential split) will be worth the cover price alone: what a photo, what a bird!

And what a book! I have to admit when I first starting reading ‘Birding Ethiopia’ and learnt in the introduction that “Ethiopia is a very difficult country to visit independently” I silently questioned why a) Ken and his colleagues would write it, and b) why Lynx would publish it. Who, I wondered, would need a guide to all the best birding sites if the only way to visit the country was with an organized tour with leaders who would presumably know them already?
Apart from the whole ‘Why climb Everest’ element to writing a book, as I said at the top of the page ‘Birding Ethiopia’ could well be the book that changes minds about whether to bird Ethiopia or not in the first place. It certainly deserves to be, and that would be reason enough to write and publish it. In fact, I’d hope that ‘Birding Ethiopia’ will (equally deservedly) end up being recognized as THE book that puts Ethiopia on the birding map. It could – indeed should – be the spark for a wave of overseas birders to visit what turns out (according to the authors) to be a mostly safe country with a generally friendly and courteous population. What that would mean for Ethiopia’s (at times) beleaguered avifauna is all too obvious. For a country that is desperate for the revenues that eco-tourism could bring (and the subsequent realization by local people that birds and their habitats are therefore worth protecting) a book like this has a value far above its use as a guide. I have no idea of course whether that was in the authors’ minds when they sat down to write it, but looking at the conservation section on the ‘Tropical Birding’ website, and knowing Lynx’s commitment to conservation, I’d be willing to bet I’m not far off the mark…

‘Birding Ethiopia’ is quite remarkably detailed given just how few birders have covered what is actually a country with an area of over one million sq. km! Beautifully-produced, vividly-written, packed with interesting and useful information, and full of stunning photographs this is absolutely essential for anyone visiting Ethiopia. It is also highly-recommended for anyone with even a passing interest in Africa’s birds. Buy it and you’ll lose yourself in a region of the world that you – like me – probably know very little about.
One word of caution though: if you’ve never previously considered visiting Ethiopia buying this book will make you want to go there so hard it will probably hurt. Don’t say you weren’t warned…

• ID: ITI0005
• ISBN-13: 978-84-96553-55-2
• Language: English
• Format: Paperback: 22.8 x 14 cm
• Pages: 256
• Publication date: January 2010
• RRP: £25.99 | approx. $40/€30