Ethiopia: Birding with Wolves

Ethiopia has been dubbed the “Cradle of Humanity” and the “Roof of Africa”, but these epithets remain inadequate to describe its richness as a unique biological and cultural crossroads. This is undoubtedly one of Africa’s finest birding destinations. It boasts a healthy combination of lush and impressive forests, breathtaking highlands, moist and arid savannas, and wonderful wetlands. There are many endemics, and a rich assemblage of Palearctic and intra-African migrants, and trips here rack up impressive species lists. First-time visitors to Ethiopia are struck by the sheer number of birds and their tame natures, living right alongside people. Although Ethiopia lacks most of the big mammals for which Africa is famous, it still boasts and impressive cast of furry creatures. These include the fascinating “bleeding-heart”, or Gelada Baboon and the critically endangered Ethiopian Wolf.

Day 1: Addis Ababa. After your arrival in this booming city, we visit Gefersa reservoir if time permits. Here we focus on finding three endemics: Wattled Ibis, Blue-winged Goose, and Abyssinian Longclaw. We overnight in Addis Ababa

Day 2: Addis Ababa to Debre Libanos. Crossing the colorful Sululta Plains, where highlanders thresh their teff (a millet-like grain), we will likely see White-collared Pigeon, Red-breasted Wheatear, and Black-headed Siskin. Lunch near the Debre Libanos Monastery should introduce us to the first of many Gelada Baboon troops, the endemic Rueppell’s Chat, and White-winged Cliff-Chat. Juniper woodlands around the monastery hold Black-winged Lovebird, White-cheeked Turaco, Banded Barbet, White-backed Tit, White-billed Starling, and Dark-headed Oriole.

The endemic and highly threatened Mountain Nyala
The endemic and highly threatened Mountain Nyala (Ken Behrens)

Day 3: Debre Libanos to Jemmu Valley to Debre Birhan. Leaving very early, we arrive at the nearby Jemmu Valley at dawn. Here, we hope to bag the rare and shy Harwood’s Francolin, Fox Kestrel, and many other dry country residents. There are even chances for rare endemics like Red-billed Pytilia and the drab Yellow-rumped Serin. We eat our picnic lunch next to a beautiful river with nesting weavers, kingfishers, swallows, and storks to interrupt our sandwich munching. In the late afternoon, we make our way to Debre Birhan via one of the most beautiful stretches of the Ethiopian highlands, where people live in beautiful farmsteads that are ringed with ancient euphorbia hedges, which have the aspect of medieval castles from a distance!

Day 4: Debre Birhan to Ankober. This morning, we search for Ankober Serin, a highly localized and elusive endemic only discovered in 1976. After lunch we plunge over the breath-taking cliffs of the Great Rift Valley to its foothill savannas, searching for the endemic Yellow-throated Serin. Other possibilities include White-rumped Babbler, Half-collared Kingfisher, Bare-faced Go-away-bird, Shining Sunbird, and a variety of raptors. The night will be spent near Ankober.

During the winter, boreal migrants such as this Masked Shrike flood Ethiopia.
During the winter, boreal migrants such as this Masked Shrike flood Ethiopia. (Ian Fulton)

Day 5: Ankober to Awash NP. As long as recent weather allows it, we will make a long and thrilling drive across Afar territory. Here we will have many encounters with stoic Afar tribesmen draped in cotton tunics and sporting impressive afro hairstyles. The day should be spiced up by several bustard species, including the impressive Arabian Bustard. Other desirables expected include Black-billed Woodhoopoe, Abyssinian Scimitarbill, Yellow-breasted Barbet, Red-bellied Parrot, Nile Valley Sunbird, and Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse.

Days 6–7: Awash NP. The grasslands and acacia woodlands of Awash NP may produce the poorly known Red-winged and Gillett’s Larks as well as the dazzling Rosy-patched Bushshrike, the elegant Scissor-tailed Kite, the suave Somali Fiscal, and many more. Awash also has a thriving population of Beisa Oryx, Soemmering’s Gazelle, and the impressive Hamadryas Baboon. Our nights will be spent at a lodge inside the park.

Day 8: Awash to Langano. We make the fairly long drive to Lake Langano, stopping at several Rift Valley lakes en route. Avian possibilities at the lakes include Great Black-headed Gull, Black Crowned-Crane, Lesser Jacana, and African Pygmy Goose. We overnight at the edge of Lake Langano.

A Rift Valley lake gem - African Pygmy-Goose
A Rift Valley lake gem - African Pygmy-Goose (Ken Behrens)

Day 9: Langano. Early morning birding often yields Grayish Eagle-Owl, Von der Decken’s Hornbill, White-bellied Canary, and Black-cheeked Waxbill. Palearctic visitors might include Masked Shrike and Common Nightingale. In the afternoon we drive to the south end of Lake Langano, where the lush forests still harbor the rare endemic Yellow-fronted Parrot. Other residents include Silvery-cheeked Hornbill, Double-toothed Barbet, Red-shouldered Cuckoo-shrike, Abyssinian Woodpecker, Abyssinian Ground-Thrush, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, and Black Sawwing. Boisterous troops of Black-and-white Colobus Monkeys frequent the towering fig trees. We overnight at a comfortable eco-lodge at the edge of a beautiful patch of forest.

Day 10: Langano to Goba. After a few hours of birding at Langano, we head for the Afro-alpine moorlands and highland juniper forests of the Bale highlands, where Moorland and Chestnut-naped Francolins abound, along with vivacious Abyssinian Catbirds, skulking Cinnamon Bracken-Warblers, bold and unabashed Rouget’s Rails, and the elegant Spot-breasted Lapwing. We spend the next three nights in Goba.

Gallery of the Top 20 Birds in Ethiopia:

Day 11: Sof Omar. Today’s mission is to find Salvadori’s Serin, one of Ethiopia’s toughest endemics. We should also find Northern Brownbul, Somali Tit, Somali Crow, and the startling Bristle-crowned Starling. On top of its birds, Sof Omar offers a vibrant cultural spectacle, as villagers travel from miles around to access the water here. The sight of thirsty camels, splashing kids, and women washing clothes is timeless and beautiful.

Day 12: Goba to Sanetti Plateau. This morning we bird Africa’s highest and most beautiful road, crossing a vast expanse of spongy moorlands dotted with incandescent red-hot pokers and regal giant lobelias. We scour the spectacular scenery seeking Wattled Crane, Lammergeier, Golden Eagle, and Red-billed Chough. Handsome Ethiopian Wolves are often seen bounding across the open plains. Juniper and Hagenia forests drape over the escarpment edges, and hold Montane Nightjar, Abyssinian Long-eared Owl, “Bale” Brown Warbler, and Abyssinian Crimson-wing.

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Day 13: Goba to Negele. Crossing the Harenna Forest, we drive south for most of the day, stopping at several Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco stakeouts until luck smiles on us. This gorgeous, enigmatic, and extremely range-restricted bird may just be the best bird in Ethiopia. The next two nights are spent in Negele.

Day 14: Negele. Today, we search the incredibly stark Liben Plains for the last endangered and rapidly disappearing Sidamo Larks. Further southeast, near Filtu, we bird a vast expanse of thorn scrub for Somali Crombec, Red-fronted Bush-Shrike, Three-streaked Tchagra, Hunter’s Sunbird, Somali Bunting, Banded Warbler, and many other species.

Sidamo Lark is one of the rarest birds in Africa, restricted to a tiny grassland in the south of Ethiopia
Sidamo Lark is one of the rarest birds in Africa, restricted to a tiny grassland in the south of Ethiopia (Ken Behrens)

Day 15: Negele to Yabello. En route to Yabello we scour the Dawa River for African White-winged Dove, Juba Weaver, and Black-bellied Sunbird. Near our destination we shall admire the industrious Stresemann’s Bush-Crow foraging in groups. The exquisite White-tailed Swallow, our last endemic target, is found among a whole suite of other southern specialties otherwise possible only in northern Kenya, such as Somali and Three-banded coursers, African Bare-eyed Thrush, Red-naped Bushshrike, Pringle’s Puffback, Golden-breasted Starling, and Chestnut and Parrot-billed sparrows. Two nights will be spent at Yabello.

Day 16: Yabello. We have a full day in Yabello to “clean up” on any southern thorn scrub birds that have eluded us up to now. These might include Somali Courser, Foxy Lark, and Black-capped Social-Weaver. We should also have more chances to observe the remarkable Yabello-area endemics: White-tailed Swallow and Stresemann’s Bush-Crow.

Day 17: Yabello to Awassa. After a hearty breakfast we head for the bustling Awassa Fish Market and its busy lake, which will provide an unforgettable experience. Marabou Storks, Eastern White Pelicans, and the endemic and well-endowed Thick-billed Ravens all squabble frantically over fish scraps (and your lunch if you’re not careful). We overnight on the shores of Lake Awassa.

Day 18: Awassa to Addis Ababa. After some final morning birding around Lake Awassa, we return to Addis, targeting any possible remaining birds along the way. Night in Addis.

Day 19: Departure. Transfers to the international airport for departures will be arranged.

A CULTURAL EXTENSION may also be available. Please contact us for information.

 

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate to intense. This is a fast-paced tour that covers a lot of ground, and we usually amass a large list. The sun rises at about 6:30am, and we generally sleep close to the birding sites, so most mornings are not too early. However, there are two mornings (days 3 and 11) when we will wake up long before the sunrise and drive 2-3 hours to arrive at a birding site in the early morning. The 12-hour days near the equator mean that days are not extremely long. We will have field breakfast and/or lunch on about half of the days. The most difficult part of this tour is the long drives, some of which are on dusty and/or bumpy roads, and often in hot weather without air conditioning. Ethiopian roads are improving quickly, but some arduous driving is still necessary. There will be down time at the hotel in the middle of the day on a few days, but most days of this tour are spent entirely in the field.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY:  Easy to moderate. Most birding will be done from vehicles, or in short forays, mostly on flat terrain. There is one fairly difficult walk at Debre Libanos, which involves a steep and rocky section. Some walks may be long, but the pace will be slow, and the terrain flat. Almost half of the days of this tour are spent at elevations of 7000 ft (2100m) or above. Near Ankober, we will be above 10,000 ft (3000m), while in the Bale Mountains, we spend parts of two days over 12,000 ft (4000m) elevation.

CLIMATE: Highly variable depending on elevation. Ranges from very hot and dry in the lowlands to cool or even frigid in the highlands. Melka Ghebdu, Awash, the Jemmu Valley, and much of the south are typically hot and dry (up to 104°F, 40°C). The highlands and higher parts of the Rift Valley have a pleasant and moderate climate: warm during the day and cool at night. The highest sites visited on this tour are Ankober and the Bale Mountains, where the weather is volatile; sometimes comfortably cool and other times near freezing, and with hail, sleet, or even snow possible.

ACCOMMODATION: Ranges from basic to good. Although the hotels on this tour have a bad reputation, they have improved drastically in recent years. There are now new hotels to replace the infamous hotel that we formerly used in Negele. All of the hotels have ensuite bathrooms, and most have hot water and 24h electricity. Internet is only available in a couple of lodges, and is generally very slow.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but Ethiopia is one of the best countries on earth for bird photography. This is mainly due to a lack of persecution of birds, meaning that birds are tame and approachable. There are no feeders, blinds, or other photography setups, but the tameness of the wildlife means that much of what we see can be photographed. Ethiopia’s special mammals include Ethiopian Wolf, Mountain Nyala, and others, are also easily photographed. Serious nature photographers may wish to check out our Ethiopia Photo Journey.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. A visa is required. Currently, 3-month tourist visas can be obtained upon arrival for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and most European countries. The visa costs $50. A visa can also be obtained beforehand through a Ethiopian embassy or consulate. Travel requirements are subject to change, and it is a good idea to double-check your entry requirements at least six weeks before you travel; contact the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to local guides, drivers, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 18; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 19; reasonable non-alcoholic beverages during meals; safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the evening of day 18; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a suitable vehicle(s) with local driver(s); entrance fees and local guide fees for all the birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters (if you require their services); snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.