Simply put, Ethiopia is the best country in Africa for bird photography, and possibly the best country on earth for taking photos of birds. Ethiopian culture includes a strong respect for life of all kinds, and especially for birds. There is so little hunting or persecution of birds, that they sometimes feed right at your feet. It is perfectly conceivable that you could shoot good photos of 200-250 species of birds on this tour. These range from the towering storks and glittering kingfishers of Rift Valley lakes, to handsome waxbills and barbets of arid thorn scrub, to bizarre highland endemics like Thick-billed Raven and Wattled Ibis. Across the board, these birds are approachable and photographable. Even the migrants from Europe and Asia that spend the winter in Ethiopia become tame when they enter this haven of peace. A Lesser Spotted Eagle that might fly at the mere sight of a human in the Middle East will allow you to walk up and touch the telephone pole it’s perched on in Ethiopia!
Although Ethiopia doesn’t have the megafauna of Kenya or Tanzania, it does have its own unique set of mammals. Chief among these are Ethiopian Wolf and Gelada Baboon. Both will be prime targets for our photographic efforts. On top of the birds and mammals, Ethiopia is also one of the best places in Africa for landscape and people photography. The people dress and live much as they have for 1000s of years, against the backdrop of plummeting canyons, hulking montane plateaus, and rugged thorn veld.
Day 1: Arrival Addis Ababa. Upon arrival, you will immediately feel that Addis Ababa is like nowhere else you have ever been. The distinctive ‘flavor’ of Ethiopia is nowhere more apparent then in the capital. A visit to the vibrant local market will be colourful and energetic. Traders argue about the prices of products you have never heard of before, like berbere and tef. Local stalls sell njera (a local pancake like sour bread) and wat – a spicy stew, while neighbors prepare coffee while scattering the bark of frankincense over coals leading to an intoxicating aroma wafting through the market. After a few hours your trigger finger will be exhausted and your cards will be full. So we make our way to a comfortable city hotel for the night.
Day 2: Addis to Debre Birhan. We start the day early, leaving the rapidly developing capital (Ethiopia has the fastest growing economy in Africa) and as soon as we cross the Entoto Mountains on the northern fringe of Addis, we are transported into another world. We will spend dawn in the bird-filled rural farming district of the Sululta Plain. This area is often full of large and characteristic birds, including the elegant endemic Blue-winged Goose, Wattled Ibis, and other photogenic species. Then we head for the cliffs of Debre Libanos, and we will pick up some ‘bones’ from a butchery so that we can create our own raptor restaurant. Our lunch stop is at a spectacular gorge, with cliffs nearby holding breeding Ruppell’s Vultures. Once we scatter the bones these huge and magnificent raptors will come sailing by at regular intervals, allowing amazing eye-level photos. Augar Buzzard, Tawny Eagle, and if we are lucky, an incredible and stunning Lammergeier may join them making it a photography fest of epic proportions. After lunch we will attempt to find a group of the intriguing Gelada monkeys which roam this area in groups numbering in the hundreds. Despite this, they can still be tricky to find. If we are lucky we will enjoy them for a while, watching their antics and getting some keeper shots of these odd and fascinating creatures. In the late afternoon we make our way to a city hotel at Debre Birhan.
Day 3: Debre Birhan to Lake Cheleleka to Lake Koka to Lake Ziway to Lake Langano. This morning we will again be able to focus our lenses on some of the high elevation birds of the Ethiopian plateau. Later we pass Addis and drop into the more diverse Rift Valley, where numbers of migrant and resident birds increase exponentially. Shortly after lunch we head to lakes Cheleleka and Koka, hoping to catch up with the uncommon Black Crowned-Crane, and the myriad migrant Northern Shovellers, Green-winged Teal and Common Pintail that are mixed in with African resident Hottentot Teal, Red-billed and Yellow-billed ducks. The lake shore throngs with Little Stint, Ruff, Marsh, Green and Wood sandpipers, and resident Kittlitz’s and Three-banded Plovers. The stars though are likely to be the African Fish-Eagles swooping in for prey, Hamerkop striking a staccato chord as they sing along the lake margins, or groups of Yellow-billed Storks fishing. All are ready fodder for the eager photographer. In the late afternoon we head to Lake Langano, where we enjoy the night in a beautiful retreat on the lake edge.
Day 4: Lake Langano and Abiata-Shalla National Park. Although Lake Langano is another of the Rift Valley lakes and is full of waterbirds, the main reason for our visit here is the fringing vegetation, which supports both thorny savanna and fig forest with an excellent collection of tame terrestrial birds nearby that will be our core focus for the morning shooting session. Spectacular Superb Starlings, or gregarious Von Der Decken’s Hornbill might drop in for breakfast, while Ruppell’s Weaver, Black-winged Lovebird or Striped Kingfisher may be some of the smaller quarry we might find. The hotel gardens are good for roosting owls and we will do our best to find one before making our way to the neighboring national park. One morning we will visit one of the shallow soda lakes, that is often teeming with birds including thousands of flamingos and many thousands of ducks and shorebirds. Light can be a little harsh here so once the sun has cranked it up, we will return to the gentler shores of Langano.
Day 5: Lake Langano to Goba. After another morning session near Langano we will drive to Goba. As we ascend the southern highlands we will soon start encountering birds of the high altitude. As we near the plains of Dinsho we shall begin to see some of the more spectacular landscapes of the Bale Mountains, and we shall enjoy searching for Menelik’s Bushbuck, the endemic Mountain Nyala, warthogs, and bold and spectacular birds like Rouget’s Rail and Spot-breasted Lapwing. With a little luck we may locate some secretive montane owls on their day roosts, allowing excellent opportunities of photographs of these nocturnal creatures.
Day 6: Bale Mountains NP. We spend a full day in the alpine wonderland that is the Bale plateau. Rising early, the chill of the morning will soon be dissolved by the radiant high-altitude light. We shall use the golden dawn to photograph Moorland or Chestnut-naped Francolins, or perhaps an Augur Buzzard sentinel on a giant lobelia plant, an Abyssinian Longclaw singing, or an awkward Thick-billed Raven picking at a carcass. The main quarry of this morning’s excursion is the extremely rare, and Endangered, Simien Wolf. With a global population of less than 500 individuals this is one of the rarest of all of Earth’s predators. Fortunately, their habit of prancing around the high-altitude heathland seeking out their specialized rodent prey means that they are regularly encountered and photographed. This will be our main mission. We may also see and photograph many other birds and perhaps some small mammals as we enjoy the plateau for the remainder of the day.
Day 7: Bale Mountains NP / Sof Omar. If we would like to spend some more time with the wolves, we will return to the plateau. If, however, the beasts performed and we are satisfied with our experience and photographs we can head off to the very different countryside of Sof Omar. This natural phenomenon is the largest cave system in Africa, and as the Web River runs through the caves, it creates a surreal environment. So much so that it has been a holy place for Muslim worshipers since the 12C. The surrounding area holds dry scrub with a very different collection of savanna birds, and we will target these in the morning session. Some highlights may be the strange Bristle-crowned Starling, or perhaps a stunning Narina Trogon or Scarlet-chested or Shining sunbirds. The people bathing at the river make for an interesting photographic spectacle in itself.
Day 8: Goba to Lake Awassa. After some early morning birding near Goba we will make for the Rift Valley again, where we can photograph in the mix of woodland and waterbirds that exist in the incredible mosaic of habitats that can be found there.
Day 9: Lake Awassa. Awassa is probably the single best locality for a diversity of birds and subjects to shoot. The active fishing nodes along the lakeshore attract a heady mix of birds, and there are few places on Earth where one can stand just a few metres from Goliath Heron, and Marabou and Saddle-billed storks as they gorge themselves on fishscraps. Hamerkops can be abundant as can the immense Africa Fish-Eagle. The waterlilies often hide small groups of pretty African Pygmy-Goose while the reed beds are home to Black Crake and Blue-headed Coucal. Seedeaters include the amazing Northern Red Bishop and cute Abyssinian Waxbill. The terrestrial vegetation, especially the copses of fig trees play host to noisy honking Silvery-cheeked Hornbill, Banded and Double-toothed Barbet and on the ground the stunning White-browed Robin-chat. The trees are also home to the beautiful Gureza Colobus Monkeys that are charismatic photo subjects. No matter what kind of subjects pose for the lenses today, we are sure to return to the rooms with cards burgeoning with images in need of downloading.
Day 10: Awassa to Lake Ziway to Lake Koka to Awash NP. A final day in the Rift valley will get us more exposure to the waterbird wonderland of the Ethiopian Rift, and we will track down some Northern Carmine Bee-eaters or Malachite Kingfishers for those final killer shots before we take off and head to the drier areas of the Awash area.
Days 11 and 12: Awash NP. Awash NP is one of Ethiopia’s last remaining wilderness areas where one can still see decent numbers of wild animals. Unfortunately, domestic stock still outnumbers ungulates and we are sure to see trains of camels before we encounter our first wildlife. Nevertheless, there are some interesting and unusual mammals to be found in Awash, the most spectacular of which is Beisa Oryx. The handsome beige, black and white antelope with sweeping black horns is a real stunner. Sommering’s and Bright’s gazelles, Lesser Kudu and Harar Dikdik may all also be seen and photographed here. We will need some luck, but we should manage a few good shots of some of these. Birds are common, and we will try to find and photograph some of the bustard species that haunt these woodlands. As we head further north to the Alidege NP we can hope to encounter some different species in this stark and open environment. The unusual Sacred Baboon may be the first, but we will also keep a watch out for the strange and delightful Gerenuk as well as Arabian Bustard and if we are extremely lucky, Somali Ostrich. Colourful barbets, bee-eaters and starlings are also omnipresent in this regions and we are sure to have a great collection of images to contend with once our time at Awash is over.
Day 13: Awash to Addis. Our final morning will be spent getting a last few shots in the Awash area before we pack up and return to the capital with a casket full of memories and cards full of images.
Day 14: Departures from Addis Ababa. We fly out to our international destinations.
PACE: Moderate. This tour covers a lot of ground, but we will have some time off, except on long drive days. The sun rises at about 6:30am, and we generally sleep close to the photo sites, so most mornings are not too early. The 12-hour days near the equator mean that days are not extremely long. We will have field breakfast and/or lunch on a couple of days. There are some long drives (up to 7 hours), but all on tarmac roads.
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Most photography will be done from vehicles, or in short forays, mostly on flat terrain. 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. In the Bale Mountains, we spend parts of one or 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. Awash NP and Sof Omar are typically hot and dry (up to 105°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 site is 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. All of the hotels have ensuite bathrooms, hot water, and 24h electricity (though power cuts are not unusual). Internet is only available in a couple of lodges, and is generally slow.
PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: This trip has a roughly even split between vehicle-based photography and photography on foot. There are excellent chances to photograph birds, mammals, landscapes, and people. Although there are no feeders or other photo setups, the tameness of the birds and other wildlife renders most of what we find photographable. This trip has a strong cultural element; we often shoot photos adjacent to people living traditional lifestyles.
GEAR: The wildlife is so approachable that a huge lens is far from essential, but you still want a decent telephoto for smaller birds. Most people will certainly want to bring a smaller lens for landscapes and people. When we photograph on foot, we often approach birds, or follow moving flocks. Because of this, and the fact that light is usually abundant, tripods are not particularly useful. They will also be impossible to use most of the time when photographing from the vehicle. Bean bags and other such ways of stabilizing lenses inside of a vehicle will be very useful.
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 staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 13; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 14; reasonable non-alcoholic drinks during meals; safe drinking water between meals; photography tour leader with audio playback gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the evening of day 13; 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 suitable vehicle(s) with local driver(s); entrance fees and local guide fees for all the sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist (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 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.
SITE GUIDE TO ETHIOPIA
Tropical Birding guides have published a birding site guide to Ethiopia. It covers all of the major birding areas of the country, and is copiously illustrated with maps and over 110 photos. Click here to learn more.
Gallery of the Top 20 Wildlife Targets in Ethiopia: