Ethiopia. The Mother of Africa. The only African country never to be colonized. The land of the Queen of Sheba. The place where humanity began.
It’s a country with a long, fascinating cultural history but a lot of unfortunate recent history (famine, a communist dictatorship, civil wars, war with its neighbors). And when most westerners think of places to go in Africa it’s not one of the first countries that spring to mind. It doesn’t really have the charismatic megafauna of Kenya, Tanzania, or South Africa.
What Ethiopia does have is 16 endemic birds and access to many birds that are only found in Ethiopia and other Horn of Africa countries that really aren’t open for foreigners to visit, such as Somalia, Eritrea, or Sudan. Our tour focused on the southern part of the country in the Great Rift Valley and some of the high plateaus on either side of it.
On the other hand, Ethiopia is a very poor country. Overpopulation is a major problem. Ethiopia has 1/3 the population of the US in only 1/10 of the area. A lot of the forests are being cut down for charcoal. There are places we went to where there are no personal motorized vehicles…no cars, no motorbikes (not a single luxury). Many people get around by horse and donkey carts or on foot.
On top of that, most roads outside Addis Ababa are dirt or in terrible shape – or both:
The roads are full of livestock – donkeys, goats, horses, and cows – even in the cities. There are trucks (lots of trucks!), buses, and tuk-tuks:
Every town seems to have some kind of checkpoint:
Most travel, even on the paved roads averaged 30 miles per hour. And although the people are very friendly, the sight of a group of farenji (foreigners) brings out crowds of children begging for money or pens.
On top of all that, much of the country is off-limits. The southeast is close to Somalia with all the risks that entails. There’s currently an armed uprising in Amhara State (just north of Addis Ababa). This caused several changes in our itinerary, even after we were in country. It forced the tour company to cancel a cultural extension to see the stone churches of Lalibela. And it kept us from seeing some of the special birds that were accessible before 2020. Additionally, I just learned that parts of the country that were safe when we went are now experiencing a spate of kidnappings for ransom. On top of all that, most of the country is suffering a drought – except for the southeast which is getting too much rain and is having floods.
We were supposed to take the road connecting Bale Mountains NP and Yabello, but that was not safe. So was the road from Awash National Park to Debre Birhan, north of Sululta. And we diverted to the Gibe Gorge area on the last days of the tour because it wasn’t safe to go north of Sululta at all. Despite all this, we saw A LOT of birds. I saw 413 species - and the official tour list was probably closer to 450 species. 100 of those were lifers, and many of them can’t be seen anywhere else, unless you want to go to Somalia, South Sudan, or Eritrea.
So with all this preamble, I’d like to share some of what we saw on the trip. I’ll focus on the endemics and regional endemics, especially those with places in their names, but some of the more widespread African species are just too cool not to share.
On to the birds!
Before we even left Addis Ababa I had my first regional specialty, Swainson’s Sparrow:
It used to be part of a more widespread species, Grey-headed Sparrow, but was split off as a separate species a few years back. The new species is found mostly in Ethiopia and Eritrea, but does occur in the neighboring countries in smaller numbers. This particular picture was taken in the Harenna Forest south of the Bale Mountains, but they’re a typical city sparrow much like House Sparrows in the US. We even saw a few at our hotel in Addis.
Just outside Addis, we had our first Abyssinian Wheatear:
It used to be known as Schalow’s Wheatear but that got lumped into a bigger species (Schalow’s is only found in Kenya and Tanzania). We had this species in several of the dry, rocky habitats in the Great Rift Valley. Between the wheatears seen in Ethiopia and on my “extension” in Kuwait and the UAE, I saw 11 different wheatear species on this trip.
From Addis Ababa we headed down into the Rift Valley and the specialties came fast and furious. One of the first was Ethiopian Boubou:
Boubous are a kind of bush-shrike. Bush-shrikes used to be part of the main shrike family, but are now a separate family found only in Africa. Boubous are named for the call of the Tropical Boubou heard here. This Ethiopian Boubou was seen from a hotel balcony at Lake Bishoftu while we sipped tea and coffee (or tried to do that between running to the balcony to see new birds).
Another beauty we saw from that hotel balcony is the Ethiopian Bee-eater:
This species is endemic to Ethiopia and Eritrea. It was formerly considered a subspecies of the more widespread African species Blue-breasted Bee-eater but was raised to full species level. We saw these in several places during the trip. This pair was near Sululta north of Addis.
Further south in the Rift Valley we saw our first Abyssinian Ground-hornbills:
Hornbills are the Old World equivalent of toucans. As would be expected from the name, ground-hornbills spend their time on the ground as opposed to the other hornbills which are arboreal. This species is actually fairly widespread in Central Africa – all the way from Senegal to Ethiopia - but because it’s got Abyssinian in its name (and it’s such a wild-looking bird), I’ve included it here. It’s one of only two species of Ground-hornbills. The other, Southern Ground-Hornbill is found from Kenya south to South Africa.
Near our lodge at Lake Langano, we saw Yellow-fronted Parrots:
This is a true Ethiopian endemic. It’s found in the Ethiopian highlands between 1000 and 3000 meters. It’s currently doing well, mainly because it’s not common in the pet trade, but could be at risk because of acacia forests being cut down to make charcoal.
There’s also a lovebird found in Ethiopia, the Black-winged Lovebird:
This is another Ethiopian/Eritrean endemic. It’s found throughout the Rift Valley, also in acacia scrub. We saw them at Lake Langano and also near Lake Awasa. Interestingly, the lovebirds are not in the same taxonomic family as the African Parrots. The lovebirds are actually grouped with the Asian parrots and Australasian lorikeets.
Still another Ethiopian/Eritrean endemic is the Banded Barbet:
Barbets are a widespread tropical group, although they’re split into three different families – one for Asia, one for Africa, and one for the New World. The African barbets tend to be highly patterned but generally only in black, yellow, and red. As you can see, barbets are cavity nesters. Many of the African barbets nest in holes in termite mounds. We had Banded Barbet at several locations in the Rift Valley. This particular bird was in a park near Lake Awasa.
One of the main targets of the trip was White-cheeked Turaco:
Turacos are another family that is found only in Africa. They’re medium-sized fruit eating birds. Most of them are green and blue, with some small red patches. They have crests, although this one doesn’t have it raised. White-cheeked Turaco is restricted to Ethiopia with a few in Eritrea. This bird was in the forest above the town of Wondo Genet, but we saw this species in several places in the Valley.
From the Rift Valley we moved on to the Bale Mountains (pronounced like Bah-lay, not like actor Christian). Peaking at over 4,100m (13,450 ft), the road over the mountains on the Sanetti Plateau is said to be the highest navigable road in Africa. It’s the place to go to see the high elevation Ethiopian endemics.
That road was 30 km of a horribly potholed, badly maintained, dirt road that was actively being washed away by heavy rain. The time we spent there was one of the rainiest, foggiest days I’ve ever spent birding. So my pictures are not the clearest. Even worse, we were jammed into the back seat of a Toyota Land Cruiser. And despite it being the main road through a national park, there were more buses and trucks than cars. Oh yeah. This is supposed to be the dry season. That’s why the tours go in November. But our local guide said it seemed like the middle of the rainy season. So much for no climate change.
That said, the birds there are fantastic. One of the strangest is Rouget’s Rail:
It’s yet another Ethiopia / Eritrea endemic. As you can see, these guys don’t behave like normal rails and hide in the brush. They come out in the open. They just walk around at the side of the road. Bizarre.
There are quite a few alpine lakes on the plateau, which is why you find species that you’d expect to be drawn to water. One is the Spot-breasted Lapwing:
It’s only found in the Ethiopian highlands. When we first passed over the plateau, it was so foggy that I could barely see these birds a few feet in front of me. Fortunately, by the time we crossed back, the fog had lifted a bit, and I was actually able to see the spotted breast.
Another water bird of the plateau is the Blue-winged Goose:
It’s a small goose, and seems to be related more closely to ducks than geese. We also saw a couple at a small pond north of Addis (but still at about 3000m).
Also found throughout the Ethiopian / Eritrean highlands is the Wattled Ibis:
The wattle is actually pretty small and not easily seen (or photographed). These were actually fairly common roadside birds and were even found on the edge of farm fields like this one. We didn’t see them up on the tundra, just on the slopes.
And it’s not just about the birds. One of the really special animals of the Bale Mountains is the Ethiopian Wolf:
It was formerly known as the Simien Wolf, named after the Simien Mountains where it was first found, but when it was found to breed in several other locations in Ethiopia, the name was changed. This is one of the rarest canids in the world. It’s estimated that there are less than 450 of them, with over half the population found in the Bale Mountains. We actually saw three of them.
After traversing the plateau, we came down out of the fog into the Harenna Forest. That’s where I saw this Abyssinian Thrush:
They’re in the genus Turdus, like the American Robin or Eurasian Blackbird. They’re most concentrated in Ethiopia (hence the name), but they‘re found all the way down through the African Rift Valley Lakes from Kenya to Malawi.
Another “Abyssinian” bird we saw in Harenna is Abyssinian Slaty-flycatcher:
Keeping track of the little grey flycatchers in Ethiopia is a real trick. In addition to Abyssinian Slaty, there’s African Grey, African Dusky, and Pale Flycatchers. To be honest, that’s what guides are for! But in this case, the pale eye is a distinctive feature.
The Chestnut-naped Spurfowl is more easily IDed:
They’re another species that doesn’t seem to mind being out in the open. We saw several of these “mountain chickens”, including at least two adults with chicks. They’re almost exclusively found in Ethiopia with only a few populations in Somalia and far northern Kenya.
A rare mammal we saw on the approach to Harenna is the Bale Monkey or Bale Mountains Vervet:
This Ethiopian endemic species is a high elevation bamboo specialist, so their range is extremely limited. In fact, our guide said that the tours don’t always see them. They’re considered “vulnerable”, mainly due to habitat loss.
But we couldn’t continue onward to the south because of safety concerns, so after enjoying our semi-dry time in Harenna forest, we had to go back over the plateau through the rain, fog, and the road from hell. By the time we made it down it was dark. Our driver actually turned off his headlights and drove by moonlight, because the fog was too thick for the headlights. Frankly, I’m glad we made it home. Fortunately, after that we were only birding in dry habitats.
Coming down from the highlands on the way back to the Rift Valley we added another Ethiopian / Eritrean endemic, the Rusty-breasted Wheatear:
This species used to be a subspecies of Red-breasted Wheatear, but that species was split in two with Rusty-breasted on the southwest side of the Red Sea and Buff-breasted on the northeast side of the Red Sea in Arabia.
We then did another transit through the southern part of the Rift Valley and ended up in the acacia savannas of Southern Ethiopia:
The is the area for some of the most desirable, charismatic Ethiopian endemic birds.
One bird everybody wanted was Stresemann’s Bushcrow:
It’s a small bird that looks and acts more like the starlings of Africa, but after DNA studies it was found to be related to crows. This species is restricted to a very tiny patch of acacia scrub in Southern Ethiopia. According to Wikipedia, it doesn’t occur in nearby places where the habitat would seem to be perfect. Scientists found that was due to the fact that they require a very narrow cool temperature range while foraging. This puts them at great risk due to climate change. We found these in the scrub south of Yabelo near the Kenyan border.
Another major target in the south is Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco:
It’s another bird that’s limited to a small area, much of which is in that off-limits area between the Bale Mountains and Yabelo. Fortunately, a population has been found in Arero Forest, about 2 hours drive from Yabelo. And if you’re interested in who Prince Ruspoli was, a rather humorous description of the history of this species is here:
Yet another bird normally found in that off-limits area is the Salvadori’s Serin (or Salvadori’s Seedeater):
We were lucky to get this one, because the spot where we got them is separated from the rest of the known (off-limits) sightings by about 80km. It was apparently discovered where we saw it just last year by our local guide, when the usual area became unsafe to visit.
From the south, we worked our way back up the Rift Valley (because that’s where all the roads are). On the way we saw these White-rumped Babblers:
They’re another Rift Valley endemic in Ethiopia and Eritrea. We saw them in several places including Lake Langano and Wondo Genet. We actually saw three different subspecies, so stay tuned for splits!
A common monkey in Ethiopia is the Grivet Monkey:
We saw this little mama in a city park near Lake Awasa, but they were relatively common throughout the trip.
Eventually we made it north to the Awash Area in a different part of the rift on the main road between Addis and the port of Djibouti (think: a lot more trucks). But once you get away from the main road there are some spectacular birds.
One of the most beautiful is the Abyssinian Roller:
Gorgeous, huh? Like the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, this is a species that ranges from Senegal to the Red Sea, but because it’s called Abyssinian, I couldn’t help but include it here. They’re actually fairly common once you’re in the right habitat. They even perch on the wires along the roads. This bird was in Awash National Park.
And once you’re in this part of Ethiopia, you start seeing birds that have “Somali” in their name. One of these is the Somali Fiscal:
A fiscal is an African shrike. Why are they called fiscals, you may ask? It derives from an Afrikaans word “fiskaal” which means “public official”, a euphemism for hangman. They got this name because shrikes hang their prey food on thorns. This species is found in Ethiopia, northern Kenya (a part of that country where most tours don’t visit), and of course Somalia.
Another charismatic “Somali” bird is the Somali Ostrich:
There used to be only one species of ostrich, but the northern birds that occur in Ethiopia and Kenya were split off as a separate species. To be fair, they’re hard to separate visually from each other. Fortunately, Somali is much more likely in Ethiopia. We saw this male in Abidjatta-Shalla National Park in the Rift Valley, but they were much more common around Awash.
The last “Somali” bird we saw was Somali Bunting:
It’s also known as the Somali Golden-breasted Bunting. You can just barely see the gold in this picture. We saw this bird at some lava fields near Awash National Park. As an aside, the North American buntings are totally unrelated to the Old World buntings (American buntings are related to cardinals!).
We also saw the Nile Valley Sunbird:
Sunbirds are a widespread Old World Family, that kind-of fill the same ecological niche as hummingbirds in the New World, but they aren’t related. It’s just convergent evolution. In addition to Ethiopia, the Nile Valley Sunbird is found in all of the countries that border the Red Sea. This is an adult male in eclipse plumage. In breeding plumage the head and back are completely green (and the tail is longer than the bird).
Also at those lava fields was a much less ornate species, the Sombre Rock-chat:
They’re only found in northeast Ethiopia. They’re perfectly colored for camoflauge in the lava fields, aren’t they? Most sightings in eBird are exactly where we found them. Right here:
The shadow at the bottom with his hands to his face is me taking the picture.
Much more fun to see was the Eastern Plantain-eater:
They’re in the same family as Turacos, but are bigger and more raucous. You usually hear them before you see them. They’re uncommon in Ethiopia, but according to our guide they’re backyard birds in Uganda. We saw these along the Awash River in Awash National Park.
Another big bird, and a major target bird in the Awash area is Arabian Bustard:
Arabian Bustards have been hunted to near extinction in Arabia and around the Persian Gulf, but Ethiopia has a large stable population. The Aledeghi Plains near Awash is the best place to see them, but we saw them in Awash National Park, too. In fact, we saw three species of bustards in Awash in one afternoon (Kori, Arabian, and Buff-crested).
As I said in the intro, from the Awash area, we were supposed to travel to the town of Debre Birhan on the plateau north of Addis in the southern part of Amhara State. The current uprising there kept us from going to that area, so we went to the Gibe Gorge west of Addis instead. Although we missed out on some species (including Gelada baboon), that diversion actually turned out better than expected.
One surprising bird we saw there was the Sahel Bush Sparrow:
It’s a widespread species found in the Sahel region – the dry belt immediately south of the Sahara - from Mauritania all the way to Ethiopia. It used to be known as the Bush Petronia.
The last bird in my survey, and one of the best of the tour, was Egyptian Plover:
It’s one of those unusual birds that’s in its own family. They’ve earned the nickname “Crocodile Bird” because of an ancient myth that it eats decaying meat from between the teeth of crocodiles. Most birders who see it find it in Senegal or Gambia. There aren’t many records for Ethiopia, so finding a pair of them on the Gibe River was a major bonus. It kind-of made missing out on some endemic species tolerable.
So that covers some of the special range-restricted birds from my November trip. I hope you enjoyed the tour.
So, what’s happening in your area?