Bird watching near Addis Ababa

I love watching birds but am not a twitcher or interested in expensive birding tours with those obsessed with ticking lists. Whenever I travel I use the website birdingpal to make contact with local enthusiasts, some are amateurs and others may earn their living as a bird guide. In Addis I was fortunate to meet Elias Bayou through the site. He has a profound knowledge and love of birds, knows alll the best spots in Addis parks and surrounding areas to see a wide variety of birds including the endemics. I spent two mornings and one day trip with him, going no further afield than Debre Libanos, and saw well over 100 different birds. He is also a truely lovely guy, kind, helpful with excellent english, does not charge too much, and I would really recommend him. Contact him on 0911077220 or (I did have a problem at times with his email which for some unknown reason went into my spam).

Claire Finka

Another new birding book for Ethiopia

The recent flurry of new birding books to Ethiopia continues with the publication by Christopher Helm Publishers of Where to Watch Birds in Ethiopia by Claire Spottiswoode, Merid Gabremichael and Julian Francis. This book is intended as a complement to the same publisher’s dedicated Field Guide to the Horn of Africa and Bird Atlas for Ethiopia and Eritrea and it provides detailed coverage and GPS readings for 50 key birding sites, mostly in southern Ethiopia, along with photos and descriptions of the country’s ‘top 50 species’. At 180-odd pages, it is very portable and would make an excellent near-essential companion to the Field Guide to the Horn of Africa for dedicated birders, especially those travelling without a local guide specialised in ornithology. It can be ordered directly through the publisher’s website by clicking this link or the cover below:

Another bird book for Ethiopia

Following on from last year’s publication of a dedicated Field Guide to the Horn of Africa and Bird Atlas for Ethiopia and Eritrea, we have another great addition to Ethiopian birding literature in the form of Birding Ethiopia by Ken Behrens, Keith Barnes and Christian Boix. A perfect complement to the field guide or atlas, this book feels a bit like a vastly extended and illustrated trip report, and is the perfect hands-on starting point for anybody planning a birding trip to Ethiopia. Highly recommended!

Janine’s trip report

Hi, have just returned from a 10 day trip to Ethiopia in November and I wanted to say that I am hooked. We only had time to see a fraction of the country and had to stay at altitude because for medical reasons we needed to avoid malarial areas.

Highlight of the trip for me was Wenchi Crater (outside of Ambo) which is heartachingly beautiful. We had a guide and hired horses to get round, although in hindsight we would have been better off walking as we could have just done it at a slow pace and spent longer in the lush valley. The walk back up from the valley is very steep and dusty and due to the altitude we did struggle, the horses only took us part way up (probably because we are a bit on the fat side!) but we would have made it ok at a very slow pace on our own even though we are quite unfit and unused to the altitude. We paid for the hire and gave the horsemen a tip of 10 birr each on top but they were obviously thinking they would get more from us and were not happy, which sort of spoilt it a bit at the end. Is is hard to know what to give as we are seen as rich foreigners, but we were on a tight budget. My sister who is living in Ethiopia said we should have asked for the tip back if they werent happy and tha t it is a reasonable sum in terms of local salaries. Who knows.

On the way to Ambo we turned off the road to visit Gefersa Reservoir to look for birds, which was mentioned in the guidebook. We had some trouble finding it as it isnt signposted. Once we got there it was fenced off and we tried to find a way in. We met one person at a gate who seemed very bemused anyone would want to visit the place and said we needed to get permits from Addis, I think just to get rid of us. We then found another entrance and the chap there let us in to have a wander along the path. We were then accosted by someone else who escorted us off the premises! I think they take security of the reservoir very seriously so I wouldnt really recommend you try to go there. Although the ‘birder’ amongst us did get to see some endemic bird species so he was happy.

Apart from Wenchi we also went to Debre Libanos which was an interesting church and the compulsory guide was one of the friendliest persons you could meet and was well informed and spoke good English. There are some nice stained glass windows and religious artworks and you are allowed to take photos. There is a fairly short climb up to the cave which to be honest isnt all that to look at but seems religiously very significant for people. We had an armed guard to escort us and not sure why he was armed, but it probably meant we were less hassled by people asking for money along the way. On the drive back up from the church we saw gelada baboons by the side of the road and we got out of the car and watched them for a bit and they did not run away from us. We stopped at the german/ethiopian hotel near the portugese bridge and had excellent Ethiopian food, although my sister said it was very expensive. We also had a look at the rooms and they are great, lovely and cool with large beds and ensuite bathrooms with amazing views over the valley. I would guess at night the stars must be incredible. We couldnt stay there unfortunately as we had to get back to Addis. It isnt cheap but I think it is reasonable value as it is high quality and you pay for the view so I think it is worth it.

On our last day it was the Ethiopian Great Run in Addis. If you want to watch 30 odd thousand people run/walk a 10km race I would recommend it, there is such a good atmosphere. Even better if you can take part but be warned it is very hilly and at altitude as well. Also there is no free water given out as my brother-in-law who was running it found out. He was very pleased to finish in a reasonable time though.

During our time we also managed to walk up to the hills above Addis and see the ruined rock-hewn church. I had to pay 30 birr to the guide but locals get in cheaper. You are also supposed to pay per photo I found out afterwards but he didnt charge us. It was interesting as a ruin but I would also like to visit an intact church. After the church we went and had a picnic on the top of the hill overlooking the city. It was quite a long walk up to the church and hilltop but well worth it for the view. Also it was so peaceful after the noise of the city. I would also recommend the Ethnographical museum at the University in Addis as a good place to visit for several hours. Take some ID like your passport to get in the gate. I didnt have any but luckily I was let in anyway, but they do check. Also at the Museum of Ethiopia they will search your bags on entry.

We stayed at the Yonnas hotel in Addis which was basic, but clean with hot water, and the staff are very helpful and friendly. Double room worked out about 200 birr per night. Be warned that it seems double beds are a bit smaller than our usual sizes so if you are on the large side you may want to stay somewhere with ‘queen’ sized beds which are more like our doubles. Also take ear plugs if you dont want to be woken by the 5am call to prayer, which I thought was great as it made the trip seem more exotic but I realise not everyone would appreciate it. Most serious danger is the traffic and the condition of the vehicles, plus the exhaust fumes and dust would be hard for someone with any sort of breathing difficulty. However generally I felt very safe walking about the main streets and getting line taxis (the blue and white toyota hiace people carriers). There are lots of cafes and shops about and everyone I came across was really helpful even though I only just about managed to say thankyou in amharic and could almost manage some numbers. I felt a bit conspicuous being blond haired and very fair skinned, and I kept very covered up so as not to offend people but also to avoid getting burnt. You do get stared at a bit out of curiousity but it isnt threatening. In summary I had the trip of a lifetime and it has only made me more determined to go back for a longer visit and see more of this amazing country.


Birding updates & corrections

Addenda to bird list on p 61-9 based on Nigel Redman, Terry Stevenson & John Fanshawe’s Birds of The Horn Of Africa (RS&F) and John Ash & John Atkins’s Birds of Ethiopia & Eritrea (A&A) 

A&A gives the total number of bird species for Ethiopia as 837, including 188 migrants, 18 endemics, and 14 joint Ethiopian-Eritrean endemics. An additional 50 species are listed but not accepted by the authors.

Archer’s francolin – the recent split mentioned here is not universally accepted

White-cheeked turaco – not a full endemic, as range extends into Eritrean highlands and Boma Hills in Sudan.

Degodi lark – now considered to be synonymous with Gillett’s lark

Erlanger’s lark – still controversial, with RS&F treating it as an endemic species, A&A as an endemic race of C. blanfordi

Red-billed pytilia Pytilia lineata – formerly treated as a race of P. phoenicoptera, this recent split is listed as endemic to Ethiopia by A&A, but is more properly regarded as a near endemic, based on several recent records from bordering parts of Sudan. 

Abyssinian longclaw, Ethiopian (Abyssinian) oriole, Abyssinian slaty flycatcher and white-throated seedeater are not full endemics but joint endemics with Eritrea

The status of brown saw-wing, Ethiopian saw-wing, Ethiopian cliff swallow, Bale parisoma and Ethiopian cisticola remains indeterminate

New Ethiopian Bird Field Guide & Atlas

The lack of a dedicated bird field guide has long been a frustrating limitation for birdwatchers visiting Ethiopia, which is otherwise one of Africa’s most alluring ornithological destinations, with around 840 species recorded, including at least 15 national endemics. In addition, Ethiopia is the easiest place to seek out another 40-0dd species that are either shared with Eritrea only, or whose range is otherwise limited to less accessible neighbouring countries sich as Sudan or Somalia. 

All that has changed with the recent publication of Nigel Redman, Terry Stevenson & John Fanshawe’s Birds of The Horn Of Africa (Helm Field Guides), the first dedicated field guide to this vast region, which is dominated by Ethiopia but also includes Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Socotra. After weeks of waiting, I finally got my hands on a copy today, and I’m please to report that it is fantastic – every species present in the region is illustrated across 213 colour plates that do a great job of capturing the colours and jizz of most distinct plumage variations, and these are accompanied by detailed descriptions and distribution maps. The overall standard and look is very much in line with the same publisher’s superb (and, in my case, very well thumbed) Birds of East Africa, which isn’t too surprising as the titles share two co-authors and are both illustrated by John Gale and Brian Small. I can’t wait for an opportunity to take this portable paperback out into the field, and can recommend it without reservation as the best option for birders visiting Ethiopia. 

Published simultaneously by Helm, John Ash & John Atkins’s Birds of Ethiopia & Eritrea is a more specialised hardcover work, a bird atlas that maps the known distribution of a full 872 species across 132 grids, and provides more detailed background information than the field guide when it comes to individual species and to Ethiopian ornithology . It makes no pretence to be a field guide (there are photographs of several endemics but no other illustrations) and is not aimed at casual birders, but it will be an invaluable tool and source of data for regular visitors and residents. In addition, the highly detailed maps and text will be invaluable to anybody trying to maximise a birding itinerary in terms of ticking endemics and other localised species, as well as in assisting with the identification of tricky species. 

Read more about the books or order them online

Nechisar Nightjar

The renowned ornithologist Ian Sinclair just wrote to let me know that a party comprising himself, Vernon Head, Gerry Nicholls (USA) and Dennis Weir have become the first people to identify a live Nechisar nightjar:

Ian writes: “We  gathered in Addis Ababa on 18 April and drove two days to Arba Minch and the nearby Nechesar Plainm where 20 years earlier a team of researchers found a nightjar roadkill on the Nechisar Plain and kept the wing.  Later at the British Museum they discovered this wing didn’t fit any known African nightjar and they described it as new to science. I examined the wing when researching the African Field guide and drooled over the fabulous wing and dreamed of seeing the bird.
“A tortuous 3 hour drive (only 20km) to the site of the road kill (just a rutted track) and a long anxiety filled wait till dusk. Found the usual local nightjars quickly… Donaldson-Smith’s and Sombre… both fairly small species and then eye shine on a very large nightjar in the spotlamp. When flushed the huge skua-like wing patches were striking and brilliantly white, quite unlike any other nightjar in Africa. This was obviously the male, as the collected wing has a buffy carpal patch and could be a young male or female.”

Congratulations Ian – very exiting news!!!