Abyssinian Abysses

A common folk etymology of the term Abyssinia (the archaic term used for Ethiopia and sometimes the rest of the Horn or Africa) is that it comes from the many deep gorges in the region. It's an urban legend, as it's actually related to the term Habesha, nowadays used by Ethiopians and Eritreans as a term of cultural unity, and probably comes from a Mehri word meaning "incense gatherer". That said, Ethiopia is indeed dissected by many, many spectacular river valleys and escarpments cutting through the highly-uplifted Ethiopian Highlands. 

One of these abysses, the Jemma River valley, was the primary destination of my third weekend outside of Addis Ababa in early June. I'd been on the edge of it when I visited the Debre Libanos monastery my first weekend in the country, but this time the goal was to descend all the way to the bottom, as the Jemma valley is the site of many hard-to-find Ethiopian endemics and specialties. I set out in that direction early on a Saturday morning, this time with Begashaw, a new driver as Asrat had to cancel at the last minute due to a family emergency. Begashaw proved to be a very enthusiastic driver, although his confidence in bird ID proved to not quite match his actual bird ID abilities- mostly fine as I'd been studying birds on my own, but sometimes a little frustrating. 

On the way north from Addis, we stopped in the Sululta Plain, as I'd missed a few targets of mine on my last visit there, especially the endemic Erlanger's Lark, which was supposed to be common in the area. This visit proved to be a bit of a struggle, as the recent rains had covered most of the plain in an inch or so of water- not enough to make it unwalkable, but definitely enough to leave me with very wet shoes and socks by the end of it. I also didn't see Erlanger's Lark, although I did get a bonus lifer in the form of a Glossy Ibis, a bird I'd missed out on both in the Philippines and the US. I also got slightly closer looks at some Rouget's Rails, one of my favorite endemics, and amazing views of some furious Spot-breasted Lapwings as they flew around screaming any time I got within 15 meters or so of them. 

Spot-breasted Lapwing

African Sacred Ibis

Glossy Ibis

Wattled Ibis

Rouget's Rail

Red-billed Teals

We stopped again just a little down the road in a different stretch of plains to check again for larks. There were no larks, but I did have a quick glimpse at a Kittlitz's Plover near a dirty pond. There were also lots of the usual birds out in the plain, including a male Fan-tailed Widowbird in breeding plumage, a flock of White-collared Pigeons, many Tawny Eagles, and a few African Black Ducks. 

Male Fan-tailed Widowbird

Immature Tawny Eagle

Pied Crow

White-collared Pigeon

Hooded Vulture

Further north, we stopped in the river near Duber I'd stopped by briefly a couple of weeks earlier. I walked further down the river valley this time, which proved to be a good idea as I got amazing views of a pair of Abyssinian Longclaws, endemic meadowlark-mimic pipits, as well as many Three-banded Plovers (which annoyingly actually only have two bands), a flock of my lifer Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, some Yellow Bishops transitioning to breeding plumage, and a pair of beautiful Blue-winged Geese. A picture I took of a tiny leaf beetle later turned out to be the first picture of one of its species ever taken in the wild!

Abyssinian Longclaw

Three-banded Plover

Blue-winged Geese

Cinnamon-breasted Bunting

Yellow Bishop

Spilomelinae sp.

Some kind of Coenagrionidae damselfly I annoyingly haven't IDed yet

Acraea necoda

Candezea occipitalis, the first-ever photo of one in the wild!

By the time we reached the town of Fiche, where we reserved a cheap hotel ($5 per night!), it was already late afternoon. Since the plan was to head to the Jemma Valley the next morning, Begashaw offered to take me elsewhere in the highlands to look for some more grassland birds. We set out north, stopping quickly twice: once for a magnificent Lanner Falcon perched on a telephone pole, and once for a flock of larks I at first thought were Erlanger's Larks, but turned out to be Thekla's Larks (not endemic, but still lifers for me).

Lanner Falcon

Thekla's Lark

A couple hours before sunset, we stopped at a small creek that looked like it would have good birds. I spent a while walking along the side of the creek, and there were indeed many birds, but I was mostly distracted by the pair of teenage boys that decided to follow me closely the entire time. I've become used to being followed around while birding, but these were more intrusive than usual, constantly getting in my way, putting their arms around me, and even throwing rocks at birds I was photographing. It was incredibly obnoxious, and didn't seem like a good way of getting me to give them money, which they kept asking for. I was still able to see some birds though, including lots of difficult-to-photograph Yellow Bishops, another few beautiful Abyssinian Longclaws, and another Thekla's Lark. On the way back to our hotel just after sunset, we stopped for a beautiful near-endemic Red-breasted Wheatear.

Abyssinian Longclaw

Ethiopian Siskin

Male and female Yellow Bishop

Speckled Pigeon

Cape Crow

Red-breasted Wheatear

Tiny frog by the creekside

We departed Fiche and headed towards the Jemma Valley at 4:30 the following morning, as it's imperative to arrive there by sunrise in order to see one of the star birds of the area. The benefit of the early start was that I got to see the sun rising over the breathtaking Lemi Escarpment of the Jemma Valley, one of the most incredible landscape views I've ever seen. Shortly after I stopped again for another photo, this time of the small flock of near-endemic Erckel's Francolins grazing on the lip of the escarpment. I'd actually seen Erckel's Francolin before in Hawaii of all places, but it was nice to see it for real in its native range. 

Sunrise over the Lemi Escarpment

Erckel's Francolin

We began descending the narrow road that winds down the side of the Lemi escarpment all the way to the Jemma River at the bottom just after sunrise. Immediately I started looking out for the #1 target for the Jemma Valley: Harwood's Francolin, an endemic bird confined to a tiny area of the Ethiopian Highlands, and essentially only seeable along this road. It didn't take long before I saw a few chickenlike birds running across the road. The car screeched to a halt, and a look through my binoculars confirmed that they were Harwood's Francolins! Unfortunately, they ran into the scrubby bush on the side of the road before I could get a picture, and though they responded to playback of their call the only birds I could get a picture of were another group of Erckel's Francolins

A little further down the edge of the canyon, we stopped at a section of road with a dramatic view over the gorge to look for some other local birds. The famous Jemma Valley certainly delivered bird-wise: a few endemic White-winged Cliff Chats hanging out on the road, a Vinaceous Dove perched on a wire, an endemic Abyssinian Wheatear, a non-breeding male Red-collared Widowbird foraging on the ground, a Banded Barbet watching us from a tree... the list went on. The best find was actually seen right next to where Begashaw had parked the car: a flock of Yellow-rumped Seedeaters, another restricted-range endemic bird, foraging in someone's garden.

Another look down the Jemma Valley

Abyssinian White-eyes

Yellow-rumped Seedeater

Red-collared Widowbird

Abyssinian Wheatear

Banded Barbet

Mocking Cliff Chat

About halfway down the valley, we stopped where an extremely rare Barka Indigobird had been reported last year. I didn't see any indigobirds, but there was a pair of Hemprich's Hornbills flying above us, and a few cute Northern Crombecs foraging in a tree. As I was taking pictures of the crombecs, I noticed a raptor above me, and soon realized it was a Fox Kestrel, a very pretty kestrel that's another of the specialty birds of the Jemma Valley. Later when I reviewed my pictures, I realized it was holding a large grasshopper that it was snacking on in flight- rather impressive!

Hemprich's Hornbills

Northern Crombec

Fox Kestrel snacking on a grasshopper

It began to get hotter as I descended the canyon- a drop of over a kilometer! I stopped only twice more before reaching the bottom of the valley, first for a flock of uncommon Speckle-fronted Weavers foraging in a field along with a Bush Petronia, and another time for a trio of Abyssinian Ground Hornbills.

Speckle-fronted Weaver

Bush Petronia

Sulphur Orange Tip

Abyssinian Ground Hornbills

Calomera alboguttata

Around 9 in the morning, we arrived at the bottom of the valley, where the wide, muddy Jemma River winds its way west towards the Blue Nile. The river itself is known as a good birding spot, with occasional but regular sightings of the rare and much-sought-after Egyptian Plover. This was a weekend however, so there were lots of local folks hanging out by the river fishing or bathing, presumably scaring away any plovers that might be around. There was still a few Yellow-billed Storks and a small flock of my lifer Woolly-necked Storks near the water, however.

I set out along the track running along the northern shore of the river, hoping to see some new birds, particularly a Red-billed Pytilia, a rare and elusive near-endemic best seen in the Jemma Valley. It was dry and brutally hot, and bird activity wasn't terribly high, though there were still a few good birds: many Black-billed Barbets, a few female Village Indigobirds, a flyover from another Fox Kestrel, and many Cut-throat Finches. The best and most surprising find of the day was a flock of Four-banded Sandgrouse that I accidentally flushed, one of very few records of these sandgrice (I refuse to believe that's not the plural term) in the Jemma Valley. The hot weather was much better for cold-blooded animals, including many lizards, butterflies, and more exotic things.

Black-billed Barbet

Female Village Indigobird

Cut-throat Finch

Four-banded Sandgrouse

Spiny Agama (Agama spinosa)

Common Long-tailed Lizard (Latastia longicaudata)

Agama doriae

Savannah Pied Pierrot (Tuxentius cretosus)

Mating Red Tips (Colotis danae)

Plain Tiger Butter (Danaus chrysippus)

African Migrant (Catopsilia florella)

Zebra White (Pinacopteryx oriphia)

Colotis evarnae

The amazing Variegated Grasshopper (Zonoceros variegatus)

Cataglypus sp.

After a kilometer so of hot, pytilia-less wandering, I returned to the car. The best spot to look for Red-billed Pytilia is a small creek a ways north up the valley road, but Begashaw insisted that the spot did not exist, and the only spot to see them was the trees near the bridge. The creek definitely exists, and either he wasn't aware of it or didn't feel like driving the extra distance. Nonetheless, I spent another 45 minutes or so scouring the large trees looking for pytilias. Unsurprisingly, none appeared, though there were some other good birds, including Bruce's Green Pigeons, a pair of Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, and a Yellow-fronted Canary, another African bird I'd already seen in Hawaii. The lack of pytilias was a disappointment, however, and it's the only endemic or near-endemic bird I've missed so far in Ethiopia.

Bruce's Green Pigeon

Female Scarlet-chested Sunbird

Male Scarlet-chested Sunbird

Yellow-fronted Canary

Speckled Pigeon

Grey-backed Camaroptera

Isturgia deerraria

Once it was clear there were no pytilias to be found in the area, and Begashaw wasn't going to drive any further to look for them, we started back up the escarpment, stopping once for a Grivet Monkey and once for a perched Eurasian Kestrel. From the top of the valley, we headed west towards the city of Debre Birhan in southern Amhara region. The drive took us through about 100 miles of pastures and fallow fields, which are supposedly prime territory for Erlanger's Larks. However, this time of year there was nary an Erlanger's to be found, though there were many Thekla's Larks we stopped for in hopes they would turn into Erlanger's, including one with an unfortunate beak deformity.

Grivet Monkey

Eurasian Kestrel

Sadly deformed Thekla's Lark

In Debre Birhan, we stopped only long enough to reserve a cheap hotel room, then continued toward Gemassa Gedel, the birding destination of the afternoon. It was about 45-minute drive there, on a nice road winding through seemingly endless eucalyptus plantations, the backbone of Ethiopian infrastructure, but practically devoid of wildlife. Gemassa Gedel (meaning "broken cliff) is just a notch in the Ankober escarpment, where the Ethiopian Highlands plunge down into the Afar plains about a kilometer below. The views are spectacular, but more importantly it's the best-known spot for Ankober Serin, a tiny bird endemic to cliff faces in northern Ethiopia, so rare and localized it was discovered only 1979.

On the approach to Gemassa Gedel, I saw what I first thought was a pair of extra-large Pied Crows. As we drew nearer, they turned out to be Thick-billed Ravens, one of the Ethiopian endemics I'd most been hoping to see. Stonking huge corvids (the world's largest passerines!) with massive bills and terrifying calls, it's a failure of the heavy metal genre that they haven't made it onto an album cover yet. They fixed with their intelligent, beady gaze, gave a few death-rattle calls, posed for pictures, and then flew off leaving me to look for serins.

Thick-billed Ravens

Gemassa Gedel proved to be a very nice birding spot, especially raptors: I had flyovers from pairs of Lammergeiers, Verreaux's Eagles, and Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawks, the latter two of which were lifers for me. There was a Long-billed Pipit hanging out on the clifftop, which Begashaw mistook for an Ankober Serin, and Red-rumped Swallows, Slender-billed Starlings, White-billed Starlings, and White-collared Pigeons (which Begashaw somehow also mistook for serins) flying around below the lip of the escarpment. Mammalian highlights were two troupes of fabulous Gelada baboons grazing the grassy hillside, Rock Hyraxes (the closest living relatives of elephants!) calling from the cliff face, and Abyssinian Grass Rats in the meadows nearby. Oh, and the views were also spectacular.

Lammergeier (aka Bearded Vulture)

Verreaux's Eagles

Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk

Long-billed Pipit

Male and female Geladas

Rock Hyrax 
Abyssinian Grass Rat

Massive Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregorii) the size of a small bird

The broken cliff in Gemassa Gedel

The one thing Gemassa Gedel didn't have? Ankober Serin. I must have spent over 2 hours scouring the cliff face and area nearby for the damn things, but didn't hear nary a peep from a serin the whole time. At one point there were three different people all helping me look for them, but we saw absolutely nothing, despite the fact that they're supposedly easy to see in this area. It was immensely frustrating, though the fact I'd seen lots of other good wildlife made things a bit easier.

The next morning, we departed Debre Birhan at 4 AM in order to get to our morning destination, Melka Jebdu, by sunrise. Melka Jebdu doesn't look like much, just a mostly-dry riverbed nestled between cornfields below the looming escarpment, but it's essentially the only place in the world where one can see Yellow-throated Seedeaters, an endangered bird with a range so tiny it was thought to be extinct for more than a century until it was rediscovered here in 1989. The drive to Melka Jebdu took us on winding roads down the precipitous escarpment and through the town of Ankober, formerly the capital of the kingdom of Shewa and the site of the former palace of Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II.

The first birds I saw when I got out of the car near the river at Melka Jebdu were a small group of Eastern Plantain-eaters, grey turacos with raucous chicken-like calls. Along the riverbed, an Ethiopian Boubou was giving its musical whistling call, Lesser Striped Swallows were swooping overhead, and a male African Pygmy Kingfisher was trying unsuccessfully to court a female with an offering of a dead bug. A welcome lifer was a single Half-collared Kingfisher flitting from rock to rock a ways down the river valley.

Eastern Plantain-eater

Ethiopian Boubou

Lesser Striped Swallow

African Pygmy Kingfisher in an unsuccessful courting attempt

Half-collared Kingfisher

I walked for a ways along a dirt road on the other side of the river in search of seedeaters. Unfortunately, small birds seemed to be rather inactive, though there were many larger birds to keep me occupied. Showiest was a male Northern Red Bishop in full breeding plumage building a nest, the preferred method of attracting the ladies. I heard a whooping call from a bush behind me and saw a pair of Yellow-breasted Barbets a ways away. A Beautiful Sunbird flew into the greenery next to me, and a bit of pishing brought the usual furious response.

Northern Red Bishop

Rüppell's Weaver

Yellow-breasted Barbets

Beautiful Sunbird

By the time 9 AM rolled around, it was getting hotter and the morning was still seedeater-less, giving the embarrassing prospect of dipping on two mega birds over the weekend. I decided to return to the river to see what I could find there. As I was resting in the shade, I heard a familiar call behind me, and looked around to see a Yellow-throated Seedeater singing only a few meters away! It flew in even closer, giving me perfect views of a bird I thought I wouldn't see at all.

Yellow-throated Seedeater

Satisfied that I had seen my main target of the day, I continued exploring around the area for a little while to see if I could find anything else. I happened upon a pair of adorable Northern Crombecs bringing food to a nest, meaning they probably had young inside as well. The second-best bird find of the day was a pair of Violet-backed Starlings, including a gorgeous male bird showing off his iridescent plumage. The spot turned out to also be fantastic for butterflies, with many tiny lycaenids flitting around in the mud.

Northern Crombec

Male Violet-backed Starling

Some kind of Tarucus sp., sadly unidentified as it's beautiful

Dark Grass Blue (Zizeeria knysna)

Anthene sp., also sadly unidentified

Common Smoky Blue (Euchrysops malathanus)

Orthetrum sp.

As I was about to leave, I noticed a group of birds bathing by the river, including a couple more Yellow-throated Seedeaters! Also joining was a male Northern Red Bishop, a Fork-tailed Drongo, and several Red-billed Firefinches. Disappointingly, they weren't joined by any Red-billed Pytilias, which are sometimes seen in the area.

Yellow-throated Seedeater

Northern Red Bishop

Fork-tailed Drongo

Satisfied after a successful morning, we began the long drive back up the Ankober escarpment. We stopped by Gemassa Gedel once more on the way back to Addis in hopes of finally seeing an Ankober Serin. Unfortunately, we came up with the same result as the first time: absolutely bupkis. It was frustrating and surprising, and might make me the first birder to dip on Ankober Serin twice in a row (or at least the first to admit to it publicly). Thankfully, I've since returned and properly seen the damn bird, which makes this blog much less painful to write. Despite the disappointment, it was still an extremely successful weekend, with many great new birds seen- Ethiopia birding continues to deliver!


  1. Wow - so many amazing birds, I don't know what to comment on! And I don't know how you manage to get such awesome photos of so many of them too!! Well done!!

    Also congrats on the beetle-photo first! It is a gorgeous photo and a very cute beetle!


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