Descent into the Rift
My first weekend outside of Addis Ababa was excellent, but it mostly just left me wanting more. Naturally, I wasted little time booking another trip out of the city for the next weekend. While I'd gone higher up the previous weekend into the Ethiopian Highlands, this time I was going down: into the northern part of the African Rift Valley.
The Rift Valley stretches from the active volcanoes of the Afar Triple Junction in Ethiopia and Eritrea south through Kenya, Tanzania, and most of the rest of East Africa, ending in Mozambique. It began around 25 million years ago with the massive flood basalts that created the Ethiopian Highlands, and around 10 million years from now the eastern part of Africa will split away from the mainland, forming a new ocean and a new continent (aren't plate tectonics amazing?). For now though, it's a huge valley stretching more than 6,500 kilometers through Africa, responsible for such impressive geological features as the Danakil Depression, Mount Kilimanjaro, and Mount Nyiragongo.
Descending from Addis down into the Rift Valley early on a Saturday morning, we passed through Bishoftu and its crater lakes, where I had been the previous weekend, and continued southeast past the towering Mount Zuqualla into the dry plains, quite a change in scenery from the cold and wet highlands. Our first stop was in a seemingly random field south of Mount Zuqualla, where my driver Asrat spotted a small group of Abyssinian Ground Hornbills grazing near the road. I quickly got out of the car and crept closer to these incredible birds, one of my top most-wanted birds for Ethiopia. They're one of the largest birds in Ethiopia, and one of the largest hornbills in the world- hulking ground-dwellers that eat large insects, snakes, and small mammals.
|Female Abyssinian Ground Hornbills|
|Male Abyssinian Ground Hornbill with a spider.|
Before I could get back in the car, I got distracted by a number of other new birds, including a Cut-throat Finch, a pair of Eurasian Hoopoes, a flock of Rüppell's Starlings, and a Dark Chanting Goshawk.
|Eastern Chanting Goshawk|
The drive southeast continued through a dry, scrubby plain dotted with volcanic cones, which became steadily greener as we neared the Awash River, the main river draining the northern Ethiopian Rift Valley. We stopped at a marshy area by the side of the road near the edge of Lake Koka, the reservoir fed by the Awash River. There were waterbirds in abundance, the most visible of which were the dozens of African Jacanas stalking along the ground, tame as chickens. Coming from birding in Southeast Asia, I'm used to seeing jacanas from about a mile away in the middle of a pond through a scope, so seeing them up and their ridiculous feet up close was amazing.
Other water birds in the area were many White-faced Whistling Ducks, a Spur-winged Goose, Red-billed Teals, a Black-winged Stilt, many Hamerkops and Sacred Ibis, and, surprisingly, a Lesser Jacana, an extremely uncommon resident bird in Ethiopia. There was a flock of over-summering White-rumped Swifts wheeling overhead, which I later saw were building nests under a bridge, along with many Ethiopian Swallows, which despite their name are probably more common in West Africa than in Ethiopia. Next to the river was a young African Pied Wagtail being fed by its parent, and further away a beautiful Malachite Kingfisher perched in a patch of reeds. As we continued the drive south, we stopped for a Grey-headed Kingfisher perched near the road.
|White-faced Whistling Duck|
|Sacred Ibis with some bit of gristle from a carcass|
|Juvenile African Pied Wagtail|
Our next stop was at the next lake south of Koka, the much-larger Lake Ziway. Ziway is a popular weekend destination for people from Addis looking for some fresh air and warm weather, and a popular stop for birders looking for water birds to add to their Ethiopia list. We stopped at the famous Ziway pier, where hundreds of species of bird have been recorded. The first thing I noticed when I got out of the car wasn't birds, however, but the many children who immediately surrounded me as soon as I got out of the car. I'm used to getting a following when I'm out birding, but these were more obnoxious than most, demanding money and even feeling my cell phone and wallet through my pants in an effort to snatch them. I'd hoped for a nice walk around, but unfortunately I had to head quickly towards the pier entrance where the guards told the kids to beat it. Asrat told me that the area was famous for people, foreigners and Ethiopians alike, being pickpocketed, so I was glad I kept a tight hold on my things.
The pier area itself held many locals doing their washing and bathing, who thankfully didn't mind a random ferenji running around with binoculars and a camera. Oh, and also many, many birds. There were nearly a dozen Marabou Storks stalking menacingly around the area, along with other waterbirds like Red-knobbed Coots, African Jacanas, Common Moorhens, Little Egrets, and Yellow-billed Storks. More exciting new birds were a flock of uncommon African Openbills, Black Crakes, African Darters, Great White Pelicans, and a few Black Herons. The latter birds were doing their famous umbrella pose, creating shady areas to attract fish, although unfortunately they were rather skittish and I wasn't able to get a picture of it.
|Black Heron, sadly not doing the umbrella thing|
|Great White Pelican|
I was surprised to see a Woodland Kingfisher perched in a tree near the pier, a bird I didn't expect in such an open area. The kingfisher crowd was completed by a few Malachite Kingfishers stalking from the reedbeds, and a small group of characteristically noisy Pied Kingfishers. Grey-headed Gulls (thankfully the only gull I was likely to encounter in the summer) and a White-winged Tern were wheeling over the water. On land, I heard a Diederik Cuckoo calling from the bushes, while there were also a few Mourning Collared Doves, Rüppell's Starlings, and many White-browed Sparrow-weavers, one of the most common birds in the Rift Valley. More interesting was a pair of tiny Little Bee-eaters, looking like miniature Ethiopian Bee-eaters with thinner blue eyebrows. On the way out we stopped for a group of Hooded Vultures clustered around a carcass of some sort.
|Mourning Collared Dove|
After lunch in Ziway, we continued the long drive south to Lake Langano, 200 kilometers south of Addis Ababa. A large Rift Valley lake, Langano is popular with tourists and weekend trippers from Addis as a swimming spot, as it is the only lake in Ethiopia that lacks schistosomiasis (although that doesn't seem to stop bathers in other lakes in the area, probably due to the general lack of fresh water and lack of options). We stopped at one famous swimming spot, the Simbo Beach Resort on the western shore of the lake. Simbo is famous among birders not for swimming, however, but as a roosting spot for several uncommon owls, especially the rare and beautiful Northern White-faced Owl.
Unfortunately, when we arrived at Simbo Lodge, we found out that it had been completely closed! The whole thing was shuttered in May due to unpaid taxes and labor disputes between the owner and the local people; apparently the local employees had been paid only around 700 birr (about $25) per month, an absurd rate for a lodge that charges $90 per night. After some talking with the guards, Asrat was able to convince one of them to show me around the place briefly to look for owls in exchange for a hefty tip.
Birding in the lodge proved to be a frustrating experience, mainly because the guard was insistent on only showing me the roosting owls and getting me out of there as quickly as possible. He seemed quite impatient whenever I stopped for non-owl birds, which was hard not to do because there were so many of them! I almost immediately saw a huge White-bellied Go-away Bird, a kind of drab turaco, and soon after heard the raucous screeching of a flock of Orange-bellied Parrots. There were a number of francolins running through the undergrowth (no doubt very happy about the lodge closure and lack of noisy people), including many Crested Francolins and an uncommon Clapperton's Francolin. Finally, the guard let me stop for a bit to see a roosting Greyish Eagle-owl, rather small for an Eagle Owl, but still very impressive.
|White-bellied Go-away Bird|
After I'd taken a few pictures of the first owl, the guard led me across to the other side of the resort. I saw some good lifers along the way, including a Black-billed Wood Hoopoe, a Hemprich's Hornbill and a couple Northern Red-billed Hornbills, a Little Weaver, a chunky Bearded Woodpecker, and a Reichenow's Seedeater. Finally, we found what we were looking for: a pair of huge Verreaux's Eagle-owl roosting in an acacia tree, looking at us through hooded eyes. It was certainly one of the better-looking owls I've seen! Although all owls are good, especially the ones I can see in the daytime...
|Northern Red-billed Hornbill|
All too soon it was over, and I was being hustled back into the car and out of the lodge. It was frustrating especially as I'd missed my primary owl target, the Northern White-faced Owl, either because the guard didn't know where it was roosting or because he didn't feel like showing it to me. It seems that Simbo's place as a primary birding destination in Ethiopia has ended, at least until the owners can figure out how to treat their workers better.
Our destination that night was the Hara Langano Lodge, located on the southeastern shore of Lake Langano. It was an hour-long drive on a muddy road to get there, with a few stops along the way: one for a tiny Gabar Goshawk, one for a Black-billed Barbet and a flock of Mosque Swallows, and one for a troupe of Guereza Colobus monkeys in a tree.
We arrived at the lodge a half an hour or so before sunset, and I did some walking around before dark. Things were mostly rather quiet, but I did find some good new birds like Senegal Thick-knee, Grey-backed Fiscal, and a huge Giant Kingfisher. Just before dark, a flock of Silvery-cheeked Hornbills, the largest hornbills in Ethiopia, flew overhead, and I saw an African Fish Eagle perched in a tall tree.
|African Fish Eagle|
The next morning, I woke up early for some pre-breakfast birding. The first thing I saw wasn't a bird, but rather a pod of Hippopotamuses lounging in the lake just off the shore of the lodge, looking like huge (and terrifying) rocks. There were many, many good birds around the lakeshore as well: a huge, strange-looking Spur-winged Goose, a pair of Senegal Thick-knees, a surprise overwintering Common Greenshank, and a flyover from an African Spoonbill. A pleasant surprise was a flock of uncommon Grosbeak Weavers in a reed bed, calling and displaying like American Red-winged Blackbirds.
|Sunrise over Lake Langano|
A bit inland was a huge, spreading fig tree that held some great birds, including a pair of beautiful Bruce's Green Pigeons, a mixed flock of Collared Sunbirds and Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, and a Silvery-cheeked Hornbill scratching its beak on a branch. There was a spectacular Long-crested Eagle perched nearby, and a flash of purple alerted me to an African Pygmy Kingfisher that perched long enough to get me my first pictures of this amazing little bird. I thought I saw more bird movement in the tree above, but when I looked up it was actually a Gambian Sun Squirrel, a nice addition to my mammal list.
|Bruce's Green Pigeon|
|African Pygmy Kingfisher|
|Gambian Sun Squirrel|
It was hard to tear myself away from the birds in order to have breakfast, but I had another place to be later that morning. The plan was to visit the forest behind the former Bishangari Lodge, but it proved to be hard to even leave Hara Langano, as I kept seeing good birds on the driveway out of the lodge. I first stopped for a beautiful Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike, another Red-winged Blackbird mimic, this time in coloration rather than behavior. Just a little bit down the road, I made the car stop again because I'd spotted a Black Scimitarbill, a Rift Valley specialty (and my first scimitarbill!). I got distracted from that bird by a beautiful Orange-breasted Bush-shrike that mainly stayed within the bushes, and from the bush-shrike by a Rufous Chatterer the next tree over. There was also a Von der Decken's Hornbill hopping around on the ground and a Little Weaver above it.
|Von der Decken's Hornbill|
On the road towards the Bishangari forest, we stopped once more for a small group of Bare-faced Go-away Birds (one of the best species names in the world, in my opinion), which were surprisingly joined by a Brubru and a White-winged Black Tit.
|Bare-faced Go-away Bird|
Finally, we reached the actual Bishangari forest, a surprisingly verdant patch of forest area surrounded by much dryer countryside. It's also the location of the former Bishangari Lodge, which used to be known as one of the prime destinations for birders coming to Ethiopia until it was burnt to a crisp during the social unrest that consumed much of Oromia during 2016. Today, nothing remains of the lodge except an empty field, but the forest is still there and full of birds.
On my trip to the forest I was joined by Hakim, an employee of Hara Langano Lodge who moonlights as a bird guide. I generally try to avoid using guides while birding, and like to think that I'm well-enough prepared not to need them (a sentiment that's probably incorrect). However, Hakim was, I have to admit, a very, very good bird guide: he knew the calls of every bird in the area by heart, and knew the best spots to look for birders' targets. I can highly recommend him to any birders visiting that area.
Nearly as soon as we entered the forest, I saw a tiny Brown-throated Wattle-eye, a forest-dwelling relative of the batises. Soon after, Hakim pointed out to me a Tamborine Dove creeping through the underbrush, and a Broad-billed Roller calling from above us. We soon heard the calling of a Red-capped Robin-chat, a bird that was definitely supposed to have migrated north a month prior, and located it with a bit of difficulty, a great and unexpected find.
|Some kind of scoliid wasp|
We walked further into the forest to find some more targets. Hakim heard the call of a Red-fronted Tinkerbird, and I was able to tape in a pair of them, certainly the tiniest barbets I've ever seen. We also got onto a flock of uncommon African Hill-babblers that remained deep within the greenery. Suddenly, we heard an unfamiliar warbling call from near-by, and Hakim exclaimed that it was a Green Malkoha! We immediately set out looking for it, but it took a solid 20 minutes of circling around peering into the thick foliage before I was finally able to get a glimpse of it, one of a pair of calling birds. The malkohas are one of the most elusive of Ethiopia's resident birds, and indeed one of the tougher African birds in general, with only a handful of records from Ethiopia (HBW says there are only 5 confirmed records, although there are certainly more than that on eBird), so seeing two different birds was a real mega sighting.
Flush with success from the Green Malkohas, we continued walking through the forest until we heard the warbling call of a Narina Trogon. We looked around for a bit until we were able to get onto a small family group of these incredibly beautiful birds. Interestingly, while an annoyingly large percentage of Ethiopia's birds are named after old, dead, white men, the Narina Trogon is named after an African, namely the Khoisan mistress of the French explorer François Levaillant, one of the less-racist of the early Europeans to visit Sub-Saharan Africa. Also common in the treetops were Silvery-cheeked Hornbills and many troupes of spectacular Guereza Colobus.
|Female Narina Trogon|
|Male Narina Trogon|
|Male Guereza Colobus|
We exited the forest briefly to head to another trail Hakim knew of. We were still missing one of my main target birds for the area, Yellow-fronted Parrot. Hakim said that they were usually only seen in the very early morning, and were pretty difficult to begin with. Still, I wanted to try, especially since it's one of the two Ethiopian endemic parrots. We spend quite a while searching around the forest until we finally heard a screeching noise in a very tall tree right above. Even then, it took a long time to actually catch a glimpse of them deep inside the foliage. Still, I was eventually able to get on a beautiful pair of Yellow-fronted Parrots preening each other.
There were lots of other good birds to be found around the forest, including a Broad-billed Roller, African Thrushes, a beautiful perched Tamborine Dove, Collared Sunbirds, and a Double-toothed Barbet poking its head out of a nest hole. Back in the clearing where Asrat was waiting in his car, we saw an African Harrier Hawk, a group of distant Abyssinian Ground Hornbills, and a flock of African Wattled Starlings.
|Double-toothed Barbet in a nest cavity|
|Collared Sunbird, which looks almost exactly like an Olive-backed Sunbird in the Philippines|
Back at Hara Langano Lodge, I took another hour or so before leaving for Addis to walk around the grounds to look for new birds. This proved to be a very good idea, as birding was excellent even in the heat of the tropical midday sun. I saw what felt like practically every bird found in the Rift Valley, from a gorgeous male African Paradise Flycatcher perched near to the car to a surprise African Olive Pigeon that perched in a distant tree. Fork-tailed Drongos and the similar-looking Northern Black Flycatchers were abundant and bold. More lifers were a skittish Blue-spotted Wood Dove walking along the ground and a Greater Honeyguide drinking from a bird bath. Overall, I saw more than 50 species of bird, and got pictures of more than I can list here. Thankfully, I don't have to list them, as I can just post the pictures instead....
|African Paradise Flycatcher|
|Eastern Grey Woodpecker|
|Rüppell's Starling, looking much purpler than usual|
|White-winged Black Tit|
|Black Scimitarbill doing its odd foraging pose|
|Red-fronted Tinkerbird, an incredibly tiny barbet|
|Northern Black Flycatcher|
|African Olive Pigeon|
|Adult and immature Ethiopian Bee-eaters|
|Spur-winged Lapwing, screaming as always|
|Osiris Smoky Blue|
We made one more stop along the way back to Addis, in Abidjatta-Shalla National Park west of Lake Langano. The national park has a reputation as being a prime birding spot, especially along the shores of lakes Abidjatta and Shalla from which it derives its name. However, Asrat didn't want to drive back to Addis in the dark, which meant I only had half an hour to explore around the park headquarters before we continued on. I still saw some good birds despite the sweltering heat, including a pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers, Red-billed and Von der Decken's Hornbills, a Black-billed Barbet, Orange-bellied Parrots (effectively meaning I'd seen all three species of parrot found in Ethiopia within one day), Helmeted Guineafowl, and many Northern White-crowned Shrikes.
|Northern White-crowned Shrike|
|Northern Red-billed Hornbill|
The highlight of the park for me, however, was not the birds but the mammalian life, which held some good local specialties like Bohor Reedbuck, Grant's Gazelle, Common Warthogs, and Abyssinian Hare. There were also many Somali Ostriches walking around, but they were apparently farmed there, and thus I wasn't going to add them to my life list (although based on eBird records not all visiting birders have such compunctions). On the way out we stopped by a puddle that held many bathing Superb Starlings and Rüppell's Starlings.
|Acanthocercus gregorii, a beautiful agama lizard|
From there, it was a long, grueling drive back to Addis Ababa. We made three stops along the way: once for a beautiful Lilac-breasted Roller on a telephone wire, once for an African Spoonbill spooning its way through a muddy field, and once for a spectacular double rainbow near Bishoftu (seen on the first day of Pride Month at that!). It was an incredibly successful trip, with over 200 species of bird seen in 2 days, including 100 or so lifers for me. Yet more evidence that birding in Ethiopia can't be beat.