Bustards or Bust
While Ethiopia is a world-class birding destination, it's not nearly as well-known for its mammal-watching. This is mostly because it lacks the huge safari parks found elsewhere in East Africa like Maasai Mara or Serengeti (and, to be fair, the massive displacement of pastoralists by colonial powers necessary to create them). Most of the charismatic big five game animals are absent or extremely rare, some because their natural ranges don't reach this far north, and others because of habitat loss from an expanding population and overgrazing of livestock. Still, Ethiopia is host to a huge variety of mammals, many of which can be seen if one goes to the right place.
This was part of my reason for visiting Awash National Park, one of Ethiopia's better-maintained national parks and a popular wildlife-watching destination. The other reason, of course, was the birds–one type of bird in particular in fact. In addition to mammals, Awash is probably the best place to see bustards, massive stalking birds of the plains that had been on my worldwide wish list ever since I learned that they existed. With this in mind, I planned a three-day trip to the Awash area, with the goal of seeing bustards- and some cool mammals to boot.
I left Addis Ababa early on the morning of June 15 with Begashaw, the same driver I'd had for the previous week's trip to the Jemma Valley. From there it was an hour's drive south on a very nice new expressway, then northeast towards the Afar Region following the highway towards Djibouti. As Ethiopia has been landlocked following the embarrassing loss of Eritrea in 1991, the majority of the country's trade flows in and out of Djibouti's port, a fact evidenced by the thousands of cargo trucks plying the road along with us. Despite the fact it's arguably the most economically important road in the country, it's only two lanes wide and not well-maintained, making navigating between the many much-heavier trucks tough work. The overturned carcasses of semi trucks, some of them clearly the product of fatal accidents, were a great reminder to me of why I'm definitely not qualified to drive in the country.
Scary road conditions aside, the road northeast is a beautiful one, through progressively drier scrubland dotted with stratovolcanoes and calderas. The first stop of the day was near the northern shore of Lake Basaka, a salt lake on the floor of the Rift Valley that has recently been expanding for mysterious reasons , threatening to swallow up the nearby town of Metehara. It's a desolate area, covered in lava flows from the nearby Mount Fentale hulking in the distance. Despite the bleak appearance, however, it's also one of the only known habitats of the Sombre Rock Chat, another of the extremely localized (and extremely dull-looking) Ethiopian endemic birds.
|The lavafields north of Lake Besaka|
As soon as we pulled up beside the lava flows, I could see several small brown birds flitting around the top of the lava rocks. The problem is, however, that there are three types of small boring brown bird in this site, all of which look nearly identical at first glance: Sombre Rock Chat, Blackstart, and Brown-tailed Rock Chat. That meant I would need a closer look. I decided to walk through the lava field to get closer to the birds, which seemed like a good idea until I was stumbling across razor-sharp 'a'ā rocks trying to to slice my shoes up in an effort to see a bird. After a couple false starts that turned out to just be Blackstarts, I finally spotted a pair of promising birds a ways a way. I played a recording of the song on my phone, and sure enough they instantly flew right in front of me and repeated the same song, proving they were indeed Sombre Rock Chats. Up close they proved not to be quite as boring as I'd first expected, with lots of personality and subtle patterns under their tails.
|Sombre Rock Chat!|
|Sombre Rock Chat, this one showing off the distinctive scalloped undertail pattern|
With a successful spotting, all that was left was to pick my way very, very carefully over the sharp rocks. I got distracted several times, as it turned out that despite the desolate surroundings the area was crawling with birds: flyovers from African Fish Eagles and a Goliath Heron, and my lifers Olive Bee-eater flying from tree to tree. Once I got back to the car, we drove a little further on, then stopped by an acacia tree where I saw a beautiful Diederik Cuckoo calling in the top, the first time I'd seen a bird that's usually only heard from the middle of a bush.
|African Fish Eagle|
We stopped once more just a little bit later by the shore of Lake Basaka to look for water birds. There were indeed lots of waterbirds, including lots of Reed Cormorants and screaming Spur-winged Lapwings, while there were Rüppell's Weavers and my lifer Lesser Masked Weaver. I also saw a very cool Nile Water Monitor carrying what looked like the head of a young Nile Crocodile.
|Nile Water Monitor carrying the head of a baby Nile Crocodile|
From Lake Besaka, it was another hour and half to the entrance to Awash National Park, where we picked up the armed scout who was assigned to watch over us (well, me) while we were in the park. The scouts also know many spots to look for wildlife, although the first one we got spent most of the time asleep in the car while I walked around outside. Once inside, I started seeing birds quickly, first a Dark Chanting Goshawk in an acacia tree, then a tiny and perfect Pygmy Falcon perched on a dead branch.
|Dark Chanting Goshawk|
After I saw the Pygmy Falcon, I decided to get out of the car to search for other birds. Even though it was nearly noon and extremely hot, the birds were active, with singing White-browed Scrub Robins and Somali Bulbuls (probably just a subspecies of Common Bulbul). There were also a few Mouse-colored Penduline-tits and noisy White-headed Buffalo Weavers. I heard the warbling call of a Grey-headed Bush-shrike, and soon saw one surrounded by an angry swarm of African Grey Flycatchers. Looking closer, I realized that the bush-shrike was being mobbed because it had a nestling flycatcher in its mouth, certainly recently stolen from the nest! I got to watch as it fed the baby bird to its mate, not heeding the furious parents. Bush-shrikes are beautiful birds with beautiful calls, but also fearsome bastards it would seem.
|Grey-headed Bush-shrike presenting a baby African Grey Flycatcher to its mate.|
|Angry parent African Grey Flycatcher|
We turned onto the road leading to the Ilala Sala Plain, the more open area that's the best part of the park for mammals- and bustards. Indeed, soon enough I spotted a White-bellied Bustard, one of the smaller bustards, crossing the road in front of us! She was soon joined by a beautifully-patterned male bird, and I got to watch both of them for a while, an unusually close-up look for my first-ever bustard sighting.
|Female White-bellied Bustard|
|Male White-bellied Bustard|
|Male and female White-bellied Bustards|
Further down the road, deeper into the plains, I spotted another bustard near the car: a massive Kori Bustard, the world's heaviest flying bird! They're truly majestic beasts, and I got to watch this one stalking through the plains, looking more like an ostrich than a bird capable of flight- certainly one of my favorite Ethiopian birds.
I didn't see any more bustards that morning, but we made many more stops for birding as we made our way towards lunch, including for a spectacular male Straw-tailed Whydah, a Somali Fiscal, and a flock of gorgeous Northern Carmine Bee-eaters. Near a set of puddles on the road where birds had gathered to drink, we stopped when I saw a Jacobin Cuckoo which soon flew into a further-away tree. I got out to walk around a bit, and in the same area I saw a Northern Red-billed Hornbill, a flock of Vitelline Masked Weavers, a Marico Sunbird, and a beautiful but skulking Black-cheeked Waxbill. Our last stop before lunch was for a beautiful Besia Oryx near the road.
|Northern Carmine Bee-eater|
|Northern Red-billed Hornbill|
|African Grey Flycatcher|
We finally stopped at the Awash Falls Lodge, perched on the edge of the Awash River valley with a spectacular view of the eponymous waterfall. We had lunch there, and I enjoyed the views, as well as a beautiful Bateleur wheeling over the river carrying nesting material. I also checked into my room, which was in a rather rustic hut, certainly in a good location but grievously overpriced, despite it being the low season- in retrospect, I should have brought a tent, as there is a nice campground nearby.
In the late afternoon, we headed out to the park once more, this time with a new scout to replace the previous very sleepy one. The new guy turned out to be much better at his job, pointing out many new animals to me and helping with mammal ID. Good birds along the way back out towards the Ilala Sala Plain included White-throated Bee-eaters, an Eastern Yellow-billed Hornbill, a perched Wire-tailed Swallow, and many flocks of Helmeted Guineafowl. Excitingly, we spotted another bustard, this time a pair of Buff-crested Bustards. As I got out to take a picture of the bustards (too skittish for a good one), the scout pointed out to me a massive Leopard Tortoise ambling its way very slowly through the underbrush.
|Eastern Yellow-billed Hornbill|
Later I heard the musical whistling of a Rosy-patched Bush Shrike near the road, and got out of the car to seek it out. After a bit of searching, I finally found one singing from the top of a bush and had amazing views- certainly one of the best-looking birds in Ethiopia. Along the road nearby were some very noisy Crowned Lapwings, a Lilac-breasted Roller, a Eurasian Hoopoe, and another White-bellied Bustard.
|Male White-bellied Bustard|
|African Grey Hornbill in the sunset|
Beyond the great birds, however, the standout feature of the evening was the mammals! Game drives anywhere (but especially in Ethiopia) can be hit-or-miss, and this one was a definite hit, starting with a pack of Olive Baboons by the side of the road. The baboons were soon followed by a family of amazing Bat-eared Foxes, many Abyssinian Hares, a pair of Black-backed Jackals, and more Besia Oryx. By far the highlight, however, was a close encounter with a rare an elusive Aardwolf, a small, strange hyena that subsists nearly entirely on termites.
|Male Olive Baboon|
At night, I was hoping to do another night drive to look for Star-spotted Nightjars, a nocturnal specialty of Awash National Park that's quite difficult to find throughout its range in Ethiopia and Kenya. However, by the time the sun had fully set, we were rather far from the Ilala Sala Plain, and Begashaw didn't want to drive the rest of the way to get there. I still tried to do a little night birding on the way back to the lodge, and was rewarded with a flyby from a Slender-tailed Nightjar, a Buff-crested Bustard, and surprisingly a Gillett's Lark, an uncommon lark endemic to the Horn of Africa.
|Nighttime Buff-crested Bustard|
I spent a very hot night in my single room in the Awash Falls Lodge, and got up just after sunrise to enjoy an early morning view of the waterfall. There was a small flock of Crimson-rumped Waxbills nearby the lodge, and a Red-fronted Warbler singing in the bushes as I had my breakfast- not a bad way to spend the morning.
|The Awash Falls in the early morning|
After breakfast we set out for another drive through the park to look for more birds and mammals. Despite being much more favorable birding weather than the previous day had been, bird activity was low and I saw fewer new birds than I was expecting. We stopped first for a tiny Salt's Dikdik hiding in a bush, and then soon after for a Grey-headed Bush-shrike and a beautiful male Nile Valley Sunbird showing off his wonderful tail streamers. I got out of the car to walk around in the bush for a while, and after a while of seeing nothing new came across a singing Gillett's Lark that let me get fairly close. Blue-naped Mousebirds were noisy and conspicuous, while a Slate-colored Boubou was very noisy and inconspicuous. A nice lifer was a Foxy Lark perched in a distant tree singing. There weren't as many mammals around as the previous night, but there was a nice herd of Sömmering's Gazelles near to the car.
|Nile Valley Sunbird|
In the Ilala Sala Plain, we searched once more for bustards, and were rewarded with one more huge Kori Bustard strutting around near the car. We stopped a bit later for a flock of Northern Carmine Bee-eaters, although I was distracted by the appearance of a male Pin-tailed Whydah showing off his spectacular breeding plumage. One more last-minute stop before we exited the park got me a singing Grey-headed Batis, but nothing else new.
|Adult Northern Carmine Bee-eater|
|Immature Northern Carmine Bee-eater|
|Eastern Grey-headed Batis|
Just outside the park, Begashaw showed me the houses where the park rangers stay with their wives when they're off duty, which is also supposedly a very good birding spot. The only people there were the rangers wives, mostly doing their cooking and washing, though they didn't seem to mind having a random ferenji creeping around their houses with a camera and binoculars. Near the houses there was a singing Orange-breasted Bush-shrike and an Abyssinian Scimitarbill creeping along a tree, the first I'd gotten a good look at one. In the same tree was a tiny Brubru giving its rattling call, and even better a Red-fronted Barbet calling as well. Another bird I was finally able to get good looks at was a singing Black-crowned Tchagra that showed briefly in a tree.
|African Grey Flycatchers|
|Red Tip (Colotis danae)|
|Dorippus Tiger Butterfly (Danaus chrysippus dorippus)|
|Some kind of praying mantis|
We had lunch in the town of Awash near the park, then continued further north towards the Aledegi Plains. North of Awash the terrain became more and more desolate, with scrubland being replaced by an endless monoculture of mesquite trees (Prosopis juliflora), an invasive species that chokes out native vegetation and preventing livestock from grazing, devastating the livelihoods of local pastoralists. The Aledegi Wildlife Preserve used to be known as a prime mammal-watching spot, and some good mammals can still apparently be seen here like zebras and (if one is extremely lucky) cheetahs, but the habitat has become quite degraded lately due to overgrazing.
It was an hour's drive up to Aledegi, and then another 20-minute wait while someone went to find a park scout to accompany us- very necessary here, since there are apparently border conflicts between Afar and Somali tribespeople in the area that often become quite violent. The plain itself was hot and dusty, and the ecosystem certainly didn't seem to be in good condition. The first birds I saw there were many Singing Bushlarks singing everywhere, but after a bit of driving I finally spotted the primary target in the distance: a beautiful Arabian Bustard. We were able to get closer and enjoy it for a while as it strode through the grass. In addition to being one of the more majestic-looking bustards, it's becoming rarer, as it's declining throughout its range in northern Africa and the Arabian peninsula due to habitat loss and hunting. If nothing else it was certainly a good bird to have seen in Ethiopia, where the hunting pressure at least is much less than elsewhere.
We left soon after we'd seen the bustard, and dropped the scout back at the headquarters. It's also possible to see Arabian Bustards at the remains of the former Bilen Lodge nearby (closed tourist lodges being a fixture of the Ethiopian landscape apparently), and that might be a better solution for birders as Aledegi is overpriced and doesn't seem to be good for much wildlife besides Bustards at the moment anyway- though some others may have a different experience from mine.
On the way back, we stopped at the Doho Lodge, another wildlife lodge to the east of Aledeghi that's so far managed to remain open. It's actually in a beautiful location on the edge of a vast swamp with some pools and hot springs, surrounded by scrubland on the other side. I sat at the restaurant for a much-needed cold drink, then walked around the lodge for a little bit to try for some new birds. The first ones I noticed were the massive Somali Ostriches feeding near the grounds, apparently wild enough to count as a lifer for me, although they seemed quite accustomed to human presence. There were also some noisy Red-bellied Parrots, a beautiful Malachite Sunbird, and an Abyssinian Roller that I was finally able to get some decent pictures of. One of my favorite spottings wasn't a bird, but a dung beetle of some kind rolling its ball of poop along the ground! That's not a terribly uncommon sight in the tropics, but it was cool to see something in person that I'd only heard of before in nature documentaries!
|Abyssinian Roller flying past a Somali Ostrich|
|Colotis calais I think|
|Some kind of Erebid moth|
After birding a took a refreshing dip in the hot springs (although honestly some cold water might have been better given the weather). An African Darter was drying its wings of next to me in the pool, and a Shikra (a kind of tiny goshawk) flew overhead being chased by starlings. On the drive back to Awash just after dark, Begashaw got slightly lost, and in the process we happened upon a beautiful Slender-tailed Nightjar roosting next to a basketball court!
|Maybe a Trithemis of some kind|
The next day was mostly a drive back to Addis, but we made a few stops along the way, first to Lake Basaka, partly for birding but mostly because Begashaw wanted to wash his car. I was surprised to see a Pink-backed Pelican swimming in the shallow part of the lake, but happy as it was a lifer for me. There were the usual noisy Spur-winged Lapwings and many Pied Kingfishers doing their distinctive hovering over the water before diving to catch a fish. On the way out past the lava fields, we stopped briefly so I could finally get a decent picture of a Somali Crow, this one feeding on roadkill.
|Somali Crow with its very appetizing breakfast|
|The shore of Lake Besaka|
Before Addis, we stopped in Bishoftu (a.k.a. Debre Zeit) for lunch. On the way we tried Lake Chelekleka, which had been dry as a cinder on my first visit. This time the lakebed was still mostly dry, but water had started to accumulate, making walking towards the group of birds in the middle a very wet experience. There wasn't much new to see, mostly Marabou Storks and Egyptian Geese. However, there was a single male Knob-billed Duck showing off his impressive headgear, so the wet shoes were at least somewhat worth it. We had lunch on the shore of Lake Bishoftu at a restaurant on the very edge of the crater rim, giving spectacular views of the lake. I practiced my bird-in-flight photography on the many Horus Swifts wheeling above the water, while in the lake itself a surprise was the pair of Southern Pochards, migrant ducks that weren't really supposed to be in Ethiopia in June.
|Female Southern Pochard|
From Bishoftu, it was another hour and half until I was home again in Addis and enjoying cold weather and a proper shower. It was certainly a successful trip, and Awash National Park remains one of my favorite spots in Ethiopia for its excellent birding and mammal-watching, as well as an environment not seen further south or west in Ethiopia. And the bustards alone... very worth it.