Owl's Well That Ends Well

By the time July rolled around, I was realizing that I had only a month left in Ethiopia, and was trying to figure out ways to maximize my time there. After looking at my schedule, it turned out that I had time to revisit at least one spot I'd been to before, and it wasn't too difficult to decide on Awash National Park. My first visit was excellent, but there were still many birds found there that I didn't see, and it was on the whole an enjoyable experience I wanted to repeat. Even better, this time I had company: my friends Lill, Christina, and Erin (all doing work in Ethiopia over the summer like me) wanted to come along to get a break from Addis Ababa and the cold weather. 

As always, we left Addis early in the morning and headed down into the Rift Valley, once again with Mesfin driving us. The plan was initially to head straight to Awash without any long stops, but as we were heading past Lake Basaka, the mysteriously expanding saltwater lake, I spotted a pair of Saddle-billed Storks from the car. It was a bird I'd only seen once before, and one of the more spectacular-looking birds found in Africa, so of course it would have been silly not to try and get a better look. Mesfin stopped by the side of the road, and we scrambled down a rocky slope to get closer to the birds. We spent a few minutes enjoying watching the storks go about their business, and I was happy to see a few more new birds for Ethiopia there, including Kittlitz's Plover and Common Sandpiper, as well as a nice pair of African Spoonbills. We couldn't stay as long as we'd intended, however, as a local guy came up to us and started aggressively demanding money- the only genuinely threatening encounter I ever had in Ethiopia.

Saddle-billed Stork

Kittlitz's Plover

Common Sandpiper

African Spoonbill

It was a straight shot from there to Awash National Park, where we stopped at the gate to pick up a scout (it turned out to be the same scout I'd had on my previous visit) and then headed toward the Ilala Sala Plain to look for some wildlife. I soon spotted our first bustard of the trip, a distant White-bellied Bustard in the middle of some dry acacia scrub. A bit later I spotted a spectacular male Long-tailed Paradise Whydah from the car, but it flew off before I had a chance to get a picture. We did, on the other hand, get better looks at some beautiful Northern Carmine Bee-eaters, a pair of Beisa Oryx, a perched Ethiopian Swallow, and a flock of Wattled Starlings

White-bellied Bustard

Northern Carmine Bee-eater

Wattled Starlings

Ethiopian Swallow

Beisa Oryx

Shortly after that, the bustard luck improved: we saw a massive Kori Bustard flying in the distance, looking more like a dragon than a bird, and even better an Arabian Bustard stalking through the plain surrounded by bee-eaters. Arabian Bustards are hardly ever seen in Awash, so it was great to see one here, even though it made my long and over-priced trip to the Aledeghi Plain on my last visit seem even less worth it. On the way back, we spotted the fourth bustard found in Awash by the side of the road: a much-smaller Buff-crested Bustard

Kori Bustard in flight

Arabian Bustard

Buff-crested Bustard

The moment I knew I had picked the right travel companions was when a pair of dung beetles was spotted from the car, and everyone hopped out in excitement to take pictures. In all fairness, as balls of poop go this beetle had assembled a fairly impressive one, and it seemed to have done the trick for mating as there was a female riding along on the side of it!

Dung beetles of some sort- the female is on the back of the ball of poop free-riding as the male pushes her along.

We headed to the Awash Falls Lodge for lunch, which like basically every meal in Ethiopia was various kinds of beef eaten with injera. Some nice distractions while we were waiting for food to be served were a massive Nile Crocodile lazing by the river below the waterfall, and a tiny rainbow-colored African Five-lined Skink sunning itself on a rock.

African Five-lined Skink

Nile Crocodile
Violet Dropwing

We had a few hours after lunch before doing our evening game drive, so we walked along the path going up the Awash River above the falls. It went through a more densely-wooded area than the rest of the park, and bird activity in the shade was fairly high even though it was in the hottest part of the day. I was surrounded by many noisy Rüppel's Starlings and Northern Puffbacks, while an African Grey Hornbill and a Black-billed Barbet also decided to be more personable than usual. There was also a troupe of Grivets in the area of the campsite, with some of the males showing off their impressively-colored genitalia.

Rüppel's Starling

Northern Puffback

Black-billed Barbet

African Grey Hornbill

Male Grivet with some vividly-colored testicles

Green Hooktail

Tarucus sp.

The Awash campsite- not a bad place to set up a tent

There were a few Woodland Kingfishers around the campsite clearing, and I got to watch a pair of them courting each other, with one (presumably the male) feeding a cricket to an extremely excited female.

Woodland Kingfishers in courtship

I walked back to the lodge, where I saw an extremely tame White-throated Bee-eater, then we returned back to the river path with Mesfin, who said it was a good place to look for owls just before sunset. Along the way we ran into a White-browed Coucal hopping across the road in search of insects. Mesfin and I set out in search of owls, and a flock of angry mobbing White-bellied Go-away-birds and Eastern Plantain-eaters alerted us to a huge Verreaux's Eagle-owl staring at us through hooded eyes before the other birds drove it off. African Scops-owl and Pearl-spotted Owlet are also supposedly seen around this area, but unfortunately we didn't see those.

White-throated Bee-eater

White-browed Coucal

An angry White-bellied Go-away-bird 
Verreaux's Eagle-owl

Leopard Tortoise

Sunset over acacias

Back at the campsite, the others were watching as the local troupe of Olive Baboons was crossing a river. One particularly stout male spent a very long time crouched on a log ready to jump, looking nervously across the river as if he was afraid he wouldn't make it. He was correct unfortunately, as he ended up missing the riverbank and plunging into the water instead, climbing back onto dry land with possibly the most embarrassed expression I've ever seen on an animal.

Olive Baboon about to start an unsuccessful river crossig attempt.

Just before sunset, we headed back out to the center of the park to look for some wildlife. Unfortunately, the mammal life wasn't nearly as active as it had been on my previous visit: we saw a Lesser Kudu just as we started, and a family of Common Warthogs feeding near the road, but not much interesting besides that.

Mother warthog with her warthoglets

Once it got dark enough, we started looking for nightjars. Night birds overall were quiet as well, but we did see a single Slender-tailed Nightjar in flight, and got good lucks at a few Plain Nightjars, including one that sat in front of the car but took off before I could get a picture. Still, I was disappointed at the lack of Star-spotted Nightjars, one of the main targets for Awash National Park.

We began heading out of the park, still looking for night birds, but didn't see much. I had about given up hope on seeing anything new when I spotted a bird perched in an acacia tree above the road. We stopped quickly, and I realized that it was a Northern White-faced Owl! One of the main target birds for Ethiopia (and easily one of the most attractive owls in the world), this was a bird I'd missed in its now-inaccessible main spot along Lake Langano, and had essentially given up hope on seeing, as there are only a handful of records from elsewhere, including in Awash. Even better, this bird didn't seem to mind our presence at all, and we were able to watch it for almost 20 minutes at close range as it devoured a huge beetle it had recently caught. Once it had finished with the beetle, it flew onto the ground, landing only a few feet in front of me- so close I could have reached out and touched it! It easily ranks among my top wildlife experiences of this year, and certainly my best owl encounter yet.

Northern White-faced Owl- this one taken as it was almost too close for my lens to focus on it!

Flush with success, we headed out of the park to Awash town, where we stayed at the Genet Hotel and enjoyed a night in the nice rooms. The following morning, we headed out early to an area of scrub just outside the park entrance. There were some good birds there, including a singing Gillett's Lark, a Somali Bunting, and a pair of Yellow-breasted Barbets. Best was a Three-striped Courser running through the scrub, stopping just long enough for me to ID it- my first courser!

Gillett's Lark

Yellow-breasted Barbet

Yellow-spotted Petronia

Three-banded Courser

Greater Blue-eared Starling

Orange Flat (Sarangesa phidyle)

We started heading home after that, although we stopped once more in the lava fields by Lake Besaka. In the lake itself were a few extremely menacing Nile Crocodiles floating in the water, disturbingly close to where people were bathing. I'm not generally a fan of hunting wild animals, but I was surprised when Mesfin told me that no-one in the area goes after the crocodiles, especially considering how many people are supposedly killed by them every year.

An extremely spooky Nile Crocodile eyeing us hungrily

The group by the lavafields.

We stopped for lunch in Bishoftu, eating on the edge of one of the crater lakes where we could enjoy the spectacular view (and excellent food). After lunch, our last stop was on the edge of Lake Chelekleka, where I could look for water birds. Unlike my first two visits, there was actually water in the lake this time, and many more water birds to go with it. Best was a flock of 30 Greater Flamingos in the center of the ephemeral lake, their pink plumage standing out in the green vegetation. There were also many Fulvous Whistling Ducks, a few Knob-billed Ducks, and a huge Spur-winged Goose, while many male Northern Red Bishops were showing off by the side of the lake.

Greater Flamingos

Northern Red Bishop

Fulvous Whistling Ducks

Red-veined Darter (Sympetrum fonscolombii)

Danaid Eggfly (Hypolimnas misippus)

I thought that would be the end of birding for the day, but just as we were entering the expressway towards Addis Ababa, Christina spotted a Black-bellied Bustard in an area of tall grass encircled by the expressway on-ramp. It certainly wasn't a place where I expected to see one of the least-common bustards in Ethiopia, but Mesfin pointed out that it was probably nesting there because it was an area effectively protected from predators. Life, uh, finds a way I suppose.

Black-bellied Bustard


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