The Long Road South

After a fairly successful time in the Negele area, we continued toward the town of Mega in far southern Ethiopia, near the Kenyan border. The distance doesn't look that great on a map, but Ethiopia is also twice the size of Spain and most of the roads are unpaved, so it was a solid 10-hour drive from Negele to Mega, with lots of stops in between. We left Negele early on the morning of July 29 and were on the road by sunrise. Of course, one of the things that makes driving on birding trips last longer is the random stops for wildlife, and there were plenty of those along the way. The first was for a beautiful male Lesser Kudu, and next for an equally beautiful group of Vulturine Guineafowl, much stranger-looking and more colorful than the more-common Helmeted Guineafowl.

Lesser Kudu

 Vulturine Guineafowl
We stopped for breakfast along a mostly-dry riverbed, which had the added benefit of watching flocks of Black-faced Sandgrouse flying in and out of the gully to load up on water. In the desert, sandgrice apparently bathe in ephemeral in the early morning, then fly back to their nests with wet feathers to bring water to their chicks during nesting season, although I don't know if Ethiopia is dry enough for that to be necessary. Also in the area were a couple of Acacia Tits, a strange-looking Bare-eyed Thrush, and a very tame Little Bee-eater.

Black-faced Sandgrouse

Acacia Tit- like a very grey-tinged chickadee

Little Bee-eater

An hour down the road, we arrived at a very small town perched on the bank of another mostly-dry river. I was surprised to see us stop there, as Mesfin was usually very nervous about stopping in towns in the area for safety reasons. However, he told me to look around at the doves perched on the phone wires there and on the tops of houses. It turned out that this village was one of the few accessible sites for White-winged Collared Dove, a scarce Horn of Africa endemic only found along a few river valleys in Ethiopia and Somalia. It only took a few minutes to find a group of them staring at me with brilliant golden eyes from the roof of a house. One of the rarest local birds, and I saw it in someone's back yard! The sort of thing that can only happen in Ethiopia.

White-winged Collared Doves in a rather un-exotic location.

We continued southwards, through a seemingly endless terrain of low rocky hills covered in dry acacia scrub. This part of Oromia was primarily Muslim, and had a large population of internally displaced people from conflicts just across the border in the Somali region, as well as many soldiers looking suspiciously at our car as we passed by. We stopped at a small village where Mesfin had some friends, and had a coke in a low-ceilinged traditional dwelling where some locals were having a midday beer. There was no electricity (or cell service!) in the area, so they kept drinks cool by burying them in a hole in the ground.

We stopped for a little while in a seemingly random patch of scrub, which Mesfin said was a good place to see Red-naped Bushshrike, a generally uncommon resident. We didn't see the bushshrike at first, but I entertained myself with an unusually showy pair of Slate-colored Boubous, and a flock of Black-capped Social Weavers. Eventually we found a calling pair of Red-naped Bushshrikes, certainly one of the most striking-looking of a group of very attractive birds.

Slate-colored Boubou

Black-capped Social Weaver

Red-naped Bushshrike

We stopped for lunch after another hour of driving, in a small clearing along a flat patch of road. It was the heat of the day and no wildlife really wanted to be active (including me), but I was tired enough of sitting that I walked around the area for a while as Mesfin fixed the car engine. I realized that the Common Bulbuls in the area were of a new subspecies (sometimes split as Dodson's Bulbul), meaning that I'd now seen all four possible split species of that complex: Common, Dodson's, Dark-capped, and Somali. I also got good looks at a very cute Pygmy Batis and a very nervous Unstriped Ground Squirrel. 

Common (Dodson's) Bulbul

Little Bee-eater

Pygmy Batis

Unstriped Ground Squirrel

We drew nearer to some proper population centers as we went further south, but stopped a final time in yet another seemingly random patch of scrub that Mesfin said was a good site for Pringle's Puffback. It was indeed very good for birds- while Mesfin was off trying to find a puffback, I saw a beautiful (and rare) Northern Grosbeak-canary, a very bold Yellow-breasted Apalis, and a surprisingly tame Black-throated Barbet. Mesfin soon found a Pringle's Puffback, shyer than its more-common cousin the Northern Puffback, and I saw another Red-naped Bushshrike shortly after that, along with my lifer Pale Prinia and a Bare-eyed Thrush.

Black-throated Barbet

Pale Prinia

Yellow-breasted Apalis

Northern Puffback

Red-naped Bushshrike

Bare-eyed Thrush

Local women along the long south road

We continued southwards, and it was another two hours of driving before we arrived at the town of Soda, and shortly after that a paved road, which felt like a miraculous change after four days of driving on bumpy gravel. Another hour of (much smoother!) driving brought us to Mega, a large and seemingly prosperous town ringed by low escarpments. We reserved our things in a seedy hotel (the only lodging left in town), and then headed north again to an area just outside of town that was supposedly good for Donaldson Smith's Nightjar, a rare night bird found only in northeastern Africa. We had a little bit of time before sunset, which I spent looking for birds and chatting with Mesfin about the Ethiopian economy. There were no new birds about, at least in the day time, just a few Yellow-bellied Eremomelas and Mouse-colored Penduline-tits, but the sunset turned out to be gorgeous.

Yellow-bellied Eremomela

Mouse-colored Penduline-tit

Sunset over the hills north of Mega

Once night fell, we started looking for nightjars. As it turned out, it was an easy search- it wasn't more than 10 minutes after it got dark that we heard the call of a Donaldson Smith's Nightjar. It was nearby, and as I was walking around I stumbled upon one so close to me I could barely get a picture! Certainly better than the nightjar luck I'd had previously in Awash National Park. There was also a large Abyssinian Hare, the most ubiquitous mammal in lowland Ethiopia so far as I can tell, hopping about.

Donaldson Smith's Nightjar

Abyssinian Hare

We returned to Mega after that, and got some sleep before starting our final leg of birding- and my last leg of birding in Ethiopia, at least for the time being...


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