Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Thirty hours of Ethiopian endemics

At last. After two previous visits that had seen me largely trapped in meeting rooms between shuttle-bus runs from and to the airport, I finally got my chance for proper birding in Ethiopia - a 30 hour round trip from Addis across the Sululta Plain to Debre Libanos and back.

I’d tracked down my guide, Meseret Mekuria, through Birdingpal, and he picked me up at the dot of 0700 from my hotel. We drove up out of the city into the still-forested Entoto Hills, behind lorries belching the filthy smoke that is the hallmark of Addis’ air. Our first stop was a small bridge overlooking a wooded valley in the hills. Sounds nice, but picturesque it was not. The lorries crawled past with screaming engines and we were looking down onto the cauldron of smog that hangs over the city. 

But the birds didn’t seem to care too much. A creeping Cinnamon Bracken Warbler (Bradypterus cinnamomeus) was the first of many new birds for me on this trip and was followed by two shy-then-showy Abbysinian Catbirds (Parophasma galinieri) and a couple of Brown Woodland-warblers (Phylloscopus umbrovirens), with their deeply pleasing chocolate-and-forest-green plumage.

A short drive brought us to the Sululta Plain proper. It’s not what you expect. Not the vast vistas of the Serengeti. In fact it reminded me ineffably of north Norfolk or the plains of northern Serbia in the winter. 

The Sululta Plain in Ethiopia, doing a good impression of the plains of Vojvodina in the winter

Sululta is famous for Ethiopian endemics, and justifiably so. We’d barely reached the plain when our first stop brought us a single Blue-winged Goose (Cyanochen cyanoptera), a loose group of louche Wattled Ibis (Bostrychia carunculata), a flock of showy Black-headed Siskins (Serinus nigriceps) and a couple of surprisingly engaging Moorland Chats (Cercomela sordida - what a great taxonomic name!). There were birds of prey in plenty. At least four or five Tawny Eagles (Aquila rapax) and a single young Steppe Eagle (Aquila nipalensis),  and at least two migrant Black Kites (Milvus migrants migrans) among the resident Yellow-billed Kites (M.m. parasitus). Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) and Plain Martins (Riparia paludicola) cavorted in the air, and the grass was full of migrant Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava) and Red-throated Pipits (Anthus cervinus). The small patches of water held several Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) as well as local Yellow-billed Ducks (Anas undulata), and on the wader side were Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis) and Temminck’s Stint (Calidris temminckii) as well as a couple of cryptic Snipe which were spooked by a drinking Tawny Eagle before being flushed by a dog. The lack of white in the tail made them Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago), for me.

And so it began. The next few hours saw us driving slowly across the plain, which includes more topography than the name implies, and boasts occasional landscapes straight out of Tolkien, with fields of barley and the indigenous cereal, tef, as far as the eye can see. Ethiopia is going through an appalling drought at the moment, with millions facing acute food insecurity. The drought is a result of El Nino, but the worst effects are being felt further North in the country and the Sululta Plain seems, from what we could see, to be managing.

Deeper into the plain. Though this photo doesn't show it, many of the cereal fields were still green, indicating that they're for later harvest and doing OK, despite the drought elsewhere in the country. 

Short stops produced a Dark Chanting-Goshawk (Melierax metabates), two Black-winged Lapwings (Vanellus melanopterus), several Red-breasted Wheatears (Oenanthe bottae), Thekla Larks (Galerida theklae) and a single Erlanger’s Lark (Calandrella somalica erlangeri). And there were migrants too; several Ortolan Buntings (Emberiza hortulana), Siberian Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus maura), Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus), Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus) and three species of Wheatear: Pied (Oenanthe pleschanka), Isabelline (Oenanthe isabellina) and Northern (Oenanthe oenanthe). There were more Blue-winged Geese too, with up to 25 seen at one point, and three wonderfully, movingly incongruous Common Cranes (Grus grus).

Arriving at the scarp slope where the plateau drops into the Jemma Valley was an incredible experience. Our base – the Ethio-German Hotel – sits on the edge of this vast gash in the earth’s surface, one of many Ethiopian Grand Canyons. But I was pretty tired, and a lunch of beef wat and frozen beer had set the seal on this, setting me up for a 90 minute siesta, from which I was roused by Montane White-Eyes (Zosterops poliogastrus) calling outside my room. Bleary eyes took a while to identify around six Ruppell’s Griffon Vultures (Gyps rueppellii) in the sky. There are European Griffons (Gyps fulvus) here too, as I saw later.

Bad light and a bad camera phone, but you'd need Ansel Adams to do justice to this scenery.

There is nothing I can say about birding around this hotel other than that it is among the best and most rewarding I have ever experienced, and is set against the background of one of the world’s great views. A short walk to the allegedly-seventeenth century “Portuguese Bridge” (apparently actually built in the nineteenth century) brought numerous highlights: a gorgeous adult Lanner (Falco biarmicus); several jet-black Ruppell's Chats (Myrmecocichla melaena); a Little Rock-thrush (Monticola rufocinereus) sunning itself; a creeping Long-billed Pipit (Anthus similis); noisy flocks of Slender-billed Starling (Onychognathus tenuirostris) and White-billed Starling (Onychognathus albirostris) near a cascade of vast boulders; an impossibly beautiful Blue-breasted Bee-eater (Merops variegatus); a brassy Mocking Cliff-chat (Thamnolaea cinnamomeiventris) and, to top it all on our return to the hotel, a family of Erckel’s Francolin (Pternistis erckelii), spooked by a small troop of Olive Baboons (Papio anubis).

The Ethio-German hotel is unbeatably-situated, and has all the amenities you need. But, make no mistake, it gets cold up there at night. We ate our pasta and made our list for the day by candlelight after the electricity gave out, and then it was off to a mound of blankets and an early night with the wind howling outside.

Is there a better way to finish the day?

The morning came early. It was Sunday, so the service at the nearby monastery, which must have begun at 0400, was broadcast by loudspeaker to the whole surrounding area. I slept through that easily enough, but when I did awake it was to disappointment; low cloud and a dull, persistent rain. Much as I knew that must be a blessing to the local community, I also knew it was not great news from a birding perspective. 

I have been to many monasteries, principally in the Balkans, and am used to finding them both peaceful and beautifully-situated. This was the latter, but not the former. Apart from the loudspeakers tinnily hammering out the word of God, there was the fact that the church itself seemed to be surrounded by building sites, which had turned to a sea of mud in the rain.

The birds didn’t seem happy either, and came slowly or not at all. An early Abyssinian Oriole (Oriolus monacha) was followed by a long hiatus filled only with two showy Mountain Wagtails (Motacilla clara). But though we could hear Abyssinian Woodpeckers (Dendropicos abyssinicus) above the din of the unending liturgy, we could not see them. We began to wander up into the surrounding forest. Alarm calls were pinging around, but not, apparently for us. Then Meseret, with his astonishing eye for perched, unmoving birds, identified the reason - an African Goshawk (Accipiter tachiro) of the local unduliventer race, perched in a branch and causing a ruckus of excitement among a small group of stunning, amazing, magnificent White-cheeked Turacos (Tauraco leucotis). This is my third species of Turaco, and there are insufficient superlatives to describe them. If they aren’t the single most beautiful family of birds in the world, then they are certainly in the top few.

The rain continued, though, and after the excitement of the Turacos the longueurs set in again, mitigated only by a bedraggled troop of Gelada Baboons (Theropithecus gelada) on the top of the nearest cliff. The time for my departure was approaching, so we headed back to the hotel for breakfast. A good move, as it turned out.

Alone, I headed back down towards the edge of the scarp slope, seeing Black-crowned Tchagras (Tchagra senegalus), White-rumped Babblers (Turdoides leucopygia) and a single Blue-spotted Wood-dove (Turtur afer) as I did so. A movement drew me to the right; a single Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca), my first of the year, amazingly. This bird had drawn me to a point where I could overlook the tops of the cliffs, and there were birds there too; a Singing Cisticola (Cisticola cantans), a Streaky Seedeater (Serinus striolatus). And something else. It was small - smaller than the Streaky Seedeater - pale and short-billed and it had noticeable short streaking on its nape and a large white patch below and behind the eye, but no eyestripe. Could it be? No, it couldn’t be. But it was. An ANKOBER SERIN (Serinus ankoberensis). An endemic amongst endemics, only discovered in 1976, and well out of range according to my field guide. It was a bird I had absolutely not expected to see. But there was nothing else that it could be, and Meseret told me afterwards that he’s seen the species here twice before. What an end to my visit to this wonderful place.

Another view of the scarp slope. The Ankober Serin was sighted on the rocks towards the lower right of this picture

Our drive back to Addis was a good deal quicker than our drive out, but it still managed to produce a new species for the visit and for me; a huge, adult female White-headed Vulture (Trigonoceps occipitalis) which circled low, then swooped into land near a group of Ruppell’s Griffon Vultures which looked tiny by comparison and which, in turn, dwarfed the Tawny Eagle sitting with them.

So, altogether a fantastic trip, and well worth the $340 it set me back, which covered all expenses including the hotel and meals, plus Meseret's well-deserved fee. We saw 109 species of bird, over the two days, and four species of mammal. Of these 30 of the bird species were new for me, as was one of the mammals.

If you are lucky enough to visit Addis for work, you cannot but be happy with the birds you will see there. But take my advice. Get out into the countryside and be delighted. And if you do, you will do very well to engage Meseret who is not only knowledgeable and astonishingly eagle-eyed, but also good company and a careful driver. I loved the fact that he got terribly excited about the Long-billed Pipit, as well as the Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius) and Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) which I found, and which are scarce winter visitors here. Shared excitement. You can’t say fairer than that. He can be contacted on mesbuki@yahoo.com or by phone on +251 911332712.

Meseret in his natural environment

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