Monday, January 25, 2016


Towards the end of last year I paid a visit to Eritrea. Almost everything about this trip was unexpected, starting with the fact that it happened at all. Visas for Eritrea aren't exactly two-a-penny, and even if you get one you then need additional permissions to travel outside the capital. I make a point of not writing very much about my work, and I'll make no exception here, but if you've heard of Eritrea at all, you're quite likely to have an image of the place in your mind's eye. I know I did, and it was not what I found in reality. I'll say no more than that.

The iconic Fiat Tagliero building, just around the corner from my friend's place in Asmara. Probably the most famous of many stunning Italian modernist buildings in the city

For a start the capital, Asmara, is by the far the most pleasant African capital city I've yet visited; relaxed, low-key, spacious, full of fabulous architecture, fairly green (given its environs), and pollution-free. Even the birds of Asmara held surprises. For the most part they were a fairly predictable cross-section of dry highland birds, with a flavour of Ethiopian/Eritrean endemism: Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis), Swainson's Sparrow (Passer swainsonii), Variable Sunbird (Nectarinia venusta). That sort of thing. But I was surprised not to see any White-collared Pigeons (Columba albitorques), which more than hold their own against Feral Pigeons (Columba livia var. dom.) in Addis Ababa. And the sheer numbers of White Wagtails (Motacilla alba), which obviously roost around the city, as impressive, as was the Shikra (Accipiter badius) I saw hunting them.

The biggest surprise of all, though, was on my last two days in the country when we headed to what my friend, colleague and host (all the same person) had described to me as a rainforest. He's a clever man, so I was reluctant to question him too deeply. But a rainforest? In Eritrea? Seriously?

We headed out of Asmara across the khaki, dusty highland plain that surrounds the city. There is not much traffic in Asmara, and there's even less outside. To give you an idea how little, the villages along the road were using it as a threshing floor, in an image straight out of Leviticus. The cattle were treading out the corn in monotonous circles under the eyes of the older men, while the younger men and women stood in groups downwind winnowing the wheat from the chaff, which blew away in pale vortices.

The highland plains outside Asmara. Almost all the land is terraced to one extent of another, even in the upland forests (now mainly Eucalyptus plantation)
A few Greater Blue-eared Starlings (Lamprotornis chalybaeus) were hanging around for scraps at these threshing parties, and there were distant raptors too - particularly Augur Buzzards (Buteo augur), but also some unidentified migrant Harriers (Circus sp.). Not much sign of a rainforest, though. I kept my counsel as we approached the edge of the vast scarp slope that drops away from these highlands, plummeting from an altitude of around 2300 metres down almost to sea level over the course of a few kilometres. It's an awe-inspiring sight. Or so I'm told, because as we arrived at the vantage point I got my first hint that perhaps I might be wrong and my friend - who does, after all, live there - might be right. Fog.

It drifted in and out in billows, obscuring now, lifting then. Erckel's Francolins (Pternistis erckelii) dodged from the roadside as we loomed out the mist, and I had my second, bar-tailed African Goshawk (Accipiter tachiro) of the highland unduliventer race. On and on, down and down, the fog turning first to drizzle, then to rain, and finally a torrential downpour that sent cataracts of muddy water coursing down the road. Meanwhile, outside the car windows, the green increased, and the vegetation proliferated. Shrubs turned to bushes, bushes to trees and trees began to sport a profusion of epiphytes. I've been in rainforests before and I had to admit that this looked, felt and smelled awfully like a rainforest to me.

A bit of a change of scenery from the highland plains. Filfil forest looking, feeling and smelling like a rainforest.

We stayed the night at a "Recreation Centre" a little over half way down the scarp slope at a place called Medhanit. I'd read of this place in yet another Eritrean surprise; one of the best, most comprehensive and most user-friendly online guides to birding for any African country I've come across. See for yourself here. The website describes Medhanit, accurately, as "basic", and I passed one of the odder evenings of my life here, supping beer and slurping spaghetti in the candlelight as the roof sprung more and more leaks under the onslaught of rain. When we got to our rooms I was glad my colleague had brought sleeping bags.

I slept like a log, though, as you do in these sort of places, and was up before the grey dawn. Rain was still falling, but not in the sheets of the previous evening, and I was fascinated to see what birds would be around in this oddly out-of-place place. My first bird was yet another huge surprise. A Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) perching in a bush near our car. A Song Thrush? In Africa? I knew they wintered here, but I thought only on the coast and was not expecting it here.

Negotiating one of many rockfalls caused by the overnight rain. The lorry in front had had to stop so that the passengers could clear this enough to pass.

Settling our bill we headed down to the valley floor, with the intention of walking a little way up the river bed. I suspect this must have been a torrent the previous night, but there it was perfectly walkable now, and so walk we did. And the surprises kept on coming. Somehow this place managed to balance forest birds with dry country birds - and Hornbills in particular were not in short supply, with three species vying for attention: Hemprich's Hornbill (Lophoceros hemprichii), which is largely restricted to the Abyssinian highlands, but also African Grey Hornbill (Lophoceros nasutus), at the edge of its range here, and Red-billed Hornbill (Tockus erythrorhynchus), which is much more typical of dry country.

Walking under a Fig tree in the valley bottom

There were countless, flashy Fork-tailed Drongos (Dicrurus adsimilis), my first Eastern Grey Plantain-Eater (Crinifer zonurus), a lovely, quiet Bruce's Green Pigeon (Treron waalia), a bold pair of Black-billed Barbets (Lybius guifsobalito) and several surprise parties of White-crested Helmet-shrikes (Prionops plumatus). But there were also Little Rock Thrushes (Monticola rufocinereus) and a single Purple Roller (Coracias naevius), both of these really dry country birds. On the raptor side a tiny accipiter in a tree could only have been a Little Sparrowhawk (Accipiter minullus), but a Gabar Goshawk (Micronisus gabar) flew through too and there were several falcons in the air, including by first Grey Kestrels (Falco ardosiaceus), presumably making their home in the nest of one of the three Hamerkops (Scopus umbretta)we saw. But the final surprise for me in Filfil was the weavers. They were numerous, dark faced, dark-eyed and with an orange wash all around their masks. Their backs were plain green and unstreaked. I've seen these before. They were Vitelline Masked Weavers (Ploceus vitellinus). Not a rare bird in Africa, but not marked as being in range according to my field guide. That in itself should not be a surprise. Eritrea is one of the most under-watched and under-recorded countries in Africa. There must be a host bird species that are slipping under the radar here.

I was truly amazed by this place, and would love to have spent more time, but we had only 24 hours for the trip and it was not long before we had to head back. Emerging from the forest back onto the highland escarpment was like moving from one world, one reality, to another, and it took a little time to adjust. We stopped for lunch on the way back at one of the dams near Asmara - Maisirwa - and then took a walk to help digest our grilled beef. The place is famed for raptors, and there were plenty - mainly Tawny Eagles (Aquila rapax) and Steppe Eagles (Aquila nipalensis) joined by a single adult African Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) and an immature Lesser Spotted Eagle (Clanga pomarina). But the two delights for me were a flighty, gorgeous male Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) of the Eastern samarisicus race and my first Half-collared Kingfisher (Alcedo semitorquata), flushed from one side of the lake and watched crossing the water and perching on the other. Eritrea is on the very edge of this species' range, and it was not a bird I was expecting. Like so much else in this country, in fact.

By the dam at Maitsirwa

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