Rich Andrews photography
Rich Andrews photography
 
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FRIDAY 21st NOVEMBER - MONDAY 8th DECEMBER 2014

ETHIOPIA (Part 2)



SUNDAY 30th NOVEMBER 2014

Sof Omar and Bale Mountains National Park

A 5am breakfast for an early trip to Sof Omar (site of the famous caves) to look for another rare finch; Salvadori’s Seedeater. It occurs only on rocky hillsides in central and southern Ethiopia.

We managed to see a few new species around Sof Omar, including Somali Crow, Brown-tailed Rock Chat, Acacia Tit, Tedious Brownbul and Yellow-spotted Petronia, before Attila found a pair of Salvadori’s Seedeaters in acacias at the bottom of the valley. Quite smart, as far as seedeaters go. Bit too high in the trees for any pics though. As we walked back up the side of the steep valley, I grabbed a few pics with my S3 of a sight which was very familiar to us during the trip:



Wherever you go in the Ethiopian countryside, almost all of the local people rely on the land and their animals to subsist. Donkeys are a common sight, and are usually loaded up with inordinately huge loads or pulling inordinately large carts. These are carrying water containers. You wouldn't want to be a donkey in Ethiopia, that's for sure.

In the afternoon, we returned to the Bale Mountains National Park HQ to look again for Wood Owl and Abyssinian Thrush, both of which we failed to see, but we did have second looks at two Abyssinian Owls. As this was our last full day in the Bale Mountains, Alex and myself were keen to take a few snaps of Rouget’s Rail as it would be our last chance to do so. With that in mind we spent a couple of hours at a likely spot. Measho told us they were easy to approach and we’d have no trouble photographing them, but in the event we found that they were complete buggers.

They didn’t allow a close approach at all, possibly because of the rather open nature of where they were feeding, which was essentially short grass next to a small marshy stream, so I spent much of the time photographing Black-winged Plover and White-collared Pigeons. It was a bonus to get my best pics of the latter (another endemic) at apparent nest sites under a road bridge. The top pic is two frames stacked to keep both birds in focus. A hefty bit of flash as well:






It wasn’t until we were preparing to leave that one Rouget’s Rail decided to be a bit more co-operative, and after a short wait I was able to run off a few frames as it wandered around in front of me. Back at the hotel, I was able to manage a few shots of the Montane Nightjar which reappeared in the car park and sang from the treetops.



Overnight at the Wabe Shebelle hotel, Goba again.

MONDAY 1st DECEMBER 2014

Sanetti Plateau and the drive to Negele

Today we would be leaving the Bale Mountains, and travelling 300km on gravel roads south over the Sanetti Plateau to Negele. We planned another early start in an effort to be the first vehicles on the plateau, so that we would have a better chance of finding Moorland Francolin. The Handbook of the Birds of the World treats the Ethiopian race as a distinct species, so as a potential split it would be a shame to miss this one.

And what a good plan it turned out to be. As we approached the plateau, the lead car picked up a pair of Moorland Francolins right by the road. Their camouflage was remarkable. The light was a bit crap though; it’s times like this that I’m glad I changed to the 5D3. I figured that there would be more situations when I’d want good low light performance than I would be wanting the ‘reach’ and frame rate of the 7D. And I was right.



Further up on the plateau we came across a little group of Spot-breasted Plovers. They appeared to be taking grit from the road; I don’t think I’ve seen this behaviour from a wader before. Luckily they were much less wary of the vehicles and I was able to get some decent snaps of them on both sides of the car from the windows…






Previous trip reports seem to indicate that most tours bump into these at various locations on the higher ground, but we only encountered them on the Sanetti Plateau, so I considered myself lucky to photograph them at all. Much remains to be learned about the Spot-breasted Plover. Occurring only in the Ethiopian highlands, the first nest wasn’t discovered until 1971, and even now there is very little published information on their biology. In fact the revised edition of Shorebirds (1991) indicates that the juvenile plumage has never been described; even the newer Birds of the Horn of Africa (2009) fails to make any mention of it. Here’s what it looks like:



Good work by Phil to pick it out whilst I was leaning over him pointing a massive telephoto lens in his face. A bit further down the road, the front car stopped again. And this time there was a wolf. Not exactly point blank views of it frolicking in the roadside heather but much closer than the one we saw two days ago. We were able to get out of the cars and watch him through the scopes, and I even managed a few distant pics. The one below is a big crop, but it’s the best of the bunch. We then saw a second animal, a female, a few minutes down the road. Good.



The drive through the Harenna forest and south through the acacia woodlands of the lower elevations was punctuated by stops for birds such as Crowned Eagle, Sharpe’s, Shelley’s and Golden-breasted Starlings. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at a piece of open woodland which was one of Measho’s two sites for another Ethiopian endemic - Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco. One of four species which curiously occur in small pockets of southern Ethiopia and nowhere else in the world.

It only took a few minutes of bowling about on the hillside before one appeared in a flash of green and red. Then another. They don’t get much more tropical-looking than one of these, with their bright green bodies, red wings, long tails and ridiculous blonde crests. When you’re on a flying visit looking for something that’s known from only a few sites in the world, it can only be regarded as a bonus when you not only see it well but also manage to get any kind of photograph. One of the turacos was even stationary enough for me to make my first effort at taking a bit of video. Or cinematography, as it seems to be known in these days of poncy aggrandisement.

It's times like this that remind how much I hate photographing birds perched above head-height against the sky. Especially ones in trees. It really buggers up the exposure and everything looks crap. I deliberately over-exposed my turaco shots with the hope that in post-processing I could recover some detail from the darker areas without losing too much from the light areas. This one is an HDR from three raw conversions at -1, 0, +1. Hopefully I haven't overcooked it:



As well as being very rare and very colourful, Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco has a truly enigmatic history. Prince Eugenio Ruspoli was an Italian aristocrat and explorer; in the early 1890s he went on an expedition to Ethiopia to find and collect species which were new to science, during when he obtained the first specimen of a new species of turaco. Ruspoli later met an unfortunate end on the same expedition; he was trampled to death by an elephant which he had been attempting to shoot.

His collected specimens were sent back to Italy, where Salvadori (remember the seedeater yesterday?) posthumously named the new turaco in honour of the hapless prince. Unfortunately Ruspoli had failed to label the bird, so nobody knew where in all of Ethiopia he had obtained it. The species remained a complete mystery, known only from that single specimen until the 1940s when it was rediscovered near Negele, and to this day is known only from a handful of sites in the near vicinity.

We encountered a few Abyssinian Ground Hornbills over the course of our trip, and all the photos I took of them were pants. We even had a group right by the side of us on the way home today, and such was the position of the car and the proximity of the birds I still couldn't get anything like a decent shot. So I've attempted an arty-farty mono portrait in the hope of salvaging something:



Appropriately, overnight at the Turaco Hotel, Negele.

TUESDAY 2nd DECEMBER 2014

Negele and the Liben Plain

Today we would be looking for the rarest bird of the trip: Sidamo Lark. Critically endangered, and known only from a small area of the Liben plain, its total world range is an area just 35 km2 with a declining population estimated at no more than 390 individuals (Birdlife). Recent studies suggest it may be a subspecies of Archer’s Lark, itself known only from a single location in Somalia (and which hasn’t been seen since 1955). Whichever way you look at it, it’s really quite rare.

The early morning drive from Negele along the Bogol Manyo Road was eventful though, with a few new birds to add: Yellow-necked Spurfowl, White-crowned Starling, Ethiopian Swallow (finally), and an Amur Falcon which was an unexpected bonus. A new bird for me, and a species not often seen on Ethiopian tours. As we watched it, a second bird appeared, and we were able to walk across the field and watch them both (a juvenile and second-year female) perched at close range on overhead wires:







As we drove further down the road we encountered a few more, and we were soon amongst a mixed flock of Amur Falcons and Lesser Kestrels. We watched from a field as 40 or so birds fed on ant-lions around us; for me one of the most memorable sights of the trip.

The spectacular 22,000 km annual migration of Amur Falcon has only recently become fully understood; they breed in north-east China/Mongolia/Siberia and winter in southern Africa. They migrate south west through the Indian subcontinent; most then cross the Arabian Sea directly to east Africa, feeding on migrating dragonflies en route. Some even take a longer route through south east Asia and across the Indian Ocean, via tropical islands such as the Maldives. The migration of Lesser Kestrel is not so well understood, but it’s now thought that like the Amur Falcon, east Asian birds also winter in sub-saharan Africa. So it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that our flock had recently arrived in the Horn of Africa after crossing the Arabian Sea.

At our first stop at the Sidamo Lark site, we saw quite a few Somali Short-toed Larks, Isabelline Wheatears and a smart pair of Shelley’s Sparrows (below), but no Sidamo Lark. Attila was surprised to see how many houses have appeared in the area since his last visit; the pressure of Ethiopia’s rapidly growing population is a big problem to all the country’s wildlife. A second stop nearby did produce the much-anticipated Sidamo Lark; a scaly brown thing of which I managed a few record shots. I'll put them on Flickr.



The trip back to the hotel for lunch produced a few more new birds; a small flock of Collared Pratincoles (below, top) at a nearby lake also held one Black-winged Pratincole; a decent record it seems. We also had better views of Reichenow’s Seedeater (below, middle), also Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Kori Bustard, a big flock of White Storks, Cut-throat Finches, and the tawniest Tawny Eagle I've ever seen (below, bottom).







A leisurely lunch was followed by a wander around some acacia scrub just outside of Negele, with a few decent birds including Somali Bunting, Purple Grenadier, Foxy Lark, Buff-crested Bustard and Greater Honeyguide. We also saw a few Günther’s Dik Diks.

Overnight at the Turaco Hotel, Negele.

WEDNESDAY 3rd DECEMBER 2014

Drive to Yabello via the Dawa River

We had an early start this morning for the drive to Yabello. We started along the Bogol Manyo Road again, this time there were only a few Amur Falcons, and the Ethiopian Swallows were again on the overhead wires; surprisingly given its name this species is widespread between the Sahara and the equator from Mali to Somalia. A new bird for us though. Another new bird we'd hoped to see today was Somali Courser; recently split from Cream-coloured Courser. Despite some good attempts at stringing some silhouetted Temminck's Coursers from the car, it was ultimately one of the few possible Horn of Africa species which eluded us.

Our two target species en route would be Juba Weaver and African White-winged Dove; two Horn of Africa endemics which are primarily Somalian species, only found along the Juba and Shebelle river valleys and their tributaries. As we drove through the morning to our first stop at the Dawa River (a tributary of the Juba River), yet more new species began to appear, including Rufous-crowned Roller, Eastern Chanting Goshawk, Chestnut Weaver and Northern White-crowned Shrike.

At the Dawa River we located a small group of Juba Weavers after a wander through some acacia scrub. I've seen many many species of weaver in Africa, and even now I struggle to get very enthusiastic about them. Soz. We also found a Goliath Heron feeding on the river; despite four previous trips to Africa I'd seen very few of these huge 1.5 metre birds (50% bigger than a Grey Heron), so I followed it downstream for a few minutes in the hope of grabbing a few pics:



Incidentally, I've been using a monopod a lot on this trip. I don't usually use one, but it's such a monumental faff to go birding all day with 5kg of camera and lens AND carry a tripod about. So I just clipped the monopod to my belt (it weighs next to nothing), carried the lens with two straps on my back like a rucksack and had both hands free to use my bins. Despite carrying my camera about whenever we were out of the car, I spent comparatively little time actually doing any photography. But it was there whenever the opportunity arose.

No sign of the White-winged Dove at the river though. Luckily as we passed through a village later in the morning, we found a couple sat in a roadside acacia. Yet another African Streptopelia to add to the list. Well done Measho:



After a spot of lunch in what I can only describe as a minging fly-infested shed, we continued through the daylight hours to Yabello, stopping occasionally to look at small birds in prickly bushes. And our only Vulturine Guineafowl of the trip. D'Arnaud's Barbet was good though:



Overnight at Yabello Mobile Hotel.

THURSDAY 4th DECEMBER 2014

Yabello Wildlife Sanctuary

Day 13 already. Just two more Ethiopian/Eritrean endemics to find, and today would be our first and probably only chance to see them. Stresemann’s Bush Crow and White-tailed Swallow have tiny world ranges, both confined to more or less the same area of southern Ethiopia. It seems odd that a hirundine would be so range restricted, but it’s another species we know very little about; it was only discovered in the early 1940s, and nobody had even found a nest until 1996.

The early morning drive to Yabello Wildlife Sanctuary was delayed by the discovery of a pair of Gabar Goshawks nest-building in a roadside tree. Another species which has eluded me on my previous African trips, this time no mistaking a fine adult sat up in the nice morning light. Another bird in a tree on a high branch again but not to worry. What a beauty:



Birds of prey have certainly been a feature of this trip, not just for the sheer number of species (probably the best trip I’ve ever had for raptors) but their approachability too; Gabar Gos takes our raptor list to 51 species. If you like birds of prey there can’t be many better countries than Ethiopia to see as many species as this. A little further down the road, Bush Crows. A little family group just by the road. It turns out that it was quite a fortuitous place to stop, as not only do we see the Bush Crows, but a continuous stream of Black-faced Sandgrouse flying in to drink at a shallow quarry, and a smart pair of Heuglin’s Coursers.

The Stresemann’s Bush Crows were unexpectedly shy when I tried to point a camera at them, which was a shame as it would be good to get a few pics of these attractive barely-crows. Like a Bali Starling in the body of a Clark’s Nutcracker. Hopefully we’d see some more. We continued in the cars and after only a few minutes… White-tailed Swallow. Only a brief fly-by though. But that’s enough to complete a clean sweep of all 31 endemic species.

We had better views later in the morning of a pair of White-tailed Swallows perched in an acacia tree, along with a very approachable Eastern Chanting Goshawk, which I managed to photograph as it gathered itself after having its lunch pinched by a Tawny Eagle:




Other birds this morning included White-headed Vulture (our 52nd and final new species of raptor for the trip), Short-tailed Lark, Red-naped Bush Shrike, Tiny Cisticola, three Kori Bustards, Foxy Lark and a few more Stresemann’s Bush Crows. We also saw a number of Thompson’s Gazelles, a Grant’s Gazelle and a herd of distant Northern Gerenuk.

In the afternoon we tried a site not far from our hotel, and after quite a bit of faffing about I was able to get a few pics of some Stresemann’s Bush Crows after I’d shaken off the obligatory lingering five year-olds (below, top). We also saw Pearl Spotted Owlet, Lilac-breasted Roller (below, middle) and an obliging Pygmy Falcon (below, bottom). The bottom two were taken with two stacked 1.4x extenders.








At dusk we stayed out in the hope of hearing/seeing Donaldson Smith’s Nightjar. And we were in luck. At first a distant bird calling, then one bird approached and flew a few times above us in response to a few snatches of a recorded call. Overnight at the Yabello Mobile Hotel again.

FRIDAY 5th DECEMBER 2014

Drive from Yabello to Lake Awassa

Today we left the medium elevations to travel back into the Rift Valley. As all of the morning was spent in the cars we added very little; Woolly-necked Stork was the only new bird, although we did see a new mammal - Side-striped Jackal. A flock of vultures feeding on the manky remains of a roadside corpse included an adult Rüppell's Griffon; my first of the trip.

You’d think that the main road between Addis Ababa and Nairobi would be reasonably decent, wouldn’t you? Sadly that wasn’t the case; as well as being poor quality there was a lot of road construction which meant frequent diversions and delays. Plenty of donkeys about though:



A word about the transport, seeing as we're near the end of the trip. Having a big modern 4x4 and a local driver is essential to get around Ethiopia on a trip like this. Most of our travelling has been on gravel tracks, many of which have been of a quality (and gradient) that would be impassible by a normal road car. In fact some of our routes haven’t even been on tracks at all. Outside the main cities the only vehicles I saw were 4x4s, buses, lorries and donkeys.

In fact, having a decent vehicle was impressed on us today when our driver and car had to leave to join another tour, and we were given a replacement Landcruiser. This vehicle was a lot older than our previous one, and even after half a day on gravel tracks it was clear that there’s no way we would have completed the itinerary in the same amount of comfort in this one, with its knackered suspension and hopeless air-con.

The afternoon was spent on the shore of Lake Awassa and the grounds of our adjacent hotel. The grounds themselves were quite birdy, not least due to a big Marabou colony, but also the presence of Spotted Creeper. It’s widespread in sub-Saharan Africa but a new bird for all of us, and one we were wanting to see. Which we did! There was a pair of Red-throated Wrynecks nesting nearby, too.

The lake itself gave us all a few more new birds, including Blue-headed Coucal, African Pygmy Goose and the near-endemic Abyssinan Waxbill. The birds were well accustomed to people and easy to approach, so after five trips to Africa I was finally able to grab a decent pic of Malachite Kingfisher (below, bottom) and a species I wasn’t really bothered about photographing at all – Great Cormorant. Although needless to say it was the white-breasted African race lucidus (below, top):






The cormorant and kingfisher are both blends of 3 raws to handle the high contrasts in the original picture; I was quite pleased that I managed to rescue all the whites.

Overnight at the United Africa Hotel, Awassa.

SATURDAY 6th DECEMBER 2014

Lake Awassa and Lake Ziway

Out at dawn for another wander along the shore of Lake Awassa. It was a little more quiet than yesterday in terms of disturbance, and we were able to add a few wildfowl: Spur-winged Goose, White-faced and Fulvous Whistling Ducks. Back at the hotel I popped out at breakfast in the hope of getting some amazing pics of the Spotted Creeper. I didn’t, but I at least managed some distant shots of it singing. High in a tree against the light again. Bah:



We drove to the Awassa fish market further along the shore, where there are brilliant opportunities for photographs as the birds are very tame. You walk amongst loitering Marabous as you make your way to the lake shore where White Pelicans can almost be fed by hand. Other birds at close range here were Hammerkop, Pied and Malachite Kingfishers, Long-tailed Cormorant, Spur-winged Plover, Whiskered and White-winged Black Terns. A couple of African Pygmy Geese were just a little too distant for any decent pics whilst I was there. No sign of the hoped-for Allen’s Gallinule, but the woodland nearby also gave us a few new species, notably a superb Violet-backed Starling.



In the early afternoon we moved to Lake Ziway, and had a couple of stops and a few more new species: Black Heron, Anhinga, Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, and loads of Kittlitz’s Plovers. It was hot enough to make photographing anything on the ground very difficult due to the heat haze. We visited another place on the lake shore where fishing catches are brought ashore, and there were more opportunities to photograph Marabou, White Pelicans, Hammerkop and Sacred Ibis at point-blank range:









An afternoon drive to Welkite, back up on higher ground to the west, and overnight at Jyoka Hotel, Welkite.

SUNDAY 7th DECEMBER 2014

Gibe Gorge and the drive to Addis Ababa

Our last full day in the country would consist of a spot of birding at Gibe Gorge, then the drive back to Addis for an overnight stay before an early flight back to Heathrow tomorrow morning.

This morning we were hoping that we would find Red-billed Pytilia; the last of the Ethiopian near-endemics that we hadn’t seen. But our most eagerly awaited target this morning was a widespread sub-Saharan species which we had conspired to miss on all of our previous African trips - Egyptian Plover. At the gorge, we clambered along the rocky shoreline to a suitable viewpoint (accompanied as usual by about half a dozen kids) and even at this stage of the trip we were still picking up new species - Snowy-crowned Robin-chat, Wattled Plover and Deiderik Cuckoo.

What a splendid bird the Deiderik Cuckoo is; needless to say I took the opportunity to regail everyone about the time I saw one in the Western Palearctic. As I was doing that, a black and white and lavender blob wandered in to view amongst some Wattled Plovers on a distant bank. There is was then, the fabled Egyptian Plover, shimmering in the heat haze behind a few hippos. And another. Far from luxurious views though. We planned to drive across the river to get closer to them later.

In the meantime we wandered along the river in the other direction where we found Bar-breasted Firefinches and had superb views of a few Wire-tailed Swallows. We then noticed a big flock of c.500 hirundines perched on high tension wires high above the gorge. All of them were House Martins. This was a surprise, as in all of our winter trips to Africa we’ve probably seen a grand total of less than ten House Martins. Despite being a common Palearctic summer migrant, little is known about what the House Martin does in the winter. OK, we know they fly to Africa, but they’re so infrequently seen there that much remains to be learned. One theory is that they spend most of their time feeding at high altitude. Barn Swallows on the other hand, are easy to see just about everywhere.

We later had better views of the Egyptian Plovers and the five hippos before the afternoon journey to Addis Ababa. We stopped a few times on the way, our most notable new bird was European Bee-eater - a big flock of them. A stop at Gefersa Reservoir gave us our last Blue-winged Geese and Wattled Ibis before the drive into the capital.

Overnight at KZ Hotel, Addis Ababa.

The final tally for the trip was 491 species, including all the Ethiopian/Eritrean endemics and all but one of the Ethiopian near-endemics; not everybody saw every single species but it's still easily more species in 16 days than I've seen in a lifetime in Britain. 37 species of mammal was pretty good work as well. I'm starting to upload the rest of my photographs from the trip to my Ethiopia album on Flickr; I'm just over half way through. You can see some other photos taken by Attila on the Ecotours website.

Ethiopia part 1     top of page    previous entries



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