Trip Report: Ethiopia , November 18 - December 5, 1997

Mike Milton and Judy Schaefer, Washington, DC, USA; or

This is an old report, as Judy Schaefer and I visited Ethiopia in Nov.-Dec., 1997. Our group comprised two guides, 3 congenial Norwegians, two Swedish diplomats for part of the trip, plus Judy and I. The trip is fresh in our minds, though, as we showed our slides at two recent well attended general meetings of the New Columbia Audubon Society here in DC (and we haven't been further than Delmarva since the trip). We would be glad to do the slide show for any bird or nature organization in the area.

Ethiopia is a superb birding locale. It has about 845 species, without regard to Sibley's or other recent splits. My personal list, for 15 birding days, was 325. Our birding could be called relaxed, as species count was decidedly secondary to experiencing our natural and cultural surroundings.

We were in Addis Ababa and nearby parts of the Western Highlands, the Rift Valley, Bale and Awash National Parks, and parts of Sidamo province in the South, near the highway. These readily accessible areas include varied montane, forest, savanna, and fresh-water habitats, but we did not reach Ethiopia's deserts or rain forests.

"[Urban and Brown's 1971] checklist names 23 endemics, but this figure is boosted by a few more discovered since 1971, as well as several species which are practically endemic -- Ethiopia is now generally considered to have over 30 endemic bird species."
Briggs, Guide to Ethiopia, (Bradt, 1995).
Urban's 23 species are portrayed in his booklet Ethiopia's Endemic Birds (Ethiopian Tourism Commission, 1980, reprinted 1987, 1995). I saw 18 of these, and heard one more, the sweet-singing Abyssinian Catbird Parophasma galinieri. Most are common. Yet, for every endemic species, common or rare, Urban remarks how little was known of the bird's biology. This is still true. Yellow-fronted Parrot Poicephalus flavifrons is a common endemic forest bird. We watched and photographed a pair entering and leaving their nest hole, 200 meters from our comfortable camp on Lake Langano. No naturalist had ever before observed nesting of the Yellow-Fronted Parrot. I wonder if New Guinea, Peru, or anywhere affords a better chance than Ethiopia for the average birding tourist to participate in ornithologically exciting observation.

We saw thirty-three diurnal raptor and four owl species -- each a vivid recollection. It would be hard to forget watching two Steppe Eagles Aquila nipalensis dispute possession of a Giant Mole Rat Tachyorcytes macrocephalus (endemic) with the world's rarest canid, the Ethiopian Wolf Canis simensis (endemic, formerly "Simien Fox"). We saw birds whose stunning impact is undiminished on the 100th sighting, like Northern Carmine Bee-Eater Merops nubicus and Superb Starling Lamprotornis superbus, interspersed with figure-me-out larks and cisticolas. We saw birds that are "good" by Ethiopian standards, like Bat Hawk Machaerhamphus alcinus, and, in a ten-minute span at a small lake near Addis, Spotted Creeper Salpornis spilonotus, Western Reef-Egret Egretta gularis, and Maccoa Duck Oxyura maccoa. I equally enjoyed the Ethiopian specialties, the widespread species which can be said to represent Africa, and the wintering birds which had eluded me on sightseeing/birding trips to Britain and W. Europe -- e.g. Common Quail Coturnix coturnix (probably resident C. c. africanus), Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola, Marsh Sandpiper Tringa stagnatilis, Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla, Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus, Olivaceous Warbler Hippolais pallida, Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca, and Eurasian Golden-Oriole Oriolus oriolus.

Our guides identified mammals rivaling the birds for interest and photogenicity, snakes, and a chameleon found above its known altitudinal range. Judy had museum experience and much reading in East African ecology; I had no preparation, and we were equally awed and delighted with the actuality.

Ethiopians respect birds. There are no counterparts of the condor-shooting mayor of Mucuchíes, and not merely because mass tourism is not an immediate prospect for Ethiopia. Threats to Ethiopian biodiversity arise from overpopulation and overgrazing. The country has, we estimated, 6,000 foreign tourists annually. Kenya's tourism is 2 orders of magnitude greater; Egypt's, three. Ecotourism immediately benefits needy people, and has great potential for favorably influencing official conservation policies and practices. Like nearly all visitors, we loved the country, we want to return, we want to spread the word, and we were moved by the people's aspirations to a better life. Ethiopia's historical and spiritual riches, and general touristic information, is off-topic. We think it is OK to say that a number of bird-oriented tours can be found, that ours was by Håkon Pohlstrand and Kidane Biyadgo d/b/a Fauna Safaris and was great, that the cost may be a pleasant surprise, and that we contracted through Jeff Price d/b/a Ibis Excursions (no relation to Am. Bird Conservancy director and CHATter of same name, as far as I know) via a Winging It classified. Independent birding travel seems feasible also; see Briggs cited above, and check out Internet comments.

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This page served with permission of the authors by Urs Geiser;; May 11, 1998