Bird Life: An Ornithological Paradise

Ethiopia's position, an extensive highland island surrounded by arid lands, has enabled the evolution of many birds of the region into unique forms and species. Ethiopia boasts 862 bird species, of which sixteen are considered endemic, limited within the confines of the Ethiopian borders. Not all these are limited to the highland massif, some being found in a surprisingly small area to the south with no apparent barriers to dispersal. The extremely varied birds of the Ethiopia and their spectacular habitats make them a must for every bird enthusiast.

Broadly speaking, Ethiopia can be divided into a number of habitats with respect to bird life the Rift Valley lakes, the highland massifs, the lowlands, and the arid semi-deserts. Each of these is in turn a complex mosaic of terrain, soils, vegetation, and human use, all of which govern the avifauna found there.

 It is difficult to single out specific sites especially good for bird-watching. How­ever, many of the national parks provide areas less affected by human activity and where a broader range of bird species can usually be seen.

 Many of the endemic species present on the western and south-eastern highland plateaux are common and surprisingly easy to see, even in the environs of a city. Endemic species include the heavy-headed thick-billed raven; the wattled ibis, with its raucous call and unsightly habit of clasping its partner s wattles and pulling; the black-winged lovebird, which whirrs through the sky like a miniature helicopter; and the white-collared pigeon, a delicate grey bird with a neat white collar and white wing patches.

The highland forests are home to birds less easily seen. Their song is usually the first sign of their presence. The Abyssinian catbird has one of the most beautiful calls, the male and female performing a duet in the seclusion of thick bush. The black­-headed forest oriole has a distinctive call and its yellow colour shows clearly in the upper storey of the tall trees it favours.


Two endemics are found in the southern edge of the plateau, in the Yabello area. These are the white-tailed swallow, and the colourful Prince Ruspoli s tmaco. The latter is on the endangered species list.


Birdlife at Bale

 The highland plateaux are home to many endemic species, and Bale Mountains National Park harbours some of them. Among these are: the blue-winged goose, whose closest relative is in the Andes mountains of South America. The spot­breasted plover is very striking and can be seen in large numbers at some times of year. The comical Rouget s rail is often seen in grass clumps near water, its tail flashing white as it is flicked up and down. The yellow-fronted parrot is usually first noted by its call and its typical fast parrot flight through the tall juniper trees.


Sharp EyeThe banded barbet is found over a large area; its chest is streaked with black. The golden-backed woodpecker has a striking golden colour and will be seen searching the bark of the St. John s wort trees in highland areas. On the other hand, the Abyssinian long-claw is ground dwelling, its bright yellow throat and chest a strong contrast to its black necklace. The white­winged cliff chat has, as its name suggests, a white patch in the black wing and will be seen on cliffs or even on tall buildings in Addis Ababa.


Ruppells chat is confined to the western highlands and is again seen on cliffs, often darting from the road as car approaches, its white wing patches showing clearly. The white-backed black tit is often missed because it is small and likes the shelter of trees. Large parties of Black-headed siskins are seen at high altitudes, often in the moorlands. White­-billed starlings are in the red-wing group of starlings and are distinguished by their ivory-.white bills. In the group of seed­eaters, or Serins, three are considered endemic, though there is some discussion over this. These are the yellow-throated of the Sidamo area and the Ankober and Salvadori's seed-eaters. Harwood's fran­colin is a little-known species found only in the gorges of the western highlands leading into the Blue Nile gorge.


the colourful carmine Bee-eaters It is the extensive high-altitude plateaux that form the quintessential Ethiopian habitat - for birds in particular, but also for other forms of wildlife. Most of the endemics are to be found here, as well as a considerable number of other species. Some of the richest areas are the small patches of natural forest on gorge edges, in inaccessible valley bottoms, and the often sacred groves on hilltops and around churches.


Here will be found a plethora of Palaearctic migrants at the right time of year. In addition, parties of chattering yel­low and green white-eyes sweep through the undergrowth; mixed groups of fire­-finches, indigo birds, wax bills, and cor­don bleu scour the ground for seeds, while the quiet, sedate dusky and spotted fly­catchers plunge from their perches to snap up unsuspecting insects. The brilliant chest­nut paradise flycatcher dives through the foliage followed closely by his long white tail streamers, while speckled mouse birds cluster on any ripening fruit.


In season several species of harriers sweep gracefully across the high-altitude grasslands, suddenly doing an impossible about-turn to drop back onto a rodent. Augur buzzards punctuate the skies, their cries carrying far in the clear open air. The delicate black-shouldered kite sits on a perch eyeing the undergrowth for prey, while its much-maligned relative the black kite, visiting in large numbers from North Africa and the Middle East, gives sterling duty in towns and villages at all altitudes as sanitation squad member.

The pigeon group is represented here by the gentle dusky turtle dove and large flights of the endemic white-collared pi­geon, which can often be seen on the air­port buildings on arrival. Starlings here are represented by the red-wing starling and the slender-bill chestnut-wing star­ling at highest altitudes, feeding on the gi­ant lobelias and striking red and yellow stems of the red-hot poker (Kniphofia spp.). Many other species in the mountains also gorge on the seasonal bounty provided by these flowers, and the Baglafecht weaver, olive thrush, and Tacazze and malachite sun birds will all have bright yellow faces from the pollen.


High in the mountains in boggy patches - and elsewhere on the plateaux after har­vesting - you may be lucky enough to catch sight of a stately wattled crane stalk­ing through the stubble. Large numbers of visiting white storks can be seen in the same situation, especially if the stubble is burnt off, when they will be joined by large numbers of the spectacular carmine bee-eaters from lower altitudes.


Bird life at the lakes

Ethiopia's lakes are famous for the sheer numbers of birds they harbour. In fact at each of two locations in the Rift Valley over fifty per cent of all Ethiopia's bird species have been recorded, because of the proximity of numerous aquatic and terrestrial habitats. These are the Awash National Park with Lake Basaka and the Abijatta-Shalla Lakes National Park.


Abijatta is a feeding ground for num­erous great white pelicans and greater and lesser flamingo, as well as flocks of little grebes. The pelicans nest in very large numbers on an island in neighbour­ing Lake Shalla, which is almost fishless. Every day the birds have to thermal up and across the isthmus separating the two lakes to feed. Every few years Lake Abijatta's waters - now also affected by the recently established soda extraction plant there - recede spectacularly, causing a rise in alkalinity accompanied by major fish die-offs and a change in the algal com­position of the waters. The pelicans then have to fish further afield on lakes Langano, Ziway, Awasa, and even Chama and Abaya, while the flamingos move fur­ther afield into neighbouring countries.

 An island in Lake Shalla, a regular breeding ground for great white pelicans, is also known to be a nesting spot for the greater flamingo. The thousands of ice­pink birds coming and going over the water against the craggy backdrop of the lake shores are every bit as wonderful a bird spectacle as anywhere in the world. In the northern winters the shores of these lakes are ringed with all manner of waders - ruff, plovers, sandpipers, stints, and many other species well known to bird­watchers from the northern hemisphere. At the same time a large number of ducks will be found further from shore, particularly garganey, shovellers, and wigeon. 


Sacred IbisThe waters of these lakes are especially rich as breeding grounds for the larvae of various lake fly species that in their turn attract thousands of swallows and martins from the north. For the same reason the trees and shrubs around the lake edge are festooned in gossamer nets of dusty cobwebs as the spiders wait their turn for the hapless hordes as they hatch from the waters each day.


Fresher lakes produce a greater abun­dance and variety of fish. Here the day is punctuated by the haunting cry of the fish eagle soaring high above, with the occas­ional osprey in season. Malachite king­fishers flit like jewels along the banks and the pied kingfisher carries out its spec­tacular bombing runs on surface fish farther out. In nearby grasslands other kingfisher species plague the insects, the lovely duetting call of the grey-headed being typical of grasslands in drier areas.


The mouth of the Horacallo River, which flows from Lake Langano to Lake Abijatta, is an excellent site for bird­watching, as it provides' esher' water for birds to bathe. The Goliath heron and marabou stork await fish near the shore or, in the case of the latter, watch for weaker birds in the milling flocks. There are also the black-headed and grey herons, which can be found inland feeding on rodents in the grass and crops.

Egyptian geese are very common in these areas. (One inexperienced and be­mused tour guide was heard to remark 'Madam, that is an Ethiopian goose, not an Egyptian one' - a comment that gives food for thought when we talk of 'Euro­pean migrants'.)


Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse fill the air in their thousands near the lakes, leaving the water in groups that fly high and fast, wheeling and spinning, all the while giving their guttural calls. Spur-winged plovers are striking as they stand among the trees near the lakes, and the crowned plover resides closer to the shore here in more open grassland. 

It is in the lowlands that bird-watchers find more birds with which they may be famil­iar from neighbouring eastern Africa. These areas are especially rich in seed-eat­ing and insectivorous birds, the vegetation dominated as it is by either dry grasslands or woodlands in areas too dry for fungi to break down the resulting detritus. Hence insects take their place and provide a plen­tiful food source for the birds.

The weaver group has taken advantage of these resources, and the lowland areas resound to their cries, especially of the white-browed sparrow weaver and the white-headed buffalo weaver with its bril­liant red under-tail coverts. The related red-billed buffalo weaver builds its mas­sive stick nests in acacia woodlands, which are in turn used by chestnut weavers and cut-throat finches.


Starlings too are well represented by a large number of species, as are pigeons. Massive flocks of the bizarre wattled star­ling rise from the ground at any distur­bance, the males with their yellow and black wattles on an ash-grey body. Cheeky Hildebrandt's starlings take the place of the East African superb starling in many locations, the large Ruppell's long-tailed glossy starling shrieks from the trees, while red-billed oxpeckers throng the backs of animals, wild and domestic, in their hunt for ticks.


The dainty Namaqua dove is found throughout the drylands, although subject to local seasonal movements. The pigeon group is also represented by several other species whose gentle calls fill the air at dawn and dusk, although the deep cooing of the speckled pigeons scrambling and sliding on a corrugated iron roof at dawn will not endear them to late risers.


Larger insectivores can be just as colourful, as the Abyssinian, European, lilac­breasted, and rufous-crowned rollers demonstrate from their perches atop iso­lated acacia trees. The bee-eaters too make the woodlands and grasslands their home, their colourful flights and dives over the grass making them noticeable at all times. The carmine bee-eater is especially evi­dent, not only through its colours, but be­cause of its habit of using other larger animals such as oryx, ostrich, and the stately kori bustard as a mobile perch in the tall grasslands, swooping off their backs to hawk for insects their hosts disturb.


The arid and semi-desert parts of Ethio­pia exhibit bird species in low numbers and with affinities to the neighbouring Arabian peninsula and north-east Africa. This area of Ethiopia is the 'funnel' where the Rift Valley between the two highlands blocks is very wide and opens out to the Afar (Danakil) region across to the border with Eritrea in the north-east and Djibouti. The southern border of this lowland trian­gle is the Chercher Mountains. Because of its relative proximity to the Red Sea and the ocean, the area is fairly rich in marine avifauna, which is heavily augmented with Palaearctic migrants in the northern win­ter. But most bird life here comprises desert-adapted forms, including many larks, ostrich, sandgrouse, and various of the smaller and larger bustard species. The best way to visit this area is to drive along the road that runs between Addis Ababa and the Eritrean port of Assab.