A Birding Adventure Begins In Ethiopia A Surprising And Amazing Destination

The hotel garden produced some wonderful birds including endemic Wattled Ibis.

We had arrived in Adis Ababa with no luggage we had watched our bags being thrown onto the tarmac at Heathrow in London! The plane was over weight and they threw bags off until it wasn't! Arriving at our hotel we felt pretty gruby after our long journey so a quick freshen up and wash our only clothes we had! Luckily, hot sun dries clothes quickly so we were soon able to wander the hotel grounds to try to find our first Ethiopian birds. They didn’t take much finding. A gang of Wattled Ibis were feeding on a sunny patch of grass just outside the front door. What a start! This was our first endemic for Ethiopia, a bird that we could only hope to see and therefore add to our list in Ethiopia. If we missed these specialities here, we wouldn’t have a second chance to catch up with them. Wattled Ibis was also the first endemic we could tick off in our copy of the ‘Guide to Endemic Birds of Ethiopia and Eritrea’ by Jose Luis Vivero Pol. This book had been a present from my decidedly non-birding friend Debbie, who’d laid down the challenge that we should see all the endemics in the book before returning home! This is a pretty tough challenge given that the photo on page 35 shows only a wing. How were we supposed to recognise the rest of the Nechisar Nightjar, even if a whole bird actually exists?! Although she is a self-confessed non-birder, Debbie played an important role in The Biggest Twitch, that of supplying a touch of sanity and humour while we were on the road. I couldn’t wait to read her next email with its updates on life in England – the weather, the traffic, the politics – and her non-birding take on our adventures. She kept a list of her favourite bird names, choosing them purely by the sound or the implication of the name that we birders just take for granted:

“Well, imagine the complex you’d have if you went through life called a ‘Thick-Knee,” she’d write, or ‘I’m feeling a bit of a Drab Hemispingus myself’ if she was having a particularly tough week at work! In fact, so good were her emails that she nearly found herself writing the book of The Biggest Twitch for us!

Anyway, it wasn’t just Wattled Ibis that we found in the hotel grounds. We also caught up with Christian Boix and the rest of his pre-tour tour group, including his parents. We greeted Christian like the old friends that we are and were introduced to his parents. Now that we’ve met them for ourselves, we can see where he gets his seemingly limitless enthusiasm and bounce, and the ability to keep going long after the rest of us mere mortals have run out of steam. Born in Spain but now living in Cape Town, Christian speaks English with that slight foreign accent that makes it sound so sexy. He is a gifted storyteller and will have you in stitches as he tells the tale of some death-defying escapade or another. But do not be fooled by his relaxed appearance. Inside is birder so hardcore that he makes concrete look soft. He will dig you out of your bed in the wee small hours and make you run around all day in the heat of the sun in search of birds. Food and drink is for wimps only! This man is driven, but he gets the birds, and birds were just what we needed on this trip!

We also had the delight of experencing Ethiopian food this is ingera - faces say it all!

We also met three more of the group with whom we were to share the adventure of the next four weeks. Steven and Ann were the most charming of English couples you could ever hope to meet. Steven was a doctor, which we found very reassuring, given the remote areas we were due to visit, and they were both old Tropical Birding hands having previously enjoyed a TB trip to Australia. We joined them in drinking tea, how British! In fact, as the tour proceeded, we could be relied upon to be an island of tea drinkers in an ocean of coffee. Next we met Ian, a keen birder and photographer from Scotland, and the three of them were very enthusiastic about the pre-tour expedition as they shared their photos with us. The focus had been as much on Ethiopian culture as on the birdlife and they’d visited parts of Northern Ethiopia that we weren’t due to see but they already had an impressive bird list. Heck, had we missed a trick here?

Always "stuff" to see along the roadsides in Ethiopia - Hooded Vultures on a hyena carcase.

Breakfast was at 5.30am the next day, a time that we were already all too familiar with. By now, the rest of the group had arrived and we all piled into a minibus to take us to our first birding destination, a reservoir on the outskirts of Addis. This was some bus. All the windows had tasselled curtains, and at the front, keeping watch over us, were images of Jesus Christ and the Madonna. A little divine protection never goes amiss but perhaps God was too busy elsewhere that day to pay attention to this one little bus. First it wouldn’t start, no matter how many times the key was turned and the pedal pumped. No matter. The hotel was at the top of a hill and there were plenty of staff around to push-start it. With a hiccup, burp and a fart, the engine kicked into life and we spluttered our way out into Addis.

Early it might be but the city was already awake and buzzing. The primary activity seemed to be jogging, stretching, playing football and generally keeping fit, preferably all in the middle of the road. At least this was generally tarmac albeit with deep potholes, while the edge of the road crumbled into a broad blanket of thick dust. Butchers’ shops were already open and doing a good trade with fly-blown carcasses swinging in the open air, next to coffin shops open to the street with piles of garishly-coloured ornate coffins stacked right up to the ceiling. To our eyes it seemed an odd juxtaposition of businesses, but obviously trade was booming!

We reached the reservoir, and showed the guard on the gate our official entry permit. He was having none of it, and refused to open the gate. No-one had told him to expect us and no official entry permit was going to persuade him we should be allowed in. Heaven knows what we might get up to inside, it was more than his job was worth to let us go past. So we had to turn around and bird from the road, not very satisfactory. Of course our tripod was in our luggage so Alan tried to balance the scope on my head, but sadly I don’t make a very good tripod and his views were extremely shaky. Not one to let a mere fence get in the way of his birding, Christian soon found a way to get close to the other side of the reservoir and our Ethiopia list quickly shot up. We added Sacred, Hadada and Glossy to our ibis collection. We ticked off Blue-winged Goose, another endemic, which looks just as you’d expect and a few waders who’d feel at home, if a little cooler, in Welsh waters including Little Ringed Plover, Black-tailed Godwit and Ruff. As the day warmed up, so the raptors started circling. Definitely my weakest ID area, I was very happy to let the experts identify these new birds for me as they spiralled high overhead: Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture, a predominantly black silhouette with outspread ‘fingers’ on the end of its straight wings; Augur Buzzard, a distinctive broad-winged shape with pale under-wings; Tawny Eagle, its tawny coloration not looking so obvious as it flew above us; Montagu’s Harriers and Eurasian Kestrels – hey, I know those well enough!

Back to the hotel for lunch, and then the group went in separate ways. Alan and I had to return to the airport for our luggage while the others went back out in the bus to try a nearby forest area. We were miffed at missing some birding, but as we were moving out of town the next day, retrieving our luggage took priority over birding just this once.

Our taxi ride to the airport was hilarious. We hopped in the back of an enormous ageing Mercedes driven by a very upright elderly man, his hair and beard grizzled with age, a very distinguished gentleman. He juggled the wheel constantly between his hands, spinning it left and right, left and right, left and right. He was moving the wheel so violently from side to side that the car should have been swerving all over the road but instead it continued in a perfect straight line down the centre of the road. Were any of the wheels connected? This was classic cartoon stuff, Parker chauffeuring Lady Penelope – all that was missing was the peaked cap! We didn’t have high hopes of seeing our luggage again so we were very surprised to see it all lined up waiting for us when we reached the airport. After being waved through customs, Parker drove us back to the hotel, and we settled down with a beer to wait for the others. We waited and we waited. An hour passed, then another. The beers slipped down and we amused ourselves watching a collection of large 4x4 jeeps arriving, all loaded up with extra fuel tanks on the roofrack and chunky spare tyres on the back. It looked like somebody was going to be heading off for a very tough expedition in the wilds.

A taxi arrived and two familiar figures hopped out: Keith Barnes and Ken Behrens. Keith and Ken were two more Tropical Birding guides from South Africa who were going to be joining us on the tour. Keith is another old friend; Alan had birded with him before in South Africa while I’d also met Keith a few times at the UK Birdfair and in Ecuador. He’s tall, very tall, with legs that go on forever and can cover the ground extremely quickly, and he has piercing blue eyes that miss no bird. He is also a storyteller; in fact if there’s anyone who can beat Christian at telling great tales, it’s Keith. This trip was going to be a riot! He also has a strange obsession which few can understand: larks. Keith lives, or more correctly, lived, for larks. They were the subject of his PhD thesis and he can probably tell you more about lark genetics than it is healthy for one man to know. Luckily he has since realised that there is a whole world out there that isn’t lark-shaped, but if you want to get his blood boiling, just say that larks are dull brown birds and then run for cover, fast!

We’d also met Ken before in Ecuador a couple of years previously when we were all guiding at the ABA conference. He’s an American who now lives in Cape Town, but what I remembered most about him from our first acquaintance was that he was another tall guy (at 5’7” I’m not short myself but compared to our male guides, boy was I to feel vertically challenged during The Biggest Twitch!) and that he had a very dry sense of humour. As the Ethiopia tour progressed, we got to know Ken pretty well, and we definitely enjoyed his wry take on life and came to appreciate just how quick he was to pick up birds, not to mention how good he was at photographing them. A few beers later and we all had a ravenous appetite, so although the birding party still hadn’t arrived, we headed inside for supper. It was bedtime before the rest of the group materialised, and they were more than a little disgruntled. Apparently JC and the Madonna hadn’t given them much protection after all, as the bus had broken down several times and had then burst a tyre. Unable to get the engine going and replace the tyre, they were forced to abandon the bus and wave down a series of taxis to take them back into town. They’d seen some good birds but the bus breakdowns had totally spoiled their fun. Perhaps our trip to the airport hadn’t been such a bad thing after all!

Bright and early the next morning we were all assembled outside the hotel with our luggage. In addition to Alan and I, there were eleven clients in total, plus the three Tropical Birding guides and what looked like an army of local drivers, minders and fixers. By now there were also five 4x4 jeeps lined up in a row, all looking suitably rugged with the spare tyres, jerry-cans, ropes and tarpaulins. It was obvious that we were to be the ones taking on the tough expedition into the wilds. Then the morning ritual of loading up the trucks and sorting out the passengers began for the first of many times. With five vehicles and only three guides, it was obvious you couldn’t have a guide in every truck, so to ensure fairness, Christian had worked out a fiendishly complicated rotation system to ensure that everyone had a turn in each vehicle. Pole position was in the front truck with Christian. The advantages of this were soon to become apparent: the first vehicle was the only one with a clear view unobscured by dust kicked up by the tyres and with Christian on board, you were also the only passengers to jump out of the truck knowing what bird had been seen and where to look. The second vehicle followed the first. The third vehicle contained Keith, so with his brilliant eyesight you also had a heads-up on what bird you were looking for. The fourth vehicle followed the third. In his plan for equality, Christian sometimes had to split couples across vehicles and while all vehicles looked the same from the outside, some were definitely comfier inside than others. And of course the further back you were in the queue, the more dust you suffered as we drove along the harsh stony tracks that masqueraded as roads in most parts of the country. There was definitely a pecking order to the trucks, and woe betide the driver or passenger who tried to jump the queue!

Alan and I were in the fifth and last vehicle with Ken. This had distinct advantages. We had our own guide. Despite being only in his 20s, Ken had obviously been birding for at least 40 years, so good were his birding skills, and although Ethiopia was a new territory for him, he’d made a recce trip with Keith only weeks before so was already familiar with the key birds. We also had the same truck each time, so we were spared the confusion as to where to sit or put our luggage. Of course, as we both had to see or hear a bird for it to count, we were both kept together in the same vehicle at all times. There really was no getting away for a moment for fear of missing a new bird, so we had to stay so close to each other that you couldn’t pass a Rizzla between us! We started the year as partners, great friends and lovers, but how long would this last in such close confinement for a whole year! With only two of us in the back seat, we also had more room to spread out, though sometimes when the road was really rocky, a third person to wedge us in place might have been welcome. We had our own fixer too, Masula, who could always rustle up the essentials of life such as safe bottled water or bananas to keep us going on the road. Why were we so privileged? This was thanks to the guys at Tropical Birding, who were so keen for us to not only break but totally smash the world record that they went all-out to help us. With our independent vehicle, we had the flexibility to peel off from the main group and chase additional birds for our grand total, and this greater independence proved invaluable a few times.

There were distinct disadvantages to the arrangement too. Being last in the line meant we were smothered in dust from the other vehicles for most of the day, every single day. If our driver drove too close to the vehicle in front, none of us could see anything and we’d risk driving straight into the back of it. If our driver hung back so he could at least see where he was going, then we’d risk missing a bird because we were too far behind the others. In fact, on several occasions, we’d pull up behind a row of totally deserted vehicles and have to run at full speed through the bush to catch up with the others and find out what we were supposed to be looking for! Our main fixer was Solomon. Standing only five foot high, Solomon was a pocket-sized dynamo, working constantly to make sure things ran smoothly. He checked the hotels, chased up breakfast if staff were slow, shopped for our lunch supplies, made sure we had enough fuel and water to survive, chivvied up the team of five drivers and ensured the vehicles were maintained. His was a thankless task; if it all went well, we didn’t notice. It was only whenever there was a delay that we realised just how much work he and Christian and Keith had to put in to keep us all happy. I wonder if we ever said thank you enough! At last, however, on this first morning, Solomon had sorted us into some sort of order, and with all of the passengers inside and all of the luggage on top of the vehicles, we were finally on our way!

Our first destination was Debre Libanos, several dusty hours’ drive away. When we arrived at our destination, we squeezed our vehicles into a patch of shade under a tree and jumped out. All around us was a mass of humanity, hundreds of people most of whom were dressed in white rags, and who squatted or slept on the ground, or stood in lines leaning on wooden staffs. The centre of their attention was a historic monastery, and the destination of many pilgrimages. The monastery was originally founded in the thirteenth century by Saint Tekle Haymanot and was an important site, being run by the second-highest official in the Ethiopian church. The buildings we could see are not that ancient but inside was the tomb of Saint Tekle Haymanot himself. According to legend, he spent so long praying while standing on one foot (anywhere between 7 years and 29 years depending on who’s telling you the tale) that his other foot fell off, though no-one is sure if it was his left or right foot!

The centre of our attention however wasn’t the monastery itself but the juniper woodlands on the steep hills beside it. Making sure to use both our feet equally, we scrambled up and started looking for birds. Looking up was hazardous though. With so many people packed into a small space, many of the pilgrims also climbed up the hillside amongst the bushes to find a quiet bathroom spot and you needed to watch where you put your feet, both of them. The birding made it all worthwhile, however, as we added White-cheeked Turaco and Ethiopian Oriole, as well as Abyssinian Woodpecker and Banded Barbet, two more Ethiopian endemics, to our list. There was a moment’s panic as Christian realised he’d lost his glasses, not a good thing to mislay at the beginning of a long trip. Where could he have dropped them? By now they could be anywhere as we’d walked quite a way and criss-crossed our paths several times. Had we trodden on them? Then suddenly we saw them, not far from where we stood, swinging by their lanyard from an overhanging branch and catching the sunlight as they twirled. How lucky was that? Maybe Saint Tekle Haymanot was on our side after all?

With no time to stop and enjoy the culture, we were soon on to our next birding site called the Portuguese Bridge. This is a narrow humped-back bridge made of rough stones, just about wide enough for a well-laden donkey, which spans a narrow gorge carved by a small stream before it tumbles over a sheer cliff into the Jemmu River Valley far below. No-one seems sure of the origins of this bridge. Some say it was built in the 16th century by the Portuguese, others by the Ethiopians under their emperor, Menelik, in the 19th century. Whatever its history, it is certain is that this is an incredibly dramatic birding location right on the edge of the spectacular escarpment.

Christian had collected some bones from one of those open-air butchers shops back in Addis Ababa, though he had resisted the temptation to pick up a coffin too. Luckily it was the start of the trip otherwise maybe he would have been tempted! As we ate our packed lunch perched on the edge of the cliff, Christian threw the bones far out into the air as bird bait and we had breathtaking views of raptors as they swooped in low to catch the bones before they fell. Rüppell’s Griffons, White-headed Vultures, Black Kites and Ravens wheeled in the air over our heads and swooped down right past our faces to catch the bones as they tumbled. Most impressively, a Lammergeier turned up for the show, and shot past so close that its wings ‘thrummed’ in the air and we could see even its bristly ‘beard’.

What a day! Sadly our fellow birders had to jump in their vehicles to return to Addis Ababa for the night, while Ken, Alan and I with our independent transport were able to continue birding the area until dark. The endemic White-winged Cliff-Chat gave us the run-around as we scrambled down the rough track to the Portuguese Bridge to keep up with it, scanning the rocks above us as we went. There it was! A Glossy black bird with a striking orange belly and a white patch on the wing which really caught your eye as it flew, such a handsome bird. And there was another one! No, hang on a minute, the white patch was different on this one. Checking both birds and the field guide closely, it turned out we had two birds for the price of one, as the remarkably similar Mocking Cliff-Chat which also lives in this kind of territory, showed off on the cliff above us, and sharp observation of the different plumages gave us an additional bird for our list.

Ethiopia gave us fantastic birds, over 400 species, and wonderful memories - Abyssinian Roller.

Check back soon for lots more bird blogs on all sorts of bird related subjects!

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