Arguably the most diverse country in Africa, Ethiopia offers some of the best birding on the continent. With a formidable list of endemic and regional specialties, the country’s bird list exceeds 860 species. So, whether you’re a serious twitcher or have a more general interest, you’re going to love it here. Use the expert insight of Trevor Jenner to get you in the right place quickly. All pictures by Trevor Jenner.
Addis Ababa and Debre Libanos
Addis Ababa – the hub of the country and the world’s third highest capital at an altitude spanning 2400–3100m – is the starting place for the highland endemics. The Ghion Hotel’s huge garden can reveal wattled ibis, white-collared pigeon, Abyssinian slaty flycatcher, thick-billed raven and brown-rumped seedeater. A day visit to the huge gorge of Debre Libanos gives a glimpse of outstanding scenery, extraordinary views of raptors and an opportunity to find Erckel’s francolin, white-winged cliff chat, Ruppell’s black chat and white-billed starling.
Lake Tana and the Simien Mountains
Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, has monastery islands and marshes that sustain a large collection of water birds. However, old forest on the Zege Peninsular is the place to seek the yellow-fronted parrot and lakeside woodlands the black-winged lovebird. A short trip can be made to the Blue Nile Falls for a rewarding walk and chance to find yellow-rumped seedeater.
Walia ibex and gelada baboon are endemic mammals that can be found in the dramatic Simien Mountains National Park. But the specialty bird here is the lammergeier; it can even be seen floating around the Simien Lodge, the highest in Africa at 3260 m. Also look out for the Ankober serin beside the park roads.
Metehara and Awash National Park
The Rift Valley hosts many of Ethiopia’s national parks and provides excellent places to find birds. Lake Basaka, nestling at the foot of Fantalle Volcano, fills a depression in the black lava. Its shimmering blue surface hides Nile crocodiles but the bird to look out for, near the town of Metehara, is the sombre rock chat.
Awash National Park harbours Horn of Africa mammals, including beisa oryx, hamadryas baboon and Soemmerring’s gazelle. It also has a bird list of more than 450 species, including the highly sought Arabian bustard – this graceful species is probably easier to find in Ethiopia than anywhere else.
Awash River falls, gorge and hot springs are impressive and offer unexpected scenic spectacles, but visit the nearby Alledeghi Plain and Bilen hot springs to get close to buff-crested bustard, white-bellied bustard, northern carmine bee-eater, Nile valley sunbird and Grevy’s zebra.
Koka reservoir and Lake Ziway
The road from Addis Ababa to the southwest takes you to the southern part of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley and its string of lakes. At Koka reservoir, a stop on the bridge can result in some splendid bird sightings including African spoonbill, fish eagle and black-crowned crane.
A little to the south, Lake Ziway’s small fishing businesses attract myriad waterbirds, including black heron and black crake. At the main fishing pier, a local guide can take you to less-easily accessible parts of the shore to find additional species, such as lesser moorhen and lesser jacana.
Lake Langano and Abiata Shalla National Park
Due to its extensive gardens and adjoining cliffs, Simbo Beach Resort at Lake Langano is great for birders. Some of the species to look for here are Hemprich’s hornbill, northern white-faced owl, banded barbet, Ruppell’s starling and Ruppell’s weaver.
On the opposite side of the road in the Abiata Shalla National Park, the shallow Lake Abiata has vast congregations of greater and lesser flamingos. A plethora of water birds are always on show while pallid harriers and tawny eagles hunt nearby. The grassy clearings at lakeside are excellent places for Temminck’s courser and Kittlitz’s plover.
Lake Hawassa and Wondo Genet
South of Abiata Shalla NP is Lake Hawassa. Its crystal-clear waters hold an abundance of fish, which attracts a wide variety of waterside birds, including the eye-catching African pygmy goose. A local boat trip will find most of the birds and hippopotamus. The lakeside fig trees provide habitat for western-banded snake eagle, harrier hawk and red-breasted wryneck, while nearby Wondo Genet is good for scaly francolin, African hill babbler and spotted creeper.
Lakes Abaya, Lake Chamo and Nechsar National Park
Well to the south, Arba Minch is the destination for the two lakes, which contain some of the largest Nile crocodiles you’ll ever see. Nechsar National Park nestles between the lakes, and is known to have held one the most talked-about birds, the Nechsar nightjar. It was discovered in 1990 as a road kill but only one wing was saved for posterity, however enough remains to identify the nightjar as substantially different from all others.
The bird has never been conclusively refound, in spite of several expeditions to find it. Eight species of nightjar have been observed including montane, star-spotted and Donaldson Smith’s. Other interesting birds include Ayre’s hawk eagle, silvery-cheeked hornbill, beautiful sunbird, Taita fiscal, grey-backed fiscal and the illusive yellowbill.
Bale Mountains National Park
Ethiopia’s southern highland massif includes the Bale Mountains National Park, one of the most important ecological areas in Africa and home to the iconic Ethiopian wolf. Birding in the park is best understood by dividing it into its three main ecosystems.
Gaysay Grasslands: the impressive Cape eagle owl hunts here and it is where the Abyssinian longclaw and Ethiopian siskin reside. The flanking forests are great to discover the Abyssinian owl, African wood owl, Abyssinian ground thrush and white-backed black tit.
Sanetti Plateau: just before reaching the plateau, Rouget’s rail, moorland francolin and chestnut-naped francolin make their appearance. The highest all-weather road in Africa traverses the plateau which rises to 4377 m at its peak. Here the world’s most southerly population of golden eagles mix with migrating eagles, auger buzzards and lanner falcons. Birds of the plateau include blue-winged goose and the beautiful spot-breasted plover.
Harenna Forest: the twisty road from the plateau descends the Harenna escarpment into the forest, where it is surprising to find that lions and African wild dogs are resident. However the attractions for the birder include the striking white-cheeked turaco, Narina Trogon, Abyssinian woodpecker, cinnamon bracken warbler, Abyssinian oriole and Abyssinian crimsonwing.
Negelle and Arero
From Bale the remote road south leads to Negelle, where a rare endemic can be found: Prince Ruspoli’s turaco. It was named after the Italian prince who mounted an expedition to the area in 1892/3. He collected a specimen for later cataloguing but was killed by an elephant soon after. The bird was discovered in his collection but the initial location of the capture went unrecorded until 1940, when an English naturalist rediscovered it.
The bird can be seen clambering around the fruiting fig trees near Negelle or from a rocky overlook in the Arero forest.
Look out for Salvadori’s seedeater and an extreme rarity, the Liben lark, on the nearby Liben Plain. Also in this locality seek Somali short-toed lark, white-crowned starling and Shelley’s sparrow.
Yabelo and Borena National Park
In the very south, Yabelo and Borena are entwined and yield specialties including masked lark, bare-eyed thrush, Somali fiscal, Pringle’s puffback, red-naped bush-shrik, and Somali sparrow together with the colourful eastern yellow-billed hornbill, red and yellow barbet and stunning golden-breasted starling.
But it is two endemics here that capture the birder’s imagination because they occupy very small ranges from which they rarely stray, in spite of seemingly similar habitat elsewhere. They are the white-tailed swallow and the Ethiopian bush-crow; both inhabit the peculiar red earth landscape of the tall slim chimneys of termites.
The swallow can be found in the Borena villages, even nesting inside occupied huts, and the bush-crow nearby. Interestingly more bush-crows than just the mated pair attends to nesting duties.
Getting there: Ethiopian Airlines has direct flights daily to Addis Ababa from London and four times a week from Manchester. A visa is required to enter Ethiopia and can be purchased on arrival.
When to go: The dry season – October to March – is the most practical time to go and also the time when many wintering birds from Europe and Asia are present.
Further reading: Ethiopia Travellers’ Handbook by Trevor Jenner, which covers the sites mentioned in this article.