Wednesday 30 October 2013

Ethiopia part 1: waterbirds

I am recently back from my 6th visit to Ethiopia. All of them have been co-leading Ornitholidays groups, starting in 1983. The country has changed a lot since then, with a far larger human population; but the wildlife remains magnificent. Birds are especially approachable and make great subjects for photographers. On many days of our 13-day tour, we were able to see more than 100 species in a day. Here a group of Great White Pelicans rest and preen on the shores of Lake Ziway, one of a chain of large lakes in the Rift Valley. (As always, click on the image to enlarge).

One Rift Valley lake, Abiata, is alkaline, and attracts thousands of Lesser Flamingos. They are joined by industrial quantities of terns, avocets and other waders, many of them migrants from Eastern Europe and Russia. Abiata is in a national park, but villages have sprung up within the park, with crops, herds of cattle and flocks of goats: even a school has been built. I haven't seen encroachment like this in any other African national park. The pressures on wildlife reserves in many parts of the world are intense and ever-increasing.

The Horn of Africa has 30 or more endemics which were of special interest to us. We saw most of them, including the rare Spot-breasted Lapwing. Small flocks occur up in the Bale Mountains, where this photo was taken at 4100 m. On this cold and damp plateau, we watched 30 or so as they frequently vanished into low cloud. As many plovers do, each one would vibrate one foot gently on the ground to bring invertebrates to the surface. On this day, the only place for our picnic lunch was inside the coach (during which we watched an Ethiopian Wolf hunting Giant Mole-rats). 

Rails and crakes are usually shy and hard to observe. However, the endemic Rouget's Rail is common and conspicuous in the Bale Mountains, in similar habitat to the lapwing. A little smaller than a Moorhen, it seems happy to wander about in the open making loud whinnying calls and dueting. Recent declines in the rail's population can be ascribed to grazing pressure, although occasional years of drought will not have helped either. 

It's always great to have a chance to compare two similar and often confused species. Close to Awassa town, we found this Greenshank (on the left) feeding with its smaller relative the Marsh Sandpiper. Both breed in the north (probably these ones came from Russia); they migrate to Africa for the winter. The needle-like bill of the Marsh Sand is always a good clue if you can get close enough - we were amazed at how approachable even the migrants are in Ethiopia. The branch of Orthodox Christianity followed by most of the population has always been protective of wildlife (though perhaps not so protective of wildlife habitats).

Many of Africa's kingfishers are dry country specialists that feed on lizards and insects rather than fish. However, the Pied Kingfisher is strictly a piscivore and spends much time hovering above shallow water, before plunging in vertically. This is a male, with a double black breast-band. The species has a wide range, throughout Africa as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean, and as far east as Hong Kong. It is also the most monochrome of Africa's kingfishers, which are mostly adorned in brilliant plumage, often vivid blues and oranges. 

Maybe the Grosbeak Weaver is not strictly a water bird, but it always builds its nest over water. This is the all-dark male (unlike most weavers which are usually yellow or orange). In some books it is known as Thick-billed Weaver. The female is heavily streaked below. The male has white patches on its wings which are fluttered to attract the attention of the females. Males are responsible for most nest construction, but the females add a grass lining, before undertaking all the incubation and feeding duties single-handed (or perhaps single-beaked). They occur in suitable habitat throughout sub-Saharan Africa. 

Many thanks to my co-leader Gabor Orban, and to Roger Christopher and Howard Gorringe, who took the photos while I was busy with the telescope. My next post will concentrate on a few of Ethiopia's colourful and interesting land-birds.