Friday 15 November 2013

Ethiopia part 3

My final Ethiopia blog illustrates a few of the songbirds we came across on the recent Ornitholidays tour. This is a Ruppell's Robin-Chat, a common garden bird in the Highlands. Africa has a large number of robin-chat species, which are mostly shy forest dwellers with fine songs heard especially at dawn and dusk. The name commemorates the German Wilhelm Ruppell, who was busy collecting specimens in East Africa from 1822 to 1833: many species bear his name.

The African Paradise Flycatcher is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, mostly in light woodland rather than dense forest. The male has a long tail that extends its length from 7 inches to 14. This is a female, which we watched as it caught insects above cattle in an area of recently cleared forest. Some males exhibit an alternative plumage that is pure white, except for black wings and head. There are few more dramatic sights in the bird world than a white male darting through a shady forest with long tail trailing behind. 

The Orange-breasted Bush-shrike is a spectacularly coloured inhabitant of Acacias and other woodland in East, West and South Africa. It is often called Sulphur-breasted. It can sometimes be enticed into view with a simple imitation of its repeated high whistle. Both sexes have the same bright plumage, and share all nesting duties. 

A long journey took us to the south of Ethiopia, and a small area where Stresemann's (or Ethiopian) Bush-crow is common. These sociable crows are most closely related to choughs, and are often found in Acacias close to villages. Research has shown that there is a small climatic bubble limiting their range: they occur only in a basin of 6,000 square kilometres which is (surprisingly) cooler than the surrounding higher areas. The young are unable to survive anywhere else, though adults are more tolerant. With global warming occurring in Ethiopia as in other lands, there is much concern for their future.  

One of the most distinctive Ethiopian endemics is the Thick-billed Raven, a huge crow with a fearsome weapon of a bill. At a carcase, vultures stand aside to let the raven in, since its strong bill can tear hide more efficiently. They are common in the capital Addis Ababa, and can often be seen soaring above the city with kites and Hooded Vultures. It also feeds on small mammals, birds, insects, fish (when catches on the Rift Valley lakes are unloaded), and grain. Not much of a songbird, it utters a variety of throaty rattles and croaks. 

My final choice is one of East Africa's most spectacular birds, the Golden-breasted Starling. Many starling species in East Africa have brilliant plumage, with various shades of iridescent blue or purple that appear differently coloured according to the light. We found them feeding among the huge thorns of the Acacias, and we wondered how they keep their feathers in such great condition in such a spiky habitat. Their diet is insects, caught on or near the ground; and they nest in tree-holes, laying three or four eggs. Male and female are equally brightly coloured, and they share all nesting duties. Thanks again to Howard and Gabor for this group of photos.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Ethiopia part 2

Following the previous post about Ethiopian waterbirds, I've had a look through the photos of the landbirds in my album - there are far too many good ones for a single post! So, here are some non-passerines, with a final post to come later covering the passerines (broadly speaking the songbirds). Here's a Secretarybird that we found stomping around the Awash National Park looking for snakes and lizards. The usual method of overcoming prey is with a sharp stamp on the snake's neck. However, grasshoppers and beetles make up most of their diet. Raptors of the world are classified in five families - hawks (including eagles and vultures), new-world vultures, falcons (including the South American caracaras), and two monotypic (single-species) families: Secretarybird and Osprey. The species is named for the quill-like feathers on its neck, though it could be for the black tights they wear.........

 The Lammergeier is a remarkable vulture whose speciality is feeding on the bone-marrow from the carcases of cattle and goats. To break the bone, it flies up and drops it onto rocks below. Its wing-span reaches 2.5 m, and the diamond-shaped tail is distinctive from a great distance. In Europe it can be found in the Pyrenees, Crete and Russia, and it occurs too in the Himalayas. But in Ethiopia it reaches its highest density, as there are plenty of suitable cliffs for nesting, and stock for food. I prefer its alternative name of Bearded Vulture, since the official name (of German origin) suggests that they prey on lambs and gives them an undeserved reputation.

This Tawny Eagle was being harassed by a pair of Cape Crows - interested in the small rodent prey that the eagle had found. We watched a crow nipping the tail feathers of the eagle. This is the most abundant eagle in Ethiopia, a resident that does not migrate at all. During the northern winter, they are joined by many other similar eagles from Russia and Eastern Europe, such as Steppe, Spotted, Lesser Spotted and Imperial Eagles, which migrate through Turkey, Israel and Egypt. On one day we recorded 20 Tawny Eagles, mostly at a lakeside in Debre Zeit where (above the cultivated cabbages and lettuces) a dozen or more were perched in the trees, calling loudly.

 The Kori Bustard is the world's heaviest flying bird, (with the male weighing up to 19 kilos - almost an international luggage allowance!) Usually found in pairs in East and Southern Africa, they roam the savannah in search of seeds, insects, small birds and mammals and reptiles. Every one of the world's 25 species of bustards is in decline, mainly because their grassland habitats are also in demand for cultivation. Many of the smaller bustards are masters of camouflage, and can be incredibly hard to see if they stand still in long grass. All bustards have an impressive breeding display, (in some smaller species involving remarkable aerobatics). The Kori male is too heavy for such frivolity, but struts about or stands upright, puffing out the neck until it becomes a pure white puffball of downy under-feathers.     

Like the bustards, the coursers are another cryptic family that spend their time on the ground. Strangely, their closest relatives are the pratincoles, which are aerial feeders. This is Heuglin's Courser, a Blackbird-sized species that's hard to spot when it crouches down. The large eye suggests that it is nocturnal and crepuscular - active at dawn and dusk. Some books call it Three-banded Courser. Ethiopia is the northern end of their range, which stretches down to Zimbabwe; but nowhere are they common. 

White-bellied Go-away-bird may not sound like an official name, but it is. It's a member of the turaco family, one which is  confined to sub-Saharan Africa, and called  lourie in South Africa. Most of the family are bright green, shy, forest-dwelling fruit-eaters, but this species lives in Acacia savannah and is common in East Africa. It is especially fond of eating the flowers and fruit-pods of Acacia trees. It is so named for its ga-wah calls.

Owls are a favourite group of birds for most people. Up in the Bale Mountains National Park a ranger took us to see this Abyssinian Owl, a medium sized species very similar to our Long-eared Owl at its usual roost. Strictly nocturnal, this bird spends all daylight hours resting in one spot, unless disturbed. The mossy trunks show the high rainfall of the Bale Mountains: something we experienced ourselves, even as we watched this owl. It is not an Ethiopian endemic, as it occurs also (in very small numbers) on Mount Kenya and the Ruwenzori Mountains in West Uganda. 

I was about to upload a photo of the stunning Northern Carmine Bee-eater, until I remembered that I'd featured it in last year's Gambia blog. So here is a Blue-breasted Bee-eater, one of six species of bee-eaters that we came across on our 13-day safari. This species lives in highland forest and forest-edge in small groups. They nest in banks, often along mountain roads. The green background of many of these photos shows that we travelled at the end of the wet season, which usually ends in September. Many of my previous visits to Ethiopia were in the dry and dusty months at the beginning of the year.

The Red-billed Hornbill has recently been split into five species, a trend variously regarded as annoying (as it plays havoc with previous lists) or exciting (as it often leads to new species seen!) This one is now known as Northern Red-billed Hornbill. It is usually found in Acacia habitats. This individual was one of a pair that watched us (two mornings running) eat our breakfast from the nearest tree to the lodge dining-room. We wondered why they didn't get on with finding their own!

Finally here is a beautiful Red-throated Wryneck, which we watched eating ants with its long tongue flicking in and out with sewing-machine speed. This is a resident of East Africa, while the world's only other wryneck nests in Europe and Northern Asia and winters in Africa. In the woodpecker family, it has two toes pointing forwards and two back, unlike all passerines. The finely spotted and barred plumage aids camouflage. Many thanks again to Gabor, Howard and Roger for the camerawork.