Birder’s Paradise*

We have just come back from a three-week trip to the UK, to the great delight in particular of Nala the dog, who was clearly feeling neglected. One of the things we immediately noticed on our return, in this spring season, is the presence of birdsong, something that we missed in England, partly of course because windows and doors tended to be shut in the colder weather , but also because of the prevalence of man-made sound. On top of that, we have heard that there is a negative feedback between noise pollution and birdsong in the industrial world: birds can’t hear each other sing, which reduces their mating opportunities, which reduces their number, which reduces birdsong…

I believe I may have mentioned that, here too, the Ethiopian church does make a substantial contribution to the acoustic ambience, but nevertheless our garden in Bahir Dar is at present a sounding chamber of twitters, tweets, hoots, squawks, coos, croaks, chirrups and cheeps. The one big tree we have is currently home to weaver birds (in full construction mode), speckled mouse birds, sunbirds and bee eaters, with the odd visit perhaps from a paradise flycatcher. From overhead, we hear the cry of the kites and the keening of fish eagles. A pair of wire-tailed swallows is nesting in the eaves of the house.

One of the lesser-known facts about Ethiopia, except perhaps for dedicated twitchers, is that it is host to some 700 species of birds and home to perhaps 70 endemic species (i.e. species only found here or in the Horn of Africa). Now we are not dedicated twitchers and, until we came here, took what might be called a dilettante’s interest. However, we have been lucky, both in Mekelle and Bahir Dar, to live in houses with gardens and trees, with the result that we have been able to satisfy much of our burgeoning interest in the feathered community from the comfort of a recliner, without having to put down our G&T for longer than required to take a photograph. Nevertheless, you will have gathered that we have done a certain amount of travelling around the country, thereby extending our avian experience beyond the comfort of our backyards. Now unless you are an ornithologist, the most obviously striking thing about birds is their appearance, which means that I will try to keep my tendency to verbosity to a minimum and let you enjoy the photographs, with just a little bit of background. I’m afraid we tend to overlook the LBJs** in favour of the bigger, brighter and easier to identity.

First, the garden birds, here at home in Bahir Dar:

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Bahir Dar stands on the edge of Ethiopia’s biggest lake, Lake Tana, close to 100 km long. The edges of the lake stretch into wetlands and water meadows, which attract birds as they do everywhere in the world. One of our favourite trips is to take a boat on the lake, at dawn or dusk, then cruise into the opening of the Blue Nile (yes, one half of the great Nile starts here at Lake Tana, joining the White Nile in Sudan) to visit the hippos, and then nose gently into the narrow waterways where the birds nest and go about their business.
The first time we came to Bahir Dar, two years ago, we were lucky enough to meet Hailu, a boatman who knows all the birds of the lake (and their English names, though we were initially puzzled by the “Super Winged Goose” until we found Plectropterus gambensis – the “Spur-Winged Goose” – in the bird book. Hailu has become a friend we always call on to take us out. On Barbara’s birthday this year, she elected for a 5am start, meeting him before dawn (now that is commitment – on birthdays, we tend to see sunrise from the other end) for a boat/birding trip, and we were rewarded by sightings of three different kinds of kingfisher, including a first for us, the giant kingfisher. Lucky Ant and Liz (hello Toulouse!) were with us for that venture, where we also saw a monitor lizard (about 4 feet long) sunning itself in the early morning warmth.

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A week later, at Timkat (see previous blog) Hailu invited us to his home for lunch. He told us about his friendship with an English ornithologist, a frequent visitor to Bahir Dar, and his trip to the UK at the latter’s invitation. As an African, he joked, he had to go to England to see his first lion (at Longleat).

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Of course, you don’t have to go out on the lake to see the birds. They are everywhere around it. Among the pleasures in Bahir Dar is to sit at a lakeshore restaurant or cafe and watch the pelicans, spot pied kingfishers and feel the cool breeze that flows off the lake.
Apart from Hailu, we have encountered another local with a deep interest in the birdlife. At a Lodge by a crater lake south-east of Addis, we came across a wonderful book called Birds of Lake Tana Area. On our return, Barbara contacted the author Shimelis, who happens to live in Bahir Dar and lecture at the university here. She met him and now we have our own signed copy. Photos around Bahir Dar next:

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Wherever you go in Ethiopia, whether in places famed for their wildlife and landscape like the Simien Mountains, Awash National Park or the crater lakes of Debre Zeit, or simply out in the countryside where Barbara’s work has taken her, the natural world and its birdlife are ever present.

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*Since, as stated above, we are but dilettantes of the ornithological world, some of our identifications may be inaccurate, and we welcome any comments or corrections.
** LBJs: nothing to do with a former US president: little brown jobbies, i.e. nondescript birds.

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12 Comments

  1. Wow what a wonderful journey you have taken us on with this posting – made me wish I could drop over for a G&T in your yard. I know Hailu too and always recommended him to others, as Gareth had told me about him. His trips are magical – Happy Birthday Barbara!
    Marian

    Reply
  2. Wonderful beautiful pictures, thanks!

    Reply
  3. Criona

     /  04/04/2014

    Fabulous! Do miss the beautiful array of bird life! Only LBJ varieties here!

    Reply
  4. Barbara SC

     /  04/04/2014

    Marian – tks – and maybe a G & T at yours sometime 🙂 . Rob – honoured by yr comment. Criona tks and just remembered the hornbill attack on yr window in Hawassa, lucky not to have anything like that.

    Reply
  5. Jill Weller

     /  04/04/2014

    What lovely photographs and so lovely to read about what you have seen. Wish I had made it as far as Bahir Dar. Anyway, glad to read that you are both well

    Reply
  6. Ernst Flemming

     /  31/08/2014

    This blog inspired us to add Bahir Dar to our October trip to Ethiopia. How to find the boatman Hailu to book for such an early morning boat trip to see all these fantastic birds ?

    Reply
    • Hi
      Sorry for delay – hope you get this message as suddenly it is October! Hailu’s number is 0918 716 429. If you let me know when are in Bahir Dar I can in touch with him and ask if he can take you out. Hope the trip goes well!Barbara

      Reply
  7. Lesley Player

     /  11/01/2015

    Thank you for your fantastic blog. I am visiting in February and this will be my guide. I shall follow in your footsteps. As retired early years teacher I shall think about volunteering too.

    Reply
  8. Lesley P Hope you enjoyed your trip. Didn’t pick up on your comment earlier, sorry, good luck with next steps and I think VSOE will be having one or two placements to suit you coming up soon. Watch the website!

    Reply
  9. Jeremy Hespeler-Boultbee

     /  28/12/2016

    Great photographs! I do not know your name, and hope you will contact and let me know by e-mail: galao2bica@gmail.com My name is Jeremy Hespeler-Boultbee; my wife, Alemie, is from Bahir Dar – and Lake Tana is one of my favourite places in the world.

    Reply
  10. Lydia

     /  15/05/2017

    Hi, I am looking into the bird life around Lake Tana for a wildlife documentary I am working on. I have been reading your blog with interest. If you wouldn’t mind answering a couple of questions on the birds of the area (especially weavers) then I would love to hear from you (lydiabaines999@hotmail.com). Many thanks,
    Lydia

    Reply
    • Hi Lydia. We would be very happy to, though we are by no means experts. I will contact you on your email address.

      Reply

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