We had to get up very early on day two as we had a specific target bird in mind – Harwood’s Francolin. This bird is one of the most range restricted endemics of Ethiopia (if not the world). It is only found on a small section of the escarpment near a town called Lemi. There are a few scattered sightings in other areas of the escarpment but THE spot is on the way down into the Jemma Valley at an altitude of about 2300m.
Being the “punctuality Nazi” that I am I was standing in the dark at 5am sharp waiting for Measho and Angerson with yet more thoughts of swindling and abandonment swirling in my brain, but it’s hard not to panic when you are a million miles from anyone you know, with no means of communication, stuck in the dark relying on someone you don’t really know. Again my paranoia was unjustified as the reason for their tardiness was a drunken gate guard that was not where he was supposed to be at the time he was supposed to be there.
Anderson put foot to make up the 20 minutes we had lost and as it got light I could see where we were going. For about 10kms we travelled along the edge of the escarpment as the mist rose up from below. It was like something out of the “Gods must be crazy”. It was just an absolute abyss over the edge. We shot through the bustling town of Lemi and started the descent to the francolin spot. There is a tiny settlement on the side of the hill, which is useful, as there are herd boys who have been trained to assist the bird guides. Unlike Erckel’s Francolin, which is quite showy, Harwood’s tends to be active for a very short time in the early morning and then it disappears into the mountain-side heath and scrub and you have no chance of a sighting. Using all resources available is a sensible strategy.
The herd boys know more or less where they are and they walk their goat paths trying to flush the birds. On our arrival they clearly weren’t expecting us as we sat parked on the edge of the road and hooted over and over again before a few of them walked over to the car. What followed was quite disappointing. We stood and listened for their call but nothing was heard. There was no point in trying to flush them since we didn’t know where they were, so we all stood on the side of the slope aimlessly waiting. I amused myself by scrounging a few photos of other birds but eventually that too was dashed as the mist rose up from the valley floor and engulfed us.
Measho suggested we head up to Lemi for breakfast and a coffee and come back again afterwards and try it again. So much for our super early start!
The less I say about the breakfast the better but suffice to say Measho and Angerson tucked into injera while I chewed through a scrambled egg roll.
I will mention the coffee, though. We stopped at a roadside coffee shop which by then had accumulated about 10 customers who were all sitting on stools on the roadside. We joined them and took our seats and we all watched the coffee maker (barista?) whipping up a cup of coffee for all of us. This was not exactly a Vida with a quick pop through a machine. The making of coffee in Ethiopia is an absolute art. The coffee beans are coarse-ground and placed in a large pot and water is added. It is slowly brought to the boil while regularly stirred. This part of the process took about 15 minutes. It was then decanted into another more elaborate ceramic jug which was also placed on the open fire and slowly heated. It was also an iterative process with small amounts of the first-brewed coffee being decanted to the ceramic jug. Once this comes to the boil the cups are filled with a very thick black coffee with a big mound of sugar. I opted for no sugar and I must be honest and say that I was pretty sceptical but when I tasted that first sip I was completely blown away by the quality. It was the richest, smoothest, tastiest coffee I had ever drunk.
So, I wasn’t totally convinced that the breakfast stop and extended coffee tasting experience was all worth it, particularly with all the birds we could be seeing during those “lost” hours, but the mist was still hanging low and I couldn’t really fault Measho’s decision-making bearing in mind how good that coffee tasted. I had given up all hope of the Harwood’s Francolin as we slowly started the descent into the valley again and now I was looking forward to clearer skies and the warmth of the Jemma Valley. But Measho wasn’t easily deterred. This second attempt would be unconventional, so long after the customary dawn attempt for this bird.
We got back to our goat herders and jumped out of the car to be welcomed by quite an animated expression from an older guy whose credibility had not yet been established. He was rambling on at Measho and pointing his crooked stick toward the slope above us. His spot was just below his village and not down the slope where we had tried earlier.
The language barrier was killing me. This looked promising but Measho’s wrinkled expression showed that he wasn’t really convinced either. I asked him what was being said and he told me that the old guy was telling him that the francolin was in the thick vegetation where he was pointing. I felt a short surge of optimism but having been a birder for the better part of my life I knew to maintain poise in the face of unrealistic expectation.
Soon there was a lot of shouting from our elderly friend and about three of the younger herders start walking down the slope into the vegetation. There was then lots of pointing and gesticulating and before we knew what had happened a francolin burst out of the vegetation and flew across the road about 30 metres above us. Measho looked at me and exclaimed: “That was it! That’s the Harwood’s!”
There was no reason not to believe him, given his experience and the definite smaller size than Erckel’s, but there was no way I was going to tick it. It may as well have been a Cape Francolin. because all I’d seen was a dark bird in the gloomy misty conditions.
Measho ran across the road and started scanning. Once again my expectations were pretty low when suddenly he shouted: “There it is! Next to the rock!”
Helpful, considering there were hundreds of rocks, but I followed the line of his pointed finger and there it was picking at some morsels on an open section of the slope below the road. What an absolute miracle. I nearly fingered a cross in the air myself in my excitement but realised that would have been inappropriate. But, boy it was exciting to see such a rare and localised bird.
I hashed the photos a little in my excitement but I also had made sure that I got a good look through my bins just in case it disappeared again. As it turned out we were incredibly lucky. The bird was not a million miles away and it gave us a prolonged opportunity to look at it. It was also pleasing to see the excitement of all the herders who had now surrounded us, surely for a reward of some sort. A small part of me hoped that at least some of the excitement was related to the special bird they had just seen. I handed out some sweets and Measho took care of a monetary reward and we were on our way further down the valley with the mist slowly lifting totally, much the same as our spirits.
The Jemma Valley is carved by the Jemma River which is a tributary to the Blue Nile and to get to it we would descend from 2600m to 890m at the bridge that crosses the river. The vegetation changed as dramatically as the altitude and thus so did the bird species. Lifers started to accumulate as we got closer to the river. We ticked the stunning little Speckle-fronted Weaver, Vitteline Masked-weaver, Vinaceous Dove, Abyssinian Ground-hornbill, African Silverbill and Short-toed Eagle but the highlight was definitely getting onto a very shy White-throated Robin which took a lot of effort to piece all the features together.
The river crossing would be our turning point but not before we did a little birding from the bridge. We had one large fig tree delivering three cuckoo species all feasting on caterpillars, including an hepatic colour form of Common Cuckoo which was an absolute cracker.
From the turnaround point at the bottom of the valley, back up the pass, through Lemi and east to Debre Birhan took four hours of bouncing up and down on the dreadful roads. It wasn’t wasted birding time though as the weather closed in and we drove through a thunderstorm before arriving at Debre Birhan as the sun started breaking through the clouds.
There was no rest though. We had another bird to see which was yet another very range restricted endemic – Ankober Serin. It is actually considered to be more closely related to finches than serins but nonetheless we had to find it. We drove northeast from Debre Birhan for 40 minutes, thankfully on a tar road this time, before arriving at 2800m on the escarpment edge where we jumped out of the car for what promised to be a tricky breath-stealing slog across the moors of the plateau. Well, it was the opposite experience to the francolin. Within two minutes of getting out of the car Measho had a pair of them on some moss covered rocks right next to the road. There’s nothing better than finding a target bird so quickly, as it means a lot of time for relaxed photography, and so I made the most of it, eventually getting within mere metres of a pair of serins nest building.
I also had an opportunity to grab some photos of the endemic White-billed Starlings, as well as a lifer in the form of Slender-billed Starling. Once again I was completely amazed by the scenery.
It is hard to describe the dramatic edge that falls down to the lower altitudes to the east but hopefully these pics give some idea.
We drove back to Debre Birhan after another excellent day and I was delighted to be staying in a far better hotel than the Ethio-German lodgings from the night before. I would actually be based here for two nights which was a real plus.
I caught up with Jeanie and the kids and they were thankful I was still alive not having heard from me since 6am the previous day.
As an aside, and an addition to the francolin story, Jeanie had got herself into a panic when she hadn’t heard from me the night before. She had scant details of my whereabouts and no way of getting hold of me whilst I was plundering bird species in foreign lands. So, at 6am that morning, after not sleeping, imagining me in a heap somewhere in the remotest parts of Ethiopia, she and Adam started contacting some of my birding mates to try find Measho’s number. None of them had it and so they resorted to Google. Adam had heard me speak of Measho and so they keyed in “Measho” and “Ethiopian birding” and up popped his website. And there on his website was his email address and so they sent him an email. At the very same time we were standing on the road unsuccessfully looking for the francolin. Measho turned to me and told me that he’d just got an email from my wife wondering if I was still alive! I’m not sure who was most surprised by this whole episode.
I was able to send a message to the family later that day saying that reports of my death had been greatly exaggerated!
Click here for Day Three.