My last day in Ethiopia would be spent travelling from Debre Birhan to a place called Melka Ghebdu. The map would show that it was a distance of about 60kms, which in South Africa would take us about an hour at the most. Well, in Ethiopia it took us four hours. I wish I could say that it was because we spent three hours birding but that wouldn’t be true. It just takes that long on Ethiopian roads. It is not only the road surface, which, in the rainy season is really bad, but also because the gradients when descending from 3000m to 900m in the space of 15kms just takes time.
It took us about two hours to get to the escarpment edge and then we dropped through the town of Ankober (of Serin fame) and while we were stopped at a roadside stall to buy water I asked Measho how much longer we had to travel to get to Melka Ghebdu. His reply was a confident fifteen minutes. I’m not sure if it is true with all bird guides, but I have found them to be optimistic when it comes to estimating the time to get to places. I did wonder how we were going to get from 2600m in Ankober to Melka Ghebdu at 900m in fifteen minutes. Even Angerson’s rally driving skills wouldn’t have been able to do it. We may have had a chance in a helicopter but suffice to say we finally arrived at the riverside in Melka Ghebdu an hour and a half later.
I will take responsibility for one birding stop in a tiny patch of juniper trees in amongst all the eucalyptus where I happily added another endemic to my list in Black-winged Lovebird. Even better than the lovebirds was the amazing view we had of a White-cheeked Turaco gorging on juniper berries.
So, we arrived at Melka Ghebdu with high expectations. The habitat was naturally different to the moorland at high altitude. Instead it was acacia scrub with riverine woodland alongside the river.
As is always the case, we had a very specific target bird here – the very rare and poorly known Yellow-throated Seedeater, yet another highly range restricted Ethiopian endemic. Measho was tentatively confident of finding one having had success in the past, but it is a tricky bird and I remained realistic. Our strategy would be to sit at the river and wait for seed eaters to come down and drink.
As it turned out that wasn’t necessary. Once again we had our target bird within minutes of arriving and during the three hours we spent down by the river we saw plenty. I eventually ended up taking hundreds of photos as the opportunities just got better and better. Either this bird isn’t as poorly known as they say it is our we were just damn lucky.
As mentioned before, an early find of a target relaxes the mood and allows for the freedom of taking pics of other great birds. It was also an opportunity to add another bunch of lifers, which included Ruppell’s Weaver, Beautiful Sunbird, Little Weaver, the charismatic Orange-bellied Parrot, Eastern Plantain Eater and my favourite, being the Yellow-breasted Barbets.
As it turned out my last lifer of the trip was down at the river. I finished my picnic lunch quickly and headed off on my own to find a few extra birds and managed to find a small group of Rufous Chatterers.
It was good birding self sufficiently and actually finding a new species without the help of Measho. Sadly our time at the river came to an end far too quickly and soon we were back in the vehicle negotiating our way back to Debre Birhan.
We had a few brief stops along the way to improve some of our previous sightings of good birds.
The bouncing around for four hours gave me ample time to reflect on my three days. At the time of planning it sounded crazy but my good friend Callan, who knows Ethiopia well, didn’t hesitate when I asked him if it was worth the effort for just three days. He said I would never regret it and he was right.
Sure, two weeks would have been ideal but given my very short window period it was just perfect. No doubt it was jam-packed and I sit now wondering how I’m going to cope with a full day seminar in London tomorrow but life is short and one must take the opportunity when it presents itself.
In the end analysis I tallied 182 species, which included 82 lifers, depending on which taxonomic list you follow (e.g. Northern Fiscal vs Common Fiscal), but for me, the most impressive total was the 65 lifers that I actually managed to photograph, which I reckon is a pretty solid proportion. Most of those have been displayed in this lengthy blog. I was lucky with the weather and photographic light was generally excellent.
I look forward to returning one day to see a lot of the areas Measho spoke about that we just didn’t have time for but for now, I’m happy.