Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Top 10 Mid-Year Sightings by Rockjumper Tour Leaders

Our tours invariably turn up interesting and unexpected sightings, and here are the top 10 recent sightings from some of our tours that have run over the past few months as documented in our tour leader’s own words. This is obviously just a small selection, but should nevertheless give a good indication of some of the unusual species and experiences that make every Rockjumper tour special for our participants.

1. Golden Masked Owl by Glen Valentine in Papua New Guinea

Our first Papua New Guinea tour of the season was an immense success with loads of incredible birds, so many in fact that I saw 15 lifers and Adam Walleyn saw 6 (and we’re both veterans on numerous PNG tours)!!! However, nothing compares to the absolute highlight of our first New Britain Extension, which came in the form of seeing a GOLDEN MASKED OWL on two out of three nights!!! In fact, we were even able to capture the second ever known photographs of the species and our group became the first birding tour to see this mythical bird since the early 1980’s!”

2. Geomalia by David Erterius in Sulawesi, Indonesia

One of the absolute highlights of our recent Sulawesi & Halmahera – Wallacean Endemics tour was seeing a Geomalia (Geomalia heinrichi)! This very shy and elusive ground-dweller is endemic to Sulawesi and certainly one of the toughest birds to find on the island and is very rarely photographed!
The Geomalia (also known as Sulawesi Mountain-Thrush) inhabits primary montane forest with dense undergrowth and moss forest ranging from around 1,700 – 3,400 metres above sea level. For a very long time, it remained a taxonomic enigma (amongst others, it was thought to be a babbler of sorts), and it wasn’t until very recently that researchers conducted molecular studies on the bird which confirmed it to be a thrush. This individual was seen along the famous Anaso track in the bird-rich Lore Lindu National Park in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

3. Satyr Tragopan by Wayne Jones in Bhutan

A grey, drizzly afternoon was brightened significantly on our Bhutan II tour in April. We’d been driving the middle Lingmethang Road searching for Satyr Tragopans when a plump, scarlet bagpipe of a bird was sighted at the next corner. We edged closer, careful not to scare off our quarry. We needn’t have worried! This magnificent bird pottered about the roadside, allowing us to climb out of the bus and ogle him. We ended up watching him for at least 15 minutes – he didn’t even budge when another vehicle came past. What a beaut!

4. Beautiful Sibia by Wayne Jones in Bhutan

We were walking through lush temperate forest near Morong in Bhutan when our local guide spotted an unusual-looking Sibia. Soon all attention was diverted to the bird whose subtle grey and rufous plumage revealed it to be a Beautiful Sibia. While not a rare bird within its range, it seems it might be one of only a handful of records for Bhutan. We enjoyed great views as the bird was pretty relaxed.

This photo was taken in the late morning at around 2,200 m.a.s.l. The bird was in view for a fabulous 15 minutes (!) but was quite wary and shy of any attempt to get closer, hence the relatively poor quality of the image.

5. Sunbittern by Keith Valentine in the Brazilian Pantanal

We were fortunate to have a few amazing sightings during a recent private tour into the depths of the Brazilian Pantanal. Naturally one of the main targets was finding the elusive Jaguar and with success on this front being almost instant it allowed us plenty of time to enjoy the Cuiaba River and its tributaries for some additional birding and wildlife viewing. One afternoon we spotted this fabulous Sunbittern on an exposed bank, which allowed for some phenomenal views. The bird was calling actively and strutting about seemingly oblivious to who was watching. We probably observed it for around 5 minutes before it popped up into the air and dropped out of sight behind some vegetation. A spectacular bird belonging to its own family Eurypygidae, while also sharing a unique order, Eurypygiformes with the extraordinary Kagu of New Caledonia.

6. Black-fronted Dotterel by David Erterius in Indonesia

During late August, we were birding the Megitimbe Wetlands, a great area for waterbirds not far from Waingapu on the island of Sumba. We recorded a good variety of species, including highlights such as a dozen Australian Pratincoles, a fabulous male Spotted Harrier, newly arrived Sharp-tailed and Curlew Sandpipers, Long-toed Stints, hundreds of Wandering Whistling Ducks, Pacific Black Ducks and Sunda Teals among others. Arriving at a roadside rice paddy, I had barely put up the scope before I spotted a stunning Black-fronted Dotterel! I later found out that this species has been found a couple of weeks earlier a few kilometres away. As far as I am aware, these constitute the first ever record of the species for Indonesia. The normal range of Black-fronted Dotterel is Australia and New Zealand.

7. Hylocitrea by David Erterius in Sulawesi & Halmahera, Indonesia

One of the highlights of our Sulawesi & Halmahera – Wallacean Endemics tour was undoubtedly our multiple sightings of Hylocitrea. Endemic to Sulawesi, this species is placed in its own family and high up on many birders wish list. Our first sightings were along the famous Anaso Track of Lore Lindu NP, near the summit of Mount Rorekatimbu. Here, the entire group enjoyed one bird sitting just a few metres away, allowing for perfect open unobstructed view for a couple of minutes, followed by another sighting in a nearby fruiting tree, where at least three birds were feasting on berries. A few days later, as we were about to locate the rare and localized Matinan Flycatcher up on Mount Ambang, again not only one but two Hylocitreas appeared in front of us, and this was the occasion where the shot shown here was taken.

8. Dulit Frogmouth by Erik Forsyth in Borneo (photo by Ch’ien C. Lee)

The highlight of our inaugural Borneo – Black Oriole & Dulit Frogmouth Extension was finding this very rare bird within only a short while of arriving at the spot where it had recently been seen. Here’s the story: After dinner we got together for a planned night search for the Dulit Frogmouth, a rare and little-known species recently discovered in this area. We drove the short distance to the site and within a few minutes … our local guide’s quick spotting found the bird perched in a gully below us, offering fabulous looks. A short while later the bird flew off but was again relocated and scoped, so that we could enjoy even better views – fantastic!!!

9. Orange Fruit Dove by David Hoddinott in Taveuni, South West Pacific Islands

Undoubtedly one of the main highlights of our recently-concluded South West Pacific Islands – Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu & New Caledonia tour, and this fabulous species showed extremely well on Taveuni. A real jewel and surely one of our planet’s most colourful birds!!

10. Siberian Crane by Glen Valentine in Taiwan

During a recent tour of Taiwan we were extremely fortunate to have heard about the first-ever record of Siberian Crane for the island. The individual, which was still slightly immature, was first found in December 2014 and, quite incredibly, in June this year was still milling around the same small wetland at which it had originally been discovered. Luck was on our side as we found ourselves close to the site at the beginning of our tour and so a mini twitch of this rare species ensued. We found the bird in question immediately after arriving at the site as it stood out head and shoulders above the egret species also in attendance. We watched and photographed it at close range for an extended period, a very lucky encounter indeed!

The Siberian Crane, Siberian White Crane or Snow Crane as it is sometimes known, is one of the rarest crane species and is currently listed as Critically Endangered. The western population of the species is on the verge of extinction with around a mere 10 individuals hanging on, while the eastern population that breeds in the Arctic tundra of eastern Russia has an estimated population of around 3000 birds, of which around 95% of the population winters in the Poyang Lake basin in China. However, the risk of losing the last remaining population of these beautiful and stately birds is of major concern due to the planned building of the Three Gorges Dam, which will flood the valley and the crane’s wintering habitat.

We were extremely fortunate to have seen this rarity in the wild, a species that is declining every year and on the brink of extinction.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Amur Migration by David Erterius

Current technology limits the non-stop flight time of a commercial aircraft to 17½ hours. However, in the avian world, there’s a flight that’s even longer – one that’s just recently started to be monitored by conservationists. Namely the very impressive long distance migration of Amur Falcons as they fly continuously from remote Northeastern India to the Horn of Africa every year! Researchers have collected very interesting data on these remarkable flights by attaching small 5g devices, so-called Platform Transmitter Terminals (PTT) on these small raptors. A male Amur Falcon named ”Naga”, weighing just 179g, flew from Nagaland in India to Somalia in eastern Africa, crossing the entire Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Sea, for five days and 10 hours non-stop and covering a distance of some 5600km!

Have a look at this map showing some tracked flyways, and see what an astounding achievement this is:

The Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis) is a trans-equatorial long-distance migrant that moves from its breeding grounds in Mongolia, the south Russian Far East, northeast China and North Korea all the way to its wintering grounds in southern Africa, and back every year! These small falcons leave their Asian breeding range and fly to parts of remote northeast India (i.e. the state of Nagaland) and Bangladesh, where thousands of birds congregate in certain staging areas before they depart for a long overland flight across the Indian Subcontinent. Subsequently, they undertake the longest regular overwater migration of any bird of prey, crossing over the Indian Ocean between western India and tropical east Africa, a journey of more than 4000km! Adapted to the strong monsoon tailwinds, the first migrants start to arrive in their southern African winter range by the end of November. 

I spent the last few days of September and the first week of October this year on Happy Island which is situated on the coast of Heibei province in China. For some time now, this small island has been known as a first-rate spot to watch migrant birds on stopover and passage, and good numbers of Amur Falcons are known to pass through every year. I experienced an unusually strong passage of Amur Falcons during my stay on the island, and here’s my story about the event in detail:

My first two full birding days on Happy Island saw overcast and windy wheather with thick, low clouds and light to moderate rain most of the time. It soon turned out that this wheather had caused a major fall of migrant passerines, and loads of warblers, pipits and buntings were virtually everywhere on the island. On 30th September, the wind dropped, it cleared a little and visibility improved. At the same time, the first migrant Amur Falcons started to appear and at the end of the day, I could add 86 birds to the protocol. The next day, the wheather had changed quite dramatically, with clear blue skies and a fresh northerly wind and even more falcons showed up. This day and over the next five days I noted a total of 1701 Amur Falcons, which meant that an incredible 1787 individuals were seen on passage between 30th September and 6th of October! Truly amazing! One of these days stood out as the Big Day when, by just late morning, a total of 1044 birds had passed over in just a few hours! O the same day, the migration peaked during the last 30 minutes before noon with an average of around 7 birds per minute and flocks of up to 75 birds! The wheather on this day was very hazy with reduced visibility, and the wind was southwesterly (which meant head-wind), and these two factors probably funneled the falcons to Happy Island.

Please have look at this selection of shots, taken by myself on these days:

Amur Falcon (Falco amurensis), adult male looking at the photographer.
Compared to its western cousin, the Red-footed Falcon (Falco vespertinus),
the adult male Amur Falcon has a very different underwing pattern
with striking whitish wing coverts, as can bee seen here.

Amur Falcon, adult female.
Very different to the adult male and more similar to a juvenile.

Amur Falcon, juvenile. The underwing pattern is very similar to the
adult female but note the streaked rather than spotted body and the
overall paler and buffier appearance.

Amur Falcon, juvenile. A well determined bird flying low across
Happy Island and aiming for its winter quarters somewhere in Southern Africa.

Amur Falcon, female. Blistering sand and strong head-wind is nothing for
these powerful fliers

Amur Falcon, adult male.

Amur Falcon, adult female.

Amur Falcon, juvenile.

Further reading on the migration of the Amur Falcons on these links:

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

"Mythical" Bird Spotted on Rockjumper Tour by Glen Valentine

Very few birds are as mythical and little-known as the Golden Masked Owl, a gorgeous and diminutive Tyto owl that is endemic to the island of New Britain, which in turn is a small, under-explored island situated off the east coast of New Guinea. 

This species was, until very recently, known only from two specimens and a single sight record. However, something very exciting materialized in the weeks leading up to our 2015 New Britain tours. While guiding a group of Japanese tourists around the island, the local guide Joseph, who is based at Walindi Resort on the east coast of the island, was driving his clients around looking at fireflies in the adjacent oil palm plantations when a small, golden-coloured owl appeared in his flash-light. He immediately knew what the owl was as he had found a dead specimen of the species in the lodge grounds only two years ago. Absolutely blown away by the discovery, he drove back to the lodge and reported it to Shane, the lodge manager, and the two headed out to the same area the next evening, armed with a video camera. Quite incredibly, they found the bird in the same vicinity and managed to obtain some excellent video footage of this mega-rarity. Finally, the unknown Golden Masked Owl was on the map! 

With much excitement and anticipation, we arrived at the lodge to begin our inaugural New Britain tour of the 2015 New Guinea season. We chatted to Joseph on the first evening and formulated a plan on how we were going to try and find this mythical species, and on the second night we left the luxuries of our wonderful lodge and embarked on our Golden Masked Owl quest. We drove along the road where Joseph and Shane had seen the owl and also scoured every other road in the general area, but to no avail. A little disappointed but not in the least bit surprised, we returned to the lodge empty-handed. On our third night we ventured out again, but this time we’d literally just left the lodge and driven about two hundred meters along a gravel, oil palm harvesting road when Joseph reminded us that this was the place where he and Shane had videoed the owl just a few weeks ago. Almost as soon as he finished his statement, our lights met an object perched on a low stump at the edge of the road, right in the middle of a large oil palm plantation! We couldn’t believe it! Our hearts skipped a beat when we realized that it was indeed a Golden Masked Owl! We were almost too excited to even think. I had a quick look and reached for my camera to at least try and squeeze off some kind of a record shot. I managed to fire off a few poor shots, but we were able to edge closer and closer until we were eventually fairly close. The owl obliged and everyone obtained even better views, and I managed to obtain a few decent images such as the one used for this post. On an all-time high we returned to the lodge, absolutely delighted by this extremely fortunate encounter!

On our final night on the island we decided to have one last try, and quite amazingly, there it was, sitting on a similar post in the same area as the previous night. We enjoyed further excellent views before it took flight into the nearby plantation. A quick look however on another nearby track saw us re-uniting with the bird again and we were treated to final saturation views of this beautiful and exceedingly rare species. We then bid farewell to one of the rarest birds on earth, knowing that this was indeed a very special birding moment and one that we will all cherish forever! 

(Unfortunately, we were unable to find the owl on our second and third New Britain tours, so one has to wonder: when will the Golden Masked Owl be seen again? Will it become an annual event, or will it remain an unknown, unseen “phantom” for the next few decades? Only time will tell…)    

Friday, 4 September 2015

Top Birding destinations in Africa by David Hoddinott

I have often been asked, if you were to choose only four countries to travel to in Africa what would they be? Not an easy question to answer; however, it helps when breaking the continent down into regions.

In North Africa Morocco is the obvious choice. It has the highest diversity of species in the area including three North African endemics – Levaillant’s Woodpecker, Moussier’s Redstart and Tristram’s Warbler – and other highly-prized species such as the Northern Bald Ibis (one of the world’s rarest birds). What’s more, the country is friendly and peaceful, is rich with interesting history and culture, has good roads, good accommodations, great food and a diverse array of habitats, ranging from the snow-capped Atlas Mountains to the start yet scenically spectacular Sahara Desert.

Northern Bald Ibis by David Hoddinott 

In East Africa, Uganda is hard to beat: with over 1,000 bird species, including the unique Shoebill and numerous localised Albertine Rift endemics, it is simply unrivalled for its size. Not that birds are the only feature, since Uganda is also blessed with magnificent mammals including Mountain Gorilla, Chimpanzee and a host of other primates, tree climbing Lions and a wonderful selection of other big game, friendly English-speaking people, a good road network, good accommodations and food, superb national parks, two wonderful boat trip options on the Kazinga Channel and the Nile River, plus a lovely climate – all of which ensures a very rewarding and enjoyable birding and wildlife holiday experience!

Shoebill by David Hoddinott

In Southern Africa the obvious destination is South Africa. The reasons for choosing South Africa are that it has the most endemic species for any country on the continent, a wonderful selection of over 800 beautiful and charismatic species such as turacos, mousebirds, sunbirds, rollers, hornbills and barbets (to mention just a few), most of which are also easy to see and fairly confiding, some of the best pelagic birding in the world, a great diversity of impressive mammals, a splendid range of habitats, interesting history and culture, a world-class tourism infrastructure with excellent accommodations to suit all budgets, great food and wines, friendly English-speaking people and roads which are generally in good repair.

Bush Blackcap by David Hoddinott

In West Africa, Ghana leads the way as it’s one of the friendliest countries on the continent, is also English speaking, has generally good accommodations and food (well, certainly for West and Central African standards in any case), a wonderful diversity of birdlife (a comprehensive 23-day trip such as our Ghana Mega tour can net you +-500 species of birds, including White-necked Rockfowl and some of the rarest birds on the continent), a splendid canopy walkway, some wonderful national parks and good roads to boot. 

White-necked Rockfowl by David Hoddinott

About David: 
David Hoddinott has extensive experience leading birding tours throughout Africa, Asia and Madagascar. He is well known in birding circles for his endless energy and legendary bird spotting skills. His zeal for bird guiding has earned him the position as senior leader at Rockjumper and a reputation as one of the world’s most talented birders.

David Hoddinott is a member of his local branch of BirdLife and sits on the KwaZulu-Natal and South African rarities panels. He has worked as the resident ornithologist at birding lodges in South Africa, Botswana and Ecuador, including an 18-month stint at the world-famous Sacha Lodge, and is now a full time guide for Rockjumper Birding Tours. In February 2010 David reached 2,000 birds in Africa, which emphasizes his experience, passion and skill in this great continent! He continues to lead tours to all the major birding destinations in Africa including Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, South Africa, Cameroon, Ghana, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Morocco and Tunisia, and seldom visited areas such as Angola, Sierra Leone, Djibouti and Socotra. He aspires to travel to extraordinary places and invites all those intrepid travellers with a sense for adventure to join him on his exciting adventures!

2016 ABA Safari to Northern India

Perhaps the world’s richest cultural landscape, India boasts a staggering geographical diversity, from deserts and forests to tropical, palm-lined shores to the snow-capped peaks of the impossibly high Himalayas. This ABA Safari starts and ends in the capital of New Delhi, an excellent hub for the rich avifauna and iconic mammalian mega-fauna of northern India. Our safari explores two of the most famous birding and wildlife national parks in northern India: the royal wildfowl sanctuary of Keoladeo National Park at Bharatpur, with its spectacular wetlands; and fabled Ranthambhore National Park, a reserve widely known as one of the best places to see the Bengal Tiger, and also a spectacular birding destination. We invite you to join us for this unforgettable celebration of India’s incredible birds, iconic mammals, dramatic scenery, rich history and kaleidoscope of cultures!

—George Armistead, ABA Events Coordinator

Click here to read this article from the American Birding Association submitted by Adam Riley.

Tribes and birds of the Lower Omo Valley by Adam Riley

(This article first appeared on 10,000 Birds) Ethiopia, a landlocked country situated in the Horn of Africa, has firmly established itself as one of Africa’s top birding destinations. Its great diversity of habitats hosts an incredible bird count of over 900 species, including Africa’s 2nd highest list of endemics and near-endemics (after South Africa). These 15 endemics and nearly 40 near-endemics (many of which were endemics until Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991) are for the most part quite easily observed on the standard Ethiopian birding circuit. However very few birders ever venture to areas off this well-beaten track, so with this in mind, I decided to explore a fascinating but ornithologically little known corner of Ethiopia in January 2012, to see what surprises awaited me.

A view over Mago National Park in the Lower Omo Valley

The Lower Omo Valley is situated within Africa’s famous and geologically-speaking rapidly expanding Great Rift Valley (which will eventually split the continent into two landmasses). Here, in south-west Ethiopia’s awkwardly named “Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region”, bordering Kenya and Sudan, the great Omo River dominates this dry savanna valley, resulting in some of Africa’s most well developed and best preserved arid-zone riverine forests. The Omo River rises from the Shewan highlands to the north (much of Ethiopia consists of high-lying mountains and fertile plateaus, despite the impression created by some international media bodies that Ethiopia is predominately desert!). It flows 470 miles, mostly southwards, before entering Lake Turkana (previously Lake Rudolf) near the Kenyan border. Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake and also the planet’s largest alkaline lake, has no water outflow, so in effect it’s a dead-end for the Omo River. 

 Hamar ladies at their homestead near Turmi

The importance of the Lower Omo Valley has been recognized by UNESCO, who has declared it a cultural World Heritage. It also contains two massive national parks and several Important Bird Areas. This vast, scenic valley is now most famous for its staggering cultural diversity. Over a dozen distinctive ethnic groups exist here, many of whom live lives little touched by the modern world. This is largely due to the remoteness and prior near inaccessibility of the area, forming a natural barrier to modernization and the detribalization of the Omo Valley. 

Recent publicity about these remarkable tribes has resulted in tourists wanting to experience this wild land and its attractions for themselves. Several lodges have subsequently opened and a surfaced road is being built to allow easier access to the valley. The Lower Omo Valley is also famous for its significant anthropological discoveries, including hominid remains of several distinctive species, going back as far as four million years, as well as the earliest known skeletons of our own species (nearly 200,000 years old). The Omo Valley has clearly been a cultural crossroads of great significance for eons, and continues to be so. 

The Bateleur, an elegant African raptor famed for its rocking flight

Nearly 2,500 square miles of the wildest sections of the Omo Valley are protected in the almost contiguous Omo National Park on the river’s west bank (Ethiopia’s largest park) and Mago National Park on the east bank. These vast and rugged lands of savanna, hills, gorges and rivers still protect some of Ethiopia’s largest extant herds of typical African savanna game, including African Elephant, African Buffalo, Giraffe, Lion, Leopard, African Wild Dog and numerous species of grazers. 

Yellow-billed Stork

My adventure to the Omo Valley started with a flight from Ethiopia’s bustling capital, Addis Ababa, to Arba Minch, the largest city in southern Ethiopia. It lies adjacent to Nechisar National Park, where the lone wing of the mysterious Nechisar Nightjar was collected in 1990. We were hoping to do a night-drive in the park to search for this enigma, but sadly the majority of the park has been closed due to impassable roads and allegedly hostile nomadic tribes who have invaded the park and are currently in a stand-off with authorities. We were able to take a thoroughly enjoyable boat ride on Lake Chamo, whose shores teem with birds, including such typical African species as African Fish Eagle, Goliath Heron the world’s largest, Yellow-billed Stork and the incomparable Hamerkop, a species in its own family. A visit to what is known as the “crocodile market” had us viewing a haul-out of dozens of Nile Crocodiles, including some of the largest specimens I have encountered anywhere on the continent. Pods of Hippopotamus snorted at us, however the keen birders were more enthralled at finding the highly localized Northern Masked Weaver. 

A Konso village perched atop a terraced hill

Heading south on a good surfaced road, we made slow progress through the herds of cattle, donkeys and goats that thronged the highway, until we finally reached the land of the Konso. This area is also a UNESCO World Heritage site famed for its quaint stone-walled villages and terraced fields. We spent a fascinating few hours on a guided tour of one of these villages. Communal living and co-operation, with the retention of traditional values, has afforded the Konso people a relatively prosperous existence in an arid landscape. Striking westwards towards the South Sudanese border, we pressed on to the town of Key Afar, noted for its bustling market frequented by four local tribes. We were left with little doubt that we had finally reached the fabled Lower Omo Valley as we strolled through the market, admiring the stunning traditional dresses, adornments, hairstyles and scarification of these proud peoples. We then turned south again, deeper into the Omo Valley, to the village of Turmi, where we found respite at the welcoming and comfortable Buska Lodge. A cold beverage and meal of traditional unleavened Ethiopian bread called injera rounded off a fascinating travel day which couldn’t be matched anywhere in the world!

Red-billed Oxpecker typically riding atop a large ungulate

Hamar mother and child

The Turmi area is home to the Hamar tribe who numbering nearly 50,000 are one of the largest ethnic groups living in the Lower Omo Valley (with an approximate population of 200,000 tribal people). Early morning is of course birding prime time and a pre-breakfast stroll around our lodge produced sightings of the lovely Orange-bellied Parrot, which we tracked down to a nesting hole right next to the restaurant. Splashes of color were added by cryptic Bruce’s Green Pigeons and more raucous Abyssinian and Lilac-breasted rollers. Starlings abounded both in number, sound and variety; with shimmering Greater and Northern Lesser Blue-eared, Superb, Rüppell's and less commonly encountered Magpie and Shelley’s, as well as their close relatives Red-billed Oxpeckers which were enjoying rides on the Hamar’s donkeys! Small seedeaters added to these typical African birds; brilliant Purple Grenadiers, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleus and Green-winged Pytilias mixed with firefinches and waxbills to form flocks of colorful confusion! Quality time was spent with a friendly Hamar family at their homestead of grass huts surrounding their cattle corral. As we arrived a party of clockwork-like D’Arnaud’s Barbets were performing their comical tail-wagging display on the upright poles of the cattle corral. The Hamar women are immediately identifiable by their brick red hair braids, beautiful beaded jewelry and animal skin clothes designed to imitate gazelles. The Hamar are most famous for their ritual of bull-jumping, where young men have to leap onto and run across a row of bulls before they can enter manhood and marry. At the same time, female relatives of the initiate allow themselves to be severely whipped with saplings, forming permanent scarring on their backs and in the process cementing lifelong allegiances between the parties.

D’Arnaud’s Barbet displaying atop a fencepost

A young Hamar woman

The lovely Bruce’s Green Pigeon

The following day encompassed a long drive westwards to the Omo River itself, passing through ever wilder country on meandering dirt tracks. Game used to teem here until the downfall of the Marxist Derg government in1991, when millions of dollars of Russian-supplied arms were looted from military depots and circulated amongst the tribes people. Now most men carry AK47’s, and outside of protected areas most game besides tenacious little Günther’s Dikdiks and shy Gerenuks are gone; and even in the national parks, the lions, hyena and larger game have had their numbers decimated. However the abundance of raptors indicates this land still maintains is natural integrity – vultures wheeled overhead in their hundreds, elegant Bateleurs rocked their wings as they swept low over the savannas, large eagles including migrant Steppes and resident Martials surveyed the landscape, Eastern Chanting Goshawks were regular sightings and diminutive Pygmy Falcons perched on stumps, waiting for lizards to move.  We finally arrived at a high bend on the Omo River where a Karo village was perched. The Karo are a numerically small tribe that exist on what is known as “flood retreat cultivation”, tilling the fertile soils deposited by the annual flooding of the Omo River. They are famed for their body and face paintings and scarification, and we were privileged to spend some time amongst these regal people.

An elderly Karo couple with the Omo River in the background

Eastern Chanting Goshawk keeping an eye on his territory

Further south, on the land along the final stretch of the Omo River and its great delta as it merges into Lake Turkana, live the Dassanech tribe or “People of the Delta”. This tribe also inhabits neighboring regions of South Sudan and Kenya, where they have been persecuted, and this combined with the drought conditions often experienced in this parched land, has led to this tribe being the poorest of those we visited. Their fragile homes, meager belongings and scant livestock attested to this, and yet the people seemed content with their lot in life. They are traditionally pastoral people, but have from necessity accepted agriculture, fishing and crocodile hunting as means of survival. They adorn their bodies with decorative scarification, a painful process of slicing into the skin and rubbing the wounds with charcoal. We had decided to leave predawn to avoid the intense midday heat and this wise choice provided us with excellent nocturnal sightings, including Three-banded Courser, Black-faced and Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, Donaldson-Smith’s Nightjar, Senegal Galago (diminutive nocturnal primates), a family of Bat-eared Foxes, Black-backed Jackal, Common Genet and several other small mammalian fauna. As the sky turned rosy with dawn, we stopped for some excellent additions to our burgeoning bird list. These included busy flocks of bizarre Vulturine Guineafowl, the world’s heaviest flying bird – Kori Bustard and its small relative, Buff-crested Bustard, Black-headed Lapwing, Yellow-throated Spurfowl, Pink-breasted Lark, Red-fronted Warbler and both Steelblue and Straw-tailed whydahs, a fruitful outing indeed.

Back from the market - Dassanech at their homestead

Electric Vulturine Guineafowl are common in the Omo Valley

A Mursi cattleherder sports a Pennant-winged Nightjar headgear

Wattled Ibis is an Ethiopian near-endemic

The final leg of our Omo Valley exploration had us relocate north-eastwards to Jinka, perched on an escarpment over the vastness of Mago National Park. The following morning, we departed early through the park, to the lands of the Mursi beyond the Mago River. Just after dawn we came across our first Mursi tribesmen, two herdboys driving their cattle to market in Jinka. One of them sported a pair of Standard-winged Nightjar feathers in his headband. Game was not plentiful but the highlight was finding a beautiful female Leopard with her cub next to the road, and along the Mago River, a Da Brazza’s Monkey gorging himself on figs. The Ethiopian population of this little known, long-bearded primate forms an isolated population restricted to this area, so this was a very satisfying find. Even more so, was locating a family of Dusky Babblers, these rarely encountered birds occur mostly in inaccessible regions of South Sudan and northern Uganda, and this was my only lifebird of the trip. Other quality birds seen in the park that morning included the endemic Wattled Ibis, Banded Snake Eagle, migrant Pallid Harriers, Nubian Woodpecker and Brown Babbler. Mago National Park certainly deserved more exploration and I wished we had time to investigate the well appointed campsites along the Mago River. However we had a much anticipated cultural highlight awaiting us, the celebrated Mursi people.  This tribe is famed for the incredible lip plates that the women wear. At around the age of 15, girls have the choice of undergoing the extremely painful process of having their lower lip sliced and a small clay or wooden lip plate inserted. As the wound heals, this is replaced with larger and larger lip plates until they are able to stretch their lower lip over the back of their head and can wear lip plates of 5-inches or more in diameter! Several theories circulate as to the reason behind this bizarre practice, including that it was started to make the women less attractive to slave raiders or that it increases the bride-price, however the actual reason now seem to be lost in the mists of time and this practice is perpetuated because it is their custom.

We spotted a young Leopard and his mother in Mago National Park

A long bearded D’Brazza’s Monkey was gorging on figs along the Mago River

Mursi woman

A Mursi woman in full regalia

Our birding and tribal adventure in the Lower Omo Valley had come to an end and we returned to a more normal world, honored to have witnessed a truly beautiful and little known part of the world populated with people living ancient and untouched lives, much as each of our early ancestors must have done generations before us. 

The future of these tribal cultures faces considerable uncertainty. In 2006 the Ethiopian government started building the giant Gibe III Dam further up the Omo River. Despite numerous complaints and international protests lodged, as well as the fact that the disputed Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (that also apparently lacked independence) was done two years after construction began, the project is continuing and the end result will be the largest hydro-electric dam on the continent. Two more dams are planned thereafter further down the Omo River. The end result will be a massive reduction in the volume of water flowing into the Lower Omo Valley and Lake Turkana, disrupting these delicate ecosystems and the annual flooding. Riverine forests will desiccate and the food security of an estimated 100,000 tribal people who depend on the annual flooding for their livelihoods will be severely threatened.  A further 300,000 people who depend on Lake Turkana will also be adversely affected. This is predicted to result in intertribal conflicts and the destruction of their traditional way of life and culture. Sadly the Lower Omo Valley is another entry to the ever-growing list of destinations that should be visited soon, before they are destroyed for the sake of development.

Mursi mother and child

Mursi woman

Africa Geographic: Eastern Promise

Herds of zebras and wildebeest grazing endless grasslands studded with flattopped acacia trees, dramatic volcanic calderas brimming with big game and predators, red-robed Maasai herding skinny cattle – these are well-known images of quintessential Africa, and they can all be discovered in Kenya and Tanzania. Less well known is that each country hosts more than 1 000 bird species. This diversity, combined with a superb network of protected areas, excellent lodges and friendly people, prompts Adam Riley to recommend them as top birding destinations. Although there are many excellent locations within each nation – think Masai Mara, Amboseli and Kakamega in Kenya and Selous, the Eastern Arc Mountains and Zanzibar in Tanzania – he describes here just six that shouldn’t be missed.

They can all be visited in one two-week trip, starting in Nairobi and ending in Arusha. Any time of year is good, even the April–May rainy season when the scenery is lush and there is less dust, and when there are fewer tourists and rates are lower. Expect to net about 450 bird and more than 50 mammal species on an adventure to these parks.

Click here to read this article from Africa Geographic submitted by Adam Riley.