Working for birds in Africa

Records from Gambela, western Ethiopia

p 97-100
Red-throated Bee-eater
Merops bulocki
J Verbauck

The lowlands of Illubador Province in extreme western Ethiopia have a fauna and flora, landscape and culture quite distinct from the rest of the country. Despite easy access to the region, with daily buses and thrice-weekly flights covering the 500 km between Addis Ababa and Gambela (the second town of Illubador), it has received surprisingly little ornithological attention. The only published descriptions of the area's birds appear to be the recent Ethiopian Important Bird Areas (IBA) directory[5] and a list of records from the 1970s [3]. These intriguing accounts lured us to spend 7-12 December 1999 birding around Gambela (08°15'N 34°35'E; 560 m). Despite the lack of a vehicle, we were able to explore the woodland and river in the immediate vicinity (c10 km radius) of the town reasonably thoroughly on foot and by bicycle, and recorded several species apparently new to the region.

Gambela town straddles the Baro River, a reputedly navigable tributary of the Nile. Close to the town, riparian vegetation has been cleared almost in its entirety for subsistence agriculture. However, on leaving the town by bus, we noted considerable untouched riverine forest c40 km to the east, where the road to Metu rejoins the Baro. In the vicinity of Gambela town, the Baro flood plain appears relatively narrow, extending no more than 300 m from the northern bank of the river. During our visit, some areas were flooded and held reasonable numbers of birds despite disturbance from grazing cattle.

Vast areas of apparently largely intact dry deciduous woodland cloak the plains surrounding Gambela. This habitat is varied by occasional rocky hillocks, scattered termite mounds (supporting thickets) and grassy depressions. The c1,000 mill annual rainfall occurs principally from May to October, and our visit thus fell within the dry season. We encountered numerous large bush fires, fuelled by the 2m-tall understorey grass swathe. These fires are started by local people and have been previously thought not to be damaging[1]. A five million ha area to the south and west of Gambela has been proposed as a conservation area, Gambela National Park [5].

Woodland

Pygmy Sunbird Hedydipna platura appears to have been hitherto regarded as a vagrant to Ethiopia [7], with no breeding yet recorded and, in Sudan, occurs only considerably further south and west [4]. We discovered it to be one of the commonest sunbirds and observed two pairs nest-building.

Two raptors considered very scarce in Ethiopia were noted: Levant Sparrowhawk Accipiter brevipes was seen twice in dry woodland c5 km south of the town, and a single Lizard Buzzard Kaupifalco monogrammicus in moister woodland adjacent to the river.

The woodland also held a number of other species that are local in Ethiopia and many of which are more characteristically West African. Commonly encountered species were Little Green Bee-eater Merops orientalis, Green Wood-hoopoe Phoeniculus purpureus, Green-backed Eremomela Eremomela pusilla, Foxy Cisticola Cisticola troglodytes, Yellow-bellied Hyliota Hyliota flavigaster, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-weaver Plocepasser superciliosus, Black-headed Gonolek Laniarius erythrogaster, Black-faced Firefinch Lagonosticta larvata and Brown-rumped Bunting Emberiza affinis. Seen once each were Black-billed Wood Dove Turtur abyssinicus, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater Merops hirundineus, Brown Babbler Turdoides plebejus, Gambaga Flycatcher Muscicapa gambagae and Black-rumped Waxbill Estrilda troglodytes.

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