White-winged Cliff-Chat Myrmecocichla semirufa,
one of the endemics
Ethiopia is rich in birds. Of ca. 1850 species found in Africa, a little less than 850 are recorded from Ethiopia, together with Eritrea. Although Tigray only covers 1/15 of the area of these two countries approximately 500 bird species can be seen here! It is not a coincidence that Tigray is rich in birds. The variety in habitats over a vast altitude range is large. Though there are birds that can be found almost everywhere, many bird species are adapted to live in different environments with their own specific geographical features and subsequently specific flora and fauna.
Western Tigray bordering Sudan is situated below 1000 m. Here birds belonging to the Sudan-Guinea savannah biome can be found. This is the vast area ranging from West Africa up to the Ethiopian highlands. The Ethiopian highlands form an "island" with a relatively cool climate, compared with the surrounding hot areas, and have a totally different and unique montane bird life. On this isolated island a good number of species developed that are found nowhere else (the endemics). In Tigray the highlands rise up to over 3000 m with the highest peak of almost 4000 m. East of the highlands today's Tigray extends a little into the Danakil depression with some plains situated below 1500 m. Here a number of species is found inhabiting the Somali-Masai savannah, the lowlands East of the mountain massifs in Ethiopia and Kenya/Uganda.
The Tigrayan highlands are not very wide, because the Tacazze river, one of the tributaries of the Nile, draining the major part of the Tigrayan highlands, separates them from the Semien mountains, west of it. Through the river valley and adjacent hills birds typical for the Sudan-Guinea biome can penetrate far into the highlands where they sometimes can be seen alongside birds typical for the Somali-Masai biome, that enter the highlands from the East. For instance White-fronted Black Chats Myrmecocichla albifrons and Chestnut-crowned Sparrow Weavers Plocepasser superciliosus together with Brown-tailed Rock Chats Cercomela scotocerca and Rüppell's Weavers Ploceus galbula. Although there are many more interesting aspects about the savannah birds of these two biomes, for the visitor to Tigray the highlands probably have the most interesting habitats and avifauna.
At the many steep escarpments with often breathtaking views of cliffs hundreds of meters high and at the river valleys cut deep into the cliffs, we can find some of the endemic bird species of Ethiopia together with Eritrea (also in the following text "endemics" refer to Ethiopia and Eritrea!). The melodious whistles of the White-billed Starling Onychognathus albirostris, a rather long-tailed blackish bird with reddish wing panels, immediately attract attention. Less conspicuous is the Rüppell's Chat Myrmecocichla melaena, a totally black bird with clear white wing panels, very little known in its habits. A third endemic here is the White-collared Pigeon, the grey pigeon with white collar and wing patches.
In Tigray not much forest is left. Erosion, caused by woodcutting, overgrazing and droughts, being the most important environmental problem of the region. But there are still good forests on eastern escarpment. In the southern parts we find the Abyssinian Catbird. It is one of the northernmost places where this mysterious bird of thick cover with its beautiful song can be found. Scientist still do not know to what other birds it is mostly related.
Other often very fine pieces of woodland exist around the numerous springs everywhere in the highlands. These areas are very rich in birds, such as the quite colourfull Rüppell's Robin Chat Cossypha semirufa that mostly keeps hidden under the thick cover, the Tropical Boubou Laniarius aethiopicus, of which duetting couples make a nice bell ringing sound, and the Verreaux's Eagle Owl Bubo lacteus, the huge owl with it's strange pink eyelids, that prefers conifers as hiding place. Here we also find other endemics, like the Black-headed Forest Oriole Oriolus monacha, the black and yellow look-alike of the much more widespread Black-headed Oriole Oriolus larvatus. Often this bird is firstly detected by its musical call. Fig trees with it is fleshy fruits attract many other birds, f.i. the near endemic White-cheeked Tauraco Tauraco leucotis, a brilliant blue and greenish bird with flashing crimson-red wings, Bruce's Green Pigeon Treron waalia, with it's strange not pigeon like call, Black-billed Barbet Lybius guifsobalito, Hemprich's Hornbills Tockus hemprichii, a Hornbill that nests in cracks in the cliffs and another endemic, the Black-winged Love Bird Agapornis taranta, a little green parrot, with a rosy bill and, as the name indicates, black wings. This bird very noisy is much more easy to see than the oriole. Very rarely also the endemic Yellow-fronted Parrot Poicephalus flavifrons is seen in Tigray. If Fig trees are standing more solitary in open field also the huge, turkey like Abyssinian Ground Hornbill will fly into the trees to get their share of the fruits.
Apart from some permanent rivers and many reservoirs, in Tigray only one natural lake exists: Ashenge, situated at 2400 m. In the period October-March the lake holds an interesting variety of Eurasian and African birds. Up to 15.000 water birds in 47 different species were recently counted in Dec. Bird watchers visiting Tigrai this time of year should not forget to bring their identification guides of European and Asian birds, because a total of over 100 migratory species are known. Of the many ducks, Northern Shovelers Anas clypeata, Pintails Anas acuta and Wigeon Anas penelope can be seen together with African Pochards Netta erythophthalma, Maccoa ducks Oxyura maccoa and Egyptian Geese Alopochen aegyptiaca. Furthermore different species of Grebes, Herons, Ibises, Shorebirds a.s.o. are present. Many birds of prey roam the shores, among them Long-legged Buzzards Buteo rufinus, Steppe eagles Aquila nipalensis and Pallid Harriers Circus macrourus from Asia. Around the lake again some endemics can be seen. Of course, the Wattled Ibis Bostrychia carunculata that is common everywhere in the wet areas in the highlands. Where there is some higher vegetation on the shores Rouget's Rail Rougetius rougetii is living. A not shy large reddish-brown Rail, that is considered endangered in its existence. In the meadows around the lake we find a lot of little songbirds, both of Eurasian and African origin. Among them the endemic Black-headed Siskin Serinus nigriceps and the eurasian Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus and large flocks of Yellow Wagtails Motacilla flava that accompany the hundreds of cattle grazing here, to feed on the insects chased away by them.
Not only eurasian migratory birds can be seen in Tigray. There are also in-African migrants. Many species are nesting and raising their young in the season that there is abundance of food. For insect eaters this mostly is the rain season, in Tigray this is June up to September. Outside this season they migrate to the southern hemisphere. Some examples are the Abdim's Stork Ciconia abdimii, that is nesting even in the city center of Makele, some Swallows and the Paradise Flycatcher Tersiphone viridis, of which the males have unusual long, white (normally chestnut) tail streamers (up to 2 times there body length). The small, crested Wahlberg's Eagle Aquila wahlbergi is probably spending its non-breeding season in Tigray.
In this few pages, of course it is impossible to give a thorough description of the birds of Tigray. But it goes without saying that Tigray is a bird watchers paradise!
Abi Adi, spring 1996