Birdwatching in Eritrea
Adi Keih and Senafe Highlands
Adi Keih and Senafe are located in the south of the Eritrean highlands, the two highest towns in the country, both at over 2400m altitude. Around this area the landscape is mountainous and rocky, with deep river valleys, high peaks and precipitous cliffs. Eritrea's highest peak, Emba Soira, at over 3000m is located near to Senafe, and Qohaito archaeological site near to Adi Keih. Adi Keih is sometimes labelled Adi Caih, or Adi Keyih on maps.
Adi Keih is about 120km south of Asmara along a fully surfaced road that also passes through Dekemhare and Segeneiti (also good for birdwatching; stop by the large Sycamore Fig trees). The road is windy, so it takes 2-3 hours to get there, but the landscape is beautiful, so the journey should not be rushed! Senafe is a further 30km further south. You will need to get travel permits for both locations (see Travel and Accommodation page for more information).
In Adi Keih, the Central Hotel provides the best accommodation. It is just opposite the hospital in the town centre. Ask anyone for directions when you arrive in town. Rooms are 60Nfa a night. In Senafe the Star Hotel is the best choice, also 60Nfa a night. It is on the main road, at the southern edge of the town. Again, ask anyone for directions.
High, rocky moorland. Stream valleys with riparian woodland and water all year round. Cliffs and gorges. Acacia and euphorbia scrub and semi-mature acacia forest in stream valleys. Irrigated agricultural land. Small copses of native woodland. Eucalyptus forests. Reservoirs. In more remote areas of the escarpment edge isolated valleys of mixed African Pencil Cedar(Juniperus procera) and African Olive (Olea africana) still cling on.
Birdwatching Highlights of Adi Keih and Senafe
This part of Eritrea is the best place to see nearly all of the Abyssinian endemic species which are shared with Ethiopia. These include Wattled Ibis, Rouget's Rail, White-collared Pigeon, Banded Barbet, Black-winged Lovebird, Abyssinian Woodpecker, White-cheeked Turaco, Blue Saw-wing, Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher, White-backed Black Tit, Ruppell's Black Chat, Winding (Ethiopian) Cisticola, White-billed Starling, plus many of the near endemics listed on the Abyssinian Endemics page.
As well as the endemics, the area is home to a large number of raptors. Lammergeier is a common sight, also Egyptian, Griffon and Ruppell's Griffon Vulture can be found here. Eagles include Tawny Eagle, Steppe Eagle, Long-crested Eagle, Short-toed Snake Eagle and Verreaux's Eagle. Long-legged Buzzard are here and Augur Buzzard are very common. Kestrel and Lesser Kestrel are both common in winter. Lanner Falcon is common all year round, and Peregrine is also possible. Pallid Harrier, Motagu's Harrier and Western Marsh Harrier are common in winter. Grey Kestrel, Black (Yellow-billed) Kite, Shikra and Dark Chanting Goshawk complete the list. Owls include Verreaux's Eagle Owl, Cape Eagle Owl and Greyish Eagle Owl.
The rocky, mountainous terrain on the plateau tops is also particularly good for certain groups of birds, especially wheatears. I've recorded 5 species here, including Abyssinian Black Wheatear, Pied Wheatear, Black-eared Wheatear and Isabelline Wheatear. Chats are also very diverse, including Whinchat, Stonechat, Familiar Chat, Brown-tailed Rock Chat and Ruppell's Black Chat.
Where to Watch Birds
Adi Keih Sub Zoba
Hawatsu Reservoir and Copse
One of the best places to birdwatch in the sub zoba is at Hawatsu, along the road to Asmara, 10km from Adi Keih, or about 40km from Segeneiti if you are travelling south. If you are coming from Asmara, you'll pass over a ridge about 105km from Asmara and drop down into a valley, usually with green fields and a reservoir in the bottom. This is Hawatsu. The reservoir is right next to the road, and impossible to miss. You can easily birdwatch from the roadside. The upstream (northern) end of the lake is particularly good for waders. Much more easy to miss is Hawatsu Copse, a small area of native woodland near the reservoir. To find it (if you are travelling south from Asmara towards Adi Keih), just as the reservoir comes into view, but before you reach it, you will pass a few houses on your right, one of them a primitive church called 'Enda Ba Mussie'. Look up the small valley on the right just after these houses, and you will see a few native trees and a few Eucalyptus. Walk up the valley to find the copse. The trees in this copse has been preserved because there a small pilgrimage place and a church underneath a rock called 'Enda abune hareya', so ask the locals for it if you can't find the copse.
Wattled Ibis is common here. If they are not roosting near the reservoir, they will probably be feeding in the green grass or agricultural fields upstream of the reservoir. Flocks of 20-30 are common.
Other reservoir species are: Pink-backed Pelican, Grey Heron, Black-headed Heron, Hammerkop, Egyptian Goose, Little Grebe, Maccoa Duck, Red-knobbed Coot, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, European Wigeon, Common Teal, Little Stint, Common Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt, Three-banded Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Ringed Plover, Ruff, Green Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Pied Avocet, Common Snipe, migrating swallows, martins and swifts including Red-rumped Swallow and the intra-African migrant Nyanza Swift. Birds of prey in the area: Yellow-billed Kite, Augur Buzzard, Lanner Falcon, Common Kestrel and Tawny Eagle are the common species here. Less common are Long-legged Buzzard, Lesser Kestrel, Verreaux's Eagle, Western Marsh Harrier, Pallid Harrier, Peregrine Falcon.
In Hawatsu Copse you can find many of the endemic species including Banded Barbet, White-cheeked Turaco, Black-winged Lovebird, Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher and White-billed Starling; all of which are locally common here. Also here are Black-billed Wood Hoopoe, Lesser Striped Swallow, Temminck's Courser (on plateau above the copse), Erckel's Francolin, Northern Paradise Flycatcher, Klaas's Cuckoo, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Brown Woodland Warbler, Tacazze Sunbird, Marico Sunbird, Ruppell's Robin Chat. The three common weaver species are Baglafecht, Ruppell's and Village.
Adi Keih (Maka) Stream Valley
A small stream passes around the town of Adi Keih. It skirts around the town, anti-clockwise, from the south-west to the north-east. There is a small reservoir just south of the town, and as the stream descends from there, it passes through some irrigated agricultural land (excellent for Rouget's Rail) and into a deep gorge, where small numbers of native tree species still survive. The upper stretch of the Maka Stream can be reached easily by following the road to Senafe. As it leaves Adi Keih, it drops down into the valley. Park at the bottom and explore to the west (small reservoir) and then walk back to the road and down to the east across the agricultural land (a few pathways exist). If you continue for several kilometres you'll come to the gorge. You can also easily reach the gorge by walking east from Adi Keih. Head east down a dirt track by the hospital, down past a small orthodox church and into the gorge.
Reservoir species include Grey Heron, Black-headed Heron, Hammerkop, Egyptian Goose, Little Grebe, Red-knobbed Coot, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Common Teal, Little Stint, Common Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt, Three-banded Plover, Ruff, Green/Wood/Common Sandpiper, Pied Avocet, Common Snipe, migrating swallows, martins and swifts. The damp grassland and fields just below the reservoir have turned up Little Crake. Long-crested Eagle are often here. The best Rouget's Rail spots are a kilometre or two further down the valley from the road, where there is some open water and several wader species can also be found, along with Ruppell's and Baglafecht Weaver, Yellow-mantled Widowbird and Crimson-rumped Waxbill. Around here you can sometimes see Blue Saw-wing, Greater Honeyguide, Lammergeier, Griffon and Ruppell's Griffon Vulture, Black-shouldered Kite as well as the omnipresent Augur Buzzard in both light and dark colour morphs. Hemprich's Hornbill are also present, as they are in the town itself. As you pass down the valley towards the gorge, habitat and species change. Sombre Nightjar can be heard and seen at dusk down here during the summer. Wattled Ibis roost and possibly breed in a small cave at the start of the gorge. On the cliff slopes you can easily find Ruppell's Black Chat, Erckel's Francolin, nesting Lanner Falcon and Abyssinian Black Wheatear. Blue-breasted Bee-eater are common all around. In the gorge itself several of the Abyssinian endemics can be found, including Blue Saw-wing, White-cheeked Turaco, Banded Barbet, White-billed Starling and Black-winged Lovebird along with Ruppell's Robin Chat, Tropical Boubou, Hemprich's Hornbill, and Mountain Wagtail (a new species for Eritrea, that I discovered here in 2007).
Note, if you continue a little further along the road from Adi Keih towards Senafe, you will come to the agricultural plains by the village of Tekwonda. This is one of the best spots I have found for White-collared Pigeon in Eritrea, although this resident population does disappear during the dry weather from December to April. Another good spot is mentioned below at Qohaito.
Karibosa is another good place to see many of the Abyssinian endemics. It's in a beautiful location, perched on the edge of a high mountain plateau with incredible views, and it's close to Qohaito, where the ancient Axumite dam and palace are located, as featured in all guide books (see below). To get there, follow the main road from Adi Keih towards Senafe (you don't need a Senafe travel permit), then just before Igila (about 15km) from Adi Keih, there is a dirt road on the left. Follow this road to get to Safira - the village next to Qohaito (about 8km), then keep going on past the school on the right to get to Karibosa (about 8km further than Qohaito). The road winds down towards Karibosa. As you come to the bottom of the valley, there are fields, and more importantly, native trees along the stream valley. Park anywhere here and explore around. This road is still being built, and will eventually link down to the coast, when it'll be a very good, scenic route to take. Further on, between Kariobosa and Demhina are some of the few remaining highland Juniper forests in this part of Eritrea, where the endemic White-backed Black Tit can still be found in small numbers (e.g. between Demhina and Dananlo, a north facing slope still has good tree coverage).
On the way to Karibosa, you may visit the Qohaito archaelogical site. If so, make sure you also go to the eastern facing viewpoint (about 30 minutes walk from Qohaito). As well as an incredible view down to the Red Sea, the precipitous cliff is good for several species, including Ruppell's Griffon Vulture (breeding), White-collared Pigeon (probably breeding), Lanner Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, Alpine and Nyanza Swift and Little Rock Thrush. The small village of Ishka down below the cliff is very fertile with some native trees, and therefore a good spot for the Abyssinian endemics. Also, your guides will probably take you to the 'Egyptian Tomb' on an outcrop of rock. Ask them to show you down to the rockpool below the tomb - this is an excellent site for Ruppell's Black Chat and often White-collared Pigeon. White-backed Black Tit is possible here too, and more likely further down the narrow valley.
Birds at Karibosa and Qohaito:
Abyssinian endemics: Black-winged Lovebird (common in Karibosa), Abyssinian Slaty Flycatcher, White-backed Black Tit, White-cheeked Turaco, Banded Barbet, White-collared Pigeon, Ruppell's Black Chat, White-billed Starling, White-throated Seed-eater. Other birds include: Verreaux's Eagle Owl, Little Rock Thrush, African Olive Pigeon (newly discovered here), Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Brown-rumped Seed-eater, Slender-billed Starling, Erckel's Francolin, Lanner Falcon, Tawny Eagle, Ruppell's Griffon Vulture and Egyptian Vulture.
Adi Wagara Reservoir
This is a fairly large reservoir close to Adi Keih, although it's hidden from the roads. It was recently built, but is already providing good birdwatching, and this will probably improve over the years. It's located NE of Adi Keih. You can easily walk down to it from Adi Keih in half an hour. Go to the big new Orthodox Church just behind the bus station, and look down into the valley to the north. There is a track that leads down to the reservoir. You can also get there by car (4-wheel drive only), either from following this road down from Adi Keih, or by taking a track heading west of the Adi Keih-Asmara road, just after you come down the hill from Adi Keih. The grasslands and farming lands both upstream and downstream of the reservoir are also productive, especially for Wattled Ibis which can be found on the green pastures just below the dam in good numbers (flocks of up to 30 birds). There is a very fruitful valley north of the reservoir full of mature acacia and euphorbia, where Abyssinian Woodpecker can be found.
Reservoir species: Grey Heron, Black-headed Heron, Hammerkop, Egyptian Goose, Little Grebe, Red-knobbed Coot, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, European Wigeon, Common Teal, Little Stint, Common Greenshank, Black-winged Stilt, Three-banded Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Ringed Plover, Ruff, Green/Wood/Common Sandpiper, Pied Avocet, Common Snipe, migrating swallows, martins and swifts. The reservoir also attracts migrating songbirds such as Red-throated Pipit, Bluethroat, Sedge Warbler, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff. Upstream there is a marshy area where Rouget's Rail, Ethiopian Cisticola, Wattled Ibis and Black-winged Lapwing are all possible. Raptors are good in the vicinity, including Tawny Eagle, Steppe Eagle, Augur Buzzard, Lanner Falcon, Pallid Harrier, Western Marsh Harrier, Lesser Kestrel, Kestrel. Egyptian Vulture, Ruppell's Griffon Vulture and Griffon Vulture are also possible here. The agricultural lands attract Yellow-mantled Widowbird and African Wattled Lapwing. As mentioned above, Abyssinian Woodpecker can be found amongst the acacia and euphorbia of the valley that cuts up behind Adi Wagara, north of the reservoir.
Dekilafay (in Tsorona Sub Zoba)
Dekilafay is located south west of Adi Keih, in a deep valley cutting up towards the highlands from the western lowlands. At an altitude of approx. 1800m, and with good amounts of mature acacia and mixed woodland savannah, it attracts a large number of species associated with the Sudan Guinea Savannah biome. It is in the heart of the IBA (Important Bird Area) described as the Mareb Escarpment by the BirdLife International website. To get there you need a car, ideally a 4x4, as the road is not well maintained. From Adi Keih, take the Tsorona road, which leaves Adi Keih just next to the big new Orthodox Church NW of the town, then passes south along a plateau, before swinging west and down towards the villages of Into, then Hiret, after which the road forks. Take the left fork, which winds down to the Mareb river valley. Dekilafay is the first village you come to when you reach the valley floor. Continue a few kilometres until you find some mature acacia and mixed woodland, and explore around there. Note: to get all the way to Tsorona you need a separate travel permit.
Highlights include Verreaux's Eagle, Eurasian Griffon Vulture, White-winged Black Tit, Wattled Starling, Purple Roller and Black Scimitarbill.
Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Ruppell's Weaver, Fan-tailed Raven, Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu, Speckled Pigeon, Swainson's Sparrow, Purple Roller, Mocking Cliff Chat, Laughing Dove, Fork-tailed Drongo, Northern Black Flycatcher, Eurasian Hoopoe, Speckle-fronted Weaver, Chestnut-bellied Starling, Tropical Boubou, African Collared Dove, Namaqua Dove, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Eurasian Griffon Vulture, White-winged Black Tit, Greater Blue-eared Starling, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow Weaver, Yellow-fronted Canary, Common Fiscal, African Rock Martin, White-billed Buffalo Weaver, Ruppell's Starling, Red-billed Hornbill, African Thrush, Golden-breasted Bunting, Black Scrub Robin, Black-billed Barbet, Bruce's Green Pigeon, Abdim's Stork, African Grey Hornbill, Black-billed Wood Hoopoe, Blue-naped Mousebird, Little Bee-eater, Pale Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Barbet, Long-crested Eagle, Marico Sunbird, Wattled Starling, Black-crowned Tchagra, Black Scimitarbill, Verreaux's Eagle, Common Bulbul, Montane White-eye, Brubru, Black-headed Batis, Northern Crombec, Green-backed Eremomela, Lanner Falcon.
On the Tsorona road out of Adi Keih, as described above (towards Dekilafay), the first village you come to after 2-3km is Ma'elawia. West of the village are the large flat agricultural plains typical of the highlands. Here there are a few species specific to that habitat. Different species prefer different degrees of rockiness.
Pallid Harrier, Somali Courser, Temminck's Courser, Black-winged Lapwing, Blanford's Lark, Thelka Lark, Long-billed Pipit, Common Kestrel, Groundscraper Thrush, Abyssinian Black Wheatear, Isabelline Wheatear, Northern Wheatear
Senafe Sub Zoba
Emba Soira / Emba Sera
Eritrea's highest mountain, Emba Soira (in Saho) or Emba Sera (in Tigrinya) at over 3000m has some very good birdwatching. As well as the upland habitat, which includes juniper forest and fertile agricultural areas, there are substantial areas of lush, native forest dotted around the mountain, often at the bottom of cliffs which harbour similar rainforest species to Filfil, including several of the Abyssinian endemics. The area is listed as the Senafe IBA on the BirdLife International website. To get to Emba Soira, take the road that goes NE out of Senafe (not the road back to Adi Keih- go down across the bridge towards the market and continue). The first village you arrive at is Tish'a. Go to the right of the school, and continue up Emba Soira. Once on the top, explore around. The road goes nearly to the peak, and there are some good forests, especially south of the mountain. The area is naturally high security at the time of writing, so you should get permission and possibly an escort from local soldiers before going south of the mountain.
Black Kite, Fan-tailed Raven, Baglafecht Weaver, Augur Buzzard, Tawny Eagle, Blue Saw-wing, Hemprich's Hornbill, Lammergeier, African Citril, Speckled Pigeon, African Rock Martin, Brown-rumped Seed-eater, Banded Barbet, Mocking Cliff Chat, Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu, Dusky Turtle Dove, Speckled Mousebird, Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Willow Warbler, Greater Blue-eared Starling, Variable Sunbird, Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting, Ruppell's Black Chat, Thelka Lark, Whinchat, Lanner Falcon, Common Bulbul, Fiscal Shrike, Yellow-mantled Widowbird, Eastern Plantain Eater, White-billed Starling, White-rumped Babbler, Red-rumped Swallow, Tropical Boubou, Erckel's Francolin, Brown Woodland Warbler, Black-winged Lovebird, Nubian Woodpecker, Taccazze Sunbird, White-cheeked Turaco, Ruppell's Robin Chat, Montane White-eye, Northern Puffback, Winding (Ethiopian) Cisticola.
There are two reservoirs due east of Senafe. The town slopes gently down to a stream that feeds both reservoirs. The first is just a couple of kilometres outside of the town and is easy to walk to. To find the second, much larger reservoir, continue down the same valley, which is good for Rouget's Rail and Wattled Ibis, for about 5-6km. As with Emba Soira, the area is high security at the time of writing, and so make sure you check with soldiers near the second reservoir before birdwatching.
Egyptian Goose, Red-knobbed Coot, Common Sandpiper, Three-banded Plover, Yellow-billed Kite, Fan-tailed Raven, Swainson's Sparrow, Feral Pigeon, Long Crested Eagle, Baglafecht Weaver, Laughing Dove, Augur Buzzard, Little Grebe, Maccoa Duck, Tawny Eagle, Hemprich's Hornbill, Lammergeier, African Citril, Speckled Pigeon, African Rock Martin, Brown-rumped Seed-eater, Banded Barbet, Mocking Cliff Chat, Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu, Dusky Turtle Dove, Speckled Mousebird, Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Willow Warbler, Greater Blue-eared Starling, Variable Sunbird, Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting, Ruppell's Black Chat, Thelka Lark, Whinchat, Lanner Falcon, Common Bulbul, Fiscal Shrike, Wattled Ibis, Yellow-mantled Widowbird, Sand Martin, Common Swift, Rouget's Rail
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