Birdwatching in Eritrea

Elabered and Keren


IntroductionDam 6 at Elabered Agricultural Estate, Eritrea

Keren is Eritrea's 3rd largest city, located 2-3 hours drive north west of Asmara mid-way up the western escarpment.  As such the area has an interesting combination of highland and lowland species, as well as several 'escarpment specialists', such as Ruppell's Starling, Black-billed Wood-hoopoe, Marico Sunbird and Black-billed Barbet.


Elabered is an extensive agricultural estate (over 1000 acres) founded in the 1950s near the village of Ieden about 30km further up the escarpment than Keren.  It has higher than average rainfall, and 7 dams fed by the river Anseba.  There is a lot of irrigated intensively-farmed land here that provides much of the fruit and vegetables for Asmara.  There is also extensive mixed native woodland on the estate.  The reservoirs provide habitat for several species that are otherwise rare in this part of Africa.  Dawit Berhane, who has spent many years studying the area has recorded over 180 species on the Elabered Estate alone.  


Debra Sina, near Elabered is the spectacular site of a monastery founded in the 16th century.  More importantly, two of the rarest endemics - White-winged Cliff Chat and Thick-billed Raven have been sighted here.  



Keren - The Keren Hotel in Keren town centre provides good, cheap accommodation at 60-80Nfa per night, and good food in the restaurant.  It has excellent views from the rooftop bar as well.  Tel: 401621.

If you would prefer something a little more luxurious, the recently built Sarina Hotel, located on the main road into town if you are coming from Asmara is the best choice.  Rooms cost between 100 and 300Nfa. per night. Tel: 402301.


Elabered - As Elabered is a privately-run estate, there is no public access.  Luckily, however, visitors are allowed if they book in advance in the office in Asmara (located near Asmara Bowling, Tel: 123840).  You can book accommodation at the Bungalow for 480Nfa. per night (sleeps 4, additional beds can be added) or at the guesthouse (88Nfa. per person per night), both of which are fine, although there is no running water in the guesthouse.  You will also have to pay for a guide for each day you are there (100Nfa. per day), and also for meals which vary between 30 and 100Nfa.  Barbecues can also be arranged.    


Habitat Types

Keren - Riparian woodland, mixed native woodland, mango plantations, ornamental gardens, mountain scrub, acacia scrub.

Elabered - secondary native woodland, riparian woodland, rank forest vegetation, irrigated farmland, euphorbia scrub, acacia scrub, reservoirs.


Birdwatching Highlights of Elabered and Keren

Dam 6 at Elabered is definitely a highlight, as the water from this reservoir is rarely used, meaning it remains topped up all the time, and plenty of vegetation grows around its fringes.  This provides habitat for several rare species, such as both the resident payesii and the migratory minutus Little Bittern subspecies, Black-crowned Night Heron, Purple Heron and Reed Cormorant.  Around Dam 6 there are several woodland specialists common in the thick forest, including Meyer's Parrot, Broad-billed Roller, African Paradise Flycatcher and African Firefinch (at the northernmost limit of it's range).  Elabered also has a lot of other animal species, including Python sp., Leopard, Caracoul, Aardvark, Spotted Hyena and Golden Jackal.  The tracks of many of these species can often be found at dawn on the paths.       


Another highlight is the mango forests along the dry riverbed between Keren and Hamelmalo, which can provide a good day's birdwatching, and, if the mango are in season, tasty refreshment along the way!



Where to Watch Birds


The Shrine of Mariam Daerit, Keren

The Shrine of Mariam Daerit is a Christian shrine inside a large Baobab tree.  It is surrounded by a park with quite a few native tree species, and just behind it is an irrigated orange plantation.  It is located just on the northern edge of Keren and is easily accessible from the town centre, even on foot.  To get there from Keren town centre roundabout, take the road that leads up past the post office on your left, straight on (slightly right, in fact) at the mini-roundabout, then past the Keren Hotel on your right.  This road continues down a slight hill and then turns into an unsurfaced road which leads to Afabet or Fredarb.  Just after the tarmac ends, there is a road to the right that leads down to the Shrine. See below for bird species.


Mango Plantations between Keren and HamelmaloMango and native tree species along river Anseba, Eritrea

If you follow the same road out of Keren, as described above (towards Afabet), about 100m past the turn off for the shrine, the road will cross a ford over a (usually) dry river bed.  This dry river bed is one of the best places to birdwatch in Keren.  Alongside it there are lots of large trees and bushes.  If you walk to the right downstream along the riverbed (some clambering involved initially, then it gets easier!), it will take you past the Shrine of Mariam Daerit, and then on down towards the river Anseba, about 7-10km away.  Along the way, large mango trees begin to appear, and if they're in season, you can usually find a few for a nice snack!  Once this small river runs into the Anseba, you can continue and find even more trees and birds all the way to Hamelmalo.  Alternatively, if you don't fancy the walk, take the Afabet road out of town, and birdwatch wherever the river comes close to the road.  Note that there is a checkpoint shortly out of Keren on this road.  


Abdim's Stork, African Sacred Ibis, Egyptian Goose, Black Kite, White-backed Vulture, Dark Chanting Goshawk, African Mourning Dove, Red-eyed Dove, Laughing Dove, Bruce's Green Pigeon, Ring-necked Parakeet, Meyer's Parrot, Eastern Grey Plantain Eater, African Palm Swift, Speckled Mousebird, Blue-naped Mousebird, Black-billed Wood Hoopoe, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Abyssinian Roller, Northern Red-billed Hornbill, African Grey Hornbill, Hemprich's Hornbill, Black-billed Barbet, Yellow-breasted Barbet, Ethiopian Swallow, Fork-tailed Drongo, Fan-tailed Raven, Common Bulbul, African Thrush, Blackcap, Grey-backed Cameroptera, African Paradise Flycatcher, Black-crowned Tchagra, Tropical Boubou, Ruppell's Starling, Greater Blue-eared Starling, Violet-backed Starling, Red-billed Oxpecker, Marico Sunbird, Beautiful Sunbird, Abyssinian White-eye, Grey-headed Sparrow, House Sparrow, Speckle-fronted Weaver, Ruppell's Weaver, Red-billed Firefinch, African Silverbill, Red-cheeked Cordonbleu, Red-billed Quelea, Northern Red Bishop


Elabered EstateDam 6 at Elabered provides some of the best birdwatching

The Elabered Agricultural Estate is strongly recommended as one of the best places in Eritrea to watch birds.  As well as being at the optimum height on the western escarpment to attract higher-than-average levels of precipitation, the river Anseba is diverted to fill 7 substantial dams, one of which (dam 6) is rarely used, and therefore has developed into a lake, with rushes and other vegetation around the edges.  There are good tracts of secondary growth native woodland and plenty of streams overgrown with riparian and rank vegetation.  The whole estate is good for birdwatching, as indeed are the surrounding hills and nearby valleys.  To get there, take the Keren road out of Asmara.  The road drops down off the central highland plateau and passes several small villages before coming to Elabered.  The estate entrance is clearly marked by a big gate on your left, where the main administration offices are.  Large sheds can be seen on both sides of the road.  Continue along the road 1km to get to the village of Ieden, where many of the estate workers live, and where a rudimentary hotel can be found.  As mentioned above, in order to get access onto the estate, you need to go to the office in Asmara and book in advance.  Even if you don't want to stay there, you will still have to book a guide and pay the entrance fee.  Once on the estate the guide will show you round.  Depending on how much time you have, you should visit the following locations, listed in order of importance:

  •   Dam 6 and surrounding forest

  •   Dam 5 and Dam 3

  •   Native woodland around Dam 4 and fields just down past Dam 4.

  •   Dam 1 and 2 and the forest just downstream of Dam 1

  •   Forest and scrub just south of Dam 1 

Click here to see a photographed map of the estate



Little Grebe, Reed Cormorant, Cattle Egret, Grey Heron, Black-headed Heron, Squacco Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Little Bittern, Purple Heron, Hammerkop, African Sacred Ibis, Pink-backed Pelican, Abdim's Stork, Black-shouldered Kite, African Harrier Hawk, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Gabar Goshawk, Helmeted Guineafowl, Clapperton's Francolin, Common Moorhen, Senegal Thick-knee, Spur-winged Plover, Three-banded Plover, Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper, White-winged Tern, Speckled Pigeon, Dusky Turtle Dove, Red-eyed Dove, Laughing Dove, Black-billed Wood Dove, Bruce's Green Pigeon, Namaqua Dove, Meyer's Parrot, Eastern Grey Plantain Eater, Klaas's Cuckoo, Barn Owl, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Little Swift, White-rumped Swift, Nyanza Swift, Speckled Mousebird, Blue-naped Mousebird, Black-billed Wood Hoopoe, Malachite Kingfisher, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Broad-billed Roller, Abyssinian Roller, Little Bee-eater, Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Northern Red-billed Hornbill, African Grey Hornbill, Hemprich's Hornbill, Yellow-breasted Barbet, Black-billed Barbet, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Nubian Woodpecker, Sand Martin, Red-rumped Swallow, Lesser Striped Swallow, Ethiopian Swallow, Fork-tailed Drongo, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Common Bulbul, African Thrush, Mocking Cliff-chat, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Green-backed Eremomela, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Northern Crombec, African Paradise Flycatcher, Black-crowned Tchagra, Tropical Boubou, Red-winged Starling, Violet-backed Starling, Greater Blue-eared Starling, Variable Sunbird, Shining Sunbird, Beautiful Sunbird, Marico Sunbird, Abyssinian White-eye, House Sparrow, Swainson's Sparrow, Bush Petronia, Speckle-fronted Weaver, Ruppell's Weaver, Baglafecht Weaver, Little Weaver, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow Weaver, Northern Red Bishop, Red-billed Quelea, Red-billed Firefinch, African Firefinch, African Silverbill, Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu, Crimson-rumped Waxbill, Pin-tailed Whydah, White-rumped Seed- eater, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting


Debra Sina

To get to Debra Sina, it is possible to walk from Elabered, but it's a day long, tiring walk uphill.  Alternatively, take the Afabet road out of Keren.  Just after the first checkpoint, take the road to the right, that passes over a dry riverbed ford.  This road leads to Fredarb and then on to Debra Sina.  The scenery is spectacular, and two of the most elusive endemics can be seen here.


Thick-billed Raven, White-winged Cliff Chat



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