Harriers on wintering grounds in Awash NP – Ethiopia

Having seen the Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus), a species of a graceful flying raptor already during trips in September on its migration route along the Black Sea coast near the town of Constanta south of the Danube delta at the Black Sea coast of Romania and north of Astrakhan along the Volga river in Russia I was keen to see this “near-threatened” species during a stay in Ethiopia, too. Before, I had seen Pallid Harriers already on their wintering grounds in South Africa (Kruger Park) and Tanzania (Serengeti). But literature said, that Pallid Harriers occur in Ethiopia during passage and some overwinter, albeit in small numbers. A good bet to try it in the arid environment of the Rift Valley, as Pallid Harriers main wintering grounds are open grasslands and agricultural areas in the savannah belt in Africa, south of the Sahara. But J. Terraube et al. (2011) in an examination of “Broad wintering range and intercontinental migratory divide within a core population of the near-threatened Pallid Harrier” showed that birds wintering in Ethiopia spent the winter in the most anthropized habitats, a mix of pastures and agricultural areas at the vicinity of several villages.

In that combination the perfect place to look for, was in my opinion the Awash National Park. This is because the Park’s location in a region of semi-arid grassland and its accessability only 2 hours drive from our stay near Debre Zeit. We spend a phantastic time in the park, seeing 90 species of birds in just 8 hours (from 9 to 5). In the afternoon we had our first harrier in the eastern part of the central Ilala Sala Plain. A 1st winter individual of Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus), could be seen in Flight gliding gracefully over the savannah of the Ilala Sala Plain. We followed the harrier in a pick-up for a minimum of 5 minutes allowing excellent (and close) shots of the flying birds as you can see in the gallery. One and a half an hours later a male harrier could be seen very well. But again, a Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus) as you see on the image of the blog. But then, after 30 minutes more, there was sitting another harrier. This time you could see a pale collar behind quite a dark-looking head around the neck. The lack of a solid dark trailing edge to inner primaries was obvious when seen the bird in flight. That was a female Pallid Harriers (Circus macrourus) probably a bird in 2nd winter plumage.

According to the birdlife datasheet, the Pallid Harriers breeds primarily in the steppes of Asiatic Russia, Kazakhstan and north-west China. Small numbers winter in south-east and central Europe, north Africa and the Middle East but most migrate to the Afrotropics and the Indian subcontinent.

Both harrier species are superficially similar to the Hen harrier (Circus cyaneus). Females are brown with a whitish rump, juveniles are similar in colour to females but have reddish-brown underparts. Males are pale grey with black wing bars and wing tips, and have a grey rump. Both harriers are (rare) summer visitor or breeders to the western part of Europe. They breed across central/ eastern Europe and Asia, and both over-winter in Africa and India. In the case mentioned above the distinction between female Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers was a bit delicate but could be made because of the good light conditions in the afternoon sun. The best recognition character is the pale collar after quite a dark-looking head around the neck of female and juvenile Pallid Harriers which is not present in the Montagu’s Harriers.

The area which is obviously the wintering ground for both species of harriers is the first national park of Ethiopia and is located approx. 200 km east of Addis Ababa. The Park covers an area of 756 km² with altitudinal range between 750 -2,007 m above sea level (a.s.l.). The Park is situated in a region of semi-arid grassland and xerophilous scrubs. Xerophilous scrub describes a plant community adapted to a dry hot environment. The area was originally designated as a National Park because of the abundance of game and has – also from the touristic point of view – very attractive areas like the point where the Afar triangle joins with the Rift Valley, the Awash water fall and the hot springs, and Mount Fantalle, a dormant volcano with slopes covered with ancient lava flows. It is said, that the Park receive more tourists than any other protected areas of the country but at the time of our visiting in the beginning of November there were only 2 other groups of in total 10 people in the park.

To cope with the growing demand for top shots of the rarer species of the Palearctic Bird-Lens is keen to enrich the range of pictures of birds you can find in the western palearctic. Trips to remote places like this one to capture images of rare birds of western palearctic were very successful. The nice images you find in the gallery are only a first impression, what you will find in the gallery in the “Pictures Shop” very soon. Just give me a message, if Bird-lens could serve you with an image needed before the new pictures are online.

Other successful shootings you can see under: www.bird-lens.com in the pictures shop.

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