Summary. A short visit to Eritrea in April 2017 resulted in several significant observations, including two new species for the country (Black-winged Pratincole Glareola nordmanni and Trumpeter Finch Bucanetes githagineus). In addition, the known altitudinal limits were extended for some others and minor range extensions were recorded for c.30 species. It is clear that there is still much to be discovered concerning the birds of this rarely visited country.
Eritrea is one of the least-known countries in Africa. It is situated along the southern Red Sea coast of north-east Africa, bordered by Ethiopia to the south and Sudan to the west and north. Eritrea achieved independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a long and bitter struggle, but has been rarely visited by birders in the past few decades, mainly due to the political situation. However, this safe country is currently welcoming birdwatchers and wildlife tourists. In April 2017, I was invited by the Ministry of Agriculture to visit Eritrea to assess its potential for wildlife tourism and to help train some of their staff in bird identification. From 19–29 April I travelled through central Eritrea, visiting several sites around Asmara (2,100–2,300 m), a state-owned farm at Elabered (near Keren) at 1,500 m, the western town of Agordat (650 m) on the banks of the Barka River in Gash-Barka province, the unique rainforest at Semenawi Bahri (commonly referred to as the Filfil escarpment) at 750–1,800 m, and the coast around Massawa.
A total of 247 species was seen during this short visit, and a number of significant observations for Eritrea were made.
Although Eritrea is relatively poorly known ornithologically, its avifauna was mapped by Ash & Atkins (2009) following a 30-year atlas project in which thousands of bird records from Ethiopia and Eritrea were plotted on half-degree squares. During my trip, I visited six of their numbered squares (10b, 11a, 11b, 11d, 12a and 12c; Fig. 1).
Although these squares, centred on Asmara and extending west to Agordat and east to Massawa, are probably some of the best-known in Eritrea, I still observed several species that had not been recorded before in one or more of them. The majority of these minor range extensions (listed at the end of the paper) were made in square 11b, at Elabered State Farm. This extensive, well-irrigated site with seven semi-natural dams is clearly a magnet for both residents and migrants, and would undoubtedly benefit from further exploration. In addition, the known altitudinal limits were extended for several other species, and two species were apparently recorded for the first time in Eritrea (I also report a third new species for the country, seen prior to my visit by my host).
The status of the species listed below is assessed via comparison with Ash & Atkins (2009) and Redman et al. (2011), the two principal (and most recent) ornithological references for the region. The half-degree square locations of the main sites visited are as follows: Asmara (11d), Elabered (11b), Agordat (10b), Filfil escarpment (11b) and Massawa (12a). All dates refer to April 2017.
- -Species accounts
-Black-winged Pratincole Glareola nordmanni One was observed on Dam 5 at Elabered State Farm, near Keren, on 24 April; this is the first confirmed record for Eritrea of this Central Asian breeder, whose migration route to its wintering grounds in southern Africa lies to the west of the country. It is a rare autumn passage migrant in Ethiopia, and some apparently winter along the Baro River, on the border between western Ethiopia and South Sudan. Ash & Atkins (2009) map an ‘uncertain record’ in the Barentu area (10d), but give no further detail.
I first saw this bird hawking low over the water of the dam, initially expecting it to be a Collared Pratincole G. pratincola. It soon settled at the water’s edge where the individual was observed using a telescope for several minutes. The tail was relatively short, with the wingtips extending beyond the tail. It then took off, and proceeded to fly directly overhead in an easterly direction.
From below, at close range, the lack of chestnut on the underwing-coverts and the lack of white trailing edge to the secondaries confirmed the identification.
- -African Olive Pigeon Columba arquatrix Two singles seen in flight on 26th and 27th, in the vicinity of Medhanit Recreation Centre, Filfil escarpment, at c.1,100 m. This widespread African species was only recently discovered in Eritrea (Anderson 2010) and the small population at Filfil is the most northerly in Africa.
- -African Collared Dove Streptopelia roseogrisea At least ten were seen at Aderde, between Kerenand Agordat, on 24th, at 800 m elevation. Ash & Atkins (2009) state that the species rarely occurs above 300 m, although there are records from higher altitudes in Ethiopia (regularly up to 1,000 m and occasionally to 1,800 m). In Eritrea, J. Anderson (in litt. 2017) has an unpublished record of two birds in Asmara in September 2008, at 2,400 m. The birds at Aderde were very pale (Fig. 2) and may refer to nominate roseogrisea, although Eritrean birds are usually considered to be S. r. arabica.
- -Ring-necked Dove Streptopelia capicola This widespread and familiar African species was fairly common in the Gahtelai–Demas area (between Asmara and Massawa) on 27th in squares 12a and 12c, confirming the presence of the species in Eritrea; singles and pairs were seen and heard at several sites on the coastal plain, at c.300 m; at one site near Demas they occurred alongside Vinaceous Dove S. vinacea. Ash & Atkins (2009) show only ‘uncertain records’ in four squares and the species is not mapped for the country in Redman et al. (2011). However, Ringnecked Dove was recorded in coastal lowland and in the Mareb River catchment, up to 1,650 m, in March and April 1997 (Zinner 2001).
- -Blue-spotted Wood Dove Tutur afer Commonly seen and heard on the Filfil escarpment on 26th and 27th, up to at least 1,500 m at Sabur Recreation Centre. Ash & Atkins (2009) state that it is only found below 1,220 m in Eritrea, although it is known to occur to 1,820 m in Ethiopia. Elsewhere in Eritrea, I only observed Black-billed Wood Dove T. abyssinicus, which was particularly common at Elabered at 1,500 m, their upper elevational limit according to Ash & Atkins.
- -Bruce’s Green Pigeon Treron waalia Two in a fruiting fig at Adi Ke (2,100 m), on the outskirts of Asmara, extend the known upper altitudinal limit by 200 m. However, J. Anderson (in litt. 2017) has several unpublished records from Adi-Keyih and Senafe in 2008–09 at 2,400 m, and it seems probable that the species regularly occurs up to that altitude.
- -African Scops Owl Otus senegalensis Two, presumably a pair, were seen and heard in the grounds of the accommodation compound at Elabered on 22nd and 23rd. This is the first record for square 11b, although I was informed by the scientific staff at the state farm that this owl is always present in the compound and is heard most nights. African Scops Owl is uncommon in Eritrea and probably under-recorded. Ash & Atkins (2009) show records from six squares but state that they could trace no records for 90 years.
- -Montane Nightjar Caprimulgus poliocephalus One seen and heard at Medhanit Recreation Centre on the Filfil escarpment on 26th, extending its known range north by c.100 km. The species occurs discontinuously in mountains throughout eastern Africa, reaching northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. Ash & Atkins (2009) state that ‘it is likely to be found in highland Eritrea, but has not been recorded there yet’. In February and April 2009, Montane Nightjar was discovered in the southern highlands of Eritrea (Anderson 2010).
My sighting is therefore the first published record of Montane Nightjar north of Asmara. However, the species is listed for Semenawi Bahri (Filfil) on the BirdLife International website but without details. I have traced this record to an unpublished reference to Montane Nightjar being heard by Dr T. Butynski on the Filfil escarpment in February 1995 (Butynski 1995).
- -Unidentified nightjars Caprimulgus spp. A single nightjar was seen hawking over the town of Agordat during the night of 25th. No species of nightjar is recorded for square 10b in Ash & Atkins (2009). A migrant European Nightjar C. europaeus is a possibility, but equally an undiscovered resident population of nightjars, e.g. Long-tailed C. climacurus, could be present in the Agordat region. A large dark nightjar flushed from a dirt road near Gahtelai at dusk on 27th could also have been European, although resident Dusky C. fraenatus is also a possibility.
- -African Palm Swift Cypsiurus parvus One seen at Elabered State Farm on 24th, at 1,500 m. This is the first record for square 11b, and it also represents a small increase in the upper altitudinal limit.
- -Abyssinian Woodpecker Dendropicos abyssinicus A male was seen in a fruiting fig (Ficus) at Adi Ke (2,100 m), on the outskirts of Asmara, on 20th. The relatively intact surrounding habitat, with a profusion of mature euphorbias, held several other Abyssinian highland endemics including Banded Barbet Lybius undatus. Abyssinian Woodpecker is rather uncommon in Eritrea and this is the first record for square 11d.
- -Marsh Warbler Acrocephalus palustris Seen at Elabered, near Keren (two on 22nd and one on 23rd) and on the Filfil escarpment (one on 26th), all in square 11b. According to Ash & Atkins (2009) this species is very rare in Eritrea, with just three autumn records listed and none in spring. However, J. Anderson (pers. comm.) recorded Marsh Warblers near Adi-Keyih on several occasions in autumn 2008 and spring 2009, and it seems likely that the species is underrecorded in Eritrea.
- -Icterine Warbler Hippolais icterina One at Aderde (11a), between Keren and Agordat, on 24th is apparently the first spring record in Eritrea. According to Ash & Atkins (2009) there are only two or three historical autumn records in Eritrea, although the species is more frequent in Ethiopia.
- -White-headed Babbler Turdoides leucocephala Common in mature woodland along the Barka River at Agordat on 25th, at 650 m (Fig. 3), but elsewhere only the more widespread Whiterumped Babbler T. leucopygia was seen (in Eritrea, the local forms of the latter also have a white head). White-headed Babbler is a restrictedrange species, confined to east Sudan, north-west Ethiopia and western Eritrea.
- -Eastern Orphean Warbler Sylvia crassirostris Two seen together at Elabered, near Keren, on 23rd, a new record for square 11b. This is a late record for the species, whose extreme dates in the region are recorded by Ash & Atkins (2009) as mid November to late March; there are no previous April records and just a single (historical) May record Red-winged Onychognathus morio and Somali.
- -Starlings O. blythi The status of these two species in Eritrea is confused, with apparently no recent records of Red-winged (Ash & Atkins 2009). By contrast, Somali Starling is reported to be common throughout its range in Eritrea. Zinner (2001) also recorded Somali Starling as fairly common, including breeding birds in Asmara, but reported no Red-winged Starlings.
During my visit, I observed Red-winged Starlings frequently and in good numbers, notably in Asmara, Elabered and Filfil, but not a single Somali Starling was identified. J. Anderson (in litt. 2017) also observed Red-winged on numerous occasions during his stay in 2008–09, but no Somali Starlings. It seems possible that previous observers have misidentified these two species, although females should be easily distinguishable given reasonable views.
- -Red-breasted Wheatear Oenanthe bottae One seen near Asmara on 20th. The species is surprisingly rare in Eritrea, with only three previous records listed by Ash & Atkins (2009) and a single additional record listed by Zinner (2001). Further south, it is common on the highland plateau of Ethiopia.
- -Sudan Golden Sparrow Passer luteus Large flocks were recorded along the Barka River at Agordat on 25th, at 650 m. This represents a new record for square 10b, and an increase in its upper altitudinal limit (given as 400 m by Redman et al. 2011). Although it occurs commonly along the Sudan border in the west, and the coastal plain from the Sudan border to Massawa in the east, Ash & Atkins (2009) mention only a single site in western Eritrea (in adjacent square 11a). Its presence in Agordat is not unexpected.
- -Trumpeter Finch Bucanetes githagineus During my visit, while examining photographs of Eritrean birds taken by F. Hagos, I was surprised to find some of Trumpeter Finches (Figs. 4–5), a species unknown in Eritrea. These were taken in northern Dankalia region on two dates, two years apart. His initial sighting was of ten birds at Colluli at 120 m below sea level in July 2013, followed by 20 at Asa-ila (20 m above sea level) in May 2015.
Trumpeter Finch has a rather enigmatic distribution in the Horn of Africa, being previously recorded only in Djibouti, where it is considered rare and perhaps only a non-breeding visitor (all records December–March). These records constitute the first for Eritrea, but whether the species is resident or a visitor to the region remains to be discovered. It appears likely, however, that there is a resident population in this little-known region of Eritrea.
- -Yellow-crowned Canary Serinus flavivertex A pair was seen at a nest in a large roadside tree in central Asmara on 19th. This is apparently the first breeding record for Eritrea, although the species is evidently common in Asmara.
- -Other new distributional records
Records of the following species represent minor range extensions in Eritrea, being the first for the half-degree squares listed below.
Great Egret Ardea alba 11b, 11d; Brown
Snake Eagle Circaetus cinereus 11b; Booted Eagle
Hieraaetus pennatus 11b; Little Stint Calidris
minuta 11b; Temminck’s Stint C. temminckii
11b; Rock Dove (feral) Columba livia 11a;
Mourning Collared Dove (African Mourning
Dove) Streptopelia decipiens 11b; Giant Kingfisher
Megaceryle maxima 11b; Pied Kingfisher Ceryle
rudis 11b; Eurasian Hobby Falco subbuteo 11b;
Black-headed Gonolek Laniarius erythrogaster
10b; Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica 10b; Willow
Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus 10b, 11a, 11b;
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler Iduna pallida 10b,
11b; Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis 11b; Lesser
Blue-eared Starling Lamprotornis chloropterus 11b;
African Thrush Turdus pelios 10b; Pale Flycatcher
Melaenornis pallidus 10b; Marico Sunbird Cinnyris
mariquensis 10b; Shining Sunbird C. habessinicus
11d; Northern Red Bishop Euplectes franciscanus
11b; African Pipit (Grassland Pipit) Anthus
cinnamomeus 11b; Tawny Pipit A. campestris 11b;
Red-throated Pipit A. cervinus 11b.
- – Acknowledgements
I thank the Minister of Agriculture, Mr Arefaine Berhe, and the Director of Wildlife Conservation, Mr Futsum Hagos for inviting me to Eritrea and for facilitating my visit in many ways. I am also very grateful to Mr Aytekin Uyar of Turkish Airlines for kindly providing my flight to Eritrea, and Dr Seife Berhe for help with transportation. I thank Helen Teklebrhan and Natu Beyene, who cheerfully accompanied me and showed great promise as birders. Jason Anderson, a long-time champion of birding in Eritrea, is thanked for advice, helpful discussions and comments on this paper, and I thank Julie Dando for drawing the map. Finally, I am deeply grateful to Solomon Abraha, with whom I have been corresponding for a number of years and without whose enthusiasm and persistence my visit would have been impossible.
Anderson, J. 2010. First records of eight bird species for
Eritrea. Bull. ABC 17: 66–70.
Ash, J. & Atkins, J. 2009. Birds of Ethiopia and Eritrea:
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Butynski, T. M. 1995. Surveys of antelopes, primates
and other wildlife in Eritrea. Unpubl. trip report.
Redman, N., Stevenson, T. & Fanshawe, J. 2011. Birds
of the Horn of Africa. Second edn. London, UK:
Zinner, D. 2001. Ornithological notes from a primate
survey in Eritrea. Bull. ABC 8: 95–106.
Hollyhocks, Edgefield Road, Briston, Norfolk NR24 2HX,
UK. E-mail: email@example.com
Received 3 June 2017; revision accepted 12 June 2017.