Didessa river

A dot in a map

As I have already mentioned the Didessa valley, between Bedele and Arjo, was one of our favourite exploring spots over the weekends. After a few visits, during one of our walks along one of the smaller tributaries of the Didessa river, the Legedema, we saw a kingfisher flying fast as usual along the semi-dry riverbed.

Curious, we followed it and watched it for a few seconds before it flew away to an area where we could not find it. We thought it to be one of the tree species belonging to the Halcyon genus, probably the Woodland kingfisher (H. senegalensis). However, we believed that we caught a shade of blue on its breast and we kept our options open for it to be a Blue-breasted kingfisher (H. malimbica). We had watched both species while in Kenya, so we had some idea about kingfishers.

Once at home in Bedele, as usual, we checked the birds we had seen with the Checklist of the birds of Ethiopia [1]. We noted that, although the Woodland kingfisher was included, the Blue-breasted was absent. So, things started to look interesting and the situation required follow-up and we decided to go back at the next opportunity to have another look.

Although work postponed the visit, we eventually made it and looked for the bird, now alert to detect the salient features of the different species. We found it but it was not easy to approach because of the terrain. Despite this, after watching it for a while, we both agreed that we were looking at the unlisted, Blue-breasted kingfisher, its bright blue breast unmistakable.

Aware of the importance of a new species for the country, the next time we were in Addis, I contacted the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (EWNHS) to inform them of our find and to confirm that there was no other record of the bird that we did not know. They did not know of any other observation and they suggested that I should bring the bird to be examined, something I explained I would not do! I realized that I needed to break through their scepticism, and we returned to Bedele determined to get pictures that would prove our “discovery” without the need of collecting the bird.

At the next opportunity, we travelled to the Legedema river area and we spent hours following the bird from one end to the other of the riverbed, often crawling through sand, rocks, water and vegetation, only to find that it was either too far for my zoom lens or watching it taking off to the other end of the river before being able to take its picture. Then it was back to crawling towards the place it had flown to!

After a couple of days of walking/crawling along the river, under the amused watch of Mabel, I managed to take a few pictures that I thought could be decent enough to prove the identity of the bird and eventually convince the EWNHS that the bird was what I said.

A few “mates” to regain energy during the tough bird chase!

Although I had taken pictures the films still needed to be developed as in 1989 there were no electronic cameras. Because of the kind of film I used, the rolls needed to go outside Ethiopia to get developed and printed so I was not yet sure of the fruits of my work!

In comes our good friend Ranjini (from our Kenya days) that kindly agreed to receive the film in the UK, get it developed and choose what she considered as the best shots to get them enlarged to show the bird as clearly as possible.

A few weeks passed until we got a large envelope that contained the print negatives and a few enlargements that, although very bad from a photographer’s viewpoint, showed beyond doubt that the bird had indeed enough blue in its breast to qualify for a kingfisher of the Blue-breasted kind, a new record for Ethiopia!

I immediately sent the pictures to the EWNHS and they accepted the find. They also invited us to one of their meetings to present our finding. The latter was well attended by an interested crowd and they gave me a nice green tie with the EWNHS logo to recognize the find!

We wrote a Short Communication that was accepted for publication by Scopus in September 1989, a couple of months before leaving Ethiopia. It was published in May 1990 [2]. In it we explained the circumstances of our find and gave details of its approximate location, speculating that it could be also present in the Didessa river itself and/or its tributaries.

Our move to Zambia towards the end of 1989 took all our efforts and we soon forgot the kingfisher to focus on more important issues related to our new posting and the arrival of our children that left very little time for birdwatching or even thinking about it! Then, in October 1991 we received a letter from the late John S. Ash [3] that referred to our publication. I quote:

“…After living in Ethiopia for 8 1/2 years … It was … extremely interested to see your very interesting observations of Blue-breasted Kingfishers. I have to admit that at first I was sceptical but on looking into it further was able to convince myself that I had also come across the species not far from your locality, and then re-found an even older Italian record [4] which I had relegated to an “improbable” file many years ago.”

“… In commiserating with you on your loss of an addition to the Ethiopian list I congratulate you on rediscovering it and being instrumental in putting it on the map… I enclose a draft of a note I have prepared for Scopus and shall be most grateful for any comments you have on it…”

So it was that our belief of having “discovered” a new bird species for Ethiopia was dashed and it became a “re-discovery” of a bird that had been seen first in 1959 and subsequently misidentified as the Woodland kingfisher by Mr. Ash.

However, in the light of our finding, in his paper [5] Mr. Ash revised his earlier observations and, luckily, he was able to contact Professor C.H. Fry that accepted our record for inclusion in a monograph of the kingfishers where a small green dot in Ethiopia is all we achieved after all our efforts! [6]

A dot in the map! The Blue-breasted kingfisher in Ethiopia. Credit: Print screen from BirdLife.org (Accessed on 6 January 2021). http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/blue-breasted-kingfisher-halcyon-malimbica?gclid=Cj0KCQiA3NX_BRDQARIsALA3fIJHYxNCgl8BCtJoFkA4Z6wvIrYQS6M4Vhm_2CNWE_gSzcX48yh8stoaAvHFEALw_wcB

[1] Urban K. and Brown, L.H. (1971). A Checklist of the Birds of Ethiopia. Haile Sellassie I University Press. pp. 143.

[2] de Castro, J.J. and de Castro, M. (1990). The Blue-breasted Kingfisher (Alcyon malimbica) in South-West Ethiopia. Scopus 14: 22.

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ash_(ornithologist) and https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2014/feb/09/john-ash-obituary

[4] Toschi, A. (1959). Contributo alla Ornitofauna d’Etiopia. Ricerche di Zoologia Applicata alla Caccia 2: 301-412.

[5] Ash, J.S. (1992). An apparently isolated population of blue-breasted kingfishers Halcyon malimbica in Ethiopia. Scopus 16: 14-17.

[6] Fry, C. H.; Fry, K.; Harris, A. (1992). Kingfishers Bee-Eaters and Rollers. Editorial: Russel Friedman Books CC, Halfway House, South Africa Editors.

The Didessa river valley

Once we realized that traveling beyond the project area required permits and fuel that was not easily available without almost begging it from the Bedele Administrator, we decided to spend our time exploring the area around Bedele.

The way to Arjo.

After a few trips we discovered that the road leading to the near town of Arjo crossed the Didessa river and its lovely valley and we chose it as our prime destination for day trips and we spent several Sundays there, birdwatching, walking, fishing or just relaxing with a picnic.

The beautiful Didessa river.

The road to Arjo was one of the roads that crossed the Didessa, the other one being the road between Jimma and Bedele that crossed it again near the town of Agaro. However, this trip was much further, and the road was quite busy.

The Didessa river is a tributary of the Abay River. It originates in the mountains of Gomma, flowing towards the northwest to its confluence with the Abay. It drains about 19,630 square kilometres and in the early 1900 it was a favourite place for elephants, attracted by the young shoots of its abundant bamboo forest.

Although there were no elephants left when we were there, the river still had hippos that we used to see often although they clearly did not like to see us, rather wary of humans as they were not protected inside a national park!

Our initial visit was after the first rainy season that we spent in Bedele and we went for a picnic with Janni and baby Winand (her son). It was a very quiet affair that opened up our appetite to return on a more adventurous approach.

One of our first visits to the Didessa.

We did this soon afterwards and learn a few things.

Being adventurous, we decided to enter an unmarked track that seem to follow the river with the hope that we would get closer to it at some stage while we kept an eye for wildlife. While driving we noted that the road was getting softer and that the tsetse flies were becoming more abundant as we advanced.

A close-up of the tsetse flies.

As the road was now a swamp and the tsetse flies were becoming too numerous for comfort, despite the heat we closed the windows while looking for a place to turn around to avoid having to reverse all the way back!

Tsetse flies were quite abundant!

Although we just escaped death by exsanguination by the flies, the road kept worsening and eventually, we could not go forward anymore. We were stuck in wet black cotton soil, a bad medium to get buried in!

Stuck and trying to get out.
The situation getting worse!

After digging a couple of hours and lifting the car to use the spare wheel to at least have one wheel on a firm surface, the car moved, and we managed to reverse fast miraculously keeping to the track as I am a bad driver on reverse gear. Luckily, soon we were on firmer ground and we were able to turn around and depart from this truly mud trap.

Reversing to get out of the mud.

Although we got out of the mud, we did not escape the flies and we were beaten really bad, something that reminded me of a similar situation in the Nguruman mountains of Kenya that I described earlier (see https://bushsnob.com/2019/07/01/the-nguruman-escarpment/).

Tsetse bites were quite bad.
More bites.

That day we decided that we would stick to the main road that, in any case was wild enough as there was almost no traffic, apart from a few horse riders or the occasional group of people bringing a sick or dead person from the rural area to the Bedele clinic or cemetery, depending on the circumstances. Life for the farmers was very tough!

Riders going to a celebration.
People walking on the Arjo road, probably taking a dead villager for burial.

It was on that road that on two occasions we met some of the true “wild” lions we had seen. The first time Mabel spotted a lioness and when we returned to the spot a while later, -very luckily- we found a female and two cubs. We were truly impressed as we did not expect to find them in that area despite the presence of some large tracts of forest. I am sure that there were not many wild lions in that area of Ethiopia at the time!

Some of the forested areas goint to Arjo.
Luckily I managed to photograph a lioness before it disappeared in the thicket.

Arjo was also one of the project’s tick observation sites and we would cross the bridge quite often when going to our tick sites. Every time we crossed it, I made a comment to my Ethiopian colleagues that we should try our hand at fishing one day.

So, the fishing day arrived once the rains were over and the level of the river had gone down to enable us to reach a place below the bridge from where we could throw our lines. I only had beef as bait and that was what we used as I did not know what to expect. I hoped that crocodiles were not abundant!

The fishing expedition included Solomon, both of us and Tilahun, another veterinarian working with the tsetse and trypanosomiasis project. He was probably the most enthusiastic of the group! We casted our chunk of meat down the river and waited while we talked and enjoyed a good picnic. Fish were quiet and fishing was quickly forgotten until one of the reels started to scream and Tilahun got it and, eventually, brought in a reasonable fish.

An excited Tilahun (left), Solomon (holding the fish) and the bushsnob with the rod, celebrating the catch!
Weighing the fish back home.

It was the only fish we caught that day (and in that place for that matter) but it was enough for us to enjoy the rest of the afternoon, particularly Tilahun that I think had never caught a reasonable sized fish before!

We took it back to Bedele as our companions wished to eat it and I weighed. It was 3.75kg but I am not sure of how it tasted!

The fish.

I believe that we caught a Labeobarbus bynni, a species that can reach 80 cm in length and that inhabits the Nile river system feeding on crustaceans, insects, molluscs and organic debris, including our meat!