Category Archives: Filoha

Filoha Birds

Some years ago, I learned that one of the keys to happiness is birding. I was serving as a lecturer on a tour of parks and game reserves of southern Tanzania. We went to some amazing places — but the people devoted to spotting mammals were often unhappy. The woman who desperately wanted to see a leopard was deeply disappointed, as we didn’t see one. I told her I had spent years doing fieldwork in Africa but had only seen a leopard once; this provided little consolation for her. She had paid lots of money for this trip, and she wanted to see a leopard. At Mahale, the tour split into two groups, one of which had luck finding chimpanzees, while the other group didn’t. The people who didn’t see chimpanzees were bitterly disappointed and spent the rest of the trip drinking deeper into the supply of white wine. At Selous, a vast and magnificent game reserve, people complained, “We didn’t see anything today! Just zebras and giraffes. Oh, and hippos and elephants.” For the people focused on seeing mammals, seeing herds of amazing megafauna quickly became routine, shadowed by their unsatisfied desire to see something even more charismatic.

The birders, however, were happy everywhere we went. Even at the end of the trip, at the Dar-es-Salaam airport, one cheerful white-haired birder was delighted to see house sparrows, which boosted his total count of bird species seen on this trip to over 100.

As the Buddha said:

If you desire those desires that will be satisfied, you will be satisfied; if you desire those desires which will be frustrated, you will be frustrated.

Surprisingly, few people seem to be aware of birds. People don’t look up. While walking across the Washington Avenue Bridge between the West and East Bank campuses of the University of Minnesota, I have often seen a bald eagle soaring overhead – and crowds of people walking underneath the eagle, oblivious to it. The key to happiness is right there, and yet people ignore it.

Birds are more diverse than mammals, in terms of number of species: perhaps 10,000 birds, compared to about 5,000 mammals. Birds are mostly active during the day, when they are easy to see, whereas most mammals are active by night. Nearly 60% of all mammal species are either rodents (~2000 species) or bats (~925 species), which are mostly nocturnal. In a city like Minneapolis, most of the resident mammals are either nocturnal or crepuscular. In my urban neighborhood near the Mississippi River, we have many mammals: bats, shrews, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits,  woodchucks, skunks, raccoons, opossums, and even foxes, coyotes, beavers and deer. Despite this diversity, most of these mammals stay hidden  during the day. Birds, in contrast, are more conspicuous: often brightly colored and active during daylight hours.

Why do birds rule the day, while mammals rule the night? Because birds are dinosaurs. During the Mesozoic, when dinosaurs ruled the world, mammals were tiny things, cowering in the trees or squirreled away in their burrows, daring to come out only at night.

Our perception of dinosaurs is distorted because only the flying dinosaurs survived the Chicxulub meteor impact in the Yucatán 66 million years ago. It’s like if we lived in an alternate universe where the only mammals that survived on earth were bats. (New Zealand was like this before human settlers arrived; it was a land dominated by giant flightless birds, with no land mammals except for bats.) Then if we found fossils of elephants and hippos we would be amazed at these giant creatures of the past and find it hard to believe they were at all related to the little flitting bats.

After the Chicxulub impact ruined the world for flightless dinosaurs , some mammals gradually evolved daytime habits. But most mammals remain creatures of the night and twilight. Nocturnal habits mark mammals as a group. Ancestral mammals lost the full color vision of their fishy ancestors. Most fish, amphibians, reptiles and birds have four types of color receptor (cone cells) in their retinas, whereas most mammals have only one or two kinds of cone cell. With the value of vision reduced by darkness, mammals rely more on scent and touch, their faces marked by moist noises, large nasal passages, and sensory hairs. In contrast, birds, like their dinosaur ancestors, continue to rule the day.

Primates are among the few mammalian groups that are mainly active by day. Some primates, such as bushbabies and many lemurs, retain the primitive mammalian traits: moist noses, 2-cone color vision, and nocturnal habits. But other major primate groups have evolved dry noses (part of a reduced reliance on smell), 3-cone color vision, and daytime habits. They can afford to do this because, like tree squirrels, they rely on the safety of trees to protect them from predators. (Even in trees, though, primates still have to worry about predatory dinosaurs. Crowned hawk eagles in Africa kill monkeys as large as adult red colobus monkeys. The Taung child, the first fossil hominin discovered in Africa, was killed and eaten by an eagle.)

One of the great pleasures of visiting Filoha was the abundance of birds.

The mammal fauna of Awash National Park has been severely depleted by hunting and by competition with pastoralists. There are no more elephants or rhinoceroses. Larger antelope are scarce or shy, though I glimpsed a lesser kudu bounding across the road, and from time to time saw a dik-dik scampering through the brush off to the side of the road: beautiful tiny little fairy antelope. Because so many cattle, sheep, goats and camels graze in the park, food is scarce for other herbivores. And because of the people herding the livestock, most larger mammals stay hidden during the day. But the birds are there.

Because the trees are small and sparse, the birds are easy to see. I saw Hoopoes several times, though never when I had my camera handy. These are lovely brown birds with elegant crests. White-headed Buffalo Weavers emerged frequently from the acacia trees.

White Headed Buffalo Weaver
White Headed Buffalo Weaver
White Headed Buffalo Weaver in Flight
White Headed Buffalo Weaver in Flight

Weavers as a group are fascinating birds. Living up to their name, they build tightly woven nests in trees, with a characteristic nest shape for each species. The nests commonly have a snail-like shape to deter predators: an opening at the bottom, leading around a corner to a nest cavity. (Though even these clever nests are not perfect protection from predators: I have seen redtailed monkeys and harrier hawks reach into these nests and pluck out baby birds.)

Weaver bird nest
Weaver bird nest
2015-08-11 Redbilled Hornbill
Redbilled Hornbill
2015-08-11 Malachite kingfishers A
Malachite Kingfishers







We saw Hornbills frequently, and caught one good glimpse of a pair of brilliantly colored little Malachite Kingfishers.








Lilac Breasted Rollers — which have almost more colors than really seems fair for any single bird— and irridescent Longtailed Starlings hung out close to camp. In America, starlings are kind of boring blackish birds, noisy and superabundant invasive birds from Europe, but in Africa, starlings are gorgeous and glossy.

Longtailed Starling and Lilac Breasted Roller
Longtailed Starling and Lilac Breasted Roller






The most spectacular place for birds, though, was in the wetland near Filoha camp.

Gray Heron, African Spoonbill and Warthogs
Gray Heron, African Spoonbill and Warthogs





The research camp is located at the foot of a cliff, which is the edge of a lava flow from several hundred years ago. Awash is located in the Rift Valley, where East Africa is slowly separating from the rest of Africa. Eventually, East Africa will become one or more large islands off the coast of Africa, like Madagascar is today. The Rift Valley is a place where crust is oozing up from below, filling in the gap between the separating plates. Along the entire length of the rift, earthquakes are common; some of the buildings at Filoha have cracked and crumbled cement foundations from a recent tremor. Awash is dominated by a great volcano, Mount Fentale. And much of the park is covered with lava flows of varying ages.

Fentale Mountain
Fentale Mountain







Filoha means hot spring, and the hot springs are the main attraction that brings tourists and local people to this part of the park. Local people believe the hot springs have magical powers which promote healing. Given that the average temperature in the park is already suffocatingly hot, it seems a bit excessive to add hot springs. One source stated the temperature of the springs as 43.5 ºC. Given that air temperatures can rise over 45ºC, at such times the hot springs must seem refreshingly cool.

The researchers bathe in the hot springs, using a little waterfall at the edge of the cliff. They can only do this on days that they get back from the field early enough, though; after dusk the danger from lions and hyenas grows too great. The same waterfall provides the major source of drinking water. The hot springs empty out onto a green expanse of mudflats, streams and wetlands. Padding along the mudflats and wading in the pools are Sacred Ibises, Hadaba Ibises, Spurwing Plovers, African Spoonbills, Grey Herons, Egrets and others.

Spurwinged Plover
Spurwinged Plover









Crocodiles lurk in the shallow pools, hunting fish. So nice to see these ancient cousins of birds – fellow Archosaurs – just meters away (but at a seemingly safe remove).

African Spoonbill with crocodile lurking in background.
African Spoonbill with crocodile lurking in background.





The path to the hot spring pool leads across an expanse of mudflats with real quicksand. The quicksand looks like a patch of bare earth, but if you hit it with a stick it quivers like Jello. Vehicles occasionally get stuck in the quicksand, as do people. But the wetland birds, with their long dinosaur toes and light bodies, seem to be safe.

2015-08-15 Egret flying white






It was deeply satisfying to be among animals that figure so prominently in the art of ancient Egypt: Sacred Ibises, crocodiles, and (coming up in the next post!) Hamadryas baboons.

2015-08 Sacred Ibis
Sacred Ibis









Works Cited

Further Dialogues of the Buddha, Vol. II, p. 237. Quoted in Philosophy of the Buddha by Archie J. Bahm (1958). Harper & Brothers.

Down in the Valley

On my last trip to Ethiopia, I visited Guassa, at the top of the Great Rift Valley escarpment. In early August I traveled to Filoha, down towards the bottom of the Great Rift Valley, to visit my graduate student Kristy, who spent the summer working as a volunteer for Larissa Swedell’s hamadryas baboon project.

On the flight from Minnesota to Toronto I sat next to a woman in a black burqa that covered everything but her eyes, hands and feet. Dark henna designs decorated her hands. She spoke in surprisingly Minnesotan English. The number of people who both looked and sounded different from stereotypical Minnesotans increased as I approached the boarding gate for the connecting flight to Toronto. Connecting passengers had to stand in line to get stickers on our boarding passes to board the flight to Addis Ababa (which they spelled differently in Canada: Addis Abeba, and the announcer pronounced differently: “Ad-dees” instead of “Add-iss”). Most of the people in line were Ethiopians, and seemed a generally prosperous group: well fed, many of them tall and confident-looking, with fancy clothes, hair and jewelry. The line was chaotic, long, slow and crowded and midway through I gave up on it and tried to board. No luck; without the sticker I was sent back. So I was one of the last people to board the plane, and had to put my carry-on bag several rows ahead of my seat.

Ethiopia looks, smells, and sounds so different from other places I’ve worked in Africa. The people are diverse, with something like 80 different languages spoken in the country. But in general they look intermediate between sub-Saharan Africans and people of the Middle East. Which makes sense, because Ethiopia is right in between Africa and the Middle East. The national language, Amharic, is closely related to Arabic and Hebrew. Other common languages, like Oromo, are closer to Somali.

On the flight I worked my way through a bit of the Amharic phrasebook I got for my last visit to Ethiopia. The Amharic language uses a writing system that descends from an ancestor of Phoenician, the first alphabet and ancestor of Hebrew, Arabic, Etruscan, Greek and Roman alphabets. It is a syllabary, with 33 sets of symbols, each of which has 7 versions for the vowels eu (pronounced like in French, neuf), u, i, a, eə, and o. This means there are 231 symbols to memorize. Fortunately the symbols in a set change in a sort of regular way depending on which vowel they represent.

Some Amharic letters (from
Some Amharic letters (from

The series for m starts of looking like a pair of spectacles, for meu. For mu, there is a handle on the right side. For mi, there is a long handle on the right side, with a rightward line at the base of the handle, like an old fashioned pair of handheld spectacles. For ma, the rightward line disappears and you just get spectacles with a simple handle. For me, a little circle gets added to the handle. For , the handle shifts over to the left side and gets bent. For mo the handle stays on the left side but straightens up.

Coca-Cola in Amharic
Coca-Cola in Amharic

The Amharic script is beautiful, and having it on everything from road signs to Coke bottles imparts a distinctive feel to the country. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

The distinctiveness of the script stands as a reminder for how rapidly cultural evolution occurs. In general, the symbols look nothing like their distant cousins in other living alphabets. (There are some superficial similarities with the Georgian alphabet, from another remote mountain kingdom, but these are the result of accidental convergence, rather than cultural transmission.) The series for t does look rather like a Roman t, and the series for s looks like a Hebrew sh, but I don’t know if these are shared ancestral features or later convergences.

The variety of Afro-Asiatic languages spoken in Ethiopia suggests that this is an ancient center of diversification for this language family. Given the striking differences in appearance between speakers of Amharic and the peoples across the Red Sea in Arabia, this makes me wonder how much of the phenotypic difference in peoples has evolved in parallel with the language differences. As the proto-Afro-Asiatic people spread from their ancestral homeland, whether this was in Africa or Asia, surely they intermarried with local people along the way, so there would be gene flow as well as within-lineage change in phenotype.

There is a similar variety of appearance in speakers of Indo-European languages, from the pale blondes of Sweden to the brown-skinned, black-haired speakers of various languages of India. We tend to think of cultural evolution as being rapid and biological evolution as slow. But subtle changes, such as pigmentation of hair and skin, can happen fast enough that people who speak languages that are clearly part of the same linguistic family may have evolved look rather different.

People used to assume that language transmission was commonly horizontal, and that people speaking related languages aren’t necessarily genetic relatives. And it is true that anyone can learn any language, and imperial and commercial languages commonly spread across widely divergent social groups. But as Cavalli-Sforza and colleagues have shown, there is often striking convergence between the languages people speak and their genetic similarity. Particularly before the advent of modern transportation and mass migrations, people tended to stay close to home, marry people from nearby and within their own language group. As a result, speakers of related languages are commonly genetically related as well (at least for languages with a long local history, as opposed to recently adopted commercial or imperial languages).

Amharic has a whole set of glottalic consonants, produced with glottal stops (like the “t” sound in “butter” with a Cockney accent). This, combined with a vocabulary that is mostly unrelated to European languages or Swahili, gives it an extremely foreign sound to me. But there are some similarities. Swahili has lots of loan words from Arabic, and many of these words are also similar in Amharic, such as words for higher numbers (thirty, forty, and fifty are thelathini, arobaini, and hamsini in Swahili, and seulassa, arba, and hamsa in Amharic). Because of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia (193x-194x), there are also lots of Italian loan words: bravo, ciao, and machina (car).

Ethiopia smells different in part because of the distinctive spices in the food, especially berbere. On the long flight from Toronto to Addis Ababa, the cabin air smelled strongly of berbere. I had my hopes up for excellent meals of Ethiopian style food. Instead we got rubbery pasta and limp vegetables. The scent of berbere must have emerged just from the clothes and pores of so many spice eaters on the plane.

Historically, Ethiopia was a high mountain kingdom surrounded by deserts. This helped it maintain its independence and distinctiveness from surrounding countries and would-be invaders. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has endured for some 1,500 years or more when most of the surrounding peoples converted to Islam. The distinctive round Ethiopian churches help make this country seem so different from, say, Tanzania, where both Islam and Christianity are more recent arrivals. (The coast of Tanzania has long been Islamic but its history in the interior is more recent.)

Addis Ababa International Airport





Stepping off the plane in Ethiopia from the humid warmth of Minnesota was a shock. Addis is high in the mountains and cool. I felt rather cold in my sandals and short sleeves.

The whole arrivals and customs area has been renovated since my visit three years ago, thanks to Chinese money for an entire airport renovation. Immigration was slow and chaotic, but generally hassle-free. People standing at the entrance area checked passports for visas and sent you to the line if you needed to get a visa. The visa line required several steps: first you get the visa, which they fill out by hand in Amharic, then you stand in another line to pay for the visa ($50 now, up from $20 three years ago), and then you stand in another line where they check that you have the visa and paid for it. I found myself standing in line next to the woman in the black burqa who had been on the flight from Minneapolis. She seemed just as confused by everything as I was.

I got $100 worth of Ethiopian birr from an ATM in the baggage claim area. The machine spit out a brick of crisp new bills, more than 2100 birr in 100s, 50s, 10s, 5s and 1s. I couldn’t fold my wallet with all those birr so put them in my travel pouch.

Outside the baggage claim stood a crowd of people welcoming the new arrivals, including family, friends, and hotel and tourist staff. Someone asked me if I was from Egypt. Ethiopia is one of the few places where I’ve mistaken for a Middle Easterner. Later someone asked if I was from Saudi Arabia.

Outside in the parking area I soon found my driver. He introduced himself as Ermias, “which is Jeremiah in the Bible in our language.” I recognized the car as the same one I took to Guassa three years ago. Only then did I remember that this car had broken down for about an hour on the road to Guassa. When I got into the car and rolled down the window, the round, spinning end of the handle came off in my hand.

We drove down the broken, potholed streets of Addis to the house of the tour operator, so I could pay for the trip to Filoha. Outside the gates, sheep foraged in the grass.

Sheep grazing in Addis Ababa
Sheep grazing in Addis Ababa







It was Sunday morning, many people were in church and few cars were on the street. The rough streets ensured that the going was slow even without much traffic. But there were signs of new construction everywhere. Many new buildings enclosed in flimsy looking wooden scaffolding.

New construction in Addis
New construction in Addis









When Ermias stopped to change money, I bought a liter of cold water to drink along the way. We stopped for gas at what seemed to be a BP station (green signs, but in Amharic letters). The station was off to the side of the road and downhill a bit, with loose gravel and dirt covering the connection to the road. It seemed as if someone had dropped the gas station here by accident. Huge trucks competed for space in the queue with tiny cars. Payment seemed entirely cash and directly to the attendant at each pump.

Last time we drove up, up, up to Guassa, up to the crest of the rift escarpment. This time we drove down, down, down to Filoha, down towards the bottom of the rift. According to my GPS, one gas station in Addis Ababa is at 2,219 m (7,323 feet), Darjeeling Cliff at Guassa is 3,383 m (11,164 feet), and Filoha is 728 m (2,402 feet) above sea level. Filoha is thus similar in elevation to Gombe, which my GPS says is 774 m (2,554 feet) at the mouth of Rutanga Stream. The rift valley goes lower, eventually dropping well below sea level in the Danakil Depression, where the Awash River flows into a dry dusty pan and disappears.

We took the new expressway (built by the Chinese), which ran parallel to the new railroad (also Chinese built), which both link Addis to Djibouti, the closest seaport (now that Eritrea has become independent, depriving Ethiopia of a direct connection to the coast). The expressway is a dual carriageway toll road with six lanes of traffic, which contributed to the feeling of not being in Africa at all.

Close to Addis the countryside is well watered with expansive fields of green. Further down into the rift we saw more signs of geological activity: vast fields of black lava rock interspersed with green grass and isolated trees. The further down we went the more marabou storks and vultures appeared by the side of the road.

I tried to stay awake to enjoy the whole ride but was too sleep deprived and drifted in and out of consciousness. We left the freeway to a join a road that was narrow but still freshly paved and smooth. More Chinese roadwork, I’m sure.

The Chinese are playing a role in Ethiopia – and much of the rest of Africa – similar to what the British played throughout much of the world in the 19th Century, and the Americans in the 20th Century. I suppose the British nowadays are too busy with finance, and the Americans are too busy developing new apps for the iPhone, to bother with such concrete things as roads, buildings and railways in Africa.

We passed a truckload of camels, packed together sitting down with their necks upright. Ermias said they were going to Saudi Arabia.

Metahora Church stack of tyresWe stopped for lunch at Metehara, the last major town before Filoha. We parked in front of a small restaurant. On a raised area at the front of the restaurant, a woman knelt before a set of coffee cups, preparing coffee in the bunna ceremony. A charcoal burner held three sticks of burning incense. Ermias explained that they only had fasting food, meaning vegetarian items, because of the religious holiday.

“Which holiday is it?”

“Something from the Bible.”

Goat and tricycle car in Metehara
Goat and tricycle car in Metehara







Ermias ordered something for me that turned out to be a huge round platter with a huge round flat piece of spongy enjera bread with little piles of tasty vegetarian delights. After lunch Ermias changed the flat rear tire of his car. His skin glistened with sweat after just a few minutes work. It was getting hot down here.

We soon reached the park gate of Amhara National Park. This is the major national park in southern Ethiopia. We drove off the paved road to the little building by the simple gate, where a sign explained the rules and fees.

Awash National Park gate
Awash National Park gate

Most of the tourist facilities are to the south, along the Awash River, but we would be going to the very northern end of the park, 32 km away. I paid my park entrance fee, plus an additional 150 birr ($7) for an armed guard to accompany us to Filoha. The risk of banditry makes armed guards a necessary requirement for travelers in the park.

We drove back across the paved highway onto the gravel road leading north. The gravel road suddenly jogged sharply to the right, to make its way around the new Chinese-built railroad that cut directly across the park. This must be a huge barrier to wildlife in the park now, as the tracks travel between deep drainage ditches dug on either side.

We drove slowly down the hot, dusty, winding gravel and dirt road. A low thicket of Acacia trees extended in all directions from either side of the road, with some distant hills and mountains visible. From time to time, birds flew out in brilliant flashes of color. These were birds familiar to me from when I habituated baboons in Kenya, and from visits to other dry parts of East Africa: White Headed Buffalo Weavers, Bee Eaters, Malachite Kingfishers, Lilac Breasted Rollers, glossy Longtailed Starlings. In America, Starlings are kind of dull, mottled brownish black nuisance birds. In Africa, Starlings are glorious birds with iridescent plumage and brilliant colors. I felt an intense sense of homecoming seeing the familiar birds and trees of the Acacia woodland. From time to time a dik-dik, a tiny little fairy of an antelope, bounded away in the bushes. A lesser kudu crossed the road, a beautiful striped antelope with long spiral horns.

On the highway, the wind roaring past the open windows kept us cool. On the slow gravel road, the sun baked the slow moving car, and the air provided no relief. I kept thinking that we were pretty remote now, we were about to get to camp, but then we would keep driving for ages more. A set of rounded white structures showed in the distance, looking like a set of tents. That must be camp! But as we got closer, it became clear that these were simple huts of sticks covered in tattered white sheeting.

“An Afar camp,” Ermias explained. “Pastoralist people.”

Soon after we passed a group of Afar herders on the road: people with very dark skin, wearing bright white cloths draped over the shoulder and wrapped around the waist. The Afar people are the namesakes of the taxonomic name of Lucy, the famous fossil found not too far from here: Australopithecus afarensis. They herd cattle, goats and camels. They speak a Cushitic language related to Somali. Technically they are not supposed to be in the National Park but thousands of them live in Awash and keep their herds here.

The road went on and on and on. The heat grew increasingly oven-like. The landscape grew monotonous and in my sleep-deprived state I faded in and out of awareness. The water in my bottle became as hot as tea.

We passed through blasted landscapes of lava rock, down steep gullies, and passed mysterious peaked mounds of rock (built by Italians during the war, and said to cover bombs). Then, after an hour or more of Acacia scrub, stands of Doum palms appeared along the side of the road, at the edges of wetlands that flooded the road itself. We drove through water and mud. A craggy wall of lava appeared to the left. To the right, the peaked roofs of huts appeared.

He parked the car by one of the huts in what appeared to be an empty, quiet camp.

“They know you are coming?” Eremias asked.

“Yes, they know I am coming.”

Soon two women appeared, smiling and walking down the hill towards us from another pair of huts: Alex, who is doing her dissertation research here, and Kristy, looking red from the sun and very much at home in Filoha.

I asked Ermias to take a picture of us.

“Okay, now we have evidence of my visit.”

“Right, so now you can leave?” joked Ermias.

Alex, Kristy and Mike at the Filoha camp.
Alex, Kristy and Mike at the Filoha camp.