After I found out I would be going to Ethiopia (Ethiopia, Huh? That wasn’t listed on the wiki!) one of the first things I did was go online and order a book, a guide to birds of the Horn of Africa. It should have been the beginning of summer in Minneapolis, but it was still a cold, wet spring, and I sat in my second-story apartment leafing through this colorful book puzzling over hundreds of unfamiliar birds. I was enough of a birder already to know that I would never be lucky enough to see most of the species illustrated in those pages, but conversely I knew that I would be lucky enough to see quite a few. The question was which ones. One bird I found myself fascinated with, and doubted very much that I would ever see, was called the Hamerkop. Maybe it was the familiar Dutch (“Hammerhead’) paired with the unfamiliar looking bird, or the drawing of its giant, round, mud-ball nest, but for whatever reason I zeroed in on Scopus umbretta as a bird from the book that I would not forget.
I was lucky. I saw my first Hamerkop within the first couple of months; he was poking around in a rain puddle just across the road outside the gate of my language classroom in Sagure. Later I would see the occasional Hamerkop in a few spots, including a pair summing themselves on the branches of a dead tree above a stream on the outskirts of Debre Markos, and, most recently, a single bird seemingly well out of place in dry as a bone, urban Addis. In fact, near that spot I recently noted what looks suspiciously like a Hamerkop nest.
Again, I wouldn’t think a Hamerkop would belong here: near the Canadian Embassy, away from water, in the middle of Africa’s capital. I asked a guard walking nearby about the giant ball in the crook of a big tree (it even had a plastic clothes hanger embedded in the surface). He said it was a bird’s “dorm.” I tried to ask him about the bird that lived in the dorm, what it looked like, and tried to use gestures to delineate the telltale head shape. But he had no idea what I was talking about, so it’s still a mystery. There are many such mysteries around, if we’re conscious enough to notice them. Apparently the Hamerkop is a bad omen in some cultures, the bringer of bad news. But for me it’s magical, a good luck sign; it reminds me how lucky I am.