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Following the success of last year's trip to Thailand with birdingpaltours (birdingpaltours.com) we decided to give them another go again this year. We had looked into Ghana a couple of years ago, but the prices quoted on return emails seemed a little high. But the prices on the tours run by Kalu Afasi were much more reasonable. Our trips are usually around a week long, and one centring on the South offered a good mix. The reason for Ghana is that we had both visited other countries on the Continent before, but wanted some forest and open country specialities. This had to be balanced by a safe country with a good deal of stability. Ghana fits the bill. Compared to other African experiences, it felt a lot safer, and the people were ultra friendly without being intrusive.
Kalu is a guide to be thoroughly recommended. Originally a promising footballer from Nigeria, he came to Ghana in 2001, started birding in 2005 and is now at the stage where he has seen all the list of regular Ghanaian birds, and his acute sight and knowledge of the calls and jizz of passing or even hidden birds belies the less than 10 years of experience. As witnessed by his section of the birdingpal website, he can tailor tours to suit species, habitat, and length of stay for a variety of party sizes. His cost quoted also was fully inclusive - we didn't need to have any Ghanaian currency at all. This includes lunches, drinks, etc, and the evening meals and breakfasts come with meals, where you can choose from the menu (we tried not to empty his pockets too much by choosing reasonably priced items!). All driving is done through a third party, so we had Boateng ferry us around in a Nissan 4x4 truck - not so comfortable in the back after some time between stops - and he was surprisingly careful. Some of the journeys were up to 3 hours long, which can seem longer due to the variation in quality of the driving surface.
The timing of the trip can make a difference to the enjoyment of the holiday. The rainy season starts around the end of April and lasts for a few months, which must make the roads impassable in places. Almost all the birds were in breeding plumage when we were there in early March, meaning March/early April is a good time to go. Despite the fact that we were there in the dry season, there was often a threat of rain, and we did go through a deluge one evening. Mosquitoes in the South at this time seemed to be non existent, although antimalarials are still a must (as is the compulsory yellow fever certificate needed to obtain the visa before travel from the Ghana website). Temperatures at this time ranged from around 24 degrees C at night to the lower 30'sC through the day.
The airline we travelled with was TAP Portugal, which had a connecting flight in Lisbon. Full marks go to them on our transfers. The time between landing and take off at Lisbon outbound was only 45 minutes (a recognised transit apparently), which was reduced to 25 minutes due to a late first flight. Not only were we met off the plane by a taxi and taken straight to the second, which was held back for us, but the luggage even followed us to the other end. We stayed in all hotels for only one night, apart from the Hans Cottage Botel for 3, and the Crowne Plaza in Accra one night each end of the trip. The hotels are usually clean, reasonably basic, yet always good enough for a birding trip! All but one had air conditioning (a fan in the other), but other luxuries such as towels and toilet rolls sometimes needed to be requested. And of course don't rely on hot water - cold is so much more refreshing after a day in the field anyway. Full marks go the Crowne Plaza (NOT the well known luxury chain by far) who not only gave us the best room on the last night, but also allowed late afternoon check out so that we could freshen up and pack equipment at the last minute. The Hans Cottage is the only accommodation where a reasonable amount of birding can be done on site, due to its small lake and weaver colony. Kalu uses it regularly for Kakum, and the usual few hours break in the middle of the day for either travel, lunch or rest from the sun, mean there is opportunity to explore this. All electicity sockets encountered were the UK 3 square pin type.
For reference I used the Birds of Western Africa by Borrow and Demey (Helm field guides), but the specific field guide to the Birds of Ghana is a much better recommendation, since it is lighter and the distribution maps much more accurate.
Friday, 7th, Day 1 - Sakuma Lagoons
Kalu had positioned us in the Crowne Plaza Hotel for the first night - please don't confuse this with the well known upper price hotel chain in the UK, they seem to have merely pinched the name and not the ethos. However, as usual with birding hotels, it was definitely adequate, including the toast and egg breakfast and mood lighting in the room, ie barely one candlepower in the light bulbs. Yet the location meant that we were only 5 minutes drive from our first Ghanaian birding delights, the lagoons at Sakuma. We drove the short way along predictably uneven tracks, heightening expectation with early goodies such as Purple Glossy Starling, Long-tailed Glossy Starling, and Green Woodhoopoe. The car disgorged us at what was aparently once the chosen entertainment location for the area, but seemed a little run down by now. But it started us off with our birding, picking up Splendid Glossy Starling amongst the abundant Pied Crows and Cattle Egrets.
The location is more than this obviously, with the central focus being on the large lagoon. This had a lot more water in than usual following the 5 hours of heavy rain the day before. This seemed to reduce the potential for wandering the shores due to the higher water line. The edge of the lagoon is bounded in the parking side by a few acres of loose bushland, some more semi savannah, a second much smaller lagoon, and open slightly marshy ground. We went through the bushes for a short way first, unearthing a fairly static Jacobin Cuckoo amongst others. Opening on to the lagoon, following some very close Senegal Thick-knees, was an assault by the very vocal Lapwings - Spur-winged, African Wattled, and single Senegal. They were constantly threatening the ever present Pied Crows and Yellow-billed Kites. The open marshy area adjacent to the lagoon was constantly entertaining, both on the ground with Plain-backed Pipits and Yellow-throated Longclaws, and the bushes alongside, where a pair of displaying Malachite Kingfishers and 4 Mosque Swallows stole the show. An interesting observation also here was that some birds had only just changed into breeding plumage, such as Pin-tailed Wydah and Village Weaver, with a half effort from a Northern Red Bishop.
We finally satiated our thirst with some cold water from the kiosk, and then headed to the smaller lagoon. This wasn't quite as lively, with a Senegal Coucal vying for our attention in the open, although the only competition was from overflying Grey Hornbill and the ever present Yellow-billed Shrikes. Although only 10.30 by the time we wound up here, we set off to break free from the suffocation of Accra, or at least its suburbs, and it seemed to take half of the time of the westward bound journey to lose the crowds.
After a light lunch just short of Winneba, we then headed to two locations in the area. The afternoon session here was at a slower pace bird wise than the morning. First stop was Winneba Lagoon. Kalu explained again that the heavy rainfall had vastly decreased the muddy finges, which may have explained the lack of any numbers of waders and terns. The lagoon is directly adjacent to the ocean, with a fishing vilage attached. This resulted in small numbers of boys and young men casting their nets, but they didn't disturb the few birds to any great degree. A few Pied and single Malachite Kingfisher provided some entertainment, with a few Western Reef Herons trying to throw their weight around, but we didn't stay too long before leaving for Winneba Plains.
Winneba Plains came as a bit of a surprise, with the location consisting of a long and quite busy dirt track bisecting some open grassland with scattered trees. Apparently, this is best when some burning of the vegetation has been carried out, but we weren't here at that time. In addition, there was some ongoing work in the location for possible Black-bellied Bustard. Thus, the first hour or so was trudging, with only Gabar Goshawk and Black-shouldered Kite to show for our troubles. Then the temperature seemed to drop, welcoming in the late afternoon, and birds suddenly started to enter the scene. These included small groups of Yellow-fronted Canaries, Double-toothed Barbet, and a group of Yellow-crowned Gonoleks. We even had the treat of a couple of Cisticolas, with breeding Croaking, and my delight at actually correctly identifying Singing Cisticola - without the aid of the field guide! The dedication was rewarded with the last bird before leaving for our onward journey being a displaying Black-bellied Bustard, which apparently had not been seen by Kalu this year.
Saturday, 8th, Day 2 - Sushen
I suppose it had to happen sooner or later - Africa strikes again! We were due to have breakfast at 5am, with the intention of leaving at 5.30. Dutifully British and there on time, it was some time after that when Kalu turned up and informed us that the breakfast staff had indeed been up since 4am to prepare the meal, but someone had left the previous evening with the keys and locked them in reception (the staff, not the keys!). So we left over half an hour later than expected, and headed for this site, which was somewhat closer to allow for the lost time. And what a choice, the woodland and forest birding along here was exceptional. The location is only 2km short of Kakum, and consists of a dirt track which runs through initially open areas with scattered trees, passing sparse habitation on the way, culminating in a path through the thicker rainforest. There was a constant but not overbearing traffic of people, in singles rather than crowds, and none were at all intrusive. The car dropped us off on the track next to one of the clearings, and we could have stayed in this spot for much longer than we did. Birds were constantly flying in or appearing in the vegetation, with overflying Pied Hornbills to add. A Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher kept returning to the overgrown vegetation in front of us, with singing Yellow-browed Camaroptera and perched Black and White Mannikin next to it. Violet-backed Starlings were regular, and a Tambourine Dove flew in.
The walk seemed to get better as we progressed, with new species constantly appearing and often lingering. Pride of place was likely reserved for Black Bee-eaters, one of the most wanted in the list. They may not have been exceptionally close, but were stunning nevertheless. Not outdone, White-throated and Rosy Bee-eaters were always around, almost always airborne and noisy. Sunbirds provided the most common family, and also challenge, since they are a difficult clan anyway, and Ghana has variety in riches. Included in the roster here were Splendid, Green, Olive, Collared, and Blue-throated Brown. They often shared trees with Speckled Barbets, Golden Greenbuls, and Fanti Saw-wings. Two Kingfishers were on their own. Woodland was easy, but we couldn't agree on a Dwarf/Pygmy Kingfisher at the time, since the presence or absence of a dark crown cap was debatable.
The birding became predictably more difficult as we entered the forest, with taller trees hemming us in and reducing bird density. We walked some way to a clearing, notching up Yellow-bearded Greenbul, Grey-headed Negrofinch, and my pride and joy, a Little Grey Greenbul - noted more for the fact that I managed to identify a small greenbul in the canopy than the excitement of its demeanour! The skill of Kalu at identifying birds on call must be mentioned here. He not only recognises them, but sometimes can bring them in with recorded calls, but doesn't overuse this as some have been seen to. The clearing was particularly productive, with a large bare tree in the centre the focal point for birds. We spent some time here, and even came back for more, notching up Blue-throated Roller, Red-headed Malimbe, Usscher's Flycatcher, and overflying Emerald Cuckoo. Vying for attention were the swarms of White-throated Bee-eaters and Fanti Saw-wings overhead, which the roller joined for a snack on the flying insects.
The walk back turned up even more birds, with seemingly more action than on the way in, despite the increasing temperatures. A second Yellow-bearded Greenbul accompanied a Crested Malimbe, and Western Oriole added to the Black-winged Oriole of earlier in the morning. A small party of Rufous-crowned Flycatchers passed through, with more Golden Greenbuls in the canopy.
Hans Cottage Hotel
Since we had a few hours to spare over early afternoon, we decided to see what the hotel grounds had to offer. They are not too extensive, with the focal point being a large lagoon with imported crocodiles for the tourists. Within the lagoon is a very small island, which hosts a colony of Cattle Egrets. It is also host to a vibrant colony of Weavers, as does the ever so enticing "crocodile petting" area next to the restaurant. The inhabitants of these are Village and Orange Weavers, with a small colony of Viellot's Black Weavers over a large lily pond. An African Jacana had shown itself just before lunch here, and was joined after by a pair of Woodland Kingfishers.
For the afternoon shift, we spent a few hours along this track. It is situated only few hundred metres after the turnoff to Sushen, following a sign for the "Stingless Bee Centre". We thankfully continued past this for a mile or so, being dropped off in an open area, to then walk back the way we had driven. Good numbers of White-throated Bee-eaters were immediately obvious overhead, as were a quartet of pied Hornbills. It wasn' t long before we picked up a pair of large raptors gliding in the distance, but luckily one was seen landing nearby. It took a little while to sort the branch obstructed views into Cuckoo Hawk, especially when the crest wasn't visible. Shortly after, a Black and White Flycatcher female was picked up following Kalu hearing a male call. A separate pair were seen later. Kalu then had the disappointment of not being able to call out a Rufous-sided Broadbill. We spent some time in the forest, just metres from the track, without success. As the light began to show signs of fading, we added Simple Greenbull and Pale Flycatcher to the list, before managing to pick out a Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird. This was the last of the days birds, but not the last of the "excitement". Within what seemed only minutes, the clear skies turned threatening, and the driver was called for. When we were safely in the car, he drove hastily along the poor track, but we were stopped by a fallen tree barring our exit. This had happened during our visit, but fortunately it wasn't too big an obstacle, with part thanks to the scooter rider behind whose machete helped immeasurably. The rain was by now torrential.
Sunday, 9th, Day 3 -
The canopy walkway at Kakum is reputed to be one of the better birding spots in this part of the country, due to the elevation reached on the walkway, being amongst, rather than above the higher branches. So the heartsink moment was as we reached the entrance from the road, having set off early to beat the crowds, yet saw a busload of tourists, probably fairly local, getting off a bus. Shouldn't they have been at church or something? Not all bad news though, since we were allowed entry straight away, and they had to wait around until 8.30 to spoil our morning! We marched straight past the busload, and up the multitude of steps. This is where Kalu felt he made up for the disappointment of the missing Rufous-sided Broadbill yesterday evening, by locating one while still in the half light. In addition, we picked up a White-tailed Alethe a little further up the steps, even though it was only seen briefly.
And then to the walkway, which is a seemingly precarious yet stable contraption spanning between five platforms bolted to the trees. There is also partial shade here from the higher trees, which made the temperatures bearable through our morning stay. Birding here is of the patient sort, since some time has to be put in to see a reasonable variety of species. Early morning particularly was slow going, with birds such as Little Grey Greenbul, Ussher's Flycatcher, and Sharpe's Apalis bridging the monitoring of the vegetation. We spent some time on the first platform, where the trees were a little more closed in, but still productive as time went by. Slender-billed Greenbul and Black-capped Apalis were early, and Pied Hornbills constantly over. In the distance, a Harrier Hawk perched for a short time. Cassin's Greenbuls were flighty but constant, and Blue Malkoha an expert in hiding within small copses of leaves. More obliging were Hairy-breasted Barbet and Grey-chinned Sunbird. One or two small groups of tourists had also managed to escape capture at the gate, but were generally quiet and passed through quickly.
The third platform was our second stop, and this gave more expansive views over the forest. One tree in particular hosted Golden Greenbul, Grey-headed Nigrita, and Grey-chinned Sunbird at different times. Below and just away from the platform, a Blue Cuckooshrike was seen a few times, and singing Spotted Greenbul was on a favoured perch for some time. A Honeyguide Greenbul flew under the platform towards this spot, with regular Yellow-mantled Weaver nearby. A rather boisterous busload passed through while here, but the attendent from the park who was with us did a good job of ushering them onward.
We moved on to the last platform, which looked over the same set of trees as first thing, but from a different angle. The morning was predictably getting much hotter, but the number and variety of the birds continued to meander upwards. Two Orioles, a Northern and a Black-winged, were not too far from us, and a Fernando Po Batis was busy but stayed reasonable time. Kalu pointed out a Fraser's Sunbird - thankfully - it just looked like another female sunbird to us. Black-capped Apalis was much easier and this time more obliging, with a second group of Sharpe's Apalis passing close by. The alarm clock for leaving was the unfeasable amount of tourists who piled on to the walkway at 11am, obviously satiated with praise and ready to fill our space with noise! However, as we exited the last platform, we stumbled on a huge scorpion ambling along the middle of the path. After we had gorged on the spectacle, the guide thankfully moved it into the undergrowth away from the noisy threat approaching, who no doubt would have shown it little mercy.
Before we boarded the car again to leave, a chance attempt at filling photos of Pied Crow led to a Chestnut-breasted Negrofinch nearby, which then led to much closer views of the stunning Black Bee-eater. This pair has apparently bred in a pile of builder's sand at the entrance to Kakum for the last four years. As we watched, an Olive-bellied Sunbird popped a bill out of a dense bush.
The afternoon session was again back at Kakum. This time it was a lot more sedate, with birds trickling in, but also no tourists messing around. We started with a quick visit to the Black Bee-eaters, where the light was by now ideal for photography. The walk up the many steps to the entrance to the walkway was a lot hotter than first light, so finding a calling Cameroon Sombre Bulbul on the way up to stop and tease out was welcome. Blue Malkoha and Ussher's Flycatcher welcomed us back, but we decided to move down to the third canopy where there was also a better view over the forest. A pair of Honey Buzzards watched overhead, and a Harrier-hawk also passed by. Two Palmnut Vultures were spotted from here, one overhead, and one perched in the distance. The sharp eyes of Kalu and the park guide picked up two groups of Hornbills in the far distance, perched on large trees on the horizon - Black-casqued and Brown-cheeked. As the light began to fade, hundreds of Common Swifts appeared overhead, and were joined by a pair of hawking Blue-throated Rollers. Last spot here was the welcome addition of a small troupe of Mona Monkeys, still feeding on yellow pods as they passed by the end of the walkway.
To finish off the day, we turned off the road no more than half a mile short of the hotel to look for Nightjars, and lit up a Long-tailed Nightjar almost immediately. Searching the area on foot failed to find any more, but Kalu spotted a Plain Nightjar squatting on the track in the headlights as we were leaving.
Monday, 10th March, Day 4 -
Before leaving the area for further West, a further morning was spent mopping up birds of the forest edge. This could have been seeing many of the same birds as before, and adding a few misfits to the list, but the mix of species seemed different yet again. This was doubly surprising since the location was on the Western edge of the Kakum Forest, where we spent the day yesterday. The format was similar to the first morning in the area. We turned off the road some way after the Kakum canopy entrance, and then drove along a rough track for a couple of miles, passing a few small villages on the way. We parked at what was apparently a ranger station for the forest - in effect a couple of buildings with photos of birds on. We then walked the track for a few hours, passing initially through open sparse forest on either side, and turning back at a more enclosed area next to cocoa plantations.
The birding was slowish early morning, rising in variety as time went on, and on return along the track, with the heat rising, the birding slowed down again. There seemed to be a higher percentage of skulkers as compared with the first morning, so thanks to Kalu's expertise in recognising the calls and using playback of calls to make them more visible. Early birds to show were two Longbills - Grey first then Kemp's, with a couple of Palm Swamp Warblers initially keeping to the interior of the palm fronds before showing. One of the higher trees next to the track was a magnet for a few species, including a trio of Fire-bellied Woodpeckers and Naked-faced & Bristle-nosed Barbets. Red-rumped Tinkerbird responded well to hearing its own call, but a pair of Chestnut Wattle-eyes passed slowly through. A Dusky Grey Flycatcher initially looked lighter and so more confusing initially, but the darkish front could be seen better out of the harsh light. It also showed a lot more obviously than a Blue-headed Crested Flycatcher steadfastly refused to appear in the open, limiting views to within the thick bushes hosting it. Just before a Cassin's Hawk Eagle passed over, we slipped into the forest next to a stream, but stopped only about 10 metres in. Kalu then successfully managed to lure in two Spotted Fluffltails, with one being seen. Despite the lure, it had to be worked for, since they are incredibly shy, but we did manage to get good glimpses as it tried its hardest to evade our gaze. Before turning back again at the cocoa plants, we peered out at the other side, but only after checking the woodpiles and ground cover optimistically for snakes - a country apparently alive with them and still no sign. We did pick up a pair of Blue-throated Rollers however. As mentioned, the walk back again was a lot hotter and much quieter. When we neared the car again, a pair of Olive-bellied Sunbirds were in the company of the less likely Johanna's Sunbirds.
Bridge over the River Pra, Twifo Praso
Next on the agenda was a long drive on both "good" roads and very uneven, bumpy tracks, broken by a couple of stops before the lunch break. On the outskirts of a small village with cocoa beans drying in the shade, we stopped next to a small stream, which had two narrowish tunnels under the road. One of these was humming with Preuss's Cliff Swallows, and Little Swifts trying to intermingle. We stepped down to the stream to view the seeming mayhem of the nesting colony. On the opposite side of the road, a Little Bee-eater tempted a closer look, which also resulted in a black form Senegel Coucal perched nearby.
Shortly after this stop, we managed to evade a gridlock in the centre of Twifo Praso town (which was all caused by a truck broken down in the centre of a T junction), to turn left to the bridge. In order to avoid paying the toll for the car, we parked just before the barrier, and walked the short distance to the combined road and rail bridge over the river. This is a more or less guaranteed spot for Rock Pratincole, and the duly guaranteed bird was immediately picked up on a rock in the centre of the river below us. When we checked further up on the other side, another 6 birds were again predictably perched on rocks. The other speciality here is White-throated Blue Swallow. These rather smart birds actually took a little more time, since they showed only occasionally. They seemingly have a nest site in the central columns of the bridge, but patience was eventually rewarded by good flight views.
It took us a couple of hours to travel here from the restaurant, at one time seeming to bounce on poor potholed tracks for ages. We arrived at a small village, where the kids swarmed around the car and we were allocated a "keeper" of the birds, or in other words, a lad from the village who could make some money from taking us to the site. The walk to the rocks where the birds are found is about 35 minutes at medium pace, and can get very hot and sweaty, beginning in open land, and then mainly meandering through the forest, with one or two small climbs on the way. The plan was to be at the site for 5pm, which usually means no stopping, but we did manage to eke out a few species on the way at one stop off - Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Dusky Crested-flycatcher, and Blue-billed Malimbe. Near to the site, the keeper suggested a newer site, where he reckoned the birds came in a little earlier. Kalu was unsure, but we decided to give it a go. This was where we had the misfortune to come across a grumpy and ignorant old goat of a British birdwatcher, who unfortunately let the side down. Passing him with a smile, he kept his face like a slapped buttock, and when we were deciding where to sit, he muttered something about cameras. I challenged him on this, and he had the view that all bird photographers think only of themselves - I think he missed the irony of this. We decided to go to the other site, when I told him to enjoy "his own" birds, but not bother then to come to where we were. The established site is quite a little hike away, but when we arrived, Kalu was asked to stop the buffoon and his Ashanti Tours crew from joining us - Rockfowl wars had begun. Suffice to say that we were left to our own devices until we left at near dark. Some rough seats are placed below the small rock under which the nests are placed, and the Picathartes are reputed to usually wander in after 5pm. We waited patiently, eventually being rewarded with a single bird for some time below us before it retreated, and then a couple together, which also departed prematurely. None attempted to enter the nests when we were there, so presumably outside the breeding season their presence isn't always guaranteed.
One more incident on the way back - the lights on the car failed as we were driving along a potholed track, only about 20 minutes into the journey. Luckily, Kalu had put his searchlight into the car that morning, so we managed to scrape to the next town, where also fortunately, we found an auto electrician. No hassles in mending the fuse, although it was interesting seeing this done under mobile phone light. Then the price haggling began, with him wanting to charge more than the driver wanted, due to their being white (rich?) passengers. He was eventually paid the equivalent of £5. I mentioned to Kalu that this was a pittence compared to costs of repair time in the UK, with the cool response of "pity for him that he works in Ghana, then!"
Tuesday, 11th March, Day 5 -
After a warmish night's sleep in a hotel with no hot water, towels, or air conditioning, we were unpacked and ready for a 3 night stay, until our driver asked as we were to leave if we needed a hand with our cases 5 minutes later, the bags were on board and we made the short drive to the forest. The signs for here seem more interested in pointing out the butterfly sanctuary, but the birding is excellent. Our morning consisted of walking a couple of miles along a track used by timber lorries (only a few early on) which ran through medium dense forest, some more open patches, and plenty of forest edge clearings. As usual, this took a little patience, but birds were regular and of a very interesting mix.
After notching up Pale Flycatcher in the car parking area next to the office, Western Bronze-naped Pigeon was picked out high up before departing the scene. Then came an excellent trio of Cuckoos, although African Cuckoo was a fly through. African Emerald Cuckoos were vocal, but enjoyed keeping to the canopy a little too much. The first was a male escorting a pair of females, with another male contesting song across the clearing. A calling male Black Cuckoo was somewhat closer, deigning to select a perch above us. An early fly through African Goshawk was followed a little later by a circling bird, as well as an African Hobby plying the same manoeuvre. To wrap up the birds of prey, a pair of Cassin's Hawk Eagles were high over, with singles of Harrierhawk passing through. One spot half way along our walk provided a mini "bird wave", initiated by a male Chestnut Wattle-eye. The same tree also held a Blue Cuckooshrike, Yellow-browed Cameroptera, and buzzing around was an Olive Green Cameroptera. Green Hylias were regular, and could eventually be pinned down to undercover singing branches. A perched Blue-throated Roller was only metres above us in a clearing for some time, also providing a bit of a rest stop, but a Western Nicator took more work. They have a powerful song, but have the irritating habit of producing this from dense cover. However, this bird did eventually fly out to a more obvious perch. Purple-throated Cuckooshrikes were high up but liked to be in the open, with at least 3 males vying for the girls. Quickest fly though was a Black-throated Coucal, which was seen very briefly but sufficiently for identification. We had been keeping our eye out for snakes through the trip, and a dead one on the track providing sustenance for butterflies was no compensation, but on the return a rustle of leaves from a bush very briefly picked part of what must have been one of the Mambas, judging by its arboreal preference and subsequent speed of leaving the scene.
After another 2-3 hour drive, where we seemed to be heading eastwards again towards Accra, we stopped off at a dirt track which seemed to initially be in fairly open land. Kalu couldn't hide his initial disappointment here, since trucks were regularly plying to and fro, leaving red clouds of dust in their wake. He summised that they were taking rockfill to the original gold mine, the selfsame reason for the track. This also reduced the quantity of birds by the roadside. However, we plodded on, adding more Common Fiscals to the ones already counted on the wires before the village, although a Black-necked Weaver was much less obliging, hiding in palm fronds. A couple of Sunbirds were seen as Collared, but then a third was made out - Buff-throated Sunbird. Viellot's Black Weavers were in almost constant view. Before crossing the track to a smaller, less used one, we spotted a male Black-and-White Flycatcher at the top of some spindly stems. The new track was devoid of any traffic, and a little more closed in than the makeshift motorway. It was also good for Barbets, with Naked-faced & Hairy-breasted and Yellow-throated Tinkerbird all seen. The track only went on for 100 metres or so, when it ended at a barred gate, which could be rounded to a footpath through the forest. This was quite a birdy spot, with Fraser's Forest Flycatcher, Green Hylia, and Velvet-mantled Drongo in attendance. While standing beside the gate, a White-tailed Rufous Thrush zipped past close to us. Before arriving at tonight's hotel, we stopped off at a village where countless Straw-coloured Fruit Bats were roosting on bare trees, just before the evening sortie.
Wednesday, 12th March, Day 6 -
When Kalu had mentioned we were going to climb the hill which overlooked our sedate yet noisy evening birding the night before, we thought it was that wacky old sense of humour shining through - the thought of an upward trek in this heat? Then when we pulled up at the same spot, and he said to take extra water on this one, our fears were founded. And if we had been told that to reach the terminus of the walk would take 5 hours, we might have just jacked it in and found a nice sunbathing pool somewhere instead. All right, not that severe, and in fairness, we were always happy to follow his decisions and the resulting birds. As is turned out, there was a point to the exercise, and the uphill climb wasn't in the least bit severe. Even the heat wasn't quite as sapping, since the generally dense forest offered a certain amount of shade.
The bit of track we already knew, which was more like 400m to the barred gate than the 100m I had the impression of the previous evening, was a lot more lively this morning, and we had also beaten the lorries with the early start. A group of Orange-billed Waxbills were feeding on the ground only metres from where we parked, with a Whistling Cisticola singing over their heads. Hairy-breasted Barbet was in a tree with Naked-faced Barbets, and Red-headed Malimbes nearby. As we neared the gate, Kalu pulled out the bank of bird calls and played for a maestro of the undergrowth huggers. In fact, shortly after we managed to get fleeting flight views of Puvel's Illadopsis, he managed the same trick again with Brown Illadopsis. Don't get excited by the hunt for either, they take a lot of time and patience for a very brief and limited reward. Passing through the gate, the track narrowed and started its gentle ascent, with birds that were much more obliging. A female Emerald Cuckoo was almost directly above us, and a Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher perched for a short time. A group of busy Black Weavers were first thought to be more Viellot's, but this initial bird was the only one amongst Maxwell's. The track narrowed even further after this, with close in vegetation and few birds. The only ones of note were Olive Sunbird and a trio of smart White-throated Bee-eaters, and a Cassin's Hawk Eagle high overhead. The path was narrow and enclosed for some time, but then broadened, and the trees became more dense. Birding was difficult here, being generally quiet both sight and sound wise. The momentary glimpse of another skulker, the White-tailed Alethe, helped a little, but morale was raised when we managed to pin down a Chocolate-backed Kingfisher high up. It had been calling for some time, but managed to evade positioning too well. We continued on, skirting a fallen tree which had blocked the path by trudging through the adjacent forest (Kalu evidently didn't have a chosen path here evidenced by him searching for a way out on our return!), and were wondering just why we were expending all this effort and time with no reward. Then paydirt. After Kalu had been disappointed at finding a seemingly destroyed nest, a hundred metres on we found a pair of Blue-headed Bee-eaters, which are well worth the trek for them alone. Vying for bird of the trip with Black Bee-eater, they are a similar shape and size, with equally stunning plumage. And for a forest bird, they actuallysit in the same place for some time! We gorged on this pair of beauties for quite a while, then used them as an excuse to head back. Within a few metres, Kalu pulled bananas, biscuits, and energy drink from his bag. Relief! Couldn't see the next time we might have seen and smelled food.
The walk back down predictably took a lot less time - 2 hours including the snack break. Despite the time and heat, there were a few additions to the list for the day and the trip. Shining Drongos are one of the forest dwelling drongos, and we managed to pick out a pair in amongst the trees. Square-tailed Saw-wings were an aweful lot easier, with a small group overhead further down. The only other birds of note were when we stopped to try to tease out one of the skulkers, and instead spotted Honeyguide Bulbul and White-breasted Negrofinch. Last treat was a Western Nicator which was calling from an open branch within the forest - the best look at this species we had had.
Thursday, March 13th, Day 7 -
-Shai Hills, near Accra
This last session was far from just a time filler while waiting to leave for the airport. Two days ago, Kalu had asked if we wanted to spend two nights near Atiwa, and finish off with more forest birding. But we took the sensible option and chose to stay overnight in the same Accra hotel as our first night (the Crown Plaza) and visit the nearby savannah reserve instead. We only expected some similar birding habitat to the first morning session, but it turns out that this place is really quite a large area of typical African savannah, with seemingly miles of open grassland studded with sparse bushes, and bounded on one side with forested rocky hills. We even had to have a reserve guide with us, attached to our trio as soon as we entered the ramshackle gates.
The first 3 hours or so were spent on foot, wading through savannah and woodland on the rough track. We immediately pinned down Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike and Brown-throated Wattle-eye. Looking for a Senegal Parrot which we eventually found, we also stumbled on to a pair of Violet Touracos nearby. A pair of Northern Puffbacks was back in the open area, with regular Grey Hornbills overhead. Just after luring a Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird into the open, we came across our first critters of the day - a small troupe of Green Monkeys feeding in the greenery. While scanning the rock escarpment above, we were very fortunate to see a pair of Mountain Cliff Chats. They are not always seen, and apparently almost impossible to bring closer using calls. An early Whistling Cisticola preceded many Croaking Cisticolas, and a reminder of Spring soon to come in the UK with Spotted Flycacthcers and Whinchats.
We then called for the car, and spent the rest of
the time slowly driving the track and scanning the open savannah. It looked and
felt like being on safari, heightened by the regular sighting of Kob antelope.
This was as good an experience as any we had had during a superb trip.
Blue-throated Rollers were very regular, as opposed to only singles of Purple
& Broad-billed Roller. Now in the open rather than the forest, the Drongos
we saw were Fork-tailed, with Piapiac foraging in the long grass. We thought we
had come across a couple of incoming Flappet Larks, which turned out to be
Plain-backed Pipits when we located them. A trio of Yellow-throated Longclaws
were instantly obvious on their tree perches. Just before a cave, which I
assume is a bit of a tourist attraction, we managed to get half decent views of
Black-crowned Tchagra, excellent views of Croaking Cisticola, and horizon only
of a static Lanner. The cave itself was uninteresting geologically, but did add
a Stone Partridge, and a pair of displaying and then mating Green-backed
Cameropteras. Our best bird was also the last new one of the day and of the
trip. We had wanted to see White Helmetshrike for 15 years, since our first
trip to The Gambia. And finally, a small group were perched for a short time on
a dead tree in the open area, and were watched flying on and away in stages.
And lastly, back at reception, a troupe of Olive Baboons seemed to be used to
the human presence, weaving in and around the reception area, and at the same
time offering little threat to us. The alpha male even deigned to strut his way
around, which apparently is not an everyday event at this spot.