Birdingpals Trip Report
Birding Ghana 17-23 October and 30 October-1 November
by Birdingpals Mike Bowman and Kalu Afasi
Ghana is an extremely friendly country and one where the average birder will feel immediately at home thanks to the invariably warm welcome given to visitors. The number of tourists is quite small and once away from the airport area and key tourist sites like Mole I only rarely saw any other Europeans.
I flew out from Geneva with KLM via Amsterdam and arrived in Accra on the evening of 16th October. The next morning I met up with Kalu to agree on the final itinerary. I had previously birded the coastal sites with Kalu, an excellent local birder and tour guide, back
in January 2006. We had got on extremely well and I wished to visit some more sites with him, notably Mole National Park as well as visit some of his spots behind the Kakum National Park. As background information Ghana is currently experiencing a shortage of electrical power that has lead to a national load shedding programme. Different areas are switched off for 12 hours at a time and although outages are planned and generally known by local residents, arriving in an unknown area after dark can be a bit disconcerting when the only light is coming from oil lamps. Unplanned outages also occur so it is necessary to ensure that cameras and mobile phones are charged when power is available. Very few buildings have stand-by generators.
This period was mostly spent relaxing and acclimatising to the heat and humidity. This year the rainy season had lasted much longer than usual and heavy showers were quite frequent with the result that there was relatively little dust and vegetation remained luxuriant. Naturally I birded around the garden of my host in Ofankor on the northern side of Accra, where the typical garden birds were:-
Shikra, Grey Kestrel, Senegal Coucal, Grey-headed Sparrow, Laughing Dove, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Olive Sunbird, Copper Sunbird, Yellow-billed Kite, Bar-breasted Firefinch, Bronze Mannikin, Little Swift, Common Bulbul, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Northern Red Bishop, Common Fiscal, Mosque Swallow, Ethiopian Swallow and Hooded Vulture.
During this period I also spent a weekend on the Kwahu plateau in the pleasant little village of Tafo, reached from Accra by the bus route to Kumasi, descending from the bus at Nkawkaw. From Nkawkaw the plateau can be reached by taxi over a very steep mountain road.
I did very little bird watching in Tafo but it looked interesting with the steep cliffs seen from the road and dense jungle on the way up. The plateau seemed pretty “birdy” and amongst other things I saw Brown-crowned Tchagra, large numbers of African Pied Hornbill, Northern Red Bishop, Vinaceous Dove, numerous Cattle Egrets, Common Kestrel, Senegal Coucal, Whinchat. Spotted Flycatcher, Double-spurred Francolin, Red-chested Cuckoo, etc.
Monday 23rd was spent travelling from Accra to Tamale the gateway to the Mole National Park. The air-conditioned bus of the STC
leaves at 0900 and takes approximately 13 to 14 hours for this trip and arrives in the late evening in the city of Tamale. The bus makes 4 or 5 15 minute stops for food and comfort breaks. The A/C buses also show films (“Nollywood” features from Nigeria). On
arrival we made our way by taxi to a local motel which was almost empty. Local style hotels generally run around $7 or $8 per night
for a room with two beds. All have a fan (useful only when the electricity is on!), some have A/C and all have reasonable toilet and shower facilities. Showers are always cold but as the water is never really cold this is not a problem.
Getting up in the morning in Tamale there were already some new birds to be found around the room: Speckled Pigeon, Long-tailed Glossy Starling, Vinaceous Dove, Purple Glossy Starling, Piacpiac, Gabar Goshawk, Bearded Barbet as well as the usual Bronze Mannikins, Laughing Doves, Shikra etc.
Arriving in Tamale is not the end of the story as it takes about 3 hours to get from Tamale to the Mole NP! A daily bus makes the journey but we took a taxi which was a lot more convenient and not excessively expensive. We had passed the entry to the park on our way to Tamale but because of the hour at which we passed the junction we had to continue to Tamale. The road into the park is unmade and very dusty and rough in places. We were not able to make any reservations at the Mole Motel as their landline radio link was down and none of their mobile phones were online. Mobile coverage in Ghana is generally very good but extremely patchy around Mole. As a back-up to the Mole Motel there are some rooms available in guest houses in the village of Larabanga at the entrance to the park.
On arriving at the Mole Motel we obtained the last free room which was a three-bedded family room with fan only. Better rooms do exist with A/C and in a better situation. I was immediately struck by the presence of incredibly tame Warthogs that needed to be shooed away from the doorway of the room, large numbers of Baboons and other monkeys.
After birding around the local tracks Kalu fixed an outing with one of the local rangers who are necessary when descending into the park as such. We went with a ranger who was extremely well informed about the local birds.
Amongst the birds seen were, Woodland Kingfisher, Grey Hornbill, Pin-tailed Wydah, Bateleur, Western Grey Plantain-eater, Black-billed Wood-dove, Fork-tailed Drongo, a spectacular male Exclamatory Paradise Wydah, Senegal Lapwing, Senegal Eremomela, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Striped Kingfisher, Yellow-fronted Canary, Northern Black Flycatcher, Helmeted Guinea fowl and White-fronted Whistling ducks were numerous around the water hole.
Early in the morning we were greeted by the unmistakable calls of Hadada Ibis as flocks of these birds flew towards the water holes. After breakfast we joined our ranger again and the first bird we saw was a Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. The park below the motel was
very wet indeed unusually for the season and we soon had very wet feet as a result of leaping across numerous streams and boggy areas. Birds of interest included Rose-ringed Parakeet, Malachite Kingfisher, Beautiful Sunbird, Willow Warbler, Red-billed Hornbill, Green Wood-hoopoe, Woolly-necked Stork, Pied Flycatcher, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-weaver, Red-fronted Lovebird, Black-headed Weaver, Black Crake, Levaillant’s Cuckoo, White-shouldered Black Tit, Yellow-crowned Gonolek, Blue-breasted Kingfisher, Red-throated Bee-eater, Spur-winged Goose, Lavender Waxbill, and finally a Stone Partridge observed very well sitting on a rock as we climbed back up to the motel. We also observed a pair of Abyssinian Ground Hornbills perched on a branch during our final trek back up.
Our last sightings were of Wire-tailed Swallows over the swimming pool, a Pied Flycatcher, Yellow-fronted Canary, a couple of White-backed Vultures, a Shikra, African Hobby and last but not least a magnificent Saddle-backed Stork near the water hole. We also saw a couple of very high flying migrating storks, most likely Black Storks. Throughout the time we were in Mole there was an almost uninterrupted stream of migrating Grey Hornbills moving in a westerly direction.
This day was occupied by our return trip to Accra; unfortunately we had to travel with an old non-air-conditioned bus as the air-conditioned vehicle was full when we tried to make our return reservations. The old bus was very noisy and uncomfortable but made the trip in about the same time as the more modern vehicle. On the way we saw a few new birds, notably three Black-shouldered Kites, two Lizard Buzzards, Village Weavers, Pin-tailed Wydah, Common Kestrel, African Palm Swift etc.
Once again Kalu and I met up and took a bus from Accra’s Central Bus Station to Assin Fosa which was to be our first base for some visits to a couple of interesting spots behind the Kakum NP. We arrived in Assin Foso before night fall and found a small guest house at the entry into the village. The owner confirmed that they would have food but when we went looking we discovered that everything
had been eaten. As this was a day without electricity the search for food turned out to be somewhat difficult in a village that we did not know. A first eating spot visited had also sold out, a second one thought that they had something but after a long wait we discovered that they had run out of cooking gas. Finally in desperation we found another guest house where we ate well. During the evening we found a taxi willing to take us to Aboabo Camp very early in the morning.
Well before daybreak we set off to Aboabo Camp passing a large group of trainee immigration officers doing their early morning run. After a very rough and muddy drive we finally arrived at our destination and left the taxi at the GWS site. We then walked along a somewhat muddy track through the forest where we immediately started seeing some new birds, amongst which were Yellow-browed Cameroptera, Dusky Blue Flycatcher, Piping Hornbill, Tiny Sunbird, Velvet-mantled Drongo, Red-fronted Parrot, Naked-faced Barbet, Whistling Cisiticola, Sabine’s Spinetail, Icterine Greenbul, Blue-billed Malimbe, Swamp Palm Bulbul, Western Bluebill, Congo Serpent-eagle, Black-throated Coucal, Red-vented and Crested Malimbe, etc.
After returning from the walk at Aboabo Camp, we found our way by a mixture of “Tro-Tro” (local bus), and taxi to the well known Hans Cottage situated between Cape Coast and the entry to the Kakum NP. Hans Cottage was decidedly luxurious after some of the places where we had stayed and their hot water showers were much appreciated!
At Hans Cottage the usual colonies of Village and Orange weavers were present and in addition to the usual Pied and Malachite Kingfishers, Cattle Egrets, and Common Sandpipers, we found a female Black and White Flycatcher, Red-faced Cisticola, breeding Western Grey Plaintain-eaters, Lesser Striped Swallows, a Fanti Sawwing etc.
Once again we took a taxi to a site known as Antwikwaa situated within the NP where we arrived just as day was breaking. We were greeted by the first Red-fronted Parrots flying overhead followed by a Piping Hornbill and numerous Pied Hornbills moving out from their roosts. We were also lucky enough to see a Bat Hawk just as the sky was lightening up. Shortly afterwards a White-crested Hornbill flew across the track. Soon we had excellent views of a perched Long-tailed Hawk showing its unusual colour-scheme and shape. We were later to have good views of this species in flight. Other interesting species seen at this site included Thick-billed Cuckoo, Emerald Cuckoo, Common Swift, Speckled Tinkerbird, Grey-headed Negrofinch, Naked-faced Barbet and Grey-backed Cameroptera.
After it had become too hot for birding we took a taxi down to Cape Coast where we booked seats back to Accra. We departed more or
less on time but after about 20 minutes the bus came to a grinding stop and full of smoke in open country. There was no water
remaining in the radiator and the vehicle was obviously in very bad shape. After hanging around for about an hour and marvelling at
the patience of the local passengers we jumped ship and continued our journey on a Tro-Tro that stopped with a couple of free seats.
All in all this was a very successful trip and one which was extremely economical as we used public transport for all the long distances and only used taxis for short distances and for the travel between Tamale and Mole NP.
Number of species seen: 154
Mike Bowman/Kalu Afasi 12/11/2006
Yellow-headed Picathartes, also known as White-necked Rockfowl:
Ever since I bought “Birds of Western Africa” by Borrow and Demey I have been obsessed by the possibility of seeing one of the two Picathartes species that are endemic to West Africa. I had already been a number of times to Ghana where the Yellow-headed Picathartes had not been seen since some time in the 60s and had been presumed by some to have become extinct within the country following drastic reductions to the primary rain forests. The chance discovery of a tiny population by an American university in
2003 lead to a serious investigation into the status of this enigmatic species, whose only relatives are believed to be the Rock-jumpers of South Africa. Following this discovery Ghana Wildlife Society began distributing posters in villages where the surrounding habitat was favourable which has lead to the discovery of up to about 20 tiny isolated populations. Isolated because the bird has specific habitat requirements, dense forest with either caves or boulders with overhangs to build its mud nest.
In order to see this bird it is essential to have the support of GWS as they alone know the locations of the populations, most of which are extremely difficult of access. The birds remain close by the nest site all year round and the mud-built nests, looking
like oversized House Martin nests, are located under the overhangs of large rocks or within caves.
The possibility of another visit to Ghana lead me and my Ghanaian birding partner, Kalu Afasi, to make this the major objective of the trip. Kalu himself had also long wanted to see this bird and after some excellent and complex planning by him we managed to find ourselves in a remote village near Ghana’s most easily accessible population some four hours from Accra.
In order to see the birds it is necessary to arrive at their breeding site an hour or so before dusk when they return to their
nests, even outside the breeding season, which usually begins in March. So around 4PM we set off from the village walking initially through cocoa plantations before we began a serious hike through the rain forest aided by the machetes of our two GWS wardens. After about 45 minutes there it was, an isolated granite rock under whose overhang could be seen two big mud-built cup nests looking as though they had been built by some giant member of the swallow family.
Together with the two GWS wardens we settled down for a long wait lying on the forest floor with a trail of ants continuously crossing over us, but surprisingly no bites were received. Remarkably during the entire hike no other birds were seen at all, although parrots could be heard calling in the canopy. As cramp began to set in we began to have doubts whether we would ever see
the bird, finally after about an hour one of the wardens signalled that he had heard a bird scratching around on the forest floor
and seen it briefly, finally just before 6PM Kalu had a brief sighting just as I was looking in the wrong direction! Now we knew which way to look and suddenly I also had a brief apparition of the bird as it leapt around low branches just above the forest
floor. This was followed by a mind-blowing binocular filling view of it as it remained stationary for about a minute on a low
branch. What a bird, quite unlike anything else I have ever seen with its long sturdy legs, long tail and naked head with a bright yellow patch and strange bill looking as though it had been tacked on as an after thought.
As we were between the bird and the nests we decided that we should depart discreetly and let the bird rejoin the nest site. We
could scarcely believe our luck in seeing such a rare and enigmatic bird under such good conditions. For both of us it had been the bird watching experience of our lives.
Mike Bowman and Kalu Afasi 25/01/2007