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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative


2019 Narrative

After a late evening arrival and overnight in Tema on the edge of Accra, we were up early to start our Ghana birding adventure in the Shai Hills. This area of dry woodland, grassland and high rocky hills held a few species we would not come across again. A couple of young Tawny Eagles soared with a Lanner, and our first Violet Turaco put a brief but colourful show. A Square-tailed Drongo was the unexpected highlight, and a distant calling African Barred Owlet remained distant and calling. After the first of many excellent lunches, we drove west to Kakum, stopping for a stretch near Winneba and seeing African Hobby and others, then arrived at Rainforest Lodge, our home for the next three nights.

The Kakum National Park is a large area of selectively logged and primary forest, but its main attraction is the impressive canopy walkway that is suspended 30 metres up, with seven platforms joined by ladder-width walkways. Up there, just under the crowns of rainforest giants, you can really get to grips with some of the forest’s special birds. Indeed, this is the best place to see some relatively widespread species such as Ussher’s Flycatcher, and we spent very enjoyable long morning and evening sessions up in the trees. Black Bee-eaters in excellent light proved to be anything but black, and a Cassin’s Spinetail high overhead eclipsed the myriad of other swifts hawking the airspace. A Forest Wood-hoopoe joined two White-headed Wood-hoopoes, while Yellow-spotted Barbet, Little Grey Flycatcher and a pair of Violet-backed Hyliotas stretched our necks to the limits, as they explored the twigs right above us. The undoubted highlight up here was not in fact a bird at all, but the completely unexpected discovery of a Long-tailed Pangolin clambering around the branches of a tree near to the walkway. It certainly eclipsed our first attempts at getting to grips with Greenbuls! Also up here Sharpe’s Apalis and Sabine’s Puffback were two specialities we were glad to catch up with. Elsewhere, the forests and farm bush near Abrafo produced some quality species, and we had great views of a pair of White-spotted Flufftails, a flock of Rosy Bee-eaters, and a pair of White-bibbed Swallow for starters.

From here, we visited a new site for this tour, the forest at Nsuta. This is actually the same forest block as that at Kakum, but much further west. Here, Black Dwarf Hornbill and Rufous-sided Broadbill were among the highlights, but an African Piculet that came in and sat above us for a few minutes took the main prize.

The drive west was enlivened by stopping for Brown and Reichenbach’s Sunbirds, then arriving at Ankasa, we soon had to abandon the bus in mud on the entrance road and switch to the sturdy local landrovers. Our tents and fully-equipped camp were ready and waiting for us, and so were our first birds: a pair of Akun Eagle Owls that showed very well at the edge of the reserve. Our next two and a half days in this excellent forest reserve were characterised by some admittedly difficult birding, but also some highly sought-after rarities. A small group of Nkulengu Rails were heard at dusk on the first evening and tracked down at dawn, with one bird remaining on its chosen perch to delight the group. The forest ponds proved a great attraction, and for the lucky ones a White-crested Tiger Heron that was feeding on the shoreline before fleeing into the forest was a definite highlight. A cracking Hartlaub’s Duck gave extended views, and an African Finfoot with a couple of chicks was mostly hidden at the back of the pond. White-bellied Kingfishers proved incredibly elusive, with just fleeting glimpses of birds dashing across the pond, despite their calls being heard regularly. Elsewhere in the forest, our camp proved to be a great spot for Greenbuls, with one flock containing many Western Beardeds and a couple of the localised Yellow-bearded, creeping around the trunks and branches in a most un-Greenbul manner. Great Blue Turacos, Rufous-winged Iladopsis, flocks of Sabine’s Spinetails, Long-tailed Hawk and Piping Hornbills were just some of the supporting cast, but big surprises came with a very showy Red-fronted Antpecker, a Grey-throated Rail caught “in the headlights” in broad daylight on the main track (although sadly only seen by those in the first landrover) and perhaps most surprisingly, a pair of Blue-moustached Bee-eaters. Although they are known from this forest, they are normally seen well off the beaten trails and we have to go elsewhere to find them.

The drive back east towards Kakum was broken by a quick stop for Orange Weavers, a few pairs of which are buried within a roadside Village Weaver colony. Arriving late on at the Berenu Road, we enjoyed a fantastic late lunch at the beach restaurant, where African Royal Terns quartered offshore and a flock of Wilson’s Indigobirds cavorted with more regular fare. We then walked for a while along the road, looking for and finding Marsh Tchagra, Sulphur-breasted Bush Shrike and Oriole Warbler.

After a final morning in the Kakum area, we embarked on the long drive north for what would be one of the highlights of this (or, quite frankly, any) tour. Arriving at the village of Bonkro, we were greeted by one of the local guides and set off towards the forest. On the edge of the forest, we had a response from one of the more difficult of Ghana’s forest birds, the Yellow-throated Cuckoo. As Victor played the tape, it flew out of the forest and landed in the tree above us, before repeating this procedure several times, sometimes singing loudly. Even high up, the bright yellow throat stripe could be seen as a vertical slash of colour in the canopy. The walk through the forest was uneventful, and we took our places overlooking the Picathartes nesting site. We sat remarkably closely to the rock at the particular nest we went to, and silence is key. So we waited. After an hour or so, the sound of rain in the canopy could be heard approaching, and once it started to properly hammer down, we were instructed to take shelter under the actual rock! Note that the nest was around the corner from us, but still, it was a strange experience to be standing under the rock, conscious of the fact that we were now blocking one of the access routes for the birds to their roost. We needn’t have worried. We kept a sharp eye out for approaching birds, and the local guide braved the by now torrents of water coming down to stand out in the forest and watch. Thankfully, as the rain was finally easing off, whispered words came down the line; “it’s here, go back to the benches”. Sitting down again, the ghost of the forest appeared to our left, perched low down on some bare branches. It quickly moved to the entrance area of the arena, then bounded, in giant kangaroo leaps, right past us, a mere few feet from its amazed and delighted small crowd of watchers. After moving around the corner, a second bird appeared and proceeded to hang around the clear area below the nest site. Inspecting the area for food, it put on a memorable performance for us, and we were able to leave them to it and walk out of the forest happy. We may have only seen two species that afternoon, but what a couple they were!

The following day presented us with a long drive north, moving out of the forest and farm bush areas to more of a dry woodland or savanna-like landscape. Our only stop of the day was at a village on the White Volta that has proven reliable for another exquisitely iconic African species, the Egyptian Plover. Although neither a plover nor found in Egypt, this “River-courser” treated us to excellent views, even coming to the riverbank next to us at one point. The next three nights and two full days were spent within Mole NP. The dry woodland here holds a vastly different avifauna to that we had been used to over the previous week and provided a bit of light relief after the dense forests of the south. Raptors were usually in evidence, and we logged several Bateleurs floating on tightrope wings. A Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle hunted in front of the lodge, and a couple of White-headed Vultures were a treat among the more expected White-backed and Hooded Vultures. Three surprises here comprised firstly of not one, but two Ovambo Sparrowhawks, an impressive Martial Eagle, and another Wahlberg’s Eagle. The trees and bushes were full of new species, so much so that our first morning here was a bit of a blur as we all tried to get on as many birds as possible. Black Scimitarbill somehow melted quickly away and a Gambaga Flycatcher never materialised once it left its initial tree. However, oodles of mouth-watering Red-throated Bee-eaters, Lavender Waxbills and others provided ample entertainment. We were even treated to a display from “Major”, the resident Bush Elephant, named after an unfortunate tourist he once chased. Staying out one evening, our search for nightjars was rewarded with a couple of Long-tailed Nightjars hawking in the torchlight, and a most unexpected Red-necked Nightjar that refused to leave the track. Also on this evening we logged an impressive six different Greyish Eagle Owls. 

With far too many species to list, Mole NP was yet again a highlight of the tour and a great change from the sometimes difficult and oppressive forests of the south. However, south bound we had to be, and after the long drive to Kumasi, we managed to get to Bobiri an hour before dusk, and it proved to be a good move. The highlight was undoubtedly the flock of 12 Grey Parrots that flew into the treetops near us and gave great views, followed, after dusk, by a brief Brown Nightjar over the trail and a rather cute but elusive Demidoff’s Gelago low down in the trailside vines. Our next morning in this butterfly reserve started off very well when a Long-tailed Hawk did a couple of overhead fly-bys, its reddish underparts and eponymous tail being shown off to good effect.

After much effort over the last two weeks, we finally got a pair of Red-billed Dwarf Hornbills to come in, and everyone eventually had good views, despite the birds being rather mobile and elusive. Elsewhere along the trail, Chestnut-capped Flycatchers and another Grey Parrot entertained. Moving on to the Atewa area, we spent the late afternoon birding the farm bush and initial few yards of the trail where a little group of Forest Penduline Tits were a surprise. The newly opened up track to the ridgeline is a mixed blessing; access is now much easier, but no doubt this just means more poaching and is in preparation for the forthcoming mining and logging in this beautiful forest. A trio of Blue-moustached Bee-eaters would no doubt have been much more important had we not already seen them in Ankasa, but a Narina’s Trogon was new and appreciated, as were lots of gap fillers such as Kemp’s Longbill and good views of a pair of Chocolate-backed Kingfishers.

After a final morning at Atewa, it was time to head back to the hotel for a last lunch and shower before making our way to Accra and our onward flights home. It had been a great trip. Not an easy trip – the forests are far too dense and high to make this an easy trip – but nonetheless we connected with an excellent set of West Africa’s most special birds during our time here. 

-          Paul French

Created: 09 December 2019