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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Ghana (Upper Guinea Rainforests), December 19 -31st 2009,
A first time visit for a 12 day trip to Ghana focussing upon Upper Guinea rainforest endemics and taking in Kakum, Ankassa, Bobiri, Atewa, Shai Hills and Sukumona Lagoon. A trip list of 277 species was garnered including 127 “lifers” and many of the endemics, including the enigmatic Yellow-headed Picathartes.
The prospects of the Christmas holidays in the UK and all that they entail generally fill me with dread so I regularly attempt to organise an overseas birdwatching holiday at this time. Jeannine’s occupation as a teacher limits us strictly to the school holiday period, so the timing is even more prescribed. We are enthusiastic but relaxed birders, recreational birders even, trying to enjoy the whole experience rather than simply chasing lists so we don’t tend to insist upon spending every waking minute in the field, just in case we “miss one”. If we’re tired we have a rest, if we’re thirsty we have a drink, if we miss a lifer the world keeps spinning. This means that we also get our enjoyment from visiting new places and meeting new people as well as staring through the ends of binoculars.
We had been interested in visiting Ghana for a long time but had consistently failed to successfully organise a trip there, largely due to a limited availability of organisations within the country itself who could arrange something suitable. Casting around for something appropriate I rather fortuitously came across Ashanti African Tours who, amongst other things, offered birdwatching tours and they proved to be the ideal organisation for our needs. I would strongly recommend their services to anyone wishing to organise a birding tour to Ghana.
The details of a 12 day/11 night tour were quickly organised through their main office. Flights were arranged with KLM via Amsterdam, which is more convenient for us than using Heathrow. Maps were bought, trip lists organised, binoculars polished and we were ready to go.
A 12 day trip staying in good quality accommodation with 4WD transport, driver and bird guide cost £1450 pp. This price was originally based upon up to 6 participants but, as we were the only ones to book, ended up as the price for a private tour. In our opinion, having travelled to a number of countries on similar tours, this represented excellent value for money.
The bird guide was Robert Ntakor (as recommended in the Bradt guide) who is regarded as the leading bird guide in the country and who gave outstanding service both as a bird guide and the tour leader/organiser. He showed immense patience with my limited spotting ability coupled with the moderate fitness levels that we exhibited. We would strongly recommend him to anyone planning a tour to Ghana, but do be warned that his services are in very high demand. Driving services were provided by Robert’s brother James whose patience and indefatigable nature were an added bonus. Coupled with this he was also an excellent bird guide with remarkable eyes and ears and was also very friendly and relaxing company.
The car, a Land Rover Discovery, was fully equipped with bottles of drinking water and packs of biscuits as well as efficient air-conditioning. The latter is something that we often try to avoid when travelling but in Ghana it proved to be necessary at almost all times.
Despite having my camera with me I found that opportunities for photography were quite limited to all but the most dedicated, hence no shots accompany this report.
KLM out of Manchester at 06.00 on Dec 19th to Amsterdam, picking up the Accra flight after a 4.5 hour layover and arriving in Ghana at 19.25. The flights were all full but very comfortable with decent food and service. They were very expensive, however (£745 pp) largely due to the time period and recent changes in airline policies. The major contrast we found came from arriving first in Amsterdam where the temperature was -6oC then arriving in Accra where it was 29oC, although this was surely better than the other way around.
The return flights were of a similar good quality with only the singular drawback of a long layover in Schipol. We departed Accra at 22.00 on the 30th arriving in Amsterdam at 05.45 on the 31st. Due to the impending holiday all KLM flights had been consolidated in advance so our onward flight (for a 50 minute transfer to Manchester) was all of 8 hours later. Thankfully Schipol is far more passenger friendly than UK airports so we had a reasonably comfortable time before eventually returning home.
Books and Literature
For birding we relied upon Birds of Western Africa by Nik Borrow and Ron Demey which proved very reliable.
The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals is useful, although sightings of mammals were few.
I bought a 1:750,000 travel map produced by International Travel maps which was moderately useful but wouldn’t advise purchase of one in advance as there are many maps available to buy in hotels in Accra.
For general information we used the Bradt Guide to Ghana 4th edition by Philip Briggs which is full of useful information, including much about birding. This is recommended for anyone visiting the country.
Ashanti provided very good trip lists for us both although I had also prepared my own in advance, as is my wont.
The local currency is the Cedi, often shown as $G. I had exchanged some money in the airport (£1 = $G2.3) as it had been advised that exchange facilities were limited. As it happened money could have been changed in hotels or credit cards used in a couple of them, but the cash did actually prove to be handy. No-one in Ghana ever seems to have any change so small denomination notes are especially useful.
These need to be obtained from the Ghana High Commission and timing is quite critical. The visa is valid for only 3 months from the date of issue but you also need to allow sufficient time for them to be issued and delivered; in our case the visas were only valid for a further two weeks after we left the country. There were no difficulties with obtaining these however.
Malaria is a common and serious disease in Ghana so prophylactics are necessary and you should consult your doctor before making the trip. As it happened we saw very few mosquitoes during our trip, but we did get bitten by an interesting array of other insects.
The weather is consistently very hot (27oC+ on all days) often accompanied by high humidity. We found that it took a number of days to begin to adjust to this heat, particularly as we had come from a northern winter. Night-time temperatures rarely fell below 20oC. We found it difficult, and fairly unproductive, to continue birding much after 10.30 am. The heat became extreme (and I have suffered from heatstroke in the past) and birdlife activity fell away noticeably. Consumption of plenty of bottled water is an obvious requirement and I recommend carrying some rehydration salts in case of need. The heat was the root of our major problem which was tiredness, which with the heat caused us to call a halt to birding in the field a little earlier than others might have done. We didn’t feel that we had missed out on anything though.
Early morning birding is an absolute necessity to get the best out of the trip, so with the travelling required 4.30 breakfasts were the norm. As always, however, once out of bed these early mornings were usually delightful. Late afternoon and evening birding offered reasonably good opportunities but the levels of bird activity were much lower than in the mornings.
Food and Drink
All of the food that we had in hotels and restaurants was quite acceptable and in a number of cases very good. This was typically tourist food of course with its attendant limitations but none the worse for that. The regular array of soft drinks, tea, coffee etc was available, none of which was exceptional but all welcomed at the time. Beer is readily available with the usual lager styles predominating as well as a very nice bottled Guinness and a pleasant Castle milk stout. A very tasty and cheap gin was available at Hans Botel, compensating for its other shortcomings.
We have travelled fairly extensively and encountered quite a variety of accommodation in the process so our expectations are never high, simply hoping for cleanliness and comfort. All of the places that we stayed were acceptable with some being surprisingly good and others having their own idiosyncrasies. One note of caution is to always check your bill very carefully. This isn’t a suggestion that there is any chicanery going on but that arithmetic skills are not always of the highest: I was significantly overcharged and undercharged because of this, both of which were easily rectified.
African Royal Beach Hotel, Accra. We stayed at this hotel for two nights at the beginning and end of the tour. It is very good quality with comfortable and airy rooms, aircon, fan, TV, balcony with seas views etc. Both the bar and restaurant are very good, prices are quite reasonable and the service is first class.
Hans Cottage Botel, Cape Coast. This hotel has a long-standing reputation as one of the “must stay” places in Ghana; we spent three nights here on the way West and one night on the way up to Kumasi. The first stay was in a “superior” room with aircon and a fan, which was OK but only just. During the whole of this stay the room was never cleaned nor the bed changed and clean towels were only provided, with reluctance, on request. The water failed on a number of occasions and ran dark brown on others. The sign in the bathroom: “Do not touch heater, danger of electrocution” should have been warning enough I suppose. On our second stay we had an “ordinary” room which was really quite poor, with an inoperative aircon, a fan that ran at turbo speed only and a sink that was hanging off the bathroom wall. For just one night we made do.
In contrast the bar and restaurant at Hans are both very good and cheap with attentive and friendly service at all times. The hotel is trading upon its past reputation, however, and will be bypassed by others as soon as alternative accommodation within striking distance of Kakum is available. The only remedial work that was taking place whilst we were there was on the souvenir shop, which must give an indication of where the priorities lie.
Rexmar Hotel, Kumasi. We had just one very comfortable night at this hotel before visiting Bobiri reserve and it was clean and welcoming with a good bar and very good restaurant with very professional service. As always all of the staff were very friendly and helpful even on the morning when they must have been tired after providing a banquet for large numbers of guests.
Axim Beach Hotel, Axim. We stayed for three nights at this luxurious spot which coincided with the Christmas holiday, and Jeannine would have happily stayed for many more had she been given the choice. It offered the closest available accommodation to Ankasa RR but was still two hours drive away. Accommodation is in individual chalets with aircon, fan, luxury bathrooms and TV. There is a very good restaurant and bar together with a beach bar. The beach offers swimming opportunities, apparently not common on this dangerous coast, as well as limited sea-watching possibilities. On a previous visit numerous cetaceans, including whales, had been seen close offshore, but no such delights awaited us.
Royal Bleumich Hotel, Akim Tafo. There is always one hotel where the experience is less than satisfactory, and this was ours. On the face of it this should be a good hotel with fairly modern construction, spacious rooms and a comfortable restaurant and bar. The management is woeful in the extreme, however. Service from the front desk is obtained by first waking the manager who is sleeping on the sofa alongside; the room smelt most unpleasant which was tracked down to the most unsavoury human detritus in a bucket in the bathroom which had to be removed; food was wholesome but served with a surliness that was a shock in such a naturally friendly country. Finally, the piece de resistance was a thunderous disco that cranked up at 9.00 pm and carried on until 2.00 am, when we had most thoughtfully been provided with the room right alongside this. Our 4.30 breakfast was not the most cheerful that we had on the trip to say the least. Hotel options in this area are limited but caution should be taken if forced to choose this one.
Having taken a comfortable overnight stay at the Hilton at Manchester Airport we arose at 3.30 am to connect with the KLM Amsterdam flight which was full to capacity. We were welcomed on arrival in Amsterdam by a temperature of -6oC so hot drinks were called for. The KLM flight to Accra was also full but still comfortable and efficient, and we were fed and watered effectively until arrival in Ghana, where the evening temperature was a more welcomed 29oC. Airport processes were reasonably speedy and money exchange was simple, following which we were met by Robert and James and transferred through the vibrant city streets to the African Royal Beach Hotel. We were too tired for food so had a couple of drinks and received our briefing for the trip before retiring for the night.
A decent night’s sleep found us breakfasting at 5.00 (eggs and omelettes as always) before departing for the Sukumona Lagoon. This is a pleasant and reassuring introduction to Ghana birding for UK visitors providing as it does the opportunity to hang on the end of a scope and pick off numerous waders, the majority of which are reasonably familiar. Amongst the less usual species were Long-tailed Cormorant, Black-headed Heron, Black Heron (which treated us with a number of displays of its well known “umbrella” feeding style), Western Reef Egret and Grey Plover. Royal Terns flew along the shore and Collared Pratincoles swooped around, whilst a Black-shouldered Kite gave good views and we had our only sighting on the trip of Eurasian Marsh Harrier. No lifers so far but a steady list for the early hours of a day that was already becoming quite hot.
We moved east and stopped at Winneba Plains to spend some time seeking out the specialities of this area. Whilst there we had good views of Black-bellied Bustard, both on the ground and in flight, Red-necked Buzzard, Grey Kestrel perched obligingly, Double-spurred Francolin bursting noisily out of the brush, our only Black-billed Wood Dove revealed itself, Western Grey Plantain Eaters introduced themselves, White-throated Bee-eaters were all around, African Grey Hornbills and African Pied Hornbills moved from bush to bush. A Speckled Tinkerbird gave good but brief views and our first lifer, Simple Greenbul, gave confiding views while Robert was searching for more specialist species. Yellow-crowned Gonolek could be heard but the bird that emerged was a Snowy-crowned Robin Chat, which was closely followed by a pair of gonoleks, then by a couple of Blackcap Babblers. A Yellow-billed Shrike then caught our attention, a Black-crowned Tchagra was scolding before emerging and a Common Fiscal was close by. Numerous sunbirds were around including Collared, Splendid and Copper with African Yellow White-eyes buzzing about.
At this point I suddenly realised that I was getting extremely hot – too hot by far – and had to make my way back to the car. My previous experiences of heatstroke have been most unpleasant and I wanted to avoid repeating that if at all possible. Even on the way to the car we had another speciality of the area in the shape of a pair of Yellow-throated Lingclaws that fluttered to the ground just in front of us. We decamped rather earlier than planned for the Cape Coast and Hans Botel. A few extra species were added here thanks to the presence of the breeding flocks of weavers for which the small lake is know, although the crocs for which it is famous remained out of site while we were there. Later in the day after recharging my batteries we headed for Bremsu Lake hoping to catch sight of African Finfoot but the area was busy with fishermen so we settled instead for pleasant views of Pied and Woodland Kingfishers together with a selection of hirundines.
An evening meal and a couple of beers were followed by an early night for some welcome rest before the next morning’s start. Unfortunately for me I was awoken in the night with the most extreme and excruciating cramps in my legs, clearly the result of the earlier overheating and consequent dehydration. After finally managing to get some sleep my problem was overcome by taking plenty of salt and sugar in water and thankfully wasn’t repeated during the trip. You would think that I should have learned my lesson by now yet we still weren’t carrying rehydration salts with us, even though there were plenty in the cupboard at home.
(Trip total: 90 species, 8 lifers)
Tea, toast and omelette were the regular order of the day throughout. We made our way to the Kakum forest passing through a few interesting looking towns on the way. Having completed the formalities we walked up the trail to the entranceway to the famed walkway arriving just after daybreak. This walkway is excellently described by Philip Briggs in his book where he makes the point that it is emphatically not for those with a poor head for heights (this group includes me and especially Jeannine), being some 350m long in 7 stages and 40m above ground. It provides a unique opportunity to see the birds actually in the forest canopy and the platforms around each tree are very sturdy, offering good support for a ‘scope. We went across the first stretch which is about 25m long and settled onto the platform where we were presented with great views of target species. An African Harrier-hawk (Gymnogene to some, including me) gave very confiding views; numerous African Green Pigeons were all around; Red-fronted Parrots flew close enough to be able to discern all of their markings; and our first experience of the sight and sound of Yellow-billed Turaco was memorable.
At this point Jeannine had reached the conclusion that she was uncomfortable at this height and decided to return along the walkway to the relative comfort of solid ground. This she accomplished steadily, but amazingly slowly accompanied by squeals and whimpering, to allow us to get on with watching the wildlife. She may have been encouraged by the local guide Emanuel telling me not to worry about her as the walkway would bear a load of 9 tonnes – maybe not! Plenty of hornbills were around, some in the process of dispersing for the morning, including African Pied, African Grey, Brown-cheeked and the stunning White-crested. An African Emerald Cuckoo showed well as did a Hairy-breasted Barbet; a Melancholy Woodpecker played hide and seek for a while before giving good views whilst a Little Green Woodpecker was less trying as a Cassin’s Honeyguide flew in alongside it.
Smaller birds began to emerge thick and fast and, despite me being thick and slow, I did manage to catch up with them eventually. Greenbuls were everywhere with Slender-billed and Golden being relatively common as well as Yellow-whiskered, Honeyguide, Simple and Spotted, showing its characteristic wing flashing display. A Blue Cuckoo-shrike added a colour contrast then a Violet-backed Hyliota proved difficult to find but eventually rewarded me with satisfactory views. Rufous-crowned Eremomela, the inconspicuous Little Green Sunbird, Green Sunbird and Tiny Sunbird added to the mix with numerous Orioles (Black-winged and Western Black-headed) all around, and a passing group of Red-billed Helmetshrikes created even more entertainment. This really was forest birding at its best, without the aching neck and sun-blinded views, and is a must for anyone visiting the region.
We hadn’t moved beyond the first platform yet had been treated to this enormous array of excellent views. As time moved on the bird activity notably diminished and “regular “ tourist activity began to pick up, so we retraced our steps and rejoined Jeannine, now rested and reassured, before making our way back to the centre and the car. The heat was certainly beginning to rise again and the park was getting quite busy so we made our way back to the hotel to catch up on a couple of things, have a bit of a rest and do a little gentle birding around its lake.
We returned to the forest in the late afternoon in order to try some of the other platforms and visited the dam once more to try for fin foot; unsuccessful again but we did pick up Preuss’s Swallow . On arriving at the forest we found that it was incredibly busy with busloads of very noisy tourists making the walkway unusable for our purposes. We tried a number of the forest trails with some limited success but until the noise died down there was very little chance of seeing anything. Eventually the buses began to rev their engines and the crowds departed leaving the canopy free for birds and birders.
Naturally Jeannine chose to sit quietly in the walkway lodge whilst we enjoyed ourselves. I walked out to the first platform once more then continued to number two, noticing that the span was quite a bit longer. Robert indicated that number three was probably the most promising and as I began to cross the walkway commenced to sag and sway beneath my feet and the full 40m gad was clearly visible. I was having distinct second thoughts where no such thoughts were possible and found the crossing to be quite scary, but made it safely to the platform for a bit more bird viewing. As may be expected we were less successful than in the morning but did have many repeat viewings of birds that we had seen earlier. The main disappointment was missing out on Great Blue Turaco, which was heard but not seen by Robert, but some compensation was gleaned from African Shrike-flycatcher, Chestnut-capped Flycatcher, Yellow-mantled Weaver, Velvet-mantled Drongo and flocks of returning parrots and hornbills. The light began to fade slightly and it was time to go. I thought to myself “I’m not going over bridge number three again – far too hairy. I’ll go back by the quick route.” Bridge number three would have been a doddle compared with the rest of the walkway with spans in excess of 70m pitching and swaying beneath me. I survived however, albeit with wobbly legs, and we made an uneventful return to the hotel. Kakum as a whole is magnificent and impossible to do justice to in even a few days. Even for those with my weedy head for heights the short walk to the first platform is worth every step for the views and array of the canopy birds to be gained from it.
An enjoyable light dinner accompanied by a couple of bottles of stout was followed by a very sound sleep.
(Trip total: 122 species, 31 lifers.)
Another early breakfast was followed by a trip to the Kakum area again but this time around the Anwikwaa area which is forest edge and farmland. This proved to be quite productive, as well as easy going and very interesting – the insect life and vegetation was outstanding. As is often the case the border between cultivated and uncultivated land was a magnet for birds of all sorts and the trip list was enhanced in just a few hours with such as: Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Tambourine Dove, Guinea (Green) Turaco, Pied Cuckoo, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Dideric Cuckoo, Senegal Coucal, Rosy Bee-eater (for which this was a target site), Blue-throated Roller, Speckled Tinkerbird, Yellow-throated Tinkerbird, Little Greenbul, Swamp Palm Greenbul, Great Tit-flycatcher, Red-bellied Paradise-flycatcher, Red-faced Cisticola, Yellow-browed Cameroptera, Grey Longbill, Western Olive Sunbird, Buff-throated Sunbird, Common Fiscal, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Preuss’s Weaver, Grey’s Malimbe (the first Malimbe of the trip), White-breasted Negrofinch and Grey-headed Negrofinch.
Such a simple list doesn’t do justice to the pleasure and excitement that we had from walking these tracks, with new birds appearing around every bend and on almost every bush, or so it seemed. The cuckoos appeared almost together, with an emerald cuckoo thrown in for good effect, providing excellent opportunities to compare plumages and flight; swamp palm greenbuls don’t behave anything like “normal” greenbuls being readily visible and incredibly vocal sounding like a scolding couple having an argument at distance. Sunbirds literally zip about and I found their calls to be fairly indistinguishable, whereas Robert and James were able to separate them instantly. This is the kind of area well off the tourist beaten track, thankfully, and where only birders would choose to go. Even here we were defeated by the heat of the sun however, so we made for Twifo Praso bridge for a couple of specialities.
The town of Twifo Praso is home to a very large local market where everything seemed to be available to buy, enhanced no doubt be the holiday week that was about to commence and through the town lies the river and the crossing that gives it its name. Here there were considerable numbers of hirundines and swifts flying around and after some careful observation a few handsome White-throated Blue Swallows could be made out amongst the Barn, occasional Preuss’s and Lesser-striated Swallows that were also around. Common Swifts wheeled in the air as did a couple of Little Swifts and one or more Cassin’s Needletails gave good views. On the water were a couple of Jacanas and lying on rocks in the middle Rock Pratincoles could be made out. A couple of Common Sandpipers completed the picture. Reasonably sated with birds we repaired to Hans to get a little sated with food and refreshments. Resting after lunch Jeannine and I were able to watch a Striated Heron quietly fishing at the water’s edge alongside the more common Cattle Egrets and Squaccos.
As the heat of the day subsided a little we made our way to the Gyaware Road area where we were able to connect with even more target species. A palm-nut vulture drifted close overhead for a short while, surprisingly giving our only views of the trip; a Common Moorhen was seen on a small water body as were jacana, but not fin foot; a couple of Red-fronted Parrots flew overhead; we had a brief sighting of a Black Bee-eater, very much a target bird, which was confirmatory but disappointingly short, and Jeannine missed it altogether; Buff-spotted and Fire-bellied Woodpeckers gave good views completely separately and a Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher gave great views; Green-headed, Olive-bellied and Blue-throated Sunbirds added to the difficulties of readily identifying any of the sunbirds, but we persevered, as must have Robert and James; a Viellot’s Weaver was an attractive addition to the tally. As the light began to fade we made our way back to the main reception area at Kakum which was now very quiet and peaceful. Using a couple of large flashlights on the surrounding trees soon revealed the presence of an imposing Fraser’s Eagle-owl but surprisingly (to me) no other night birds. We made our way back in the dark to the welcoming embrace of Hans Botel where a couple of bottles of beer, a satisfying meal and a run-through of the checklist preceded another welcome night’s sleep.
(Trip total: 161 species, 51 lifers)
After feasting on boiled eggs and omelettes we were packed up and off to explore the forest trails at Kakum for a couple of hours before heading off west. Plenty of birds were seen, and seen well, but the majority were repeat sightings of species seen previously although no less welcome for that. New birds were Fraser’s Forest Flycatcher, a sole Little Grebe and African Black Crake on a pool, Grey Greenbul and Icterine Greenbul. An exciting (for us) yomp through the undergrowth saw us finally catch up with a previously very elusive Rufous-sided Broadbill which then commenced to provide the most confiding views possible in that fickle way that only birds can. A White-tailed Ant Thrush was similarly elusive but I finally got satisfactory views, whilst Western Nicator eluded us constantly, calling from very close by but staying concealed throughout. This species was to confound us with this behaviour throughout the trip, never making it onto the list. Ussher’s Flycatcher and Red-vented Malimbe added to the tally before we left this highly productive area.
We headed west towards the border with Côte D’Ivoire where our accommodation was to be close to the town of Axim. This was the closest accommodation, short of camping, to the Ankasa forest; Ankasa is a magnificent primary growth area that offers the safest access to this type of habitat in the whole of West Africa. The accommodation was still two hours drive away from the forest entrance, however, which naturally meant many early mornings to get the best of the birding. Ankasa is a fabulous area for wildlife in general and birdlife in particular with some enormous trees and splendid vegetation. Scanning the canopies regularly is tiring and walking the trails is strenuous at times but the prospects of that next bird kept us all going. We were fortunate I believe in being such a small group as I would imagine that large groups will find it difficult for everyone to connect with some quite elusive species.
After dropping our bags and freshening up we drove to Ankasa in the hope of picking up a couple of additional species, notably owls, and maybe a fin foot. We did find a few new species but the diversion proved to be a bit extreme, involving as it did a two hour drive in each direction which had followed a three hour drive from Cape Coast; if we were feeling a bit tired I can’t imagine how James must have felt as the only one unable to doze during the journey, and his many years as a tro-tro driver must have helped in this regard. The road to Ankasa is also the main artery into Côte D’Ivoire which not only made it a little hairy due to the erratic nature of many of the freight drivers, but also meant that there was an extensive customs and police presence along its length with many stops for security checks. Whilst none of these were unpleasant or intrusive they did serve to slow us down.
In the forest we did manage to connect with new birds however including Black Sparrowhawk, Grey Parrot, the Guinea sub-species of Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill and Chestnut-breasted Negrofinch; a Hartlaub’s Duck passed close by overhead but all we could see was that it was obviously a duck, so hoped for better sightings subsequently. After driving back to the quite sumptuous hotel we had a most pleasant meal and ran through the checklist before hitting our beds once more.
(Trip count: 175 species, 59 lifers)
A bright and breezy 4.30 breakfast was followed by the 2hr transfer to Ankasa for a morning of quite excellent birding, disturbing a roosting Long-tailed Nightjar from the road as we left the hotel. Ankasa really is a wonderful place and anyone visiting Ghana must make at least two days (preferably more) available for visiting.
One key target for the early morning was to be finfoot, which Robert was surprised that we had never seen previously. Along the main service road through the reserve there are a number of pools of varying size that might offer decent prospects. As we approached the first pool Robert caught sight of one just as he rounded the bend but it slipped away instantly in inimitable fashion before either of us could get a glimpse. We stayed there for a little while and soon realised that this was a prime site for kingfishers: a magnificent Shining Blue was the first to get our attention followed by an African Pygmy then also a Blue-breasted with all three present at the same time. Robert said that a White-bellied would really complete the set but that they are highly unlikely to be seen in such a busy spot; no sooner had the words left his mouth than one swooped down to perch decorously before us and leave us quite speechless. Moving along to the next pool and Robert caught sight of a finfoot once more but I couldn’t get on the bird before it had melted into the reeds – another lost opportunity. We tried pool number three more in hope than expectation and it seemed that we had also drawn a blank there. Suddenly Jeannine said that she could see one drifting amongst the dead logs at the back and, lo and behold, a juvenile bird did indeed drift into view then to be followed by an adult in another part of the pool. Unblocked at last! Just to add to the treat a Hartlaub’s Duck could now be seen clearly feeding in full view. What a result from about 40 minutes of fantastic birding.
Now for a small downside as whilst we were watching these birds we could also hear some Turacos calling. Robert identified these at Great Blue and felt that they were heading our way but, for once we were out of luck and that was the closest that we got to these birds on the whole trip. More excellent views were had of Yellow-billed that day though; a bird that shouldn’t be sniffed at. Another Black Bee-eater made itself visible at this point giving Jeannine good views that she had been denied previously and Little Bee-eater were seen later in the day to add to the list. We then began birding from the track entering the forest via obscure trails whenever anything of interest gave an indication. We spent much time trying to pin down the nicator again and also pursued a Forest Robin with no success. From the track a Yellow-spotted Barbet gave welcomed views then a Black Dwarf Hornbill was located in the trees eventually providing revealing views.
Most of the morning was then devoted to the trails and the forest edge with loads to see, albeit most birds being species that we had previously encountered. Exceptions were Square-tailed Saw-wing, Red-tailed Greenbul (a real skulker), Blue-headed Paradise Flycatcher, Black-capped Apalis, the easily missable Green Hylia, Pale-breasted Illadopsis, Superb Sunbird, Maxwell’s Black Weaver and Crested Malimbe.
A packed lunch was consumed somewhere during the morning and, after about five hours in the field Jeannine and I decided that the birding had slowed to a standstill and we would prefer to return to Axim. A beer and a bite for lunch freshened us both up so we strolled on the beach to look at seabirds (none) and see what else might be around, adding Greenshank, Common Sandpiper and Whimbrel to the list. The plans for an early dinner were scuppered by the hotel having decided that their non-birding guests (i.e. everyone but us) would appreciate some sort of buffet feast and music on the beach; apparently there was some sort of local celebration the next day. We joined in with this and it was all rather jolly but an early morning beckoned once more so we retired early for another good night’s sleep.
(Trip total: 193 species, 74 lifers)
Whilst we were bright and bubbly at breakfast the staff seemed less so having had to cater to everyone else the previous night until past midnight. The service as always was friendly and courteous which I found both remarkable and creditable – personally I don’t do a very good courteous when I’m tired.
The trip to Ankasa was much quicker this morning as the roads were very quiet, although many children seemed to be up and about getting cleaned up for a day of fun. We had our own fun however in our own distinct way with a cracking few hours in a different part of the forest. We had decided in advance that we were going to stay until 11.30 then get back to the hotel for some local birding later, so were able to pace ourselves appropriately. Whilst it was naturally becoming more difficult to find new birds we continued to get improving views of those we had seen previously as our familiarity with them increased. I was even beginning to get my ear in by this stage, which always helps in avoiding the mundane just as much as in finding the exceptional.
The new birds for this day were: Blue-headed Wood Dove, which we had been hearing regularly but at last caught up with; Mottled Spinetail above one of the irregular clearings; a superb Chocolate-backed Kingfisher and a Malachite Kingfisher bringing the total of species from this family to eight; Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird; Yellow-bearded Greenbul that we followed for quite some time before pinning down; Dusky-blue Flycatcher in a glade; Black-capped Illadopsis; Scarlet-tufted Sunbird; and Shining Drongo, which was.
We returned along very quiet roads full of people in their best clothes having a great time and arrived to enjoy a pleasant lunch and write up a few notes. As the heat dissipated a little I took a walk around the hotel environs accompanied by Robert and James. Almost the first thing we saw was a pair of Reichenbach’s Sunbird copulating; not only were these new for the area but the indication that they are also a breeding species was something that Robert intended to record and report. We ticked a couple of newbie’s in the form of Bar-breasted Firefinch and Pin-tailed Whydah, whilst a Western Reef Egret loafed on the shore. One interesting sight is a place where Hooded Vultures actually come to bathe in a brackish pond but they weren’t obliging that afternoon.
Another evening feast was being prepared on the beach but we managed to persuade the staff to serve us with regular food at our normal time before retiring to our beds for another early start. As it happened a mighty thunderstorm blew up at around 8.30 unfortunately curtailing the beach party, and this storm raged very noisily through a good part of the night.
(Trip total: 208 species, 85 lifers)
After the usual early breakfast we retraced our steps to Ankasa for another three hours on the trails. This proved to be a fairly frustrating morning with many birds being very elusive so much work was involved in tracking them down. It didn’t diminish the enjoyment however and the birds that were seen were worth all the work.
My tendency to watch swallows turned up our only sighting of Mottled Swift amongst many Common and Little; Black-casqued Hornbill provided a magnificent flypast with accompanying sound effects only to be upstaged shortly afterwards by a pair of Yellow-casqued Hornbill; and Ansorge’s Greenbul led us a bit of a merry dance, to complete our collection from this outstanding area.
We returned to the hotel completed the formalities and headed back to Cape coast and another night at Hans Botel. On the way we paused for half an hour at an area of tree-fringed agricultural grasslands. Here we connected with Grey-backed Cameroptera, Marsh Tchagra and Red-headed Malimbe, the latter competing our hand of malimbes for Ghana. The situation at Hans was less good than previously, as recounted elsewhere but we made do with a couple of drinks and a meal before retiring early once more.
(Trip total: 215 species, 89 lifers)
The concentration today was going to be upon seeing the picathartes so our expectations for finding other new species were quite low. Early breakfast was taken and we were soon on the road to visit the Aboabo Camp area to the north of Kakum. This area was particularly good, in fact possibly better than the “main” area and would have merited spending more time than the limited amount that we had available. Nearing the end of the trip meant that new birds continued to be more difficult to find but we were quite fortunate in finding some and refinding some that had given only fleeting views previously. Of note were: Red-thighed Sparrowhawk as bold as day; perched views of Black Sparrowhawk; Black Cuckoo; Black Bee-eater offering potential for photography (failed); White-headed Wood-hoopoe; Cassin’s Honeyguide for only the second time; Least Honeyguide almost making the set; African Piculet; Blue Cuckoo-shrike; Finch’s Flycatcher-thrush; a pair of incredibly confiding Bioko Batis; and Wood Warbler, the first of many.
We ate our provisions then started to make our way to the picathartes site. This involved a two hour drive to reach the remote village that “guards” this site where we collected the local guide. After another short drive we reached the edge of fairly dense scrub from where we hiked gently uphill for an hour until reaching the nesting site. These birds construct mud nests, similar to those of house martins but very much bigger, which are attached to overhangs on the rocks. This particular site is very well monitored and protected, with each individual nest having been numbered for these purposes. Naturally it is necessary to be as unobtrusive as possible with the birds, which are notoriously cautious of humans, which was why we arrived when we did at around 1.45 pm. We settled ourselves down on the rocks and awaited the birds’ appearance.
The first signs that we had were at 4.30 when Robert detected some movement in the forest but neither of us could see anything. Other flickers of movement were seen here and there but came to nothing. Then, as if from nowhere, a single bird appeared standing upon a rock opposite from us, with Jeannine gaining the first and longest views. As we turned towards it the bird clearly detected our presence and quietly but fairly quickly hopped across onto a branch and melted from view once more. Another bird, or possibly the same one, made an even briefer appearance just behind us but once more quickly disappeared. So that was it – 2 hours driving, one hours gentle hiking and three hours sitting on a rock for a five second sighting of this enigmatic species. Was it worth it you may ask, just to see Yellow-headed Picathartes – of course it was! When might we get the opportunity to see such birds again in our lifetimes?
We retraced our steps to the car and drove back to the village where we signed the visitors’ book and made a contribution to the conservation fund: this is a relatively poor rural village where the people have been persuaded of the wisdom and benefits of conserving this species and its habitat, and they do this very well. This was the first time in Ghana that we had experienced children who were so inquisitive and clearly visitors are an irregular occurrence. Notwithstanding that the kids were impeccably behaved and polite as all Ghanaians are.
No more birding was possible that day with the light fading and a longish drive to Kumasi ahead of us. This we achieved in good time arriving at the very comfortable Rexmar hotel in time to enjoy a pleasant meal and, of course, a couple of beers.
(Trip total: 225 species, 96 lifers)
Fully refreshed in time for our 5.00 am breakfast we then made our way to the Bobiri reserve. This is actually a butterfly sanctuary but is nonetheless very good for birds also, offering very gentle rides along which to walk and some steady in unspectacular birding. The butterflies were indeed spectacular and I’m only glad that we weren’t tempted to identify them or we would still be there even now. This reserve is a very pleasant place to spend a number of hours of steady birding and we were rewarded with a couple of new species as well as repeats of the scarcer ones in the form of: Afep Pigeon which was just one of the many pigeon species that were very elusive in the area; Forest Wood-hoopoe; another Black Dwarf Hornbill; stunning views of White-crested Hornbill that Jeannine had only glimpsed in Kakum; Chestnut-winged Starlings, an Upper Guinea endemic; and more Piping Hornbills.
We left this pleasant place heading towards the Atewa area stopping at a busy and entertaining roadhouse close to the Koforidua road for lunch. We then made our way to the Royal Bleumich Hotel at Akim Tafo where we dropped our stuff, had a scrub down, had a brief discussion with the management about the cleanliness of the room, and then made our way to the lower portion of the Atewa range for some late afternoon birding. This was a mixture of farmland and uncultivated land and was quite productive even at this time of day producing: Levaillant’s Cuckoo; Yellowbill after some tracking; another Dideric Cuckoo; Black-throated and Blue-headed Coucals skulking in shrubs; many barbets and tinkerbirds, none new but all attractive; Purple-throated Cuckoo-shrike; more Chestnut wattle-eyes; Whistling Cisticola; Lemon-bellied Crombec; Dusky Tit; another noisy group of Red-billed Helmetshrike; Western Bluebill; and more Black and White and Bronze Manikins.
We returned to the hotel for a run through of the checklist, a reasonable but quite surly dinner and the first intimations of the night to come (see hotel comments) in the steady trickle of young people arriving in their best clothes.
(Trip total: 235 species, 105 lifers)
We awoke from our severely disturbed night quite exhausted, yet still managed a breakfast before another early departure for Atewa. This time we were to explore the upper range of the reserve for which we needed the gate to be unlocked. We collected the keyholder in Mid Tafo then made our way into the reserve via a very rough logging track suitable only for a 4x4 and even then with some difficulty.
This forest reserve really deserves to be explored over a couple of days rather than the few hours that we were able to devote. The birding is difficult as it involves following fairly obscure tracks within the forest and a fair bit of canopy scanning, but what it might lack in frequency of sightings it makes up for in their quality and the overwhelming nature of the forest itself. It is home to some quite stupendous trees of enormous height and, I assume, age; I couldn’t hope to name them but was told that there were African Redwoods towering above us, amongst others. Some time was spent in pursuing individual species which could be heard (including nicator, again!) and we were rewarded after much pursuit with very good views of Western Forest Robin which had been eluding us for some days and this sighting gave some course for relief.
Other new and notable birds were: Long-tailed Hawk; Klaas’s’ Cuckoo again; Narina Trogon within 4m; splendid Blue-headed Bee-eater, a speciality of this range; another Little Bee-eater; Red-rumped Tinkerbird; Hairy-breasted Barbet giving even better views than previously; Fraser’s Forest Flycatcher; one more Green Hylia; another impressive Scarlet-tufted Sunbird; and a Large-billed Puffback.
Unfortunately the heat and impending journey through the Accra traffic meant that it was soon time to depart this splendid site. We returned to the delightful Royal Bleumich for some lunch then departed to Accra and the African Beach Hotel. Despite the time of day the traffic in Accra turned out to be very light (or so we were told – it seemed mired in traffic in places to us) and we arrived at the hotel still in the hours of daylight. Being still quite tired from the previous night’s disturbances we declined the opportunity to revisit the coast at had a little R&R around the hotel taking a pleasant dinner and a couple of G&T’s just for a change, then began to catch up on our sleep.
(Trip total: 242 species, 111 lifers)
This was our final day in Ghana, sadly, but we still needed an early start in order to take in the birds of the Shai Hills. This is a strange reserve being a local attraction for the city dwellers of Accra and seemingly always about to be developed into something better. In reality it seemed to offer something of a sinecure for groups of forestry workers who appeared to have very little to do as well as an area for baboons to hang around opportunistically. There is a scrub habitat leading up to a range of hills with some steep escarpments that should offer nesting opportunities to a number of species, some of them different from those we had seen to date.
Whilst the habitat and locale were both much less attractive than the forests visited previously it actually turned up a most impressive array of birds that we hadn’t seen previously on the trip. These were: Lizard Buzzard; Shikra; Common Kestrel; a group of Stone Partridge that were much more confiding than when we had seen them previously; Vinaceous Doves; Senegal Parrots shooting backwards and forwards near the escarpment; a splendid Violet Turaco; Senegal Coucal; another Pygmy Kingfisher; Green Woodhoopoes; a Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird to complete our set for Ghana; Double-toothed Barbets completely untroubled by our presence; Viellot’s Barbet for comparison; Spotted Honeyguide; our first African Thrush of the trip; three White-crowned Cliff Chats (a sub-species of Mocking Cliff Chat which Robert is convinced will soon be a split) that Robert and James worked very hard to find; Pale Flycatcher; Northern Black Flycatcher; European Pied Flycatcher; Senegal Batis; Brown-throated Wattle-eye; Singing Cisticola; Melodious Warbler; Senegal Eremomela; Northern Crombec; Brown Babbler; White-shouldered Black Tit; Northern Puffback; our first Piapiac of the trip which are localised around here; and Purple Glossy Starling
We returned to the hotel passing Sukumona lagoon on the way where we could see Great White Egret and a lone Grey-headed Gull to complete our bird list for the trip. Some lunch, a little rest and the final packing saw us ready to depart for the airport and, sadly, say farewell to Ghana and also our first-class driver and guides, James and Robert who would already be preparing themselves for their next trips in just a few days time.
A comfortable and polite transition through Accra airport soon had us on our way to Amsterdam and eventually home to the frost and snow that awaited us in Huddersfield.
We looked back on this trip with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction; we had been unsure just what Ghana as a country would have to offer and were both surprised and delighted by how much we enjoyed being in the country - so much so that we are already talking of when we will next visit. I would thoroughly recommend Ghana as a birding destination for the mildly adventurous. We were very happy with the eventual bird tally that we had and, in particular the quality of the sightings and the number of endemics and lifers that were seen. Only birds that were seen well were recorded: a number were heard but not seen, notably Western Nicator and Great Blue Turaco, so are not included in the lists.
Final Trip Total: 277 species, 127 “lifers”.
A complete list is appended. (48kB.pdf file)