Kakum National Park, Ghana: Nov 24-25, 2012

Having already made two trips to Lekki Conservation Center in Lagos, I was out of other options for more birding in Nigeria. There are no other reserves near the city that are feasible for a day trip, and access to further flung sites is somewhere between unpredictable and impossible, given general infrastructure and security concerns. The best bet was simply to take to the skies and visit another country for the weekend. Ghana has long stood as the top birding destination in West Africa for a number of reasons: there are a variety of national parks and reserves, the country has been relatively stable and peaceful for the last few decades, and English is the lingua franca. Thanks to a slow but steady trickle of tourists and volunteers drawn to the country’s rich cultural past and natural beauty, there is a decent variety of transport and lodging options as well.

I first entered in contact with Ashanti African Tours, inquiring about a weekend trip.  They sent me a proposal for an action-packed itinerary, hitting a variety of sites with a focus on seeing the Yellow-Headed Picathartes, but the cost was way out of my price range.  In fact, I was a bit incredulous that they would charge nearly $500 USD per person per day for a short trip.  I lived in Tanzania for a year, where tourists commonly pay $300 per day for even a rustic trip to Serengeti National Park, where at least they offer some of the most impressive wildlife viewing in the world, such as the wildebeest migration.  I reached out to a few of my friends and former colleagues who have lived in Ghana, and they all laughed at the price, advising me to arrange my own trip with a car and private driver.  While I wouldn’t see as many birds, I would certainly spend a lot less and not scare off my colleague Mike from coming along.

The most current and comprehensive birding trip report about Ghana is Herve Jacob’s report covering his trip there with Noelle Jacob from March to April of 2012.  He had rented a car for about $100 per day from Taqwa Transport Service, and explored the country at leisure without setting up any reservations or guides in advance.  This sounded much more like my style, so I promptly arranged a private car and driver for the weekend ($120 per day), scheduling to meet us at the airport on Friday evening and take us to Cape Coast, located a few hours’ drive west of Accra, for the night.  We would visit some of the historic forts and castles along the coast on Saturday before heading inland to Kakum National Park, to bird the famous canopy walkway.  Although the itinerary wouldn’t include a visit to the picathartes site, at least we were getting out of Nigeria for the weekend and seeing some birds.

Although it’s never easy getting out of Lagos, Nigeria, we arrived in Accra in high spirits on Friday night, making small talk with George our driver along the way to Cape Coast.  I had picked out a modest hotel with the help of the Lonely Planet West Africa guidebook, and we managed to arrange for a few rooms and hit a restauarant at the beach before the clock struck midnight.  Sitting back with a few beers while listening to the waves pound the coastline, I was convinced the trip was going to be a modest success.   Ghana was already proving remarkably easy to navigate, as well as being friendly and relatively cheap.  Mike and I talked over the plan for the following day, which would eventually take us to Kakum NP in the afternoon, where I would arrange for early access to the canopy walkway on Sunday morning.  Hopefully, we would also have a chance to do some late afternoon birding as well.  The following night we agree to stay closer to the reserve at Hans Cottage Botel.

After visiting the historic forts at Cape Coast and Elmina in the morning, we headed inland towards Kakum NP.  Arriving just after 3pm, we pulled into the crowded parking lot and were shocked at the hoards of people milling about and waiting to get in.  There were literally dozens of school groups, and excited kids were running around and shouting everywhere, eyeing us in our birding gear from afar.  I had heard that the park was popular with tourists, but this was not a good sigh.  Picking my moment carefully, I walked up to the ticket counter and discussed my intentions with the distracted agent.  I was firmly rebuffed by my inquiry to bird the walkway both this afternoon and the following morning, forcefully being told that I would need a guide.  Happy to pay for a guide and the additional fees required to linger on the walkway for a few hours, I asked for help in procuring one.  Given the crowds and lateness of the day though, no one was much interested in helping me.

After laying on a little pressure, I was finally slipped a piece of paper with a phone number of a guide, who materialized in a half hour with the help of George’s cell phone.  We made arrangements for the following morning and decided it wouldn’t hurt to hit the walkway for some birding this evening as well, which our guide explained was a great time of day to spot several of the specialty hornbill species.  After paying the entrance fees for birders (about 20 USD per person), we marched off into the forest towards the canopy walkway.  I tried to engage our guide about the birds we might see, hoping to determine his knowledge and enthusiasm, but he was a young guy and frequently interrupted me to answer his cellphone or make small talk with other guides and guards.  The trail passed through good forest, but with all the foot traffic it was like a highway, and there was little chance to do any productive birding.

When it was finally our turn to take to the walkway, the sun was already low in the sky. The walkway connects six canopy towers built into trees, suspended 30 meters above the forest floor.  The canopy is relatively broken in this area and looks more like secondary rainforest with a few remaining emergent trees.  The views from the towers are excellent though and extend several kilometers to the opposite ridges.  We hustled out to platform 3, which offers the most expansive views.  The canopy of the tree spread out above us and was filled with ripe fruit, which shortly attracted several bird species, including Naked-Faced Barbet, Common Bulbul, and Splendid Glossy Starling.  While we scanned the trees further in the distance in hopes of spotting a White-Crested or Brown-Cheeked Hornbill, hundreds of screaming school kids completed the canopy circuit, bouncing noisily on the suspended walkways.  Our guide would shot at them occasionally to hurry up, but that only contributed to the chaos, which I worried was getting under Mike’s skin.

We locked onto a few more birds before it grew too dark, including a group of Yellow-Mantled Weavers, some Lead-Colored Flycatchers in the distance, a pair of Velvet-Mantled Drongos, and a single calling Yellow-Spotted Barbet.  Our guide seemed less than interested, but he was without his binoculars due to the short notice of our outing so I cut him some slack regarding the paucity of birds he pointed out to us.  I should note he was also without a field guide and audio equipment, but that’s not unusual in Sub Saharan Africa in my experience.  Before heading out of the park, where some European tourists were camping, we finalized our plans for the following morning (we would pick up our guide in a nearby town at 6:00am).  We passed a pleasant evening at the hotel restaurant pounding beers and eating fries, trying to keep our expectations for the following day in check.  Sure, I was keen to see the hornbills, but my top target bird for some reason was the Chocolate-Backed Kingfisher.

Everything went according to plan the following morning, although I was a bit anxious to finally get started birding after a series of short, minor delays.  Our first bird of the morning was the outrageous White-Crested Hornbill, as one was busy preening in a distant tree in the early morning light.  A true punk rocker of a bird with its marvelous crest, the hornbill also has a dramatically long and narrow tailed tipped white at the edges.  We saw a hulking Brown-Cheeked Hornbill in flight shortly afterwards, but I kept coming back to the White-Crested Hornbill as it followed a troop of monkeys through the canopy.  Above us in platform 3 hundreds of Common Bulbuls grouped noisily, irritating Mike to no end as he kept spotting the same bird in his binoculars.  Eventually, we picked out a few different species, including Violet-Backed Starling, Green Hylia, White-Headed Wood-Hoopoe, and Western Black-Head Oriole.  Even with binoculars are guide was not proving to be any more knowledgeable than me, and repeatedly grabbed the field guide out of my hands to do his own research.

Mike then got us onto what was probably the bird of the day, a pair of Yellow-Billed Turacos, nearly at eye level in a nearby tree.  We watched transfixed as they raced up the tree branches and swooped off to another tree, their gloriously colored wings crimson and blue in the sunlight.  They continued to bark and display for each other and were joined by several more individuals.  Mike also pointed out a Yellowbill later, putting me on the defensive as I scrambled to find a better contribution.  It didn’t take long before I then pointed out two diminutive but interesting forest finches, the Grey-Headed and White-Breasted Negrofinches, both of which are canopy dwellers.  The African finches are some of the most exquisite birds in the world, in my opinion, at least when seen up close.  Finally, our guide put us onto a few birds, including a distant Blue-Throated Roller, a well-camouflaged African Green Pigeon, and a pair of Red-Fronted Parrots flying past.

As we moved onto to platforms 4 and 5, we had quick looks at Johanna’s Subird, Rufous-Crowned Eremomela, and Sharpe’s Apalis.  Wandering off on my own a bit, I also found Speckled Tinkerbird, Honeyguide Greenbul, Red-Headed Malimbe, and Klaas’s Cuckoo.  Thinking we had actually done pretty well this morning, I slapped my guide on the back and told him it was finally time to reel in the Chocolate-Backed Kingfisher that had already called a few times in the distance.  He gave his best impression of its call, but it failed to materialize for us (I’ve seen photos of one perched on the railing of the walkway itself).  Afterwards, we fought over the identification of a drab, olive-colored sunbird feeding from small flowers in the canopy, which he claimed was an Olive Sunbird, but I assured him must be a Little Green Sunbird based on size and habitat (the relatively common Olive Sunbird in East Africa is definitely a forest/woodland interior species with a long decurved bill and no discernible eyering).  We would spar considerably more afterwards when he tried to tack on a variety of additional charges to our excursion including a twenty-dollar inconvenience fee, but Ghana being Ghana, we eventually worked things out in friendly fashion.

Notable birds seen: African Green Pigeon, Red-Fronted Parrot, Yellow-Billed Turaco, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Yellowbill, Woodland Kingfisher, White-Throated Bee-Eater, Blue-Throated Roller, White-Headed Wood-Hoopoe, African Pied Hornbill, Brown-Cheeked Hornbill, White-Crested Hornbill, Yellow-Rumped Tinkerbird, Speckled Tinkerbird, Yellow-Spotted Barbet, Naked-Faced Barbet, Common Bulbul, Honeyguide Greenbul, Wood Warbler, Green Hylia, Rufous-Crowned Eremomela, Sharpe’s Apalis, Lead-Colored Flycatcher, Collared Sunbird, Little Green Sunbird, Johanna’s Sunbird, Western Black-Headed Oriole, Velvet-Mantled Drongo, Splendid Glossy Starling, Violet-Backed Starling, Orange Weaver, Village Weaver, Yellow-Mantled Weaver, Red-Headed Malimbe, Grey-Headed Negrofinch, White-Breasted Negrofinch.

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