30 October 2011

Ghana - October 2011

I hadn’t thought I would have to say this in the era of Google, but Ghana is a small country situated in west Africa. It produces almost half the worlds cocoa, that rather important ingredient in chocolate. Seriously, if you want to know about the country, here is a Wikipedia link - Republic of Ghana.

07/10/2011

22:45 - We are due to be the last plane off the runway before Heathrow shuts for the night. Remarkably there are no delays, flight is comfortable - an ominous start to the trip.

08/10/2011

05:15 - We arrive into Kotoka International Airport after a nondescript flight. Customs is suitably easy and baggage arrive on time and in one piece. Unusually there is a security guard checking ones bags against your boarding pass baggage stubs. Brilliant, UK could find employment for hundreds of people overnight and  no numpty would walk off with the wrong luggage again. 


James has been at the airport since 04:30, but is sprightly on arrival taking our baggage from us and shuffling us out to the waiting transport. Our vehicle for the trip was to be an African icon - known as the ‘Tro Tro in Ghana but also as the ‘Matatu’, ‘Minibus Taxi’, ‘HiAce’ etc. We meet Michel, our driver for the fortnight. Michel possesses one of those impossibly friendly and broad smiles. Even I could not help but smile in return - quite unintentionally of course (for it is I, Mr Grumpy). Baggage packed and we are out of the airport and rolling down Accra’s streets. Lots of South African companies and brands everywhere - MTN, M-NET, Standard Bank etc. 

Our first stop is to stop at a local hotel for a quick shower and breakfast before heading off to Shai Hills for some mid-morning birding. Neither of us was all to interested in showering, more like straight out the door to see what was flying about. James got the message and had to drag us in for breakfast. Omelette, toast and vienna sausage. Little did we know that Omelette and bread was to be the staple breakfast for the entire trip. Something my stomach ultimately declined towards the end of the trip and I haven’t eaten an egg since.

The heat was starting to get intense even at 10:00, humidity was already an issue. So far, we felt pretty comfortable with our surroundings. I hadn’t been to sub-Saharan Africa in over 6 years (barring 2 days in Cape Town 2008 - which certainly doesn’t count). Having excommunicated myself from the continent - south of the Sahara in any case, it felt strangely good to be back. My thoughts on African identity will be covered in more detail later!

Shai Hills was an hours drive through familiar African scenes of roadside traders, ambiguous English slogans and vehicles that really should not be on any road! 


By the time we reached the gates to Shai Hill’s, I had already coined the name of this blog. For those that know me, do not worry - I was not recently converted! I remain unashamedly in the same belief bracket as Christopher Hitchens - an anti-theist. I despise and deride all forms of religious convention including athiesm. None the less, fervent religious conviction is one of Ghana’s defining images and it would be awfully myopic of me to ignore it’s importance due to my own thoughts. 

Shai Hill’s is an isolated area of rocky outcrops interspersing an unusual biome of coastal savanna. It was a great place to start birding Ghana, as many of the species were similar to those found in South Africa. Ticking got under way with various Barbets, Hornbills and the stunning Splendid Sunbird. Violet Turaco, even at distance was comfortably the bird of the morning though. We added a few mammals to the list before retreating from the rising sun. 
Up next was a drive to the Sakumono Lagoon on the east of Accra. James pointing out the odd bird along the way. James never stopped guiding, even when we were slumped half asleep he’d stop the vehicle to show us a new species.

Accra’s port is massive and there seemed to be ships as far as one could see in all directions. Driving in Africa is never less than exhilarating even if it happens not to be particularly healthy. However, Ghana was somewhat subdued - roundabout were looked chaotic but were in fact quite structured once you got the hang of it. There are definite perks to such driving though - the ability to simply stop anywhere you please at a moments notice being one. So it was that we disembarked at the head of the Sakumono Lagoon. It would seem that the lagoon was connected to the sea at one stage, but now has a banked road stopping it. Predictably this alteration of the lagoon has caused problems with severe flooding and drownings occurring frequently.

Birds are fairly predictable and we clean up on everything we required - Western Reef Egret. While fiddling about in the scrubby dunes trying to get eyes on some Black-cap Babblers I flush three Long-tailed Nightjars to much excitement. 

We have seen enough of the lagoon and want to push on towards Winneba Plains. After lunch we get stuck in afternoon Accra traffic. A massive contraflow is currently in construction in an attempt to ease the traffic but causing severe delays at present. The hours tick by and Winneba Plains is lost to the impending darkness. It has been a good day otherwise and we are not all that displeased at reaching our dinner stop en route to Kakum NP.
Kakum is the stuff of birding legend and we are very much looking forward to the birding assault in the morning.

One of the driving forces of this trip was to see 400 species of bird. So after a fantastic first week, I was getting very conscious of our standing at each evening of the tour. The score that I post at the end of each day are species seen only (heard species were only added at the end of the trip)


Score : 81

09/10/2011

05:00 - We are up and march up the road to the restaurant area for breakfast. Having grown up in South Africa, we had a certain idea of what goes on inside National Parks. We were expecting to see the place buzzing already with staff getting set-up and fellow birders littering the area. We did not expect to find James and Michel cooking breakfast for us under a dim strip light with no one else in sight. Either way, the omelettes went down without touching the sides really and even my coffee was tossed out half drunk. I drink 8-12 cups a day and would never think of wasting! It would be a fair to infer that we were chomping at the bit to get a move on. 

Finally we got going after a local Park Ranger had turned up. The Canopy Walkway is reached after a small mud trail climb. Surprisingly little bird call at dawn - in fact dawn is quite quiet throughout the forests, something we were not accustomed to! Upon reaching the Canopy entrance, it seems our Ranger has forgotten his key! There was a point at which I considered how I might castrate him, but he quickly recovered and found an alternative point of entry. Lucky bugger...

The Canopy Walkway is some structure, constructed of aluminium step ladders joined together and suspended some 40 metres above ground level. The ladders are interspersed by huge trees with wooden platforms allowing for stable views of the forest canopy and plenty of birds. We birded uninterrupted for a few hours before a small group of young American students appeared on the scene. It amazes me at times as to how one country can produce so many brash and loud twats. During the trip we found that Ghana is a major tourist destination for the Americans, but fortunately the remaining people were more typical of civilised tourists. Incidentally there were many school groups here, mostly from the well travelled countries of Germany, Netherlands and Scandinavia. 

The forest produced steady birding, James making sure that we saw everything that we needed to and more.  I can’t say that I ever felt overwhelmed by the birding activity - again, rather surprisingly we never did get a ‘bird party’ in the forests. We continued to pick up an array of quality species while the less bird interested tourists processed the walkway. The birds started to quieten down by midday and we departed for lunch. 

Adrian and I continued birding during our afternoon break adding a host of the commoner grassland species available near the entrance to the park. Our afternoon was to be up on the canopy again looking for some of the larger Hornbills and a first crack at one of the major target species - Brown Nightjar.

The afternoon was dire - nothing moved for what felt like hours. Onto platform 3, easily the most spectacular view over the forest below. As the afternoon started to fade, so the species picked up again with a number of Hornbill species twitched en route to their roosts. The first of our targeted Bee-eaters and a handful of other interesting species played matinee to the evenings main show. As the light faded, James had his calls ready and we had our rather powerful torch ready to go. We didn’t have to wait long for the call of the Brown Nightjar to filter through, although disappointingly far away. James will never die wondering about much - out came the iPod and he optimistically sent a slightly distorted recording down wind. Next thing you know and the bird is calling right below us, flash lights sabre through the darkness without finding their target. We hear the call disappearing into the distance and realise that the bird has only buzzed us. We try the calls again and again, but it turns out to be rather fruitless. The birds stop calling soon after and that is it. I was a little stumped, thinking we would simply stick about until we heard them calling again. Apparently they would not, they call only for a short period of time and that is it. Oh well, we’d have a few more cracks at them before we left Ghana.

We make our way rather like drunken sailors over the swaying bridges in the pitch darkness. James doesn’t hang about while returning to the camp and moves along at quite a clip while scanning the odd tree for another of our targets : Fraser’s Eagle Owl. Moments before we reach the camp, Adrian shouts “snake”, and I see a small cylindrical tube bounce up behind him. I’d say he’d just stepped on or very damn close to it. In the ensuing commotion, I get a glimpse of snake and decide that this is no more than a young Egg-eater. The snake is in no mood to hang about though and makes a break for the foliage at the path edge with me in hot pursuit. James sees my intention and puts his boot rather shakily in front of it.

Before I describe this event any further, what James did here says a lot about him. Like most African’s, James has a healthy regard for snakes - the further away he is from them the better. The fact that he did something so against his innate nature was vastly appreciated, perhaps more than he may realise. 

Thanks to James’s left boot, I had the time to grip the little blighter by the tail. Now that I had the snake in my hands, we could get a decent light on it. It was at about this stage that I knew I did not have a harmless Egg-eater in my fingers. In fact I had no idea what I had in my hands and hence decided it was perhaps judicious not to attempt a neck grip. Photos were taken, but due primarily to my reluctance to engage with the snakes ‘‘business end’’, I did not perform a scale count. At the time this seemed a fairly responsible approach and I figured that identifica
tion would be relatively straight forward.


[30/10/2011 an identification has finally been made! Many thanks to the efforts of Peter Uetz at Reptile Database and Dr Jean-Fran├žois Trape who identified the species.]

After this excitement, we posit James about one of our mammalian targets - the Potto, expecting him to frown with indignation and mutter something along the lines of, “tough, not easy to find”. Two minutes later James has us standing below a Potto, I kid you not.

All that is left for the day is a quick trip to the nearest restaurant some 20 minutes drive away. All the heat and humidity has made us both rather hungry. Fortunately Ghanaians like their food in American sized portions. On the short drive home, we run into further excitement, or more accurately it ran into us. To save our backside from bouncing about and equally to avoid having an axel ripped off, Michel drops anchor and swerves either left or right depending on the least bad line through the potholes. Our lucks runs out as he swerves to the left while another packed Tro Tro is in the process of accelerating to over take us. A sudden glow of intense light, a loud horn and a decent jolt from behind signal an all too common occurrence on African roads. At least we were both going in the same direction. The offending taxi depopulates (I reckon this term is most accurate as there must be no less than 20 people in a 12 seater...), and they don’t look all that pleased. Adi and I stay put as James and Michel inspect the damage. Michel, despite being severely outnumbered thinks nothing of making his point. We expect the worst and keep ourselves low in the vehicle expecting shots to be fires at any moment. Well, no such thing happens, both parties have a debate about things but little more. After 5 minutes of debates and damage inspection everyone returns to their respective vehicles and we are off again. We have suffered a decompressed boot, and a broken tail light - but everything remains functional. Toyota seems to be using proper steel in these vehicles, it was quite a contact - had the car been made in France I suspect nothing much more than airbags would have remained.

James seems concerned that we have been involved in an accident and besides worrying about our health is most apologetic about things. We laugh it off as an expected occurrence - I always have a ‘vehicular experience’ on my travels (Locking my keys inside the car at the top of a mountain in Costa Rica, reversing our SUV into a ditch in Thailand.) Michel prattles on about it in Akan(?), and while we have no chance of understanding what he is saying, we can still get his drift of events. We allay Michel that at least his Manchester United stickers attached to the tail lights did not get damaged. Michel is of course a keen Chelsea FC fan, the Man U stickers the result of friends horrible joking about he tells us.

Download todays photos onto the Mac before drifting off for another early night. 


Score : 144

10/10/2011

Today we are heading for another section of Kakum, an area of forest edge called Antwikwaa. En route we stop for two Grey Kestrel’s perched at eye level more than 15 feet away. With a slightly misty background, I have the potential for a great photo, but bozy is so slow with the gear that the Kestrel’s are long gone by the time I have started fiddling with the On button. 

Antwikwaa is not so much forest edge as it is National Park edge. It is difficult to know where the park starts and finishes agriculture persists on both sides of what would be the most evident form of boundary - the road. The birds don’t seem all that put out by a lack of fence and species are quickly added. 

This morning is all about locking on to shy species. Ahanta Francolin runs quite uncharacteristically across an open field. James has us pursuing the White-spotted Flufftail which seems a rather unlikely quarry. Well, they weren’t the kind of views you write home about, but any view of a Flufftail, no matter how obscured by twigs is worth a smile. 

With luck seemingly on our side, James takes us for a trundle through the Cacao plantation in search of Flycatchers. With more effort that initially seemed necessary, views of Black-headed Paradise Flycatcher & Blue-headed Crested Flycatcher are had. So far we had already seen one species of Wattle-eye and were trying to get a second. Chestnut Wattle-eye obliged, the female offering unusually prolonged views. We came to call these ‘‘bullet birds’’ eventually. 

The sun started to burn off the misty morning and the heat rose a few degrees beyond comfortable. After a successful morning it was time to get back on the road and head to the Praso River. En route we make a short stop to observe a breeding colony of Preuss’s Swallows. The Praso River is in flood causing James some consternation with regard to our target species. While the river might have been in spate, the requisite Rock Pratincole’s had not disappeared, but taken refuge on a pier of a road bridge. On cue, White-throated Blue Swallow’s flew over and a rather lost Brown Sunbird has taken up refuge on a small shrub in the middle of the river. Being twitchers, there was no hanging about to ‘admire’ stuff. We saw, we ticked and we moved on.

The afternoon was a trip to another section of Kakum called Pra Sushien. Our object of desire here would be the only chance Great Blue Turaco at Kakum anyway. The road here is dirt, or very sticky mud at this time of year. James had arranged for his younger brother, Francis to bring the Landrover for this section.

How exactly we made it to the top of one particular incline remains unknown. Francis throwing the steering wheel from one side to the next, fishtailing all the way. How the back end never ran off into the forest with the bonnet in hot pursuit I will never know. After all that fun, it was time to bird.

As had become apparent the afternoon before, bird activity in Ghana is pretty much inactive after 11:00. We birded the road through this section of forest, which will not be a forest for much longer at the current rate of lumbering. James latched on to an Olivaceous Flycatcher - rather uncommon and rarely seen in Ghana. I’d have to be perfectly honest and say it looked pretty much the same as any other small grey Muscicapa species to me. Call is everything and James had the ears that we didn’t. After this, we made use of the iPod again and managed to get a Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill to respond almost instantly. 

James’s keen ears put us onto Black-collared Lovebirds flying off to roost. Unfortunately, the overhead conditions were terribly overcast and photography was a pointless exercise. As the light was fading, we heard Great Blue Turaco - so off we traipsed at a decent clip. We never really got close and soon gave up on the bird. A muddy traipse back to the Landrover where Francis has patiently waited for. With the last of the light fading, James got the iPod out and had a go at calling a Fraser’s Eagle Owl. Francis got the movement and we had decent, albeit distant views of perched bird. 

Satisfied with another good day and rather not looking forward to the upcoming muddy decline we came to another unexpected halt. One never asked questions when the vehicle stopped, you just jumped out and waited for James to show you something - two days and we had become something of a Pavlov dog. 

James decided to speculate for Black-shouldered Nightjar, a species that according to the guide books does not occur in Ghana. Well, within a few seconds we heard some calling and it only took one spin on the iPod before a very excitable Black-shouldered Nightjar came in to say hello. 

I figured that if we didn’t make it down the incline, then I would be quite happy to have the nightjar as my ultimate lifer in life so to speak. Francis made it down, although we spent more time perpendicular to the direction of travel that I’d have liked. 

Cracking end to another excellent day in Ghana.The usual routine of dinner with the rather tasty Star Beer was followed by yet another cold shower. If our trips this year to Thailand and Ghana could be defined by any one similarity - it was cold showers, or rather carefully warmed in hand water + soap before the ultimate emptying of bucket over head accompanied by fast, pained breathing with a jig of shivers.


Score : 186

11/10/2011

This morning we were up early again for omelettes and bread. Back to Pra Sushien we would venture, but not to the forested section of the previous evening. James had decided that the road was a bit to risky - we agreed! We birded the scrubby bush either side of the access road with surprising success. Not that this was easy, plenty of skulking species here. In the southern parts of Africa, Boubou’s are quite brash birds. Not in Ghana, the Sooty Boubou was quite happy to whistle and talk to us all day, but be damned if he’d show much more than a flash of feathers of sit behind an all to convenient leaf. For James’s next trick, call in Puvell’s Illadopsis - which he did rather well actually. Finally the last of the “bullet birds” - Red-cheeked Wattle-eye showed reasonably well. Understand that photos were not going to happen, there was barely enough time to raise the bins an inch, never mind focus in shoddy dappled light. 

A short drive to another section of the same forest had us back in the undergrowth trying to entice a Brown Illadopsis out. Again, we had what constitutes a good view of an Illadopsis anyhow. At last I attempted a snapshot - and pretty much nailed a Buff-spotted Woodpecker high above us. A few more species were added before it was time to depart for the long drive to Ankasa Conservation Area which sits on the border with the Ivory Coast.
Francis was now following us in the Landrover and we were promised a very muddy experience. It is probably worth mentioned at this stage : if you plan on visiting Ghana, take a pair of gumboots. My hiking boots were quickly coated to the ankle after injudicious foot placement and the inside leg of all my pants are still stained with red mud! 

As we neared Ankasa, James pointed out the rather large refugee camps housing displaced Ivorians. As if I needed reminding that I was in Africa, here it was. Amazing how Ghana is perfectly stable and yet a metre across the border, the Ivory Coast is in complete and utter chaos. Only a few days later the Chief Prosecutor of the ICJ arrived in Abidjan to investigate war crimes. Ivory Coast War Crimes.


Ankasa presented itself with a rain storm and more leaden skies. The afternoon was getting on a bit, so we made tracks as far as we could along the mud river road. The Landrover coped rather well given the circumstances. Our target this afternoon revolved around the forest pools. White-bellied Kingfisher was picked off eventually, but he never settled into view, only zipping from one hidden perch to another. Further down the road we stood and waited to two further targets. While James crept through the foliage to look for a better view, he flushed an African Finfoot that Adrian managed to see. Lifer for Adi, but I missed it completely. Luckily I had seen the bird many years before in South Africa. Next up was a rather crap view of two Hartlaub’s Ducks moving behind some dense tree stumps. Despite waiting for an age, they never moved into the clear. With the light starting to fade, we moved up the road to a huge swathe of missing forest. A huge section about 100 metres wide had been cut away to make space for electricity pylons. Ghana used to supply the Ivory Coast with electricity, no longer I am told.

Peering over the valley I got onto a Maxwell’s Duiker standing at the edge of the cleared forest. Damn pleased I was too, this is a tiny, grey antelope and I had nailed it from well over 600 metres. My spotting skills honed during my Ranger days remained sharp - at least for mammals. 
Francis was again patiently waiting for our return in the semi-darkness. Yet again, James stopped the vehicle at some random point and out we got. 

We would try for Akun Eagle Owl, a rarely seen species. James had no sooner got the words out of his mouth and we were instructed to run. So it was that we sprinted down the road in the pitch darkness chasing said Akun Eagle Owl. Incredibly the bird perched and stayed put for a good 10 minutes allowing me to get photographs. I’ll readily admit that my images are not likely to win any awards - but they are equally rare. 

Each day is improving on the former. Four days gone and the Trip List hits the 200 mark. The nearest accommodation to Ankasa is not close. An hour or so drive before we arrive at our lodgings. Dinner has already been ordered over the phone. A hot shower, even if my bathroom did not have a light  - I had a hot shower and it was good! Equally impressive, we had aircon for the first time. Fantastic to have a cool environment to go to sleep in. At least, I had no sooner gotten to sleep and I could feel the pitter patter of a drip? The aircon, leaking on the inside - on the head board. I was tired enough at this stage to put the bath put the bath towel in position to catch the drops and go back to bed. We were going to be up at 04:00 as it was.

Score : 220

12/10/2011

Up at 04:00 for breakfast. I’m starting to battle fatigue already and those omelettes are not as appetizing as they once were. Another hour of bumping about a hazy sleep to get to Ankasa. We drive up to the Park Ranger’s quarters and enter the forest proper. Today is more about clearing up on the species that we have already heard but not had much chance of seeing. 

We entered a bamboo glade of all things. I cannot be sure if bamboo is indigenous to Ghana, but either way it is simply does not feel right. The morning was another of those grey and misty ones, bird call was almost absent. James heard something in the silence and a few minutes later had coaxed a Forest Robin into view.

Into the valley proper a Forest Giant Squirrel traversed the bamboo, but otherwise it was still deathly quiet. With little happening, James pulled out the every trusty iPod to make something happen. Before the iPod could work it’s magic, a Brown-chested Alethe made an appearance. Soon followed by a Black-capped Illadopsis. Despite spending almost 20 minutes trying to get a view of a Pale-breasted Illadopsis, our morning was starting to pick up. While spishing out a Finsch’s Rufous Thrush, James spotted a Rufous-sided Broadbill sitting quietly above me. The camera was swung into action for some shots of a bird that is a little over 10cm tall. 

We tried for a few other species, before James switched to Red-chested Owlet. Most birds absolutely hate Owlets, so the objective here was not so much to find the owlet, but see what would come out to find him. As it was, we got the owlet himself - a rarely seen species with few photographs. The pressure on James had been coming mostly from Adrian regarding the African Long-tailed Hawk and now was the time to try again. Almost on cue, James heard a call - and the mad dash and scramble began. Fortunately we had a juvenile calling mum and dad incessantly, but it was still a difficult perch to find, distant and obscured. We had one of the major targets of the trip in the bag. Still, that Turaco was starting to slip away.

The morning was over, Ankasa had produced a stonking list of species and it was sadly time to leave. How I could have done with another day or two here - if only there was some accommodation near by it may have been possible. Ankasa was to give up one last big twitch before we left. The Landrover came to another abrupt halt and out we scrambled - Great Blue Turaco overhead. Not a great or prolonged view, but enough to appreciate the immense size of this bird. A typical Turaco is approximately 40-50cm, the Great Blue Turaco is 70-75cm.

Actually Ankasa was not done, as we also got the rather scare Reichenbach's Sunbird on the exit road. 
After departing Ankasa, we drove for a few hours before having lunch and then on to our hotel. Bags dropped, we headed out to the Nsuta Forest. We were back in the Landrover with Francis to tackle the dirt road, but it was not particularly problematic. 

The afternoon started well enough, an adult African Cuckoo-Hawk perched out in the open allowing Adrian another lifer. We birded the road in the afternoon gloom, picking up the odd species here and there. Our real reason for being here was going to come nearer to darkness. Spot-breasted Ibis had not been seen in Ghana since March and we were still chasing Brown Nightjar.

As evening approached, we heard Great Blue Turaco again. Perched fully 200 metres away was one of the sod’s - fully exposed but in such poor light that photography was pretty pointless. 

Back to the roost sight for the Ibis. I picked up a large ibis looking object flying low over the site, had it in the torch for long enough to be pretty confident that this was indeed a Spot-breasted Ibis. Francis. who was sitting on top of the Landrover suggested that it was actually a bat. James had been looking in the opposite direction and didn’t see it well. Then James heard them calling, but unfortunately they were already perched. We did have a scout about the exposed perches, but no luck. One thing was for sure, we had Spot-breasted Ibis here, whether we had seen one was much more debatable. 

We tried for Brown Nightjar, but not a sound was to be heard. Back to the hotel for a much needed feed and water.


Score : 237

13/10/2011

An early start again, and back to Nsuta to bird the road again. We have since transferred out of the Tro Tro to the Landrover and half way along the dirt road when I notice that my iPhone is not in it’s usual position. I have not worn a watch in months and check my phone periodically. I had left it in the hotel after waking up a little dozy. Michel drove back and collected it for me. 

Birds were much more in evidence today, particularly the Greenbul’s. The morning was still grey, but it was cloudless and the prospect of seeing some sun clearly had an affect on the birds.
James began teasing out some difficult, albeit vocal species. Black-throated Coucal showed for a second or two before scuttling back into the undergrowth. Olive-green Camaroptera was calling again, James never seemed keen for this species - he scoffed at the idea of ever actually seeing it. As mentioned previously, James is always game to try though. Out came the iPod and out came the bird. He didn’t just come out, he landed in some pretty open scrub allowing me more time than I needed to get off some smashing photos. James just mumbled to himself about how impossible this sighting was. As far as I can tell, Google possess only two other photos of the bird.

Overhead a African Cuckoo-Hawk displayed with a Black Spinetail for company. Typical, once you get that much sought after species they turn into London busses. A cracking Red-thighed Sparrowhawk perched for a few seconds. Before it was time to depart, we ticked off White-headed Woodhoopoe and cleared up on some of the Woodpeckers : Little Green and Melancholy.

We were due back at Kakum this evening so started to make tracks back up the coast. Lunch was to be taken at a particularly scenic spot - Brenu Beach. A bunch of young Germans were being taught by a loud American tutor how to play beach volleyball. Michel explained how practically nobody in Ghana swims. Allegedly the powers that be are not keen on the population endangering themselves. As such, huge swathes of stunning beach are vacant, not a soul to be seen. While waiting for lunch to be served (it was an eternity), a huge line storm laid into the area dousing everything with a serious amount of rain before disappearing as quickly as it had arrived. 

The afternoon remained hot, despite the showers. We birded the brackish waters and grasslands nearby adding ever more species to the list. The first bird we saw was a lifer, but not for us, for James. Incredibly, for a guide who has a Ghana list of almost 600 species, James had never seen a Water Thick-knee. An unusual and loud call was that of the Common Gonolek. Not that the birds would show. James had taken to waving his hand at such species and saying, “Mole, much easier at Mole”. However, the look on our faces convinced him to get the iPod out and have a go in any case. Out they popped and sat for a portrait. Adrian had been going on about Marsh Tchagra for some time, I wasn’t fussed much as I was pretty certain I had seen the bird already. James heard the call, and following a predictable routine today - this most cryptic of species deigned us with some super views. Only when I perused my list later did I find that this was indeed a lifer for me. The afternoon continued to throw up good species, Red-winged Warbler eventually sat still for a photo. 

We completed the road and took a small diversion to the Brimsu Reservoir. James hoped to find African Finfoot again for a better view. No Finfoot, but we did get another target species - Shining Blue Kingfisher. Another hours of birding in the farmlands produced little that we had not already seen. James did pull another rabbit out of the hat though - he heard a call, stopped and took a few more steps before slapping his head and cursing. A few steps back and he found us a window through a bush to another window fully 5 metres away. Through all these apertures we managed to see a juvenile Western Bluebill quietly feeding on some grass seed. If the bird had been an inch to either side, it would have remained hidden. Adrian and I would have walked past that bird 100% of the time. 

With that final twitch, we are back in Tro Tro headed for Kakum. Dinner is taken at our ‘usual’, the beer tasting particularly good this evening. I am shattered, no idea how Adrian is doing - we don’t talk much about our physical state much. It’s a really early one tomorrow, another 04:00 but it is also our last chance for a number of species. 

The evening is at least cool for a change which consequently means the cold water is also cold. It crosses my mind at this stage that my South American adventure is going to be harder than I had figured. If I am going to start whinging about cold showers after a week, how am I to survive an entire continent in a tent over the course of a few years.


Score : 264

14/10/2011

I feels as though I was only just contemplating South America and my alarm is going off. 04:00 again... Today we are driving to the north of Kakum, an area known as Aboabo Forest. It holds a number of different species and should also provide us with visuals of some species we have struggled with so far. Today is also Picathartes day - one of two uber twitches we are looking to get (Egyptian Plover being the other). 

Still dopey, and always in a state of near motion sickness, I lay down across my seat and tried to get some more sleep. I was moderately successful until James announced that we were now at the start of the first “death road” of the trip. A dirt road that took about an hour to navigate, it felt as if we were attached to a giant jackhammer. By this stage of the trip I was missing my neck brace and gum guard. Two items which should definitely be on the required items list before arriving in Ghana.

Yet again, the condition are hardly conducive to photography. I can see why the English colonised Ghana in fact - if the temperature was just a little cooler the climates would be exactly the same. Back to the birds and we have a crack at bird that we have heard almost every day without the faintest of chances to see it. Out with the iPod is Optomistic James. Across flies an Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo, onto a slightly obstructed perch - but visible enough. James then put us onto a small flock of Black-capped Apalis some 30 meters of the ground. I find this quite strange behaviour, Apalis’s to me normally occur at lower levels, but here in Ghana they occur at much higher levels. (Sharpe’s Apalis we had seen on the Canopy Walkway, some 40 metres above ground level.)

James was very keen to find the African Piculet. Another of those species that does not occur in Ghana according to the literature. For a woodpecker, he is a tiny fellow - only 8-9 cm or so. Adrian and I had seen two Piculets in Thailand earlier in the year, so we knew what we were looking for. James heard the call, we heard the call and we could not find the blighter. Up and down likely branches we searched, but nothing. Only to find the little chap was only a few metres away calling as loudly as he could muster - which wasn’t very loud, hence we were searching much deeper into the trees. While I attempted to get some half decent photos, James pounced on another rarely seen species, the Forest Penduline Tit. A small flock stuck around long enough for me to get good photos of them, but the Piculet had disappeared by the time I returned for him. A Fernando Po Batis swooped in for a look at us. 

One of the major targets here is the Western Bronze-naped Pigeon. A calling bird was found near to the road. This species propensity to sit on top of the tallest tree did not help the situation. We knew where it was but could not get a view. After walking some 30 metres down the road, we were able to find it, softly cooing away. 

Suitably twitched, we gave up on Black Dwarf Hornbill and Yellow-throated Cuckoo. It was time to hit the remainder of the “death road” and head for the big cherry. Another few hours of bone crunching road led us to a tiny village. The heavens opened and there we sat for an hour. By the time the rain finished and we could tackle the forest, it had pushed on to 13:00. We were joined by a guide from the local village who would do more than just follow us about as the other Park Rangers had. 
To get to the rock outcrop that the Picathartes inhabited, meant an hour long hike through the forest. It did not seem that the trail had been used in some time as it was heavily overgrown and a rather large, in fact huge tree had fallen across the path. Every male in Ghana outside of Accra I’d say never leaves home without a machete. Our man had one sharp machete and the kind of nonchalant wrist work that Indian batsmen are renowned for. The path was returned to hiking state soon enough. Even with the overgrown path, we proceeded at a rate, reaching the rocks in a little over half an hour. Here we would sit until the birds arrived, that could be an hour, it could be four. Given that the birds are not breeding, only roosting at this time of year - we were likely to be here a little longer than half an hour. After the two of us almost made proper tit’s out of ourselves by slipping of the rocks, we nestled in for the wait. And so the four of us sat in silence and waited and waited. After the first hour, one tries to feign interest - continually trying to remind oneself of the reason for being here. A once in a lifetime opportunity to see one of the strangest birds in the world - practically guaranteed. After two hours I was getting sleepy, then Adi bumped me. A bird had snuck in from the “wrong” direction without us noticing. 

 Aside from wanting to jump up and down out of pure joy and relief at seeing the fellow, there was also the important job of photographing the evidence. The damn blighter wouldn’t keep still or sit anywhere that I could actually get a photo before disappearing. Now the frustration of being the idiot responsible for dropping the ball! So we sat and waited some more for another chance. Fully 3 and a half hours after our bums first touched the rock, a more confiding bird landed and began to preen while Adi and I reeled off shot after shot. Quite satisfied now, it was also time to get moving as the light began to fade. I had that Gaboon Adders had been spotted on the trails in the past and wasn’t keen to be trodding on any out here, or anywhere actually. We shunted down the muddy track slipping and sliding all over the place to find that it was not actually as dark as we had feared.

Back to the vehicle the ride to Kumasi. The rain returned with a vengeance and driving became perilous. In fact I could have cared less at this stage and lay down in an attempt to ward off the nausea of kinetosis or motion sickness. I could think of other afflictions I would prefer to have than a stuffed up vestibular system. 

At some point the vehicle swerves and brakes heavily - hardly unusual, but this time both James and Michel shout snake at the same time. Up we get to have a peak and even in the driving rain and gloomy evening light I can easily identify a large African Tree Cobra move across the road and up a palm frond. Which is perfect, as the palm frond is not very high and the snake has taken refuge a little above head height. So with tail dangling just right for me to grab it, I make for the door only to hear a loud horn as another Tro Tro screeches to a halt behind us. Whether or not the driver is even aware of what we are looking at, he hoots loudly again for us to get a move on. Why he couldn’t just go around us as would be customary is unknown, but off we leave. Perhaps for the better, as I was seriously interested in gripping that snake. Which may not in hindsight have been the best idea given the weather, location, actually on all accounts it was a silly idea. Note to self - stop grabbing the snake.

A few hours later we arrive at the Rexmar Hotel. What passes for 5* accommodation in Ghana I reckon. At US$100 a night it bloody should be. Come to think of it, The Hilton on Marco Island, Florida - seriously posh, was only US$110 a night. Somebody is being shafted here... Well, it had free wireless and my first chance to communicate with the outside world. (Damned if I will ever pay the astronomical rates for Global Roaming - so wireless it is). Having established that all of the 70 odd emails I had received were junk, I switched over to Twitter to see what had happened in the real world over the last week. Not a lot was the basic answer. No-one in the real world had missed me and it seemed I hadn’t missed it either.

Tomorrow was to be the long drive to Mole National Park. Change of weather, change of habitat and change of birds. A lie in for a change, breakfast at 07:00 - delightful.


Score : 274


15/10/2011

Today was all about the road. A final few minutes of wireless and then it was back to obscurity for another week. James seemed to take some joy in reminding us that we were going to be tackling the real “death road’” shortly. Lunch was taken shortly before the junction to Mole National Park, where all the excitement would start. Of course, the first few kilometres were nothing different to what we had become accustomed to. What really wore one down was the distance - the vibration, braking, acceleration was cyclic and continuous. After a few hours I started clock watching, which really made the whole affair even worse. We stopped at some point to see what birds were about and possibly stretch ones body a little.

Surprisingly, given that it was 14:00 and near enough 45C in the shade, a few birds were about. Another stunning sunbird fed nearby - Pygmy Sunbird. The heat became oppressive, the balance of discomfort switched and we got back into the mildly cooler vehicle. More bouncing about and a short fuel stop. I’m not sure that I would want to be driving a fully laden petrol tanker over such roads, but someone does it. 

Well, the much touted three hours had expired and we still had another 45 mins to go... If you have spent any amount of time in Africa, you will be familiar with the term “African Time”. Any quoted time is to be understood by means of the following equation : ETA .nX = ATA (where ETA = Expected Time of Arrival, n = an indeterminate number of instances, X = unknown and undefined delays and ATA = the product of ETA and n number of X’s with a little room to spare should any more be required. Africans understand that most foreigners have trouble with the complexity of day/date/year/time mathematics and often shorten the above equation to simply ‘later’ or the less ambiguous ‘just now’.

So James wasn’t far out and he rarely underquoted times by much, but you should always add an hour to all your journeys simply for psychological purposes. With great relief we saw the large wooden entrance structure welcoming one to Mole National Park.

Some view to be had, even in the wet season. The entire lodge is located on a rocky plateau perched some 200 metres over the surrounding savanna. A purpose built waterhole sits attractively below, enticing the sought after ‘big hairies’ within easy viewing distance during the dry season. During the wet season, all the plants and trees are fully clothed, the grass long and there is plenty of water lying all over the shop. Game viewing is rather more difficult, which suited me fine - as elephants get on my tits - I despise the damn things almost as much as giant pandas. 

Our rooms have air conditioning. IT is much hotter here than in the humid coastal forests. Although the heat is not nearly as sapping, it is severe. We drop our gear and head off to the game viewing platform next to the swimming pool. All the usual mammal suspects in place - Waterbuck, Kob and Warthog. A small flock of Bruce’s Green Pigeons add another tick to the list. As the evening starts to draw in, James has decide to take us out to the now defunct airstrip in search of owls and nightjars. As we drive along the access road to the airstrip the vehicle is suddenly under attack from flies - horse flies. Nasty little buggers intent on biting the hell out of us. On reaching the airstrip we find that the flies have gone nowhere - they are waiting for us to exit. Michel keeps the engine going and we wait for a few minutes. Some of the flies depart, but eventually James has to take the plunge and exit. We follow suit immediately and so starts the “Mole Tango”. This involves much ungainly jumping about, arm flailing and much thwacking of any exposed body parts. 

The damn things leave a nasty and very itchy welt. My poor hands suffered this punishment earlier this year on a small hill on the Thailand/Myanmar border. It looks as though Mole is going to provide many such fly  challengers over the next few days. After all the initial excitement, we come under attack from fewer flies. It isn’t long before we realise that the damn things can bite through clothing. Besides the irritant factor, not all the flies fall under the innocuous “horse fly” category - there are also Tsetse Fly about. Tsetse Flies are transmitters of Human African Trypanosomiasis (Sleeping Sickness, Nagana). 

James tries to call out a White-throated Francolin - no response. So we try for Northern White-faced Owl. There is a response - but many hundreds of metres away. We get a few more responses but no closer. A trundle through the sticks ends with no further calls. Back to the airstrip, the light fading quickly. About 50 metres ahead of us, a rat runs across the airstrip. The Greater Cane Rat - at around 50cm long and weighing around 7-8kg’s, it is almost unfair to call them rats. What started as a single individual soon turned into a procession of no less than 26 juveniles and 6 adults. We take a turn down the airstrip looking for the famed Standard-winged Nightjar. No nightjar, but we do get the 3rd Eagle Owl of our trip - Greyish Eagle Owl. 

So a mixed start to Mole NP. We take dinner at the lodge - there are more foreigners here than we have seen all trip. The usual mix of Germans and Dutch. It’s been a rather long day and sleep is definitely required. As we rounded the corner to our room, we found that three rather large Warthogs who had taken up residence by our front door. They didn’t seem particularly interested in moving either. For all of you thinking, “Ahh cute, Pumba” - you are way off the mark. In my years as a safari guide in the southern parts of  Africa, I was very happy never to have had to fire any of my weapons at an animal. In fact I only ever felt it necessary to load my rifle on three occasions and all of them related to Warthog. Most guides that I worked with and trained had similar stories. You only need to see the damage that a cornered Warthog can do to a Lion to appreciate why they are not to be antagonised. So keeping my legs well clear, I leant around the corner and persuaded them to move with some gentle prodding of a bendy stick.

Score : 295

16/10/2011

Up at 05:30, birding is local for a change, so we get a bit of a lie in. More egg and bread... We meet up with our Ranger for the next few days - Adam. James gets us changed into gum boots, something that should come on any trip to Ghana! We are going to bird a section of savanna woodland interspersed with ephemeral marshes. Birds rack up thick and fast : Senegal Batis, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Senegal Eremomela, Beautiful Sunbird, Long-tailed Starling, Oriole Warbler, Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Fine-spotted Woodpecker, Grey Woodpecker. 

James tries for Pel’s Fishing Owl and White-backed Night Heron, but the quantity of water lying about means that they could be anywhere. Indeed we luck out on these species. Even at this stage, I am starting to get that “second week” feeling of despair. Earlier this year in Thailand, Adrian and I had an incredible first week. We racked up a few hundred species very quickly, only to be thwarted a dramatic change in weather and being there just outside of the optimum time frame. Here again, it is becoming increasingly apparent that we are here at the wrong time of year - it is still too wet and short of the various migrants we had been banking on. After cruising the first week, it seems we are starting to crash and burn already. 

The heat is starting to impress upon us now. James has us travelling to a waterhole for a few more species. Adrian has again been asking James about rather unlikely species. James by this stage has a standard response going, “tough bird, very difficult”. One of those ‘unlikely’ species was the Spotted Creeper. Almost laughably, James gets Michel to drop from 3rd into reverse and out we bail - Spotted Creeper! A quick dash through the bush and James has us looking at this wonderful bird. In the mad dash to exit the vehicle I left the camera behind. Despite a quick dash to retrieve it, the bird moves off and I never get a shot at it. If I could have kicked myself in the arse I would have! Moving on, we make it to the waterhole for a few news species - Nile Crocodile followed by Black Scimitarbill, Exclamatory Paradise Whydah, Togo Paradise Whydah and Village Indigobird. 

We have picked up a number of new species and head back for lunch suitably impressed so far. We have nothing much to do for the next 3 hours, so get into the rather refreshing swimming pool to cool down. 

We head back out at around 15:30, walking down from the lodge towards the waterhole below. The target of our walk is the Senegal Thick-knee, a bird James has promised to get us for a while now. We walk around the water hoes, scanning the sand banks for the bird - nothing. James is bit surprised at this point, but we ditch the Thick-knee move on fairly sharpishly. The afternoon heat as not warn off, and it even feels humid. Sweat is not normally an issue in such areas, it is so hot that the sweat simply evaporates - but not here, I am positively soaked yet again.

Back into the vehicle for some birding at a different site. The horse flies have spotted us and so birding is from the car only for now. Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, White-throated Bee-eater, White-fronted Black Chat, but the main target, Forbes’s Plover has again eluded us due to the wrong conditions. Grass is so long that our chances of seeing a small plover in amongst it are practically zero. With the light fading, we return to the airstrip for another shot at the nightjar and francolin. Despite our efforts, it would seem that these birds have moved elsewhere for the wet season.

Dinner and a very welcome beer. Tomorrow we will visit a riverine forest with a few different species. We get another lie in however as we don;t have far to travel.

Score : 335

17/10/2011

The usual breakfast followed by a short ride to another section of the reserve. The birding started slowly and remained on slow burn for much of the day. Square-tailed Drongo is not common in Ghana, but they were trash birds for both of us in South Africa. We spend a good 90mins chasing a White-crowned Robinchat around. Robin-chats have proven extremely difficult in Ghana, again the family were much less inhibited in southern Africa. Fortunately, we do not have many flies to worry about - just mud, lots of very sticky and slippery mud. And it didn’t take awfully long for me to get better acquainted with it. 

Of course, you cannot “dust yourself down” either. So muddy it was to be. We pick up more of the commoner species, a stunning White-breasted Cuckoo-shrike and both Grey-headed and Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrikes. James follows through with another of his “we’ll get it at Mole birds”, as he gets us onto a small covey of Stone Partridges. With the heat increasing and bird activity dipping, we start the journey back to the lodge. Not before James has outdone himself again and found a flock of Northern Ground Hornbill. A species I had given up on when I saw the length of the grass, but here they were, a few metres from the road. 

Lunch and the swimming pool. The clientele had changed overnight. All the young Germans had left to be replaced by a few more Dutch families and an American family. While Ghana doesn’t attract the odd-balls in quite the same way as India, there was one John Lennon lookalike slumped in the corner. James had put us in touch with one of the locals who would wash our clothes. You can only sweat buckets into one shirt for about 3 before your own nose objects. At least I would have a decent set of clean clothes for the rest of the trip.

The afternoon session saw us driving out to another section of the reserve where we would walk back towards the lodge. Clearly every horse fly on the reserve had been fore-warned of our intended route, for we could barely see out of the windows for the flies. We waited an interminable amount of time, but the flies were not going to relent. There was only one course of action available, jump and run. As James had been doing all the running till this point, I felt it only fair that one of ran interference to save the other. Off I went...

One of the concerns I had with doing the “Mole Tango” was Adam’s rifle. He was carrying a fully loaded .375 Bruno, so I was keen to keep the flies away from him. Adam however is a seriously professional Ranger and knows his stuff. A walking encyclopaedia, he knows every tree in the reserve - Common Name, Scientific Name, the origins of the names etc. While his rifle was never pointed dangerously (which is actually quite easily done and just as common), I did have misgivings with his rifle setup. The use of a sling and ammunition. We never carried rifles on slings, it takes too long to bring the rifle to bear and causes all sorts of tangles especially in a nervy situation. We carried our rifles cross chested, ready to use. Secondly, the ammunition looked not only dated, but the rounds were full metal jackets (FMJ’s). Full metal jackets are perfectly suitable to shooting Lions, but will only give an Elephant a headache, especially the small .375 calibre. What they really need to be carrying in Mole with all the Elephants are .375 Monolithic Solid rounds. If you have ever cut an elephant skull in two, you would very quickly understand the need for maximum penetration. There is an awful lot of skull to get through from point of entry to brain when faced with a head-on Elephant charge. 

As mentioned previously, I had no ambition to get anywhere neat the buggers and fortunately they seemed to have the same opinion of us. Two of the other groups had seen Elephant today and been involved in a full charge, Rangers throwing rocks and evasive driving. This is just the type of riled Elephant that you want to walk into on foot, with 3 rounds of .375 FMJ ammunition. 

The birding was very quiet, as most afternoons have seemed to be. As we neared the water hole, things did improve slightly. Red-headed Lovebird was heard and found - we had now had seen all the parrot species available in Ghana. James wanted to have one more bash at the Senegal Thick-knee. As we approached the water he charged off as said Thick-knee flushed a flew across the water. We followed just behind and had decent views of the bird alighting on the opposite bank. At the same time, James found a Swamp Flycatcher hawking insect not far from the waters surface. I had given up on the bird once we left Ankasa, thinking that it was only found in the south. A bonus twitch as it were. We turned around and headed back to a wooden hide near to where the Thick-knee had landed. It flushed again, back to it’s original spot, but on this occasion it remained in the open and we had excellent scoped views of it.

We played ‘hide and see’ with a White-crowned Robinchat for 10 minutes, not really improving on our views from this morning. With the light fading, we tried a new approach to the nightjar problem. Instead of going to the airstrip again, we simply drove the various roads. We didn’t find the targeted Standard-winged, but did get very good views of Long-tailed Nightjar. Being dark, I figured I would simply jump out of the vehicle and get some photos. My speed-light was not up to spec for distant night shots, so the opportunity of getting a close shot of the nightjar was very attractive. That was until I got out - I managed one shot before the pain of multiple horse fly bites meant I could not focus or even keep my hands still. A bit wimpish, but keeping the hands still in low light is rather important and it was not going to happen. 

While I had known this for a long time, the flies only reinforced the notion I have of most things in Africa. Everything is either trying to kill, eat, parasitise or wait for you to die.

With that, our adventure to Mole National Park was over. The morning would bring more fun and games on the “death road” before many more hours on the road to Bolgatanga. One final Star beer before packing and some sleep. Not that we were getting a lie in either - we needed to be on the road early doors in order to get an afternoon at Tongo Hills.

Score : 353

18/10/2011

This morning, the omelettes resemble scrambled egg and there is a fair amount of tomato throw in - palatable. I wonder if I should bother given the stomach churn that awaits. Breakfast over with we hit the road, literally for the next 3 and somewhat hours. By now, the majority of the usual species have been nabbed, so we stop only to pick up a new trip bird.

It hasn’t rained in a few days and the dirt road has baked itself a little harder. A grader has been busy scraping too. We wonder if this is in response to Michel moaning at the people in the toll booth a few days prior. I didn’t mention it earlier, but we had a pay a toll fee to drive on this piece of cow dung. Michel gave the chap a right telling off about the state of the road, where the toll fee’s were going etc. 

Ghana’s roads are littered with broken down vehicles and in some places wrecks never to be recovered. The majority have someone in attendance, either changing a wheel or deep under the hood fixing something or other. Taxis and busses often had their paying occupants co-opted into helping change the wheel, reload all the baggage that had fallen off the roof or put down branches to warn other motorists of their presence. One got the impression that this type of thing happened all the time and was in most cases a temporary delay. Of course there are just as many wrecks which look a more permanent fixture. 

While travelling at a relatively sedate pace on the dirt road, we were overtaken rather aggressively by a Honda Rav4. Thats actually very unusual in Ghana to have anyone do anything aggressive. So the nature of driving and vehicle in particular stuck out. Rav4’s are up there with Nissan Micra’s as my most hated vehicles, invariably driven by pillocks, well, you’d have to be in order to have bought one in the first place. So it was with some interest that we watched the dear driver of this car come to a halt in front of us, the driver opening his door to peer at something towards the rear wheel. Occupying most of the back seat was one colourful “mafuta” (isiZulu - Google it if you don’t know what it means). As they started moving again, the left rear wheel suddenly took on a life of it’s own and made a dash to escape the undercarriage. The rear of the vehicle landed on it’s chassis and that was it. Rear axle snapped in half. Thats what you get for speeding over potholes carrying that kind of load in the back!

I wasn’t sure whether I could laugh, but a suppressed giggle did escape I think. One thing I was certain of, they wouldn’t be stuck for long. While they may not get anywhere in their own vehicle for a while, a taxi would be passing shortly with enough space to get them all in and continue the journey. The rest of the journey was relatively humdrum. After exiting the dirt road it was decided to take lunch at the same restaurant we had stopped at a few days before. I had eaten enough fired rice by this stage and was intrigued to see a chicken ciabatta (it wasn’t spelt quite like that, but it was recognisable). When my ciabatta did arrive I was interested to note that quite unlike the customary Italian style presentation, what I had amounted to a quarter loaf of bread cut almost into two slices with a pile of chicken in the middle. What much of the food here lacks in presentation, it certainly makes up for in taste. None of this battery fed chicken crap that we get in the UK. Proper chicken that has taste without having to add enough salt to sink a ship. 

The road north was half decent for a change. Surprisingly it had little traffic on it - consider that this is the main road between the port of Accra and half a dozen other African countries that depend on it. We stopped on the odd occasion to scan a few lakes, but little of interest was found. We arrived at Tongo Hills at around 15:00. Off to our left was one of my most sought after bird species. The Abyssinian Roller is an attractive bird, but it is not particularly rare or difficult to see. What made it special to me was a video I had watched as a teenager. My mentor Dr Hamish Campbell showed a piece of footage to me, of rollers rolling - I cannot recall exactly, but it was certainly David Attenborough, probably Life of Birds. The significance was that it was a species that didn’t occur in southern Africa. My bird watching boundaries began to shift from southern Africa and became a little international. It took me a while to do it to - my life list at the time of watching said video was probably around 200. The Abyssinian Roller was a little short of my 1900th. 

The Tongo Hills are an unusual area of rocky inselbergs dominating an otherwise flat landscape. The big target for us here was the Fox Kestrel. All afternoon we scanned rocks, scoped low branches - nothing. The fruit of our efforts was a single female Cabanis’s Bunting. The drive to the hotel was rather disconsolate. Our only chance at this bird and we didn’t even come close. That second week feeling was starting to dominate proceedings. Well, we had dipped out and there was nothing we could do about it. Tomorrow we would look for an even bigger target, the Egyptian Plover. Hopefully our luck would change.

I sleep on a bed that could comfortably sleep 10 people on it - it was big enough to play outdoor chess on if that give you a better idea of size.

Score : 370

19/10/2011

We don’t have to get up too early today as we are going to visit Tono Dam, which is only a short ride up the road. Some severe potholes remind of just where we are. Tono Dam is a large man made lake which did not seem all that deep - evaporation must be lethal here. 

We hadn’t come here to bird the lake though, rather the agricultural areas below it. We start off with a number of the remaining starling species; Bronze-tailed Glossy, Chestnut-bellied, Lesser Blue-eared Glossy and Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling. A Speckle-fronted Weaver pops into view and we see a number of species already ticked off at Shai Hills and Mole NP.

James takes the trail near the river/runoff area keeping an eye on anything of interest. Good views of Levaillant’s Cuckoo and even a Jocobin shows itself for a comparison. A male European Marsh Harrier causes me a little confusion as it dawns on me that I have actually never seen a male - only females! James comes to an abrupt halt and over we go to see what he is looking at - Egyptian Plover. This is startling, we ere not looking for this species yet - you’re supposed to drive for another two hours to an area on the White Volta river to see these. James put on a toothy grin as he explains that he had found the bird here 6 months ago and wasn’t expecting it to be here. Well, we weren’t going to say no! Typical that my battery should be running out to, something I had planned on replacing before we made the special trip for the plover. I fire off some 50-60 shots before being fully satisfied. It’s not quite a Spoon-billed Sandpiper, but it is a damn good bird.

The rest of the morning cannot live up to this of course, but we make steady progress and tick off a number of outstanding species; African Mourning Dove, White-headed Lapwing, and Broad-billed Roller. The heat has become more oppressive now that we are so far north. We are perhaps only 10km from Burkina Faso. The method of birding has changed too, one moves from one tree to the next to escape the sun. Bird life dies dramatically and it is barely past 10:30. We have all had enough by know and make our way back to vehicle, Michel having parked up under and tree and gone back to sleep. 

Plans are now altered, as there is no point is trekking across the north of Ghana to look for Egyptian Plovers anymore. We will be going back to Tongo Hills to find our Fox Kestrel. With the rest of the afternoon off, I spend some time repacking my case. Tomorrow is the big drive all the way back to the south. I hadn’t bothered switching a television on to this point, but am delighted to find that we have a satellite feed and I can watch BBC, CNN and even al Jazeera (which is surely the most independent of main stream news sources). Either way catching up on the world was hardly exhilarating - not much seemed to have happened since I last checked. The Greeks were still bumbling from one butt cheek to the next (still doing it two weeks on), the Palestinians had gotten up Israeli and US noses and a whole bunch of caged animals got shot because their moronic animal of an owner had let them out and killed himself. Why is it that we cannot remove humans from the food chain before they endanger other animals as well as the rest of us?

We set off just after 15:30 for Tongo Hills. Not long after arriving we find what looks to be a Falco species sitting on branch near enough two kilometres away. Off we blunder through the long grass to try and get closer. The bird remains on it post, but even from a distance we can tell that is a dark greyish bird - it is not our Fox Kestrel. On much closer inspection we are satisfied to find that it is in fact an African Hobby. Not the Falco we were looking for, but we needed this one too. Through the neck high grass back to the dusty road. We trundle down the road as we did the previous evening hoping for the best. The sun sinking ever closer to the horizon. Adrian pulls the rabbit out on this occasion, remarkably one of us has beaten James to a bird. It is our Fox Kestrel, a pair have landed - but out of view. A speedy shuffle down the road gives us a better view. I set off using the cover of the rocks to get some photos. Despite having everything in my favour; bird perched out in the open, sun directly behind me etc - there was just not enough light to get great photos. Oh well, will have to reduce that F-stop at some point. 

Given that we have little else to do now, James suggests we hang up until dusk and see if we can get a Freckled Nightjar. The are is perfect for them, and this is a species I am familiar with - at least their call. This was one of only two species of bird that I had heard but not seen in South Africa. It would be a fantastic end to an excellent day should we manage it. James started off with the iPod - this species makes a very distinctive “bow wow” call. From inside a drainage pipe, something explodes onto the rock. Well, there was enough light to know it was not the nightjar - but what on earth. A Yellow Fan-fingered Gecko of all things - they also bark oddly enough. A few seconds later and we hear response calls from a nightjar some distance away. It isn’t long until we get the bird flying in to have a closer look. We would see the bird a few times, but never sitting still or in an obvious position. Most of the nightjars that we had called are aggressive responders to tape - even the Brown Nightjar in Kakum had flown some distance to have a look at us, even if we didn’t see it.

Well, we were rather satisfied with that effort. A damn fine recovery - 400 was back on. Dinner even tasted better this evening - the beer good as ever. We settled in with half the neighbourhood to watch Chelsea FC thrash some rather rubbish european team in the Champions League. If I hadn’t already mentioned this, Chelsea FC is essentially the Ghanaian B team when it comes to supporters. A lot of this has to do with one Michael Essien, but I swear the entire country downs tools to watch Chelsea play. Indeed heaven may ned to help you if you supported anyone else here. 

Tomorrow was the epic drive all the way back south.

Score : 389

20/10/2011

Breakfast at 06:00 before we set off for a day of driving. Understandably little of interest happened for much of the day. James had another hidden location for a species I was quite keen on seeing though. Northern Carmine Bee-eater meant that we only needed one more species - and that opportunity was yet to come. A stop for lunch before making further progress towards Kumasi. James tells us that Col Gaddafi has been killed. After arriving in Kumasi, we head for dinner a little after 17:00. Our residence has no such facilities apparently.

So Adrian and I sat in the restaurant all on our own watching footage on al Jazeera of the Colonels last few moments alive. It took 42 years before someone killed the despot - that in itself is amazing. However, it is a reminder to the west that Africa takes care of it’s own issues as and when it wants to - thanks for the military support and all, but please piss off now. If anything, it is an indication to all the do-gooder; left leaning bigots who want to “help” those poor, starving and down trodden Africans. You cannot emancipate people who do not want to be liberated yet. This was clearly demonstrated during colonial times. There was only minor resistance to occupation in most countries - it took western guilt before most European countries began to leave Africa, not resistance. Likewise people like the Right Honourable Robert Mugabe are still in power because the people of Zimbabwe have not wanted him to go - otherwise they would have removed him.

Oddly enough, the state of Zimbabwe has it’s origins in Ghana of all places. For it was during studies at the Kwame Nkrumah Ideological Institute that a young Mugabe gained his inspiration both from the teachings but also from Nkrumah himself. Mugabe’s first wife Sally was also Ghanaian. (it is rather telling that her early death coincided with Mugabe’s decline in most peoples eyes.)

Anyway, having witnessed the death of what is likely to be that last of the worlds “buffoon dictators”, it was time to head off to Bobiri Butterfly Reserve for the evening. There is no electricity on arrival and the generator has to be started up. We have a few hours of generator driven electricity before light out. James however is keen to get out and have a go at some crepuscular birding. James is very keen to look for Brown Nightjar, as it has never been seen here, However, he tell us that very few tours ever stay in the forest at night - he himself has only been here once and it was raining. So out we go, rather keen to find out if such birds exist here. 

James cleverly taps up one of the locals and plays the call to him. Sure enough there is much head nodding and pointing - if this mans word is to be taken, we are in with a shout. We play the call a few times but have no response. An African Wood Owl calls nearby and it we manage to get a quick view before the owl slips back into darkness. We walk back towards the lodge and continue down a small dip in the road. james plays the call again and two dark objects take off through the forest. We get both beams on them and we have nightjars. Our main objective now is to try and find any white on the outer rectrices or coverts - nothing, tail is short, these are Brown Nightjars. At this point all three of us are quite happy with the identification. james continued playing the call which had no response.

Oddly enough, as mentioned previously - all the nightjars so far have responded aggressively to playback. Black-shouldered, Freckled, Long-tailed etc kept coming back after each flyby, only Brown had one look and never called again. James kept trying with the call, but we received neither another flyby or one response. James became less convinced as the evening wore on and ultimately rejected the sighting without call. We understood the significance of him claiming the sighting - it would be a first for the forest and may induce other people to look for a bird that he could not categorically state existed here. With respect, I understand James’s position - but Brown Nightjar is on my life-list until such time as another species of dark forest nightjar has been discovered in Bobiri BF.

With that it was night over and bed time. Tomorrow was to be our last day of birding in Ghana and we were getting damn close to 400! 

Score : 394

21/10/2011

Up at 05:00, there has been heavy rain during the night. Breakfast is served - more fruit that 20 people could eat, let alone two of us who avoid the stuff like the plague. I think fatigue is creeping up on me, I have no appetite and feel a little listless today. Despite the fact that we need only 6 more species to cross the magical 400 mark. Thoughts turn to malaria or any heap of other diseases. As usual I have foregone malarial prophylaxis. During my time as a safari guide it was simply impossible to take malaria prophylactically for 5 straight years. Besides getting burnt to a crisp, I’d have gone bonkers - the only stuff that worked was Larium and you definitely need your head screwed on straight to take that stuff - not good for a manic depressive like me. All the doctors go on about Malarone now - never mind that it is only licensed for 1 months use. Nigeria has already had cases resistant not to the prophylactic use of Malarone, but the high dosage used during treatment. So sorry, I managed for 5 years and contracted malaria at least once. I’ll take my chances and be more careful of being bitten as a consequence. I will also be more aware of the early signs of malaria - which is rather useful when dealing with the Plasmodium falciparum  as this particular species kills you quick. My listlessness has nothing to do with malaria, I am just plain tired.

Out we go, to find those 6 birds... The start is poor yet again. Forest is quiet with few birds moving or calling. The cloudy grey weather is probably not helping. We can hear an Afep Dove calling but no visual seems likely. On the up side, we find three African Grey Parrots perched - they never perch, damn things love flying! They look so much better on top of a 40m tall tree than in someones house. After much appreciation for the parrots, we have a Thick-billed Cuckoo fly over. Another cracking species, lifer and list tick! James hears a Black-and-White Flycatcher but again we cannot get a visual. This is an awesome flycatcher and I am rather disappointed to miss it. Somewhat made up for by decent views of both male and female Purple-throated Cuckoo-shrike’s. (4 species to go) Further up the trail James spots a Forest Francolin, which neither of us see. James would see another two birds during the course of the day of which we would see 0.

Another of our targets specific to Bobiri shows up - the Tiny Sunbird. (3 left). More fruitless birding in the forest and even James is agitated with the lack of species. We try Yellow-throated Cuckoo, various Honeyguides and come up with nothing. On the way out we hear a Black Cuckoo and ultimately get good views of a calling male. (2 left). We have seen all but one of the Barbet and Tinkerbirds on this trip, having only heard Red-fronted Tinkerbird. We hear one right at the lodge and after running up and down the grass banks to get the correct height we are still without visual. James whips out the iPod (for a Tinkerbird?) and the little critter responds! (1 species to go).

Adrian and I never used playback while birding in South Africa. Firstly, this was back in the days of tape recorders, they were probably too large. Secondly, we didn’t know that it actually worked. Having since started to use playback (via my iPhone - no it is not an app, I download the calls myself and compile my own playlists!), I have reserved it for species which I expected to respond to playback. James has used playback on a remarkable number of species which I had never considered before - Hornbills, Barbets, Francolins, African Mourning Dove etc, perhaps that makes me sound naive, but still baffles me that a Hornbill would respond.


Either way, Bobiri does not cough up that last species. So it is off to Atewa Range for the afternoon. Atewa holds one particular species that we are both after - Blue-headed Bee-eater. The only way to see one is to ascend the mountain. Up until a few years ago, they used to drive a 4x4 up to the top and you could look for the bird at leisure. Now you have to hump it up to the top. In itself, this is not a high peak or mountain range. There is however, the 100% humidity to deal with - and all this exercise comes at the end of 14 days of slog already. I expect that we will nail the 400 species fairly sharpish, there are a few species of weaver that occur here that we still need. The time is now 14:30.

We start the climb through mixed agricultural land and forest. James tells us that this is where he has seen Baumann’s Olive Greenbul - an almost mythical bird in Ghana at least. No-one has seen one for a year at least. This is also the home of the Nimba Flycatcher - equally rare in Ghana. All the while, we are seeing nothing and sweating buckets. We stop every 500 metres or so and I have to run my hand down my arm to get rid of excess sweat - literally litres fell out of us. It was getting on for 15:30 and nothing new had been added to the list - still we remained on 399.

We could hear a Chocolate-backed Kingfisher calling in the distance. James did his thing with the iPod again but there seemed little prospect of success as the call never changed position. Up and down the trail we walked peering into various tree tops trying to work out where the call was emanating. After what seemed like hours, James found it - a bird that had run us in circles at Ankasa had finally been pinned down. At 16:15 on the last afternoon of our Ghana tour, we had the 400th specie. I hadn’t realised how this number had been impressing on my psyche. The veil of pressure that lifted was enormous. We added one more on the way up - Little Grey Flycatcher, and it really is little and grey. 

No luck with the Bee-eater, but I had no further concern for it. While a tough bird to get in Ghana, it is much more numerous in west central Africa - I’ll get it in Cameroon. We proceeded to charge down the hill, for we only left the summit after 17:00. Much of the decent was done in darkness which caused much slipping and sliding. My Oakley boots have been consigned to the heap of most useless and unreliable crap that Oakley has ever manufactured. Two trips this year and my boots have found the bin at the end of both. Actually, Oakleys are being returned for splitting - 6 months old. I had other Oakley boots which after 6 years of continuous use eventually ran out of tread - but never had the shoe split.

The day and the trip was over. The formalities of dinner and departure all that remained. Somehow it felt fitting that the three of us sat in an empty restaurant having a quite dinner and one last beer. Got our lists sorted out and went to bed. For the tour had been like that, quiet but intense guiding by James had been very much appreciated by equally quiet and intense (at least myself - Adi can speak for himself on that issue) clients. 

Score : 401

22/10/2011

Up early and skipped breakfast - I could not face egg again. The drive was non-eventful until we passed a house belonging to Rita Marley (Bob’s wife). A huge house on an escarpment overlooking Accra. Michel particularly impressed upon us the need to visit the place next time we were in Ghana. Eventually we ended up the international Terminal of Kotoka Airport. Fittingly as with dinner the evening before, there was no fanfare - a quick set of photos, a final handshake and goodbye. 

And that was it, Ghana : veni, vidi, vici.