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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Ghana

2017 Narrative

The tour kicked off a little earlier than planned, as two of the group arrived early and both leaders were already in Ghana. So, we seized the opportunity to visit Sakumono lagoon to start our lists in some style. A pair of Senegal Thick-knees showed very well for us, and then a selection of waterbirds included Black Heron, Intermediate Egret and many Arctic breeding waders such as Curlew Sandpiper, Little Stint and Whimbrel, vied for attention with a flock of Collared Pratincoles, Black-tailed Godwits, several Kittlitz’s Plovers and, incredibly, an all too brief Lesser Yellowlegs.

A fruiting tree in our hotel grounds proved attractive to several African Thrush the following morning, along with a couple of Double-toothed Barbets and other regular savannah/scrub species such as Western Grey Plantain-eater, and we familiarised ourselves with several Ghanaian roadside species during the trip to Winneba, such as Lizard Buzzard and the ever-present Yellow-billed Kite. Arriving at Winneba (a derivation of the colonial name “Windy Bay”!), it was apparent that water levels in the lagoon were too high for any meaningful wader-watching, but a few Common Sandpipers vied for attention with Woodland Kingfisher and Village Weavers. We then nearly trod on two Thick-knees that showed at very close range, their white covert bars and vermiculated tertials and tail identifying them as Water Thick-knee. Carrying on, we decided to pay our respects to Cape Coast castle, a major colonial fort overlooking the ocean and the point of departure for thousands of slaves to the plantations of the Americas. Our guided tour around the dungeons and the “door of no return” was a very sobering reminder of the suffering that was endured in this part of the world. As we ate lunch overlooking the Gulf of Guinea, an African Royal Tern cruised past, vying for attention with a father and son acrobatic team.

We arrived at our hotel, and then spent the remainder of the afternoon and early evening in the Abrafo forest. Forming a virtually contiguous block with Kakum NP, this forest is easier to access and holds many of the same species. Incredibly, one of our main trip targets was one of the first birds we saw, when a Congo Serpent Eagle cruised over the road and perched up in an isolated tree giving decent scope views. Our first Black Bee-eaters were also appreciated, but a Great Blue Turaco was all too brief as it clattered its way over our heads. Copper-tailed Glossy Starling was a good start to our Upper Guinea endemic list, and staying until dark proved a good decision as we managed to get Brown Nightjar hawking around our heads along the trail. We also put in the first of many evenings looking for Fraser’s and Akun Eagle Owls, to no avail. This would become a running theme!

After an early breakfast (another running theme!), we made it to the famous Kakum canopy walkway for just after dawn, and spent the whole day on this wonderful piece of engineering. Suspended 40 meters above the forest floor, seven platforms surround giant trees and are linked by rope and ladder walkways. Surprisingly stable, the walkways give a unique perspective on the forest as you walk between the platforms. The platforms are big enough for a group to stand on and move around, birding all the angles from this 360° vantage point. Even those with no head for heights (and I count myself in that group) felt comfortable enough out there. The birding can be excellent. Even up here, you sometimes have to crane your eyes skywards to check the canopy, but very often birds are at or below eye level. Some of the highlights here including a wonderful little group of Olivaceous Flycatchers (normally a very difficult species to find), Maxwell’s Black and Preuss’s Weavers, a huge flock of Violet-backed Starlings, a pair of Sabine’s Puffbacks, Johanna’s, Fraser’s, Buff-throated and Green Sunbirds, Ussher’s Flycatchers, West African Wattle-eye, Green Hylia, Sharpe’s and Black-capped Apalis, Blue Cuckooshrike, Fanti Saw-wing, White-crested Hornbill, a stunning male African Emerald Cuckoo, Black Bee-eater and our first Rosy Bee-eaters soaring over the forest. On the trail to the start of the walkway, we were lucky enough to find an African Piculet “tsseeee”-ing over us and a Finsch’s Flycatcher-Thrush acting like a flycatcher and a thrush (but not a finch!).

The next day saw us birding some forest scrub areas near to Kakum. A major target was soon in the bag, when a pair of delightful White-spotted Flufftails responded and came close to Victor’s impressive impression of their calls. In the same bushes, our first Kemp’s Longbill showed briefly for some, and a Blue-headed Coucal was also seen. A Sooty Boubou showed briefly, our first Blue-throated Roller was seen and at least five Rosy Bee-eaters steadfastly refused to perch for us. A pair of Black-casqued Hornbills were a pleasant bonus, as all of the larger hornbills have become more difficult from the canopy walkway in the last year or two. We also managed to see and separate Naked-faced and Bristle-nosed Barbets, both being seen from the same spot, the same spot that our only Fire-bellied Woodpeckers also showed from. Our first Tit-Hylia, Africa’s smallest bird, showed well, as did Klaas’s Cuckoo, sunbirds of several persuasions and our only Red-vented Malimbes of the tour. We also almost ran over a splendid Emperor Scorpion, interesting for its deep green rather than traditional black colour. We then had a trip up to Twifo Praso and the Pra River to enjoy the White-throated Blue Swallows that nest there, along with several Rock Pratincoles. Back in the Abrafo forest, we spent some time looking at greenbuls (with Cameroon Sombre, Swamp Palm, Icterine and Slender-billed being seen) and catching up with views of a few other things such as Chestnut-breasted Negrofinch. We also continued our run of hearing but not seeing Chocolate-backed Kingfisher. Indeed, at one point it was directly above us and we couldn’t find it in the dense foliage!

After a pre-breakfast nightjar walk, where a pair of Long-tailed Nightjars showed beautifully, and a Red-chested Goshawk sat up in the morning gloom, we had another stroll along the road to Abrafo. This time concentrating on finding the Rosy Bee-eaters on their morning perch. Creatures of habit, they collect in flocks around 9-10am, and always perch in the same tree. Thankfully they were there, and we enjoyed great looks at around 60 of this much sought after and stunning bee-eater. Ahanta Francolins were heard calling but wouldn’t come in, and around six Fanti Saw-wings flew around the clearing.  We also managed great views of a Rufous-sided Broadbill doing its strange display. Elsewhere, a Red-cheeked Wattle-eye was the highlight, although it gave us a merry dance around a small patch of forest.

Leaving the Kakum area behind, we travelled west towards Ankasa, stopping on the way to find Reichenbach’s and Brown Sunbirds in the mangroves of the Ibi river. Arriving late into Ankasa, we stopped along the entrance road for decent views (at last!) of Black-throated Coucal, a species often heard but rarely seen in the dense vines and tangles it calls home. Ankasa is a large area of good quality forest, and is home to many species very difficult to find elsewhere. In our two night stay, we spent time at the three forest pools and along two side trails, as well as around the camp and along the main trail. Highlights were numerous, but included the very rarely seen Spot-breasted Ibis coming into roost, a pair of White-bellied Kingfishers, Hartlaub’s Duck, African Cuckoo-hawk, Red-thighed Sparrowhawk, Red-chested Owlet, Ahanta Francolin, Blue-headed Wood-dove, a group of eight Great Blue Turacos, three Melancholy Woodpeckers, an elusive Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill, lots of Piping Hornbills and a pair of Yellow-casqued Hornbills, three Square-tailed Saw-wings, Red-tailed and Green-tailed Bristlebills, Western Bearded and Yellow-bearded Greenbuls, Forest Robin, White-tailed Alethe, two Olivaceous Flycatchers, a singing Tessman’s Flycatcher plus Dusky Blue and Cassin’s Flycatchers and a pair of very showy Black Bee-eaters. Tantalisingly, we also heard White-crested Tiger Heron. The drive back from Ankasa to Rainforest Lodge was interrupted by a stop for nesting Orange Weavers and then at the Brenu beach road for a variety of scrub birds, such as Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrike and Oriole Warbler, plus African Hobby and stunning Yellow-crowned Gonelek.

After some morning birding around the Kakum area again, today was all about one bird. Arriving at Bonkro village in the mid-afternoon, we made the short pilgrimage through the forest and up the hill to the Yellow-headed Picathartes nesting grounds. There are several nesting sites in the village, and the groups are alternated between them to reduce pressure on each site. Each site consists of a large rock protruding from the ground and featuring a large overhang where the birds build their mud cup nests. We were taken to the nearest site, involving a short but steep climb. We took our places on the bench while our guides sat behind us, and everyone was silent. I have no idea how, but after an hour or so, Victor leaned over and whispered to me “it’s here, on top of the rock”. He meant on top of the nesting rock, and well above our field of vision. In fact, he must have been using a sixth sense to know it was there! But he was right. Within a couple of minutes, it appeared low down in a tree to our left. Although we had to peer around each other and crane necks to get a view, get a view we all did of this incredible, prehistoric looking bird.

“If everyone is quiet and doesn’t move, it will run in front of you”, said Victor.

And it did. This most iconic of West African birds took a few bounds and sat under the overhanging rock, clearly watching us as much as we were watching it. And then it literally bounded past us, within six feet of our astonished noses! It then perched up on a low branch for a few minutes, and gave a superb show as it bounced around the rocks below its chosen overhang. Fully sated, we left it to its business and walked back to the bus, some of us being lucky enough to see a Narina Trogon on the way too!

Our long drive to Mole National Park was supposed to be broken by a visit to Offinso forest, but the access track was badly degraded after rains and we had to change plans. Heading straight for Mole, we had to change plans a second time when the bridge over the Black Volta was closed literally moments before we arrived there. There was nothing for it but to retrace our steps and take a long diversion, eventually reaching Mole after a 13hr journey and the only real birds of note being a handful of Blue-bellied Rollers.  Mole is a complete change of scenery from the forests of the south. Hot and dry, this savannah and scrub habitat holds species not found elsewhere in Ghana. Over the course of our two days there, we found species such as Stone Partridge, Greater Painted Snipe, Temminck’s Courser, Senegal Parrots, Violet Turaco, Levaillant’s, Thick-billed and Didric Cuckoos, Greyish Eagle Owl, Northern White-faced Owl, Plain, Standard-winged and Long-tailed Nightjars, Shining Blue, Blue-breasted, Grey-headed and African Pygmy Kingfishers, flocks of Red-throated Bee-eaters, two Northern Carmine Bee-eaters, Abyssinian and Broad-billed Rollers, both Green and Black Wood-hoopoes, Bearded Barbet, Greater Honeyguide, Sun Lark, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-larks, Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike, Snowy-crowned and White-crowned Robin-chats, White-fronted Black Chat, Senegal Eremomela, Northern Crombec, Oriole Warbler, Swamp Flycatcher, Blackcap Babbler, White-shouldered Black Tit, African Spotted Creeper, Western Violet-backed Sunbird, Pygmy Sunbird, Black-faced Firefinch, Lavender Waxbill, Red-winged Pytilia, Wilson’s Indigobird and two splendid male Togo Paradise Whydahs.

While relaxing in the heat of the day at the hotel (where some of us chose to cool off in the pool), we could overlook a couple of waterholes from a rather spectacular viewpoint below the restaurant area. We saw White-backed and Hooded Vultures coming down onto a kill, cascading in from miles around. Other raptors in that area included Bateleur, Red-necked, Grasshopper and Lizard Buzzards, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Black-winged Kite and Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle, while a few waders vied for attention with the mammals; Kob, Bushbuck, Patas Monkey and even a lone African Bush Elephant came in to drink. Pick of the other birds was a brief but striking Pied-winged Swallow, a difficult species to catch up with. As if all this was not enough, on one day we had a small surprise in store. Just before our arrival into Ghana, our ground agents had found a new site for Egyptian Plover, not far from Mole. This was too good to miss, and we enjoyed fantastic views of six of these beautiful waders as they fed along the Volta, totally unconcerned by us or the party of locals washing clothes in the river. As a bonus, a Preuss’s Cliff Swallow was picked out in a flock of Wire-tailed and Barn Swallows hawking over the water.

Dragging ourselves away from Mole, we retraced our steps south to Kumasi via a quick stop to see a flock of Red-chested Swallows, and then eventually reached Bobiri butterfly reserve in the late afternoon. The only butterfly reserve in West Africa, this small forest patch also supports some quality Upper Guinea species that can be difficult elsewhere. Over the course of the evening and next morning, Bobiri produced Red-chested Goshawk, Thick-billed Honeyguide, Cassin’s Honeybird, a pair of Purple-throated Cuckoo-shrikes, a very brief flyover Afep Pigeon, an uncharacteristically showy Western Nicator, three Ashy Flycatchers, five Chestnut-capped Flycatchers, two Blue-headed Crested Flycatchers, a nest building Tit-Hylia and the highlight for some; a flock of five African Grey Parrots.

Our final destination of the tour was the Atewa range. This was a last-minute change from our published itinerary, mainly as a result of us doing so well in Mole but still needing a few key forest species that had evaded us in the south. All agreed that swapping Shai Hills for Atewa was a good move. And so it proved! Our first trip there was in the late afternoon for some gentle birding in the farm bush areas at the base of the hills, but we stayed until dark and finally managed to coax a Fraser’s Eagle Owl into view. After many days of effort, it was truly wonderful to finally clap eyes on this beast of an owl. After an early breakfast the next day we embarked on the long uphill walk to the top of the Atewa hills. It’s a long, hot walk, and with limited time we pushed on to the top only stopping to try and see yet another Chocolate-backed Kingfisher that refused to show itself.

Upon reaching the top, we quickly saw our main target, the beautiful Blue-moustached Bee-eater. This small, forest bee-eater is restricted to a handful of sites in Ghana, and a pair just sat in full view for ‘walkaway’ views. Also up there, we finally scored Forest Chestnut-winged Starling, and a young Crowned Eagle soared over the forest, calling loudly. A Bioko Batis was a nice surprise, as was a Grey-throated Flycatcher, more Chestnut-capped Flycatchers, a Grey-headed Bristlebill and a Forest Wood-hoopoe. A Red-chested Owlet gave excellent views above us, but one of the very last birds of the tour proved to be perhaps the biggest relief. Finally, after chasing shadows for several days, a Chocolate-backed Kingfisher decided to show itself. And show itself again. And then it came back again for thirds, perching in full view over the trail and devouring a large katydid. Palpable relief and delight all round!

And that was pretty much it. After a quick trip back to the hotel for lunch and wash and brush up, we drove to Accra to connect with the evening flights. Having seen nearly 350 species, we had succeeded in enjoying some of the best birding that Ghana, and indeed West Africa, can provide. 

 -        Paul French

Created: 15 December 2017