No, not a Senegalese swear word, but a family of rare African birds. More of them later.
I’ve taken advantage of a couple of recent opportunities to fit in a bit of bird/nature-watching. Firstly, a public holiday falling on a Monday in Senegal gave me a long weekend. A part of me just wanted to laze around, but always fearful that my contract here may end with corners of the region still unexplored, I decided to squeeze in a long weekend in The Gambia.
This meant a very early start – out of the house by 5:30 on the Saturday morning so as to get out of Dakar before the traffic jams built up. It seemed to work well as I was in The Gambia, and south of the river, by 2pm – only 40km away from my destination and a late afternoon/early evening stroll was in sight. However east-west traffic in central Gambia is not that frequent on Saturdays, apparently, and by the time I got to Tendaba Camp it was after 8pm and dark. I could almost have walked there in the time, and I reflected that it would have been worth the cost of hiring a private taxi instead of waiting for the public shared bush taxi if only I had known what a long wait was in store.
But anyway, I was still in time to organise a boat trip in the Baobolong Wetland Reserve for the next morning, which had been the main aim of the weekend. So the next morning I set off at 7:30 with a guide in a little wooden pirogue, crossing the wide, flat River Gambia for the little creeks of the Wetlands.
Even before we had crossed the river, two black crowned cranes had flown overhead, and the whole morning was full of birds. Although as is often the case with such bird-watching trips, it would have been worth it simply for the beauty of the scenery. I’m a water-lover anyway, whether wild, crashing ocean waves or still, calm lakes and creeks, and these creeks had the added bonus of primeval-looking vegetation (ferns, palms and the ghostly white remains of drowned trees) accompanied by a cacophony of bird sounds, including the plaintive cries of the beautiful blue-breasted kingfishers which were all around.
For some reason I didn’t end up with a photo of those – I think I was too caught up in just watching them to think of trying to take photos – but I did get one of a grey-headed kingfisher.
The second opportunity to get out into the wilds came in Ghana. Another public holiday and a few days of leave added on to a business trip there enabled me to organise a tour with a Ghanaian guide and driver, so as to get to some places off the beaten track. We spent most of the time walking through various forests, including a second visit to the canopy walkway in the Kakum Forest. I went there during my week in Ghana last year, but this time my guide was able to negotiate early morning entry which, combined with the use of his telescope, enabled me to get much more out of the visit than I did last year. Lots of birds as well as a small troop of beautiful spot-nosed monkeys.
It’s a pity I cannot show you here the beauty and magnificence of the violet turaco, the African emerald cuckoo or the black-casqued hornbill, but I think it is worth describing the trek to see one particular bird – the yellow-headed picathartes – as there are serious birdwatchers who go to Ghana specifically to see this bizarre creature, and the experience of tracking it down was a highlight of the trip.
This bird is about the size of a chicken, but very slender and with strong legs which it uses to bound between the ground and low branches in the forests where it lives. The underparts are white, and the back, wings and tail a very dark grey, but the head is the strange part – bare of feathers and coloured yellow, with a large raised black patch behind each eye rather like a big black mole. They live deep in the forests of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and were recently discovered to also live in this south-western part of Ghana. Although found only in inaccessible places, they build their mud nests on the sides of over-hanging rocks, and return to the nests every evening to sleep, so once the nesting site of a colony has been located the birds are relatively easy to see.
I say ‘relatively’ because getting to the interior of a forest in West Africa is never all that easy…
In Ghana one of the nesting colonies has been “opened to the public”: an arrangement set up with the local village that guides from the village will show people to the site for a fixed fee, which goes to the village development fund as an incentive for the village to preserve the forest. The other nesting sites are known only to the Ghana Wildlife Society. We drove to the village – itself a long journey down a bumpy dirt track for about an hour. There we located a guide, and I was reminded of the ‘rules’ – that once we got the site we were to make ourselves comfortable so as to wait, silent and motionless, until the birds came home for the night. Usually at about 16:30 but it could be a bit earlier so we had to be in place well before.
We had a 45-minute walk to get there. This started along a track through the farmers’ ‘fields’ of cocoa, banana, cassava, etc (where the forest has been cleared), but quickly took us into the forest itself where the path wound slowly upwards between the trees and vines. The last part was very steep, and I wanted to grab hold of those vines to help haul myself up, and had to keep remembering to check each one first for ants, thorns, etc.
Finally we were there, a rocky outcrop within the forest with a number of mud nests on the side, and we settled down on the rock, just a couple of metres away from the nests, to wait. It was just after 16:00.
16:15. My bottom had started to go numb and sweat tickled maddeningly as it trickled down my cleavage, but I couldn’t move – the birds could be here at any minute. The forest buzzed and hummed around us.
16:25. The minutes were ticking by very slowly.
16:32. What if they didn’t come? If they all decided to spend the night round a friend’s nest?
16:40. Starting to get seriously worried, when suddenly a shadow jumped into a nearby branch – and another – here they were!! Then the village guide’s mobile phone rang…
Ten minutes or so later, thankfully, the birds returned, lurking around the nesting area as they tried to figure out what to do. Clearly they couldn’t get to their nests with us sitting beside them, but they seemed surprisingly unafraid of us as long as we were careful not to make any sudden noises or movements. However we didn’t want to disturb the birds too much, so left once the guide was satisfied that I’d had a good view of them.
This was a special part of this trip of course, as these birds are so rare and so strange that you do feel privileged to get to see them. I also really enjoyed just being immersed in nature – on one day we spent six hours walking along a path in a forest and whilst we saw lots of birds, some squirrels and two snakes, we saw only one other person – but still I am wondering whether to try to see the other member of this bird family, the red-headed picathartes, when I go to Cameroon early next year.