Chris Townend is an ace birder, keen conservationist, and proprietor of Wise Birding Holidays, a UK company that leads tours to places most of us dream of visiting. Through his extensive travels, Chris has come to know Ghana very well and shares why this West African country should be high on every birder’s bucket list. Note that Wise Birding Holidays is currently an advertiser with 10,000 Birds, but the only reason we’re sharing this post is because it is awesome…
It was dark as we ascended the stone steps up through the start of the Kakum forest and our head torches led the way as the blood curdling screams of Tree Hyraxes could be heard in the distance contrasting with the soft, soothing and somewhat comical trilling of a Demidoff’s Galago nearby. A brief search with a flashlight revealed its glowing eyes before it turned away and quickly moved to the next tree. We continued up the steps and onto a forest trail as a Forest Robin began to sing some way into the forest, but time was of the essence as the first glimmers of dawn were already here and we wanted to ensure we were on the walkway as soon as possible.
Ankasa Resource Reserve close to the Ivory Coast Border – travelling in style!
Before too long, there it was in front of us, the famous Kakum Forest canopy walkway; a major feat of engineering consisting of wooden planks and ropes suspended some 30 metres above the forest floor connecting no less than five viewing platforms together and allowing a bird’s eye view of the forest.
The Kakum Forest Canopy Walkway – a “must experience” for any serious birder
As we moved across the first swaying walkway, the distinctive sound of a Rufous-sided Broadbill performing his mechanical whirring display flight could be heard below us.
Rufous-sided Broadbill (male) – a speciality of Kakum and Ankasa
Rufous-sided Broadbill (female)
Frustratingly, there was no chance of seeing it from our position and we were keen to get to the third viewing platform with the biggest vista because ahead of us we could hear the distinctive trumpeting noises of our hoped for target, the mighty Black-casqued Hornbill. These truly are the gentle giants of the forest and with a little careful manoeuvring on our wooden platform; we were all enjoying great scope views of a mixed group of beautiful males with their giant jet black casques and pale blue throat wattles alongside the ginger punk-haired females.
Black-casqued Hornbill (female) – the gentle giant of the forest
Black Dwarf Hornbill – the hardest to see of all Ghana’s Hornbills
During the next few hours, perched on on the various creaking and ever so slightly swaying platforms, we enjoyed some fantastic views of many truly special birds and we just absorbed the whole spectacle. First it was the gorgeous Yellow-billed Turacos playing hide and seek amongst the leaves of fruiting trees before gliding to the next tree flashing their crimson wings as they went, then the unmistakable sound of the White-crested Hornbill had us scanning intently to find one sitting quietly in the vine tangles allowing just its long black ribbon-like tail to be seen before turning and revealing its distinctive white head crest. Next, came small flocks of Red-fronted Parrots screeching overhead with the odd African Grey thrown in for good measure.
Grey Kestrel – A common, but nonetheless attractive falcon
Ussher’s Flycatchers could be seen sitting on the very tops of the tallest trees like dusky coloured martins gliding out in search for insects before our eyes were drawn to a flash of colour from the same trees as a small group of Red-headed Malimbes passed through our field of view. The bright scarlet of the Malimbes was soon replaced with a vivid golden flash as a Preuss’s Weaver, or better named Golden-backed Weaver slowly worked its way along a thick branch sometimes hanging upside down as it searched for insects. The sounds of the forest were just amazing with Yellow-spotted and Hairy-breasted Barbets along with Red-rumped Tinkerbirds continually calling out their distinctive “poops” whilst a Sharpe’s Apalis monotonously trilled from the canopy. The aptly named Fire-bellied Woodpecker drummed above our heads and a Blue Cuckooshrike sang out the loudest as its beautiful song echoed around the forest.
Fraser’s Eagle Owl – a nocturnal speciality of the Kakum area
As the morning began to warm up, our first Sabine’s Spinetails soared overhead with their “tail-less” appearance and then the distinctive call of Bee-Eaters could be heard as a small group of beautiful pastel pink Rosy Bee-Eaters sailed over the forest clearing revealing their vivid pink bellies and white moustaches.
Red-throated Bee-Eater, A gorgeous Bee-Eater and a speciality of Mole NP
Black Bee-Eaters – Easy to see in most forest clearings around Kakum
Blue-headed Bee-Eater – A speciality of Atewa Range Forest Reserve
The list continued with some of the easier to see Greenbuls in the form of the striking Golden Greenbul and the more typical drab looking Slender-billed Greenbul and then perhaps one of the most striking of all, the Honeyguide Greenbul with its contrasting black and white tail and pale eye. Looking down into the tangles below, our list grew further as a small party of Chestnut-capped Flycatchers flicked through the vine tangles and the gorgeous Yellow-browed Camaroptera beeped away showing off its luminous yellow supercilium and inflating its blue air sacs at the side of its throat. A superb Chocolate-backed Kingfisher then suddenly showed itself as it sat quietly under the overhanging branches allowing this velvet beauty to be fully appreciated.
Chocolate-backed Kingfisher, sometimes seen from the canopy walkway
Woodland Kingfisher – A very common species, but always a pleasure!
Giant Kingfisher – A fairly localised bird in Ghana
Shining Blue Kingfisher – A speciality of forested rivers and can be found in Mole NP
Then just as we thought there was time to draw our breath our ears were instead drawn to a rare gem indeed as our pulses race to the loud almost “meowing” call of a Congo Serpent Eagle. It taunted us whilst calling from an undisclosed perch until finally it revealed itself allowing the distinctive black throat stripe and dark spotted breast to be examined and just as a troop of Spot-nosed Monkeys pass right by us! Truly fantastic.
Of course this is just a single morning in a very small part of Ghana and there is so much more to see! Ghana has recorded around 725 different species of bird of which around 490 are thought to be resident. It has 36 sites which are designated as Important Bird Areas (IBAs) of which the Kakum National Park is just one. Certainly in recent years, perhaps Ghana’s most sought after bird is the Yellow-headed Picathartes, or maybe the Egyptian Plovers and Pel’s Fishing Owls that can be found if you travel to the arid north of the country visiting the savannah region of Mole National Park and the Bolgatanga region. Then of course there are the wonderful sites such as the Ankasa Resource Reserve bordering the Ivory Coast hosting specialities such as the Hartlaub’s Duck, White-bellied Kingfisher, and the Akun Eagle Owl and the Atewa Range Forest Reserve, home to beautiful Blue-headed Bee-Eater.
Painted Snipe – A cracking wader not uncommon but tricky to find
Whatever avian delights attract you the most, Ghana is most definitely a birding destination with everything. Sadly, though much of the Upper Guinea Forest remains at threat from illegal logging and clearing areas for farming. Therefore I personally believe the more tourists that visit these areas; the more likely it is they shall remain protected into the future. So if Ghana is on your list of birding destinations, get out there now and make sure everyone you meet knows you are there for the forests and the birds!
All words and images by Chris Townend of Wise Birding Holidays