We’ve just returned from a three-week trip to Ghana in West Africa, on a birding tour with Field Guides, Inc. Ghana is currently probably the best country to visit in West Africa for natural history pursuits. This was only our second trip to Africa, the first being four weeks in Kenya in 2006. The only other participants on the tour were our friends Terry and Rhys. Another friend was scheduled to come but had a medical issue at the last minute, which fortunately has since been resolved, so he’ll try again next year. With the Field Guides leader, Phil, a local leader, James, and a driver, Prince, there were just seven of us in an 11-seat van.
Leaving for an international birding trip while in the middle of a road trip in the camper was a new experience, but it went off without a hitch. While on the road we have no extra space nor any extra weight allotment, as our camper is right at its gross vehicular weight rating. So we needed to free up space and weight to bring the extra gear needed for such a trip. The biggest issue was luggage, but we found some wheeled duffel bags designed to roll up into a compact package, and they did the trick.
The process of obtaining a visa for Ghana was truly painful. It took me about 7 hours of work in total to get everything arranged. When we showed up at the airport, the Delta representative said that Ghana requires the most complex set of documentation for entry of any country to which they fly, and that he never has had a customer who had everything needed on the first try. We therefore amazed him by producing all the required documents; he even interrupted his associate to tell her the news, and she was equally astonished!
We chose to fly out of Jacksonville, FL because the flight schedule to New York for the non-stop to Accra was very favorable, and the city appeared to have excellent COVID testing services. We needed a total of three COVID tests to make the trip: a PCR within 72 hours of departure; an antigen test upon arrival, at the airport; and the same upon departure (for re-entry into the U.S.). We found two different labs in Jacksonville that had PCR machines on-site, so it only took a morning to get tested and get results, a great relief (most PCR test results take 2 – 3 days).
Ghana is a bustling country with a rather low poverty rate, though the more developed areas are generally unattractive, with poorly constructed buildings, lots of debris, and traffic. Roads vary, but few are good. English is spoken everywhere. The food in restaurants was okay, but there was not a great deal of variety, and by the end of the trip we each had a list of things we would not be eating for a while.
Weather was very hot (often over 100F) and very humid, and we had to drink a lot of water on the frequent several-hour hikes. It was mostly dry but we did get caught out on hikes twice by downpours. There were annoying sweat bees in Mole National Park, where tsetse flies are also sometimes an issue, but our main insect problems were several unpleasant encounters with ant swarms on forest floors.
The major habitats sampled on this trip could be categorized as rain forests, dry forests, secondary growth, acacia savanna, and wetlands. Many of the West African endemic species we hoped to see were restricted to the forest habitats, while a number of more open-country birds have wider ranges across Africa. We had encountered quite a few of the savanna and wetland species previously in Kenya.
Forest birding in general was difficult because the birds were often high overhead and in poor light. Furthermore, birds were not especially vocal, nor were they particularly responsive to recordings of their vocalizations. My impression is that Afrotropical birds rely more heavily on visual interactions compared to neotropical birds, which I believe are more acoustically inclined. In comparison, birding was fairly easy and usually quite productive in the other habitats, where long lines of sight permitted use of telescopes to good advantage.
Some of our favorite locations were the following. Mole National Park, in the northern part of the country, was the best single location for mammals, with 11 species seen there. Stalking Forest Elephants on foot was a thrill! Kakum National Park is famous for its Canopy Walkway through the rainforest, 120 feet above the ground. It is 1150 feet long and is ingeniously constructed from extension ladders, rope, and wooden planks. Seeing canopy species here was thrilling, but traversing the walkway is truly terrifying (see photo). Winneba Lagoon on the coast west of Accra had a fine assortment of waterbirds including 9 shorebird species and 4 types of terns. Finally, Ankasa Forest Conservation area, in the southwest part of the country, had high-quality rainforest with many specialties, and the nicest accommodations of the trip.
In total, Eileen and I saw 345 native species of birds, of which 168 were new for Eileen, and 173 for me. This included species representing four small new bird families: White-necked Rockfowl (family Picathartidae, containing only one other species); Egyptian Plover (the sole member of Pluvianidae), Western Nicator (Nicatoridae, with three species); and Violet-backed Hyliota (Hyliotidae, four species). We saw the first two species extremely well, with five rockfowls at a nesting site under a rock overhang near Bonkro, and four plovers on large sandbars in the White Volta River, near Daboya.
Our list of favorite birds is a long one, but in addition to the above, it includes Black Bee-Eater, Standard-winged Nightjar, African Hobby, Senegal Parrot, Rufous-sided Broadbill, African Pygmy Goose, Klaas’ Cuckoo, Painted Snipe, and a number of sunbirds. Sunbirds are an Old World songbird family that is ecologically similar to hummingbirds, which occur only in the New World. Many sunbirds are very colorful with iridescent plumage, much like hummingbirds.
We encountered a total of 20 species of mammals, nearly all of which were new to us. This included two species from new families: Yellow-winged Bat (Megadermatidae) and Pel’s Anomalure (Anomaluridae). Other challenging mammals seen especially well were Gambian Mongoose and Western Tree Hyrax. The other major group attracting our attention was butterflies; Ghana is famous for them, with over a thousand species known from the country. Eileen photographed about 30 species as time permitted, many of them being quite large and showy. I’ve got about two-thirds of these identified and can perhaps get a few more figured out eventually. I leave you with one favorite, pictured below.