The star of the show! Yellow-headed Picathartes Photo: Paul French
Lying on the Gulf of Guinea along Africa’s tropical western coast, Ghana is rich in both ancient tradition and in the history of Europe’s early colonial expansion into West Africa. Today it is a vibrant and colorful country stretching from the blinding white beaches of the Atlantic through dense, deep green rainforest to the open savannah of the Sahel, and one that plays host to over 750 bird species.
The Upper Guinea rainforest attracts most birders to Ghana, and we’ll visit six different forest sites: Kakum National Park, home to Africa’s only canopy walkway, places us at eye-level with a wonderful array of rainforest species and provides a marvelous introduction to West Africa’s forests; Nsuta swamp forest is little visited by birders but quite a few Upper Guinea rarities have been found here; Ankasa forest reserve, where we’ll spend three nights camping, gives us a chance at deep forest waterbirds including Hartlaub’s Duck and White-crested Tiger Heron; a forest patch in the heart of Ashanti country will take us to the secret home of the cave dwelling Yellow-headed Picathartes, one of Africa’s most evocative birds; Bobiri butterfly reserve is the only such dedicated reserve in West Africa, and as well as over 400 species of butterfly, it is home to a surprising quality and diversity of birds; and finally, we’ll visit the Atewa range forest reserve, an area of quality hill forest that harbors some exciting specialties most notably Nimba Flycatcher.
In addition to the forests, we’ll visit the inselbergs, dry woodlands and savannah of the Shai Hills and then later on the wide open spaces of Mole National Park, an essential part of any visit to Ghana. Here, Bateleurs float across the golden grasslands and Red-throated Bee-eaters hawk for insects in the rich woodland, while Bushbuck and Kob graze around the hotel grounds at night. Ghana has a well-deserved reputation as one of Africa’s friendliest and safest countries, qualities that are still only enjoyed by a small number of tourists.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Accra. Night in or near Accra.
Day 2: After an early breakfast, we’ll make our way to the Shai Hills, an area of rocky outcrops or inselbergs, dry woodland and savannah. Here we should see the recently split White-crowned Cliff Chat bouncing around on the rocks, as well as other specialties of this habitat including Green Turaco, Mottled Spinetail and Piapiac, while our first sunbirds could include Green-headed, Splendid and Copper. Deeper in the understory of dry woodland, African Pygmy and Woodland Kingfishers lurk unobtrusively, and Vieillot’s and Double-toothed Barbets, Yellow-crowned Gonolek and Black-billed Wood Dove can be expected, along with Brown and Blackcap Babblers, Brown-throated Wattle-eye and Snowy-crowned Robin Chat in the more dense tangles. In the more open areas, our skills will be tested by separating Croaking, Singing and Short-winged Cisticolas. The open landscape is good for raptors, and we should encounter our first Yellow-billed Kites, Shikra, Lizard Buzzard and perhaps Grey Kestrel. After a few hours birding here, we’ll head west towards Kakum National Park, and, if time allows, stop on the way at Winneba lagoon. This coastal lagoon supports a wide range of resident and migrant waders and terns, with White-fronted Plover and Royal Tern both possible, alongside Pied Kingfishers and perhaps Water Thick-knee. Continuing towards Kakum, we’ll spend the afternoon birding farmland scrub close to our hotel where we hope to see Red-headed Quelea, Yellow-mantled Widowbird, Bar-breasted and Blue-billed Firefinch, Village and Compact Weavers and both Red-faced and Whistling Cisticolas. Night near Kakum.
Days 3-4: Kakum National Park is part of a huge protected area of rainforest covering 375 square miles and is the focus of our attention for the next two days. Besides the fabulous forest, Kakum is perhaps best known for its amazing aerial walkway that stretches through the forest canopy 120 feet above the ground. We are granted special access at dawn, ensuring a few hours of peaceful birding. The forest canopy is rich in bird life and no two visits to the walkway are the same. With an ever-changing mix of Upper Guinea and Ghanaian forest specialities, over the course of a morning and afternoon spent among the branches we could be treated to a fly-by from a Congo Serpent Eagle, one of the more vocal of the areas raptors, along with several other local specialities including Melancholy and Fire-bellied Woodpeckers, Fanti Saw-wing, Ussher’s Flycatcher, Sharpe’s Apalis, Sabine’s Puffback and the exquisitely marked Buff-throated Sunbird. In addition to these, the walkway can be good for many Congo and Upper Guinean forest species, perhaps including Cassin’s Hawk Eagle, the distinctive species pair of Bristle-nosed and Naked-faced Barbets, Yellow-billed Turacos, Black-winged Oriole, Blue Cuckooshrike, Violet-backed Hyliota, Green Hylia, Fraser’s Forest Flycatcher and Yellow-browed Camaroptera. Hornbills are well represented and we could encounter Piping, White-crested and Black Dwarf Hornbills in addition to the ubiquitous African Pied Hornbill. We’ll become acquainted with the Greenbuls, a group of birds that reward careful observation despite their outwardly dull appearances! The main possibilities up here in the leaves are Spotted, Golden, White-throated, Honeyguide and Icterine. There are forest weavers too; the gorgeous Preuss’s Golden-backed is seen regularly, and Yellow Mantled and Maxwell’s Black Weavers can be nesting around the walkway, along with the woodpecker-like Red-headed Malimbe. To add to the complement of sunbirds, we shall be on the lookout for Fraser’s, Johanna’s and Blue-throated Brown. More widespread species that are still worthy of mention include the glittering African Emerald Cuckoo, Red-fronted Parrot, Yellowbill, Velvet-mantled Drongo and Western Black-headed Oriole.
We’ll also explore other areas of the park away from the canopy. In the main forest areas we’ll search for such Upper Guinean gems as Long-tailed Hawk, Western Yellow-billed Barbet and Copper-tailed Starling. The forest is also home to stunning Black Bee-eaters, Red-billed Dwarf Hornbills, Forest Scimitarbill, White-headed Woodhoopoe, Red-rumped and Yellow-throated Tinkerbirds, Red-billed Helmet-shrike, Forest Robin (here of the inexpectatus race, or ‘Ghana Forest Robin’), and Africa’s smallest bird, the diminutive Tit-hylia. If we cast our eyes skywards, in addition to the multitudes of Common Swifts that feed over the forest, we may pick out a Cassin’s, Sabine’s and or perhaps even a Black Spinetail. Moving into the surrounding open forest and farm bush areas with its small copses of dense bamboo thickets, we should encounter Rosy Bee-eater. This delightful winter migrant from the rivers of the Nigerian and Congo forests can often be found perched in favoured trees before they set off on foraging trips over the canopy. African Cuckoo-hawk, Blue-throated Roller and Western Nicator are all present, and, if we are lucky, we may be able to tempt out into the open the incredibly skulking Lowland Sooty Boubou and Kemp’s Longbill. Getting views of the resident pair of White-spotted Flufftails may prove easy compared to those two! In addition, we get our first stab at Puvel’s Illadopsis here, a species with a highly localized and disjointed distribution across its large range. The jewel-like Red-cheeked Wattle-eye should oblige, along with West African Batis, Black-and-White Flycatcher, Green Crombec and Red-vented Malimbe. A visit to a nearby river should provide views of Rock Pratincole and both White-throated Blue and Preuss’s Swallows. There is still much to discover in these areas and if we are really lucky, surprises may include the seldom seen Olivaceous Flycatcher, Yellow-footed Honeyguide or African Piculet. During the heat of the day there will be chance for a swim or relax at our hotel, which can still produce a few birds for the keen among us, with Mottled Spinetail and Lanner both possibilities in the skies overhead. Nights near Kakum.
Day 5: After a final morning around Kakum, we’ll travel west to the little-visited swamp forest at Nsuta. Some real Upper Guinean rarities have been found here in the past, including Yellow-throated Cuckoo, Red-fronted Antpecker and the very rare Rufous Fishing Owl, all of which require a large amount of luck to see. However, other species present include Bat Hawk, Little Green Woodpecker, Black-collared Lovebird, Akun Eagle-Owl, Red-chested Owlet, Chocolate-backed Kingfisher and Square-tailed Saw-wing, plus we have another chance here for Congo Serpent Eagle and many other species in common with other sites. Visiting a selection of forest sites is the only way to see a large number of the forest species, as each site varies from year to year in the species found there, and we are bound to see several species here that we do not record anywhere else, hopefully including a few surprises! Night near Nsuta.
Day 6: After a morning birding in Nsuta forest, we’ll continue westwards to spend three nights in Ankasa, an area of near-pristine tropical rainforest on the border with Ivory Coast. It has only suffered small amounts of historical logging and is said to be one of the last homes of Chimpanzee in Ghana, although they are seldom seen. At the time of writing there are no suitable hotels close to the forest, so we’ll spend three nights camping. Our ground agents will have spacious, walk-in tents all ready for us on arrival. There are also toilet and shower facilities, electricity, our own chef and cold drinks! This allows us to be on site for first and last light - a very special experience. The journey will be broken by roadside stops in search of the localised Mangrove and Reichenbach’s Sunbirds, and we will also look for White-browed Forest-flycatcher, a species that prefers riparian forest habitats. Finally, the access road to the forest may reveal a few delights, including Black-throated Coucal. Night in camp.
Day 7-8: Ankasa has not been watched to any great extent, but the mouth-watering list of birds includes further chances for many of the species from Kakum and Nsuta, along with many more new birds. We’ll initially focus on three small forest pools that are accessed by 4x4 vehicles along the only forest road. Here, if we are lucky, the very secretive Hartlaub’s Duck, African Finfoot and White-crested Tiger Heron may be found, along with Shining Blue and White-bellied Kingfishers. We have also been lucky enough to see Spot-breasted Ibis here, as well as the highly localized Dwarf Crocodile. Elsewhere in this evocative forest we shall be looking up in the branches for Red-thighed Sparrowhawk, Black-capped Apalis, the ungainly Great Blue Turaco and the hulking Black-casqued and Yellow-casqued Hornbills. On the forest floor, both Ahanta and Latham’s Forest Francolins are easier heard than seen, while White-breasted (rare) and Crested Guineafowl are also possibilities. The delicate powdery hues of the shy Blue-headed Wood Dove are perhaps easiest to appreciate here than anywhere else, and the tangles, thickets and understory of the forest support White-tailed Alethe, White-tailed Ant-thrush and Forest Robin (here of the race erythrothorax, or ‘Western Forest Robin’), as well as the bewildering trio of Yellow-bearded, Western Bearded and Red-tailed Greenbuls and highly skulking Red-tailed, Green-tailed and Grey-headed Bristlebills. Flycatchers are well represented with Tessmann’s, Olivaceous, Cassin’s and Dusky-blue all possible. Both Crested and Blue-billed Malimbes are present, and the wing-snapping territorial display of Rufous-sided Broadbill should be a familiar sound by now. Lowland Akalat is also known from this forest. In the evening we’ll head out for some night birding with the very rare Akun Eagle Owl our main quarry if it has alluded us until now. African Wood Owl is also present and we could even hear the near-mythical Nkulengu Rail as Ankasa is one of the best places to search for this species, and for the more optimistic among us, the even lesser known Shelley’s Eagle Owl is thought to be present here as well. Nights in camp.
Day 9: We’ll spend the whole morning birding around Ankasa, appreciating this forest and bamboo wonderland before having an early lunch back at camp. From Ankasa we begin our journey back towards Kakum, birding en route where we should find nesting Orange Weavers, and perhaps African Pygmy Goose. After several days of forest birding there will be a change of scenery before getting to our hotel. Brenu beach road offers some excellent open country birding with Black-winged Kites, Lanner Falcons and, as dusk approaches, even an African Hobby overhead. Passerines in the scrubland may include Marsh and Black-crowned Tchagra, Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrike, Yellow-crowned Gonolek, Red-headed Quelea and Black-rumped Waxbill. Night near Kakum.
Day 10: After a final morning birding around Kakum, we’ll drive a short way north where our attention will turn towards one of the tour’s key birds, the Yellow-headed Picathartes. Everything about this bird is special and after around an hour’s walk up a forested hillside we’ll take our places on the purpose-built benches and wait patiently for the star to appear. Numbers vary, but we stand a very good chance of seeing this unique and elusive forest species as it returns to its rocky overhang to roost. From our vantage point we’ll then make our way back downhill and to the bus, arriving at our next hotel for a late dinner and (hopefully!) a celebratory drink! Night in Kumasi.
Day 11: Today is a long travel day, from Kumasi to Mole National Park. As we drive north, we’ll notice the birdlife change as the country becomes drier. African Grey Hornbill will become the default hornbill and new raptors should include Grasshopper Buzzard, Dark Chanting Goshawk and possibly Beaudouin’s Snake-eagle. Our itinerary now includes a visit to a recently discovered site for Egyptian Plover where in 2017 we were delighted with point blank views of this striking and remarkable wader. Once we reach our lodge, and while our local guides check us into our rooms, we can head straight for the terrace, enjoy a cold drink and have our first look at the water hole as dusk approaches. More widespread species possible here should include White-faced Whistling Duck, Hadada Ibis, Hamerkop, Helmeted Guineafowl, Black Crake, Greater Painted-snipe, Senegal Thick-knee, and Grey-headed Kingfisher among many others. Mammals will also be present, and although African Bush Elephant is rare at this time of year, we’ll see Kob, Bushbuck, Waterbuck and Warthog. Olive Baboons and several species of monkey also inhabit the park. Night at Mole.
Days 12–14: We’ll have three full days exploring Mole National Park where a good range of dry woodland and savannah species are possible. Exploring the small pools and mosaic of scrubby woodland, grassland and burnt areas, we should find one of the more sought after and elusive of Africa’s waders, Forbes’s Plover. The list of other possibilities is long, and a far from exhaustive list of highlights should include the taxonomically intriguing Stone Partridge (now one of only two Old World members of the New World Quails), Four-banded Sandgrouse, Senegal Parrot, Red-headed Lovebird, Didric, Levaillant’s and Thick-billed Cuckoos, Violet Turaco, Blue-bellied Roller, Red-throated Bee-eater, Striped, Giant and Blue-breasted Kingfishers, Sun and Rufous-rumped Larks, Pale-eyed Black Tit, African Spotted Creeper, Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike, Senegal Batis, Grey-headed Bush-shrike, White Helmet-shrike, White-fronted Black Chat, Oriole Warbler, Western Violet-backed, Scarlet-chested and Pygmy Sunbirds, Long-tailed Glossy and Lesser Blue-eared Starlings, African Paradise, Pale, Swamp and Lead-colored Flycatchers, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, Lavender and Orange-cheeked Waxbills, Red-winged Pytilia, Black-faced Firefinch, Green and Black Wood-hoopoes, Greater Honeyguide, Wilson’s Indigobird, Togo Paradise Whydah and Grey-throated Bunting. It is possible to sit in the shade at the hotel with binoculars in one hand and a cold drink in the other and scan the watering hole where there is a good chance of a Saddle-billed or Woolly-necked Stork dropping in, and an outside chance of Pied-winged Swallow coming in to drink or hawk over the pools. Our extended stay here gives us chance to search for thinly distributed species such as Emin’s Shrike, Gambaga Flycatcher and Yellow-throated Leaflove.
In the evenings we’ll stay out until dark to look for Greyish Eagle Owl, African Scops and possibly Northern White-faced Owls, Freckled Nightjar and Long-tailed Nightjars. In some years Standard-winged Nightjars are also present. During the heat of the day there will be time for a swim and cool down in the pool, easily the best place to watch raptors drifting overhead from Bateleur, Martial, Wahlberg’s and Tawny Eagles to Palm-nut, White-headed and African White-backed Vultures all possible. Nights at Mole.
Day 15: After a final few hours birding around Mole we’ll begin our journey back towards the more humid south. There will undoubtedly be birds along the road but our main aim will be to reach Bobiri in time for a few hours birding where we can search for Long-tailed Hawk and any of the dwarf hornbills. As dusk falls we stand another chance of locating Brown Nightjar. Night in Kumasi.
Day 16: We start the day with an early visit to Bobiri butterfly reserve. This stretch of forest is rich in bird life and specialities may include Narina Trogon, Red-chested Cuckoo, Blue-headed Crested Flycatchers, Red-billed Dwarf Hornbills, Tambourine Dove, Cassin’s Honeybird, Lemon-bellied Crombec and Purple-throated Cuckooshrike. It is also perhaps the most reliable site for African Grey Parrot, a species sadly in sharp decline over much of its range. After a morning’s birding we’ll continue south, stopping for lunch en route, before arriving at Atewa for a relaxed afternoon’s birding in the farmland scrub area at the foot of the escarpment. The habitat here is degraded but may still offer a few choice species such as Western Bluebill, Black-bellied Seedcracker, Magpie Mannikin and Blue-headed Coucal. If needed, we can also stay until dark to try for Fraser’s Eagle Owl. Night near Atewa.
Day 17: We’ll have an early start from our hotel to reach the forested Atewa hills, which cover an area of over 23,000ha and features some excellent forest and correspondingly good bird species. Accessing the best forest requires a steady uphill walk for about two hours, and we’ll concentrate on reaching the best areas as soon as we can and spending the whole day up in the forest. The main target will be the stunning Blue-moustached Bee-eater at one of its few reliable sites in Ghana. Atewa is also home to the very rare Nimba Flycatcher, but this has not been seen for a few years and would require a large slice of luck. Similarly, the near legendary Western Wattled Cuckooshrike is also thought to be present. However, we’ll certainly be satisfied with what else is on offer; Brown-cheeked Hornbill and Afep Pigeon are both present, as are Rufous-winged Illadopsis, Brown-chested Alethe, Red-fronted Antpecker (rare), Fernando Po Batis, African Shrike-flycatcher, Forest Chestnut-winged Starling, Chestnut-capped Flycatcher, Olive-long-tailed Cuckoo and Crowned Eagle among many others. Night near Atewa.
Day 18: This morning we’ll return to Atewa to climb the trail at a much slower pace, stopping to search for those species we bypassed yesterday and trying to fill in any last-minute gaps on our list. Red-chested Owlet is present here, as is Chocolate-backed Kingfisher, Western Bronze-naped Pigeon and Brown, Blackcap and Puvel’s Illadopsis. We’ll then head back for a late lunch at our hotel, followed by an opportunity for a shower and final packing before an evening transfer to Accra airport, where the tour concludes.
Updated: 15 January 2018