SIERRA LEONE BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Sierra Leone Birding Tour: Day 1 The tour begins late this evening at Lungi, where we shall stay for one night. We shall arrive at Lungi International Airport, situated on the opposite side of the Sierra Leone River to Freetown, from where a water taxi service will ferry us into Freetown itself.
Sierra Leone Birding Tour: Day 2 Today we shall drive northeastwards to Makeni for a two nights stay. The journey takes us through palm savannahs and we should look out for any bush fires that may have attracted species such as Grasshopper Buzzard or Blue-bellied Roller. Other common roadside species include Western Cattle Egret, African Harrier-Hawk, Palm-nut and Hooded Vultures, Long-crested Eagle, Lizard and Red-necked Buzzards, Yellow-billed Kite, Red-eyed and Laughing Doves, Western Plantain-eater, African Palm, and Little Swifts, Pied Crow, Common Bulbul, Barn Swallow and Northern Grey-headed Sparrow,
Sierra Leone Birding Tour: Day 3 Today we shall be birding in the savannahs and gallery forests in the vicinity of the Bumbuna Falls at the base of the Sula Mountains. The area is fairly well populated with numerous small farms and villages and is also the site of a recently finished hydroelectric dam.
The avifauna of the area includes a number of species that will not be found elsewhere during this tour. Our main target will be the attractive and localized Emerald Starling and the restricted range Turati’s Boubou and we have a good chance of finding both of them here. We shall also be on the lookout for the pretty little Dybowski’s Twinspot as well as Yellow-winged Pytilia the host species of the spectacularly long-tailed parasitic Togo Paradise Whydah.
Other species to look out for include Double-spurred Francolin, Grey Heron, Hamerkop, Reed Cormorant, Western Osprey, Black-winged Kite, African Cuckoo-Hawk, Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle, Shikra, Western Marsh Harrier, Common Sandpiper, Vinaceous, Blue-spotted Wood and Tambourine Doves, African Green Pigeon, Great Blue and Guinea Turacos, Senegal Coucal, Levaillant’s and Klaas’s Cuckoos, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Common Swift, Broad-billed Roller, Grey-headed, Striped, Woodland and African Pygmy Kingfishers, Swallow-tailed, Little, White-throated and European Bee-eaters, ‘West’ African Pied Hornbill, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Cardinal and African Grey Woodpeckers, and Red-headed Lovebird.
Passerines include Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher, Senegal Batis, Brown-throated Wattle-eye, White-crested Helmetshrike, Grey-headed and Orange-breasted Bushshrikes, Black-crowned Tchagra, Northern Puffback, Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike, Northern Fiscal, African Golden Oriole, Fork-tailed Drongo, African Paradise Flycatcher, Little and Simple Greenbuls, Yellow-throated and Red-tailed Leafloves, Fanti Saw-wing, Sand and Common House Martins, White-bibbed, Lesser Striped, Red-breasted, Red-rumped, West African and Preuss’s Cliff Swallows, Green Hylia, Willow, Eurasian Reed and Melodious Warblers, Red-faced and Whistling Cisticolas, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Red-winged Warbler, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Senegal Eremomela, Garden Warbler, African Yellow White-eye, Splendid and Violet-backed Starlings, African Thrush, Northern Black, Spotted and Cassin’s Flycatchers, Common Nightingale, European Pied Flycatcher, Whinchat, Collared, Green-headed, Olive, Olive-bellied, Splendid, Variable and Copper Sunbirds, Bush Petronia, Black-necked, Vieillot’s Black (here of the distinctive ‘Chestnut-and-black’ form castaneofuscus) and Village Weavers, Red-vented Malimbe, Red-headed Quelea, Yellow-mantled Widowbird, Western Bluebill, Orange-cheeked, Common and Orange-breasted Waxbills, Bronze, Black-and-white and Magpie Mannikins, Cameroon Indigobird, Pin-tailed Whydah, Western Yellow Wagtail, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Plain-backed Pipit, Yellow-fronted Canary and Cabanis’s Bunting.
Sierra Leone Birding Tour: Day 4 Today we will drive to the Loma Mountains for a three nights stay camping. For the first night we will be based in the village at the base of the trail. The second two nights will be spent in a camp in the forest two thirds of the way up the mountain. The habitat at the base of the mountains is similar to the Bumbuna area and we will stop for anything of interest en route.
Sierra Leone Birding Tour: Days 5-6 The Loma Mountains form the highest mountain range in Sierra Leone that culminates in the imposing granitic peak of Mount Bintumani (1,945 metres) which we shall see during our stay. This is the tallest peak of West Africa west of Mount Cameroon. The area has been a protected forest reserve since 1952 but is not easily accessible and rarely visited by tourists. Below 1,000 metres the lower slopes are cloaked in moist rainforest rising out of the surrounding wooded Guinea savannah and swathes of tall Elephant Grass. Above 1,000 metres the forest gives way to beautiful submontane shrub savannah, gallery forests and grassland.
It is in this interesting habitat that we shall search for the rare and endangered Sierra Leone Prinia. Recent surveys throughout the species range suggest that the bird’s habitat is now limited and the overall population size very small and highly localized. It favours thickets, gallery forest and forest edge, particularly where disturbed by treefalls or fire and the nest is still not known. However our first day will be taken climbing the 6 kilometres to the base camp from which we will climb to the grasslands the following day starting off in the dark so that we can reach the treeline at dawn while it is still cool and there is more bird activity.
At the beginning of the walk we shall have to wade through a shallow river before entering the forest and although the trail is steep in places we have all day to reach the camp so we will be able to take it slowly for there will be birds to find as well! In the farmbush on the lowest slopes we will be listening out for the high-pitched piping calls of the diminutive Upper Guinea endemic Red-cheeked Wattle-eye and aim to see this little jewel with its bright turquoise wattles. Also in this habitat can be found the hirundine-like Ussher’s Flycatcher usually perched on a prominent snag high in the canopy. As we enter the forest the other regional endemics will be very much at the top of the list. Classified as ‘Vulnerable’ by BirdLife International, the prehistoric-looking Yellow-casqued Hornbill is pleasingly common here and the swish and whirr of its wings should be a familiar sound. There is a good chance of finding the ‘Near-threatened’ Rufous-winged Illadopsis here as well and other endemics include Little Green and Melancholy Woodpeckers, West African Wattle-eye, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Western Bearded and Yellow-bearded Greenbuls, Sharpe’s Apalis, Finsch’s Rufous Thrush and White-tailed Alethe. Also in the forest is a locality where the ‘Near-threatened’ Upper Guinea endemic Black-headed Rufous Warbler can be found and we will be making a special effort to find this rare warbler. It has a fragmented range but is supposedly locally common but certainly is not found in the other areas that our tours currently visit. It is found in dense secondary undergrowth in swampy places, which can make access a little difficult but we stand a good chance of finding this rare species.
Other birds to look for in the forest include Ayres’s Hawk Eagle, White-spotted Flufftail, Western Bronze-naped Pigeon, Blue-headed Wood Dove, Yellow-billed Turaco, African Emerald and Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoos, Naked-faced Barbet, Speckled, Red-rumped and Yellow-throated Tinkerbirds, Yellow-spotted Barbet, Willcocks’s and Thick-billed Honeyguides, Rufous-sided Broadbill, Sabine’s Puffback, Purple-throated Cuckooshrike, Western and Black-winged Orioles, Many-coloured Bushshrike, Shining and Velvet-mantled Drongos, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Dusky Crested Flycatcher, Slender-billed, Ansorge’s, Yellow-whiskered, Honeyguide, Icterine and Red-tailed Greenbuls, Square-tailed Saw-wing, Grey Longbill, Green Crombec, Wood Warbler, Blackcap Apalis, Olive-green Camaroptera, Pale-breasted Illadopsis, Brown-chested Alethe, Lowland Akalat, Fraser’s and Little Green Sunbirds, Grey-headed Nigrita and Mountain Wagtail. Higher on the grasslands in more open habitats can be found Black Bee-eater, Double-toothed Barbet, African Hobby, Lanner Falcon, Moustached Grass Warbler, Tree Pipit and Gosling’s Bunting.
Sierra Leone Birding Tour: Day 7 We shall break camp and return to the village in the morning and after lunch drive to Koidu (also known as Kono, the fourth largest city in Sierra Leone) at the heart of the diamond-mining region for an overnight stay.
Sierra Leone Birding Tour: Day 8 This morning we shall leave early and head for the city of Kenema for an overnight stay. In the afternoon we shall visit a very accessible White-necked Rockfowl (or Yellow-headed Picathartes) site near Kenema. It is about 90 minutes uphill walk to the nesting site where a large rock overhangs a stream and in the late afternoon we can expect to see several birds visiting the nesting area before going to roost for the night. The birds here are revered by local people and in consequence lead unmolested lives with the result that they do not seem perturbed by visitors. We can hope for some wonderful sightings of this highly desirable species.
Sierra Leone Birding Tour: Days 9-11 Before leaving Kenema a visit to some nearby rice fields may produce Forbes’s Plover and Great Snipe as well as Little Egret. Kenema is the easiest place to access Gola Central and North Forest Reserves (45,800 hectares) now part of the Gola Rainforest National Park. Today we will drive to the park headquarters at Lalehun where there is simple accommodation available for an overnight stay. We will arrive in time for some exploratory birding and we have another chance of seeing White-necked Rockfowl at a different site should we have failed the previous day. The formation of this new park that covers 71,070 hectares is the result of collaboration between the Sierra Leone Government, the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and was enacted in December 2010.
Over 330 species of birds have been recorded from the park that comprises two other forest reserves, Gola West (6,200 hectares) and Gola East (22,800 hectares). West African forests feature some difficult and challenging birding, so much patience and plenty of time is needed if we are to unearth some of its avian treasures.
The big prize in this part of the forest is the Upper Guinea endemic Gola Malimbe. The species was described by Wolters as recently as 1974 and is also known as Ballmann’s Malimbe. Dr Peter Ballmann (b.1941) is a German geoscientist studying fossils from Ivory Coast, one of which was amazingly the malimbe! The species occurs in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Ivory Coast and is classified as ‘Endangered’ by BirdLife International. Although there have been sightings in the other countries in the species range, it was only rediscovered in Sierra Leone as recently as 2007 and to this day the species remains little known. Habitat destruction appears to be the major threat as the bird seems to require primary forest, old secondary growth and only barely tolerates forests that have been logged.
From Lalehun we shall trek some nine kilometres into the forest and camp overnight near a favoured area for the malimbe. This beautiful species occurs at very low density and are usually only encountered deep inside the forest in pairs or family groups. We know the nesting areas well and we have an excellent chance of seeing during our visit. After spending one night camping in the forest we shall return the following day to Lalehun for another overnight stay.
More Upper Guinea endemics occur here and we shall be trying hard to see Brown-cheeked Hornbill, Timneh Parrot, Kemp’s Longbill, the glorious Buff-throated Sunbird and Copper-tailed Starling whilst inside the forest we aim to lure the ultra-skulking Green-tailed Bristlebill into view. If we are lucky we may see one or more of the more difficult species such as Blue-moustached Bee-eater or Lagden’s Bushshrike. During some stealthy searching along the forest trails we may encounter Latham’s Francolin (and there is even a slim chance for the secretive regional endemic White-breasted Guineafowl).
Other species to look for include Congo Serpent Eagle, Long-tailed Hawk, Crowned Eagle, Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo, Black-shouldered Nightjar, Narina Trogon, Blue-throated Roller, Chocolate-backed, Blue-breasted, African Dwarf and White-bellied Kingfishers, Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill, Piping, Black-casqued Hornbills and White-crested Hornbill, Hairy-breasted and ‘Western’ Yellow-billed Barbets, Brown-eared and Buff-spotted Woodpeckers, African Shrike-flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Wattle-eye, Blue-headed Crested Flycatcher, Western Nicator, Little Grey, Plain, Golden and Spotted Greenbuls, Swamp Palm Bulbul, Red-tailed Bristlebill, Lemon-bellied Crombec, Chestnut-capped Flycatcher, Tit Hylia, Yellow-browed Camaroptera, Rufous-crowned Eremomela, Blackcap and Brown Illadopsises, White-tailed Ant Thrush, Forest Scrub Robin, Fraser’s Forest Flycatcher, Forest Robin, Blue-throated Brown, Tiny, Johanna’s and Superb Sunbirds, Blue-billed and Crested Malimbes and White-breasted and Chestnut-breasted Nigritas.
Sierra Leone Birding Tour: Day 12 Today we will drive south to Tiwai Island in the middle of the Moa River, situated at the western edge of Gola West Forest Reserve, where we shall stay for three nights in a permanent tented camp surrounded by beautiful forest. We shall pass through habitat where we may find Lowland Sooty Boubou, Chattering Cisticola, Puvel’s Illadopsis and the secretive Capuchin Babbler and we should arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Sierra Leone Birding Tour: Days 13-14 Tiwai in Mende language means ‘big island’ and at 12 square kilometres (over 4 square miles) it is one of Sierra Leone’s largest inland islands. Over 135 species of birds have been found here and the forest is also known for its high concentration of primates that include Chimpanzees, the stunning Diana Monkey as well as Sooty Mangabey, Campbell’s and Spot-nosed Monkeys, King and Upper Guinea Red Colobus and the uncommon Olive Colobus. Even the extremely rare Pygmy Hippopotamus has been found here, although the chances of seeing this shy nocturnal creature during our short visit have got to be minimal!
During our stay we shall explore the river, where Egyptian Plovers often appear in the dry season and African Finfoot, Rock Pratincole and White-crowned Lapwing can all be found. Eight species of hornbill have been recorded on the island and we shall hope to add Black Dwarf Hornbill to our list. The regional endemics Fire-bellied Woodpecker, Red-billed Helmetshrike, White-breasted Guineafowl and Rufous Fishing Owl are all found here but seeing the guineafowl will demand a lot of luck! The same applies to seeing Olive Ibis, White-crested Tiger Heron or the colourful pulih race of African Pitta that favours the thick tangled undergrowth that predominates here. Recently local guides have discovered roosting sites for the Rufous Fishing Owl and we now have a realistic chance of seeing this rare bird. We first discovered Brown Nightjar here in 2008 and we shall be looking for this species again during our stay and there is also a chance of seeing Nkulengu Rail (usually ‘heard only’) at a roost.
Along the extensive trails and waterways we will search for many of the forest birds that occur in Sierra Leone and species that we are likely to encounter at Tiwai include White-faced Whistling Duck, Hartlaub’s Duck, Crested Guineafowl, Woolly-necked Stork, Hadada Ibis, Red-chested Goshawk, Black Sparrowhawk, African Fish Eagle, Black-throated Coucal, Blue Malkoha, Diederik Cuckoo, African Wood Owl, Sabine’s Spinetail, Malachite, Shining-blue and Pied Kingfishers, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Spotted Honeyguide, Blue Cuckooshrike, Chestnut-winged Starling, White-browed Forest Flycatcher, Mangrove Sunbird, Yellow-mantled and Maxwell’s Black Weavers, Red-headed Malimbe and African Pied Wagtail.
Sierra Leone Birding Tour: Day 15 After some final birding on Tiwai Island we will head for Freetown’s Lungi Airport, where the tour ends this evening.