SIERRA LEONE & MOUNT NIMBA, LIBERIA BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Sierra Leone & Liberia: Day 1 Our tour begins this evening at Monrovia where we will spend the night at a hotel on the edge of town. Airport transfers will be provided.
Sierra Leone & Liberia: Day 2 This morning we will head northwards on a good tar road to Mount Nimba, where we will spend the next five nights. This afternoon we will commence our exploration.
Sierra Leone & Liberia: Days 3-6 Mount Nimba is the highest mountain in Liberia and thanks to previous mining activities we can easily access all the habitats of Nimba and even drive right up to the summit!
In the 1960s and 19070s Mount Nimba was the focus of important, indeed ground-breaking ornithological studies. These took place before iron-ore mining badly damaged the summit area. The mining has now moved to other mountains and the vegetation has recovered to a degree, being part of the East NimbaReserve. The lowland forest in the area remains unprotected and is suffering badly, although some very rewarding areas remain.
It is in the interesting habitat around the summit of Mount Nimba 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 is very small and highly localized. It favours thickets, gallery forest and forest edge, particularly where disturbed by treefalls or fire. Interestingly, the nest is still not known. Mount Nimba is surely the easiest site to access this interesting Upper Guinea endemic as you can drive right to the area!
Another interesting bird of the summit area is the Grey-winged Robin-Chat, while more widespread inhabitants include Red-tailed Leaflove, Square-tailed Drongo, the nebularum form of the African Stonechat and Long-billed Pipit.
Lower down, in the mid-altitude zone, we shall be concentrating on the localized Upper Guinea-endemic Nimba Flycatcher.
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 Fire-bellied, Little Green and Melancholy Woodpeckers, West African Wattle-eye, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Western Bearded and Yellow-bearded Greenbuls, Sharpe’s Apalis, Kemp’s Longbill, Finsch’s Rufous Thrush, White-tailed Alethe and the glorious Buff-throated Sunbird.
Also in the forest are places 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. It is found in dense secondary undergrowth in swampy places, which can make access a little difficult but we stand a very good chance of finding this rare species at Mount Nimba.
Other birds to look for at Mount Nimba include Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle, Ahanta Francolin, White-spotted Flufftail, Western Bronze-naped Pigeon, Blue-headed Wood Dove, Guinea and Yellow-billed Turacos, African Emerald and Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoos, Black-throated Coucal, Blue-moustached Bee-eater, Naked-faced and Hairy-breasted Barbets, Speckled, Red-rumped and Yellow-throated Tinkerbirds, Yellow-spotted Barbet, Willcocks’s and Thick-billed Honeyguides, Rufous-sided Broadbill, West African Batis, Red-shouldered, Purple-throated and Blue Cuckooshrikes, Western and Black-winged Orioles, Many-coloured and Fiery-breasted Bushshrikes, Sabine’s Puffback, Lowland Sooty Boubou, Red-billed Helmetshrike, Shining and Velvet-mantled Drongos, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Blue-headed and Dusky Crested Flycatchers, Chestnut-capped Flycatcher, Dusky Tit, Tit Hylia, Slender-billed, Ansorge’s, Yellow-whiskered, Honeyguide, Golden, Icterine and Red-tailed Greenbuls, Swamp Palm Bulbul, Square-tailed Saw-wing, Grey Longbill, Lemon-bellied and Green Crombecs, Wood Warbler, Black-capped Apalis, Olive-green Camaroptera, Pale-breasted Illadopsis, Brown-chested Alethe, Lowland Akalat, Forest Scrub Robin, Little Grey Flycatcher, Fraser’s, Little Green and Tiny Sunbirds, Grey-headed Nigrita and Mountain Wagtail.
Higher up 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 & Liberia: Day 7 We must leave splendid Mount Nimba this morning and head for the border with Sierra Leone. The crossing is straightforward but time-consuming, as with so many bureaucratic things in West Africa!
After crossing into Sierra Leone we have a relatively short drive ahead to Tiwai Island, situated in the middle of the Moa River and at the western edge of Gola West Forest Reserve, where we shall stay for three nights surrounded by beautiful forest.
Sierra Leone & Liberia: Days 8-9 Tiwai in the 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 Rufous Fishing Owl and White-breasted Guineafowl are both found here but while the first is nowadays relatively straightforward, seeing the guineafowl will demand a lot of luck!
Additional specialities include Olive Ibis, White-crested Tiger Heron and the colourful pulih race of African Pitta that favours the thick tangled undergrowth that predominates here, although all usually require both persistence and good fortune.
We first discovered Brown Nightjar here in 2008 and we shall be looking for this species again during our stay. 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 interesting species that we are likely to encounter at Tiwai include Hartlaub’s Duck, Blue Malkoha, Sabine’s Spinetail, Shining-blue Kingfisher, Spotted Honeyguide, Chestnut-winged Starling, White-browed Forest Flycatcher, Mangrove Sunbird, Yellow-mantled and Maxwell’s Black Weavers, and Red-headed Malimbe.
More widespread birds include White-faced Whistling Duck, Crested Guineafowl, Woolly-necked Stork, Hadada Ibis, Red-chested Goshawk, Black Sparrowhawk, African Fish Eagle, Diederik Cuckoo, African Wood Owl, Malachite and Pied Kingfishers, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and African Pied Wagtail.
Sierra Leone & Liberia: Day 10 After some final birding at Tiwai we shall travel to Lalehun, the headquarters of the Gola Rainforest Park, for a three nights stay.
Sierra Leone & Liberia: Days 11-12 The formation of this new park that covers 71,070 hectares is the result of a 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 new Gola Rainforest Park which incorporates two different 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 the 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 this special bird during our visit.
After spending a 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 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 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, ‘Western’ Yellow-billed Barbet, Brown-eared and Buff-spotted Woodpeckers, African Shrike-flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Wattle-eye, Western Nicator, Little Grey, Plain and Spotted Greenbuls, Red-tailed Bristlebill, Yellow-browed Camaroptera, Rufous-crowned Eremomela, Blackcap and Brown Illadopsises, White-tailed Ant Thrush, Fraser’s Forest Flycatcher, Forest Robin, Blue-throated Brown, Johanna’s and Superb Sunbirds, Blue-billed and Crested Malimbes and White-breasted and Chestnut-breasted Nigritas.
One afternoon we shall visit an accessible Yellow-headed Picathartes (or White-necked Rockfowl) site. It is an 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 can be shy, so they may not stay long. Sometimes, however, they are rather unafraid and stay for longer.
We shall also pass through habitat where we may find Chattering Cisticola, Puvel’s Illadopsis and the secretive Capuchin Babbler and we should arrive in time for some initial exploration.
Sierra Leone & Liberia: Day 13 Today we shall drive northeastwards to Makeni for a two nights stay. We will break the journey in the Kenema area where a visit to some rice fields may produce Forbes’s Plover and Great Snipe as well as Little Egret.
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 & Liberia: Day 14 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, 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: Day 15 We will return to Freetown airport where our tour ends in the late afternoon. ‘s Lungi International Airport. Lungi, where we will spend the night, is situated on the opposite side of the Sierra Leone River to Freetown itself, so a water taxi service will ferry us across the river tomorrow.