The Ultimate In Birding Tours

Africa

SIERRA LEONE

Thursday 7th January – Thursday 21st January 2021

Leaders: Mark Van Beirs and Kenneth Gbengba

15 Days Group Size Limit 7

SIERRA LEONE: OVERVIEW

Birdquest’s Sierra Leone birding tours explores a country that has only recently started to register on the bird watching map. Our Sierra Leone birding tour offers some marvellous frontier African birding, being rich in West African specialities, including many Upper Guinea Forest endemics, among which is the splendid Yellow-headed Picathartes or White-necked Rockfowl. Just as importantly, there is a suite of charismatic species currently not seen on any other of our tours, such as Sierra Leone Prinia, Black-headed Rufous Warbler, Turati’s Boubou, Emerald Starling, Gola Malimbe, Crimson Seedcracker and Togo Paradise Whydah with also a real chance for the rare and little known Rufous Fishing Owl.

Sierra Leone with its beautiful white sandy beaches washed by the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean is a small country (a former British colony) in West Africa that lies sandwiched between Guinea and Liberia. The capital city of Freetown is situated at the northern end of a mountainous peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. The city was founded in 1792 as a resettlement for former slaves from Nova Scotia and it has had a colourful history ever since.

For the birdwatcher, its prime interest is its situation at the western end of the Upper Guinea Forests Endemic Bird Area. These forests, sadly now a shadow of their former glory as they have been fragmented by large-scale logging activities throughout the region, stretch eastwards to Nigeria. Those birders wishing to see most of the specialties and endemics of West Africa have to visit several of the finest of the surviving forests and in Sierra Leone, an interesting but relatively small country we have a marvellous opportunity to explore the Loma Mountains National Park, Gola Rainforest National Park and Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary in search of numerous Upper Guinea specialities, including a number that are hard or impossible to see on bird tours elsewhere in West Africa.

Over 640 species have been recorded in Sierra Leone and 14 restricted-range species occur here that are strictly endemic to the Upper Guinea Forests EBA, while around 20 more can only be found in forested countries from here to the Nigerian/Cameroonian border areas. Sierra Leone is a particularly exciting destination for those interested in Upper Guinea Forest endemic birds. The country offers more of these specialities and better chances for many of these birds than does, for example, Ghana, but the road and accommodation infrastructure here is less developed, so travel here is much more of an adventure. The rewards of birding in Sierra Leone include some rarely seen species and the chance to make real ornithological discoveries.

During our journey through Sierra Leone we will travel through a variety of habitats including coastal mangrove, lowland farm bush, secondary and gallery forest, granitic inselbergs, scattered hills and mountains and ultimately the closed-canopy evergreen forests of the southeast and the Gola Forest.

Our adventurous Sierra Leone birding tour begins at Lungi, where the Freetown International Airport is situated. From here we will head northeastwards to the town of Makeni, our base for exploring the savannahs at the base of the Sula Mountains at Bumbuna. Here we will have a good chance of finding the exquisite Emerald Starling and the restricted range Turati’s Boubou. We shall also be looking for the impressively tailed and parasitic Togo Paradise Whydah and also its pretty little host, the Yellow-winged Pytilia. Other granivorous birds here include Dybowski’s Twinspot, Magpie Mannikin and Crimson Seedcracker.

Next we continue to the Loma Mountains where in the grasslands above the forest we shall be looking for Sierra Leone Prinia, a species that despite its name is not actually endemic to the country but whose range does not extend within reach of any of our other tours. This area cannot be reached by road so we will be camping in this beautiful region. In the fine forests near our camp we will also look for Black-headed Rufous Warbler and other Upper Guinea endemics such as Yellow-casqued Hornbill, Melancholy and Little Green Woodpeckers, Finsch’s Flycatcher-Thrush, Sharpe’s Apalis, White-tailed Alethe, Grey-headed Bristlebill and Western Bearded and Yellow-bearded Greenbuls whilst there is a good chance for rarities such as Rufous-winged Illadopsis and Lowland Akalat.

Heading east to Kenema we have an excellent opportunity to see that most peculiar of all the Western African endemics, the Yellow-headed Picathartes or White-necked Rockfowl where the birds are usually readily seen even during the non-breeding season.

During our Sierra Leone birding tours’s visit to Gola Central, we shall penetrate deep into the Gola Rainforest National Park. Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has actively been helping in the protection and conservation of this beautiful forest that still harbours a healthy population of picathartes and we will visit another colony if necessary. The rare Green-tailed Bristlebill occurs here and other specialties we will be looking for include Brown-cheeked Hornbill, Fire-bellied Woodpecker, Red-cheeked Wattle-eye, Kemp’s Longbill, Ussher’s Flycatcher, Forest Scrub Robin, Red-billed Helmet-shrike, Copper-tailed Glossy Starling and Buff-throated Sunbird. The, ultimate prize here is the striking Gola Malimbe, a relatively unknown species. It was only recently reliably rediscovered in 2007 in a remote and relatively inaccessible part of Gola Forest where we have an excellent chance of seeing it for ourselves.

Our last location will be Tiwai Island, situated in the Moa River. Here, in the protected forest, primates abound, the rare Pygmy Hippopotamus can be found although it is only rarely seen and even the secretive White-breasted Guineafowl inhabits the forest although we would need much luck to see this difficult species. The wonderful Egyptian Plover is usually present at this time of year and there is a real chance of being able to locate a Rufous Fishing Owl.

Birdquest has operated Sierra Leone birding tours since 2008.

Kenneth Gbengba is Sierra Leone’s top birding guide by a wide margin. Kenneth has pioneered birding tours in his country and has an unrivalled knowledge of where to find Sierra Leone’s key bird specialities. If you go with Kenneth you can be confident you are with the country’s leading bird guide. He is also great company and has a grasp on logistics that one really learns to appreciate in remote parts of West Africa!

Accommodation and Road Transport:  The hotel at Lungi is of good standard. In most locations we will stay in simple or basic guesthouses, although with private bathrooms. On Tiwai Island we will stay in a permanent tented camp with shared bathroom facilities. In the Loma Mountains and Gola Forest we will spend our nights in simple tented camps set up by our local outfitters. Road transport is by 4×4 vehicles. Roads are highly variable in quality, ranging from good to bad.

Walking: The walking effort during our Sierra Leone birding tour is generally easy or moderate, although in the Loma Mountains there is a shallow river to cross and the climb to the base camp is more difficult, being about 6 kilometres and often fairly steep. The following day we will start in the dark and climb for about 4 kilometres up a trail that is steep in places to reach the grasslands in the Loma Mountains in order to see the Sierra Leone Prinia. The walk to the Gola Malimbe campsite in Gola Central is 9 kilometres (5.6 miles), but on an easy trail.

Climate: It will be hot and humid. At this season there is mainly dry weather, although there is always the possibility of rain at any time. At this time of year the Harmatan wind usually blows south from the Sahara, reducing temperatures.

Bird Photography: Opportunities during our Sierra Leone birding tour are worthwhile.


PRICE INFORMATION

Birdquest Inclusions: Our tour prices include surface transportation, accommodations, meals and entrance fees.

We also include all tipping for local guides, drivers and accommodation/restaurant staff.

Deposit: £400, $520, €450.

TO BOOK THIS TOUR: Click here (you will need the tour dates and deposit amount)


2021: provisional £3750, $4690, €4120. Freetown/Freetown.

Single Supplement: 2021: £320, $410, €360.

The single supplement will not apply if you indicate on booking that you prefer to share a room and there is a room-mate of the same sex available.

This tour is priced in US Dollars. Amounts shown in other currencies are indicative.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency will be pleased to arrange your air travel on request, or you may arrange this yourself if you prefer.

SIERRA LEONE BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY

Sierra Leone: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: Day 15  After some final birding on Tiwai Island we will head for Freetown’s Lungi Airport, where the tour ends this evening.

SIERRA LEONE TOUR REPORT 2019

by Mark Van Beirs

View Report

SIERRA LEONE TOUR REPORT 2018

by Nik Borrow

View Report

Other Western Africa birding tours by Birdquest include:

Golden

Africa

SENEGAL

The

Europe & Surroundings

WESTERN SAHARA