Sierra Leone - 3rd - 24th February 2013

Published by Duncan Orr-Ewing (duncan.orr-ewing AT rspb.org.uk)

Participants: Duncan Orr-Ewing and Gareth Fisher

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Background

In February 2013, Gareth Fisher and I spent 3-4 weeks in northern Sierra Leone, carrying out surveys for emerald starling (a data deficient species). We worked with Papanie Bai Sesay of the Conservation society of Sierra Leone for most of the visit, but also latterly with Momoh Bai Sesay. We also recorded all other birds that we saw with a particular focus on Palearctic migrants to contribute to wider RSPB/BTO conservation efforts for declining UK/European breeding bird species. Our work programme built on initial survey work carried out by my colleague John Bowler, and his wife Janet Bowler, from 22 February to 18 March 2012.

Our work was focussed in 3 main survey areas in central and northern Sierra Leone, namely Bumbuna, Kabala and the Outamba/Kilimi National Park. In the last week of February Gareth Fisher was also able to visit suitable habitats for Emerald starling in the Tingai Hills area after the departure home of Duncan Orr-Ewing. We did not visit the south of the country including the Gola Forest and Tiwai Island, which are known for their Guinea Forest bird specialities. On the 23 February, my last day in Sierra Leone, we made a brief and successful visit to the Guma dam area south of Freetown to see white necked rockfowl.

We both flew with British Airways direct flight from London Heathrow to Freetown Lungi International airport at a cost of £820 return. The timings of these flights are good given the location of the airport across a large estuary away from Freetown.

Upon arrival in Sierra Leone we were collected by 4WD at Lungi International Airport and took the car ferry to Freetown. The Nissan Pathfinder 4WD was hired from ODX Car Center, 19 Morgan Street, Freetown. The car was driven by the excellent Salieu Korona Bagura. We paid $150 USD per day in cash for the vehicle, driver and his accommodation/subsistence. Fuel was an additional cost but was significantly cheaper than in the UK at around 1 USD per litre. The vehicle had no breakdowns during our visit and therefore proved extremely reliable. The roads around Freetown and Makeni are good, however outside these areas the roads rapidly deteriorate and we spent most of our time on tracks. The road to Kamakwie and Kilimi is particularly poor, despite being one of the main routes into neighbouring Guinea, with the added bonus of a chain ferry across the Little Scarcies River!

In Freetown, we stayed a couple of nights at the overpriced ($80 per night) and pretty unfriendly Hotel Africanus near Congo Cross. In Bumbuna we stayed at the friendly and cheap Debe Relaxation Lodge on Magburaka Road. In Kabala, we stayed at the welcoming and relatively cheap Sengbeh Guesthouse, 4 Shaw Road, Yogomaia. In Outamba National Park we stayed in basic park lodges and in the Kilimi part of the National Park in a local house used by park staff as rental accommodation in Saigna. Both of the latter places were also cheap and clean.

The weather was very hot and humid, with temperatures of over 35 degrees after about 11 am each day. Bird activity drops off significantly after 11 am and it did not really become much more active later in the day except in riparian areas.

We took 2 additional 20L cans of fuel with us. Fuel is reliably available in Freetown, Makeni and Magburaka, however in Kabala fuel supplies ran out for a couple of days during our stay there. We found fuel at Kamakwie, en route to Outamba, but on our return through the town the filling station had no fuel. Bumbuna did not have a petrol station. Syphoning gear and funnels for fuel cans are required.

We took a kerosine camping stove which we used to cook many of our meals. We bought supplies at Monoprix in Freetown and Adnans Supermarket in Makeni. We took large amounts of bottled water (over 50L), but continually needed to buy more water where available. De-hydration given the temperatures and humidity was a serious issue. We used puri-tabs to purify well water and found this supply to be fine in Bumbuna and Kabala. At Outamba there is only water from the Little Scarcies River. In some places, we gave our rice and other supplies to local women who then cooked meals for us (typically rice and meat or fish soup). Bananas and some fruit (grapefruit!) were readily available.

We found the country to be very safe in all places. In our work areas there were still signs, such as burnt out houses, of the civil war that took place in the 1990s. During our stay the president, his excellency, Ernest Bai Korona was sworn in for another 5 year term of office and political stability looks good.

Survey methods

We were using standard survey methodology devised by RSPB Conservation Science. This involves 5km point counts along roads and 400 metres either side of the road, recording all birds for 15 minutes. On walking transects distances for point counts are reduced to 1 km and on shorter tracks by car to 2 km. If emerald starlings are detected then the clock stops and behaviour of birds and habitat usage are recorded. We also took habitat details and photographs at each point count and GPS readings.

Itinerary

3 February; Arrival. We met with CSSL staff at their offices at Congo Cross. We stayed at the nearby Hotel Africanus.
4 February; We bought supplies and fuel. We arranged permit for Outamba Kilimi National Park with Ministry of Forestry. We had time for a very brief visit to Freetown estuary at Lumley for 1 hour birdwatching
5 February; We departed at 5 am for Bumbuna via Makeni and Magburaka. We did some point counts at the Magburaka end of the Magburaka/Bumbuna road. Arrived mid afternoon at Bumbuna and booked into Debe Relaxation Lodge.
6 February; We carried out fieldwork northeast of Bumbuna along Bendugu Road.
7 February; We carried out fieldwork southwest of Bumbuna along the Makeni Road.
8 February; We carried out fieldwork southeast of Bumbuna along the Bassaia Road.
9 February; We carried out point counts at the Bumbuna end of the Bumbuna/Magburaka Road. Drive to Kabala. Stay in Sengbeh Lodge.
10 February; We surveyed south of Kabala between Makakura and Kondembaia.
11 February; We surveyed area between Kondembaia and Yara.
12 February; We surveyed east of Kabala along the Koinadugu raod.
13 February; We surveyed north of Kabala along the Falaba road.
14 February; We travelled via Makeni to Outamba National Park. Stayed in National Park accommodation, huts near Little Scarcies river.
15 February; We surveyed from Outamba camp along Kamakwie road to Little Scarcies ferry.
16 February; We surveyed from Outamba camp heading west along Little Scarcies River.
17 February; We surveyed across the river from Outamba camp heading up to viewpoint (Elephant track).
18 February; We drove to Saigna, Kilimi section of Outamba Kilimi National Park picking up some more count points along the road. We stayed in local accommodation at Saigna provided by park ranger.
19 February; We surveyed central section of Kilimi NP.
20 February; We surveyed marsh track in Kilimi NP.
21 February; We surveyed track in community forest just outside Kilimi NP
22 February; We surveyed south of Saigna along Kamakwie road to Outamba entrance track. Return to Freetown via Kamakwie and Makeni
23 February; We spent the afternoon at Number 2 river on Freetown peninsular and the later afternoon at Guma Dam.
24 February; DOE took the Sea Coach from Aberdeen to Lungi at 7.30 am. DOE returned to UK on mid morning flight from Lungi International Airport to London Heathrow and onward connection to Edinburgh.
25 February; GF travelled to Tingai Hills.
26/27 February; GF/CSSL carried out emerald starling surveys in Tingai Hills.

Principal sites

Freetown

From the car ferry terminal and car ferry from the Lungi International Airport across the Freetown, we saw western reef heron, palm nut vulture, hooded vulture, shikra, black sparrowhawk, grey plover, whimbrel, common sandpiper, sanderling, sandwich tern, royal tern, 1 gull-billed tern, lesser striped swallows and broad billed roller.

In the limited grounds of the Hotel Africanus, we saw common West African species including grey headed woodpecker, variable sunbird, green headed sunbird, western grey plantain-eater., African thrush and red-billed firefinch.

On a brief visit to Lumley on the peninsular end of Freetown for 1 hour before dusk, we saw many wading birds including marsh sandpiper, spotted redshank and curlew sandpiper. A rose-ringed parakeet was a first for me for Africa, albeit a non native one!

Bumbuna

Bumbuna is situated on the edge of the Sula mountains. It has a mixture of savannah woodlands, gallery forest and secondary forest scrub. There is some good gallery forest near the impressive Bumbuna Falls.

We recorded emerald starlings in reasonable numbers, mostly close to Bumbuna, but along all of our daily survey routes. We recorded good numbers of melodious warblers, some reed warblers and whinchats amongst other European migrants.

We also noted other species in generally small numbers as follows; helmeted guineafowl, double spurred francolin, Hartlaub’s duck (2), osprey (1), European honey buzzard (1), black winged kite, western marsh harrier (2), African marsh harrier (1), red-necked buzzard, Ayre’s hawk eagle (1), long crested eagle (1), crowned eagle (2), grey kestrel, African hobby (1), lanner falcon, rock pratincole, vinaceous dove, yellowbill, Levaillant’s cuckoo, Klaas’s cuckoo, plain nightjar (2), sabine’s spinetail, African black swift (out of range), blue breasted kingfisher, little bee-eater, black scimitarbill, piping hornbill (1), speckled and yellowthroated tinkerbirds, cassin’s honeybird (4), wryneck, grey headed bush-shrike, lowland sooty boubou (1), Turati’s boubou (2), red-shouldered cuckoo-shrike, western nicator, Cameroun sombre greenbul, yellow-whiskered greenbul, Baumann’s greenbul (at Bumbuna waterfall), white-throated blue swallow, Preuss’s cliff swallow, green crombec, simple and yellow-throated leafloves, plain martin (out of range), green hylia, short winged and black backed cisticolas, Sierra Leone prinia (pair in gallery forest scrub along Bendugu Road), chiffchaff (out of range) Sharpe’s apalis, Senegal eremomela, forest penduline tit (4) (out of range), blackcap and brown babblers, little green, olive-bellied, splendid, copper and blue-throated brown sunbirds, red-vented malimbe, grey headed negro-finch, yellow winged pytilia, Dybowski’s twinspot, Jambandu Indigobird and cinnamon-breasted bunting.

Kabala

The habitats around Kabala vary from savannah woodlands through to gallery forest along the many river courses. Towards Lake Sonfon the topography is more hilly.

We recorded good numbers of Emerald starlings, notably along the road to Lake Sonfon, but also daily along all survey routes. We also recorded pied flycatchers, whinchats, yellow wagtails and some willow warblers in reasonable numbers.

We noted the following other species; red-thighed sparrowhawk, Ahanta francolin (2), woolly necked stork (1), Hadada ibis, dwarf bittern (brilliant views of one bird), white-backed vulture (1 Kabala),western marsh harrier, Ovambo sparrowhawk (1), grey kestrel, peregrine (1), black crake (1), green sandpiper (1), great blue turaco, Levaillant’s cuckoo, Klaas’s cuckoo, plain nightjar (1), mottled swift (2), Alpine swift (1), white-rumped swift, African pygmy kingfisher, yellow casqued wattled hornbill (1), speckeld and yellow-rumped tinkerbirds, Willcock’s honeyguide (1), buff-spotted and cardinal woodpeckers, Senegal batis, white crested helmetshrike, black crowned and brown crowned (2) tchagras, tropical boubou, white breasted and purple throated cuckooshrikes, little grey, Ansorge’s, yellow-whiskered, golden, white-throated, red-tailed and Honeyguide greenbuls, red-tailed leaflove, Preuss’s cliff swallow, red faced, singing and whistling cisticolas, oriole warbler, Puvel’s illadopsis (1), capuchin babbler (4), copper tailed starling, forest scrub robin, nightingale, snowy crowned robinchat, pale and little grey flycatchers, blue billed malimbe, grey headed negrofinch, Dybowski’s twinspot, Jambandu indigobird, Togo paradise wydah, plain backed and tree pipits.

Outamba

We saw a few emerald starlings mostly close to Outamba camp but not across the Litlte Scarcies River. The area was also good for pied flycatcher in particular. The habitats comprise of extensive savannah woodlands and mostly flat landscapes with some hills. Gallery forest extends along the Little Scarcies river.

Other birds recorded include; Ahanta francolin, Hartlaub’s duck (2), osprey (1), European honey buzzard (1), African fish eagle, white-backed vulture (1), dark chanting goshawk (2), red thighed sparrowhawk, black sparrowhawk, grasshopper buzzard, tawny eagle, cassin’s hawk eagle, African finfoot, Egyptian plover (from Little Scarcies ferry 2 and on boat at Outamba camp crossing river 1), Guinea turaco, Klaas’s, Levaillant’s African emerald and black cuckoos, African wood owl (h), standard winged nightjar, Abyssinian roller, chocolate-backed kingfisher, blue-cheeked bee-eater, green woodhoopoe, black scimitarbill, yellow casqued wattled hornbill, speckled, red rumped and yellow throated tinkerbirds, Willcock’s honeyguide, black and white shrike flycatcher, white-crested helmetshrike, many coloured and sulphur breasted bushshrikes, Turati’s boubou, white breasted, red shouldered and purple throated cuckooshrikes, Honeyguide and white throated greenbuls, grey headed bristlebill, grey rumped and white throated blue swallows, red faced, whistling and croaking cisticolas, yellow breasted apalis (out of range), oriole warbler, Puvel’s illadopsis, yellow bellied hyliota, spotted creeper, lesser blue eared and bronze tailed starlings, white-browed forest flycatcher, cassin’s and lead coloured flycatchers, collared, Johanna’s and brown sunbirds, grey headed negrofinch, grey headed oliveback, yellow winged Pytilia, Dybowski’s twinspot, Jambandu indigobird, Togo paradise wydah, and Cabanis’s bunting.

Kilimi

We saw no Emerald starlings at Saigna and Kilmi. We saw some birds on the route north near Fontonia. In Kilmi pied flycatchers and willow warblers were common in the woodlands. On the wetlands yellow wagtails and whinchats were very common also. The main habitat here is savannah woodland with some gallery forest and wetlands. Deforestation for logging purposes and hunting for bushmeat were found to be serious problems at this site. Local park staff have no resources to combat (eg. no vehicle). Due to the proximity to Guinea most of the problems appear to originate (although not exclusively) from the other side of the border.

Other birds seen at Kilimi include; Ahanta francolin, squacco heron, black headed heron, African fish eagle, white backed vulture, western marsh harrier, dark chanting and African goshawks, red thighed sparrowhawk, grasshopper buzzard (10), tawny eagle, Cassin’s hawk eagle (4 between Outamba and Kilimi. Brood on the wing?), long crested eagle, grey and common kestrels, African hobby, peregrine, Guinea turaco, black coucal (1), plain nightjar, mottled swift, Abyssinian roller, chocolate backed kingfisher, little, blue cheeked and European bee-eaters, black scimitarbill, grey hornbill, double toothed barbet (1), Willcock’s honeyguide, fine spotted woodpecker, Turati’s boubou (common), white breasted cuckoo-shrike, golden and Honeyguide greenbuls, grey headed bristlebill, pied winged swallow, moustached grass warbler, red faced, singing, croaking, short-winged, black backed and whistling cisticolas, oriole warbler, yellow browed cameroptera, blackcap illadopsis, chiffchaff (out of range), yellow bellied hyliota, spotted creeper, bronze tailed starling, western violet backed sunbird, pygmy and blue throated brown sunbirds, yellow mantled widowbird, Togo paradise wydah, and Cabanis’s bunting.

No 2 Beach and Guma Dam, Freetown Peninsula

We had a couple of hours on the last day and visited No2 beach and Guma Dam. At No2 beach we recorded 1 Caspian tern with the Royal terns roosting on the beach.

At Guma Dam we had great views of 2 white-necked rockfowls. We also noted blue crested flycatcher, slender billed greenbul and Finsch’s flycatcher thrush.

In total we recorded about 315 bird species. We also recorded the following mammals; chimpanzee (heard Outamba), calothrix monkey (Bumbuna), olive colobus (Kabala), olive baboon (Outamba), western pied colobus (Outamba), sooty mangabey (Outamba), hippopotamus (Outamba), ground and tree squirrels. We also recorded two snakes, one a cobra sp.

Emerald starlings

We saw emerald starlings daily in Bumbuna, Kabala and Outamba areas. The road from Kabala to Lake Sonfon was particularly good for the species. No emerald starlings were seen at Kilimi or in the Tingai Hills. We have gathered extensive data on emerald starlings, which are now the subject of RSPB Conservation Science/CSSL review and analysis. We expect this data to contribute to a peer reviewed paper in due course.

We noted that emerald starlings are arboreal. We did not see any birds on the ground, although John Bowler did observe these birds during his March visit foraging on the ground on burnt areas of savannah woodland. They often mix and forage with other starling species notably violet backed starling. We saw emerald starlings feeding on nectar and eating flowers, notably from trees known locally as “locust” and “toothbrush” trees, as well as cottonwood. We saw emerald starlings mostly in savannah woodland habitats, where there has been some human activity and fragmentation of the habitats, and apparently less undergrowth. They often use tall trees to signal their presence/territory with high perching behaviour. The emerald starlings use contact calls to attract other birds to food sources indicating social behaviour. There may be an altitudinal aspect to emerald starling distribution with most birds that we saw at slightly higher elevations. Some inference may be drawn from other bird species that we have recorded in areas with emerald starlings to help define their habitat preferences more closely. It is clear that they do have a restricted distribution and that you can quickly move between apparently suitable and unsuitable habitats, although the reason for starlings selecting one area and apparently avoiding another is not immediately not clear without more detailed habitat analysis.

Some of their savannah forest habitat is under threat from woodland clearance for agriculture and mining development, notably around Bumbuna. In Kilimi National Park and the surrounding area we noted widespread logging of selected savannah woodland trees apparently for use in Guinea but also for export to China. We also gather from local contacts that deforestation in Guinea is widespread and this activity may therefore be threatening parts of the species’ previously known range.

Useful contacts

Papanie Bai Sesay,
Conservation Society of Sierra Leone,
18-B Becklyn Drive,
Off Main Motor Road
Congo Cross
PO Box 1292
Freetown

Momoh Bai Sesay
As above momoh4birds@yahoo.com

Saidu Balley Sesay
c/o Outamba Kilimi National Park
Kilimi North
Saigna
saiba@yahoo.com

Duncan Orr-Ewing/Gareth Fisher
March 2013