Sierra Leone, 10th - 25th February 2017

Published by Charles Davies (daviesc1973 AT hotmail.com)

Participants: Charles Davies, Kenneth Gbengba

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Sierra Leone´s diamond wealth (and the long civil war) has perhaps led it to pass over the gems of the natural world found in the country, in particular its wealth of forests, monkeys and birds. The infrastructure for tourism is very limited and most of the rural roads are dirt rollercoasters, but there are plenty of good paved roads too between the country´s main cities. I jumped on the chance to visit once it became possible after the end of the ebola outbreak, and travelled with Kenneth Gbengba (factsfinding@yahoo.com, Tel: +232-7652-0122 or +232-7768-9774), who was born in the country and later returned after living many years abroad. I didn´t try travelling independently, but my guess is that it would be very difficult, as you´d have to negotiate case-by-case for transport and hotels, and probably waste a lot of time (at best) trying to work out how to access different sites, and getting permission to enter them from the right people.

I found when we arrived that Kenneth travels with two other team members – Omar, a tireless driver, and Masiri, who makes you think like you´re eating in a restaurant in the middle of the forest. Everywhere we’d travel around the country, they would constantly be encountering family and friends—in villages, in restaurants, even in police checkpoints.

10 February 2017—Freetown River 2 Trail

Kenneth, Omar and Masiri met me at the hotel in Freetown early in the morning, after I’d come in on an Air France flight the evening before. Freetown airport is in Lungi, across the bay from Freetown, so after you complete all the normal entry formalities, you have to factor in a couple of additional hours (including waiting time) for a boat to Freetown, and I´d ended up arriving quite late with not much time for sleep. As we didn´t have time to drive very far in time for morning birdwatching, we went nearby, close to a town called Aberdeen, to a trail along River Number Two. For the first and not only time during the trip, Kenneth pointed out the destruction compared to visits he´d made here in previous years, in this case because of the construction of high-end houses. Before, he said he´d used to bird forest along the road, but this forest was no more.

Trail 2 leads gradually uphill above the river through forest edge and what looks like secondary forest. We started to pick up some of the commoner forest edge birds, including a couple of African Thrush on the trail, a party of Violet-backed Starling, Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Gray-headed Bristlebill, Green Hylia and Gray Longbill, as well as a single Lesser Spot-nosed Monkey. White-throated Bee-eater is a migrant from the Sahel, and when in Sierra Leone is common in a wide range of habitats from open country and farms to the canopy of primary forest. Another spectacular bird that´s surprisingly common in Sierra Leone is the large Yellow-casqued Hornbill, you constantly hear their wingbeats and bleating above forest areas in the country. After turning around at the viewpoint as it was getting late, we met a small mixed flock including Western Black-headed Oriole and our first Upper Guinea endemic, a Little Green Woodpecker posing on a branch near the trail.

That was the birdwatching for the day, as the afternoon was spent on a 5-hour drive on a good paved road to Bo, Sierra Leone´s second city, and a night at the Sahara Hotel.

Checklist and photos: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34892484

11 February 2017—Tiwai Island

Leaving Bo before dawn, we drove east straight to Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary, on the western side of the famous Gola Forest. Tiwai is a very large island created by branches of the Moa River, covered by rich, flat lowland rainforest. Therefore, you have to cross one of the branches of the Moa River, and before crossing we enjoyed breakfast on the riverbank, watching Palm-nut Vultures, African Pied Hornbill (the other common hornbill in Sierra Leone), Red-eyed Doves, Great Blue Turaco and a pair of Egyptian Plovers that were about to land right next to us, then changed their mind and opted for another bay a bit further down the shore. Tiwai was the one place in the country where we encountered other tourists – not one but two other groups staying there at the same time as me – and we had to wait a bit as the boat was on the other side of the river with them when we arrived. Kenneth eventually arranged for one of the local canoes to take us across, and after crossing we both spent the morning walking the very confusing grid of trails on the island with a guide from the area. Tiwai is supposedly a good spot for the White-breasted Guineafowl, and while we failed to find any, our guide did spot some feathers, and there were plenty of groups of what he said was the main food, termites, which from time to time erupted into a kind of frenzied rattle that could be heard several metres away in the forest. We encountered few flocks as well, but met the edges of some with Blue Malkoha, Velvet-mantled Drongo, Honeyguide Greenbul, and close views of a male Sharpe´s Apalis (for once not in the treetops), as well as a pair of Fire-bellied Woodpecker. Some Spotted Honeyguide were calling on the way back (a rising trill almost identical to Scaly-throated) and after trying from different angles we eventually managed to spot one in the canopy. A small group of Swamp Greenbul was inhabiting an area dominated by palms just before we arrived at the lodging area for lunch.

The other folk took a rest in the early afternoon, while I tried to wring some blood out of the stone with a quiet afternoon walk, and was rewarded with stunning views of a Chocolate-backed Kingfisher perched on a branch just above the path, and fairly cooperative Blue-headed Crested-Flycatcher (a commonly heard species but extremely active and quite difficult to see), as well as a pangolin resting high in a tree (I tentatively identified as Long-tailed/Black-bellied by comparing the way the tail and scales look to other photographs, but I´m not quite sure).

Kenneth has organized a local contact to monitor Rufous Fishing-Owl at Tiwai for the past few years, and we took an afternoon boat ride to try to find one in a sheltered inlet quite near the park headquarters. Just crossing the river, there were plenty of Rock Pratincoles and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters (the latter another common migrant from further north in Africa) as well as Long-tailed Cormorant and African Pied Wagtail. It took us nearly no time to find a fishing owl, seeing it twice, but as it was perched right in the open, it flushed very quickly each time we showed up. The guide took me for a walk on land in an unsuccessful attempt to walk up to one more closely for a photo. Instead, I flushed a White-crested Bittern, which was a pleasant surprise for Kenneth, as he isn´t able to find this species in its former haunts near Freetown. Eventually, both Kenneth and the guide spotted the fishing-owl again, this time hiding behind some vegetation.

A short walk in the evening near camp produced a White-tailed Ant-Thrush as well as Dusky Crested-Flycatcher, and at dusk several Broad-billed Rollers were hawking above the headquarters. I´d been provided a tent on a covered, concrete platform, and walking there, you could see the eyes of countless tiny spiders in the leaf litter by the side of the trail. Closer to the platform, what looked like a web-casting spider was hanging upside-down. This one was camouflaged to look like a leaf and hanging from a branch – it was holding its web, and from time to time flexing and stretching it, between its front legs. Finally got to sleep with Tree Hyraxes and Galagos calling from the treetops nearby.

Checklist and photos: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34892971

12 February 2017

After enjoying our first night in the forest, breakfast was outside so we could watch as the first birds appeared. A Fire-crested Alethe, a common but fairly shy bird of the undergrowth, was singing quite high in a tree near the camp and a Tambourine Dove bombed across the clearing. Unfortunately, our guide didn´t show up, so Kenneth and I had to walk on our own, sticking to the main trail to the Primate Research Centre to avoid getting lost. It quickly became sunny and hot with few birds moving around but we had much more success with the monkeys for which Tiwai Island is famous, including groups of Sooty Mangabey, Diana Monkey and Western Red Colobus. As we arrived at the Primate Research Centre, a bizarre White-crested Hornbill was perched on the veranda – very appropriately as this species often follows monkey troupes. We later saw another that appeared to be following a party of Long-nosed Cusimanse (a type of social mongoose), although there were also monkeys nearby. This morning was good for hornbills, with a party of Piping Hornbill high in the canopy, and a quiet Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill in the midstorey on the walk back—it seemed to be on its own, although this species often joins mixed bird parties. Johanna´s Sunbird was nesting in a small, solitary mango tree in the middle of the Primate Research Station—the stripy female inside the nest, and the bright male perched above on top of the tree.

Took a quick rest after lunch in my red tent, trying not to disturb the speckled brown longhorn beetle that was resting on the flap (and would have been well camouflaged absolutely anywhere else), then did another solo walk in the afternoon (as always, without high expectations during the hot, slow period of the day). To avoid getting lost, I took the same trail back to the Primate Research Centre, then just before arriving, turned left on a long, straight trail with some more open forest giving good looks at the surrounding tall canopy trees. It turned out to be very good—some way down the trail a couple of Spotted Honeyguide were calling, as well as a Yellow-footed Honeyguide, which was a short way off trail, flying between some small trees at the edge of a clearing. A small group of Red-headed Malimbe and a lone Maxwell´s Black Weaver were working the branches high above. On the walk back, I finally managed to see two more of the common forest bulbuls—Little and Yellow-whiskered—and flushed a pair of Crested Guineafowl, one of which perched briefly in the top of a nearby tree.

Late afternoon was earmarked for a scenic boat ride up the Moa River, where I could sit down, relax and look at the beautiful scenery. Unfortunately, the same was not true for the boatman, who had a terrible job paddling upstream against the current, and as soon as we had turned around for the voyage back downstream, the wind suddenly picked up and was against us the whole way back. For much of the way, the river has pristine forest along its banks, and this has to be an important wetland (as well as a forest) area. Plenty of waterbirds were resting on the rocks and sandbanks, including a group of Spur-winged Goose, White-headed Lapwing, Senegal Thick-knee, Striated Heron, Hadada Ibis, and Spotted Sandpiper, and a group of Woolly-necked Stork soared overhead. An African Finfoot swam out of the vegetation almost as soon as we´d left the dock and we first saw it swimming then eventually waddling along the shore above the river. Mouse-brown Sunbird, White-browed Forest-Flycatcher and Malachite Kingfisher were flying around in the vegetation overhanging the river. We eventually ended the journey upstream and got out and walked around on a large sandbank dented by holes (Kenneth said these are made by tilapia burrowing their eggs in the wet season when the water is higher), with a large group of Bank Swallows flying around. A Hartlaub´s Duck flew downriver overtaking our boat at dusk on the return trip, and we had much better views of White-crested Bittern perched high in a tree by the river.

I´d told Masiri I was happy eating African food, and since it makes it easier to get the ingredients, I´m guessing I ate better as a result. Masiri apologized for dinner as she had not had much time to prepare it, but it was a real feast of fish and chicken with peanut sauce, and a selection of interesting boiled vegetables including bitter tomatoes and stumpy okra. There are even some good showers at headquarters here (although I had to ignore the large huntsman spider and nest of hornets that were sharing one corner). There was more invertebrate excitement near the tent, as the place of the web-casting spider had now been taken over by an extremely well camouflaged assassin bug – this type kills and eats ants, then piles the dead ant corpses on its back for camouflage.

Checklist and photos: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34894171

13 February 2017 — Tiwai to Gola East

The wind that had picked up on our boat ride home the evening before gathered strength during the night with rain and thunder. I´d meant to look for Brown Nightjar before dawn, but it was still damp and I only managed to find one very distant bird calling. The familiar morning agenda was to walk the trails around camp, we had to pass around some fallen trees. The day started well with nice views of a Forest Robin, after which it was dead quiet until almost midday, when we´d stopped at the Primate Research Centre for a rest on the walk back, and a small flock passed through with more malimbes, Yellow-mantled Weaver, Chestnut-breasted Nigrita, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird and Slender-billed Greenbul.

Saying goodbye to Tiwai after lunch, we made the short boat ride to the other side of the river and were greeted again by the pair of Egyptian Plover walking around the tires on the dock, then drove on a bad road to Gola East through a series of villages, seeing soaring African Harrier-Hawk and some open country birds—Black Kite, Pied Crow, Red-chested Swallow, Common Bulbul, Village Weaver and Pin-tailed Whydah. This drive includes a river crossing on a hand-pulled ferry, although a bridge is now under construction. There´s a small market on the riverbank and Masiri took the chance to stock up on food as we waited for the boat to arrive, and a beautiful White-throated Blue Swallow kept us company perching on the ferry during part of the ride across.

At Gola East, we met the rangers and were taken to stay in a guesthouse next to the forest. It looked well constructed but (like most of the other park accommodations we stayed at), the electricity and plumbing didn´t work—indoors was dark and creepy, but we opted to eat inside as we were plagued by flying ants whenever turning lights on outside (which was fairly necessary to avoid choking on a fishbone). Kenneth and I made a short evening walk along the main tarmac road, through forest, but the air was dense and heavy, very little was moving apart from hornbills, but we did see a puffy-throated pair of Western Bearded-Greenbul before returning to the guesthouse for half a fish and black-eyed beans.

Checklists and photos:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34894728 (Tiwai Island)
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34894821 (Villages between Tiwai Island and Gola North)
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34894940 (Gola East)

14 February 2017

The Gola East guesthouse is right by the forest and in the morning tons of African Green-Pigeon were sitting on the snags.

We made quite a long walk this morning along a small forest trail that eventually joined a larger, abandoned logging road. There was a lot more mixed flock activity than previously—one group contained a white, streamer-tailed African Paradise-Flycatcher, and our guide spotted a Blue-breasted Kingfisher perched low to the side of the trail. We finally managed to see a Bronze-naped Pigeon, which you hear often in forest areas of Sierra Leone, but are tough to pick out as they perch just below the canopy.

During the afternoon, we drove to the nearby town for more supplies, and came back with a live chicken in the back of the car, squawking every time we hit a bump on the road. One section of the road was decorated for a Valentine´s Day party and although the music had already started, it was still early with some of the local boys and girls sitting awkwardly on benches. We were still hoping to run into some White-breasted Guineafowl (which are possible here as well as Tiwai). Kenneth had a discussion with the park rangers about good spots and we eventually decided to visit the boundary trail; it travelled through a flat area with patches of bushy undergrowth, which Kenneth thought should be very good for this species. Unfortunately, it was hot and quiet again, so we decided to come back to the same spot the next morning.

Checklist and photos: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34895350

15 February 2017 — Gola East to Gola North

This was our last morning in Gola East, and we walked the same trail as the evening before. While in the end we failed in our attempts to find guineafowl, it was a lot more active and in the dim light early on we managed to spot calling Rufous-winged Illadopsis as well as a pair of Blue-headed Wood-Dove on a high branch, as well as a troupe of Western Pied Colobus. According to Kenneth and the ranger, this trail actually continues back to Tiwai Island (they said 125km or so), whereas we are much closer to Liberia in the other direction. We walked several kilometres into the forest, but it seemed that open areas were always close by, as we could hear a pair of Western Plaintain-eater, as well as an African Emerald Cuckoo perched overhead. As we rested before heading back, a furtive mixed flock moved through with Red-bearded Greenbul, Yellow-bearded Greenbul, Blue-billed Malimbe and Black-headed Paradise-Flycatcher, and we found a small group of Copper-tailed Starling feeding below the canopy on the long walk back.

Afternoon was spent on a terrible dirt road from Gola East to Gola North, just west of the Liberia border. The only stop was at a small marsh where Kenneth had seen Crimson Seedcracker a couple of weeks earlier. Unfortunately, the area had been disturbed and there was no sign of them, but we did see a couple of Simple Greenbul, and a Black Bee-eater flew into a small tree in the middle of the marsh.

Gola North has a very similar guesthouse on the edge of a village—again well constructed, but without lights or plumbing. The beds have mosquito net, although I never had to use them—there are tons of mosquitos in the bathroom but none showed the least desire to enter the bedroom and bite me. A track leads into the forest, and I was allowed to walk it on my own while Kenneth went to talk to the village officials and organize porters for a hike into the forest a couple of days later. The forest edge was very active here, with plenty of flowering trees as well as Olive-bellied, Variable and Western Olive Sunbirds, Speckled Tinkerbird, Gray Greenbul and small birds including Olive-green Camaroptera. I was even treated to a beer in the afternoon—everyone explained to me that while Sierra Leone is a majority muslim country, it´s a fairly relaxed place, and drinking is not taboo.

Checklists and photos:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34895583 (Gola East, morning)
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34897456 (small marsh between Gola East and North)
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34897621 (Gola North, late afternoon)

16 February 2017

As a tropical country, Sierra Leone has a 12-hour day, but the time zone is a bit off kilter, so the daylight runs from 7am to 7pm, if you set your alarm for 6am it´s still dark, in today´s case with a couple of Black-shouldered Nightjar singing from trees in the village.

The vehicle had started complaining about the roads, and Kenneth and Omar had to take it into town today to make some repairs and avoid problems later. Bobby, the regular community guide, was also sick, so I was grateful that Ibrahim, the caretaker, agreed to take me into the forest the whole day, and to a picathartes colony in the evening.

Things again started off completely dead until 9am, when the sun came out and mixed flocks started to appear. One clearing in the forest had some trees that were attracting large numbers of sunbirds, including some Collared, a Blue-throated Brown Sunbird and several Seimund´s Sunbirds. After spending a while there, a number of larger birds (perhaps a flock?) appeared: orioles, Hairy-breasted Barbet, several Honeyguide Greenbuls, a very cooperative Finsch´s Flycatcher-Thrush perching on an exposed branch, and a tiny, active Willcock´s Honeyguide. A pair of Black-casqued Hornbill flew through (one perching briefly above the trail), and a Blue-whiskered Bee-eater flew from near the trail into the lower part of a nearby dead tree, and a small group of Red-vented Malimbe were perched in another.

Lunch was next to a small stream in the forest, after which we continued slowly to the picathartes site, disturbing a pair (or small party) of Latham´s Francolin along the way, and encountering a flock including Narina Trogon (which confused me initially as the West African race has orange cheeks like Bare-cheeked).

About 5pm, we reached the picathartes colony—a massive boulder with some of the birds´ nests attached to the side. There are actually two good colonies in this area – the one I visited is the one closer to the village but is not where tourists normally go, as they´ve only recently cut a walkable trail there. While February is the dry season to visit in Sierra Leone, Kenneth had explained to me earlier that it´s not really the best time to see picathartes, compared with breeding season where individuals can be found at the colony throughout the day. We had to wait until quite late in the half-light until a number showed up, but they weren´t shy and jumped inquisitively between low branches and the ground at the base of the cliffs.

Checklist and photos: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34898117

17 February 2017

Although it was the dry season, we had more strong wind, heavy rain and thunder during the night, and were happy we were sleeping under a roof in the guesthouse rather than camping in the forest. Camping, however, was on the agenda for the following night, and we started with a short drive to a village where Kenneth organized a group of porters, then a bit further to some oil palm and coffee plantations at the edge of the forest where we started hiking a long, beautiful forest trail, starting through regrowth (with plenty of black ant columns), where we were surprised to see a group of three Brown-cheeked Hornbill. The campsite is a 9km walk, after a few kilometres you pass from the community land to the forest reserve, then cross 3 streams before arriving. It was early afternoon, and after eating lunch, we walked 1-2 km further to the area that is basically a stake-out for Ballman´s Malimbe. Interestingly, Kenneth is able to stake this bird out quite reliably in this area, even though it´s a forest bird and keeps to the top of tall trees. Indeed, we found our first good flock of the day within about 15 minutes of arriving in the area, at 2.30pm, and it included Crested Malimbe tending to a nest, and a beautiful male Ballman´s Malimbe rummaging in a clump of leaves high up next to a mossy trunk. Kenneth isn´t quite certain why the Ballman´s Malimbe are in this area and not elsewhere in Gola, his best idea is that it´s simply a remote area that´s never been logged.

The others headed back to camp after we found our main bird, but I continued walking the trails during the rest of the quiet afternoon. In the end I didn´t see anything until almost back to camp—a flock of greenbuls including Icterine Greenbul as well as Shining Drongo. Later on I was fortunate to get nice views of a scarce canopy species, Spotted Greenbul, bathing in the stream next to camp, then fetched a towel from camp and followed their example. We had heard very few cuckoos during the trip, and it wasn´t until after dark that a Red-chested Cuckoo and an Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo started up near the campsite. The weather was fortunately quiet compared to the preceding night, with just a little drizzle.

Checklist and photos: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34898694

18 February 2017

As soon as it was light enough, Kenneth and I started the long walk out so we would have a bit of time to look for birds along the way. In the first hour, we ran into several mixed greenbul flocks, as well as a group of smaller birds including West African Wattle-eye and Maxwell´s Black Weaver. Several Rufous-sided Broadbill, Forest Scrub-Robin and Pale-breasted Illadopsis were singing, but we failed to see any of them. A group of Red-billed Helmetshrike moved quickly through a tree above the trail, and were followed moments later by a Black Dwarf Hornbill, perching like a giant bee-eater. The car was having some problems and hadn´t arrived as we made it out of the forest, so we had to walk further through the blooming coffee trees, but we were eventually picked up and saw a few Square-tailed Sawwing flying around the village as we left.

Another bumpy drive to a town called Kenema for lunch, where Kenneth and Omar tried again to get the car fixed, and we ended up spending two and a half hours standing around in the lot of a mechanic´s store. After that, it was a tar mac road to Bo. We´d lost quite a bit of time trying to fix the car, and ended up having to stop at Yele, a junction town right in the centre of Sierra Leone. Fortunately, there was a guest house in town with space, although it was quite a hot place without a fan and loud music blaring most of the night, but we made up the sleep later on.

Checklist and photos: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34898995

19 February 2017 — Mamuta-Mayosso Wildlife Sanctuary

Mamuta-Mayosso Wildlife Sanctuary is a wetland reserve in the middle of Sierra Leone. Since we were in the area, we made a diversion (just over an hour each way) to visit it before moving on. The road in passed through some wooded savanna and scrub, and we already started seeing some new birds like Double-spurred Francolin, Senegal Coucal, Blue-bellied Roller, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Black-crowned Tchagra and Viellot´s Weaver (the beautiful West African black and chestnut race). Kenneth hadn´t been in touch with the rangers for some time, but we located them without too much trouble in the small village near the reserve Headquarters and two of them joined us for a walk around a small marsh. The trail down to the reserve passed through some more savanna with perched Gray-headed Kingfisher, soaring Grasshopper Buzzard, Red-rumped and Red-chested Swallows, Vinaceous Dove, Sulphur-breasted Bushshrike and Cabanis´s Bunting. A boardwalk and viewing platform had been constructed out into the marsh a few years earlier but had since fallen into disrepair, so we just followed a small easy path around the edge. It´s a small area but rich in waterbirds (of which we saw very few during the rest of my time in Sierra Leone): Little and Intermediate Egrets, Gray, Black-headed, Goliath and Squacco Herons, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Collared Pratincole, African Jacana, African Swamphen and a pair of Wattled Lapwing.

As it got hot, we left and continued the voyage to Kono town on a good tarmac road. This road has been constructed recently, Kenneth was delighted as it makes visiting the north-east of the country a lot easier compared to earlier when you had to drive another bumpy, dirt abomination. We were entering the main diamond-producing areas of the country, and Kenneth also talked about how rough it was (to put it mildly) when he spent time there as a kid. Stopped for lunch at a nice restaurant whose owner (like many others in Sierra Leone) is a big Barcelona fan—so we had a good conversation topic as I live in Barcelona—there was a small TV high up on the wall showing English football, so I put my binoculars to another good use watching Lincoln´s last gasp equalizer against Burnley. We were preparing to visit the Tingi Hills the next day, and had to spend the afternoon getting ready and paying a visit to the paramount chief, who Kenneth provided with some local customs. Kenneth thought there might be some more good marshes for Crimson Seedcracker near town, we tried in the evening, but they´d all been built over as the town expands. Birds in town included Hooded Vulture, which is now classed as Critically Endangered by BirdLife after a massive decline throughout Africa, but is happily still quite common in its original haunts in the grottier parts of towns and cities in Sierra Leone. This was Kenneth and Masiri´s home region, so they spent the evening with a busy series of family visits while I relaxed at Uncle Ben´s hotel, sitting in the restaurant area next to the hand painted sign “Fornication is not allowed here!”

Checklists and photos:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34898995 (Mamuta-Mayosso WS and nearby, morning)
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34914033 (Kono town, evening)

20 February 2017 — Tingi Hills

It´s normally a 3 hour drive to Tingi Hills from Kono on rough roads. We started off on the very first stretch with a flat tyre, which we dropped off at a local mechanics in a town at the first major junction and police checkpoint, where we made a left turn. Beyond here, it´s an interesting mix of forest, burned woodland and savanna country, and you also have a mix of forest birds—like a group of Naked-faced Barbet, Green Crombec, African Pygmy-Kingfisher and Western Nicator (often heard but much easier to see here than in the dense Gola Forest) and savanna species like Senegal Batis, Little Bee-eater, Northern Puffback, Northern Fiscal and Red-billed Firefinch. We stopped in one open area where Kenneth spotted a group of Emerald Starling at the top of a tree. Later on, we got out near a marshy area while Omar was crossing it on precarious wooden bridges and saw a pair of Cassin´s Honeyguide, Ussher´s Flycatcher, Western Violet-backed Sunbird, Black-winged Oriole and a very tame pair of Melancholy Woodpeckers exploring some small rotten branches.

After a few hours, we stopped at a small town called Kenewa surrounded by forest to meet with the area chief, then continued 5km or so more to the village where we were staying, called Koema. After a brief discussion, they gave us a nice spot to camp in a coffee plantation just above town, under a cotton tree. Apparently this used to be a traditional site to bury ancestors, and as I asked whether we were basically sleeping in a graveyard, Masiri pointed out that we were in good company as many people sleep in the graveyard in Freetown. The coffee farm was a pleasant camping spot, though, and although the coffee is processed off site, we could enjoy some birds including some Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike in the trees above while drinking our Nescafe.

In the evening we tried the road we´d just driven below town. Despite soon attracting a group of children to follow us, we were able to find Hamerkop, Red-necked Buzzard, Orange-cheeked Waxbill, and the attractive Vieillot´s Barbet, as well as two more Emerald Starling a bit closer this time. A Tit-Hylia looked very out of place in the burned woodland, constantly flicking its wings and tail as it foraged. We tried a bit of owling after dark (as Kenneth has heard Shelley´s Eagle-Owl here in the past)—ourselves heard a pair of African Wood-Owl, and flushed a Long-tailed Nightjar from the road on the drive back to camp.

Checklist and photos: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34914431

21 February 2017

The objective today was to reach a higher elevation where we could look for the Sierra Leone Prinia, and soon after light we started walking up the winding trail through the coffee plantation and above more steeply through open, overgrown farmland, following a river and eventually crossing it. Wintering songbirds, which had been mostly absent so far, were out in force here, and the bushes were teeming with Willow Warblers, with several European Pied Flycatcher and Western Yellow Wagtail as well. Swallows also liked the open country, including Lesser Striped-Swallow, Preuss´s Swallow and Fanti Sawwing perched on the snags, and we also saw Red-faced Cisticola (the first cisticola of the trip), African Yellow White-eye and Splendid Starling on the walk up, as well as a tiny Lemon-bellied Crombec up in the canopy of a bare tree.

Climbing up was hard work as the area had recently been logged, and we spent the whole time scrambling up over logs. After climbing for an hour or so, we reached a flatter area with a river. Kenneth said this had all been forest a couple of years ago, and was dismayed that much of it had now been cleared and turned into rough fields with some huts in between all the burned out, still-standing tree trunks. It was getting late and the forest was now quiet, but we saw a distant soaring pair of Cassin´s Hawk-Eagle, a single Sabine´s Spinetail flew over, and a Tree Pipit was perched in one of the dead trees. Despite the heat, we slogged on (our young local guide for the day cutting a trail in some places) until reaching an open area with burned out cane grass, which created a different challenge to pass through. This was inhabited by a small group of African Firefinch and a Red-faced (=Yellow-winged) Pytilia, but didn´t look like suitable habitat for the Prinia, and since it was getting late, we decided to head back to camp. Kenneth was especially demoralized as Tingi Hills is his local area, he´d hoped to develop it for tourism, but now realized he couldn´t do much to protect the forest, or to smooth out either the process (with the chiefs) or the terrain for tourists. As our exploration here did not look like it would be very successful, we decided to cut our losses as we still had just enough site to visit his more reliable site for the Prinia in the Loma Mountains. So we walked quickly down the hill, packed up and left, even rushing past a Striped Kingfisher on the way out in the savanna area we´d visited the previous day.

Unfortunately, after driving a short way, there was a bang and we found ourselves with a much more definite flat tyre. This was a problem, as our spare was being fixed about 30km further on in a town we had passed through. Kenneth and I decided to walk towards the next village, but we were lucky to be passed by a motorcycle after an hour so, which Kenneth sent to town to pick up the tyre. It took two or three more hours to make it there and back, so I passed the time walking through the burned woodland, picking up a Pale Flycatcher as well as a small group of Senegal Eremomela. The tyre eventually made it back and we were lucky not to pick up any more flats, so despite the slight delay we made it back to Kono for the night (with a much-needed cold beer, fish and chips) and could continue with the new plan.

Checklist and photos: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34914903

22 February 2017

Loma Mountains is another remote site, and Kenneth and Omar opted to take the direct route rather than driving half way back to Freetown to access the road they normally use. The direct route was a drive of several hours on a bumpy dirt road through farmbush and an endless series of villages, and we arrived in the mid afternoon to a friendly reception from the village chief and local staff from the National Protected Areas Administration (NPAA), who are quite used to tourists and researchers visiting this area. We had given absolutely no warning of our arrival and the two local guides that Kenneth normally uses were out of town, but nevertheless the head ranger Alosine and two strong local porters called Issa and Saul agreed to take me up the mountain and had everything ready within an hour.

The afternoon´s climb was to so-called Camp 1, and hike of 2.5 hours with a 600m elevation gain. My altimeter wasn´t calibrated with confidence, but I (roughly) estimated later the climb was from about 500 to 1100m. It´s a hot walk initially through fields, then later through the open forest, where the ankle-deep leaf litter and steep terrain slow you down, and after trying to follow Alosine´s breakneck pace for an hour or so, I ran out of steam and had to stagger up the rest very slowly. The walk made birdwatching nearly impossible, but we did hear a Greater Honeyguide as well as a nearby troupe of Chimpanzee. Camp 1 is by the side of a cool mountain stream, so there´s even a chance to wash, although it´s quite chilly up here after dark.

Checklist and photos:
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34915026 (Kono town, morning)
http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34915134 (Loma Mountains, afternoon)

23 February 2017

After (or in the middle of) another slightly frightening windy night in the forest, we got up at 4am to start the hike further up the mountain. It continued steep, and Alosine and the porters had to stop and discuss a few times to make sure they were on the right track in the dark, but it wasn´t as far as the previous day, and we made it to the edge of the grassland a little too early, by 6am (some kind of giant rat the only thing seen on route). As it doesn´t get light in Sierra Leone until 7am, we had to sit down, wait, and shiver a bit before it was daybreak and possible to move on further. Now we could see the high peak of the Loma Mountains only a few kilometres ahead of us, had a view of the cliffs on another part of the range next to us across a deep valley, the village and flat area we´d hiked up from, and the patchwork of forest and grassland on the mountain slopes near us. Right at dawn, a Bat Hawk flew briefly above one of these forest patches a few times before continuing and disappearing from view. We flushed a couple of coveys of Ahanta Francolin, and African Stonechats, Common Waxbill, Gosling´s (=Cinnamon-breasted) Bunting were all present in the rocky grasslands, together with migrants including a smart male Eurasian Blackcap. It took quite some time to find the prinia, which wasn´t around in the spot where Alosine had seen it last, and we had to continue further uphill (I estimate to 1450m) until we heard a small group calling from the forest edge. These prinia are a quite different type of bird to Tawny-breasted—the ones we saw were in a group mostly in bushes and small trees in the forest edge (rather than the grassland), they have short tails that are normally held horizontal not cocked, so look a bit more like an apalis.

I´d agreed to meet Kenneth back in the village at 2pm and it was now getting a bit late so we walked quickly down the hill. I´d asked earlier about Black-capped Rufous-Warbler, and both Kenneth and Alosine recognized the call. In the end, there only looked like one area of suitable habitat, a muddy stream we crossed on logs between Camp 1 and the higher grassland, and since it was daylight on the way back down, I waited for a while and eventually a male started calling nearby, frustratingly staying low in the dense vegetation next to the stream, and moving constantly.

We´d hoped the roads would be slightly better on the way out, but they were just as terrible as the day before. After more endless hours of bumping around, we reached the tarmac road, it was only 2 hours more to the big town of Makeni, and the relief of a bed and some air con.

Checklist and photos: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34915439

24 February 2017

We wanted to visit one last site before returning to Freetown, near a town called Bumbuna an hour east of Makeni. Although we were pretty fed up with dirt roads, it was only an hour and a half each way, and I didn´t want to miss a morning in the savanna. Setting off early from the hotel (with a Shikra and Lizard Buzzard perched on the telegraph wires in front), we reached Bumbuna while it was still fairly cool. After days in the forest, it felt like cheating to see the savanna birds perching out in the open, including African Golden Oriole, Siffling Cisticola, Red-winged Prinia, migrant Whinchat, Bush Petronia and Yellow-fronted Canary. Another group of Emerald Starling were perched in the top of a dead tree, and joined a few seconds later by a male Togo Paradise-Whydah in full breeding plumage. After a short drive back to Makeni for lunch, we continued down the good tarmac road to Freetown (joining the road between Freetown and Conakry part way along), and sat in some Freetown traffic for an hour or so before reaching the hotel.

Checklist and photos: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34915678

25 February 2017

I was flying out of Sierra Leone this afternoon, and the airport for Freetown is on the other side of the bay from the city, so you have to take a boat to get there. It left very little time for birdwatching, so we decided just to visit the nearby Freetown Golf Course to try to catch up on a couple of species (Turati´s Boubou and Crimson Seedcracker) that we´d had no luck with so far. Sadly, neither appeared—a lot of bushes had been cut down to clear space around the edge of the courses, or perhaps they were just taking a day off. Still, we were very happy to find a number of singing Oriole Warblers, as well several other new birds for the trip: Black Heron, African Palm-Swift, Woodland and Pied Kingfishers, African Gray Woodpecker, Brown-throated Wattle-eye, Melodious Warbler, Black-necked Weaver and Bronze Mannikin.

It was now time to say a sad goodbye to Sierra Leone. Now one of the most accessible countries in West Africa, I´d love the chance to come back. While driving back to the hotel, it was encouraging to see the good condition of Lumley Beach and all the joggers — including foreigners, men and women — with no police in sight. But as some of the locations “up-country” are a bit more challenging, I´m grateful to Kenneth, Omar and Masiri, as well as everyone we met along the way, for making my first trip to the country so enjoyable.

Checklist and photos: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S34915891

Species Lists

Hartlaub´s Duck--1 flying downriver at Tiwai Island
Spur-winged Goose--about 35 (Tiwai and Mayuto-Mayoso (MM))
Crested Guineafowl--2 (Tiwai)
Double-spurred Francolin--4 (MM)
Ahanta Francolin--6 (Loma) and 6 heard (Gola East and Tinggi Hills)
Latham´s Francolin--2 (Gola North) and heard Tiwai
Woolly-necked Stork--10 (Tiwai and Tinggi Hills)
Long-tailed Cormorant--14
Hamerkop--1 (Tinggi Hills)
White-crested Bittern--2 (Tiwai)
Gray Heron--2 (MM)
Black-headed Heron--2 (MM and Freetown)
Goliath Heron--1 (MM)
Intermediate Egret--8 (MM)
Little Egret--3 (MM)
Black Heron--6 (Freetown)
Cattle Egret--50
Squacco Heron--4 (MM)
Striated Heron--2 (Tiwai and Tinggi Hills)
Black-crowned Night-Heron--6 (MM)
Hadada Ibis--5 (Tiwai and MM)
African Harrier-Hawk--12
Palm-nut Vulture--14
Hooded Vulture--1 (towns)
Bat Hawk--1 (Loma)
Cassin´s Hawk-Eagle--2 (Tinggi)
Lizard Buzzard--1 (Makeni)
Grasshopper Buzzard--1 (MM)
Shikra--2 (Makeni and Freetown)
Black Kite--30
Red-necked Buzzard--4 (Tinggi Hills and Loma Mts)
African Swamphen--1 (MM)
White-spotted Flufftail--1 heard (Tiwai)
African Finfoot--1 (Tiwai)
Senegal Thick-knee--2 (Tiwai)
Egyptian Plover--2 (Tiwai)
White-headed Lapwing--1 (Tiwai)
Wattled Lapwing--2 (MM)
African Jacana--about 30 (MM)
Common Sandpiper--6 (Tiwai)
Collared Pratincole--6 (MM)
Rock Pratincole--25 (Tiwai)
Bronze-naped Pigeon--1 seen (Gola East) and about 30 heard at various sites
Red-eyed Dove--50
Vinaceous Dove--15
Laughing Dove--5 (Freetown)
Blue-spotted Wood-Dove--10 seen 15 heard
Tambourine Dove--11 seen about 60 heard
Blue-headed Wood-Dove--2 seen (Gola East) and 5 heard
African Green-Pigeon--about 30 seen and 12 heard
Great Blue Turaco--8 seen 2 heard
Guinea Turaco--16 heard
Yellow-billed Turaco--6 heard (Gola only)
Western Plantain-eater--2 heard (Gola East)
Black-throated Coucal--6 heard
Senegal Coucal--3 seen 3 heard
Blue Malkoha--7
Klaas´s Cuckoo-4 heard
African Emerald Cuckoo--1 seen (Gola East) 11 heard
Dusky Long-tailed Cuckoo--1 heard (Loma)
Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo--1 heard (Gola North)
Red-chested Cuckoo--2 heard
Rufous Fishing-Owl--1 (Tiwai)
African Wood-Owl--3 heard (Tiwai and Tinggi)
Black-shouldered Nightjar--2 heard (Gola North)
Long-tailed Nightjar--1 (Tinggi)
Sabine´s Spinetail--1 (Tinggi)
Little Swift--2 (Kono)
African Palm-Swift--15 (Freetown)
Narina Trogon--1 seen (Gola North) and 3 heard
Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill--3 (Tiwai, Gola North and East)
African Pied Hornbill--about 45
White-crested Hornbill--3 (Tiwai)
Black Dwarf Hornbill--1 (Gola North)
Black-casqued Hornbill--2 (Gola North)
Yellow-casqued Hornbill--about 40
Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill--1 (Gola East)
Brown-cheeked Hornbill--3 (Gola North)
Piping Hornbill--17 (Tiwai and Gola East)
Malachite Kingfisher--1 (Tiwai)
African Pygmy-Kingfisher--6
Chocolate-backed Kingfisher--3 seen 16 heard
Gray-headed Kingfisher--8
Woodland Kingfisher--1 (Freetown)
Blue-breasted Kingfisher--1 (Gola East)
Striped Kingfisher--1 (Tinggi Hills)
Pied Kingfisher--2 (Freetown)
Black Bee-eater--1 (en route Gola East to Gola North)
Blue-moustached Bee-eater--1 (Gola North)
Little Bee-eater--10 (Tinggi and Loma)
White-throated Bee-eater--about 65
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater--about 35
Blue-bellied Roller--1 (MM)
Broad-billed Roller--10
Naked-faced Barbet--8 (Tinggi)
Speckled Tinkerbird--7 seen 6 heard
Red-rumped Tinkerbird--1 seen (Tinggi)
Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird--3 seen
Tinkerbird sp--many heard
Hairy-breasted Barbet--1 (Gola North)
Vieillot´s Barbet--3 seen 4 heard (Tinggi Hills)
Cassin´s Honeyguide--2 (Tinggi Hills)
Yellow-footed Honeyguide--1 (Tiwai)
Willcock´s Honeyguide--1 (Gola North)
Spotted Honeyguide--1 seen (Tiwai) and 5 heard
Greater Honeyguide--1 heard (Loma)
Little Green Woodpecker--5
Buff-spotted Woodpecker--3
Melancholy Woodpecker--3 (Tinggi Hills)
Fire-bellied Woodpecker--2 seen (Tiwai and Tinggi) and 1 heard
African Gray Woodpecker--2 (Freetown)
Rufous-sided Broadbill--4 heard (Gola North)
Brown-throated Wattle-eye--4 seen (Freetown) and 5 heard
West African Wattle-eye--5 (Gola North and Tiwai)
Senegal Batis--2 (Tinggi)
Red-billed Helmetshrike--7 (Tiwai and Gola North)
Northern Puffback--5 (Tinggi and Freetown)
Sabine´s Puffback--6 heard
Black-crowned Tchagra--4 seen 4 heard
Sulphur-breasted Bushshrike--2 (MM and Freetown)
Red-shouldered Cuckooshrike--4 (Tinggi)
Northern Fiscal--3 (Tinggi)
African Golden Oriole--1 (Bumbuna)
Western Black-headed Oriole--6 seen 11 heard
Black-winged Oriole--1 (Tinggi)
Shining Drongo--5 (Gola North)
Velvet-mantled Drongo--18 (Tiwai and Gola)
Velvet-mantled/Fork-tailed Drongo (Tinggi)
Blue-headed Crested-Flycatcher--3 seen (Tiwai) and about 30 heard
Black-headed Paradise-Flycatcher--9
African Paradise-Flycatcher--1 (Gola East)
Pied Crow--about 45
White-necked Rockfowl--5 (Gola North)
Western Nicator--1 seen (Tinggi) and 8 heard
Bank Swallow--35
Barn Swallow--5 (Tinggi)
Red-chested Swallow--7 (villages near Gola)
White-throated Blue-Swallow--1 (hand-pulled ferry between Tiwai and Gola East)
Red-rumped Swallow--19
Lesser Striped-Swallow--10 (Tinggi)
Preuss´s Swallow--7 (Tinggi and Loma)
Square-tailed Sawwing--7 (Gola North and Tinggi)
Fanti Sawwing--18 (Tinggi and Loma)
Dusky Crested-Flycatcher--1 (Tiwai)
Slender-billed Greenbul--2 (Tiwai and Gola North)
Gray-headed Bristlebill--2 seen (Freetown) and 22 bristlebill sp heard
Simple Greenbul--about 20
Honeyguide Greenbul--10 seen 25 heard
Spotted Greenbul--3 bathing in a river (Gola North)
Swamp Greenbul--15 seen 5 heard
Red-tailed Greenbul--5
Western Bearded-Greenbul--3 seen (Gola East and North) and 11 heard
Yellow-bearded Greenbul--4 seen (Gola East and North) and 1 heard
Gray Greenbul--6 (Gola North)
Yellow-whiskered Greenbul--3 seen 25 heard
Little Greenbul--7
Icterine Greenbul--4 (Gola North)
Common Bulbul--about 110
Green Crombec--3 (Tinggi)
Lemon-bellied Crombec--1 (Tinggi)
Gray Longbill--6 seen 17 heard
Green Hylia--6 seen about 50 heard
Tit-hylia--1 (Tinggi Hills)
Willow Warbler--about 25 (Tinggi)
Melodious Warbler--2 (Freetown)
Sharpe´s Apalis--7 seen about 20 heard
Green-backed Camaroptera--1 seen (Tinggi) 2 heard
Olive-green Camaroptera--2 seen 4 heard (Gola North)
Sierra Leone Prinia--4 (Loma Mountains)
Red-faced Cisticola--1 (Tinggi)
Siffling Cisticola--1 (Bumbuna)
Oriole Warbler--3 (Freetown)
Black-capped Rufous-Warbler--1 (Loma)
Tawny-flanked Prinia--5
Red-winged Prinia--1 (Bumbuna)
Senegal Eremomela--4 (Tinggi)
Eurasian Blackcap--1 (Loma)
African Yellow White-eye--4 (Tinggi)
Brown Illadopsis--8 heard
Blackcap Illadopsis--2 seen 2 heard (Gola East)
Pale-breasted Illadopsis--2 heard (Gola North)
Rufous-winged Illadopsis--1 seen 2 heard(Gola East)
Pale Flycatcher--1 (Tinggi)
Ussher´s Flycatcher--1 (Tinggi)
White-browed Forest-Flycatcher--4 (Tiwai)
Fire-crested Alethe--6 seen 25 heard
Forest Scrub-Robin--6 heard
Forest Robin--1 seen (Tiwai) 2 heard
European Pied Flycatcher--5 (Tinggi and Loma)
Whinchat--2 (Bumbuna)
African Stonechat--3 (Loma Mountains)
Finsch´s Flycatcher-Thrush--6 seen 20 heard
White-tailed Ant-Thrush--3 (Tiwai and Gola East)
African Thrush--17 (Freetown)
Violet-backed Starling--25
Copper-tailed Starling--10 (Gola East)
Splendid Starling--2 (Tinggi)
Emerald Starling--10 (Tinggi Hills and Bumbuna)
Mouse-brown Sunbird--9 (Tiwai)
Western Violet-backed Sunbird--1 (Tinggi)
Seimund´s Sunbird--10 (Gola North)
Collared Sunbird--1
Western Olive Sunbird--10 seen 25 heard
Olive-bellied SUnbird--4 (Gola North and Tinggi)
Johanna´s Sunbird--4 (Tiwai and Gola East)
Variable Sunbird--about 40
Copper Sunbird--2 (Bumbuna)
Western Yellow Wagtail--about 10 (Tinggi Hills)
African Pied Wagtail--4 (Tiwai)
Tree Pipit--1 (Tinggi)
Gosling´s Bunting--6 (Tinggi and Loma)
Cabanis´s Bunting--2 (MM)
Yellow-fronted Canary--1 (Bumbuna)
Northern Gray-headed Sparrow--10
Bush Petronia--2 (Bumbuna)
Ballman´s Malimbe--1 (Gola North)
Red-vented Malimbe--2 (Gola North)
Blue-billed Malimbe--2 (Gola East and North)
Crested Malimbe--1 (Gola North)
Red-headed Malimbe--6 (Tiwai)
Black-necked Weaver--20 (Freetown)
Vieillot´s Weaver--about 20 (black and chestnut race)
Village Weaver--about 50
Yellow-mantled Weaver--3 (Tiwai and Tinggi)
Maxwell´s Black Weaver--3 (Tiwai and Gola North)
Chestnut-breasted Nigrita--4 (Tiwai and Tinggi)
Orange-cheeked Waxbill--1 (Tinggi)
Common Waxbill--12 (Loma)
Red-faced Pytilia--1 (Tinggi)
Red-billed Firefinch--11
African Firefinch--6 (Tinggi)
Bronze Mannikin--10 (Freetown)
Pin-tailed Whydah--about 20
Togo Paradise-Whydah--1 male (Bumbuna)
Indigobird, prob. Jambandu--1 (Tinggi)

Western Tree Hyrax--10 heard
Prince Demidoff´s Galago--2 seen many heard
Diana Monkey--over 10 (3 groups) (Tiwai and Gola East)
Lesser Spot-nosed Monkey--6
Sooty Mangabey--over 5 (2 groups) (Tiwai)
King (=Western Pied) Colobus--over 5 (1 group) (Gola East)
Red Colobus--over 10 (2 groups) (Tiwai)
Chimpanzee--heard (Loma)
Striped Ground Squirrel--about 25 (most along roads)
Green Bush Squirrel--1 (Gola North)
other unidentified squirrels and a giant rat sp (Loma)
Pangolin photo´d at Tiwai, I thought Long-tailed by comparing photos, other possibility is White-bellied
Long-nosed Cusimanse--over 6 (2 groups) (Tiwai)