Saturday 26 April 2003

CAMEROON 2003: Korup, Kupe and Mt Cameroon (12-26 April)

Introduction: Nick Preston and I wanted to see a picathartes and the most feasible destination to do so, without going on an expensive tour, seemed to be Korup National Park in Cameroon where a nest/roost site could be visited. Barry Stiddolph and Ian Mills were keen too and we started planning a trip over Easter. We decided to restrict ourselves to two main areas, Korup and Mt Kupe, reluctantly deciding that fitting in the Bamenda Highlands was a bit ambitious in the time we had. Nick contacted Wildsounds who used CamTours to provide introductory letters for visa applications, sorted out our transport arrangements and arranged a top birding guide (Kennedy) for Korup. Nick got wind that Dave Pitman would be in Cameroon with a small group at the same time as us and we decided to team up for our two weeks in the south. We benefited from a few economies of scale with vehicle hire and guides although we saved more by sorting out accommodation when we arrived at it rather than booking it beforehand. Being at the end of the ‘birding season’, as was necessary due to the timing of Easter and the School holidays, we had no difficulty staying where we wanted. With Dave were Rob Hunt, Ken Hardy and Mick Thomas. All but Rob went out a week before us to visit northern Cameroon and were to join us after we had arrived at Korup. Rob was another teacher and came out with us. This blog gives a rough impression of the trip but with hardly any photos (and none of birds) and notebook entries that are little more than daily speecies lists it is based on more sketchy memories than usual.

12 April. Nick, Barry, Ian, Rob and I flew from Heathrow to Douala via Paris. We were met by our driver, loaded into a minibus and taken to Buea, near Mount Cameroon a little over two hours drive away. We arrived at the Presidential Flat Hotel, somewhat above the town centre, as the light was fading. We had seen very few birds on the journey, 3 Striped Kingfishers and 3 Grey Parrots being the best I managed.

13 April. After an early look around the hotel gardens and breakfast we drove to Mundembe where we birded around the Iyaz Hotel. Shining Blue Kingfisher, a surprisingly smart Cassins’ Flycatcher and Chattering Cisticola were new for me and we also saw 4 Palm Nut Vultures, 80 Little Bee-eaters, 25 Grey Parrots, 3 Harrier-hawks and 250 Yellow-billed Kites. There was a certain amount of preparation to be done for our four-night visit to Rengo Rock Camp in Korup. To be honest more needed doing than we had anticipated - after all we were not the first group to be taken to stay there and we had assumed our guide would know how much food would be needed and what was available there, leaving us to decide how much of our gear we would need and what could be left in storage at the hotel. Barry quickly stepped into the breech and took command of sorting much of it out, our experience buying supplies for the Lake Habbema trek 10 years earlier proving invaluable.

14 April. With our guide and support crew we were driven to the edge of Korup National Park. The road ended by a wide river which formed the park’s eastern boundary. We birded around the river without seeing too much, 2 Rock Pratincoles on boulders in the river and an African Pygmy Kingfisher in a palm plantation being best. We crossed the river on a high suspension bridge and once in the park were immediately into superb primary forest. It was an 8 km walk to Rengo Rock where we would be staying for four nights. Very tall trees with a high canopy let in little light making photography impossible and birding very difficult although we came across an ant swarm with an attendant Fire-crested Alethe and taped out a singing Forest Robin. We also glimpsed some hornbills and saw 6 Great Blue Turacos and Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher. Rengo Rock camp comprised a few huts in a small clearing and we set up mosquito nets on the veranda of one of them. There were few birds visiting the clearing and towards the end of the day, with a feeling of increasing anxiety and expectation we walked to Picathartes Knoll, about 2 km away on increasingly indistinct trails. Once there we sat quietly concealed among the boulders in sight of the nesting cliff. Several old nests were visible but none were occupied although they were used to roost in. As the light started to go first one then two Red-headed Picathartes appeared giving excellent views as they jumped around on the boulders and visited the cliff face. A superb species and an ambition realised, we floated back to camp as the light faded.

looking across to the National Park
Nick crossing the bridge
some of our crew heading into the forest
what it was all about, Red-headed Picathartes
15-17 April. We had three full days birding in Korup but never had the chance to revisit Picathartes Knoll. Dave, Ken and Mick arrived and had first crack at picathartes but it was very wet the first evening and none came in. They tried successfully the next evening and we were all set to return on our last evening when, on the way to the knoll we met a group of Rockjumper leaders on a very successful recce trip. We rather reluctantly left them to it as it would have been a squash for us all to remain concealed and the birds might not then have come in. Some of the time at Korup we were birding together but when we became familiar with the trails we did so more often on our own. This was generally fine but at one point the trail diverted around a fallen tree and associated tangle. The route was clear heading out but easily missed on the return. Most of us became slightly disoriented at least once at this point but it was more serious for Ken who didn’t return one evening. When it was clear Ken wasn't delayed a search party of guide and porters went out to find him. We were told not to join in for fear of us becoming lost too. We waited anxiously and they eventually found him two hours later. He had missed the trail and by the time he realized was unable to find his way back. Rather than becoming more lost he found a boulder to sit on and waited and listened, calling every few minutes. Quite a relief when he finally heard the searchers. Birding was excellent at times but there were long periods of inactivity and daily species lists were low (40 being my best). Highlights for me were Rufous-sided Broadbill (a male displaying above the trail for 30 minutes), Bare-cheeked Trogon, Blue-throated Roller and a superb White-spotted Flufftail I enticed into view by recording its song and playing it back, earlier attempts with a recording from the West African CD set having been of no interest - it sounded different even to me. I also saw White-thighed, Yellow-casqued and Black-casqued Hornbills, Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill, Palm-nut Vulture, Sabine’s Spinetail, Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush, Fraser’s Forest Flycatcher, Pale-breasted Illadopsis, Crested Malimbe and Chestnut-breasted and White-breasted Negrofinches. Some of the others saw a Chocolate-backed Kingfisher but sadly it eluded me.
the river at Korup
Rengo Rock
18 April. We were up before dawn hoping for an owl around the clearing but only heard a distant and unresponsive African Wood Owl. While it was still dark an amazingly loud call started nearby and the Rockjumper crew belted off towards it, having identified it as a Nkulengu Rail. It was still almost pitch black but they detected a slight movement low in a nearby tree and immediately spotlighted it. I’m not sure if I was more impressed with the bird of their skill in locating it, but they had more than repaid our giving up repeat picathartes views the previous evening. On the walk out we encountered a better ant-swarm seeing 8 Fire-crested and a Brown-chested Alethe, White-tailed Ant-Thrush and Lesser and Red-tailed Bristlebills but getting bitten a few times in the process. We also saw Western Nicator, 3 Forest Robins, Blackcap Illadopsis and Grey Longbill. At the river we saw 5 Rock Pratincoles, 100+ Grey Parrots, Giant Kingfisher, more hornbills, White-throated Blue Swallow and Black, Cassin’s and Sabine’s Spinetails. We were met at the river and taken back to the Iyaz Hotel in Mundemba seeing Blue Cuckoo-Shrike nearby.

19 April. Mainly a travel day, we were driven from Mundemba to Nyasoso where we were to stay for 5 nights in the Nyasoso Guesthouse. Birds seen on the journey and during several stops included Cassin’s Hawk Eagle, Great Blue Turaco, White-throated Bee-eater, Long-legged Pipit, Yellow-browed Camaroptera, Bate’s Paradise Flycatcher and, as we were driving up to Nyasoso with the light beginning to go, a Long-tailed Hawk flew across the road.

20 April. Our first day based at the Nyasoso guesthouse was mostly spent on Max’s Trail which ascended Mount Kupe quite steeply in places. It passed through some productive patches of forest and was an excellent introduction to the area's montane species. I saw 17 new species including a superb male Grey-headed Broadbill, female Bar-tailed Trogon, 3 Yellow-billed Turacos, 3 Black Bee-eaters, African Piculet, 3 Forest Swallows, 2 Bocage’s Akalats, White-tailed Warbler, Black-winged Oriole and 4 Little Olivebacks. Of Mount Kupe Bush-Shrike there was not a sniff but Bakossi, where we were going the next day, was a better site.
Max's Trail, Mt Kupe
21 April. To visit Bakossi one had to obtain permission from the village headman. This was arranged in advance but still involved some hanging around and then a moderately short ‘ritual’ where he was presented with a bottle of whiskey and some money. There might have been more to it than this but if so it passed me by. With permission duly obtained we walked across some fields and up onto a forested ridge. I saw 8 White-throated Mountain Babblers, White-bellied Robin-Chat, male Bar-tailed Trogon, 2 Black-capped Woodland Warblers and on the walk back a very nice male African Broadbill. Eleven new birds made it a good day but we had not found the hoped for Mount Kupe Bush-Shrike which we were told most previous groups visiting this year had seen.

22 April. We spent all morning on the nature trail at Mount Kupe although my thoughts kept wandering back to Bakossi. It was generally rather quiet with little seen that we had not already encountered during the trip, making me wish more that we had gone straight back there. At one stage I left the others to retrace my steps back to the road while they continued to meet the vehicle and then picked me up on the way back. I was pleased to wander back on my own, being in a straggling group of 8 wasn't entirely to my liking, although I didn’t see anything different and missed Tit-Hylia in the process. Later we visited the farm bush on the lower slopes of Mount Kupe. Although I saw more species than any other day of the trip (over 70) it was perhaps our most disappointing day. Other than 4 Black Bee-eaters, 2 Chestnut Wattle-eyes and a Red-necked Buzzard little was seen that was memorable.

23 April.  A return to Bakossi where we heard a Mount Kupe Bush-Shrike call once. We hurried to the area it had called from but heard nothing further and could not find it. Disappointing. We were told that Cameroon had been a very popular birding destination this year with over a dozen groups having been to Bakossi. We rather feared that the birds had become tape shy although maybe being a bit later in the season they had settled down and were not defending territories from intruders?. We had no better luck with Crossley’s Ground Thrush which we hoped might be singing, a possible contender flushed up from the path the closest I came. Despite this it was a good day with male Bar-tailed Trogon, Green-breasted Bush-Shrike, Black-shouldered Puffback, White-bellied Robin-Chat, White-throated Mountain-Babbler and Red-faced Crimsonwing although all were blown away by an absolutely superb male Yellow-bellied Wattle-eye. Nick had seen a couple and was raving about them but I had only had poor views until now and rather dismissed his enthusiasm. Seeing one really well I could fully understand how good it was, right up there with the broadbills vying for second place behind picathartes in the bird of the trip stakes

view from Bakossi
24 April.  A morning at farm bush before leaving Nyasoso to drive to Buea where we had spent our first night. We finally found a Bristle-nosed amongst the Naked-faced Barbets but neither species had much to recommend them. We also saw African Piculet, Yellow-billed Turaco, Yellow-throated Tinkerbird and Black-capped Apalis. We spent the evening discussing the best option to access Mount Cameroon the following day.

25 April.  We left our hotel before dawn, drove up Mount Cameroon as far as possible past the prison – it still looked a long way away to the tree-line - and started walking uphill as it was getting light. The trail was fairly easy to follow, just rather steep in places, and we made steady progress, stopping frequently to look at birds or take a rest. Mount Cameroon is over 13,000 feet high and reaching the summit is usually regarded as a three day round trip for most visitors. We only had a day on the mountain but only really needed to go as high as was necessary to find Mount Cameroon Speirops although in the event we made it to just above the tree line. It was a tiring day but generally enjoyable, especially coming down! We had to go almost to the tree-line for good views of the Speirops which were excellent (I saw 8). I also saw 4 Cameroon Olive Pigeons, 6 Mountain Saw-wings, 12 Mountain Robinchats, an Evergreen Forest Warbler, 8 African Hill Babblers (looking very much like an Asian equivalent), 10 bright Yellow-breasted Boubous, 10+ Little Olivebacks, 4 Oriole Finches and, when we were almost back at the vehicle, 2 Red-chested Flufftails calling from long damp grass that were eventually enticed into view.

lower slopes of Mt Cameroon

near the tree line
26 April.  Our final day and we left Douala early to drive east to the Sanaga River. Here we quickly found 30 brilliant Grey Pratincoles, our main target. Nine Hartlaub’s Duck on roadside pools were better than expected and we also saw African Finfoot, White-fronted Plover, 2 White-crowned Lapwings, 10 African Skimmers, 30 White-throated Bee-eaters, Giant Kingfisher, 10 Piping Hornbills, 1000 Preuss’s Cliff Swallows, Red-headed Quelea and Slender-billed and Orange Weavers. It soon started to heat up making it easier to drag ourselves away to returned to the airport and fly home. I had seen the birds I had most wanted to - Red-headed Picathartes, two new Broadbills and two new Trogons - making it a successful trip but it had been hard work and, with the exception of Bakossi and Mount Cameroon, bird densities had been low. The travel arrangements made by Wildwings worked well and the company, and in particular Nick, Barry and Ian, was great.

[blogged September 2016]