08 April 2015

A Taste of Mount Cameroon

Mark Robbin's enthusiasm was palpable. We waited for the car to arrive, calling out birds at the hotel. Common Bulbuls sang from the surrounding vegetation, Chattering Cisticolas called from the undergrowth, and Village Weavers paraded past with their palm fronds towards their favorite nesting tree. It was Mark's first time in Cameroon, and it was clear that he had been dreaming of visiting these mountains since he was my age. We birded every second until our friend, Moses, drove up to take us to the trailhead for the Guiness Tract forest of Mt. Cameroon.

Mt. Cameroon as seen from Buea
Mt. Cameroon on a clear day from Buea. We birded the forest below the grassy upper slopes. (For those of you wondering, treeline is ~8,000 feet (2,000 meters) and the summit around 14,000 feet (4,000 meters)!

It was both of our first times birding the massif, and though Mark was crazy about seeing his first Afromontane birds, I was almost equally excited about birding the tropics with Mark for the first time. Ever since I was young, I had been reading about tropical bird expeditions in which he had been involved, and now I was part of one. His knowledge regarding the world's avifauna was obvious from our discussions, and I was extremely interested in seeing his unique perspective on the birds of the region. That is, if I could keep up with him. From the outset, Mark was almost running up the cinder-strewn trails of the mountain, eager to get as high in elevation as possible before our early-morning deadline to return. I felt like an anchor constantly dragging him back, getting caught up in the lower-elevation holarctic migrants as he sought out the endemic residents. We soon fell into a good birding pace, covering an extensive section of the mountain and spying some excellent montane species.

The farm fields at the beginning of the trail were surprisingly productive. A male Whinchat foraged in the furrows, while Western Yellow Wagtail and Tree Pipits flushed from the trail before us. The scattered scrub held weavers, nesting Yellow-billed [Black] Kites and cooperative pairs of Yellow-breasted Boubous.

Saxicola rubetra (Whinchat)
Whinchat foraging on the lower slopes of Mt. Cameroon, Cameroon.

As we progressed up the mountain into the thicker forest, two things became abundantly clear: the Afromontane birds were amazing, and the amount of human disturbance in the forest on this side of the mountain was amazingly high. The trail was one of the most well-used trails I have ever used anywhere, and a constant stream of mountaineers and hikers was heading up and down the mountain at various stages in their trips. Birds were frequently flushed by large groups of people moving around, and farms and selective logging were evident in many areas. We were informed that the forest was in better shape further up the mountain and in other regions, but we were still amazed at the number of people.

Despite this, we were graced with a non-stop parade of amazing birds. Gray-green Bushshrike sang from thick submontane forest, Evergreen-forest Warblers skulked along the sides of the trails, and families of Chubb's Cisticolas betrayed their presence with their boisterous songs. Even the areas that possessed farms and logging were productive, providing more open habitat for Shelley's Olivebacks, Red-faced Crimsonwings and even a Gray Cuckooshrike! Mark and I were overwhelmed, at times reduced to merely shouting bird names at each other before switching places to see what the other person had been excited about.

Cisticola chubbi (Chubb's Cisticola) fledglings
Chubb's Cisticola fledglings sharing a fern branch on Mt. Cameroon.

Cossypha isabellae isabellae (Mountain Robin-Chat)
Mountain Robin-Chat of the endemic Mt. Cameroon race on Mt. Cameroon.

Unfortunately, Mark and I only had a few hours to explore before we needed to be back in Buea. We left the mountain promising to come back and to spend more time. We barely made it high enough in elevation to see some of the endemic birds, but greatly enjoyed our introduction to the Cameroon mountains for the trip. (For those interested, our eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S22121301)

From here, we headed back to Buea, and gathered our gear over several days during the concurrent workshop operated by Town Peterson and prepared to head deep into the lowland forests of Korup... To be continued!

20 January 2015

The End of 2014: An Overview

I will try to write a more formal, in depth post about some of my specific adventures in the near future, but the last two and a half months have been a whirlwind for me. I will try to recap as best as I can for now, and will elaborate later. (David Bell, if you are reading this, I am copying your format as it seems to work well!)

November 24: Caroline and I left for northeastern Arkansas, where we spent the night in lovely Paragould.

November 25: Caroline and I birded northeast Arkansas and the Missouri Bootheel, finding large rafts of waterfowl and generally enjoying the Mississippi embayment. A sample checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S20674203

November 26-27: Caroline and I stayed in Slidell with her mom, and then spent Thanksgiving Day at her Uncle Pete's in Lafayette, Louisiana.

November 28: Caroline and I journeyed through Cameron Parish, Louisiana towards Houston, where we spent the 29 at the Houston Zoo with her dad.

November 30: I left for Equatorial Guinea.

December 1: I arrived, exhausted, in Malabo at the base of Pico Basile.

Malabo Morning

Pico Basile as seen from Malabo.

December 1-5: Luke, Jared and I met up and began working on logistics. Like many areas in Central Africa, getting cars, transportation, and other related issues straightened out can take quite a long time. Luckily, we had some excellent urban birding in Bata.

December 6-18: Despite a two day break where I returned to Bata for supplied, the entirety of this period was spent in the primeival forests of Parque Nacional de los Altos de Nsork. This fascinating area was the site of our research, and I will try to write more in depth about some of the localities soon. I encountered 146 species in Wele-Nzas during this time, including such local specialties as Congo Serpent-Eagle, Yellow-throated Cuckoo, Lyre-tailed Honeyguide, migrant Wood Warbler and many of the ten country firsts that we encountered during our trip!

Spermestes fringilloides (Magpie Mannikin)

First country record of Magpie Mannikin for Equatorial Guinea! 13 December 2014.

December 19: On this day, we explored the coastal regions of Equatorial Guinea, visiting the grasslands to the south of Bata.

Petrochelidon preussi (Preuss's Cliff Swallow)

Preuss's (Cliff) Swallows in Mbini, Equatorial Guinea. So far as we know, this is the first breeding colony located in the country. 19 December 2014.

December 20-23: We spent our last several days in Moka, on the south side of the island. One of my favorite places in the entire country, the Afromontane forests in this region did not disappoint! We once again encountered the rare and local Bioko Batis, found high-elevational Forest Weavers and Klaas's Cuckoos, and saw a bunch of other fascinating birds such as Black-capped Woodland Warbler, African Hill Babbler, Cameroon Olive Greenbul and African Stonechat. Check out the following checklist to hear some of the recordings I was able to obtain during our hike on the 23rd: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S21028472

December 24-Jan 1: Grand Junction, Colorado with my family.

The new year has so far been promising. I have been working almost non-stop, but things are progressing well and I am back into the swing of work and Caroline just started a new job at the university. I also saw the legendary Ivory Gull on the Mississippi River, so I will take that as an omen that another fantastic year has begun.

I'll post more soon!

Pagophila eburnea (Ivory Gull)

Ivory Gull in Quincy, Illinois. 5 January 2015.


A map of all the places I birded in 2014. Here's to another great year!

04 November 2014

The Wild West (of Cameroon), Part 3: In the Hall of the Mountain King

When I reflect on Fongum, Edvard Grieg's classic seems like a fitting soundtrack (alas, the music I had stuck in my head at the time was a different soundtrack). I was heading somewhere I had never even heard of, and I was truly plunging into an unfamiliar realm. From Buea, we caught an overnight bus to the famous mountain city of Bamenda, and then we caught a bush taxi to the remote village of Wum. There, we booked a hotel room for the night and went to the town square for African barbeque (which was amazingly similar to Jamaican jerk from rural western Jamaica). While there, the young moto taxi drivers stared me over. I was not given the same warm welcome I had received so far in Cameroon. Their eyes were piercing, staring past me, and I overhead them mention comments to each other that all white men are the same; they are nothing but monsters who came to these same hills to enslave, murder, and plunder; and that I should be "cast in the gutter" before it was too late. Thankfully, the men with whom I ate did not feel this way, and beneath my carefree facade, I watched the young men casting me vengeful looks quite carefully.

That night, I laid completely exhausted in my bed. Weeks of being harassed for being white were beginning to wear on me, and I pushed the thoughts out of my head long enough to catch some sleep.

The next morning I met my final moto taxi driver for the trip: Pascal. A sharp young man, Pascal knew the roads of the region well, but he informed us that getting to Fongum was not easy. We loaded up and headed out. After my regular passport checks at the military roadblocks, I took in the scenery of this new region. High above the lowland forests I had scoured the rest of my time in Cameroon, the North-west was dominated by grasslands interspersed with forested hills. 

Northern Grassfields

The hills near Fongum Village, Cameroon. The farmer in the lower left guided us to Ndzim Falls (read further and I'll explain!).

This region, one of the most densely populated in Cameroon, is noticeably drier and cooler that the southern slopes. Farms dominated the landscape, and flocks of Red-cheeked Cordonbleu flushed from the road ahead of me. The drive chain flew off the motorcycle at one point, and I took the opportunity to watch the birds in this agrarian area. Yellow Bishop and Yellow-shouldered Widow distracted me from the fact that I was stranded on the side of the road with Moses, and after about an hour or so, the fixed moto taxis returned and we continued onward. We climbed high over the ridges of Wum and dropped down to a remote bush market for lunch where I ate fufu and bitter greens (the main staple in this part of the country). We continued up, and eventually we came to the crest of a large hill. Here, above the rest of the grassy hills lay the Fongum, the center of the Kingdom of Fongum. We parked in the courtyard of the palace and entered slowly. In the center of the room, the Fon (a.k.a. King) sat, and he welcomed us to talk to him. After he showed us the Fongum Forest Reserve across the valley, he agreed to let us stay and allowed us to explore the region. We hiked to the creek that first morning. I had a surprising encounter with a Black Bee-eater and enjoyed the numerous Klaas's Cuckoos singing around me. My guide, I learned halfway through the hike, was not only a carpenter and farmer, but also the Prince Validus of Fongum. As I sweated uncontrollably, he laughed and adjusted his thick black coat, saying that the heat no longer bothered him. Besides, it was cold during the night and in the rains. Upon returning to the palace, I returned my gear and talked to the Fon. He described to me that the village in which I sat was once the crown jewel of the region. It was there, in that very village, that the Germans first came to forge peace with the local populace. Having witnessed the destruction of the villages to the south that resisted their advance, the Fon at the time agreed to a treaty with the Germans and accepted their gift: a jug of what I presumed to be wine (I was shown the jug, center in the Fon's court and prized among his possessions). When the Germans left Cameroon, the British moved into the area, and that is when Fongums troubles started. What was once the seat of the region was slowly replaced by the more accessible Wum to the south, and Fongum Village waned. Though still the seat of the Kingdom, it's recognition had decreased, and the Fon was extremely happy that we had come to visit. That night, I was one of the Fon's guests of honor, and I ate a delicious dish made from a goat they had killed for the special occasion. The Fon watched us, as he was forbidden to eat in front of others, and the village council got to know us better. As we warmed up to each other, the villagers voiced how happy they were I was there, and I reciprocated the feeling. Of all the nights I have spent in Africa, this was, perhaps, the best night I have ever spent there.

The next morning, Validus and I hiked towards Ndzim Falls. Birding was brief and very fast paced as we were worried about the afternoon rains. At the edge of town, I was able to get some photographs of the more common local birds.

Apus affinis

Little Swift (Apus affinis) in Fongum Village. Note: African swifts can be tricky, so if anyone has any comments about this bird, they are welcome.

Ploceus cucullatus cucullatus

Village Weaver in Fongum Village, Cameroon. This is a male displaying his nest to nearby females.

Ploceus nigerrimus nigerrimus

Vieillot's Black Weaver, Fongum Village, Cameroon.

From here, Validus and I met an elderly farmer who was heading down into the valley to tend to his crops. He happily agreed to show us the way. Honestly, I had trouble keeping up with him; he was extremely sure footed. Having navigated the slick terrain his whole life, he was much more adept at maneuvering than I was. Along the way, Splendid Sunbirds and five different species of Cisticola made themselves known, and three species of Chrysococcyx cuckoo (African Emerald, Diderik and Klaas's) were all singing in the trees. It was a beautiful day, and before mid-day, we finally arrived at the base of the falls. After negotiating the rough terrain a bit and dealing with some surprisingly ferocious ants, we were at the base of Ndzim Falls.

Ndzim Falls

Ndzim Falls, North-west, Cameroon.

Validus and I basked in the mist of the falls for quite some time, talking about life and enjoying the cool air near the water. Validus commented that the island on which we stood in the middle of the turbid waters was a place at which he would not mind spending his whole day relaxing. I wholeheartedly agreed, but before too long, we were back off towards the village. As we neared its outskirts at the top of the hill, we were hit by a massive rainstorm, and the rains continued for quite some time. After switching into dry clothes, I visited the Fon, and numerous villagers came to talk to him. They furtively glanced at me as they spoke in hushed yet aggravated tones, and they left after the Fon replied to them solemnly. Once we were alone, the Fon turned to me and informed me that they were all there because of what I had done. By going to the waterfall, many of the villagers believed I was to blame for the torrential rains, and they were not happy that I had done so. I was confused until the Fon elucidated further: I was the first white man to ever visit the falls. According to him, in all of history, I am the only white man to ever venture into that part of Africa. Because of that, the villagers believed the rains came. I was thankful the Fon set the record straight, and at the same time, I mulled over the fact that I was being blamed for the storms.

The next morning, we bid our farewells to the villagers. The Fon summoned Validus, who was carrying a chicken. They handed me the chicken. The Fon told me to take it home to feed my family and to let the chicken serve as a reminder of the time I had spent in his Kingdom (the chicken was forced to stay in Buea unfortunately, as I could not bring it to the USA). They told me to come back soon, and after a few minutes, we were off. The whole ride out I stared upon the fields with a whole new perspective. I no longer felt that this land was foreign. Something in Fongum had made me feel like I could belong, and I wondered when I would ever be able to return. As the hills faded behind me, as I transferred from moto taxi to bush taxi to city taxi to overnight bus, I could not get the images of the village out of my head. I came to one conclusion: one day, I will return to the hills north of Wum and visit the Kingdom of Fongum once more.

My last few days in Cameroon were spent in Buea. For two days, I rested, recovered, and gathered my notes. Mount Cameroon hid inside its rainy shroud. Before I knew it, I was on my way to the airport. At the airport I was hassled for being a tourist even more, and, after all of the required government fees were paid, I had less than ten US dollars left in my pockets. I sat in the waiting room for a long time, soaking in the experiences and trying to make sense of it all. And then - in a flash - I was back in Kansas, back with my friends, and preparing for a new semester. But part of my heart is still in Africa, and I know that I'll be back before long.

Meeting the Fon of Fongum

From left to right: Me, the Fon of Fongum, the Queen of Fongum and Sainge Moses in front of the Fon's Palace in Fongum village.