22 October 2014

The Wild West (of Cameroon): Part 1

As is typical when I begin a multi-parted blog post, I get busy and live intervenes. I become saturated with work, distracted by things in my life and gradually remember that somewhere out there is a blog with my name attached to it withering into obscurity. Today, I fight back against the business of my life by procrastinating and finishing my tale from this summer: birding the wild west of Cameroon. This is a three part post, but I am writing it all at once so that there will not be as much of a delay this time!

But I digress. Back to mid-July, 2014: I had heard a lot about western Cameroon, but almost exclusively about it's birdlife. The landscape is dominated by the monolithic Mount Cameroon, a 4,040 meter/13,250 foot monster of a volcano on the coast. I had seen the summit of Mount Cameroon once before, from the airplane between Malabo and Bata (Equatorial Guinea), and was determined to summit it and find it's rarities. Having explored the immediately adjacent Pico Basile on Bioko, I was already familiar with this montane avifauna and excited to see what adventures Mount Cameroon held.

I arrived in Buea, the capital of the South-west Province, and glimpsed the behemoth looming above me. However, I also witnessed the ferocity of the wet season. Having been absent from the Gulf of Guinea for several months, I had forgotten about the intensity of 10+ meters (33+ feet) of rain a year. As such, I spent most of my time in the southwest watching the rain and exploring the university and the town, scouting areas for some of my colleague's future trips to the region. The town itself was nice: the main street was vibrant, with food and wares for sale on the street and a large university with beautiful forests above the town. Northern Grey-headed Sparrows foraged in the streets, African Thrushes (unfortunately, I was unable to ID them to subspecies) sang in the thickets and ubiquitous Pied Crows flew overhead.

Buea

Buea, as seen from my hotel room.

I was not going to let the rain keep me from experiencing all the west had to offer. I was on an important errand scouting out field locations for future work, and after becoming acquainted with a new colleague, Sainge Nsanyi Moses, We quickly gathered our equipment and headed to our first locality, an impressive wilderness along the Nigerian frontier: Korup National Park.

As with all things in Africa, saying you are going somewhere is much easier than actually getting there. We hired a driver to take us from Buea to Kumba, and then snagged a bush taxi. From here, the taxi took us down the long and muddy road from Kumba to Mundemba. This 100 mile (161 km) drive seems like it would be simple enough, but took the entire day. Subsisting on roadside peanuts and plantains, we arrived exhausted in the town and arranged for entrance the next day. As with all places in the South-west at this time of year, it was raining when I woke up the next day. I jumped on a moto taxi and arrived at Moses apartment, where we were preparing to depart. Another few hours in a bush taxi but us at the edge of Korup. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of what lay before me due to the rain, so I will explain it as best as I can: a long, quarter mile suspension bridge hung low over the raging rapids of an equally wide river. On our side of the river, row after row of palm trees grew in the plantation. On the other side, the impenetrable dark of the African jungle beckoned us. We crossed carefully, and began the 10 km hike to camp. Unfortunately, due to miscommunications, I carried far too much gear, and felt the brunt of the hike. The jungle was incredible. Elephant paths crossed ours at multiple times, and gigantic Hornbills called as they flew overhead. At one point along the trail, a quick diversion to some boulders even allowed me to glimpse a Grey-necked Picathartes as we accidentally flushed it from it's lair. We finally arrived at the Chimpanzee Camp, and my bird guide, Joseph, and I set off to do some afternoon birding.

Traveling light, we climbed the extremely steep (and slippery) slopes to the ledges at the edge of the jungle, and was spellbound by the carpet of green that lay before me.

Korup National Park

Korup National Park, South-west, Cameroon

The next day, Joseph and I woke early and birded as best as we could before the inevitable rains. Blue-headed Wood-Doves called from their hidden perches, and we whistled in a beautiful pair of Red-billed Dwarf Hornbills (just one of the four hornbill species we encountered that morning). A Chocolate-backed Kingfisher sang from the canopy, a Yellow-bellied Wattle-Eye buzzed me near a creek crossing, and Chestnut-breasted Nigrita offered crushing views. I was blown away by the diversity, but knew that the dry season would be even better. Regardless, we recorded 38 species as we weaved our way through the soaked jungle.

Elephant Trails

An elephant trail snakes its way through the understory. Korup National Park, Cameroon.

Unfortunately, due to the logistics of the area and the extreme rains, this was the only morning I was able to spend in Korup. There is an extremely good chance that I will return in the dry season in 2015, so until then, the rarer forest birds will have to wait.

From here, we packed our bags, and began the long hike out through even wetter conditions. It was time to head to the Rumpi Hills.

27 August 2014

Nkolbisson

After Caroline and I toured the Great Plains, I was off to Cameroon to attend the Central African Biodiversity Alliance Professional Development Workshop in Nkolbisson, Yaounde. This fantastic opportunity enabled me to improve upon my computer based analysis skills while at the same time interacting with other students working in central Africa. Students came from all over the world, with almost every continent represented, and a majority of students coming from universities scattered across Cameroon. Below is a small news segment from the Cameroonian National News explaining what we were doing (and you can even see my cameo at one part!).



The locality in which the classes took place was another bonus for me. Adjacent to marshland and rural farmland, walking to and from class proved to be an extremely productive birding route. I was even able to find another birder, Jen Tinsman, to go and sort out the West African taxa with. In all, we found over 50 species of bird around Nkolbisson, including the stunning African Pygmy-Kingfisher and common, but always enjoyable, Village Weaver.


Village Weaver (Ploceus cucullatus cucullatus) in Nkolbisson, Yaounde, Cameroon.


African Pygmy-Kingfisher (Ispidina picta) in Nkolbisson, Yaounde, Cameroon.

In addition to these extremely photogenic birds, other species provided a constant excitement when walking to the store or going for a morning walk. Olive-bellied, Green-throated, and Coppery Sunbirds foraged in the flowing trees, Western Bluebills darted from the marsh vegetation and the morning duets of Blue-headed Coucals and Tropical Boubous were never tiring. Every morning seemed to hold a surprise, with the cast of characters always holding a new surprise. I became well acquainted with the local subspecies of Dideric Cuckoo with the male that would sporadically come by and sing, an all-blackish African Paradise-Flycatcher would occasionally forage in the trees in the dorm's courtyard and even a brief step outside of our classroom resulted in Jen showing my my lifer Little Bee-eater foraging in the backyard of the school.

In all, it was a fantastic week of learning and experiencing Cameroon with my new-found friends, and the birding was an excellent bonus. As the week came to an end, however, it was time for me to head west and explore the Nigerian frontier in the highlands of the wet west...

20 August 2014

Kansas and Oklahoma

While traveling the Great Plains, Caroline and I were able to make a few touristic stops. En route to my cousin's wedding, we swung into Gove County, Kansas, to check out one of the greatest landmarks in the state: Monument Rocks. These rocks, amazingly out of place in Kansas, stand as lonely sentinels in the middle of the mundane plains. We took our friend's advice to visit, and definitely didn't regret it! Additionally, the location was a good spot for adding some western birds to my state list: namely, Cassin's Sparrows that were singing in the surrounding scrub.

Monument Rocks, Kansas
The Monument Rocks, an impressive rocky outcrop in Western Kansas, and arguably the most interesting geologic feature in the entire state.

Monument Rocks, Kansas
The arch at Monument Rocks, Kansas.

From here, Caroline and I stopped by the wedding in Colorado for a few days (where I was able to sneak out for quality time with Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Bullock's Orioles) and soon found ourselves on the way to Arkansas to visit her family. Since we were crossing the largely monotonous plains, we decided to try to make it as scenic as possible by traveling along the easternmost fringe of the mountains: the Black Mesa Region. This region, seemingly out of place on the plains, is the only locality in Oklahoma hosting expansive desert canyonlands and Piñon-Juniper woodland. After a long drive through enchanted canyons filled with Elk, Desert Cottontails and Jackrabbits, we spent the night at the remote Black Mesa State Park in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. The location of a large reservoir surrounded by low sandstone cliffs and Piñon-Juniper woodland, it was the most western experience I have ever had in Oklahoma. Our campsite was infested with Cassin's and Western Kingbirds, and Say's Phoebes provided side-by-side comparisons with a nesting pair of Eastern Phoebes. Mississippi Kites foraged overhead, a pair of Bewick's Wrens sang in the scrub, and we scored two species of cuckoo with a singing Yellow-billed Cuckoo near the reservoir and amazingly close views of a Greater Roadrunner along the road. The best birds, however, were an odd pair of giant sandpipers flying overhead. Hearing them at first, I was elated to confirm a Marbled Godwit and a Long-billed Curlew circling over the west side of the lake. The birds came amazingly close, and Caroline enjoyed getting a good study of these two large shorebirds for the first time. As they flew away, we scanned for more shorebirds and, though we were unsuccessful in that endeavor, found a pair of beavers foraging around the willows.

As we left towards Arkansas, we had one last close encounter of the mammalian kind: an American Badger running down the side of the road! We were able to go back and get some close views as he ran off into the yucca-studded grassland. From here, we drove across to the eastern fringe of Oklahoma, and finally left the state along the Talimena Drive in the Ozark Mountains.

Talimena Drive