27 October 2014

The Wild West (of Cameroon), Part 2: The Muddiest Road

I stared at the blurry image on Dr. Town Peterson's screen. Zooming in more made the image even more globular, and even less discernable. We joked around as stared at these low quality images, and began talking about what was hidden in the green: a mountain range. Specifically, a low-lying ridge known as the Rumpi Hills. Most famous for their anomalous Southern Hyliota record, the Rumpi Hills are a seldom explored region to the north of Mount Cameroon. My interest sufficiently piqued by Town, I agreed to visit this area myself.

Several months later, I walked out of the rain in Korup National Park. I went back to my hotel room, hung my clothes to "dry", and prepared for a visit to this mountain ecosystem. The next morning, we crammed into a bush taxi, and went to the crossroads of Ekombe. Here, Moses ventured off to negotiate our transport as I watched raw cacao being brought in from the plantations. I sighed as passers-by stared at me and speculated as to what I was doing sitting on the side of the road in this remote place. After negotiating transport, we returned to Kumba, ate lunch with Moses' family, and awaited the arrival of our moto taxis. After several hours of listening to a nearby Diderik Cuckoo and watching the Northern Grey-headed Sparrows search my backpack for food, our moto taxis arrived. We crammed on, and began the even longer trip towards Dikome-Balue. The first stretch of our trip was one of the hardest. Being as tall as I am, I was not designed to ride on a small motorcycle, let alone ride on one with two backpacks and two Cameroonians while carrying three dozen eggs. And before you ask: yes, some of the eggs broke, and yes, the broke on me. After renegotiating our cargo, I boarded my moto taxi belonging to a man my age named "Neutral". Neutral was a native of Dikome-Balue, and highly recommended as a moto-taxi driver. His moniker was derived from his habit of coasting down mountains with his motorcycle off to save fuel. I braced myself for the long road ahead. After being checked for my visa and passport at the bottom of the road, we began the long (and painful) journey of riding into the mountains. The roads, slick and bogged down with mud, were treacherous and hard to navigate. Luckily for me, Neutral was a master of navigating the terrain. Even in areas with mud up to a foot deep, he drove with ease, using his feet to balance us as necessary. The rains abated as we climbed, and for this we were eternally thankful. We stopped halfway along the way for a soda, and continued climbing. It was at this time that I realized how remote I really was. Everyone shouted hello to me, and everyone called me the exact same name: "White Man".

Moto-taxis

Our caravan working the Dikome-Balue road. Photo by Sainge Nsanyi Moses; used with permission.

Wet Season Road

The road could be a little muddy at times. Photo by Sainge Nsanyi Moses; used with permission.

Despite the overall friendliness of most of the inhabitants, we were promptly flagged down by a military police convoy. The leader came over, giving me a stern look, and demanded to see my passport and visa. I provided him with my documentation as he questioned my motives and what I was doing in such a remote place. After some talking, he became distracted by our guides on the motorcycle behind us, and (thankfully) let us go without much more harassment. Arriving in the town, I immediately noticed a large group of men sitting at the spot where we were dropped off. I correctly inferred that these men were the city council, and situated myself among them. After some talking, the man I was sitting next to revealed that he was actually the chief of Dikome-Balue, and that the reason for the gathering was that they had been called and informed that some people - one of them white - were coming to visit. As this is not a common occurrence, they had to be sure of our intentions in the region. Moses informed them of our research and our backgrounds, and we received their permission to explore the region, and they arranged guides for us in the morning.

The next morning was incredible.

Mt. Rata

The Dikome-Balue Hotel with Mt. Rata in the background. We climbed that mountain later.

Besides the incredible views of the highest mountain in the Rumpi Hills (Mount Rata), the parking lot of the hotel possessed a very surprising bird: a pair of Cameroon Pipits! After hiking into town (and enjoying the local birdlife) we met our guides and started the long hike up Mount Rata. To say the hike was steep was an understatement. The vertical slope was easily 300% in some areas, and I was slipping the entire way up (and down). My body ached as we climbed through a steep burn area, but reaching the top was worth it. The saddles at the mountain's peak possessed incredible birds such as Western Tinkerbird, Mountain Sooty Boubou and White-bellied Crested-Flycatcher, and a brief window in the clouds gave us an interesting view of Dikome-Balue village.

Dikome-Balue Village

Dikome-Balue village as seen from Mount Rata, South-west, Cameroon.

We continued up the peak, along a thin knife-edge until we final reached the mountain's peak. Although the visibility was not very good, it was still quite an accomplishment. A pillar from the original German explorers to the region was still in place on the mountains peak, and a pair of Grey Apalis kept us company as we recovered from the climb.

Mt. Rata Summit

Tired but successful, our group stand around the German pillar at Mount Rata's summit. (I'm on the far left; Sainge Moses is center and our bird guide Joseph is second from the right).

From here, we began the equally long (and possibly more treacherous) hike down, and reached the bottom as the rains once again began to poor.

The next day, we went to the village early, and Joseph and I got a ride about 8 kilometers down the road to walk back towards town and see what birds we could find. As we walked along the road through Dikome-Balue pass, we bisected lush montane forest and listened and watched the incredible diversity around us. Thankfully, it was a beautiful day, and the birdlife reflected that.

Dikome-Balue Pass

Dikome-Balue Pass, South-west, Cameroon.

Almost immediately after starting our day, we came across a massive colony of Vieillot's Black Weaver on the edge of town. Continuing on, we had a singing Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo up the slope from us, and a nice comparison of it towards nearby African Emerald Cuckoo and Black Cuckoo. A Crowned Hawk-Eagle circled over the road briefly, Scaled Francolin called from their hidden spots and Yellow-breasted Boubous called from the treetops. A lone Crossley's Ground-Thrush sang in the distance, and a family of Banded Prinias frolicked in the roadside brush. Walking along the road allowed us to flush Mountain Wagtails ahead of us, and an army ant swarm serendipitous possessed a Woodhouse's Antpecker. In all, we had 54 species before retreating back towards the lower elevations of Kumba in the afternoon.

From Kumba, we returned wearily to Buea, and prepared for our last field site to visit: the northern locality of Fongum.

24 October 2014

Equatorial Guinea Bird Initiative: Support Wanted!

Last fall, my colleagues Jared Wolfe and Luke Powell met me in Germany. We gathered our gear, headed towards our terminal and watched the Carrion Crows flying past. We were on our way to Equatorial Guinea, and had no idea what to expect.

Equatorial Guinea has one of the least studied avifaunas on the planet. Though work has been done Bioko, the mainland is woefully undersampled, and offers exciting research opportunities. We traveled across the island, saw giant sea turtles, and even traveled through a forest where Gorillas still roam.

And now, we are headed back, and we need your help. In order to better document the effects of development on the region's birdlife, we are surveying the remote southeastern reaches of Rio Muni. We are then going to attempt to reach some of the more isolated insular regions in the country to better document the country's rare endemic species.

Please take a moment to watch our video on our Kickstarter Site, and help us protect this unique region.

Thanks! Jacob, on behalf of the Equatorial Guinea Bird Initiative

22 October 2014

The Wild West (of Cameroon), Part 1: Korup

As is typical when I begin a multi-parted blog post, I get busy and life 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! I have it scheduled to update every Monday until the tale is all told.

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 colleagues' 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, the botanist 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 is typical 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 put 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 Black- and Yellow-casqued 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 its 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 I 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 a drier day 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.