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.

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.

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

23 June 2014

Plotting

This past week, I was lucky enough to go to a conference about digitizing biological collections and working on the ecological relationships of insects in Riverside, California. The conference focused on several groups of insects (they people I worked with were interested mostly in the families Miridae and Reduviidae), and we got to swap all kinds of ideas regarding studying interconnected biological systems.

Luckily, not everyone exclusively works on insects, and a couple of us managed to sneak away and do some birding before we got started with lectures on the second day. We followed Two Trees Canyon up above the campus of University of California--Riverside, and thought diversity was low, we got our fair share of California birds. Lesser Goldfinches sang overhead while Song Sparrows sang in the brush and the occasional Red-tailed Hawk flew by. Nuttall's Woodpeckers foraged in the Western Scrub-Jay infested trees and several pairs of Wrentits called the canyon home. It was a good escape from the indoors, and gave me a chance to see many species that I had not seen in several years.

Chamaea fasciata

Wrentits, like this one I photographed several years ago near San Diego, were fairly common near UC Riverside.

Though it was a nice four day foray into the Pacific coastal region, I am now back in Kansas plotting my next moves. Starting Thursday, I will be meeting up with Caroline to do a lower plains circuit. Together, we will drive to Colorado for my cousins wedding and then make our way to Arkansas to see Caroline's family before working our way back up to Lawrence again.

Rough outline of our route, with Lawrence marked by the letter "J".

Along the way, we have the opportunity to visit the high points of three states (Mt. Sunflower, Kansas; Black Mesa, Oklahoma; and Mt. Magazine, Arkansas) as well as explore much of the plains in the central united states. We will be visiting salt pans, xeric woodlands and the beautiful Ozarks. All of this will be interspersed with meeting with family and generally enjoying our time together as we drive across the states. We will return to Lawrence, and the next day Caroline will return to Louisiana and I will head to Cameroon.

Once in Cameroon, I will be attending the week long Central African Biodiversity Alliance conference, where I will be networking, working with GIS and practicing data collection in Yaounde, Cameroon. From there, I will travel west to Buea on the slopes of Mt. Cameroon, and then head deep into the jungles of Korup National Park. If there is time, I will also head north in the volcanic highlands of Bamenda and search for some of the unique endemics found in the mountains of western Cameroon. After three weeks in this amazing country, I will travel to Douala and return home to Lawrence. Need less to say, come August, I plan on sleeping for a few days straight.

Outline of Cameroon route. Equatorial Guinea, specifically in Bata and Malabo (on Bioko) are where I was in November.

I'll keep posting as I can, and let you know how the summer progresses!

03 June 2014

print("Programming Fun")

So far this summer, I have been cooped up in my office working with GIS and programming nearly everyday. And strangely, I love it. Every time I stare at my computer I am staring into a plethora of biogeographic relationships and learning more and more about the geography of South America. My progress is slow, but steady, and my pace is increasing as I learn more and become more skilled.

I have, however, had the chance to get out a few times lately. I have been working on my Douglas County list to keep me motivated to bird near home, and that has largely been successful. I have seen many great local birds around Lawrence, and even saw Indigo, Painted, and Lazuli Buntings in the area this spring. By far the best bird so far though was the first state record Hooded Oriole that visited an area north of town. Seen by many, I was able to stop by and see this wonder on my way home from work.

Icterus cucullatus (cucullatus group)

The first state record Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus) in Lawrence, Kansas

With other birds, I have not been so lucky. A territorial Black-billed Cuckoo has eluded me every time I've searched, much to my chagrin, but other surprises have kept me going. A Bell's Vireo on campus was a nice surprise, and a while back many Black Terns were moving through the area. Now, the birds are settling in to breed, and nearly everywhere I go I hear the incessant songs of the Dickcissels.

Spiza americana

A male Dickcissel (Spiza americana) singing at Clinton Lake in Douglas County, Kansas

I also got an opportunity to upload some of my audio recordings from my Colorado trip. The best recording, a Greater Prairie-Chicken lek in Wray, Colorado, can be heard here:

http://www.xeno-canto.org/180588

For now, it is back to work. Soon, the gears of travel will be in motion for me once again. I have just received my Cameroonian visa in the mail, and I will soon begin the convoluted trip of Kansas to California to Kansas to Colorado to Arkansas to Kansas to Belgium to Cameroon. I'll be looking forward to getting a few days in the same place before too long! That's all for now - hopefully I'll be able to post again soon.

11 May 2014

Grousing

In late April, I led my first solo-tour for Tropical Birding. Having worked with them several times in the past (namely in Texas and Ecuador), it was fun to be able to do a full tour. My targets: all the grouse in Colorado. We drove a circuitous route around the state, finding all but Dusky Grouse and even getting a few surprises along the way. Rather that re-write the entire trip, you can read the trip report here.

Tympanuchus phasianellus male displaying


04 April 2014

Louisiana

The rest of my break in Louisiana was quite hectic. Caroline worked, and I tried to keep up on school work that felt so distant. We continued to go walking around town quite a bit, and just enjoyed our time together. My friend Kevin, one of the few people I've kept up with since High School, drove over from Houston to spend time with us as he had never experienced Louisiana before. So, we took him to one of my favorite places: Boy Scout Road in Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge.

Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge

The Longleaf Pine-Freshwater Marsh ecotone in Big Branch is one of the most unique forests one can bird in. It is strange watching "Myrtle" Yellow-rumped Warblers and Pine Warblers forage in the trees while you are flushing Sedge Wrens from beneath the boardwalk and listening to the agitated calls of a King Rail. We continued on, pushing towards Lake Pontchartrain, but were unfortunately unable to view the distant city of New Orleans due to fog. On our walk back however, we were rewarded by amazing views at a close family group of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. These endangered birds are locally common in native (and properly burned) pine savanna, and the one bird most people come to Big Branch to see. Interestingly, the scientific name of this southeastern USA endemic is Picoides borealis - a name drawn from the forests far to the north. In the early days of ornithology, many localities were confused, and it was likely that this southern bird was accidentally labeled as being from the far north, and named after its 'habitat'.

Picoides borealis
Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are most easily identified by their broad white cheek patches and raucous, squeaky calls.

After exploring the swamp, we headed south to New Orleans and enjoyed the French Quarter for a few hours before Kevin had to return to Texas.

In all, it was a good trip, but time always seems to pass too quickly, and before I knew it, I was back in Kansas, trying to get back to work.

Gone Fishin'
A fishing spider eyes potential prey in Caroline's front yard.

29 March 2014

Mississippi

I could tell she was excited, but I could still hear the hesitation and fear in her voice. It quavered slightly as we discussed our plans, and a pang of pain went through my spine. Was I making her uncomfortable? Was I forcing her to do something she didn't want to do?

"I'm just a little scared," she explained as we looked at the map. "I've never been backpacking before."

I smiled, and told her I had tried to account for everything, but that what we were doing was going to be an adventure. Luckily for me, her desire to explore and to go camping overwhelmed her fears and hesitation, and it was not long before we were off to southern Mississippi.

Though not far from where I lived in Louisiana for so many years, Mississippi was a place I had seldom ventured. I had been just over the border to places such as Clark Creek and once to the Homochitto National Forest, but otherwise, it was just an area I ignored. Many areas of the state have poor birding coverage, with many 'blank spaces' on the eBird coverage maps, and some of Mississippi's counties are among the least birded in the country. As Caroline lives to close to Mississippi, I always enjoy traveling there, and when I discovered that one of the largest wilderness areas on the Gulf Coast was in the De Soto National Forest, it seemed obvious what we should do for the first part of our trip.

And so, not long after I arrived in Louisiana, I found myself departing to the east with Caroline, and we set off on our Mississippi adventure.

Our first stop was the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. A bird that most people don't know, the critically endangered Mississippi Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis pulla) is largely restricted to two small patches of wet pine savanna in southeastern Mississippi. Needless to say, it was a bird I really wanted to see! However, luck was not with us during our visit. We had a great bird list, but crane was not on it. We did, however, enjoy a beautiful walk through the pines together. Caroline pointed out some carnivorous plants to me, and we walked amicably through the broad, open woodland listening to Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers.

Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge
Wet pine savanna in Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. This endangered ecosystem was once much more widespread along the gulf coast.

Sarracenia alata
A Pale Pitcherplant (Sarracenia alata) in the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. These carnivorous plants are local but widespread in the American south.

After exploring the wildlife refuge, Caroline and I headed north into the heart of De Soto National Forest. There, we proceeded to enter Caroline's first ever roadless area: the Black Creek Wilderness.

Black Creek Wilderness

After crossing the Black Creek Wilderness boundary, we found ourselves in a fascinating mix of Longleaf Pine and deciduous trees. Northern Parulas sang from the dense Magnolias, and Carolina Chickadees called along the trail. There were several sections within the forest that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina and the damage was still evident, and other areas where recent treefalls had blocked the trails. Thankfully, I had my machete with me, and was able to clear a new trail through the undergrowth.

We camped approximately 3 miles from the car within the forest, and were awoken the next morning by the sounds of spring. A very vocal and territorial Louisiana Waterthrush acted as our alarm clock, and a distant Prothonotary Warbler chimed in as well. As we hiked out, we enjoyed great views of a Swallow-tailed Kite as well. We plucked the occasional ticks off of our clothes, but, for the most part, it was near impossible to see Caroline without a smile.

We returned to the car and reloaded up our gear, and Caroline mentioned that she looked forward to backpacking again. I smiled, and realized it had been a very successful trip.

I'll cover the rest of my spring break in the south soon. To be continued!

Black Creek Wilderness, De Soto National Forest
The trail in Black Creek Wilderness, Mississippi.

20 March 2014

Equatorial Guinea: The Final Days

The last day we spent in Río Muni was spent at the namesake estuary in the far south of the country. The weaving brackish water forms the border between Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and we were excited to see what sorts of birds we could turn up.

As the day progressed, however, we began to wonder if we were going to make it there at all. Our guide called us, apologetic, and stated that he was having trouble reaching our driver. When they did finally show up, we were two hours behind schedule. Though we had a nice laid back morning of porch birding, we were very excited about seeing more of the country. We wound our way south along the newly constructed roads, and eventually found ourselves in the port town of Cogo. Here, Obama negotiated on our behalf as we sought a way to enter the estuary. Birding in the town was surprisingly productive. A point blank Hamerkop flew along the shore, and flocks of African Green-Pigeons passed overhead. Most surprisingly, a lone Red-chested Swallow foraged over the downtown, providing one of the only records of this patchily distributed species for the country. Additionally, a Black Sawwing, a bird I had not seen since my days in South Africa, flew continuously back and forth from an island in the bay, making us believe that there was a nest nearby.

Eventually, we managed to secure a boat, and headed further out into the estuary, into a region known as Cuatro Ríos. Where four large headwaters come together, these placid waters glistened under the green hills, and the cool marine air made us feel at ease.

Gabon, as seen from Equatoguinean waters in the Río Muni Estuary.

From here, we drifted through the currents, and eventually found ourselves along a fantastic mudbank. Hamerkop, Marsh Sandpipers, Woolly-necked Storks and Pink-backed Pelicans kept us enthralled, and such gems as Giant Kingfisher, African Royal Tern and Palm-nut Vultures kept our eyes glancing skyward. We became so distracted that we did not realize that we had, in fact, drifted into Gabon! Upon realizing our error, we returned back Cogo along the shore, and from there headed back to Bata for our return to Bioko.

A Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta) resting along the Río Muni in northern Gabon.

A Palm-nut Vulture (Gypohierax angolensis) checks out our boat as we drift too close in northern Gabon.

Woodland Kingfishers (Halcyon senegalensis) were abundant throughout the country, and commonly nested in towns. This individual, however, was photographed in Altos del Nsork.

The next day, we headed up the highest mountain in Equatorial Guinea: Pico Basile. As we wound our way up the mountain, I reflected on everything that had occurred during my trip. It was incredible how much I had recovered from my illness, and birds that were once completely foreign to me were suddenly familiar. We finally stopped approximately two-thirds of the way up the mountain as our driver was scared of continuing higher, saying that the bus might not be able to handle the drive. So we began to walk around and enjoy the sights, and soon found ourselves enjoying some of the best birding we had had the entire trip. Babbling Evergreen-forest Warblers skulked in the brush, bizarre Green Longtails sang from the vines, and one of the only Willow Warblers ever seen in the country made a brief appearance along the road. We stopped and watched a male Klaas's Cuckoo surveying the mountainside, listened to the raucous calls of the Great Blue Turacos echoing through the trees.

The confusingly named Dusky Flycatcher (or alternatively, Dusky-brown or African Dusky Flycatcher, Muscicapa adusta) is a familiar bird from southern Africa. However, a very disjunct population resides in the Cameroonian highlands and on Bioko. This individual foraged actively along the road and afforded excellent views for us to study it.

Just a few hours later, I sat on the plane, and watched the Equatoguinean coast disappear below me. We all smiled, discussed the best parts of our trip, and slept as much as we could. Our pilot expedition had worked out fantastically well, and we knew enough to plan for a full-scale expedition. I am happy to say that, come November, I will be returning to Equatorial Guinea on a National Geographic-funded expedition, and will be able to unravel more of the ornithological mysteries in this fascinating country.

10 March 2014

Río Muni

The TSA had trained me well. I prepared to take my shoes off, prepared my water bottle for the security checkpoint, and made sure anything suspicious I had was in a non-threatening position. We were at Malabo International Airport, and preparing to fly to Bata, Río Muni. The mainland sector of Equatorial Guinea is sandwiched between Cameroon and Gabon, and access is conducted almost exclusively through Bata, the country's largest city. I prepared my tickets for Ceiba, the national airline of Equatorial Guinea, and negotiated my way through passport control. A paranoid country, I had now become accustomed to random roadblocks and handing over my passport (or copies) at a moment's notice. However, this check went well, and what I saw when I came around the corner shocked me: the security station was empty, and the metal detector was off. I walked over, hesitantly, but managed to walk to the edge of the airport unimpeded.

And so I waited, and talked to my friends, and continued to recover from the illness that had plagued me the previous days. I sat, staring out the window at the Pied Crows and Cattle Egrets flying over the runway, and the frantic foraging patterns of the Little Swifts over the damp grasses. People wandered across the tarmac, and we were soon ushered out to our flight. I thought nothing of it, when suddenly, a security guard saw me drinking from my water bottle. Moments before boarding, I was pulled aside and frantically worked my way through the fast Spanish conversation. Apparently, I had illegally smuggled my water bottle through "security". I was walked out of line across the tarmac, and forced to empty the contents of my water bottle before boarding the flight. After that, it was fairly unevently. The plane climbed high into the West African sky, and I was able to glimpse the foreboding massifs of Pico Basilé and Mount Cameroon. It was not long until the unbroken expanses of the mainland rainforest appeared, and we landed at the small (but very busy) Bata International Airport.

Almost immediately, we encountered our first good bird on the mainland - the country's first record of Lesser Kestrel (Falco naummanni)! However, taking photographs and using binoculars are illegal at airports in Equatorial Guinea, so all we could do is sit and watch the Pied Crows chase it around the parking lot. We soon arrived at the office of the Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo Forestal y de Áreas Protegidas (INDEFOR-AP), the Equatoguinean equivalent of the USA's Department of the Interior. There, we met with Fidel Esono, and prepared for our trip deep into the jungle.

Discussing our plans for Río Muni. From left to right: Luke L. Powell, Obama (our local guide), me, and Jared D. Wolfe. Photo taken by Mo Twine, on behalf of the Equatorial Guinea Bird Initiative.

In Bata, we stayed not far from the beach, and familiarized ourselves with mainland birds. On the first morning of our trip, our ride was late, so we sat out in the cool morning air and birded from our porch. Amazingly, a beautiful mixed flock came through, offering us some nice surprises! West African Batis and Splendid Glossy-Starling entertained us, while Black-and-white Shrike-Flycatcher and Red-chested Goshawk kept us on our toes.

Soon, however, we were off to Parque Nacional de los Altos de Nsork, a remote and near-mythical place that we had read about in the extreme southeast of the country. Along our drive, the influx of money from the oil industry was evident everywhere. Interstates with no cars led through pristine jungle, and the towns all had the feel of boom towns, with tiny tin shacks selling bottles of water for over 5 USD. We found ourselves in an area with few amenities, and those that were present we could not afford.

Eventually, we began to set up shop along the edge of the national park. There, we banded for two days, and conducted audiovisual surveys along the road cuts. I grew stronger and stronger as I recovered from my illness, and found myself invigorated by the thick forest around us.


The rarest bird we found in the park was this Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola). Foraging along a blocked creek at the edge of the road construction, this bird represents the second record ever for Equatorial Guinea, and the first for the mainland.


A fantastically beautiful forest bird associated with water, the White-throated Blue Swallow (Hirundo nigrita) was a fantastic surprise during a brief roadside stop.


Not all birds are instantly identifiable! Much overlap between the appearances of several species exists, and some require much more study than others. One such bird was this Chestnut-flanked Sparrowhawk (Accipiter castanilius). A rare, small understory hawk, it is rarely encountered and few photographs exist.


A close-up of the Chestnut-flanked Sparrowhawk we caught in Altos de Nsork. This is the first Accipiter I ever got to hold!


The crown jewel of our African banding efforts was the White-bellied Kingfisher (Corythornis leucogaster), of which we caught two. This bird was made that much better by being caught near a calling Bare-cheeked Trogon (Apaloderma aequatoriale), my first African trogon encounter.

After several days of surveying and banding, we headed back to Bata, and prepared for our last few days in this fantastic country.

To be continued...

06 March 2014

Surviving the Jungle

November 2013 continued:

There are few times in my life that I have felt so miserable and in so much pain. Every step sent me reeling, and there were times I could not even lift my feet. Every time my boots filled with water from the pouring rain I considered it a blessing, as it meant I could pause to empty them out. My clothes stuck to my skin as the water dripped from the brow of my hat. Branches grabbed at me as I climbed higher and higher through the volcanic rock. Stopping offered views of the mist-shrouded forest, but the rains quickly made me cold and forced me to continue on. The cool water kept my fever at bay, but there was no reprieve from the aching in my muscles. My throat burned, and it hurt to breath, but I continued on. I had no choice.

Two days before, I was on top of the world. After banding in Moka, we decided to head to the south coast of Bioko Island via Ureka. We arrived at the coast long after dark, and soon found ourselves conducting the long beach walk in the dead of night. Waterfalls roared out of the cliffs, and the water glistened with the light of the stars. We hiked for miles barefoot in the sand, watching the crabs flee and the imposing jungle looming overhead. Hammer-headed Bats honked from the trees and the occasional shooting star kept our eyes glancing skywards. We came across several massive Loggerhead Turtles nesting on the beach in the dark, the massive, car-sized reptiles being mistaken for rocks until we were so close we could see the sand flying through the night.

At 2 AM, I knew I was sick. My throat ached and burned, my muscles were beginning to clench up, and I feared for what the morning would bring. I had been becoming sicker with speed as our hike progressed, and now, all that lay between me and sleep was a waist-deep rushing river flowing into the sea. Crossing through the icy water, clothes held high above my head, I tripped on the pebbles and rocks on the river bottom and kept my eyes on the far shore. After one of the longest hikes in my life, I had finally made it to the legendary Moaba Camp.

The next morning, however, I could not even speak. I had a raging fever, could barely stand, and felt like my throat was on fire. I crashed under a tarp, and fell asleep listening to the rain. For hours, I slept feverishly, eating what I could and ignoring the paradise that surrounded me. Sea cliffs, waterfalls, and foraging Greenbuls lulled me to sleep, and I slowly regained strength.

It was not long until my friends returned from the forest, and we began the inevitable hard talk. Luke stared at the surrounding forest, and spoke low, making sure I honestly knew what lay ahead. It was clear what my options were: take a bunch of advil and hike the 14 kilometers uphill to Moka, or wait three days for a boat that might not come.

And so, 24 hours later, I found myself popping advil, chugging water and slogging through the mud of the Equatoguinean Rainforest. We spaced out, as we had been trudging for 12 straight hours already, and the rain had dampened our conversations. Every time I saw one of my group, they smiled at me, happy to see I was still on my feet. My memories began to mix and my thoughts were continually focused on the trail before me. I thought of Caroline, and how I wanted to see her in December, and of all the other things I had to hike back to.

Amazingly, I was still able to bird despite my illness! Keeping my mind busy helped me continue on, and when the 36 hours of rain finally halted, I could see Moka, and could even take the time to write down the birds around me (checklist here). African Stonechats flew along the road, and Gray Apalis called from the roadside shrubs.

When I finally made it back to the BBPP field station, I could barely walk. My legs were cramped, my feet burned and ached, and I could not stop smiling. I had made it. I had survived the jungle. I rested as much as I could, and stared at the map of Bioko in the center. Tomorrow, we were having an "easy" travel day and then heading deep into the rainforest on the mainland. Though my fever had broken, I knew that the mainland would be rough as I continued to recover, and I fell asleep thinking about the jungle and what surprises awaited.

To be continued...

Western Mountain Greenbuls (Arizelocichla tephrolaema) such as this one kept me going on my brutal hike while sick.

03 March 2014

Banding in Moka

November, 2013 continued:

The rest of our time in Moka was spent searching for birds on the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program property and banding what birds we could. We set up nets at the edge of agricultural land and running up along montane riparian forest. Overall, it was a highly successful couple of days. You can view my general birding checklists for the two days here and here.

Platysteira chalybea

One of the more regularly encountered uniquely-African birds at the field station was the Black-necked Wattle-Eye (Platysteira chalybea). Part of the endemic African family Platysteiridae, Wattle-Eyes are aptly named, and always fascinating to watch as they forage in the forest.

Terpsiphone rufiventer tricolor

Part of the predominately Australasian radiation Monarchidae, Paradise-Flycatchers are a much sought-after group by birders. This particular individual is a Black-headed Paradise-Flycatcher (Terpsiphone rufiventer tricolor). This subspecies is endemic to Bioko.

Cyanomitra oritis poensis

One of the most beautiful bird families in the Old World is the Nectariniidae. There are dozens of species worldwide, with some more colorful than others. This particular individual is a Cameroon Sunbird (Cyanomitra oritis poensis), a large taxa endemic to the Cameroonian Highlands and Bioko.

Cinnyris reichenowi preussi

A much more colorful sunbird on Bioko is the Northern Double-Collared Sunbird (Cinnyris reichenowi preussi). This was the first species of sunbird I ever saw in Equatorial Guinea; ironically, the first species I ever saw in South Africa was the Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Cinnyris chalybeus)!

Elminia albiventris albiventris

While in Equatorial Guinea, I was able to experiment with vocal recording for the first time. One of the highest quality recordings I was able to obtain was of a singing White-bellied Crested Flycatcher (Elminia albiventris albiventris), available HERE. Just moments before getting this recording, we managed to catch one as well, allowing us to obtain a complete multimedia experience for this fascinating bird.

Eurillas virens virens

One of the most widespread groups of African birds is the Greenbuls. Members of the family Pycnonotidae, Greenbuls can be maddeningly frustrating, and their calls and sounds were a constant companion on our trip. One of the most common species in Bioko was the Little Greenbul (Eurillas virens virens).

Sheppardia bocagei poensis

Last, but not least, is Bocage's Akalat (Sheppardia bocagei poensis). This enjoyable little bird was often flushed from trails in the forest, and was an enjoyable bird to have in the hand.

This is but a small sampling of the avifauna of West Africa, and an excellent look at some of the fascinating taxa that exist in the more remote reaches of Bioko, Equatorial Guinea.

More to come!