27 February 2014

Bioko

November, 2013:

I have become rather jaded with plane flights. The excitement that used to course through me at the very thought of being able to fly again has slowly been replaced by a general sense of malaise. There are two things that have accelerated this transformation in my life: I have flown an exceedingly large amount in the past several years, and the novelty of flying is slowly wearing off; and I have grown too large to fit in most planes.

Somewhere over the mid-Atlantic, the latter of these problems threatened to destroy me. My knees burned with a fire that was only made more intense by the reclined German invading my larger-than-average personal space. Frequent walks about the cabin and fitful bouts of sleep kept me sane, as I tried to prepare myself mentally for what lay ahead.

I glanced out the window occasionally, keeping track of where we were, and as the alps passed underneath, I thought of all my German friends, and wondered how they are doing.

Austrian Alps

As I passed over Austria, I became more and more tired, and began slipping into a deeper and deeper sleep. I glanced out the window from time to time, and after passing over Sicily, fell asleep for good.

Several hours later, I awoke to a much different scene.

Niger

The Sahara, the endless sea of rock and sand I had heard about for years, stretched out beneath me. I stared out the window for hours, and eventually, the terrain grew wetter and wetter. The Sahara gave way to the Sahel and the Guinean grasslands, and soon, the dark forests creeped over more and more of the land. The sun set, and the impenetrable blackness of the African jungle stretched out beneath me.

Two hours later, the humidity hit me like a wall. The imposing black of the water stretched on forever in front of me, while the sky glowed orange with the burning fires on the oil platforms. Posters of a smiling president loomed over me at every turn, and my friends and I walked across the crowded parking lot towards a small vehicle with yellow license plates.

Drew Cronin, a PhD student from Drexel University, began to give us the lowdown on where we were. I looked around, trying to wrap my head around everything he had told us and everything I had learned before landing. We were in the outskirts of Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, and heading south to the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program station just outside of Moka in the southern part of the island. We crammed into the car, and began heading south.

The story of this small island off the coast of Cameroon goes back to 1472, when Fernão do Pó was the first European explorer to reach Africa's Gulf of Guinea. He noted the island on which we were, Bioko, and discovered several uninhabited islands to the south as well that now form parts of Equatorial Guinea and the island nation of São Tomé e Príncipe. After changing hands between the Portuguese, Spanish, and English several times, the country of Equatorial Guinea was born from the mainland tract of "Spanish Guinea" and the islands of Bioko and Annobón. The country is now ruled by a dictator, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (or Obiang for short), and his image lined the roads on which we now found ourselves traveling.

The surreal experience of getting adjusted to being in Africa again was punctuated by the military checkpoints as we wound our way into the volcanic mountains. Our passports were repeatedly checked at desolate jungle checkpoints as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains of Bioko. It was not long until we reached the Moka station, and set up our tents for the night. Despite my excitement about being in Africa again, I found myself unable to stay up very long, and listening to the calls of African Wood-Owls (Strix woodfordii) in the distance, I soon fell asleep.

The next day, I was finally able to coherently take in my surroundings. It was my first time in West Africa, and my friends Luke L. Powell from the Smithsonian and Jared D. Wolfe from Louisiana State had come with me to scout out this remote corner of the world. Our leader, Luke, stared at the massive wall map of Bioko island with Drew to plot out our next moves on the island. We were going to be in Equatorial Guinea for two weeks, and we had two goals: the first, to organize as many logistics as possible for a return expedition in approximately a year to better understand the west African avifauna in the region, and the second, to explore as much of that avifauna as possible while we were there.

It was not long until we were on the trail, and absorbing the new sights and foreign sounds of tropical Africa. Having lived in South Africa, many of the genera and species were familiar to me. Cinnyris sunbirds fed in the trees, Little Swifts (Apus affinis) foraged around the buildings, and Red-eyed Doves (Streptopelia semitorquata) sang nearby. However, the species that were new to me blew me away. One of the first sighting of the morning was of majestic Great Blue Turacos (Corythaeola cristata) flying between the crowns of the large Afromontane trees, and the raucous shouts of the shy Yellow-billed Turacos (Tauraco macrorhynchus) hiding in the thickets. The whip-like calls of Mountain Sooty-Boubous (Laniarius poensis) echoed through the misty trees, and the near-constant hooting of Yellow-rumped Tinkerbirds (Pogoniulus bilineatus) became a constant companion.

Cinnyris reichenowi preussi

Northern Double-collared Sunbird (Cinnyris reichenowi) at the BBPP field station in Moka, Equatorial Guinea.

We began hiking towards the top of the nearest volcano, Biao, in search of higher elevation birds and in order to get a sense of the island. As we climbed higher and higher, the highland birds made themselves seen. Shelley's Oliveback (Nesocharis shelleyi) put in a brief appearance, and other specialty taxa like Black-capped Woodland-Warbler (Phylloscopus herberti) gave excellent views.

Linurgus olivaceus olivaceus

Oriole Finches (Linurgus olivaceus) are a common residents in the highlands of Bioko, and were always a welcome sight!

At the end of our hike, we were rewarded with the incredible views of Lago Biao, the largest lake on Bioko.

Lago Biao

As I stood there, staring out at the lake (and, admittedly, shivering slightly from the cold breeze!), I could not help but smile at the fact that I was exploring Africa again. It felt good to be back, and I looked forward to what the coming weeks would bring.

To be continued.

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