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, 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.

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