19 May 2015

St. Louis

For Caroline's birthday this past weekend, we ran out to St. Louis to explore the city and to visit the University of Missouri--St. Louis. Our drive out there was long, but well worth it. Scattered thunderstorms crossed the prairie, and during a brief respite we stopped at the historic Locust Covered Bridge in north-central Missouri. The site of the first transcontinental highway in the US, the bridge was also a good opportunity to explore a small patch of woods and get some nice eastern birds.

From here, we crossed the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Missouri and continued south to Two Rivers NWR. Even though it was late and in the heat of the day, the birding was fantastic. Canada Goose families cruised in the placid waters while dozens of Great Egrets foraged in the shallows. A pair of Eurasian Tree Sparrows nesting in the parking lot were a pleasant surprise, and the forest hosted boisterous Prothonotary Warblers. Dickcissels sang in the clearings and Indigo Buntings flushed from the roadsides, making us feel like our summer had truly started.

The next day, we went to downtown St. Louis to explore the zoo and the Gateway Arch. Despite some initial difficulties finding our way around the city, the day ended up being a fantastic opportunity to explore. In addition to the wild birds, the zoo also possessed an incredible variety of birds and beasts from around the world. We spent five hours exploring the zoo, watching baby Ring-tailed Lemurs harass their parents and flustered bustards displaying to females in adjacent enclosures.

In the mid-afternoon, we finally found our way to the river, where Caroline came face to face with the Gateway Arch for the first time.

Gateway Arch, St. Louis, Missouri

All in all, she said it was a pretty great birthday.

08 May 2015

Rumpi Hills Revisited

In July 2014, during my whirlwind tour of South-west, Cameroon, one place I greatly enjoyed was the forested Rumpi Hills near Dikome-Balue, a place I spent two days with Moses and regretted not being able to spend more time. Despite my brief visit (and the frequent rains), I saw a multitude of great birds, including Woodhouse's Antpecker, Western Tinkerbird, and Cameroon [African] Pipits.

In mid-March, I found myself heading back there, this time with the University of Kansas. We crammed into our caravan of four-wheel drive pick-ups, and headed up into the mountains. The road, markedly improved from the last time I visited, was still scarred from the rainy season. Road improvements were noticeable, as culverts were being installed along the many creek crossings. Those that had not yet been fixed were still in terrible condition, however, and brought back flashbacks from the rainy season. A lone semi stood derelict in the road halfway to the village as well, a somber reminder that errors in this part of the world are not easily fixed.

We arrived at the village late in the afternoon, and spent the night in an old missionary home above the town. The next morning, we hiked into the village for a traditional blessing ceremony before our work in the forest could begin. The morning was perfect; light clouds wrapped around the summits of the peaks, and Luehder's Bushshrikes purred in the roadside vegetation. We gathered in the chief's home, and met with the village elders to discuss our work, arrange guides, and accept the blessings they offered us.

Elminia longicauda (African Blue Flycatcher)
African Blue Flycatchers (Elminia longicauda) were commonly seen in the farms and fields surrounding Dikome-Balue.

Our group headed up into the mountains, searching for an appropriate campsite for the coming week. Our choice was made easy as the road grew progressively worse, and we found a nice flat area near a creek at the edge of secondary forest and the primary Afromontane forest that cloaked the hills. Scaly Francolins called from the surrounding scrub, Crossley's Ground-Thrushes (a surprisingly common bird!) sang from the adjacent forest, and Mountain Sooty-Boubous let out their whip-cracks from the dark understory.

Camp soon became a home away from home, as we surveyed the surrounding hills. Mark and I roamed the hills every morning, almost every day adding new birds to our list. Family groups of White-throated Mountain-Babblers could be seen traveling with Gray-headed Greenbuls, and one morning we even lucked upon a pair of Green-breasted Bushshrikes foraging near the road. Occasional flocks of White-throated Bee-eaters would cross over the ridge, and a lazy afternoon near camp yielded a displaying Lyre-tailed Honeyguide.

Muscicapa infuscata (Sooty Flycatcher)
Sooty Flycatcher (Muscicapa infuscata) near Dikome-Balue, Rumpi Hills. This is one of the only records of the species from the range, and was part of a pair that was nest building in a large snag.

Our week in these hills was one of the most enjoyable weeks of field work I've ever had in my life. The camp atmosphere was almost never less than jovial, and the multitude of amazing birds (and other animals) meant that there was never a dull moment.

Arizelocichla montana (Cameroon Mountain Greenbul)
Cameroon Mountain Greenbul (Arizelocichla montana) near Dikome-Balue, Rumpi Hills.

Trioceros sp. (Large Chameleon)
Large chameleon (Trioceros sp.) near Dikome-Balue, Rumpi Hills.

After our week of surveying was through, we bid our sad goodbyes to the amazing mountains, and headed back to the coast. The rest of our time in Cameroon was spent drying and cleaning equipment and ensuring that all of our information was well organized. As the rains increased, I spent my time hiding from the downpours watching movies as I finished formatting my eBird checklists. The brief breaks we did have from the weather allowed us to get out around Buea a little, including visiting the coastal city of Limbe and morning walks around our hotel. Our outings yielded several species we had missed in the field (including my first Eurasian Curlew in Africa), and were a pleasant way to enjoy our last days in the region.

Muscicapa cassini (Cassin's Flycatcher)
Cassin's Flycatcher (Muscicapa cassini) at the Limbe Wildlife Center, Southwest, Cameroon.

It was not long before we were boarding the planes in the hot Douala International Airport for the long journey home. Despite logistical difficulties, we all eventually made it back, and were soon put to work catching up on everything that we had missed during our month in the field.

01 May 2015

Ten Days in Korup

After Mark Robbins and I left Mt. Cameroon, we were whisked away to our first field site: Korup National Park. Once again I was on the long road to Mundemba, but this time, the weather was completely different. The deep mudholes had long dried up, and as our visibility was once reduced by rain, it was now shrouded in dust from the parched roads. The lifted cars bounced and rattled down the dusty highways as huddled in our bush taxi. As Mark and I were in the taxi that possessed an air conditioner, we were relegated to the second position in our procession, only able to obtain glimpses of the forest through the veil of brown dust. Our only pause on our hectic drive towards the forest was when we got a flat tire on one of our vehicles. As the drivers fixed the car, we slipped off down the road to bird a little bit and start familiarizing ourselves with Cameroon's rich avifauna. As luck would have it, we had a flyover Abdim's Stork, an uncommon bird in this part of Cameroon, and our first Bristlebills of the trip.

Bleda notatus (Lesser Bristlebill)
Lesser Bristlebill (Bleda notatus) in Korup National Park, Cameroon.

After fixing the vehicle, we raced to Mundemba, where we had a brief (and, content-wise, disturbingly mysterious) lunch and headed for the bridge. The area was barely recognizable from the maelstrom I had seen in July. What was once a massive river was now a rocky riverbed, with water restricted to one small part of the channel. Given the amazingly dry conditions, it did not take us long to get across the river, and we were in camp by the early evening.

The next ten days, Mark and I stuck to our ornithological routines: we both left early (Mark earlier than I could manage!), and hiked several miles worth of trails obtaining recordings and observational records for the area. By mid-morning, we would return, eat a sandwich while we discussed identities and set up our nets for further surveying. Every morning held a mess of fantastic birds, and, even though it was my fourth trip to the region, every morning held something new and exciting. Bare-cheeked Trogons calls from the hillsides, a Yellow-footed Flycatcher foraged above a waterfall, and, perhaps most amazing of all, multiple Black-eared Ground-Thrushes were caught in some of our low elevation nets.

Geokichla camaronensis (Black-eared Ground-Thrush)
The rare Black-eared Ground-Thrush (Geokichla camaronensis), a bird that we caught several times in Korup but never saw away from the nets. The song of this species is still undescribed.

After the first four days, the rest of our party from Buea came out and joined us, as they ran the final segment of their Biodiversity Inventories Course and we continued with our ornithological surveys. The camp was vibrant and alive, with constant activity of some sort. Every day we encountered different animals as well: one morning we saw a distant group of Galagos, another morning I scared up what appeared to be a Bush Pig, and monkeys could be heard around the camp regularly.

There was a downside to the lowland forests, however. The heat and humidity led to us sweating constantly, and I often found myself simply going shirtless during the afternoons to avoid overheating. Unfortunately, the density of sweaty people led to the local bee population taking note of our presence, and the entire camp was infested with bees. The pit toilets were virtually unusable during daylight hours as the bees swarmed around anything they though may contain salt. Our own bodies would become covered with sweat bees whenever we stopped moving, and I was stung four times by the bigger honeybees that patrolled the camp.

Merops gularis (Black Bee-eater)
On the plus side, we did have bee-eaters (such as this Black Bee-eater Merops gularis) that could be seen around camp.

Eventually, we grew tired of the heat, humidity, and insects, and prepared for our second field site: The Rumpi Hills. It was another area I knew from the previous year, and an area that I was extremely excited to return to...