Monday 8 April 2013

Ghana March 2013

Two weeks ago I returned from the Ornitholidays tour to Ghana, with a group of eight. The highlights were many and varied, with just a few chosen here. In Mole National Park, we witnessed an amazing migration of Grasshopper Buzzards following heavy overnight rain. Sixty or more soared above the lodge together at midday, and headed north, for breeding grounds in the Sahel region south of the Sahara. Many others, not yet ready to leave, were attracted by hatches of termites as the winged insects emerged from the ground. 

The African Jacana is a common species in most of sub-Saharan Africa, seen here at a floating nest. Visible directly below the bill and green reeds is an egg, large and beautifully marked. (Click on the image to enlarge). Once the female has laid the third of four eggs, the male takes over, incubating the clutch and looking after the chicks on his own. Meanwhile the female looks for other mates. I was especially happy to see a glimpse of the brown eggs with black scribbles, widely regarded as among the finest of all birds' egg patterns.  

Returning to the Mole Lodge one evening just after dark, we came across various nightjars. Half an hour earlier we had watched a female Standard-winged Nightjar at dusk. Now we found this Long-tailed Nightjar on the sandy track ahead, and a Plain Nightjar close by. Two days later we were to witness the extraordinary sight of male Standard-winged Nightjars displaying, appearing to have two small birds fluttering above and behind them as they tried to attract females. 

Ghana is a bee-eater paradise: we saw 9 species of this charismatic family during our 13 days in the field. Most striking of all was perhaps the Black Bee-eater, mundanely named but extravagantly coloured. Of all the bizarre nesting places to choose, this bird had made a tunnel in a pile of soil dumped in a car-park. However, not any old car-park would do. This one was on the edge of undisturbed forest in the Kakum National Park. Most bee-eaters are birds of open country, but the Black is essentially a forest species. Like so many of Ghana's birds, forest is essential for their breeding and feeding success. As cash-crops such as cocoa and oil-palm are much in demand, the remaining forest comes under more and more pressure. 

Broadbills are a little-known family of tropical forest-dwellers, with 11 species in Asia, and 4 in Africa. This Rufous-sided Broadbill is a sparrow-sized bird that we enjoyed watching as it made short display-flights, noisily vibrating its wings, before returning to the same perch and giving the photographers another chance. All broadbills construct large, domed, untidy hanging nests with a side entrance. This species lays 2 eggs incubated by the female, although the male stays around to help protect the nest from predators.  

March is normally the last month of the dry season in Ghana, but this year the rains began early. In response, many birds were busy with courtship, singing and building nests. These Lesser Striped Swallows returned to the track ahead of us to collect mud for their nests, which they often place in the porch or veranda of a house, or in the roof of a culvert or bridge under the road. The male has a strange buzzy song in which he can produce two different notes at the same time.  

The most sought-after bird on wildlife tours to Ghana is the Yellow-headed Picathartes, sometimes known as rockfowl. These strange creatures return to roost in their mud nests in caves and rock formations. They are hard to observe elsewhere, as they are shy and quiet forest-floor feeders, that disappear at the first sign of disturbance. They feed on a wide range of insects and small reptiles, and attend army ant swarms. Here they feed not on the ants themselves, but on insects disturbed by the ants. 

Finally, we enjoyed watching a colony of Orange Weavers near the coast. This male was taking a break from its main activity of nest-building. Weavers are mostly seed-eaters, but this juicy caterpillar took its fancy. The colony was in bushes above water, and the males were involved in both adding to the nests, and displaying to passing females. Each male was hanging onto the side of the globular nest, quivering its wings and making nasal calls which are often described as swizzling. 

Ghana is an extremely friendly country where we were always made to feel welcome. Many thanks to my fellow-travelers for permission to use the photos above.