Together with my wife Janet, I spent 4 weeks in Sierra Leone on an RSPB trip surveying for Emerald Starlings (a Data Deficient species) with the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone in the northern half of the country, although also spent quite a lot of time based in Freetown at either end of the trip. Thus this was not an attempt to see all of the Upper Guinea endemics (we did not visit Gola or other more Eastern lowland rainforest sites) but instead we focused our birding efforts in three main areas and in doing so picked up a total of just over 300 species. We mostly birded independently together with James Sesay from CSSL but we also went on a guided canoe trip down the Little Scarcies River in OKNP (excellent for riverine species) and a guided trip to the Yellow-headed Picathartes site at Guma Dam.
The weather was mostly very hot and dry (often 35 degrees or more by 11.30 am), with the odd slightly cooler cloudy day and slightly cooler conditions in the far north around Kabala. We flew with Air France from London, which has brief stops at Paris and at Conokry in Guinea but has the benefit of arriving earlier in Sierra Leone than BMI i.e. it’s still light when you arrive, whilst it was also rather cheaper. We took the Pelican Water Taxi to cross the bay to Aberdeen and stayed for several nights at the clean and friendly Hotobah Lodge in Congo Cross (West Freetown) whilst we sorted out logistics of our surveywork. Sierra Leone is a poor but currently very safe country. We met only helpful friendly people throughout our trip and we can thoroughly recommend visiting this small but diverse country.
• 22-24 Feb: stayed at Hotobah Lodge, Congo Cross whilst sorting out logistics
• 25 Feb: drove Freetown to Bumbuna where we stayed in the AKK guesthouse
• 26 Feb – 1 Mar: bird survey work in the Bumbuna area
• 1 Mar: drove to Kabala via Makeni
• 2-5 Mar: bird survey work in the Lake Sonfon IBA / Kabala area – staying at Lamtec 2 Guest House
• 6 Mar: drove to Kamakwie via Makeni and roadside check in the hills SW of Fadugu
• 7-10 Mar: bird survey work in the Outamba-Kilimi National Park
• 11 Mar: drove back to Freetown via Makeni
• 12-18 Mar: based in Freetown but including trips to Lumley Golf Course and to Guma Dam
The main sites we birded are listed below.
a) The breezy verandahs of the Hotobah Lodge at Congo Cross were a good place to sit in the early morning and later afternoon. The neighbouring trees and muddy beach held a surprising variety of birds given the urban location. We spent a lot of time here and recorded some 50 species – mostly widespread birds such as Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Western Grey Plantain-eater, African Thrush, Yellow White-eye, Black-necked Weaver, Shikra, Royal Tern, Western Reef-heron and Hooded Vulture but including surprises such as Oriole Warbler, Chestnut-breasted Negro-finch, Broad-billed Roller, Grey Woodpecker and Woodland Kingfisher, plus no less than 5 species of sunbird including Splendid, Brown, Copper, Variable and Green-headed Sunbird. We also saw several Rose-ringed Parakeets here – the only place we saw them in the country.
b) Lumley Golf Course: this can apparently be a rather dodgy area prone to muggings but we had a safe mornings birding here through the wooded fairways and the mangrove-lined creek behind. We saw a similar selection of birds to those at the Hotobah Lodge plus Pied-winged Swallow, Senegal Thick-knee and a few new waders such as Greenshank and Curlew.
c) Guma Dam: Gaining access to this site requires a permit from the Guma Valley offices in Freetown – this is a lengthy procedure which took us most of the morning to sort out (best done in advance). We spent a pleasant hour or two in the afternoon birding the dam area. Groups of aerial feeders over the dam included several excellent Sabine’s Spinetails in amongst the Little Swifts, Fanti Roughwings and Lesser Striped Swallows. Raptors here included Red-necked Buzzard, Osprey, Hooded Vulture and a distant Cassin’s Hawk-eagle. The forest was pretty quiet but we picked up Western Bronze-naped Pigeon, Green Hylia, Green Crombec and Slender-billed Greenbul, whilst closer to the Picathartes site we had great views of an adult and a spotty juvenile White-tailed Alethe feeding in a gully with a party of Cusimanses (a mongoose) plus a Forest Robin. We waited a full hour at the nest-site for good if brief views of a stunning Yellow-headed Picathartes and picked up Grey Longbill and Finsch’s Flycatcher-thrush while we waited.
The area around Bumbuna is changing fast as a result of wide-scale open-cast iron ore mining and its associated infrastructure including a recent upgrade of the old “slow” road to Makeni – now a broad and very dusty track busy with lorries carrying iron ore. The area still holds a good selection of savannah woodland and forest-edge birds including Emerald Starling (we recorded some 150 species) but the constant traffic and dust on most of the accessible tracks can make birding rather unpleasant and many areas of habitat are being steadily degraded. One day the better forest around the dam may be opened up for ecotourism but this currently remains off-limits. We failed to find either Sierra Leone Prinia or Baumann’s Greenbul here despite searching in better quality hill forest on the edge of the Sula Mountains.
a) Bumbuna waterfall and river. The scenic falls on the Rokel River and adjacent remnant gallery forest held a few good birds. Rock Pratincoles were easily seen on the river together with a fly-by White-bellied Kingfisher and a pale morph Ayre’s Hawk-eagle overhead. The gallery forest held Western Nicator, Little Green Sunbird, Buff-spotted Woodpecker and Cameron Sombre Greenbul in amongst more regular fare. We also had 3 Hartlaub’s Ducks in flight near the river just southwest of the town.
b) The remaining patches of secondary forest with cultivation close to Bumbuna held a good range of commoner species and this is where we saw most Emerald Starlings including a flock of 32 a mile or so down the Makeni Road. Raptors included regular Red-necked Buzzards, the odd Black Sparrowhawk, a Lanner Falcon near an inselberg along the Makeni road and a Grey Kestrel back towards Magburaka. We had both Greyish Eagle-owl and African Scops Owl from the Guest-house whilst both Double-spurred Francolin and Helmeted Guineafowl were common at the edges of cultivated areas. Great Blue Turacos were regular in gallery forest patches but we had just one Yellow-billed Turaco near the village of Bassaia, with 2 Little Green Woodpeckers nearby. Some birds seemed to be at very low densities and in five days of intensive fieldwork we saw (and heard) only 1 Turati’s Boubou here (much easier to see in OKNP), 5 Square-tailed Saw-wings, 1 Red-shouldered Cuckoo-shrike, 2 White-shouldered Black Tits, 1 Dybowski’s Twinspot, 2 Red-winged Pytilias, 1 Togo Paradise Whydah and 2 Cabanis’s Buntings. Other species also appeared distinctly localised such as Senegal Eremomela, Green Crombec, Senegal Batis, Red-vented Malimbe, Yellow-mantled Widowbird, Zebra Waxbill and Yellow-throated Longclaw. Easier to see and find were Simple Leaflove, Black-backed Cisticola, Orange-cheeked Waxbill and Preuss’s Cliff-swallow. We had a single bonus Wilcock’s Honeyguide in a bird party in tall forest along the Magburaka Road with Honeyguide Greenbul nearby.
c) The Bendugu road. This road passes up into the Sula Mountains and we found some taller forest patches here on the hill-sides which held birds of denser woodland including Yellow-casqued and Piping Hornbills, Green Hylia, Sharpes’ Apalis, Grey-headed Negrofinch, Yellow-whiskered, Ansorge’s and Red-tailed Greenbuls plus Blue-breasted Kingfisher and Fanti Saw-wing.
3) Lake Sonfon and environs
We stayed at Lamtec 2 Guest house in Kabala and checked wooded habitats to the SE of town towards Lake Sonfon, as well as east towards Koinadugu and NE towards Falaba.
a) Kabala. The road north from Makeni passes through a wide range of habitats. We had our only Rufous-crowned Roller of the trip perched conspicuously at a recently burnt area whilst stops in the wooded hills SW of Fadugu produced Green Turaco, Blue-headed Wood-Dove and more Emerald Starlings. In Kabala, we picked up a few new birds in the area around Lamtec 2, particularly when walking up the adjacent hill to the wooded grounds of the Catholic School. Birds seen here that we didn’t pick up elsewhere included regular Plain Nightjar at dusk, a Fox Kestrel, several Grey Kestrels, Spotted and Plain Flycatchers plus Red-faced Cisticola.
b) Lake Sonfon area. This is an IBA and includes a large area of rolling wooded hills with small-scale cultivation. This appears to be a very important area for Emerald Starling which was widespread and easily seen here in groups of up to 58. The lake itself can only be reached by 2 or 3 hours of walking or by motorbike. We recorded about 150 species in the area and compared to the lorry-filled dusty tracks of Bumbuna, birding was a pleasure. We saw several species here that we didn’t find at Bumbuna. Red-thighed Sparrowhawk was relatively common in the woodlands and other new raptors included Brown Snake-eagle, Wahlberg’s Eagle and Eurasian Marsh Harrier. Wooded areas held such gems as Black Bee-eater, Black Wood-hoopoe, Fiery-bellied Woodpecker, White-crowned Robin Chat, Black-winged Oriole and Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher. Interestingly all of the boubous we saw well here were Tropical Boubou rather than Turati’s Boubou. The scrubby and grassy areas at the edge of cultivation also held plenty of interest, with parties of Brown Babblers, plus Yellow-throated Leaflove, Crimson Seedcracker, Whistling Cisticola, Viellot’s Barbet and a lone singing Jambandu Indigobird, as well as more Preuss’s Cliff-swallows. New sunbirds here included both Scarlet-chested and Western Violet-backed Sunbird whilst the showy Splendid Sunbird was common. We had a bonus Shining Blue Kingfisher on the Rokel River plus a completely out of range African Mourning Dove!
c) Koinadugu and Falaba roads. We saw a very similar mix of habitats and species to the Lake Sonfon area along these two roads heading east and NE out of town respectively although the latter road had far more villages and good habitat was mostly further away from the road. The Koinadugu track is pretty rough with some hairy bridges and would be very difficult to drive when wet. We found Emerald Starlings along both roads. New birds along the Koinadugu road included Crowned Eagle, Violet Turaco, Green Turaco, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, Blackcap Babbler, Leaflove, White-rumped Swift and a lone African White-backed Vulture as well as another Blue-breasted Kingfisher. The Falaba route produced a displaying male Black-and-White Flycatcher, several African Blue Flycatchers, a Blue-headed Crested Flycatcher and a male Purple-throated Cuckoo-shrike plus 2 Oriole Warblers and another pair of White-shouldered Black Tits.
4) Outamba-Kilimi National Park (OKNP)
We stayed in the only guest-house at Kamakwie for one night after a long drive south from Kabala to refuel at Makeni before heading NW on the dirt road from Panlap. Fuel is hard to come by away from Makeni so make sure you fill up there! The Kamakwie road passes mostly through rather degraded secondary forest with open cultivated areas. We had a fine Red-collared Widowbird at one of these, plus roadside Dark-chanting Goshawk and Lesser Moorhen, whilst a stop at the best area of woodland after Pendembu produced a couple of Melancholy Woodpeckers in a bird party – the only ones we saw on the trip.
a) Kamakwie to Outamba. The track to Outamba sees very little traffic and is a delight to bird along. Parties of long-crested White Helmet-shrikes were new here in the more open savannahs along with Bar-breasted and Black-bellied Firefinches plus more Red-winged Pytilias. A remnant patch of disturbed gallery forest held a stunning Spotted Honeyguide and a noisy Cassin’s Hawk-eagle. A hand-chain ferry is a cool way to cross the Little Scarcies River and the denser woodlands on the other side produced our first Cassin’s Flycatcher, Grey-breasted Swallows and our only definite Ahanta Francolins of the trip. The entrance track to the Outamba section of the OKNP is a birding highlight. The more open savannah woodland hosted several new species including Green Wood-hoopoe, Abyssinian Roller and out of range Bronze-tailed Glossy Starlings. A burnt hillside area nearer the camp with an adjacent marsh held several pairs of Emerald Starling, an out of range pair of Chestnut-bellied Starlings, our only Double-toothed Barbet and Wire-tailed Swallow plus several Grey-headed Olivebacks, Yellow-throated Leafloves, Red-vented Malimbes and more Red-winged Pytilias.
b) Outamba camp. The accommodation huts are basic but fine and are perfectly located in the shade of tall gallery forest on the edge of the Little Scarcies River. The River itself held a typically skulking African Finfoot amongst commoner waterside species plus Senegal Thick-knee and White-faced Whistling-duck at dusk. The paths through the adjacent gallery forest were thick with dry crunchy leaves so were impossible to bird quietly. However, a bird party regularly passed through the camp around midday and careful checking of this produced several new birds including Grey-headed Bristlebill, Blackcap Illadopsis, Rufous-capped Flycatcher and our only African Paradise Flycatchers, as well as regular Red-shouldered Cuckoo-shrike, Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Lead-coloured and Cassin’s Flycatchers, African Emerald Cuckoo, Yellowbill and a vivid Many-coloured Bush-shrike. Up to 2 pairs of spectacular Standard-winged Nightjars hawked over the camp at dusk each night, whilst parties of Great Blue Turacos and at least 4 species of monkey roosted in the trees, with African Wood-owls calling at night.
c) An afternoon canoe-trip down the river with one of the Forest Guards produced excellent views of the hippos as well as good range of riverine species including 5 species of kingfisher. We counted at least 19 Rock Pratincoles and 6 White-throated Blue Swallows perched on mid-stream rocks and had great views of African Finfoot, Wooly-necked Stork and Black-crowned Night-heron, although bird of the trip was a White-crested Tiger-heron which we saw twice roosting in dense shrubbery at the river-edge. We searched in vain for a permanent lake further down the river which is reported to hold large numbers of ducks and “lapwings”.
d) Outamba section. A walking track leads across the river near the camp and this then splits with the northern (left-hand) path heading to a hill-top viewpoint which gives great views over the extensive woodland, whilst the other heads deeper into the park and passes through a couple of villages. We saw lots of birds along both tracks. White-breasted Cuckoo-shrike is thinly spread in the woodlands, whilst Turati’s Boubous and African Cuckoos are common and easily seen. The path to the viewpoint passed through taller forest where we saw Yellow-casqued Hornbill and Blue-breasted Kingfisher plus a splendid Spotted Creeper in a bird party, whilst we saw Pied-winged Swallow at the Viewpoint itself. The more open wooded savannahs along the village path yielded both Dybowski’s Twinspot and Yellow-winged Pytilia, plus a party of Yellow-billed Shrikes, whilst denser areas of moister forest held both Puvel’s and Brown Illadopsises plus Leafloves and Common Wattle-eye. The only downside here was a regular passage of motorbike riders ferrying supplies to illegal gold miners who have recently over-run much of this section of the park including setting light to the woodland and disturbing the larger game. Go there soon and further encourage the authorities to sort out this problem before it scars this excellent National Park more permanently. The Kilimi section of OKNP lies 30km west of Outamba and is also worthy of exploration if you have enough fuel.