BY GEOFF LOCKWOOD
IF all you think of when you hear the word Nigeria is “drugs, 419 scams and winning the Nigerian lottery again …for the eighth time this year” then maybe, like me, you need to think again!
I have just returned from a trip to Lagos and to Okomu National Park, one of the largest conserved areas of lowland forest in Nigeria and the birding experience of a lifetime.
Any trip to a new country — let alone a new region, is always exciting and the prospect of new and spectacular birds had me anxiously waiting for confirmation that my visa had been granted and that the trip was on.
Our small group flew into Lagos on the scheduled SAA flight on Friday 12th January and, taxing up to the sprawling terminal in Lagos International Airport, I saw first hand the effects of the Harmattan — the dry wind blowing off the Sahara which, for two months each winter, turns Nigeria’s skies a hazy, dust-laden yellow.
…OUR arrival in Okomu National Park after a four-hour drive was heralded by a spectacular change in scenery. The forest had been logged historically but is still largely intact and the height, structure and density of the tree cover are breathtaking.
In addition to a spectacular range of birds that was our primary target, it is still home to a number of forest elephant and buffalo, as well as a large variety of primates including a small (and very wary) troop of chimpanzees. It is also home to over 700 different butterfly species and the roads and paths through the forest were ablaze with colour and movement.
The drive through the forest to the lodge at Okomu Eco-resort was at midday and fairly rushed but we still managed great sightings of Fanti Sawwing and Eurasian Honey Buzzard plus spectacular views of the inappropriately-named Black Bee-eater — a gorgeous bird with a crimson throat and turquoise blue — streaked body.
The Okomu forest is characterised by a number of shallow lakes scattered through the forest and these have formed clearings of between 80 and 150 meters in diameter.
As two of these, viewing platforms have been built high into Cotton-Silk trees overlooking the clearings and we made for the newer of these after lunch.
The climb up is not for the faint-hearted or for anyone with a fear of heights – 36 meters straight up inside a lattice-work of wooden struts, and, with the 70 steps placed 450 millmetres apart, a great cardio-vascular workout. Once on the platform however it was all worth it. The view over the canopy was spectacular … and the birding was even better.
OVER the next two hours, I added sightings of numerous new birds. Most striking were the enormous White-thighed-, and Black-, Yellow-, and Black-and-White-casqued Hornbills whose heavy wing beats were clearly audible even across the clearing. Numbers of Piping-, and African Pied Hornbills brought the number of new members of this family to five for the trip and a host of smaller species – Velvet-mantled Drongo, Blue-throated Brown-, Buff-throated-, and Superb Sunbirds, (along with the more familiar Collared’s) plus Purple-headed Glossy-Starlings added colour and excitement.
Just before dusk forced us down from the platform, a series of calls echoed across the clearing. Parts sounded similar to those of a Red-, or Yellow-billed Hornbill but these were interspersed with a variety of eerie hooting sounds — creating for me one of the most vivid memories of this trip. Seconds later I was looking at my first Great Blue Turaco — a breathtaking bird that in spite of its large (about twice the size of our louries) size bounded with effortless grace through the canopy of an adjacent tree.
As we carefully descended, the plaintive-sounding whistles of a Fire-crested Alethe rose from the darkening forest below.
The following morning had us heading for the second platform – even higher at 38 meters above the forest floor. On the way we stopped to observe a large colony of Bristle-nosed Barbets nesting in a large dead tree stump.
There must have been at least 60 pairs of these strange dull-brown birds buzzing around and, with the possible exception of the Naked-faced Barbet, which we saw later; these have to be the ugliest members of this usually colourful family.
Great views of White-tailed Ant-Thrush feeding in the road and a tantalizingly brief glimpse of an African Pitta that flew out in front of our vehicle kept the list ticking over.
Our luck continued and our sojourn on the new canopy platform brought great views of
Cassin’s Hawk Eagle as well as the diminutive Lemon-breasted Crombec, Boiko Batis and a stunning Rufous-crowned Eremomela – a bird that makes our members of the genus look really dull and boring!
Speckled Tinkerbird – a rather large and strange-looking tinkerbird was next but this was followed by stunning views of a pair of Yellow-spotted Barbets, surely one of the most strikingly coloured members of the family.
Piercing whistles announced the arrival of a trio of African Grey Parrots and they repeatedly circled close overhead in response to Phil’s whistling.
What a difference seeing these birds in their natural setting – instead of a cramped cage! We decided to walk back to the lodge and added Red-headed-, Gray’s-, and Red-vented Malimbes an
Maxwell’s Black Weaver; Blue-headed Wood-Dove, as well as stunning views of Blue Cuckoo-Shrike and Green Hylia to the growing list.
OUR last morning saw a return to the first platform where we were treated to a spectacular show by five species of hornbill feeding opposite us. A party of Spotted Greenbuls and a single Mona Monkey later joined them.
Cassin’s Spinetail flitted through the canopy across the clearing, and the calls of Red-rumped Tinkerbird had me searching the trees – but unfortunately the bird remained elusive.
The walk back to the lodge brought great views of Red-tailed Greenbul and a brief stop at a fruiting Oil Palm gave us great views of all four species of tiny Negrofinch – Whitebreasted-,
Chestnut-breasted-, Grey-headed-, and Pale-fronted and then it was time to pack up and head for Lagos and our flight back to Johannesburg.
A Western Bluebill feeding on the road verge before we left the forest plus a flock of the local race of Village Weaver nesting with Veillot’s Black Weavers at a refuelling stop wrapped up a stunning five days.
The list for the trip stood at 127 species, but of these 56 were lifers! Not bad for a winter trip when birding is supposedly more difficult.
I can’t wait to get back to Okomu, and this time I want to also get up to the mountain forests of Cross River and, hopefully see my first Picathartes!!!