Saturday, 27 October 2012


Legon botanical gardens
In a city with few green spaces, the University of Legon’s botanical gardens are a haven for those needing some fresh air. Wandering around the disorganised collection of trees and shrubs quickly takes you away from the noise and fumes of Accra’s busy streets. On any given weekend, you will find many of the city’s dog walkers and joggers treading the brick-red paths, and students reading quietly underneath trees. 

The gardens also attract much of the city’s wildlife, particularly the avian kind. And so at 7.00am I took a taxi to the northern end of the campus to join the birdwatching walk run by BirdlifeInternational and the GhanaWildlife Society.

A shikra
Confession time: I am something of a reluctant birdwatcher. Despite being a nature lover, I always considered watching tiny specks in the distance and making notes on them a rather geeky pastime, only one or two steps up from trainspotting. But before we moved to Ghana, a friend from TCV told me about the diversity of birds in West Africa (he had lived in Nigeria) and recommended a good field guide.

And I have become hooked. Sort of. I don’t take notes or make lists: no recording of the overhead conditions, or numbers of males and females. I am also a bit of snob. I have no interest in all the little brown ones, or pigeons or crows – I can see them back in the UK. Luckily Ghana many brightly coloured species with suitably tropical names; more than enough to occupy a fledgling twitcher.

Samuel, the walk leader, set us off at a lazy pace. Within a few steps we had found our first specimens: a couple of grey hornbills calling to each other. I had seen them before hopping between the trees in Accra, but this was a chance to admire them more closely. We stopped to watch their routine, some in the group taking notes, others photos.

A grey hornbill
Further along we saw green wood hoopoes, two handsome shikras, glossy purple starlings and a blue-bellied roller – brightly coloured, easy to spot and exotic-sounding, so instantly one of my favourites. I was impressed by the number of different species Samuel was picking out – far more than I had managed on my solo efforts here.

While he set up the telescope – or ‘scope’ to us birdwatchers (I was learning the lingo fast) – a bird moved through the trees further away. “Tim, can you have a look at what that was?”

The pressure was on – would my identification skills pass the test? I could sense a dozen pencils poised, waiting for my expert opinion. Sweat dribbled into my eyes, and the binoculars (or ‘bins’) trembled as my fingers fumbled on the focus.

“Er, I think it was another hornbill” I said, trying to sound authoritative.
“Great, thanks, mark that one down.”

Relief; I had passed the test. (I think the sage nodding of the head helped to convince people I was an old hand.)

A cattle egret
The highlight of the walk near the pond on the northern edge of the park. I already knew this place well for its large colony of cattle egrets, noisy white birds that nest in the trees, and whose toxic droppings make area fairly pungent. But ‘Uncle’, a senior member of the group, had spotted something far more exotic – a yellow-fronted tinkerbird, high up in the tree.

We took turns looking through the lens at this beautiful little creature, while Uncle smiled proudly at our admiration. I asked him how he had spotted such a small bird, so high up. “I heard its call, and knowing they like to sit high up, I managed to find it,” he replied.

His skills put my clumsy, ‘play it safe’ guess at a hornbill into perspective; I have a long way to go as a birdwatcher. Luckily the botanical gardens provide the perfect training ground.

Photos by Rene Mayorga

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