Ghana: Easy West Africa with Picathartes and Egyptian Plover

Ghana is situated in Western Africa, which is markedly different from the more popular Eastern and Southern African destinations. Many birds are confined to West Africa, especially a variety of lowland rainforest birds, making Ghana an appealing birding destination. West Africa is often considered a difficult place to travel in, due to poor infrastructure and political instability, but this is where Ghana defies the stereotype. It boasts a stable democracy dating back decades, notorious friendly peoples, and good tourist infrastructure that is constantly improving, making Ghana the easiest West or Central African country to bird in. Among the specialties are two highly treasured, and spectacular bird families, the striking courser-like Egyptian Plover and the bizarre rockfowl or picathartes. Ghana offers an excellent chance of seeing both of these marquee families on a single trip. The rainforest belt in the south is currently the best place in the world to see the odd, cave-dwelling Yellow-headed Picathartes. Ghana can be divided into two broad major biological zones, the Guinea Savanna of the north, which mirrors to some degree some of the classic African woodland experiences, boasting photogenic savanna birds and some large mammals, like elephants, while the southern half comprises of rainforest, where many specialties will be sought, at sites including Kakum National Park, a famous spot where undoubtedly the best forest canopy walkway in all of Africa is located. Our tour comprehensively covers both of these zones.


If you thought of West Africa as difficult and challenging to travel in, think again; many have been captivated by the wonders and birding opportunities of this safe, super-friendly African nation. It is utterly mystifying why Ghana is not more popular!

Egyptian Plover strikes a classic pose
Egyptian Plover strikes a classic pose (Ken Behrens)

Day 1: Arrival in Accra; afternoon at Sakumono Lagoon. As many flights arrive in the morning, some easy, local afternoon birding is planned at the nearby Sakumono Lagoon. While physically easy, the birding can be extremely rewarding. Being a wetland, there are many easily-seen waterbirds including species like African Jacana, Spur-winged Lapwing, White-faced Whistling-Duck, Black Heron, Pied and Malachite Kingfishers, as well as a long list of Western Palearctic shorebirds. However, surrounding the lake, the scrubby habitat hosts some great West African terrestrial birds like Western Plantain-Eater and the stunning Yellow-crowned Gonolek, in addition to other African species like Little and White-throated Bee-eaters, Ethiopian Swallow, Copper Sunbird, and Bronze Mannikin. While some of you may choose to use this afternoon for valuable rest time, we urge those who are able to, to come out! After an impressive haul to kick off our bird list, we shall enjoy a welcome dinner in Accra, Ghana’ culturally rich capital.

Vieillot's Black Weaver works on its grassy abode
Vieillot's Black Weaver works on its grassy abode (Ken Behrens)

Day 2: Shai Hills to Kakum NP. In the morning we will visit Shai Hills on the Accra Plains. An area of stoic inselbergs (granite outcrops) surrounded by rich wooded grassland, which is home to more than 400 bird species. A significant site for Black-bellied Bustard and Senegal Parrot in particular, Shai Hills boasts an impressive bird list with many wonderful birds like Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Guinea and Violet Turacos, Viellot’s, Double-toothed and Bearded Barbets, Blue-bellied Roller, Blue-breasted and Woodland Kingfishers, Green Woodhoopoe, Black Scimitar-bill, Mocking Cliff-chat, Splendid Sunbird, and Purple Starling, as well as Stone Partridge, an anomalous African relative of the New World wood quail! The afternoon will be spent forging our way towards southwest Ghana, to one of West Africa’s premier parks, Kakum. We will spend three nights just outside the park.

Bearded Barbet
Bearded Barbet (Iain Campbell)

Days 3-4: Kakum National Park. This is one of Ghana’s flagship reserves, comprising lush verdant rainforest, and sporting Africa’s best canopy walkway (extending some 330m in extent) as its centerpiece attraction. There are only a handful of walkways in the entire continent, and this is definitely the best of all. The park is recognized as an Important Bird Area, with over 360 species recorded near the walkway itself, but is crucial for butterflies and mammals too. An astounding 10 species of hornbill have been recorded from the walkway, including several seldom-seen in Africa, like White-crested, Brown-cheeked, Black Dwarf, and Yellow-casqued Hornbills. The diversity of birds is extremely impressive, with 10 species of kingfishers also featuring, including Chocolate-backed and Giant Kingfishers. Watching Rosy Bee-eaters sailing past the walkway is something we will be keen on seeing. A remarkable 11 barbets occur there also, including specialties like Bristle-nosed, Hairy-breasted and Naked-faced Barbets, and Red-rumped Tinkerbird. Other birds we will be on the lookout for in Kakum will be other West African specialties like Yellow-billed Turaco, Fire-bellied and Melancholy Woodpeckers, Red-vented and Blue-billed Malimbe, Violet-backed Hyliota, Sharpe’s Apalis, and Johanna’s Sunbird. Our time will not only be spent on the walkway though, as we seek birds at ground level, walking forest trails that may lead us to a ton of greenbuls, Rufous-sided Broadbill or Fire-crested Alethe to add to the intoxicating mix of canopy birds on site.

Crested Malimbe, one of several possible Malimbes on this trip
Crested Malimbe, one of several possible Malimbes on this trip (Ken Behrens)

Day 5: Kakum to Ankasa National Park. Continuing our exploration of southern Ghana and the rainforest belt, we continue west to a very special site indeed, Ankasa, right on the border with Ivory Coast. This treasured area has only opened up relatively recently and so is not as well developed for tourists as Kakum, but there is a small yet comfortable country hotel that hosts us. This enables us access to the best pristine primary lowland rainforest in Ghana, famed for holding rare and local species like Nkulengu Rail, White-bellied Kingfisher, White-crested Tiger-Heron, Hartlaub’s Duck, Spot-breasted Ibis and Akun Eagle-Owl. We will spend two nights near this exceptional forest reserve.

Day 6: Ankasa National Park. A full day will be spent in Ankasa seeking some of the many rare and local species occuring there. The birdlist is nothing short of mouth-watering, and we will be on the hunt for Red-thighed Sparrowhawk, Shining-blue Kingfisher, Black and Blue-moustached Bee-eaters, Red-fronted Parrot, Red-chested Owlet, Rufous-winged Illadopsis, Red-headed Malimbe, Western Bluebill, White-browed Forest-Flycatcher, White-tailed Alethe, Red-fronted Antpecker, and Carmelite Sunbirds. A second night will be spent in the rainforest, we can search for nightbirds like Fraser’s Eagle-owl and Long-tailed Nightjar.

White-necked Picathartes is clearly the top bird of this tour
White-necked Picathartes is clearly the top bird of this tour (Ken Behrens)

Day 7: Ankasa to Kakum. After much of the day in Ankasa we return to Kakum for another night, visiting another sector of the park.

Day 8: Kakum and Picathartes. After a few days walking forest trails seeking rare deep forest birds, we will have a break by birding the more open Aboabo section of northern Kakum National Park during the morning; this offers easy roadside birding with a shot at some special birds in the process, most notably Long-tailed Hawk, the odd nutchatch-like Preuss’s Weaver, and Black-capped Apalis a specialist of this forest biome. Other exciting possibilities include Red-billed Helmetshrike, Blue Cuckooshrike and the scarce and handsome Yellow-throated Cuckoo. In the afternoon, we will make the pilgrimage to a very special piece of rainforest that hosts vine tangled caves, where the Yellow-headed Picathartes, one of the strangest of Earth’s bird families, dwells. The visit is strategically timed in the late afternoon, when the “rockfowl” usually return to their caves to roost, after a day of foraging within the forest. This bird alone draws birders to Ghana from across the globe, as it is the most reliable site in the world to find this species and indeed African family. At the end of this landmark day, we drive to the city of Kumasi for the night, in readiness to visit one of the final forest sites of the main tour.

Red-throated Bee-eater
Red-throated Bee-eater (Iain Campbell)

Day 9: Bobiri Butterfly Sanctuary to Mole National Park. This will be a day of contrasts. In the morning we will visit the butterfly reserve of Bobiri, seeking forest species like Red-billed Dwarf-Hornbill, a tiny woodpecker in the form of African Piculet, and one of Africa’s smallest birds in the form of Tit-Hylia, as well as other species like Narina’s Trogon, Afep and Bronze-naped Pigeons, African Emerald Cuckoo, Forest and White-headed Woodhoopoes, Sabine’s Puffback, Red-headed and Crested Malimbes and Finschs’s Flycatcher-Thrush. By the afternoon, however, we will journey north, leaving the southern rainforest belt and passing into dryer Upper Guinea Savanna, with its markedly different birds. We will spend three nights at a hotel inside Mole National Park.

Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat
Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat (Iain Campbell)

Days 10-11: Mole N.P. On these days we will explore the savannas of northern Ghana in earnest. Here, large herds of elephants still roam, and we will quickly boost our birdlist with easy birding in more open habitat to what we have experienced previously on the tour. This large (4,800 km2) national park protects predominantly open Guinea savanna woodland, which is interspersed with grasslands, swamps, and escarpments. There are two ephemeral rivers in the park, the Lovi and Mole, which dry out during the dry season and act as waterhole magnets for mammals and songbirds like finches. Mole is home to more than 330 bird species (90% of Ghana’s savanna avifauna!) and over 90 mammals. Based at the park’s main hotel, beautifully perched on an escarpment over-looking panoramic waterholes and savanna woodland below, there’s always a chance of an exciting find. We will watch the waterholes, for the likes of elephants, Waterbuck, Kob and Bushbuck, and a slew of waterbirds, like Hamerhop, Woolly-necked and Saddle-billed Storks, Black-headed Heron and Hadada Ibis. Closer inspection may reveal flocks of radiant finches, like Lavender and Orange-cheeked Waxbills, firefinches (six species occur in the park), and Red-winged Pytillias. The skies are not to be ignored as there are an incredible 30 raptor species (including Palm-nut and White-backed Vultures, African Cuckoo-hawk, Bateleur and Red-necked Buzzard), six bee-eaters (including Red-throated and Northern Carmine Bee-eaters), seven hornbills (including Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill and Northern Red-billed Hornbill), five rollers (including Abyssinian, Broad-billed and Rufous-crowned Rollers), and ten kingfishers (including Blue-breasted and Gray-headed Kingfishers). Other notable species include Violet Turaco, Bearded Barbet, Yellow-billed Shrike, Senegal Eromemela, the gorgeous black-and-yellow Oriole Warbler, Purple Starling, White-crowned Robin-Chat, Splendid Sunbird, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-Weaver, and Sahel Bush-Sparrow. Nightbirding is often productive with some amazing marquee nightbirds, including Grayish Eagle-Owl, African Scops-Owl, Northern White-faced Scops-Owl, and the stunning Standard-winged and Long-tailed Nightjars all possible. Two nights will also be spent inside the park, on the scenic escarpment.

Standard-winged Nightjar looks like three birds when it flies!
Standard-winged Nightjar looks like three birds when it flies! (Ken Behrens)

Day 12: Mole to Bolgatanga. Departing Mole we forge farther north, moving into the Upper East Region of northern Ghana, close to the border with Burkina Faso. The habitat noticeably becomes drier, hillier and rockier. In the afternoon we visit Tongo Hills, an area of granite outcroppings, where we seek Fox Kestrel, Rock-loving Cisticola, Mocking Cliff-chat and Brown-rumped Bunting. Other birds include Gabar and Dak-chanting Goshawks, Piapiac, Pygmy and Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, and Orange-cheeked and Black-rumped Waxbills. Two nights will be spent in Bolgatanga, a town that lies within the Red Volta River Valley, historically a major migration route for elephants, and a great strategic position to persue another key West African bird family the following day…

Day 13: Tono Dam and Egyptian Plover. Today we skirt the Burkina Faso border, starting out at Tono Dam, where waterbirds mix with songbirds visiting the wetland’ edge to slake their thirst. Targets include Spur-winged Goose, Forbes’s Plover, Senegal and Spotted Thick-knees, Four-banded Sandgrouse, Namaqua Dove, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Yellow Penduline-Tit, Long-tailed Glossy, Chestnut-bellied, Lesser Blue-eared, Greater Blue-eared and Bronze-tailed Starlings, African Silverbill, Cut-throat, Zebra Waxbill and Gosling’s Bunting. At this time we may also encounter some migratory Western Palearctic warblers too. in the afternoon we shift focus to a river where another spectacular African-endemic family can be found, the striking black-white and grey Egyptian Plover or Crocodile Bird, one of the major drawcards for this tour. Patrolling the river banks, if it takes flight we will be exposed to one of the neatest wing patterns in the avian world. We return to Bolgatanga for a second night.

Egyptian Plover, one of the top targets of this tour
Egyptian Plover, one of the top targets of this tour (Ken Behrens)

Day 14: Tamale to Accra/DEPARTURE FROM ACCRA. After some final birding within the dry country of Northern Ghana, we retreat south, to the city of Tamale to connect with a domestic flight to the Ghanaian capital, Accra. This will be taken in the afternoon in order to arrive in time for international departures from Accra this evening.

Green Woodhoopoe, a widespread African bird that occurs in savannah habitats
Green Woodhoopoe, a widespread African bird that occurs in savannah habitats (Ken Behrens)


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EXTENSION OPTIONS

Atewa Hills Pre-trip Extension

The extension focuses on the forested hills in Atewa. As well as having a nearly full complement of lowland rainforest birds, there are some special species on the ridge top, hill forest there. In order to reach the higher elevations we spend the day climbing up and strolling back at a leisurely pace, and so this has been offered as an extension only, so only those who feel able to do this can opt to do so. Atewa holds over 300 bird species, due to the diversity of forest types available at different elevations. In addition to targeting hill forest specialties, we have time to find some rainforest birds we missed on the main tour, as more time in forest equals more birds, and it often takes considerable time to eke them out of forest with this many bird species! Scarcer species we hope to find that are difficult on the main tour include Blue-moustached Bee-eater, Green-tailed Bristlebill, Lowland Akalat, Forest Scrub-Robin, Many-colored Bushrike, Nimba Flycatcher, and Lowland Sooty Boubou. Other possibilities include five species of illadopsis, Frasers Sunbird, Yellow-throated Cuckoo, Green Twinspot, Western Nicator, Chestnut Wattle-eye and the strange Long-tailed Hawk. If you are capable of doing the extra walking, and wish to maximize your Ghana birding experience, this extension is a must!

Blue-headed Bee-eater is highly local, found in Ghana only at Atewa
Blue-headed Bee-eater is highly local, found in Ghana only at Atewa (Ken Behrens)

Day 1: Arrival in Accra. Afternoon visit to Sakumono Lagoon.
Day 2: Drive to Atewa area. Afternoon birding in secondary habitat.
Day 3: Atewa Hills. Full day’s hiking and birding.
Day 4: Drive to Accra in the morning. Arrival day of main tour.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate to intense. This is a fast-paced tour in which most of the time is spent in the field. The sun rises at about 6:00am, and we often have a long drive to reach the birding sites from our accommodation, so there will be a lot of early mornings. The 12-hour days near the equator mean that days are not extremely long. Almost all of our meals are taken in restaurants, although in Ankassa National Park, we will be eating hot meals in the field. There are a couple of long drives on this tour, especially on days 9 and  12, when the drive may take as long as 10 hours. Most roads are good, but the roads in and around Mole NP are dusty and bump. There will be down time at the hotel in the middle of the day on a few days, but most days of this tour are spent entirely in the field.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY:  Birding will be done on foot throughout this trip, but the walking is mostly easy. There is one moderately demanding hike for the Picathartes that takes around 90 minutes at a slow pace. There is a long and fairly difficult walk on the Atewa Hills pre-trip, when the whole day will be spent hiking. The entire trip will be spent at low elevation.

CLIMATE: The toughest part of this trip is the climate, being hot and humid in the southern rainforest areas and dry and hot in the north of Ghana. Our bus and almost all of our lodges are air-conditioned. There is a chance of rain at this time of year, though usually it is concentrated in small heavy bursts that should not interrupt birding too much.

ACCOMMODATION: Mostly moderate to good. In general, the food and accommodations are of a high standard compared to most of the rest of West Africa. We will be camping for one night in Ankassa National Park. Each person or couple will have their own tent with a comfortable mattress. Buckets of hot water will be available for washing. Please note that elsewhere, hot water is not available at Mole NP or Bolgatanga, but the climate is hot and humid, so most people do not miss it. All accommodations have private en-suite facilities, and most have 24h electricity, though power cuts are common.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, and Ghana is a challenging place for photography, but there are some opportunities for photography. There is a lot of hunting, so birds are wary of humans. The rainforest, with a tall canopy, and thick understory, is an inherently difficult environment for photography. With that said, Ghana is among the best places in the challenging west African forest biome for photography, especially from the Kakum canopy walkway. Photography in the savannah of the north is much easier than in the southern rainforest.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. A visa is required. The cost is $50. You must obtain your visa from a Ghanain embassy or consulate well in advance of the tour. Our office staff will provide needed support documents for you to get your visa. Travel requirements are subject to change.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to local guides, drivers, and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 13, and from the night of day 1 to the night of day 4 for the Atewa extension; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 14, and dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 4 of the Atewa extension; reasonable non-alcoholic beverages during meals; safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the evening of day 13, and the morning of day 1 to the evening of day 4 on the Atewa extension; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a suitable vehicle(s) with local driver(s); entrance fees and local guide fees for all the birding sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters (if you require their services); snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.