AFRICAN BIRDLIFE | Wild, but worth it

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Birding in Bénoué, Cameroon

Africa currently has a number of ‘best birding destinations’, but Cameroon is probably quite low on the radar at present. That could change, as this Central African country supports almost 970 bird species, of which a fair proportion are ‘specials’ – and nearly a third can be found in Bénoué National Park.

Looking for adventure laced with captivating birds and wild Africa at its best? I was, and I found it in Central Africa. A recent trip there took me to Cameroon, specifically Bénoué National Park in the north-east of the country, about 250 kilometres south of the town of Garoua. Covering 1800 square kilometres, the park lies on the bank of the Bénoué River, which forms its eastern boundary. It dates from 1932, when it was first gazetted as a faunal reserve, was upgraded to national park status in 1968 and was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1981.

Lying between the equator to the south and the Sahara to the north, Bénoué experiences a reasonably comfortable daytime temperature of 35 degrees Celsius in winter, when we were there. But at this time of year it also endures the harmattan, the strong, hot and dusty wind that blows down from the desert. Every three or four days during our stay this wind brought clouds of sand that had a huge impact on visibility and made conditions challenging for photography: the good light of early morning and evening was not strong enough to penetrate the dust and we were left with the diffuse light typical of a cloudy afternoon to work with. Nevertheless, winter is a good time to visit Bénoué as come April the rains arrive, making access to the park – and travelling around in it – incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

Savanna along with miombolike woodland cover most of the landscape, with dense forest and riverine woodland lining the banks of the various rivers. An Important Bird Area, the park supports an estimated 300 bird species, including a number of sought-after Central African specials. Given that I was there for 10 days, I had plenty of time to explore the different habitats and the birds in them.

As our camp was right on the river, that seemed like a good place to start. In winter the Bénoué was still flowing and quite deep in parts, which made it the perfect home for hippos and large crocodiles. Far from being deterred, we just took care to keep our wits about us while enjoying the spectacular birding both on the river and along its banks. The highlight here was one of the aforementioned Central African specials, the stunning Egyptian Plover. Our camp could not have been better situated for this cracker of a bird, which loves to forage on the sandbanks around the hippo pools. My introduction to the species was a pair I saw from the deck on the very first morning while staring out over the river. It’s impossible to mistake the black, white, grey and cream coloration and the quick dashes the birds make back and forth as they look for food. Getting a decent photograph, however, was not so easy; I only had to avoid a four-metre crocodile and a group of six hippos and do a few metres of leopard crawl before I managed it!

Even while admiring this striking bird, I couldn’t stop my eyes from wandering up, down and around as so many other species flew past. At first glance they all seemed only too familiar, as if they were the same lapwings, turacos, parrots, doves, firefinches and raptors that we have in southern Africa. On closer inspection, though, they were quite different. Our Blacksmith Lapwing was replaced by the equally territorial and noisy Spur-winged Lapwing; our Greyheaded Parrot was traded for its very skittish Senegal cousin; our Purple-crested and Knysna turacos were swapped for the undeniably beautiful Violet and White-crested turacos; and our White-fronted Bee-eater gave way to the very common and active Red-throated Bee-eater. Then our Southern Carmine Bee-eater and Southern Black Flycatcher were replaced by their Northern counterparts, while the Red-billed Firefinch was joined by its Bar-breasted and Blackbellied relatives.

The buzzards, kestrels, harriers and hawks were also similar but different: Grey Kestrels hawked for insects along the riverbanks, Western Marsh Harriers glided along the tree-line, Grasshopper Buzzards took advantage of the many veld fires that were raging in the area, and the Red-chested Goshawk replaced the corresponding African species.