GHANA, a Haven for both Bird Watcher and Bird Stamp Collector

by Bruce Poulter

Until recently Ghana has seldom been visited by bird watchers despite it being a country with great birding potential. Other obvious advantages for potential tourists include its political stability; its friendly, English-speaking people; and its network of national and regional parks. It has two main climatic zones – most simply described as the dry north and the wet south. Temperatures daily reach or exceed 30ºC and rain mostly falls in the European summer. So, an ideal place to visit in January!

Well over 700 species of birds – some common, some very rare – are on the Ghanaian list. I managed to see 250 of them in two weeks. My travelling companions could probably have added 50 more to this number. The entomologists in the party probably identified similar numbers of butterflies. Add to this an array of insects, reptiles, mammals and plants and you have a great eco-tourist destination.

A quick glance at the stamp catalogue (CBOS) shows that Ghana has issued many bird stamps. Most of these – and particularly the earlier issues – depict species that can be found in Ghana. A quick count reveals that about 115 Ghanaian species and about 50 non-Ghanaian species appear on their stamps. I will not dwell on the latter numbers in this article!

In 1957 Ghana became the first British Colony in Africa to gain independence. At that time it continued with the currency of the former Gold Coast – namely £.s.d. This changed in 1965, in 1967 and again in 1972 and has remained unchanged since then with 100 pesewas equalling 1 cedi. Two of these changes are reflected by the definitive stamps of the time (including four birds) being surcharged in 1965 and again in 1967.

The two surface mail stamps (above) issued in 1957 illustrate some of the 'problems' encountered by those keen both to see the birds in the wild and add them to their collections. The 'problem' referred to is how to list the species. The 6d stamp, for example, is labelled as a Fire Crowned Bishop. CBOS, following Howard & Moore, lists it as a Red-crowned Bishop. Other sources call it Black-winged Bishop, Black-winged Red Bishop and Crimson-crowned Bishop. I have chosen to use a single source to list the birds I saw and to label my collection of Ghanaian stamps. This source, which I use in the rest of this article and, incidentally, for other countries, is 'Birds of Africa south of the Sahara' by Sinclair & Ryan. On a similar note the 2/6 stamp is labelled Great Plantain Eater. Most guide books call it a Great Blue Turaco, but it is also sometimes referred to as a Blue Plantain-eater!

There are also two airmail stamps in the 1957 issue. The 2/- value shows Crowned Cranes – an acceptable generic title. But there are two species of Crowned Cranes – the Black and the Grey. CBOS baulks at attempting a specific name as perhaps it should. The main distinguishing feature of these birds is their neck colour, ie black or grey. The necks on this 2/- stamp certainly look dark, so should they be called Black Crowned Cranes? This would be good as the Grey is not found in Ghana. This is not the case, however, with Ghanaian stamps issued in 1991, 2000 and 2007 where the birds depicted are certainly Grey Crowned Cranes! There are, however, no such problems with the delightful Pennant-winged Nightjar on the 1/3 stamp. This bird is so aptly named that it needs no alternative.

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So much for my short discourse on currencies and naming problems – let us now look at some of the birds seen on the way around Ghana.

Our first and shortest birding stop was at Sakumo Lagoon, a Ramsar wetland site separated from the ocean by a narrow sand dune. Mixed flocks of tens of thousands of waterbirds are not unusual here. These include many birds commonly seen in Britain such as redshanks, various terns, egrets and plovers. They also include, and we were able to observe, several much more exciting species. The highlight was probably the Black Heron, which is best known for its habit of using its wings to form an umbrella over its head to shade the water when it is fishing. Ghana has not (yet?) included a Black Heron on a stamp, but Uganda has - as is shown opposite.

Other notable birds at Sakumo Lagoon were African Spoonbill, Collared Pratincole, Kittlitz's Plover, Western Grey Plantain-eater, Western Reef Heron and Yellow-throated Longclaw. As shown here, the only one of these to appear on a Ghanaian stamp is the African Spoonbill.

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We next spent three quite amazing days in Kakum National Park, which protects one of the most extensive rainforest habitats in Ghana. This semi-deciduous forest is characterised by high rainfall figures and high humidity levels. The main attraction is the much-publicised canopy walk, which remains unique in Africa. This walk consists of a 350m long, 40m high wood-and-rope walkway suspended between seven trees and broken up by a number of viewing platforms. Given a good head for heights and, preferably, to be 'aloft' at sunrise, these platforms gave a rare and unique opportunity to look into and across the forest canopy.

The list of birds seen from the platforms and elsewhere in the National Park was, not unexpectedly, quite mind blowing! It included, for example, nine species of sunbirds, four hornbills, four bee-eaters, three barbets, three woodpeckers, three starlings, two cuckoos and two parrots. It also included less well-known species such as malimbes, spinetails and turacos. One interesting forest canopy bird was the Velvet-mantled Drongo which has only relatively recently been 'split' from the similar Fork-tailed Drongo.

The illustrations below show some of Kakum’s more colourful birds that have reached the stamp album. Of these, my 'favourite' had to be the Grey Parrot – what a delight it was to see a pair flying freely above the canopy when my last 'sighting' was a single bird cooped up in a cage in our local pub! It is easy to see why the parrot and the cuckooshrike are, respectively, called grey and blue. But why on earth was the colourful sunbird called olive-bellied?

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Our next destination was the Bobiri Forest Reserve, a pocket of near pristine forest, which boasts a rich fauna – most prolifically butterflies as well as many forest birds and a few mammals.

Birding at Bobiri was harder work than at Kakum as observations were confined to a track running through fairly dense undergrowth flanked by tall, and often very leafy, trees. New species that were encountered included the rather exotic-sounding Red-vented Malimbe, Forest Wood-Hoopoe, Black Dwarf Hornbill and Chestnut Wattle-eye. None of these has appeared on Ghanaian stamps.

The Blue-breasted Kingfisher was, however, seen and it is featured a few times on Ghanaian stamps. This is a bird of the rainforest, which keeps mainly in deep shade and typically perches in an open space below the leaf canopy. It eats some vegetable matter but mainly lives on invertebrates. When it first appeared on Ghanaian stamps in 1989, it was wrongly given the scientific name of Ispidina picta. This was corrected a year later when the stamp was reissued with the correct name of Halcyon malimbicus.

After Bobiri there followed a long day's drive northwards leaving the rainforests and entering the much drier savanna country. The road was at times of motorway standard, but it seemed that more often than not it had huge potholes. Progress was slow! We paused along the way to bird and butterfly watch. At one stop by a waterhole a small group of Cinnamon-breasted Buntings (right) attracted much attention. The miniature sheet also shows 'our' Barn Swallow – an abundant winter migrant in Ghana and a reminder of how far these birds fly to spend our winter months.

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Our final destination was Mole (pronounced Mo-lay) National Park, which lies some 60km along an unmade, dusty and bumpy road. The hotel here is fantastically situated on an escarpment overlooking two waterholes. The park boasts the largest checklist of birds of any site in Ghana – some 340 species! Visitors are permitted to walk in the park provided they are escorted by an armed guard! Note that the elephants we encountered were not ill-disposed towards us.

As expected Mole's bird life was quite breathtaking! Not only were there many new species to see, but they were also easier to spot in the more open skies and savannas. My 'king of the air' was the Bateleur with its black and white wings and gently rocking flight. Brightly coloured birds of the wooded savanna included Bearded Barbets and Violet Turacos. And on the ground was the turkey-sized Northen Ground-Hornbill with its long, decurved bill and blue face. As shown below, these birds are depicted on Ghanaian stamps, albeit not always with the names I have used (eg Violet Turaco is called Violet Plantain-eater).

This introduction to Mole omits many other memorable species, for example, Senegal Parrot, Lavender Waxbill, Hamerkop, and Woolly-necked Stork as well as numbers of bee-eaters, rollers, sunbirds, etc, etc……

After an even longer drive back to Accra we watched President Obama’s inauguration in the comfort of a hotel bar! And then home to a continuing bitter winter!

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