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Birds of hope: How a species once thought extinct is bringing new life to a rain forest village

5 August, 2022

A Yellow-headed Picathartes at its breeding site. Photo by Olivier Boissier.

Ghana is home to several highly successful community-run conservation projects. Some, such as the Boabeng-Fiema and Tafi-Atome monkey sanctuaries, are based on local traditional beliefs and taboos that have led villagers to protect forests and their denizens. Others, however, have only recently arisen following ecotourism developments. The rain forest village of Bonkro in Ghana is known in international birding circles as among the best places to see a very special bird, the Yellow-headed Picathartes (Picathartes gymnocephalus). Endemic to West Africa’s Upper Guinea forests, the Yellow-headed Picathartes is a large, unique and spectacular passerine with a colorful bare head, long tail and long, strong legs.

One of the huge rocks in Bonkro forest that hold a colony of Yellow-headed Picathartes. Photo by Olivier Boissier.

Once thought extinct in Ghana, the Yellow-headed Picathartes was rediscovered in 2003. This species is currently listed as Vulnerable to extinction by the IUCN and a number of its nesting sites have been identified in Ghana, none of which has formal protection. In the forest near Bonkro, Picathartes build mud nests plastered to caves or overhanging rocks, just like the Cocks-of-the-rock (Rupicola spp.) in South America. They move in long, low glides, ricocheting off the forest floor with their strong legs, like flying fish off the surface of the sea. Bonkro’s location about 65 km southeast of Ghana’s second largest city, Kumasi, has helped make it the most accessible and reliable place to see this species that for so many birders is a magical experience.

The forest at Bonkro still holds some impressive giants. Photo by Olivier Boissier.

What does this mean for people of Bonkro? The attention they have received from international birding tours has had a very positive impact, prompting villagers to protect their forest and set up a community-based ecotourism project. Villagers act as guides to take visitors to the Picathartes’ nesting sites before dusk, when the birds return to their nests for the night. However, despite the construction of a guesthouse in the village in 2021, most visitors still visit the site only for a few hours, arriving mid-afternoon, walking to the rock to see the birds, returning to the village after dark and immediately moving on. Showing international visitors that there is more Bonkro’s forest than the Picathartes alone may encourage some to stay for a few days rather than a few hours, thus increasing revenue from ecotourism for the community and ultimately providing even better protection for the forest.

A female Rufous-sided Broadbill. Photo by Olivier Boissier.

With this in mind, IBCP’s Olivier Boissier visited Bonkro in April 2022, in order to gain better knowledge of the forest’s avifauna, accompanied by two guides from Bonkro village. He found the forest to be very rich and a good representative of the rainforests of southwestern Ghana, recording a preliminary 65 species in 48 hours in the field. In addition to the Yellow-headed Picathartes, which has several breeding colonies inside the forest, he found species such as Brown Nightjar (Veles binotatus), Bristle-nosed Barbet (Gymnobucco peli), Lesser Honeyguide (Indicator minor conirostris), Rufous-sided Broadbill (Smithornis rufolateralis) and Western Long-tailed Hornbill (Horizocerus albocristatus), which also forages in the cocoa plantations surrounding the forest.

IBCP’s Olivier Boissier with Bonkro guides Nanayaw and Alex. Photo courtesy of Olivier Boissier.

Olivier found the local village guides to be extremely knowledgeable about the forest and its birds and dedicated to their protection. Learning the English names for these birds in addition to the local names will increase their capacity to guide international visitors. Olivier will thus generate a preliminary illustrated checklist for the birds of Bonkro forest to provide both an incentive for international visitors to stay longer and a basis for village guides to learn the English names of the birds of their forest, in line with IBCP’s capacity building mission. As bird researchers have recently found both new species and rare and elusive species in Ghana’s rain forests, we hope that more attention to these forests will bring more discoveries and incentives to protect them!

The Forest Robin (Stiphrornis erythrothorax) is one of many strikingly beautiful species in Ghana’s rain forests. Photo by Nico Arcilla.

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