THE YELLOW-HEADED PICATHARTES
By Cindy and Steve Coster
We lived in Sierra Leone, on the Northwest coast of Africa, for three years. It’s the most primitive country we’ve ever lived in with very little infrastructure.
Steve worked six days a week, getting a weekend off every six weeks. His work entailed developing virgin bush into a 10,000ha (25,000 acres) sugar plantation.
Everything for the project was imported. We were the only birders in the country so if we couldn’t identify a bird, we had to photograph it and email the photo to the Africa Bird Club in the UK.
This was a feat on its own as to use a cellphone (there were no landlines) we had to drive until we got signal near a microwave tower.
The Yellow-headed Picathartes was the special that birders from overseas would come to see. It is endemic to the Upper Guinea forests and Sierra Leone is one of the best places to see it.
It is very shy and difficult to see because it forages in remote forests during the day and returns to roost and nest in caves at dusk.
Our sugar plantation was near Makeni. The Yellow-headed Picathartes occurred near Kenema in the south-east and further north near Kabala, in Gola Rainforest NP on the Guinea border.
Our first sortie to find it was to the Kambui Hills near the town of Kenema in the east of the country, where it was reported to be.
As an aside, Kenema is where the terrible Ebola outbreak started a few years after we were there, thankfully! The journey from our plantation near Makeni, to Kenema is about 4 hours on reasonable roads.
On May 12, 2012, we arrived at the District Forestry Office in Kenema around 2pm and being a Saturday, most of the staff had knocked off. We waited three-quarters of an hour for the Eco-tourism Supervisor, Finando Palmer, who kindly came back to the office, to help us.
He organized us a guide, Omaru, and then we drove back about 16 kms out of town and parked our vehicle in Bayama village. We then had to meet the Chief of the village, a very old man who came out of his hut to talk to us.
To get permission to go through his land and visit the site, we were asked to pay Leones 40,000 (US $10). We also had to take two “guides” from the village to lead the way…we paid them Le10,000 (US $2.50) each, and picked up an unofficial entourage of five young men who would accompany us.
Usually, the best time to go birding is early morning, but it turned out that the best time to see the Picathartes is early evening, when it comes back to its cave to roost, having foraged in the forest all day.
Our guides couldn’t speak English so we just had to follow them. Before we knew it we’d set off at a cracking pace, around 3pm…for the hour-and-a-half trek upwards into the hills!
We hadn’t expected to go off that day and were totally unprepared. Cindy was wearing a thick cotton blouse and even thicker cotton trousers. It was hot and we had no water.
We walked past coffee bushes and cocoa trees that the villagers were growing, crossed a stream by balancing on a bamboo pole, and then headed into the forest and up the hill.
After about half an hour Cindy was soaked with sweat, her face was blood red and she needed a rest, but there was no time to stop. She decided there and then that it was crazy to go on without water, so we shouted to the others (Steve was quite a way ahead) and she turned back with one of the guides.
We had to climb a steep incline after Cindy had turned back, and it turned out that not too much further up there was a bench to rest on. If only we had known! The rest of the way was along a logging track thru the forest, and on the contour.
Steve had the car keys but fortunately our supply of water bottles was in the uncovered bin at the back of the pickup. Cindy downed half a liter of water and spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on a wooden bench watching eight village men play Bingo under a tree, and one of the women preparing and cooking the evening meal on an open fire outside.
At dusk, after waiting several hours, Steve saw four Picathartes! They are very shy so you have to be absolutely silent. He was on a ledge above them and as he tried to get a better view, he trod on some dry grass which scared them into the cave.
He waited almost an hour for them to come out again and in the fading light, managed to take a blurred photo to prove that he saw them! Very satisfying, but so sad Cindy had not made it.
We spent the night at the National Pastoral, Social & Development Center at the Catholic Mission in Kenema where we had a clean room with shower and toilet en suite.
Breakfast was included in the tariff but only stretched to tea or coffee, bread and jam. Sounds very fancy but really was not. The air conditioner shut down at 9:00pm, so it was unbearably hot, the beds were old hospital type with steel netting as the base, the mattresses were worn out, and the shower had no hot water. It was quite an ordeal.
It poured during the night and we must have had at least 100mm (4”)! Now that we knew the beat we would have to go back – after the rainy season.
We had the weekend of February 9/10, 2013 off so this was our chance to go back to Kenema so that Cindy would be able to see the Picathartes – THE bird that birders come to Sierra Leone to see.
Two fellow workers, Dave Bennett and Norman Neave joined us, and this time we knew the ropes. We arrived in Kenema at 11:30 am so went straight to the National Pastoral Center where we booked our rooms for the night and left our bags.
We then went back to Bayama Village, found the Chief and through an “Introducer” got our guides and negotiated the price. The Chief’s fee had gone up from Le40,000 to Le50,000 ($12,50), and we also had to pay the “Introducer” Le10,000 ($2,50) – for introducing us to the chief!
We started walking along the narrow path at 12:45pm, using the same route that Steve had gone up previously. There is an overhanging rock with a small sandy beach where the Picathartes fly in at dusk to roost for the night.
We could do nothing but sit patiently and wait – several hours! At last, one arrived – landing on a sand bank about 50 meters from us. It hopped up onto a rock and we had a good view of it and then it flew to its nest not more than 20 meters away.
The nest is made of sand and clings to the rock face – similar to those that the Lesser-striped Swallows made on our verandah at Mt Edgecombe in South Africa, but much bigger.
It really is an extraordinary-looking bird. About the size of a small chicken, it has chicken-like feet and I would say resembles a peahen in build. Its head is yellow with black patches on either side – rather like earphones, and its eyes and long slightly, curved bill are also black.
Its breast and under-parts are white, and its back, wings and tail are dark charcoal. Very striking, very sleek, elegant and a swift flyer.
It only hung around for a few minutes, but we all had great views of it and wanted to get back down before it was dark, so we didn’t wait for the rest of its family to fly in. It took us 1½ hours to get back to the village along the narrow path missing thorn bushes and rocks en route.
The last fifteen minutes were in the dark, but we had taken flashlights so were able to negotiate the “pole” across the stream and our way through the fields back to our vehicle.
Of interest to us was that a BBC TV camera crew had been camping and filming there the week before us. We walked through their campsite where all the grass had been flattened, on the way down to the stream.
A couple of months later we saw the BBC TV documentary entitled “Africa” and subtitled “Congo” which was narrated by David Attenborough. They showed the identical cave that we saw in the Kambui Hills in Sierra Leone!
We recognized the same overhanging rock with the nest of the Yellow-headed Picathartes clinging to the rock face, the same small sandy beach beneath the rock and the rocky stream flowing past the front!
We have always thought that the BBC was trustworthy and that their documentaries are a truthful and encyclopedic account of their content, but now have serious doubts! Fake news?
The cave next to the stream where the Yellow-headed Picathartes roost, and the same place shown in the BBC documentary that David Attenborough claimed was where he saw the Red-headed Picathartes in the Congo.