Yellow-throated Longclaw Macronyx croceus
Cotonou, airport beach, southern Benin
1st October 2011
Royal Terns Sterna maxima
Cotonou harbour, southern Benin
9 September 2010
The IBAs section should be consulted as well because it lists key sites for conservation classified as Important Bird Areas by Birdlife International. These areas are of course always worth a visit for birdwatchers but the details given in the IBAs section will not be repeated here.
Additional areas that are known to offer good birding opportunities are listed below from south to north. A brief site description is given, as well as key species and possible accommodation where known.
1. Cotonou harbour and surroundings
Although natural ecosystems are shrinking quickly following recent works to extend the harbour terminals, the very narrow area of wet sand dropping into the sea and the few remaining acres of wet salty vegetation provide an unexpected number of surprises. Resident Cotonou birders found no fewer than 7 new species for the country from 2009 to 2011: Water Thick-knee (Dikkop) Burhinus vermiculatus (regularly seen / heard in the area), American Golden Plover Pluvialis dominica (a vagrant on 24 September 2010), Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres (uncommon, a handful records since 2010), Red Knot Calidris canutus (uncommon, three records since 2010), Buff-breasted Sandpiper Tryngites subruficollis (two vagrants, 17-20 September 2011), Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus (one chasing Royal Terns on 6 October 2010) and Lesser Crested Tern Sterna bengalensis (two on 9 September 2010).
The commonest species usually encountered here are terns and waders. Royal Tern Sterna maxima is seen all the year round and groups up to 200-300 may sit on the beach at the base of the new dyke built west of the harbour entrance (06°20’30’’N 02°25’42’’E), often with Sandwich Tern S. sandvicensis. Occasionally, other terns may join them, such as Arctic S. paradisaea, Common S. hirundo, Caspian S. caspia, the rare Damara S. balaenarum and Little S. albifrons. Laridae are rare and only a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls Larus fuscus were recently reported. Among the waders, several palaearctic migrants are seen in small numbers from September to May. Sanderling Calidris alba and Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula are by far the most common with groups up to 60-80 individuals. Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola and Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos are also seen daily with numbers sometimes up to 10-15. All others species recorded are occasional, usually in low numbers and for one or just a few days.
In the salty vegetation, Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava can be abundant on passage, while a few Plain-backed Pipits Anthus leucophrys and a single or a pair of Yellow-throated Longclaw Macronyx croceus can be found as well. Winding and Zitting Cisticolas Cisticola galactotes and C. juncudis are encountered in humid vegetation.
Despite its location in the heart of the industrial activities of the city, the western harbour is still a productive birding destination as well as providing beautiful natural scenery. The harbour beach can be accessed from the westernmost harbour entry on the Boulevard de la Marina (on the right after “Obama Beach” when coming from the airport). The salty grass areas situated between Hotel Marina garden and the beach or on the airport beach further west near Fidjrossé are also of interest. Further east, the Hotel du Lac offers good views of the mouth of Nokoué Lake (06°21'27''N 02°26'42''E) where good numbers of terns may occasionally be seen flying above the three bridges. Up to 200 1st summer Black Terns Chlidonias niger oversummered here from May to September 2009, while the rare African Skimmer Rhynchops flavirostris was seen for no more than five minutes on 4 May 2011 before it flew north entering Nokoué Lake.
2. Togbin – Houndodji lagoon
Situated c. 12 km west of Cotonou, along the famous “Route des pêches” (Fishing Road) leading along the beach from Cotonou to Ouidah, Togbin – Houndodji lagoon is an easily reachable birding spot from Cotonou. Accommodation is available year-round at ‘Jardin Helvetia’ (sea side along “Route des pêches). During week-ends, the famous Bab’s Dock, an eco-touristic resort situated just behind ‘Jardin Helvetia’ (lagoon side), offers great food, cold drinks, beautiful scenery and pleasant nautical activities on the lagoon (canoeing, sailing, swimming, sunbathing on the beautiful wooden deck …). Access by boat through the mangrove (2.500 CFA per pers.) provides an appreciable wild and off the beaten track taste to the place. A perfect place for a family stay (c. 06°21' N 02°16' E).
Coastal habitats include a belt of coconut plantations up to 200-300 m wide growing immediately behind the sand road. Very little natural coastal shrubland remains underneath the coconuts, the biggest clump (about 2 ha) of low thicket near Togbin is dominated by Syzygium guineense littorale and Chrysobalanus icaco 1-2 m tall, with also Zanthoxylum zanthoxyloides. Behind this, small lagoons, marshes, patches of Avicennia mangrove and open water will be found.
Although a lot of species will be encountered (kingfishers, jacanas …), a few typical ones are to highligh aret: Levaillant’s Cuckoo Clamator levaillantii (a non breeding dry season visitor), Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird Pogoniulus chrysoconus, Yellow-throated Leaflove Chlorocichla flavicollis, Simple Greenbul Chlorocichla simplex, Greater Swamp Warbler Acrocephalus rufescens (rare and recently discovered in Benin), Oriole Warbler Hypergerus atriceps (widespread but much more often heard than seen), Common Wattle-eye Platysteira cyanea, Brown Babbler Turdoides plebejus, Brown Sunbird Anthreptes gabonicus (recently discovered in Benin, where it is apparently restricted to coastal lagoons and coconut plantations), Green-headed Sunbird Nectarinia verticalis, Carmelite Sunbird Nectarinia fuliginosa (a typical coastal scrub species) and Orange Weaver Ploceus aurantius.
3. Pahou Classified Forest (Ahozon forest)
Despite what its name may indicate, the state-owned forest of Pahou is closer to Ouidah than to Pahou, being west of the village of Ahozon. It is the last remnant of coastal semi-evergreen rain forest in Benin. Today, this classified forest consists mainly of plantations (especially Acacia auriculiformis, a fast-growing Australian species appreciated as full-wood) and the remnant of natural forest is in the shape of a triangle covering about 100 ha. Situated just to the north of the RNIE-1 road (Cotonou-Ouidah), the natural forest is easily accessible by taking the track heading north at 06°22'45’’N, 02°09'47’’E. Park your car near the forest station (400 m further, on the right of the track) and follow the signpost “sentier écotouristique” to enter the natural forest (left of the track). Within the forest, the canopy is occasionally closed in undisturbed sections, thus with sheltered understorey. Although no complete inventory of the avifauna is available for Pahou forest, several interesting species are worth mentioning: African Goshawk Accipiter tachiro, Tambourine Dove Turtur tympanistria, Black-throated Coucal Centropus leucogaster, Yellowbill Ceuthmochares aereus, Buff-spotted Woodpecker Campethera nivosa, Speckled Tinkerbird Pogoniulus scolopaceus, Little Greenbul Andropadus virens, Cameroon Sombre Greenbul A. curvirostris, Simple Greenbul Chlorocichla simplex (edges), Leaflove Pyrrhurus scandens, White-throated Greenbul Phyllastrephus albigularis, Grey-headed Bristlebill Bleda canicapilla, Western Nicator Nicator chloris, Grey Longbill Macrosphenus concolor, Brown IlladopsisIlladopsis fulvescens, Olive Sunbird Nectarinia olivacea, Olive-bellied Sunbird N. chloropygia (edges), Sabine’s Puffback Dryoscopus sabini, Square-tailed Drongo Dicrurus ludwigii, Forest Chestnut-winged Starling Onychognathus fulgidus and Red-headed Malimbe Malimbus rubricollis.
More species, for instance Compact Weaver Ploceus superciliosus, are recorded in the nearby Acacia plantation and small thickets, and along the lake situated north-east of the forest.
4. Pobè Forest
Pobè lies 50 km north of Porto-Novo on the RN-3 road to Ketou. It is close to the Nigerian border, and the forest is indeed crossed by a sand track used daily by hundreds of pedestrians and motorcycles carrying goods from Nigeria to sell in Benin. The forest is about 150 ha and is protected within the Pobè Agricultural Research Station (“Station de Recherche sur le Palmier à huile de Pobè”), which carries out research on the genetics of Elaeis palms (6°58’N, 2°40’E). Palm plantations are rather bare here so as to make access to study plants as easy as possible; grass and shrubs are regularly cut back and also grazed by cattle. There are several watchmen’s huts scattered around the plantations and along one side of the forest reserve; they are manned day and night, but mostly to protect the plantations. The forest itself is somewhat disturbed by illegal wood collecting; hurricanes have been responsible for the felling of several large trees recently. The forest is surrounded by a well-marked trail, and there are two other main paths crossing the forest in addition to the much used track from the border. A stream crosses the forest and spreads into a small area of swamp forest itself crossed by the track from the border. Other patches of secondary forest can be seen in two places beyond the confines of Pobè station, some planted with Acacia auriculiformis and mixed with native plants.
The main part of the forest is very open, with large scattered trees reaching heights of 40-50 m or even 55 m. The densest fragment of forest (with also more lianes) is in the swampy section and covers a few ha, but disturbance by the almost incessant traffic is a problem in that area.
Insufficiently known until now, the avifauna of Pobè holds a good number of interesting species: Red-thighed Sparrowhawk Accipiter erythropus, African Goshawk Accipiter tachiro, White-spotted Flufftail Sarothrura pulchra, Black-throated Coucal Centropus leucogaster, African Wood Owl Strix woodfordii, Black-shouldered Nightjar Caprimulgus (pectoralis) nigriscapularis, Rosy Bee-eater Merops malimbicus (non-breeding visitor), Blue-throated Roller Eurystomus gularis (rare), White-crested Hornbill Tropicranus albocristatus (uncommon), African Pied Hornbill Tockus fasciatus, Naked-faced Barbet Gymnobucco calvus (extinct?), Hairy-breasted Barbet Tricholaema hirsute, Buff-spotted Woodpecker Campethera nivosa, Yellow-whiskered Greenbul Andropadus latirostris (rare), Grey-headed Bristlebill Bleda canicapillus, Buff-throated Apalis Apalis rufogularis, Buff-throated Sunbird Nectarinia adelberti, Tiny Sunbird Nectarinia minulla (only know spot in the Dahomey Gap), Black-winged Oriole Oriolus nigripennis, Northern Red-billed Helmet Shrike Prionops caniceps, Forest Chestnut-winged Starling Onychognathus fulgidus, Yellow-mantled Weaver Ploceus tricolor, Red-vented Malimbe Malimbus scutatus and Grey-crowned Negrofinch Nigrita canicapillus (widespread in the forest zone).
5. Niaouli Forest
Niaouli, situated c. 50 km north-west of Cotonou (06°44’N 02°09’E), is perhaps the most studied site in Benin from an ornithological point of view. It has been extensively covered by van den Akker from 2000 to 2003 and Dowsett & Dowsett-Lemaire further contributed in 2009 and 2011.
The forest belongs to the national agricultural research station of Niaouli, situated in the village of Attogon, about an hour's drive from Cotonou. It consists of a plateau (dry) forest and a wetter bas-fond (humid) forest covering c. 150 ha in total. Heading north on the RNIE-2 sealed road, 5 km after Allada, near Attogon, follow on the sign on the left side of the road for the Centre Régional de Recherche Agricole de Niaouli. Pass the tall communication relay antenna and follow the track for c. 3 km. The research station is on the left. Register at the gate or at the small visitors centre. Reliable guides are available and it is possible to stay overnight (camping or accommodation is available in a rest house with 3 bedrooms and electricity). A forest trail runs through the plateau forest, allowing a nice birding walk. A watchtower provides a good canopy view but it was in such poor condition recently (attacked by termites) that we can only recommend climbing with much care. To reach the bas-fond forest, do not enter the research station itself but follow the main track for c. 2 more kilometres.
Many interesting forest species were recorded here and we may just cite a few: Black Goshawk (Sparrowhawk) Accipiter melanoleucus, Red-thighed (Western Little) Sparrowhawk Accipiter erythropus, White-spotted Flufftail Sarothrura pulchra, Tambourine Dove Turtur tympanistria, Thick-billed Cuckoo Pachycoccyx audeberti, Black-throated Coucal Centropus leucogaster, Narina’s Trogon Apaloderma narina, Rosy Bee-eater Merops malimbicus (non-breeding visitor), Blue-throated Roller Eurystomus gularis, African Pied Hornbill Tockus fasciatus, Naked-faced Barbet Gymnobucco calvus (now extinct, the known breeding tree fell down), Speckled Tinkerbird Pogoniulus scolopaceus, Willcocks’s Honeyguide Indicator willcocksi, Fire-bellied Woodpecker Thripias pyrrhogaster, Purple-throated Cuckoo-shrike Campephaga quiscalina, Honeyguide Greenbul Baeopogon indicator (only known site in Benin), Swamp Palm Bulbul Thescelocichla leucopleura (at bas-fond), Forest Robin Stiphrornis erythrothorax, Grey Longbill Macrosphenus concolor, Green Hylia Hylia prasina, Yellow-browed Camaroptera Camaroptera superciliaris, Rufous-crowned Eremomela Eremomela badiceps, Shrike-flycatcher Megabyas flammulatus, Chestnut Wattle-eye Dyaphorophyia castanea, Brown Illadopsis Illadopsis fulvescens, Tit-hylia Pholidornis rushiae (only known site in Benin), Little Green Sunbird Nectarinia seimundi (only known site in Benin), Northern Red-billed Helmet Shrike Prionops caniceps, Yellow-mantled Weaver Ploceus tricolor, Blue-billed and Red-headed Malimbe Malimbus nitens and M. rubricollis, Black-bellied Seedcracker Pyrenestes ostrinus and Chestnut-breasted Negrofinch Nigrita bicolor.
An old record of White-crested Tiger Heron Tigriornis leucolopha (Anciaux, 1996) is from the bas-fond forest but today the area is probably too heavily disturbed by people for this species to survive there.
Interestingly, note that unlike other forest sites in the country, the common tinkerbird in Niaouli is Yellow-throated Tinkerbird Pogoniulus subsulphureus and not Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird P. bilineatus. Also the common oriole to be found in the dry forests of the south is Black-winged Oriole Oriolus nigripennis and not Western Black-headed Oriole O. brachyrhynchus as it has been confusingly stated by several authors in the past. In addition, one should note that several species mentioned by van den Akker (van den Akker, M. 2003a. Birds of Niaouli forest, southern Benin. Bull. ABC 10: 16–22 [Corrigenda p. 74] and van den Akker, M. & Claffey, P. 2004. Further records from the remnant forests of Benin: White-tailed Ant Thrush Neocossyphus poensis and Bioko Batis Batis poensis. Bull. ABC 11: 32–33) were later rejected by Dowsett & Dowsett-Lemaire (2011).
6. Lokoli Swamp Forest
Situated on a tributary of the Ouémé river (the Hlan), the Lokoli swamp forest is only about 12 km north-east of the Lama forest. The exact size is unknown but the width of the forest is between 500 and 800 m, perhaps on a few km long north-west to south-east, but it may narrow down to a strip of Raphia or secondary growth to the south of Lokoli village. Although it is officially under the management of a local conservation NGO (Nature Tropicale ONG), it is not protected in any way, and farmers are busy cutting down patches of forest to grow vegetables. The local village communities have apparently decided to clear the wetter forest on the western bank near Dèmè, while preserving (for the time being) the closed-canopy forest on the eastern bank. The river itself is only a few metres wide and very twisty.
On the western bank the forest is flooded at all times, and it is difficult to walk, although one can try to hop around roots or raised mounds at the basis of trees. The understorey is rather open, with pools of water and a modest scattering of saplings and tall herbs. The forest on the eastern bank is much less wet; although the ground is spongy it is possible to walk in the dry season without sinking in too much. The canopy is taller (from 25-30 m near the edge to 30-35 m further inside) and more closed, with cover around 80 to 90%. On the western side, the edges are less clearly defined, but there is also much encroachment by gardens, and the path to the embarcadère crosses an area of low bush and thicket. The crossing from the Dèmè embarcadère to the other side takes about 15 minutes. It is also possible to explore the stream but it would be preferable to book a small pirogue prior to coming as the main large pirogue is busy all day long transporting people, motorbikes and an amazing variety of goods.
As nothing is really organised, the best to do if you plan a visit to Lokoli is to arrange with Eugène, the manager of the Auberge d’Abomey (+229 184.108.40.206). He can organise the car, the pirogue, the meals and even an overnight in a neighbouring village if you want to be in the forest at sunset (very much recommended for early songs). Another option is to stay in Abomey (1 hour drive from Lokoli), in the heart of the old administrative district of the historic capital of the kingdom Fon. The Auberge is a very convivial and welcoming place and Eugène particularly hospitable. ‘Chez Monique’ is another very recommended place in Abomey, with affordable rooms and food, while it is worth avoiding staying in Bohicon as the city is noisy with traffic through the night.
The avifauna of this particular habitat is unique in Benin and Lokoli hosts a number of species that are unlikely to be encountered elsewhere in the country: White-crested Tiger Heron Tigriornis leucolopha, Long-tailed Hawk Urotriorchis macrourus (one record, first for Benin but perhaps no more than an unsettled wanderer), Vermiculated Fishing Owl Scotopelia bouvieri, Hairy-breasted Barbet Tricholaema hirsuta (also discovered in Pobè forest), Little Spotted Woodpecker Campethera cailliautii, Western Bearded Greenbul Criniger barbatus, Finsch’s Flycatcher Thrush Stizorhina fraseri finschi and White-browed Forest Flycatcher Fraseria cinerascens.
Also common here are Red-tailed Greenbul Criniger calurus, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone rufiventer, Coppery, Splendid and Superb Sunbirds Nectarinia cuprea, N. coccinigaster and N. superba, Black-winged Oriole Oriolus nigripennis, Blue-billed and Red-vented Malimbe Malimbus nitens and M. scutatus.
7. Atchirigbé Classified Forest
The Forêt Classée d’Atchirigbé lies along the RNIE-2 road heading north between Bohicon and Dassa-Zoumè in the central-south of the country at c. 07°33’N 02°07°E. It is easy to find and to access as it starts westward from the macadam (just 200 m before the railway crosses the main road). Tall Khaya senegalensis trees (commonly known as African mahogany) planted under the French occupation and old neglected teaks Tectona grandis plantations occupy a small ravine down to the Zou river.
A brief visit in May 2011 provided the following unexpected surprises: Golden-tailed Woodpecker Campethera abingoni, Yellow-bellied Hyliota Hyliota flavigaster and Black-bellied Firefinch Lagonosticta rara and it might well be worth a visit for anyone with a few hours to spend in the area.
8. The Collines’ escarpments (Dassa hill, Kpataba cliff)
In the centre of the country, the numerous inselbergs, escarpments, cliffs, rocky hills and outcrops situated in the Departement des Collines are not included in IBAs. Stretching along the main Dassa-Zoumè – Parakou road or along the Savalou – Bantè road (en route to Pendjari NP), they are often easy to access and home to a number of particular species. A brief visit might be of interest for fulfilling a trip list as well as to enjoy great views after achieving a healthy climbing effort. Remember that sunhat and water are essential under the local heat.
The particular species to be encountered here include the African Rock Martin Hirundo fuligula, Mocking Chat Myrmecocichla cinnamomeiventris, Rock-loving Cisticola Cisticola aberrans. There has also been one tentative report of Red-winged Starling Onychognathus morio, a species "strongly stenotopic to inselbergs and rocky outcroppings" that has been recorded in Nigeria and Burkina Faso. Confirmation of its presence would make a welcome addition to the Benin list.
Most of these spots are little (or not at all) investigated and probably most of them may turn out to be productive. The two main sites we would recommend are Dassa hill (situated in town of Dassa-Zoumè at c. 07°47’ N 02°11’E) and Kpataba cliff, further north-west just along the main road between Savalou and Bantè (at c. 08°04’N 01°58’E),which peaks at 540 m above sea level, while the plain downwards is at c. 210 m height. Numerous inselbergs from Savè to Ouèssè (on the road to Parakou) may also be very productive. Additionally, the area to the east of Dassa-Zoumé has some interesting bush, while the area to the north-west towards Savalou and beyond (Forêt d’Agoua) is also of interest and very poorly known. Brief stops in these open landscapes can produce a wide variety of birds, including many raptors and other savannah-centered species.
Note that some of these places may be sacred and have traditional restriction access. As far as possible, try to ask local people or children if access on your own is permitted or if you need to be accompanied.
In Dassa-Zoumè, the Auberge de Dassa, which belongs to the same group as the Auberge d’Abomey, is a very suitable location for exploring interesting sites in the area. More hotels are available in Dassa from the high-standing Jeco Hotel to the very affordable accommodation offered by the Sisters of the Mariale Cave (right from the Basilica). The city of Dassa is indeed famous as a place of pilgrimage; the Virgin Mary said to have appeared in “La Grotte Mariale Notre Dame d'Arigbo”, around which a basilica has since been built. In Savalou, 35 km further to the north-west, the Auberge de Savalou is also very affordable and welcoming.
9. Tobé Forest
The pleasant Tobé Forest (08°19’30’’N 01°50’30’’E) is protected privately, by Alain Ratié and his collaborators. It aims to conserve natural resources based on local traditions and at local development through honey production, ecotourism and other income generating activities. Situated 6 km south of the village of Koko, itself a few km south-west of Bantè, in the Département des Collines, the property consists of some 800 ha of transition woodland (woodland returning in part to dry forest), with some riparian forest on a spring below Tobé Rock (a round granite hill) and along a stream (the Zou) forming the boundary with Agoua Classified Forest. Villagers at Koko can advise visitors on the route from there to Tobé but remember that the camp is not permanently open and a visit must be arranged in advance with Alain.
CENTRE ENERGETIQUE DE TOBE,
Association de Développement (Apiculture, nature et traditions …), Alain Ratié & Ghislaine Winckler: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Tel.: (+229) 97 64 41 22 or (+229) 67 41 73 21
The bungalows and rest camp are built at the base of the rocky hill, which affords wonderful views over the forest. It is obvious from the hill that Anogeissus leiocarpus is the most common tree locally. Pleasant walks and easy birding are possible in the forest thanks of some 20 km of trails opened in the understorey.
The site is not yet extensively studied from an ornithological point of viewpoint but, situated in the transition zone, it is clear that is hosts both northern species at the southern edge of their distribution range, as for instance Fox Kestrel Falco alopex, Spotted Thick-knee Burhinus capensis and Yellow White-eye Zosterops senegalensis, as well as several species associated with rain forest or transition woodland reaching their northern known range limit: White-spotted Flufftail Sarothrura pulchra, Black-throated Coucal Centropus leucogaster, Yellowbill (Green Malkoha) Ceuthmochares aereus, Baumann’s Greenbul Phyllastrephus baumanni, Leaflove Pyrrhurus scandens and Pulvel’s Illadopsis Illadopsis puveli.
Among other interesting species reported from Tobé, we may highlight the following: Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus with one record of a bird attempting to catch a Rock Hyrax (Procavia) on the hill, suggesting that this big raptor could survive in large reserves of transition woodland and not just rain forest, Freckled Nightjar Caprimulgus tristigma often noisy around the hill, easily attracted with playback and sometimes found sitting on top of the rock during the day, Ahanta Francolin Francolinus ahantensis, Green and Violet Turacos Tauraco persa and Musophaga violacea, Spotted Eagle Owl Bubo (cinerascens) africanus and African Wood Owl Strix woodfordii both heard around the rest camp at night, Giant Kingfisher Megaceryle maxima, Piping Hornbill Bycanistes fistulator still remarkably common here in riparian forest but also in transition woodland, Western Nicator Nicator chloris common in riparian forest and transition woodland, Grey-headed Bristlebill Bleda canicapillus in riparian forest and Rock-loving Cisticola Cisticola aberrans in low scrub on Tobé Rock.
Several remarkable migrants were recorded here in April 2011, of which about 100 Red-footed Falcons Falco vespertinus, some Mottled Swifts Tachymarptis aequatorialis and 6 African Black Swifts Apus barbatus (the first record for the country) were seen around the hill.