Birding Without Borders

Day 178: The Picathartes

In search of an iconic West African bird.

June 27, 2015, Kumasi, Ghana — My most-wanted bird in Ghana on this trip was the Yellow-headed Picathartes (also known as the White-necked Rockfowl)—a bizarre and rare species of West African tropical forests. The picathartes is the size of a chicken but slimmer, with a colorful, smooth-looking head and a beady black eye. It puts its nest underneath large rock overhangs and in caves, and spends its days skulking around the nearby forest, sometimes following ant swarms. In the rest of the world there is nothing like it.

Kalu knew a good picathartes stakeout and we made a special trip this afternoon. In 2007, a couple of birders in Ghana were looking for Yellow-headed Picathartes locations and canvassed some remote villages asking if anyone had seen the bird. A man named Samson in a village called Bonkro said he could find one, and, sure enough, was able to lead birders right to it (he has since discovered a couple more, too, in less accessible places). He was waiting when we arrived in Bonkro today and accompanied Kalu and me up a machete trail through the forest.

After about a half mile, we crested a ridge and reached a large rock which was undercut at its base. There, on the inward-sloping rock wall, was a cup-shaped nest made of dried mud. The picathartes sleeps in its nest each night throughout the year, even when it doesn’t have eggs or chicks to attend, so we sat down and waited for the strange bird to return to roost.

Just as dusk settled, the Yellow-headed Picathartes hopped quietly out of the vegetation and, moving deliberately, made its way toward the nest. A second bird, perhaps its mate, showed up, giving us fantastic views. We watched them for several minutes then, not wanting to disturb their sleep or get ourselves stuck in the forest after dark, slipped back down to the village. A perfect punctuation to another productive day!

New birds today: 33

Year list: 3227

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