Day 190: The Mt. Kupe Bushshrike

An expedition for one of the world’s most isolated birds.

July 9, 2015: Nyasoso, Cameroon — Early this morning, Benji and I met a local birder named Albert at our very rustic accommodation in the very rustic village of Nyasoso, and the three of us hiked out to ascend Mount Kupe, an isolated volcano in northwest Cameroon. We spent all day slowly climbing one of the mountain’s flanks on a forested trail and returned to Nyasoso just before dark. I don’t think I sat down between breakfast and dinner.

This is certainly one of the most remote places I’ve ever visited. Albert, who generally guides any birders who make it this far afield, told me that I am the first birder to pass through Nyasoso this year (there were a couple of tours planned in January but they were canceled because of political unrest in northern Cameroon), and that the last Westerners he’s seen in the village were here for a couple of days last February. He said that, as far as he knows, no birders have ever visited Mount Kupe during the wet season (June to September) except for a couple of researchers who mist-netted birds here many years ago. As we climbed today, it was clear that nobody had used the trail in a long time, and Albert stayed busy with his machete to clear a path for us through the jungle.

One of the reasons any birders make the effort to climb Mount Kupe is the Mt. Kupe Bushshrike, a sharply distinctive bird that lives only at higher elevations on this mountain. (Yes, the official modifier is “Mt. Kupe.” Does this bird really deserve such abbreviation?) In Nyasoso, I saw a mural of the bushshrike painted wall-size on an outbuildingit stood out among the scatter of muddy huts in the villageand wondered if we’d come across one today.

We climbed steeply through a patchwork of banana and cacao plantations before reaching the edge of unbroken forest, at which point the trail plunged skyward and did not let up. Albert, Benji and I picked our way up the dark, slippery track, and all three of us ate mud at least once. Albert pointed out some nice birdsa beautiful Crossley’s Ground-Thrush and endemic Gray-headed Greenbul were highlightswhile we gained more than 650 meters (2,000 feet), eventually climbing out of the mist into bright sunshine. So much for this so-called wet season! Albert says that the rains have been unpredictable in recent years and blames climate change; in any case I’ve been very lucky with the weather in West Africa.

Suddenly, a goshawk blasted over our heads and perched briefly on a limb in the mid-canopy. All the birds in the forest began shrieking alarm calls at the predator, and Albert blurted out: “S&$#, I hear the Mt. Kupe Bushshrike!” A series of distinctive calls floated up from a ravine below. We crept off-trail through the undergrowth until, in an amazing moment, I had the bird magnified 10 times in my binocular view, almost as big as the mural had been. We could hear another bushshrike nearby, and the pair soon flew off, leaving an image I won’t soon forget. 

I haven’t done laundry in weeks; my room has no electricity; my face is turning black from exhaust, sweat, and dust; I’ve started eating everything with my hands, and my hands are covered with interesting bug bites; I haven’t had cell service or wifi in almost a week (sorry folks!); there is no toilet paper; I haven’t seen another non-African person since I arrived in Cameroon; and it feels like I’ve entered an alternate reality in the heart of Africa, where things move at half speed. Today, one of the world’s most seldom-seen, inaccessible, and range-restricted birds looked me straight in the eye, and I stared right back into its eyeball.

New birds today: 17

Year list: 3448

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