Archive notes – Sula mountains, northern Sierra Leone, 5 May 2013

It’s streaming swifts!

This wonderful book arrived today

“ Birder’s Log: Sunday May 5, 2013 

0950 until 1250 GMT

Have you been hoping for some Vis-Mig in Africa? 

Yes indeed! 

A Sunday morning. So admittedly I came somewhat late, scrambling and occasionally stumbling, to the ridge line in the clear, above and far beyond – The Mine.

I am an evidently ageing ecological investigator. One sweating heavily, yet ascending quickly enough through the residue of a once magnificent forest. Pushing a way up a narrow trail onto a stony ridge, largely cloaked with squat savanna trees. The foothills these, of the Sula mountains. I am in northern Sierra Leone, West Africa.

Sweated-up from a newly bulldozed drill-rig platform; so have an iron-clad EIA-survey excuse for inserting myself into some avian and insect “vis-mig”. Going up through old Guinea wooded savanna, in fresh leaf, to an open grassy crest, evidence of a former ‘field’ on a cultivable whale-back ridge.

(James was) at an elevation of between 700 and 800 metres overlooking the Tonkolili river. This whaleback is the middle, and lowest, of three parallel ridges, each orientated SSW – NNE. These ridges extend through the wider landscape as giant fingers of dry Guinea savanna. Stretching ‘down’ from the north. Around the mine site they greet other fingers, deep green ones, moist evergreen gallery forest hiding as it were, in the valley bottoms. Tentatively the evergreen tropical forests have advanced into the drier Guinea zone, along two rivers on either side of ‘my’ ridge –  this one, between the rivers Tonkolili and Waka. 

Old rivers that nowadays appear to be feeling their way, backwards against the flow, retreating as if in trepidation trying to escape not only the slash and the burn, but now reptilian diggers and graders, and the giant yellow dozers. Roads. Is this not the devil’s curse upon the land? The curse has fallen now, upon most of the old routes of Africa. A sterilising breath that follows the bulldozing of the roads, the breath with which these hills must become ever more invested.

Meet the devil : the death of diversity by a holy grail, “development”, manifested by an insatiable and long corrupted lowland mindlessness. Always so very cunning, it offers a poisoned chalice to all the hill folk. Because, instead of providing comfort and succour, that it suggests will soon be following, the system dumps mass-produced toxins and trivia, everywhere. Detritus of modernity, in exchange for golden eggs. A total travesty of an equitable exchange. Dumping on subsistence farmers, and their northerly neighbours, the pastoral folk. All of whom live far, very far, from the broken homes of a global suburbia that we must still pretend we to want to satisfy. After all we are labouring hours-for-money here, in just another resource-rich minor nation, home to “useless mouths”, deep down and in Africa’s way.

So, on this particular day, the fifth of May, on the far side of the ridge… Its a bright and sparkly morning in the Guinea wooded landscape. For this, for now, for a few months more, remains the land of the Fula. It’s cattle country. Wood pasture in the main. The “Connective Habo” something not enjoyed in most of Europe since before medieval times. It is bright after last evening’s first heavenly refreshment of the season. Night-time rain. Lovely showers in the inky dark of a waning moon. Heralds for the start of a West African monsoon. Sparkly with the electrifying spring, the vibe in the vegetation. Renaissance. The greatest gift of the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone. A rain-belt that surfs the pulse of the planet; out from the equatorial core. North with the spring. South with the … spring.

28 -34 Celsius. Cloud cover about 3/8, alto-cirrus and/or alto-stratus. Nor’westerly breeze, Beaufort 2-to-4, light yet merciful persistent, deliciously sweat-soothing. Let’s walk along the ridge-line, then pause and sit, if anything appears to be moving overhead we’ll wait awhile and watch.

In the three hours that ensue over 800 Common Swifts must have flown past me, all northwards. Urgently and quietly, in at least thirty narrow flocks, or thirty streams.

Initially just some twenty birds were spotted there, loafing, circling over my first vantage point. They were foraging for little insects, the aerial plankton, high above these forested sholas alongside the upper Tonkolili valley. “Shola” allows us a precise word for rounded patches of evergreen forest that are still to be found hunkered down in the folds and crotches of tropical hills. Patch shapes that remain after the slashing and farmer fires have opened up the rest of the mountain.

Once in a while the sooty black swifts would be joined by half a dozen sharp-cut bespoke House Martins, the epitome of cool, so sharp in their fresh shiny black and pure white feathers. An hour before noon a palpable urgency of action appeared to take hold in the sky of Apus-world.

From that hour onward, occasional swifts out of the mini-multitude that were passing, would halt and then glide back, above this ‘relatively unspoilt’ ridge-and-valley landscape. Close they would come, drifting on the northerly breeze to circle above me, and feed.

At half past noon, solar midday exactly, four species of swift, and all in the very same minute and on the very same line: a Pallid, a White-rumped and a Little flickered north … heading for Europe [?], together they brought up the tail-end of the longest caravan of some hundred Common Swifts.

Other birds were moving north on this Spring-in-Guinea morning. 

Glorious White-throated Bee-eaters, in perfect plumage, with long tail projections, started coming-up from the more forested south at about 11 a.m. They were very noisy and restless, moving from tree-top to tree-top then, with much circling and calling and with many dropping back, they began to leave us. By the time I too had to leave the site, to meet my lift, over 350 had departed north in three vociferous flocks.

Once a pair of Violet-backed Starlings sped north weaving between the scattered bushes beside me – this bird is an absolute avian gem. Always.

In the two hours between ten and noon I walk a total of no more than 700 metres north-east along the ridge. I progress slowly from its southern ‘nose’, stopping wherever possible, and whenever possible getting into shade. I squat there in the shade, to scan and recoup, becoming comfortable once again under those kindly ridge-top trees. 

At one point on my stumble I flushed a migrant Common Quail; a “new bird” for the mining area!

And slowly I became aware that there was a myriad of life-forms moving. Migrating north with the return of moisture to this land.

Many, many butterflies of at least twenty species. A species of shiny buzzing-black  spider-hunting wasp and a species of green cone-head grasshopper, progressing somewhat slowly in rattling leaps and bounds. Dun brown Siffling Cisticolas who jerkily bounced from tree to tree, a “dzeep” of a Eurasian Tree Pipit – a bird a little tardy here perhaps, and likewise a long-wired Barn Swallow, presumably a nuptial male.

But this morning, of all the marvellous migrants, who share my deepest admiration, it’s the swifts, yes, yet again the swifts, these dark and angled angels! The Common Swifts reign supreme.

James (glimpsed here, as the erstwhile Birdman of Arusha, by a tailorbird)

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