Thursday February 7, 2013

EAST CHATHAM, N.Y.

For many weeks now Danny and I have been planning our trip to Africa to visit my brother, Matthew, the public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Yaounde, Cameroon. To learn as much as we can before we go, we buy guides -- the Cameroon travel guide, bird guides, a map of the entire country that comes complete with gas pump symbols to tell you where the next gas station is as you venture over hills and into rain forests. We buy books including a reprint of Mary Kingsley’s journey through this area in 1897, "The Congo and the Cameroons."

First, though, we need visas, but then we learn, before we can apply for visas, we must get yellow fever inoculations. Off we go to the travel nurse who meticulously takes us through the possible perils in Central Africa, an area where insects and disease thrive. Not only do we end up with yellow fever shots, but five others as well needed for the tropics. We leave her office, arms a little sore, with a prescription for malaria pills.

The visa applications are in French and English and we are reminded "that it is primordial" that we include a self-addressed, stamped envelope for the return of our passports. Else the passports (and possibly we) would linger stateside in the primordial evolutionary mud? Our passports with colorful, stamped visas arrive within the promised two weeks.

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Then the holiday season is upon us and the pile of Cameroon-related material gets pushed to the side.


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January sweeps in and we are back to planning. Matthew is a birder, too, so he not only does a bit of recce, he plots a fantastic route from Yaounde to Bamenda, to Nyasoso stopping and hiking at good birding spots, at lakes, at waterfalls. From there we head to Mt. Cameroon for a few days and then to Kribi, a city on the ocean that is surrounded by the Campo Reserve, a huge wildlife reservation.

Now we are nearly ready to go and I finally have time to review the "Birds of Western and Central Africa," a beautiful field guide, written and illustrated by Ber Van Perlo. The 109 color plates depict nearly 1,500 species of birds that could possibly be seen in this enormous territory. Cameroon is lush and has an incredibly varied series of habitats, from shore to lakes to rivers, to grassland, savannah, bush, swamps, rainforest, desert and even alpine vegetation in the highlands. There are 900 species in about 75 different families.

I start flipping through the book and am overwhelmed by the glitterati of so many strange feathered creatures. I note that the birds are presented in the same order as most of the field guides, starting with seabirds and waterbirds, moving through the hawks and eagles, the fowl-like birds, shorebirds, gulls and terns and then onto the hundreds of birds of the fields and woods. I do recognize some in the first part of the book like the great cormorant, cattle egret, the osprey, those birds that are the same the world over. I recognize some of the birds that are migrants from Europe spending the winter in the tropics much the same as our birds spending their winter in South America.

But as I read I see that not only are there hawks and eagles, there are separate families of hawk eagles and snake eagles; not only are there shrikes and cuckoos, there are shrike-cuckoos -- and helmet-shrikes and bush-shrikes. Thrushes are related to our robin, but here we also have palm-thrushes, flycatcher-thrushes, robin-chats, scrub-robins.

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Page after page of related birds, many of which look very alike until you study the page for a while. The greenish woodpeckers all have similar markings, but some are smaller than other, some have faintly stripe-y backs, some have brownish cheek spots and others have a bright red malar, similar to our flicker.

Some species are easy to categorize -- the small iridescent sunbirds with long curved bills fill the niche of our hummingbirds. But, then there are birds with names I’ve never heard of and cannot fit into any category at all: illadopsis, apalis, eremomela, crombecs, prinia, cisticola, parisoma that are unique to Africa and have no equivalents in North America.

And there are those I have heard of such as greenbuls, bulbuls, brownbuls and babblers, all smallish, greenish or brownish and similar to our vireos, but there are more than 50 species. Fortunately the maps in the back of the book will at least give us a hint as to which species are found in the areas that we will be visiting in Cameroon and which are more common. There’s a handy glossary of French names for the birds, but we have not gone beyond "un petit oiseau brun."

Plus we have the list that Matthew created which itemizes those birds he’s seen and identified as well as the relatively common birds of Cameroon focusing on those areas where we will be. We will see hundreds of species, but how many will we identify?

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.