Lekki Conservation Center, Lagos, Nigeria: Nov 17 & 22, 2012

I never imagined that my first trip to West Africa would be to Lagos, Nigeria. Who isn't familiar with the dire conditions of the country, an oil state plagued by corruption and fraud, facing a burgeoning population, decaying infrastructure, and violent extremism? But the situation can’t be as bad as it's presented in the media, I supposed, and birding is a great way to salvage a visit to any new place. Hopefully, I would have a few opportunities to explore the natural side of Lagos while I hammered out three weeks of temporary duty in this infamous megacity. My return to the continent had already proven fruitful with a 24-hour rest stop in South Africa, complete with a full-day of birding in several reserves outside Johannesburg. There was also the possibility of visiting Ghana for a weekend, which is another fabulous birding destination, if the prospect of traveling in Nigeria was too daunting. My outlook was no less than optimistic as we arrived at the airport, and I eagerly took in the sights and sounds of the city as we transferred to our quarters. Welcome to Lagos!

I had done some research in advance on the Internet, starting with the excellent African Bird Club website, and learned that there is a decent reserve within Lagos itself, located not far from one of the large islands where I would be staying. Lekki Conservation Center was founded in 1990 with funding from several multinational oil companies, and is now administrated by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation. An elevated boardwalk and a trail network offer access to 80 hectares of swamp forest and savanna, and there are also several bird hides, viewing platforms, and a canopy tree house. The infrastructure is currently in excellent condition, and the park is smartly administered and popular with visitors, school and church groups in particular. Opening at 8am, admission is less than 1000 Naira, although the price might vary depending on the gullibility of the foreign visitor (just ask for a ticket before handing money over to a guard). There’s also a respectable museum and gift shop at the reserve headquarters.

I was able to visit the reserve on two separate mornings, staying 4-5 hours on both visits, which was more than enough time to sweat through my clothes in exchange for seeing a small handful of unique and beautiful birds. Transportation in Lagos is a challenge, to say the least (we took a boat to work everyday to avoid traveling on the choked and angry roads). Even with the car service we had available, it was still difficult to talk the driver into leaving at 7:30am on a Saturday and then waiting around in the parking lot until we were finished (I imagine one could make a similar arrangement with a taxi driver, but I would discourage a foreigner from trying to use pubic transportation). Traffic in Lagos is notoriously bad, and the 30-minute trip stretched into well over an hour as we sat for ages in the new tollbooth go-slow. The downtime gave me the chance to page through my new Birds of Western Africa field guide and to comb over the best trip report I found on the Internet about the reserve. 

Before visiting the reserve for the first time, I had also had the chance to get acquainted with the common birds of Lagos throughout the week. Somehow, these hardy survivors have managed to hold out in the remaining gardens and few tree-lined avenues of the upscale residential neighborhoods: Green Wood Hoopoe, Western Grey Plantain-Eater, Woodland Kingfisher, Common Bulbul, and African Thrush.  Along the waterways, Cattle Egret, Long-Tailed Cormorant, Western Reef Egret, and Pied Kingfisher were often present. In the skies, Black Kites swirled endlessly overhead, while Little Swift, Rose-Ringed Parakeet, and Pied Crow headed from one place to another. Speckled Pigeon and Laughing Dove hung out everywhere, undaunted by the rapidly growing concrete jungle. In the garden of our quarters, I spent a few minutes photographing this voracious Woodland Kingfisher that was making practical use of the playground equipment to hunt for grasshoppers.

My colleague Mike joined me on my first Saturday morning visit to the reserve.  The early morning skies were gray and swollen with humidity, but after a week of observing similar conditions I was confident it wouldn’t rain. We eagerly set out into the swamp forest along the boardwalk, proceeding in counterclockwise direction around the loop. Inside it was remarkably still and dark, with only a few birds calling from high above in the canopy. In fact, we went nearly an hour without seeing a single bird, only finally getting a visual on one of the Little Greenbuls that had been sounding off since we arrived. Drab and indistinct except for a slight pinkish gape, the bird was hardly the start for which we had hoped. Ascending the ladder to the tree house, we did see a few more birds in the canopy, including African Pied Hornbill and White-Throated Bee-Eater, both regionally common. At least there weren’t a lot of mosquitoes, I remember saying cheerfully, happy to be birding instead of sleeping off a hangover.

We pushed out into the blinding sun of the savanna section of the reserve, where bird activity was significantly greater. Several sunbird species, including Collared and Variable, dashed about in the shrubs at the forest edge, and we finally found a boisterous group of Swamp Palm Bulbuls, in a palm no less. The action continued as I introduced Mike to a calling Yellow-Throated Longclaw, and as we moved into the shade to admire it in comfort, we flushed a pair of Long-Tailed Nightjars from the leaf litter that resettled nearby. I moved in for a photograph but flushed them again, at least providing us with sufficient views to confirm the identification. Further along, we noted a Yellow-Billed Turaco in flight, a calling Tawny-Flanked Prinia, a pair of noisy Splendid Glossy Starlings, and a flock of Bronze Mannikins.

Returning to the swamp forest, now rather swampy ourselves, we joined forces with another British birder who has been living in Lagos for nine months. Although his knowledge of the birds of reserve didn’t seem any better than ours, having another set of eyes was certainly useful as we located Piping Hornbill, Blue-Breasted Kingfisher, African Goshawk, and Speckled Tinkerbird. The kingfisher in particular was magnificent, perched motionless but vibrantly colored on a liana quiet near the boardwalk. Unfortunately, our exclamations scared it off before I could fire away on my camera. We also made a brief stop at a bird hide and a viewing platform, both offering obstructed views over marshy, forest edge habitat. Here we had African Jacana, more bee-eaters and sunbirds, and lots of African Palm Swifts. As we left the reserve, I was buoyant about our expedition despite the low bird count and resolved to return, if only to get a photograph of the kingfisher.

The following Thursday was a holiday, and I was able to arrange another trip to Lekki Conservation Center, this time going by myself (the reserve is a perfectly safe place to walk around with birding equipment; outside the wall is another story, I suspect). This time I took a clockwise route through the swamp forest, spending at least an hour on the first viewing platform, where I enjoyed several good birds, including the Blue-Billed Malimbe, Blue-Breasted Kingfisher, and African Emerald Cuckoo. Inside the forest, I searched patiently for the dapper White-Browed Forest Flycatcher, which had been reported in previous trip reports, but came up empty.  Back in the savanna section of the reserve, I picked up a female Carmelite Sunbird, which is restricted to the coast of Western Africa, as well as a more distinct male Olive-Bellied Sunbird. A final pass through the swamp forest yielded African Pygmy Kingfisher and Willow Warbler at the forest edge. Again it was not an overwhelming haul of birds, but the opportunity to bird in a megacity like Lagos shouldn’t be skipped.

Notable birds seen: African Goshawk, African Jacana, Red-Eyed Dove, Yellow-Billed Turaco, African Emerald Cuckoo, Long-Tailed Nightjar, African Palm Swift, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Blue-Breasted Kingfisher, White-Throated Bee-Eater, African Pied Hornbill, Piping Hornbill, Speckled Tinkerbird, Yellow-Throated Longclaw, Swamp Palm Bulbul, Little Greenbul, Willow Warbler, Tawny-Flanked Prinia, Spotted Flycatcher, Collared Sunbird, Carmelite Sunbird, Variable Sunbird, Olive-Bellied Sunbird, Splendid Glossy Starling, Blue-Billed Malimbe, Bronze Mannikin.

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