Instead of sleeping in last Saturday for our Preparation Day, we were out the door on a botanical field trip before 5:45am with Elder/Doctor Hill, our next-door-neighbor. He is the area medical advisor, and is a true-blue outdoorsman from Calgary, Canada. For his mission, he had to put his high adventure exploits on hold, but has taken up bird-watching, taking advantage of the many species living around us as well as those you can find only in the natural areas around Accra. On this fine day, he took us to one of his favorite finds, the Legon Botanical Gardens that are part of the University of Ghana, just a few miles north of where we live.
As far as he has been able to piece together, it appears that the British created these gardens around one hundred years ago during the Ghanaian colonial period. When Ghana gained her independence in 1957, the gardens became the property of the king, but with limited maintenance, they declined into more of a natural preserve. The king eventually gifted the land to the University of Ghana, and the university has begun to improve maintenance, are adding a few enhancements, but primarily use it as a laboratory for their botanical students.
There are still a broad assortment of gorgeous ornamental trees laid out. I love the giant kapok trees with their eerie symmetry as the trunk flares out at the base with massive buttresses that are almost as impressive as the canopy. We have seen varieties kapoks that are over two hundred feet tall in the Aburi Gardens in the foothills north of Accra. The one hundred-plus foot tall one here in the botanical garden towers over a fifteen-foot high termite mound and a five-and-a-half foot tall Sister Missionary. We also passed through a fragrant mango grove that is just getting underway with the second crop of the year, with mangoes are about the size of apricots. We will need to return in December when they are ripe.
The sixty acre gardens easily showcase five decades of natural decay and disrepair, with symmetrical brick pillars the only remnants of a fence that the jungle reclaimed years ago, two majestic columns of royal palm trees, half of them dead or missing most of their fronds, lining what is now only a decrepit boulevard, and the main road leading into the gardens outside the impressive but corroded iron gate is now overrun with trees that have grown undisturbed for over a half-century.
Despite the fact that nature has reclaimed most of the man-made elements in the garden, it retains an amazing charm with not only the enduring beauty of the original botanical residents of the gardens, but the broad assortment of birds who have made their homes in the midst of this mostly forgotten and isolated little oasis within Accra.
Arriving by six in the morning, just as the sun was coming up, we had the gardens mostly to ourselves and witnessed the majestic, fully orchestrated avian welcome to the new day. While a series of kites, local hawks with distinctly notched tail feathers, floated lazily above the trees, several African hornbills began a series of complex conversations that migrated from tree to tree as they busily moved about, while a broad assortment of smaller bird species flitted about, displaying their aviation skills and their wide-ranging vocal capabilities.
One of my favorite moments came when we walked into a clearing and happened upon a blue-bellied roller, a fairly rare bird resting in the lower branches of a tree not twenty feet from us. Dr. Hill recognized it immediately from its white head and neck, black mask and blue-toned body, and managed to snap a quick picture before the bird noticed us and exploded from the tree in a burst of bright royal blue and fluorescent teal feathers banded across his wings and a distinctive teal tail feathers.
These two photos of the roller aren’t ours, but the image of as he sat blissfully perched on the limb, soaking up the rays of rising sun, and his immediate eruption into a majestic blue-toned rainbow in flight is etched deeply in memory, almost exactly as captured here.
We finished the morning by walking down to a pond at the far end of the park which serves as the nesting grounds for several hundred white egrets, who have noisily staked a claim to a small island near the edge of the pond. They roost in about a dozen or so trees that occupy the island where they blissfully live and raise their young.
At least most of the time it is blissful. Dr. Hill positioned us on one side of the island, where we could see the trees over the pond, and we watched with binoculars as a couple of furtive, primarily submerged shapes deliberately swam toward the island.
As the shapes reached the shore, they emerged and we could see two lizards. These are not your ordinary cute little garden lizards that we constantly find sunning themselves on our patio in San Antonio. These are monitor lizards, and they look a lot more like a full-blown crocodile than a cheery little British gecko trying to peddle auto insurance. Monitor lizards grow up to ten feet long (the ones we saw were more in the four foot range) and have massive, powerful limbs, are very intelligent and hunt in packs. Most are terrestrial, but the ones we saw were decidedly right at home in the water and have evidently developed a strong fancy for egret eggs and fledglings.
We weren’t close enough to get any good shots (this one is from a fellow missionary on a safari this summer in South Africa, but it looks like it hatched in the same nest as the ones we saw), so Dr. Hill and I attempted to work our way onto the “island” by means of a narrow land bridge on the far side away from the lizards.
We were fairly stealthy and made it onto the island without disturbing either the birds or their similarly stealthy predators. But just as we were working around a slight rise where we would have a great angle for some photos, we heard a rapid series of splashes. Two of the splashes came from the shoreline as the lizards spotted us and quickly slipped back into the relative safety of the pond. The other splashes were decidedly closer and really more felt than heard. Several of the egrets evidently decided that we had overstayed our welcome on their island and figured it was a good time to make a series of deposits on the two-legged intruders.