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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Democratic Republic of the Congo, November 24th 2002 - June 26th 2003.,
Alex Georgiev (email@example.com) Biology student at Sofia University, Bulgaria
About this trip.
Late November 2002 I traveled as a volunteer to the DRC from Nairobi, Kenya to join a bonobo (Pan paniscus) research project, run in the interior of the country by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. I didn't have any bird guides for the area so I took the Svenson & Fanshawe Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa. It proved that since it covers also Uganda's rainforest species it was of good use in the heart of the Congo, too.
For most of the time, bird-watching was done opportunistically. My main work was on the bonobo feeding ecology project on and the conducting of a monthly mammal census of the forest in the study area. Whenever I observed any birds in the forest I would try to ID them as accurately as possible with the guide back in camp. There were also quite a few observations made around the research camp itself.
ARRIVING IN KINSHASA - N'DJILI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
The Kinshasa airport is a bit run-down but overall is not too hostile to travellers. Most immigration officers checking passports speak only French. They don't make too much trouble but take some time reading very carefully all the pages in your passport. On the return flight from the interior (which is also operated from this airport) one of the officers, quite fluent in English, hassled a Chinese volunteer of the research project. He kept asking her nonsense questions such as 'So you're coming back from the forest!? You' must have been eating a lot of meat there! Have you brought something for me!?' (all people in towns apparently love bushmeat!). After a Congolese colleague of ours spotted that she is being kept so long for no obvious reason he approached and kindly got her passport back from the immigration officer.
On arrival from an international flight, after passport control, yellow-fever certificates ARE checked. I was told that if you don't have one you could get one issued on the spot for a certain fee (although you won't actually get the inoculation shot).
Collecting your luggage at the conveyor belt could be a bit of a hassle. People approached me trying to take the luggage tickets from me, pretending that this is standard procedure. They are just trying to get your luggage and act as porters before you even have a chance to get your bearings right in the place. When I collected my backpack I saw that the several layers of tape, which I had put round the lid of the backpack, have been cut with a knife. Luckily whoever had done that didn't manage to get inside my luggage as I had also taped the plastic locks of the backpack under the layers of tape, which have been cut. So it does make sense to secure all luggage when flying into N'Djili Airport.
ACCOMMODATION IN KINSHASA
Apart from the top end hotels in city centre, a safe place (used by many missionaries) is the CAP Hostel in the Gombe residential area. It is well guarded, not very expensive (27 USD per night), and is in a more or less safe area (a lot of embassies and residencies are located in the Gombe area). This place is quite popular so it must be booked in advance (on the way out of Kinshasa we couldn't get rooms there).
On the way back from the forest we were put up in a place called CBCO (again to do with missionaries). The security situation there is appalling, the personnel is not used to having foreign customers and don't have the custom of offering food to their guests, even though there is a functioning kitchen and dining facilities. Never go there.
SAFETY IN TOWN
We've been told that foreigners walking about on the streets, unaccompanied are at some risk of being kidnapped/robbed. At all times in Kin we have been either driven in a car, or when on foot in a market accompanied by a local. At these times - even in the slummiest part of the big city market the biggest nuisance was people coming at you, trying to sell you this or that. Virtually nobody speaks English there or on the streets. There are no military officers threatening you with machine guns if you don't give them all your money. Some people have commented that, on the whole, Kin is a much safer place than, say, Nairobi (where I got mugged INSIDE a car within days of arrival in the country!). The situation in Kinshasa is really not as bad as it might appear in the media.
THE TRIP TO CAMP - LOGISTICS
Internal flights from Kinshasa towards the research area are operated by the Mission Aviation Fellowship. They have an office in Kinshasa and a base in Vanga village (NE into the country). There are weekly flights from Kin to Vanga but no regular ones to Ipope village, where the closest air-strip to the research camp is located. Ipope is about 25 km north of the river Lokoro.
The flight from Kinshasa to Vanga takes about 1hr 30min - 1hr 40min.
The flight from Vanga to Ipope takes about 1hr 30 min.
It is also possible to charter a plane to fly directly Kinshasa - Ipope.
The airstrip at Ipope is located out of sight of the actual village on a savannah patch. From there it's about 15 minutes or so of walking to the village. The transport is done by local porters who meet the flight on the air-strip along with a crowd of onlookers. In December on my way in there was a military check-point in Ipope who basically try to get something out of you by messing you about for as long as they can. Open all the baggage, show me your passport, your travel permit etc. However, on the way out of Ipope, in June the military post was no longer there and travel permits were officially no longer needed for foreigners.
From Ipope we go to the village of Lompole. This is the village, which owns the patch of the forest where the research on the bonobos is being done. Most of the project workers come from there. To reach it from Ipope you walk about 5 km along an old road, surrounded by forest and cultivated land. In Lompole there is an overnight stop. Bring tents.
On the next morning the last leg of the trip to the research camp begins. It is 20 km long and goes through forests, 3 savannahs and 3 main rivers + some muddy bits in between. Depending on the speed of walking this distance is covered in 4 - 5 hrs. The trail goes south from the village until it crosses the river Lokoro. That's the biggest river on the way and it can only be traversed in a pirogue (spectacular scenery there!). Both other rivers can be crossed on foot (one by walking on the bottom, and the other along a small bridge made from felled trees).
From the last river, the Lokoro, it's only a short way through water and mud (up to your waist in rainy times) to the research camp of Lui Kotal.
LUI KOTAL - THE STUDY AREA
The study area is located on the southern side of the Lokoro River. It is considered to be at the very south-western tip of Salonga National Park. It covers a track of primary forest stretching about 6.5 km south from the river until one forest marshy clearing with running water in it (Badzungu). The forest all over is quite dense. One volunteer who has been before at Tai forest, commented the canopy at Lui Kotal is noticeable not as high as at Tai and is more open which leads to denser undergrowth.
The trail system at the time I was with the project was about 30 km long with one main 6 km trail running along a ridge and other 11 on both sides of it. In few places some of the trails are steep and go down into little streams and muddy places but most of them are on flat, firm ground (as is most of the forest around the trails).
Apart from bonobos, there are many other primates - black mangabey, Wolf's monkey, Tshuapa red colobus (all three species occurring only in the forests south of the Congo river), Angola pied colobus, red-tailed monkey and dwarf crescendo galagos (names are as in Kingdon's Guide to African Mammals).
Red river hogs are common, as are Peter's and blue duikers. Also - black-fronted, bay and yellow-backed duikers occur.
Elephants only frequent the most southern end of the research area, near the clearing of Badzungu but once tracks were seen on the main trail, 500m from the camp. Occasionally some of the local workers encountered the elephants briefly.
Buffalo dung and tracks were only once seen in the clearing of Badzungu - some 6 + km from the camp.
Several times during my time at the site large poisonous snakes were seen by people in the forest. Green mambas and a large black snake with a bit of yellow around the mouth and the throat - presumably a black mamba are the most potentially dangerous (I personally encountered the black - twice).
CLIMATE AND STUFF
Weather-wise, the most rainy time of the year looks like February - April/May. After that the southern 'winter' begins with lots of cool cloudy skies but not much actual rainfall - dry season. More rain again later, around November/December, then really hot in January/February.
Daylight hours. From about 5.30 AM or so you could walk in the forest without a torch. In the evening you need one from about 5.30 - 5.45 PM or so.
THE FOREST CLEARING OF BADZUNGU
Around 6.5km from the research camp the 'ridge' along which the main trail runs goes down. If you follow down that path and into a little clear stream and then into a muddy one you exit the dark forest and enter the forest clearing of Badzungu.
Places like this are locally called libekes. It is a more or less circular marshy clearing with a flowing river crossing it East to West. It is in the most Southern end of the research area and it is exactly there that most often elephant tracks are seen and indeed a few times the elephants themselves have been seen in the evenings by the local trackers. In the clearing itself there are many traces of feeding, left by elephants. Tracks of forest buffalo have also been seen once (and dung too). On one occasion we also found that a large area of the marshy vegetation had been used as a feeding ground by bonobos. It was clear that they enter it along the same path (the muddy / swampy corridor), which is used by us when visiting the libeke - on the day we found the feeding remains in the clearing, we also saw bonobo foot-prints in the mud.
THE NTOKA FOREST CLEARING
This is another clearing further away from the camp. Estimated about 25 km distance. Walking through forest, and some savannah patches. The clearing itself is immense - it has a shallow stream of clear water flowing along its whole length. There are a lot of marshy grasses around it and elephant visit it often. Out of the clearing there are at least 10 ele trails leading away into the forest. Everywhere there were traces of elephants. The most recent ones were a day old, I was told. There were some older than 1 week. Buffalo dung was also seen and one morning we found that a sandy patch next to the stream was covered completely in bongo antelope tracks. They have been feeding in the clearing during the night. On one evening I observed a red river hog feeding at the edge of the clearing. In 2002 one of the researchers on entering the clearing had seen a group of bonobos foraging out in the open. Among all the local people Ntoka is regarded as the prime area to go and hunt (or in our case) see wildlife. Hunting there has been intense in the past and twice when people from the research camp had gone there, gunshots have been heard. For the 5 days I spent there though, there were no hunters/poachers present at all. The nocturnal visits of elephants and bongos, however, show that indeed the animals there have seen quite a few hunters over the years (animals used to go out in the clearing in daylight, year ago).
BIRDS BY LOCATION
Too much stuff going on to have any time for birding, really. Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) were there, for sure, though.
On the way to Lui Kotal I spent a weekend at the village where the MAF pilots are based - Vanga. Was still trying to get to grips with the fact that I am miles away from everything and didn't keep proper records really. The only memorable birding experience was hearing an African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer) calling loudly from the river.
The villages of Ipope and Lompole
They are close to the 'big forest' yet are much more open, especially Ipope. There are also some savannah-type areas and agricultural fields close to them. In the villages I saw Black Kites (Milvus migrans) on a number of times. And while on the last day we were waiting on the air-strip of Ipope to come and take us away I watched a Long-crested Eagle (Lophaetus occipitalis) perching for quite a while on the top of a termite mound. In the villages themselves some yellow and black weavers had nests in the foliage of palms (didn't really check them out in detail.).
Towards Lui Kotal
One bird drew my attention when on the way between the village of Lompole and the research camp of Lui Kotal - my first observations of a Palm-nut Vulture (Gypohierax angolensis). Saw a pair once at the edge of a savannah patch perching in the canopy of the trees and then once more at the Lokoro river edge, flying above.
The distant forest clearing of Ntoka (around 25 km from Lui Kotal camp)
Spent about 5 days there. Three records worth noting (that were not seen elsewhere) - Hartlaub's Duck (Pteronetta hartlaubi), Woolly-necked Stork (Ciconia episcopus) and Bohm's Spinetail (Neafrapus boehmi).
The BIG forest around Lui Kotal camp
It was really shocking for me to discover how hard it is to do birdwatching in a rainforest. Around the camp at night there were regular owls that would keep calling in a really spooky way every evening and during the night too. Saw them once as silhouettes against the darkening sky. Have no idea really what they might have been but they were the size of a Tawny owl and I was told that they are most likely African Wood Owls (Stix woodfordii). The local people call them efukulu.
At dusk the amazing calls of Great Blue Turacos (Corythaeola cristata) are heard, rolling above the canopy. On many occasions I could also watch these birds flying and feeding high in the fruiting trees.
Another rather noisy bird that was often heard and seen was the White-thighed Hornbill (Bycanistes cylindricus). The sound of the wings really gets the attention.
Once I watched a couple of green turacos feeding up a tree. The best ID I could come up with was that they are Black-billed Turacos (Tauraco schuetti). Fruiting trees were always a major attraction both for monkeys and bird. That's how I first saw a flock of African Green Pigeons (Treron calva) - feeding a very long time in a fig tree. Loads of interactions between the birds.
Some of the best bird-watching around the camp happened at a time when I was for sure not carrying my bins. I'm talking about the place, known as the 'shower-river' - a small creek where we would go to wash. There one time I watched a couple of Black bee-eaters (Merops gularis) for quite a while whirring above me from a hanging vine. Even with my eyes only the sight was mesmerising. I can't imagine how great it would have been if I had the binoculars, too! Another time again - when I wasn't really fully equipped (showering at the same place) I got yet another great new record - White-crested Hornbill (Tropicranus albocristatus)!!! This has to be my favourite hornbill species ever! The crest looks so much better in real life than it does in the field guide.
Speaking of hornbills - there were some dwarf ones around the camp regularly. Going in and out of trees. Once we even found a dead one, killed by a bird of prey on a trail in the forest. I think there might have been two species, actually - the Black Dwarf Hornbill (Tockus hartlaubi) and the Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill (Tockus camurus).
Lots of times I could hear the whirring and see the African Broadbill (Smithornis capensis). One time in the forest I got a brief glimpse of a Pitta sp. on the forest floor but can't really say what exactly.Could have been a Green-breasted one?! Oh, there were also loads of small olive-green birds - bulbuls/greenbulls or something, I presume, but those were really hopeless.Once watched a helmet-shrike but that's about as far as I can go with the ID - Prinops sp. Also a good view of a Red-bellied Paradise-flycatcher (Terpsiphone rufiventer) amd a fork-tailed drongo (Dicrurus adsimilis).
Malimbes were great to watch too - a possible female Crested Malimbe (Mailmbus malimbicus) at camp and a Blue-billed Malimbe (Malimbus nitens) in the forest around. Red and black really go well in the greens of the forest.
African Crowned Eagle (Stephanoaetus coronatus) is also seen or heard occasionally and once I got a proper look at it perched up a tree above the trail! Of the ground birds - most common is the Crested Guineafowl (Guttera pucherani). A very nice ground species was the Forest Francolin (Francolinus lathami) - a really cautious little bird. I only spotted it because I was sitting on the ground hidden in the undergrowth while listening for bonobos and was so still that the francolin didn't realise I am there.
In the winter - and I mean European winter - the best end to the day was sitting in camp and watching the circling Alpine Swifts (Apus melba) that were flying high above the canopy, hunting.
There was also this other bird. It was the size and the general appearance of a guineafowl but didn't look like the common species of gunieafowl that we often saw scuttling away in the undergrowth as we walked the trails. The locals called the common gunieafowl 'lokoko'. That is the Crested Guineafowl. The other similar looking bird the people called 'lopekele'. On the several occasions I saw it, I spotted that some birds have orange-brown speckled plumage with a green sheen to the back. Then another (I presumed the other sex) had something of a crest on its head but markedly different to the one that the Crested Gunieafowl had. I didn't think much of this bird, except that it must be a typically Central African species of guineafowl, one which is not in my East African field guide.
Then back in Nairobi I could find out what was this guineafowl species. I opened the big book on the birds of Africa and went for the ground birds. There it was - exactly what I've been seeing in the forest around Lui Kotal. The brownish looking bird was the female and the other - with the crest, the male. I looked at the name on the opposite page of the plate. It was the Congo Peacock, Afropavo congensis!
After realizing what I've seen I remembered something
else. One day as we were walking in the forest we came across lots of feathers.
There was a dead bird. I collected some of them. The trackers said 'lopekele'.
I saw even bits of the carcass - long, powerful legs, typical of ground-living
birds. But I couldn't say more than that. Alan Root in Nairobi was able to
confirm that the feathers I collected belonged to the Congo Peacock. He had
filmed this bird in the DRC some time ago and knew it well. Later I got in
touch with the Editor of the African Bird Club, Ron Demey. He did some
research about the name I was given by the locals for this bird and came with
several very similarly sounding names that refer to Afropavo in different
parts of the DRC. I really must have seen the peacock. Not bad for a nearly
7 month stay in the Congo, that originally had nothing to do with bird-watching!
English name - scientific name - location first seen, date first seen
Woolly-necked Stork - Ciconia episcopus - Ntoka, 02/06/03
Hartlaub's Duck - Pteronetta hartlaubi - Ntoka, 01/06/03
Black Kite - Milvus migrans - Ipope
African Fish Eagle - Haliaeetus vocifer - Vanga, 04/12/02
Palm-nut Vulture - Gypohierax angolensis - Lokoro River, 17/01/03
Long-crested Eagle - Lophaetus occipitalis - Ipope Air-strip, 24/06/03
African Crowned Eagle - Stephanoaetus coronatus - Lui Kotal, 20/02/03
Crested Guineafowl - Guttera pucherani - Lui Kotal
Forest Francolin - Francolinus lathami - Lui Kotal, 11/05/03
Congo Peacock, Afropavo congensis
African Green-Pigeon - Treron calva - Lui Kotal, 17/01/03
Grey Parrot - Psittacus erithacus - Kinshasa, 25/11/02
Great Blue Turaco - Corythaeola cristata - 02/12/02, Ipope
Poss Black-billed Turaco - Tauraco schuetti - Lui Kotal
Poss African Wood Owl - Strix woodfordii - Lui Kotal
Alpine Swift - Apus melba - Lui Kotal
Poss Bohm's Spinetail [Bat-like Spinetail] - Neafrapus boehmi - Ntoka, 03/06/03
Black Bee-eater - Merops gularis - Lui Kotal, 05/02/03
Poss Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill - Tockus camurus - Lui Kotal
Black Dwarf Hornbill - Tockus hartlaubi - Lui Kotal, 3/01/03
White-crested Hornbill - Tropicranus albocristatus - Lui Kotal, 28/03/03
White-thighed Hornbill - Bycanistes cylindricus - Lui Kotal
African Broadbill - Smithornis capensis - Lui Kotal, 16/01/03
Pitta - NID
Red-bellied Paradise-flycatcher - Terpsiphone rufiventer - Lui Kotal, 13/01/03
Helmet-shrike NID - Prinops sp. - Lui Kotal
Fork-tailed Drongo - Dicrurus adsimilis - Lui Kotal
Crested Malimbe - Mailmbus malimbicus - Lui Kotal, 25/01/03
Blue-billed Malimbe - Malimbus nitens - 19/02/03
I thank Jean Hartley from Viewfinders Ltd. in Nairobi for the bird-watching inspiration and getting me to the Congo and Dr. Gottfried Hohmann of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology for the opportunity to work as a volunteer on his bonobo project at Lui Kotal.