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A Report from

Gabon, São Tomé & Príncipe, August/September 2001,

Nik Borrow

This report was provided by Birdquest: Visit their Website

Over the years the Gabon tour has often felt like a battle of wits waged against all the gremlins that leap in its path. However, this time, apart from a few minor irritations, things went remarkably smoothly and for once we could concentrate on the birds unhindered. We set off joined by local expert Patrice Christy on a trip that was to lead us through kilometre after kilometre of beautiful scenery and marvellous rainforest but first, we stopped to break our journey at a small roadside pool that held not only African Finfoot but also three marvellous Hartlaub's Ducks. At the small town of Ndjolé we admired a few Grey Pratincoles and White-fronted Plovers that were on a sandbank in the mighty Ogooué River whilst we enjoyed a drink and baguette from the small bar opposite. The Red-chested Swallows discovered here two years previously were once again nesting and a large flock of Rock Pratincoles also made a pleasant diversion. Refreshed we continued on our way following this picturesque river upstream towards the Réserve de la Lopé which is well equipped with a comfortable lodge and was our base for exploring the surrounding mosaic of gallery forest and open savannah.

The following morning we were raring to go and first visited a patch of gallery forest where we found the colourful Red-bellied Malimbe. Waiting patiently we eventually heard the weird, thrumming, mechanical display flight of the elusive Lyre-tailed Honeyguide. By finding a suitable vantage point we finally sighted the bird sat on a bare snag and even followed its flight path as it climbed up to a great height until it was no more than a dot in the sky from where it finally spiralled back down to earth, the noise of its unique display ringing out over the forest. Perhaps our main objective here was to find the Dja River Scrub-Warbler discovered in la Lopé by Patrice in 1994 (one of the few known locations for this rare and skulking Bradypterus warbler). We arrived at his site with the birds already singing. The warblers took little time responding and we all had some good views as they flew from one clump of rushes to another, immediately burying themselves deep in the vegetation each time. As we returned back to the vehicles a Long-tailed Hawk flew across our path and was watched perched in a tree 'mewing' at us for as long as we wished to look at it! The morning session ended with no less than four colourful Fiery-breasted Bush Shrikes involved in an incredible territorial dispute involving much bill-snapping and hooting at each other. After lunch we watched a Black-bellied Seedcracker and some rather dowdy Compact Weavers near the lodge which were followed by some pretty Black-chinned Quailfinches and a pair of Forbes's Plovers that allowed exceptional views. The day was topped off by a Bates's Nightjar immediately followed by a close Swamp Nightjar on the ground at our feet. The highlights of the following day had to be the male Latham's Forest Francolin that ran up towards us and then circled us peering at us cautiously. Unforgettable was the superb Red-chested Owlet glaring down at us in the morning and a bright male Black-faced Canary in the afternoon. Also worthy of note were the showy Red-billed Dwarf Hornbills, striking White-crested Hornbills and impressive Black-casqued Wattled Hornbills

The journey to Makokou, our next port of call, was enlivened by a Willcocks's Honeyguide, Sjöstedt's Honeyguide Greenbuls and our first flock of African River Martins flying overhead. The hotel at Makokou had finally closed down and was quietly crumbling into oblivion by the river. However some alternative accommodation had been found for us which was at least clean, if somewhat spartan, but at least there was plenty of beer and the food each evening was good. We were, as usual, promised better things to come next year! We spent the next five days exploring Ipassa reserve and some nearby forest but found the birding slow and hard work, perhaps due to the drier conditions than usual. Having said this we were certainly treated to some terrific birds along the way. At the reserve gate we were greeted by a pair of Red-headed Antpeckers sat preening in a bare bush. These were followed by Yellow-necked Greenbul and Masked Apalis. Here in the open forest broken up by cultivation the birding was somewhat easier and an important discovery was made: a pair of rare Yellow-capped Weavers at the nest, the structure of which has probably never been described before. Shortly after we encountered the similar Preuss's Golden-backed Weaver and good comparisons could be made between this attractive species pair. During our stay other highlights included a lively troop of Rufous-bellied Helmet Shrikes which were, as always, a popular and colourful addition to the list as was a stunning Blue-headed Bee-eater. Batis identification is always tricky but with persistence we positively identified Bioko Batis. Ridiculous Bristle-nosed Barbets gorged themselves on fruit and no less than four Yellow-fronted Penduline Tits (the views kept getting better!) were found. Inside the forest we chanced upon a single Maxwell's Black Weaver in a bird party that included a family of White-spotted Wattle-eyes whilst a motionless Black Dwarf Hornbill allowed close study. A skulker that won hearts was the Forest Robin that literally glowed in the dim forest light. We had to work harder for a superb Chocolate-backed Kingfisher, which perched high above our heads uttering its piping cry from the canopy, but in the end good scope views were obtained. Perhaps even more popular was a fantastic male Rufous-sided Broadbill performing its 'mechanical' display flight for all to see. At night we found another Bates's Nightjar and a Fraser's Eagle Owl was also seen. Other unusual sightings for a select (and lucky) few were a Congo Serpent Eagle and two Gorillas which quickly stole across the track and melted into the forest. Along the waterways we found the localized Gosling's Apalis and an intensely coloured Shining-blue Kingfisher. Whilst along the Bélinga road we found a Black-necked Wattle-eye that buzzed back and forth sporting a brilliant turquoise-green wattle above its eye, a trio of Yellow-crested Woodpeckers chasing each other from tree to tree and the diminutive African Piculet. We had by no means seen it all but with some real gems seen well it was time to move on.

The long dirt-road journey to Franceville enabled us to see a pair of Little Grey Flycatchers and included a bridge stop where a fine flock of Red-throated Cliff Swallows flew around us.

Finally we arrived at Lékoni on the Congo border, where the rainforest gives way to moorland and a scenic canyon has become a tourist attraction in a country that hardly encourages tourists! The landscape here is quite unlike anything elsewhere in Africa and the birds were equally as impressive. Congo Moorchat is one of the birds to see and they are reasonably common here. This is a striking species with a conspicuous display flight and frosted head and breast, which has been poorly represented in the available literature. Its range is such that Gabon is really the only place to easily see it. The arrival of our four-wheel-drive vehicles was delayed so we set off the following morning on foot. We had not gone far before we were stopped by the whirring sound of an African Broadbill display and we were treated to good views. A little further on were pretty Black-collared Bulbuls and a superb pair of Black-backed Barbets. The lack of transport had proved to be a fortuitous accident! After initially disappointing views of endangered Black-chinned Weavers flying high overhead, we managed to find a male perched for excellent scope views. The annual 'death-stomp' for Finsch's Francolin was a doddle this year with three flushed, and seen well, quite quickly, and the local form of White-bellied Bustard, known as Barrow's Bustard (the male with its distinctive tawny-buff hind-neck) was also much appreciated. Other goodies included Black-rumped Buttonquail, Red-throated Wryneck, Dambo and Tinkling Cisticolas, Marsh Whydah, Angola Batis, Salvadori's Eremomela and Bocage's Bush Shrike. In the evening great views of Long-tailed and Fiery-necked Nightjars were obtained and a Marsh Owl was flushed in daylight one afternoon. At the forest edge we tracked down the beautiful Black-headed Bee-eater as it took lazy flights in and out of the forest, perching in clear view on some roadside wires.

Returning to Libreville we visited Cap Esterias where the pink flowers in a tree turned into a flock of Rosy Bee-eaters and, as dusk fell, Square-tailed Nightjars put on a good performance. The next day we took a boat down through the mangroves to the mouth of the Moka River. On the way more Rosy Bee-eaters lined the river banks and we flushed a pair of White-crested Tiger Herons which were amazingly enough relocated and we watched them at close quarters as they clambered through the mangroves calling softly to each other. This success was swiftly followed by the discovery of a couple of pairs of rare Loango Slender-billed Weavers. A picnic lunch on a rising tide on a sand-bar surrounded by large numbers of African Skimmers, terns and waders (including Terek and Marsh Sandpipers) was a memorable way to end our time in Gabon and a Lesser Sand Plover here was an unexpected find for us by Patrice. This is his fourth sighting here in the past couple of years and the first records for West and Central Africa. Later that same day we found ourselves on a plane heading for the far-flung islands of São Tomé and Príncipe in the Gulf of Guinea.

Our stay on São Tomé was supposed to coincide with the end of the dry season and this year it seemed to be somewhat drier than usual but there was still some rain and plenty of mud. As always, most of the endemics were easy to see on our first day, but the São Tomé Olive Pigeon remained positively elusive although we saw many São Tomé Bronze-naped and Green Pigeons. The site where the marvellous Giant Sunbird had been easy during the past few years drew a blank but fortunately we found a male by chance elsewhere. At night we saw two rufous-phase São Tomé Scops Owls, the second of which stayed perched, hooting away in the torch beam and even allowed the scope to be trained on it! The visit was broken by an enforced longer stay on Príncipe due to airline schedules and we had a relaxing time (really!) on this paradise island where waves crashed endlessly on wonderful, deserted beaches fringed by palms and luxuriant tropical forest. Here all the Príncipe endemics were seen with ease and in just a few hours. From the gardens and surrounding forest we watched Príncipe Glossy Starlings and Príncipe Golden Weavers squabbling in the treetops while the strange Dohrn's Thrush-Babbler gave its explosive song from the bushes below. A highlight of our stay was a boat trip to the spectacular seabird colonies on the Tinhosas islands where the Sooty Terns had obviously had a very successful breeding season. Graceful White-tailed Tropicbirds drifted overhead and Brown Boobies and Black and Brown Noddies surrounded the boat which was briefly escorted by Atlantic Spotted Dolphins. On the return journey we even found a single Madeiran Storm-petrel that cut across the bows and flew alongside the boat. Returning to São Tomé we hunted out some Golden-backed Bishops in the savannahs, some had a brief but good look at a São Tomé Olive Pigeon, and, before we knew it, it was time to return home.

As well as appealing to anyone with a specialist interest in Africa (the birds of course are simply terrific!) Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe is a tour that is certainly a bit of an adventure and remains a destination with a strong sense of 'wilderness' travelling through a rich, varied and often uninhabited landscape. With the timber-laden trucks and trains rolling out of the country at an alarming rate and oil prospectors discovering new areas to destroy, Gabon and the islands are probably one of Africa's best kept secrets that should be seen before it's too late.

The Birds of Western Africa
Nik Borrow, Ron Demey: Buy from or

  • A major new fieldguide, by the author of this report that will set the standard for Western Africa for years to come. It covers all the 1282 species expected to be seen in the c.20 nations inside a triangle enclosing The Congo, Chad and Mauritania. For Gabon it is the only single guide that covers all of the nations birds in one book. Nicely illustrated with over 3000 drawings on 142 colour plates which cover all the species described apart from a few vagrants. Distribution maps are provided for the majority of species. As the first comprehensive guide to the region in over 25 years this is a "must buy" for any serious birder visiting Western Africa
This report was provided by Birdquest: Visit their Website

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