Gabon: Lower Guinea Rainforest Rarities

Sandwiched between Cameroon and the Congo, the remarkable wilderness area of Gabon has a population of less than 1 million people and 75% of the country is covered by pristine, primeval rainforest. Furthermore, it has the highest diversity of tree and bird species for a given area anywhere in Africa. The areas of forest, some of the largest in Africa, support one of the most diverse avifaunas on the continent, and along with the many long rivers, huge areas of coastal mangroves and mudflats, and savannas, support such star birds as Congo Serpent Eagle, Long-tailed Hawk, Black Guineafowl, Forbes’s Plover, Rosy and Black-headed Bee-eaters, African River Martin, Red-headed Picathartes and Rufous-bellied Helmetshrike.



However, these marvelous avian treats are supported by a star-studded mammal cast that includes Lowland Gorilla, Chimpanzee, Forest Elephant and Forest Buffalo and even the seldom seen Mandrill. There is a phenomenal diversity of primates here including many species of cercopithicine monkeys. Although much of the time is spent in forest habitats, the far southeast of the country near the Congo Highlands holds many grassland species in a mosaic consisting of grassland, stunted heathland and miombo woodland. Here, not far from Franceville, we will wander over the plains in search of Finsch’s Francolin, Congo Moor Chat and the endangered Black-chinned Weaver.

The following is a recommended itinerary. We can modify it based on the needs of your group and the time you have available.

Day 1: Libreville – Akanda NP. This morning we will visit Akanda National Park, 30 kilometres north-east of Libreville, near Corisco and Mondah bays. Here we will look for the minute Damara Tern and larger Royal Terns fishing in the inter-tidal surf as well as loads of shorebirds. The mangroves and forests surrounding the bays hold exciting possibilities such as Loango Weaver, Carmelite and Mouse-brown Sunbirds, Blue-spotted Wood-Dove, Gabon Boubou and Petit’s Cuckooshrike amongst others.

Day 2: Mondah Forest (Libreville) – Lopé NP: This morning we will bird Mondah Forest to the north of Libreville in search of Cassin’s Hawk Eagle, Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill, Rosy Bee-eater, Red-fronetd Parrot, Blue Cuckooshrike, Cassin’s and Sabine’s Spinetails, Gray-throated and Hairy-breasted Barbets, Rufous-bellied Helmet-shrike, Reichenbach’s and Scarlet-tufted Sunbird, Magpie Mannikins and many more. In the late afternoon we return to our hotel in Libreville and transfer to the station to board our train to Lopé. Whilst pleasant and comfortable, this train ride can get delayed by a myriad of factors. Our arrival at Lopé is scheduled for 02h00. On arrival we will be shuttled to the nearby Lopé Hotel, where a bed awaits and a relaxed breakfast the following morning.

Days 3-5: Réserve de la Lopé. The Réserve de la Lopé was established in 1982. The lodge, overlooking the Ogooué River, is quite stunning and is surrounded by fantastic habitat. The river, which forms the northern park boundary, is scattered with rocks and boulders. The rushing waters support Water Thick-knee, Rock Pratincole, and African Pied Wagtail. Along its scrub-covered banks we may see the beautiful Violet-tailed Sunbird, as well as Copper, Green-headed and Green-throated Sunbirds. La Lopé is an extraordinary mosaic of habitats, including rivers, plains, bush savanna and gallery forest that blends into a dense dark forest filled with massive liana-draped trees and tangled thickets.

This magnificent forest is home to many avian specialities, including the rare and localized Dja River Scrub Warbler. Exploring the rolling grasslands we should find a wealth of species such as Long-legged Pipit, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Orange-cheeked Waxbill and on well-grazed or burnt areas Black-chinned Quailfinch, and often the nomadic Forbes’ Plover. In the adjacent scrub the immaculate Blue-breasted Bee-eaters are draped along the bushes and Black-headed Batis calls monotonously.

The forest interior may reveal a bird party and we will try to find Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush, Green Hylia, Yellow-mantled Weavers and several malimbes as well as an array of greenbuls. Hornbills are excellent indicators of climax forest and we’ll keep an eye open for the superb White-crested Hornbill with its elongated tail, Piping Hornbills, and the massive and rather antediluvian Black-casqued Wattled Hornbill. We will also search for the incredible Long-tailed Hawk or the bizarre Lyre-tailed Honeyguide performing its display flight over the canopy. La Lopé hides a healthy megafauna including the forest forms of the African Buffalo and African Elephant, several small forest antelopes and cercopithecine monkeys. Gorillas and Chimps are present but are hard to come across, unlike Mandrill’s which with a bit of luck can be heard and tracked down.

The Black Bee-eater, arguably the most beautiful member of its family
The Black Bee-eater, arguably the most beautiful member of its family (Ian Fulton)

Day 6: Lope to Makoukou. Essentially a driving day, we will criss-cross gallery forests. Birding en route is tempting and distracting as we continually flush crimson flashes of hulking Western Bluebills, doves, hornbills and unsuspecting game. Ipassa Reserve, near the larger town of Makokou, will become our playground for the next four nights.

Day 7: Belinga Cave. Our target bird at Belinga is none other than the mythical Red-headed Picathartes. A bit of a systematic conundrum, this enigmatic species has been misclassified as a crow, a starling, a flycatcher some kind of thrush and even a babbler, but has finally found its peace in its own family closely related to a bunch of archaeo-endemic African lineages including Rockjumpers and Sugarbirds. Today we shall drive three hours to reach the track that leads to Belinga and on our way in we shall watch out for Latham’s Francolin, Black Guineafowl, Black-faced Rufous Warbler, Violet-backed Hyliota, Honeyguide and Sjostedt’s Greenbul, Chestnut Wattle-eye, Forest White-eye, Woodhouse’s Antpecker and a flurry of colourful malimbes. The aim of the walk is to reach the cave in good time to be able to sneak up to an active nesting colony and soak in the magic that only Picathartes can exude. Other mammal delights in this forest realm include Crowned, Moustached and Putty-nosed Monkeys, Black Colobus and Grey-cheeked Mangabey. Yellow-backed and Blue Duikers abound, whilst encounters with Forest elephant and Red River Hog can be frequent.

Days 8 – 10: Ipassa Reserve (Ivindo Basin). A network of research trails allows for great access into the depths of this superb reserve. Tracking down bird parties we will tease out gems such as Black Dwarf Hornbill, Bare-cheeked Trogon, Gabon Coucal, White-spotted Wattle-eye, Gosling’s Apalis, Tit-Hylia, Forest Penduline Tit, Lemon-bellied Crombec, Rachel’s Malimbe, Preuss’s Golden-backed and Yellow-capped Weavers.
The more open areas provide a better chance to locate raptors. On emerging snags we hope to locate Blue-throated Rollers or Afep Pigeons, and possibly White-thighed Hornbills. Lower down in open woodlands Yellow-throated Cuckoo and Verreaux’s Batis lurk. At dawn and dusk we will try our luck with Black and Plumed Guineafowls, Sjostedt’s and Wood Owl and the possible silhouetted shapes of Olive or Spot-breasted Ibis. Boat rides here may reveal African Finfoot, Hartlaub’s Duck, White-backed Night Heron, Leaflove, Brown and Bates’s Nightjars. From the river too, we shall enjoy our best chance to spot migrating flocks of the enigmatic African River Martin.

Day 11: Makokou to Leconi. Mostly a driving day, today we aim to reach Leconi, a tiny town a stone’s throw away from the Congo’s border. En route we will search for Red-throated Cliff Swallows that nest underneath some of the larger bridges, and stakeout perches of Black-headed Bee-eater along the road.

Days 12-13: Leconi. The ‘Highlands’ between Franceville and the Congo border is the main area of interest for birders in south eastern Gabon. Here the land rises and the rainforest gives way to mixed habitat. This area is spectacular and is covered by a mosaic of grassland and copses of Miombo (Brachystegia) woodland and is frequented by the localized and delightfully plumaged Congo Moor Chat which frequently perches up. Two other species, Black-chinned Weaver and Finsch’s Francolin, require more effort to locate. Other species in the open grassland include the distinctive local forms of the White-bellied (Barrow’s) Bustard and the Rufous-naped (Malbrandt’s) Lark as well as Coqui Francolin, Black-rumped Buttonquail, Short-tailed Pipit, and Dambo Cisticola. The nearby scrub holds the taxonomic enigma, the Black-collared Bulbul as well as White-fronted Bee-eater, Black Wood-Hoopoe, African Broadbill, Petit’s Cuckoo-Shrike, Salvadori’s and Green-capped Eremomelas, Angola Batis, Johanna’s and Violet-backed Sunbirds and Lühder’s Bush Shrike. The Red-capped Crombec, Souza’s Shrike and Perrin’s Bush Shrike occur at very low densities and if we are lucky we may encounter one of these.

Day 14: Leconi to Libreville. We return to Franceville and catch a flight back to Libreville.

Days 15–18: Loango National Park. This morning we fly south to one of Africa’s Lost Edens, the mighty impressive Loango National Park, our base for the next five nights. This area is renowned for its phenomenal birds and is combined with the best wildlife viewing in Central Africa. Some of our first birds could include flocks of Black-bellied Seedcrackers and Bronze and Black-and-white Manikins flying up from the roadsides. We will check into a modest but comfortable fishing lodge, complete with a bar, restaurant and bungalows. The area around the lodge holds Senegal Lapwing, Fraser’s Forest-Flycatcher, Chestnut Wattle-eye, Rufous-bellied Helmetshrikes, Cassin’s Malimbes, and Black-chinned Quailfinch.

During our stay here we will make forays into the adjacent National Park, filled with a variety of habitats including grassy plains, swamp forest and grassland, savannah and lowland equatorial forest. We will seek out Red-chested Goshawk, White-bellied Kingfisher, Grey Pratincole, Superb Sunbird and African Cuckoo-Hawks. Accompanying species may include the marvelous Blue and Purple-throated Cuckoo-Shrikes, Yellow and Grey Longbills, Rufous-crowned Eremomela, Chestnut-capped and Blue-headed Crested Flycatchers.

The diversity of bulbuls found here is astonishing. Patience will be required to locate the skulkers of the undergrowth such as Fire-crested and Brown-chested Alethes, White-tailed and Red-tailed Ant-Thrushes, Brown and Blackcap Illadopsis. At the forest edge we should find the somewhat comical Vanga Flycatcher with its bright yellow eye and elongated crest. In one of the open savanna areas we shall have a clear view of the treetops, making it far easier to see canopy species such as flycatchers and barbets. A nocturnal excursion on these rivers may reveal the amazing Pel’s and with a lot of luck the ginger Vermiculated Fishing-Owl. We will also never be far from great mammals such as Buffalos, Elephants and Red River Hogs. Of course these would all be upstaged by any interaction with Lowland Gorillas or local troops of Chimpanzee that may be in this area.

When it is displaying, the Rufous-sided Broadbill is a noisy component of the rainforest chorus
When it is displaying, the Rufous-sided Broadbill is a noisy component of the rainforest chorus (Sam Woods)

Day 19: Loango-Libreville. Morning at Loango and then fly back to Libreville. The tour finishes in Libreville.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Hot and humid. The highlands of Leconi is somewhat cooler.

DIFFICULTY: The main tour is mostly easy. The Picathartes hike may be strenuous.

ACCOMMODATION: Accommodation is mostly very good, although Leconi is quite simple.