African River Martins
River Martin photos copyright: Ed Truter / Operation Loango

Gabon, São Tomé & Príncipe

Gulf of Guinea island endemics and Lower Guinea rainforest rarities

Set departure tour

Leader: Keith Barnes

22 August – 11 September 2005

 

 

 

Trip Report

Introduction

Gabon is a remarkable wilderness area. With a population of less than 1 million people and three-quarters of the country covered by pristine, primeval rainforest, it is unique in Africa. The areas of forest, along with the many long rivers, huge areas of coastal mangroves and mudflats, and savannas, support many star birds. This trip delivered cosmic views of several birds seen by very few birders, but nothing could eclipse the pre-breeding aerial ballet of the mixed flock of 100 000 African River Martins and Rosy Bee-eaters, Central Africa’s two most-desirable species that each night would wheel, stoop and dive over our boat, their numbers building constantly as dusk progressed, only to vanish into the palm trees just before dark! Their movements resembled something out of “Fantasia” - an unrivalled choreographed display - and ranks as one of the world’s major unknown ornithological spectacles. This was while we were absorbing Forest Buffalo and Forest Elephants, a phenomenal diversity of cercopithicine monkeys and bizarre reptiles such as the Slender-snouted Crocodile and Ornate Monitor Lizard.

            African River Martins and Rosy Bee-eatersGabon also delivered wonderful views of both Vermiculated and Pel’s Fishing Owls, no less than eight White-crested Tiger Bittern (see photos!), oodles of African Finfoots, Gabon Coucal, Black Guineafowl, Forbes's Plover, Fiery-breasted Bush-shrike, White-crested and Black Dwarf Hornbill, many greenbul species and the open savanna at Lekoni yielded a bunch of rare and threatened species that are seldom seen including Finsch’s Francolin, Black-chinned Weaver, Angola Batis and the spectacular Black-headed Bee-eater! We rounded of this epic tour by visiting Africa’s mini Galapagos – São Tomé & Príncipe. The team managed an impressive haul of the endemic species and sub-species of the islands, missing only the near-mythical Grosbeak and being skunked by the Olive Pigeon. We made sure we saw all remaining species and sub-species for all taxonomies, just in case of splits! We got great looks at the other Critically Threatened endemics the Dwarf Olive Ibis and Newton’s Fiscal. Other bizarre oddities included the tree-marching São Tomé Short-tail and Dohrn’s Thrush-babbler as well as the magnificent Giant Sunbird and Giant Weaver.

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22 Aug. We caught the train to Franceville, which unfortunately was nearly 8 hours late, severely impacting our birding for the day! Dangling out of the train during stops scored us a Cassin’s Hawk Eagle near Lastoursville, the only one we were to see on the trip! We were met by a driver and headed straight to the small town of Léconi on the Congo border in south-eastern Gabon seeing several Black Bee-eaters on route. After unpacking we headed out for a rapid sortie down the Edjangoulou Track where we saw Flappet Lark, Red-throated Cliff Swallow, the stoically named Congo Moor Chat and strident Sooty Chat and the highly localised Black-chinned Weaver. Towards dark the nightjars started calling and we were surprised to see a Pennant-winged Nightjar come soaring over the grasslands. Probably an early migrant returning to the Miombo woodlands further south.

23 & 24 Aug. Lekoni. The 'Highlands of Gabon' area 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. In the two days here we worked various patches of forest, woodland and grassland encountering many speciality species such as the piping Angola Batis, pied-plumaged Congo Moor Chat, the Black-chinned Weaver and Finsch's Francolin. Other species we found included Malbrant’s (Rufous-naped) Lark as well as Red-necked and Coqui Francolins, Black-rumped Buttonquail, Banded Martin and Short-tailed Pipits, Sooty Chat and the strange Black-collared Bulbul as well as Striped, African Pygmy and Brown-hooded Kingfishers, White-fronted and Little Bee-eaters, Didric Cuckoos, Double-toothed Barbet, Woodland Pipit, Petit's Cuckoo-Shrike, White-browed Scrub Robin, Common Stonechat, Salvadori's and Green-capped Eremomelas, Pale Flycatcher, Chinspot Batis, White-winged Black Tit, Amethyst, Johanna's and Violet-backed Sunbirds, Fiscal Shrike, Northern Puffback, Black-crowned Tchagra, Lühder's Bush Shrike, Square-tailed and Fork-tailed Drongos, Yellow-throated Petronia and Cabanis's Bunting. The forest edge revealed the Vanga Flycatcher with its pin-like crest. On our return to Bongoville we located an amazingly cooperative Golden Greenbul and another star bird, the Black-headed Bee-eater were ound hawking insects at the forest edge before spending the night in Franceville.

25 Aug. LekoniLopé. This morning we caught the famous air-conditioned Transgabonaise train to the superb Réserve de la Lopé for a three night stay, meandering upstream along the mighty Ogooué River. En-route we saw Rock Pratincole, Hamerkop and White-headed Lapwing. Once at Lope we took a short walk around the grounds and towards the river encountering Mottled Spinetail, Bates’ Swift, Black-casqued Wattled Hornbill, Mosque Swallow, African Pied Wagtail as well as a number of more widespread species.

26-28 Aug. Réserve de la Lopé.  The magnificent Réserve de la Lopé was established in 1982. The lodge overlooks the Ogooué River which tumbles over boulders that support Water Thick-knee, Rock Pratincole, Pied Kingfisher and African Pied Wagtail. This area is a diverse rainforest savanna mosaic that supports a great many species. Unfortunately, partially because the rains were late in Gabon, the understorey was dry and the forests exceptionally quiet and we had a hard time finding birds, but we still managed a good haul of some difficult species including Black Guineafowl, the rare and localized Dja River Scrub Warbler. This skulking Bradypterus did not show easily at first and we had to keep on trying till the whole group had had suitable looks. The walk also turned up a great perched and scoped Blue-throated Roller. We also found Crowned Eagle, Forest Francolin (for Keith only), Senegal Coucal, Forbes’ Plover, Long-legged Pipit, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Croaking, Short-winged and Pectoral-patch Cisticolas, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Orange-cheeked Waxbill and Black-chinned Quailfinch. Blue-breasted Bee-eaters are frequent and adorn the bushes and roadsides throughout the reserve and hotel area.

            The forest edge and deeper forests yielded Blue-headed Wood Dove, the raucous African Grey Parrot were omnipresent. The occasional “krooow-krooow” of the Great Blue Turaco would give them away as would the “tic-tic-tic” of the Yellowbill. Occasional flocks were led by Shining or Velvet-mantled Drongos and the incessant calling of Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush, Green Hylia, Buff-throated Apalis, African Paradise Flycatcher and Black-winged Orioles gave them away. Dark-backed Weavers and Cassin's, Red-bellied and Red-headed Malimbes African River Martinwere seen in the mixed flocks with the noisy parties of Red-billed Dwarf Hornbills. Some of the bridges provide great platforms for looking at mid-storey and canopy species including greenbuls and we saw Little, Little Grey, Slender-billed, Red-tailed and White-bearded Greenbuls and Green-tailed Bristlebill. Hornbills are fairly common and regularly flapping between the forest blocks and aside from the previous mentioned we located Pied, Piping and White-crested Hornbill, with its ridiculously long tail.  The rivers held the spectacular Shining Blue Kingfisher and inside the forest a monster Blue-breasted Kingfisher was located along with a Narina Trogon. One late evening a spectacular Black-bellied Seedcracker male sat up and fed on seed for 10 minutes while we had full-frame scope views of this spectacular bird. La Lopé hides a healthy fauna and we were lucky to locate the forest forms of the African Buffalo and African Elephant and some really great looking monkeys including Grey-cheeked Mangaby, Moustached Monkey, Putty-nosed Monkey and we came close to Chimps screaming off into the forest!

29 Aug.  Lopé – Operation Loango. A long travel day! These are hard to avoid in Gabon where one quickly understands that the great wilderness areas and forests are because the transport network is conversely poor. We awoke insanely early for our return train journey to Libreville and then a hoik to the airport for our flight to Omboue and the magical Operation Loango, our trip highlight! On arrival at the airport we realised Kay’s luggage had mysteriously stayed at the train station and Keith zoomed back to retrieve the errant bag. All the commission resulted in little change to the schedule and we boarded our flight to Omboue and enjoyed some views of the most spectacular coastVermiculated Fishing Owlal forest, swamps, rivers and streams the world has on offer! The Loango area is renowned for its phenomenal birds and is combined with the best wildlife viewing in Central Africa. After arrival in Omboue we headed towards Evengue Island via boat, where a satellite camp was to be our home, seeing African Finfoot on route. Edward Truter was our logistics co-ordinator and Ed has learned a fair bit about the area’s birds. A superb lunch was followed by a walk around the island where we located Swamp and Square-tailed Nightjar in broad daylight as well as Senegal Lapwing. Our main quarry though, Violet-tailed Sunbird remained elusive. Instead we had to be happy with views of captive Lowland Gorillas that the staff of Operation Loango and WCS is hoping to habituate and release on the island. At dusk we headed out for a boat ride and soon Ed found us a Dwarf Crocodile. This part of Africa is home to three species of crocodilians. We later located the first of several Vermiculated Fishing Owls for the night. Later a bird, with fish in tow, was approached to a ridiculous distance and photographed to our hearts content. This spectacular bird is seen here with some regularity and we had four that night! We returned for a spectacular dinner and good stories.

30 Aug – 3 September: Operation Loango. We had a lot of time in this wildlife paradise. The amazing waterways and diversity of coastal scrub, savanna, grasslands, lagoons, swamps, palm forest, terre-firm forest, make this one of, if not the prime area for birding in Gabon. There is no doubt though that the sensational number of high quality birds that can be seen here make this an indispensable site. The fact that one has air-conditioned accomodatation at Iguela, combined with spectacular three-course meals and freshly baked bread combine to make this wilderness in comfort.

            Our first sortie was down a narrow channel where African Finfoots, Cassin’s Flycatcher, Shining Blue, Pied and Giant Kingfishers were common. We soon located one of the prime target species here, a Pel’s Fishing Owl, a handsome addition to last night’s Vermiculated! Later came one of the surprises of the tour with not one or two, but great views of eight White-crested Tiger Bitterns….surely the easiest place to view this highly sought-after bird. The gem-like White-throated Blue Swallow was seen commonly flitting along the water’s surface. After lunch at Iguela we headed out for a spot where we located the localised and surprisingly skulking Loango Slender-billed Weaver and then witnessed perhaps one of the most magical birding experiences in Africa. Few people have seen the choreographed swarming of African River Martins and their close association with Rosy Bee-eaters, two of Africa’s most sought-after and enigmatic birds. Normally people are ecstatic jut to see these near-mythical creatures, but during early September, once they have gathered in their thousands to breed, but just before they start making burrows, for a short period of about a month one can witness the unreal! At dusk, the River Martins start to descend from their perilously high foraging altitudes and with the Bee-eaters start to gather on trees and snags. As it darkens they start to form small flocks that gather separately, little flocks that fly about in a somewhat uncoordinated manner until suddenly the show changes and they form a single spiralling amorphous blob that sits tight and spirals and dives and swoops, birds packed together tightly and together they perform a dance and show that resembles something from Disney’s Fantasia. At the peak of it we estimated some 100 000 birds that circled and danced for 20 minutes until, just when you think you cannot take the spectacle any longer they vanish into the palms and the sky goes quiet. As the boat returned to Iguela we alternated between jabbering excitedly about what we had just seen and being silent, reliving the sensational spectacle in our mind’s eyes.

            Elsewhere in the Loango complex we had the experience of watching mixed flocks of Cassin’s and Sabine’s Spintails skimming low over the water, a Gabon Coucal clambering through the undergrowth, watching Fraser’s Forest-Flycatcher, White-browed Forest-Flycatcher, Brown-eared Woodpecker, Chestnut Wattle-eye and Black Dwarf Hornbill in mixed flocks. We had fun chasing an eventually cooperative Chocolate-backed Kingfisher. Other accompanying species included the diminutive Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Grey Longbill, Rufous-crowned Eremomela, Bates's Paradise Flycatcher and Fraser's Sunbird.  The diversity of bulbuls we found here is astonishing including Swamp Palm Bulbul, Sjöstedt's Honeyguide, Spotted, Yellow-necked, Simple, Icterine, and Eastern Bearded Greenbuls and Red-tailed Bristlebill. Patience was required with the skulkers of the undergrowth but we eventually saw the neat Forest Robin, Fire-crested Alethe, White-tailed Ant-Thrush and Blackcap Illadopsis. The barbets were not too vocal, but we eventually located Grey-throated, Bristle-nosed, Hairy-breasted and Yellow-billed Barbets. We were never far from great mammals, and although we never saw any W. Lowland Gorilla, their footprints everywhere were a constant reminder of their presence. We did see several Buffalos and Elephants and several monkeys and a highlight for some was a trip to see whales which provided great views of Killer (Orca) Whales and Humpbacked Whales breaching and being decidedly active.  

4 Sept. Loango-Libreville- São Tomé. Morning at Loango. Return to Libreville. In the late afternoon we took a flight across to the island of São Tomé for a two nights stay.

5 Sept. São Tomé. We thoroughly enjoyed the larger and more populous of these two small, remote and almost forgotten islands in the Gulf of Guinea, straddling the equator. They comprise the southern extension of a volcanic ridge that runs from Mount Cameroon in the north. These ex-Portuguese colonies closed their doors to the western world in 1975 and very little has been heard of them since. Their conversion to democracy, free market economy and a new constitution in 1990 makes them perfectly safe to travel in. In the interior extensive tracts of rainforest, dripping from the constant rain at high altitudes, cover the steep, precipitous, uninhabited slopes of the towering volcanic mountains, which are often obscured from view by the clinging mist and cloud. Many of the endemics are listed in BirdLife International’s Threatened Birds of the World book (a few were even considered to be extinct until recently). Undoubtedly, this archipelago is one of the world’s most under appreciated birding destinations. Its Portuguese charm, good food and unique character (it definitely does not feel very African) combine to make it decidedly enchanting. The birdlist is short, but the variety of endemics and more importantly the strange and interesting taxonomic enigmas present make the islands quality of bird rank much higher than quantity.

            Our hotel grounds weren’t bad and we had seen both Newton’s Sunbird…trying to crack the window at breakfast and Sao Tome Prinia before breakfast. After a late start we arranged our car and headed for some coastal scrub seeing our first endemics. A stop near a river yielded our first endemics including the São Tomé (Malachite) Kingfisher darting along a river and sitting on small rocks. After that we headed up to the interior at the Botanical gardens at Bom Successo, where we will see the first of the many island endemics. We moved through some great forest. A Forest Dove scuttled off the road in front of our car.  We explored the area below the gardens seeing our first bat-like São Tomé Spinetails and Principé Seedeaters and Newton’s Sunbird singing from a nearby tree. A little later a feeding party yielded the bizarre nuthatch-like São Tomé Weaver clinging to the moss-covered trunks and the see-sawing wing-snapping flight display of the rufous-headed São Tomé Prinia. Several São Tomé (Olivaceous) Thrushes uttered the alarm “pssseep” call as they flushed ahead of us on the paths, eventually allowing inspection of their scaly chests. The immaculate deep glossy-blue of the São Tomé Paradise Flycatcher came next, and we soaked up an impeccable iridescent male. Further up the mountain we scored both the less spectacular São Tomé Oriole and São Tomé (Chestnut-winged) Starling. Over the forest we saw our first White-tailed Tropicbird soaring effortlessly and gracefully past. It was time to head home but we were satisfied with our quarry for the day, knowing that the morning would bring us to Principe and many other new birds.

6 – 7 Sept: Príncipe

After a leisurely breakfast we headed to Príncipe, a smaller island only a short flight away, holding seven endemics of its own. Very similar in appearance to its larger sister, with lofty peaks covered in rainforest, and giant granite obelisks poking their heads out of the foresty shadow below, the endemic birds are all readily accessible around a luxurious and plush beach resort set up for scuba diving and Marlin fishing. Arriving on the island was like landing in paradise. We saw the high, distinctly phallus-shaped mountains of the interior, formed from eroded volcanic plugs and craters, with their heavily forested slopes. I, for one, intensely dislike laying about on the beach. But seeing Bom-bom from the sky, the azure and powder-blue oceans washing the reefs and pristine pearly-white beaches each lined with private cottages looked like just the thing for us. Unfortunately it was raining and we headed straight for the resort where a welcoming Cecelia and Jannie Fourie helped us settle in. After an hour or so the rain stopped and we were able to set a new Tropical Birding record. As the rain eased off we saw a cooperative Príncipe (White-bellied) Kingfisher perched in a palm tree outside one of the huts and we scored all the regularly seen endemic species and sub-species in 25 minutes. As soon as we left the lodge grounds we located breeding Príncipe Weaver before a few Príncipe Drongos sallied out for a foraging sortie. Next came the principalis race of Lemon Dove…another decidedly different looking bird. We were stopped in our tracks when an explosive series of joyful whistles next to us yielded our first of many Dohrn’s Thrush-babbler. This bizarre little oddity is placed in the flycatchers or babblers…some suggest its closest relatives are the Kupeornis Babblers. The Príncipe Sunbird gave itself up by nesting right next to the road. The Príncipe Spierops (perhaps the toughest of the lot) was next, with views of a small party foliage gleaning and last came the Príncipe Glossy Starling after we had seen many Splendid Glossy Starlings. Last but not least came the dryas race of (Príncipe) Blue-breasted Kingfisher.

            The lure of the beach became overwhelming and we were drawn back to paradise. Sitting on the beach we scored a Whimbrel, Western Reef Heron and Keith got a Brown Booby coasting offshore. The afternoon was dedicated to bin’s down and RnR and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. I enjoyed doing the checklist at the bar that night, mostly because it took 3.5 minutes and we had cleaned-up! The following morning we took an exploratory trip to look for the Principe Thrush, but a miscommunication with the driver had us at the wrong place and that will have to wait for next year. Feeling happy with our haul, we enjoyed last day on Príncipe before jetting back to São Tomé City.

8-10 Sept: São Tomé.

Sao Tome WeaverReturning to São Tomé we had a day to prepare for the camping expedition to the southwest and then we headed off the following day, dropping Carol off at Club Santana as she had opted out of the silliness of climbing the mountain….and maybe just as well. It is not known as one of the wettest places on earth for nothing and it rained on us from the moment we left the car till the moment we returned nearly 35 hours later. Islands tend to evolve various forms of gigantism and dwarfism as species experience character release of being in new and un-exploited islands. São Tomé has three forms that exhibit these characteristics and we soon encountered the marvellous Giant Weaver. The females seemed to outnumber males but eventually we found an exceptional male which build nests the size of footballs. Little moved in the rain and the walk up to the top was a long hard trudge, but once we were there and under the tarpaulins we made our search for one of the star birds of the islands, the Critically Endangered Dwarf Olive (São Tomé) Ibis. This species is estimated to have a global population of fewer than 50 birds!! We flushed one individual up into a tree where we were able to all observe it for some time. The shaggy crest and small size (for an ibis) being obvious features. Elated, we were able to move on and just before dark we were able to nab another of the real tough birds of the islands. We were searching for the strange enigma, the São Tomé Short-tail (Bocage’s Longbill), a cross between a thrush and a warbler! We were stalking down a riverbed when a bird started calling and eventually we were all watching the now agitated beast marched up and down the rocks and some small branches on the ground, its skinny bill and non-existent tail giving it a strange and awkward appearance. On an island with virtually no ground-based birds, this warbler seems to have exploited this niche to the fullest. Although we tried desperately for the São Tomé Scops Owl before dark, the frustration of constant rain and birds that were not terribly responsive meant that only flight views were had. After a night of solid rain we woke up to more solid rain. A cup of coffee and some fire-warmed toast had us ready to put our somewhat wet boots on for a walk further up the mountain. Arriving on the ridge top where we had some of the best birds last year the rain was still bucketing down. We heard a Newton’s Fiscal call, but the bird seemed to vanish and the call got further away fading down the ridgeline valley….we wondered if our chance had passed. This Critically Threatened endemic species thought to be extinct until 1990 has a global population estimate of less than 50 individuals! While we waited hoping for the fiscal to return a staccato call added the spectacular (and one of the most exciting birds on the islands) Giant (São Tomé) Sunbird. They were coming into a flowering tree. To see this huge sunbird as it probes its long, decurved bill into a flower is a truly incredible experience. This enormous beast (given that it is a sunbird) is spectacular and its vigorous displays or agitation when approached by another sunbird were great trip memories. With fading hope for the fiscal we were about to abandon hope when suddenly a bird started calling exceptionally closely, I beckoned the participants to move up the ridgeline and eventually we had superb views of the bird at less than 10 m. This bizarre interior forest shrike does not have a bill like a shrike and the strange call is unlike any Lanius in the world. On our march down we heard another São Tomé Scops Owl and imitation of its call brought out a feisty red-phase bird that all agreed was a lot better than the book makes it look. People were glad to have scored most of the endemics that this area is famous for and we all agreed that the minimal chances or finding the São Tomé Grosbeak were so remote and not worth the discomfort!

            Amazingly, almost as we were down the rain stopped and sun came out, just to wish us a bon voyage! We located São Tomé Green Pigeons on our way out, a bird that everyone had wanted improved views on and the following morning we failed to find São Tomé Maroon Pigeon, but that was the only blot on an otherwise successful trip to Gabon and the Gulf of Guinea islands!

 Gabon, São Tomé & Príncipe Triplist

(Based on Clements)

 

                SPECIES                                            SCIENTIFIC NAME