GABON BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Gabon: Day 1 Our Gabon birding tour begins this evening at Libreville, Gabon’s capital on the Atlantic coast, where we will stay overnight.
Gabon: Day 2 We have a long drive eastwards today to the remote settlement of Makokou, on the banks of the Ivindo River, where we will stay for the next five nights at the Ipassa Reserve research station. Along the way we pass through some remote and virtually uninhabited forest where we should see flocks of Black-bellied Seedcrackers, Western Bluebills and Bronze and Black-and-white Mannikins flying up from the roadsides and some opportune rest stops will no doubt produce our first encounters with a number of forest species. The various river crossings could turn up African Finfoot, White-throated Blue Swallow and Cassin’s Flycatcher.
Gabon: Days 3-6 The Ipassa Reserve is a 10,000 hectare expanse of Equatorial rainforest situated right in the heart of one of the richest areas for forest birds in all Africa. It forms part of the huge Ivindo National Park. A network of paths has been cut through part of this reserve to enable researchers to gain access for their studies, although many have since been reclaimed by the jungle. It is on these paths and tracks that we will look for numerous forest dwelling birds, many occurring in large mixed feeding parties. This is a truly superb area for Western African forest birding, but doing well here takes time.
As we venture inside, the forest itself can seem still, dark and gloomy. Then, without warning, the silence will be broken by the tell-tale cries of Shining and Velvet-mantled Drongos warning us of an approaching bird party and we will need to keep our wits about us as we try to set our eyes on each member of the flock.
From deep in the forest come the bouncing calls of Blue-headed Wood Doves and sometimes the echoing rhythmic chants of a Bare-cheeked Trogon. High up in the canopy, Yellow-billed Turacos give their guttural cries as Sabine’s and Cassin’s Spinetails wheel over the forest. Other distinctive noises are made by secretive Chocolate-backed and Blue-breasted Kingfishers and by Black, Red-chested, Olive Long-tailed, African Emerald and Klaas’s Cuckoos. If we are fortunate we even have a good chance of tracking down the rare Yellow-throated Cuckoo as it utters its piping notes.
Hornbills are always a sign of good forest and the variety at Ipassa is extraordinary. We will be looking for the superb White-crested Hornbill with its long, flowing tail (which is often seen following troops of monkeys), African Pied, Black Dwarf, Red-billed Dwarf, Piping and White-thighed Hornbills, and the huge and ‘prehistoric-looking’ Black-casqued Hornbill.
Two of the specialities we shall be looking for are the tiny and rarely-seen African Piculet and the gorgeous Rachel’s Malimbe, a colourful forest weaver that often associates with the mixed species flocks. Other accompanying species may include the diminutive Buff-spotted Woodpecker, the marvellous Blue and Purple-throated Cuckoo-Shrikes, Western and Black-winged Orioles, Fraser’s Rufous Thrush, Green Hylia, Buff-throated Apalis, Yellow and Grey Longbills, Rufous-crowned Eremomela, Violet-backed Hyliota, Chestnut-capped and Blue-headed Crested Flycatchers, Bates’s Paradise Flycatcher, Dusky Tit, Fraser’s Sunbird, Blue-billed, Cassin’s, Red-bellied and Red-headed Malimbes, and the striking Rufous-bellied Helmetshrike.
The diversity of bulbuls found here is extraordinary. Over twenty species occur including Swamp Palm Bulbul, Slender-billed, Little, Little Grey, Ansorge’s, Plain (or Cameroon Sombre), Yellow-whiskered, Golden, Honeyguide, Sjöstedt’s (Honeyguide), Spotted, Falkenstein’s (or Yellow-necked), Simple, Icterine, Xavier’s, White-throated (uncommon), Eastern Bearded, Red-tailed and White-bearded Greenbuls, and Red-tailed and Yellow-lored (or Lesser) Bristlebills.
Our necks will not always be craned upwards, for stealth and patience will be needed in order to locate the shy and furtive skulkers of the undergrowth such as the pretty Forest Robin, Fire-crested and Brown-chested Alethes, White-tailed and Red-tailed Ant-Thrushes, Brown Illadopsis and Blackcap Illadopsis. At the forest edge we should find the somewhat comical Black-and-white Flycatcher with its staring yellow eye and elongated crest.
During our stay at Makokou we will also walk along a road through more open forest where we can have a clear view of the treetops, making it far easier to see canopy species such as Grey-throated, Bristle-nosed, Yellow-spotted, Streaky-throated (split from Hairy-breasted) and Yellow-billed Barbets, and the Afep Pigeons that croon from the highest snags. Forest Penduline Tit, Tit-hylia, Little Green and Tiny Sunbirds, and Grey-headed, Pale-fronted, White-breasted and Chestnut-breasted Negritos are all birds that annoyingly, (as if they weren’t small enough already) always seem to favour the highest branches! We may also be fortunate in finding one of the rarer forest weavers such as Maxwell’s Black, Preuss’s Golden-backed or the little-known Yellow-capped.
Amongst the many other birds we will be looking for during the Makokou section of our Gabon birding tour are such specialities as the elusive Congo Serpent Eagle, Black-collared Lovebird, Gabon Coucal, Blue-throated Roller, Gosling’s and Lowland Masked Apalises, Yellow-footed Flycatcher, White-spotted Wattle-eye, Black-necked Wattle-eye (uncommon), West African Batis, the poorly known Gabon Batis, Sabine’s Puffback (uncommon), Lowland Sooty Boubou, Woodhouse’s Antpecker (uncommon), Black-headed Waxbill and Magpie Mannikin. Black Guineafowl and Plumed Guineafowl are also infrequently seen forest birds that occur here and we may be fortunate enough to find a party of either sneaking across an open trail.
There are some very special crepuscular and nocturnal species at Ipassa. As dusk falls we will look for Olive and Spot-breasted Ibises, Sjöstedt’s Barred Owlet and Brown Nightjar, while after dark we will look for Fraser’s and Akun Eagle-Owls, Vermiculated Fishing Owl and African Wood Owl.
Species of wide distribution we may well find include African Harrier-Hawk, Ayres’s and Cassin’s Hawk Eagles, Crowned Eagle, Scaly Francolin, White-spotted Flufftail (easy to hear but hard to see at this locality), Rock Pratincole, Tambourine and Blue-spotted Wood Doves, African Green Pigeon, Grey Parrot, the fabulous Great Blue and Guinea Turacos, Blue Malkoha, Mottled Spinetail, Common Swift, Speckled Mousebird, African Dwarf and Woodland Kingfishers, Speckled, Red-rumped and Yellow-throated Tinkerbirds, Thick-billed Honeyguide, Cassin’s Honeybird, and Green-backed, Yellow-crested, Brown-eared and Gabon Woodpeckers.
Among the passerines, Rufous-sided Broadbill, Red-eyed (or Black-shouldered ) Puffback, Mackinnon’s Shrike, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Western and Yellow-throated Nicators, Common Bulbul, Lesser Striped Swallow, African Thrush, Green and Lemon-bellied Crombecs, Chattering Cisticola, Banded and White-chinned Prinias, Black-capped Apalis, Yellow-browed and Olive-green Camaropteras, Dusky-blue, Ashy, Sooty and Grey-throated Flycatchers, Fraser’s Forest Flycatcher, Grey Tit-flycatcher, Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher, African Paradise Flycatcher, Chestnut and Yellow-bellied Wattle-eyes, Grey-chinned (or Green), Collared, Western Olive, Blue-throated Brown, Olive-bellied and Superb Sunbirds, Chestnut-winged, Purple-headed and Splendid Starlings, Vieillot’s Black and Village Weavers, and Crested Malimbe.
Gabon: Day 7 Today we must leave the superb Ipassa Reserve behind and make a long drive to the small town of Lékoni, situated to the east of Franceville in southeastern Gabon, for a four nights stay. We will stop for any interesting birds en route and in particular we will be looking for the Red-throated Cliff Swallows that nest underneath some of the larger bridges.
Gabon: Days 8-10 The main area of ornithological interest in southeastern Gabon lies between Franceville and the Congo border where the land rises and the rainforest belt gives way to mixed habitat. This beautiful region, known as the ‘Highlands of Gabon’, is relatively unknown and recent visits here have continued to turn up new birds for the country.
The Brachystegia (or ‘miombo’) woodland zone, which crosses Africa and is known for its richness in birds, just touches Gabon at this point and even though this is not true climax habitat a good number of miombo species are present. The scrubby, miombo-type woodland is restricted to copses mixed with thicker stands of taller evergreen trees amongst open grassland and stunted heathland, an unusual and unexpected habitat to be found on the Equator in West Africa. Here we should easily find the beautifully marked Congo Moor Chat perched upon the tops of the scattered bushes. The little-known and rarely seen Black-chinned Weaver also occurs here and we stand a good chance of finding it, although the furtive Finsch’s Francolin will probably require much more determination and effort.
Open country, grassland birds are a feature of the area and we shall be on the lookout for the distinctive local forms of the White-bellied Bustard (known as ‘Barrow’s Bustard’) and the Rufous-naped Lark (known as ‘Malbrant’s Lark’), as well as Red-necked and Coqui Francolins, Black-rumped and Small Buttonquails, Senegal Lapwing, Temminck’s Courser, Flappet Lark, Banded Martin, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Plain-backed, Long-legged and Short-tailed Pipits, Sooty Chat and Tinkling, Croaking, Piping, Zitting, Dambo and Pectoral-patch Cisticolas, as well as a still-undescribed species known as ‘Teke Cisticola’.
Keeping watch on the wide skies over our heads, or on conspicuous perches, should produce Black-shouldered Kite, Black-chested Snake Eagle, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Red-necked and Lizard Buzzards, and Horus Swift.
The bushy scrub holds such specialities as the glorious Black Bee-eater, Angola Batis, Fiery-breasted Bushshrike, the strange and beautiful Black-collared Bulbul, Petit’s Saw-wing and Salvadori’s Eremomela. If we are fortunate we will encounter the restricted-range Black-backed Barbet, Petit’s Cuckooshrike, Red-capped Crombec, Sousa’s Shrike and the skulking Perrin’s Bush-shrike. Along the forest edge, the large and sluggish, restricted-range Black-headed Bee-eater can often be found.
Additional species are likely to include Red-eyed and Ring-necked Doves, Senegal Coucal, African and Didric Cuckoos, Striped, African Pygmy and Brown-hooded Kingfishers, White-fronted and Little Bee-eaters, Black Scimitarbill, Double-toothed Barbet, Red-throated Wryneck, Cardinal Woodpecker, African Broadbill, Wood (or Woodland) Pipit, Dark-capped Bulbul, Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat, White-browed Scrub Robin, African Stonechat, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Green-capped Eremomela, Yellow-bellied Hyliota, Pale Flycatcher, Chinspot and Western Black-headed Batises, Brown-throated Wattle-eye, White-winged Black Tit, Amethyst, Johanna’s and Western Violet-backed Sunbirds, Common Fiscal, Northern Puffback, Black-crowned Tchagra, Bocage’s and Lühder’s Bushshrikes, Square-tailed and Fork-tailed Drongos, Pied Crow, Violet-backed Starling, Northern Grey-headed Sparrow, Yellow-throated Petronia, Black-throated and Yellow-fronted Canaries, and Cabanis’s Bunting.
Around the large lake, at the foot of the picturesque Lékoni Canyon, we may find Little Grebe, African Darter, African Jacana, Black Crake, Winding Cisticola, Hartlaub’s Marsh Widowbird, Fawn-breasted Waxbill and, with luck, Locust Finch.
At night we may come across Marsh Owl and Long-tailed, Swamp and Fiery-necked Nightjars.
Gabon: Day 11 This morning we will drive to Franceville and then northwards to Lopé National Park for a three nights stay.
Gabon: Days 12-13 The magnificent Lopé National Park was established as recently as 1982 and has an illustrated field guide devoted entirely to it. Our lodge, situated in beautiful surroundings, overlooks the River Ogooué. This rambling waterway, which forms the northern boundary to the park, tumbles over giant boulders and flows past craggy rocks and open sandbanks that are the haunt of Water Thick-knees and African Pied Wagtails. Along its scrub-covered banks we should see Reichenbach’s, Copper, Green-headed and Green-throated Sunbirds.
Lopé is an attractive mosaic of rivers, creeks, open plains, bush savanna and gallery forest that blend into a dense jungle filled with massive trees dripping in lianas and tangled vegetation. It hides a healthy fauna including Forest Buffalo (sometimes adorned with Yellow-billed Oxpeckers) and Forest Elephant.
During our stay we will only be able to cover a fraction of this huge reserve, which is home to a number of avian specialities, including a few pairs of the rare and localized Dja River Scrub Warbler, a typically skulking Bradypterus which we should be able to find. As dusk falls and the night noises begin to fill the air, we may well discover the large and little-known Bates’s Nightjar calling from the forest edge. The other speciality that is straightforward at Lopé is Bates’s Swift.
We should find at least one or two of the uncommon specialities, which include Red-thighed Sparrowhawk, the amazing and elusive Long-tailed Hawk, Red-chested Owlet White-bellied and Shining-blue Kingfishers, the strange Lyre-tailed Honeyguide (which performs its remarkable display flight high above the forest canopy), Forest White-eye and Bates’s Sunbird.
While exploring the rolling grasslands, we may find Short-winged Cisticola, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Compact Weaver, Red-headed Quelea, Orange-cheeked Waxbill and Quailfinch. Where grass gives way to scrub, beautiful Blue-breasted Bee-eaters adorn the bushes, and Yellow-mantled Widowbird and sometimes Cinnamon-breasted Bunting can also be found. At the forest edge we should find repetitively-calling Whistling Cisticolas, while Naked-faced Barbets and Yellow-rumped Tinkerbirds call from the treetops. Forest feeding flock components at Lopé should include Dark-backed Weaver and perhaps Yellow-mantled Weaver.
Other species we may well find at Lopé include Hadada Ibis, Hamerkop, Palm-nut Vulture, Red-chested Goshawk, Black Sparrowhawk, Western Bronze-naped Pigeon, Red-fronted Parrot, Blue-headed Coucal, Narina’s Trogon, Square-tailed Saw-wing, Red-chested Swallow, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Fan-tailed Grassbird (or Fan-tailed Warbler), Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, and Black-necked and Orange Weavers. More uncommon possibilities include Bat Hawk, Freckled Nightjar, Mountain Wagtail and White-browed Forest Flycatcher.
Primates are present and, although there is always the slim possibility we might encounter Western Lowland Gorilla or Mandrill, we stand a much better chance of finding Putty-nosed, Crowned and Moustached Monkeys, Grey-cheeked Mangabey and the strange, imp-like Black Colobus.
Gabon: Day 14 During the first stage of our journey today we will meet and then follow the mighty Ogooué River downstream. Providing water levels are suitable, we should find the handsome Grey Pratincole, White-headed Lapwing, African Skimmer and Pied Kingfisher. On our way to Loango National Park we will pass through Lambarene, where Albert Schweitzer had his hospital. We will spend a total of six nights in the region, including four nights at Loango, as appropriate for what will surely be a major highlight of this exciting Gabon birding tour.
Gabon: Days 15-19 Loango National Park has been rightly called ‘Africa’s Last Eden’, for here, in a vast 1550 square kilometres (598 square miles) sanctuary, is a mosaic of lush forest, open, sandy savannas, sleepy lagoons and pristine beaches. At certain times of year elephants, buffalos, hippos, gorillas and even Leopards have been seen venturing onto the white beaches or even enjoying the surf! Such moments have become a hallmark of the park, but sadly these are sights that cannot be expected by the short-term visitor.
The park was created in 1956, long before President Bongo signed the 2002 decree creating 12 new national parks in the country. Very few villages exist in the park, thus leaving this wilderness virtually devoid of people. During our stay we shall enjoy some unique bird and wildlife opportunities.
At this time of the year, flocks of African River Martins should have arrived here from their non-breeding grounds somewhere in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and numbers can be great. Often first seen as dots high up in the sky, we shall hope also to see them much lower down as they breed in nest holes dug into the exposed sandbars, or when they go to roost en masse. This decidedly strange-looking hirundine baffled Gustav Hartlaub, who first described the bird as a type of roller! Other taxonomists have placed it with the woodswallows or indeed even in its own family! Now that the White-eyed River Martin of southeast Asia is presumed extinct, Gabon is effectively the only place on earth where one can see this unique type of bird. It is undoubtedly the ultimate speciality of the country!
We should also see good numbers of Rosy Bee-eaters and enjoy some fantastic views of this marvellous species, which sometimes nests alongside African River Martins. Forbes’s Plovers run across the short-grassed sandy wastes, whilst the localised Loango Weaver can be found breeding in the palms that grow in the coastal scrub, which is also home to the beautiful Violet-tailed Sunbird.
The waterways are prime habitat for Hartlaub’s Duck, African Finfoot and both Pel’s and Vermiculated Fishing Owls, and we have an excellent chance of seeing both of these impressive owls during our stay (either at day roosts or during an evening boat trip). We also have a high chance of coming across White-crested Tiger Heron, a species that is hard to find over most of its range, and a fair chance for White-backed Night Heron.
Other interesting species we may well find here include African Skimmer, African Royal Tern, Red-breasted Swallow, Rufous-vented Paradise Flycatcher, the retiring Red-tailed Leaflove, Swamp Boubou, and Carmelite and Mangrove (or Brown) Sunbirds. We also have another opportunity to find Congo Serpent Eagle, Long-tailed Hawk, Senegal Lapwing, the dazzling White-bellied and Shining-blue Kingfishers, and Black-headed Bee-eater.
More widespread species that are likely to be new here include Pink-backed Pelican, Goliath, Purple and Grey Herons, Little and Great Egrets, Woolly-necked and Yellow-billed Storks, White-faced Whistling Duck, African Fish Eagle, Kittlitz’s Plover, Common and Little Terns, Square-tailed Nightjar, Malachite and Giant Kingfishers, Grey-rumped Swallow and Slender-billed Weaver.
The small Forest Elephant and the forest form of African Buffalo (known as African Forest Buffalo) are both fairly easy to see here, while another feature of the area are the large gatherings of Red River Hogs that build up from time to time, so we will be looking out for a herd of these brightly coloured pigs with their tasselled ears. We shall also be on the lookout for Red-capped Mangabey, Putty-nosed and Moustached Monkeys, Hippopotamus and Yellow-backed Duiker. There is also a small but real chance of an encounter with Western Lowland Gorillas or Chimpanzees.
Gabon: Day 20 Today we return to Libreville, where our Gabon birding tour ends this evening.