SWIFT GABON BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Swift Gabon: Day 1 Our tour begins this evening at Libreville, Gabon’s capital city on the Atlantic coast, where we will stay overnight.
Swift Gabon: Day 2 From Libreville we take a short morning flight south to Port Gentil, the gateway to the huge Loango National Park. Following the opening of a new, Chinese-built highway, getting to the park has become much easier and now takes little more than three hours. We will spend four nights at Loango National Park, during what will surely be the major highlight of this exciting and unusual tour. We will enjoy our first outing by boat or open safari vehicle this afternoon.
Swift Gabon: Days 3-8 Loango National Park has been rightly called ‘Africa’s Last Eden’, for here, in a vast 1550 square kilometres (almost 600 square miles) sanctuary, is a mosaic of lush rainforest, gallery woodlands, open, sandy savannas, huge lagoons, coastal scrub and pristine beaches. At certain times of year Forest Elephants, African Forest Buffalos and, rarely, even Hippopotamuses, Western Gorillas and Leopards have been seen venturing onto the white beaches or, even more rarely, enjoying the surf! Such moments have become a hallmark of the park, but these are sights that are most frequent at the height of the rainy seasons and not at the time of our visit.
The park was created in 1956, long before President Omar Bongo signed the 2002 decree creating 12 new national parks in the country and thus catapulted Gabon to the forefront of African conservation efforts. Just a few tiny villages exist in the park, leaving this wilderness virtually devoid of people. During our stay, we shall enjoy some unique bird and wildlife opportunities.
The ultimate highlight of the bird highlights at Loango, and indeed Gabon’s ‘Grailbird’, is the strange and little-known African River Martin. The last surviving member of its tribe (the White-eyed River Martin of Southeast Asia is now thought extinct), these strange creatures, which are almost prehistoric-looking, are currently placed in the swallow family and live mostly along hard-to-access stretches of the great River Congo. However, for part of each year, a section of the population migrate to coastal Gabon to nest in burrows in the sandy savannas. This decidedly odd-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! There is definitely nothing else like it in this world of ours.
The river martins usually arrive at Loango in the first part of August and by late November or early December their colonies are deserted and they return to the Congo. At the start of their season, huge numbers (up to thousands or even tens of thousands) roost at certain islands in the vast Iguela lagoon. At first appearing as numerous dots high in the sky, the numbers build up until the birds start elaborate displays, forming into smoke-like balls or plunging, twisting and turning streamers, in the manner of pre-roosting (‘murmuring’) European Starlings. It is a sight one can never forget. Soon the birds are nesting in the savannas, forming similar display patterns over the colonies or gathering on the ground to noisily court each other and dig their nesting burrows. Quite definitely seeing the African River Martins of Loango is one of Africa’s greatest of all birding experiences!
Another mega-speciality of Loango is the splendid Vermiculated Fish Owl, which is very reliably found here in the forested fringes of the many rivers. The marmalade-coloured Pel’s Fish Owl is also quite common here and we should also find one of these impressive owls during our stay.
Loango also has many other bird specialities. The restricted-range Rosy Bee-eater is positively numerous and we will surely enjoy fantastic views of this marvellous species. Forbes’s Plovers run across the short-grassed sandy wastes, whilst the restricted-range Loango Weaver can be found breeding along the waterways, often in areas with palms. The beautiful, restricted-range Violet-tailed Sunbird is another speciality of the rivers and lagoon margins.
The waterways are prime habitat for Hartlaub’s Duck, African Finfoot and in particular White-crested Tiger Heron, a species that is hard to find over most of its range, but which at Loango is reasonably straightforward, at least for more persistent birders. We also have a good chance of encountering White-backed Night Heron, while at the mouth of the Iguela lagoon there should be a number of wintering Damara Terns from southwest Africa.
Additional major regional specialities at Loango include the lovely Bare-cheeked Trogon, the superb Black-headed Bee-eater, Chattering Cisticola and Long-legged Pipit. There is also a fair chance for Black Guineafowl and, after dark, the large and little-known Bates’s Nightjar.
Other interesting, mostly Western African specialities we may well find here include the impressive Long-tailed Hawk, Red-necked Buzzard, the West African form of the Royal Tern (a likely split), Blue-headed Wood Dove (a bird with a bouncing ping-pong-ball-like call), Grey Parrot (Loango must have one of the largest remaining populations of the species; they are positively numerous!), Blue Malkoha, Great Blue Turaco, Sabine’s and Cassin’s Spinetails, the dazzling White-bellied and Shining-blue Kingfishers, Blue-breasted Kingfisher, the secretive Chocolate-backed Kingfisher, the huge and ‘prehistoric-looking’ Black-casqued Hornbill (common here), Red-billed Dwarf, African Pied and Piping Hornbills, the superb White-crested Hornbill with its long, flowing tail (which is regularly seen following troops of monkeys), Yellow-throated Tinkerbird, White-bibbed (or White-throated Blue) and Red-breasted Swallows, Square-tailed Saw-wing, Spotted Greenbuls, Swamp Palm Bulbul, the retiring Red-tailed Leaflove, Red-tailed and Yellow-lored Bristlebills, Swamp Boubou, Banded Prinia, Fraser’s Rufous Thrush, White-browed Forest Flycatcher, Cassin’s Flycatcher, Purple-headed Starling, Carmelite, Reichenbach’s, Mangrove, Blue-throated Brown, Olive-bellied and Johanna’s Sunbirds, and Slender-billed Weaver. Latham’s Francolin, Congo Serpent Eagle and Thick-billed Cuckoo also occur at Loango, but tend to be hard to find.
More widespread species that are likely to be new here include Pink-backed Pelican, Striated, Squacco, Goliath, Purple and Grey Herons, Little, Intermediate and Great Egrets, African Spoonbill, Hadada Ibis, Woolly-necked and Yellow-billed Storks, Hamerkop, White-faced Whistling Duck, African Harrier-Hawk, Palm-nut Vulture, African Fish Eagle, Lizard Buzzard, Water Thick-knee, Senegal and White-crowned Lapwings, Kittlitz’s Plover, Common and Wood Sandpipers, Common Greenshank, Common and Little Terns, African Skimmer, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, Red-chested, Diederik and Klaas’s Cuckoos, Blue-headed Coucal, Square-tailed Nightjar, African Palm and Little Swifts, Black and Blue-breasted Bee-eaters, Woodland, Malachite, Giant and Pied Kingfishers, Chestnut Wattle-eye, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Common Bulbul, Grey-rumped Swallow, Banded Martin, Winding, Zitting and Pectoral-patch Ciusticolas, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, African Pied Wagtail, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Green-headed Sunbird, Yellow-mantled Widowbird and Quailfinch. The localized Black-rumped Buttonquail also occurs, but is uncommon.
The small Forest Elephant and the forest form of the African (or Cape) Buffalo, known as African Forest Buffalo, are both fairly easy to see here. Another feature of the area are the gatherings of Red River Hogs, so we will be keeping watch for a herd of these brightly coloured pigs with their tasselled ears.
We shall also be on the lookout for White-collared and Grey-cheeked Mangabeys, Putty-nosed and Moustached Monkeys, Hippopotamus and Western Sitatunga. African Slender-snouted Crocodiles are quite common in the more forested rivers, much more so than the larger Nile Crocodile. At night, large Franquet’s Epauletted Fruit Bats can be seen, often hanging from branches in the trees.
Those who wish to will be able to enjoy an extraordinary encounter with Western (or Western Lowland) Gorillas. We will travel by boat to the camp of the gorilla researchers and hike with them into the rainforest to where the gorillas have already been spotted that morning (anything from 10 minutes to an hour or more). The Western Gorillas, which are isolated from the eastern populations by a huge gap in the distribution, regularly climb high into rainforest trees in search of ripe fruits, and they are surprisingly nimble climbers. The habituated group of around 10 individuals that the researchers will take us to is dominated by Kayama, a huge ‘silverback’ male. In fact Western Gorilla mature males, from about 16-18 years of age, have pale brown fur on their nape and rump, with ‘silver’ restricted to the mid-back. There are also mature females and their offspring, plus immature males and females. As always with gorillas, an encounter with these extraordinary cousins of ours is both a privilege and an experience one can never forget.
Swift Gabon: Day 9 After a last morning at Loango, we will return to Port Gentil and take an early evening flight to Libreville, where the tour ends.