CLASSIC GABON BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Gabon: Day 1 Our Classic Gabon birding tour begins this evening at Libreville airport in Gabon’s capital city on the Atlantic coast, where we will stay overnight.
Gabon: Day 2 This morning we will take a flight to Franceville in far southeastern Gabon. Upon arrival we will head for the town of Lékoni for a four nights stay, stopping for birding along the way as there are some very productive areas of forest between Bongoville and Lékoni.
Gabon: Days 3-5 The main area of ornithological interest in southeastern Gabon lies between Franceville and the Congo border. Here 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, set amongst open grassland and stunted heathland, an unusual and unexpected habitat to be found on the Equator in Western Africa.
Here, in the grasslands, we should find a number of restricted-range specialities, including the beautifully-marked Congo Moor Chat, perched upon the tops of the scattered bushes, the furtive Finsch’s Francolin, Red-throated Cliff Swallow, Short-tailed Pipit, Dambo Cisticola, the still-undescribed (after more than two decades!) ‘Teke Cisticola’ and the little-known Black-chinned Weaver.
Other grassland birds we shall be on the lookout for include the distinctive local form of the Rufous-naped Lark (known as ‘Malbrant’s Lark’), as well as Red-necked Spurfowl, Coqui Francolin, the localized Black-rumped Buttonquail, White-bellied Bustard (the form here, mackenziei, is considered part of the southern African ‘Barrow’s Bustard’ group), Senegal Lapwing, Temminck’s Courser, Flappet Lark, Banded Martin, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Plain-backed Pipit, Sooty Chat, Tinkling, Short-winged, Croaking, Zitting and Pectoral-patch Cisticolas, Neddicky (or Piping Cisticola), Tawny-flanked Prinia, Orange-cheeked Waxbill and Quailfinch. Small Buttonquail and Black-bellied Bustard also occur but are uncommon.
Keeping watch on the wide skies overhead or conspicuous perches should produce Red-necked Buzzard, a species largely restricted to Western Africa, as well as Black-winged Kite, Black-chested Snake Eagle, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Lizard Buzzard and Horus Swift.
The scrubby areas hold such restricted-range specialities as Black-backed Barbet, Angolan Batis, Fiery-breasted Bushshrike, the strange and beautiful Black-collared Bulbul, Red-capped Crombec and Salvadori’s Eremomela. In addition. both Petit’s Cuckooshrike and Sousa’s Shrike occur in the area but are uncommon. The local form of the Gorgeous Bushshrike is sometimes split as Perrin’s Bushshrike.
Along the forest edge, the handsome, restricted-range Black-headed Bee-eater can often be found, as can the lovely Black Bee-eater, Blue-throated Roller, the somewhat comical Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher with its staring yellow eye and elongated crest, and the repetitively-calling Whistling Cisticola.
Areas of forest hold major regional specialities such as Grey-throated Barbet, Gabon Woodpecker, the striking Rufous-bellied Helmetshrike, Yellow-throated Nicator, Sjöstedt’s and White-bearded Greenbuls, Sooty Flycatcher, Cassin’s Malimbe and Pale-fronted Nigrita.
West-Central African forest species of wider distribution include Red-chested Goshawk, Western Bronze-naped Pigeon, Yellow-throated Cuckoo, Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo, the fabulous Guinea Turaco, the secretive Chocolate-backed Kingfisher, Bristle-nosed and Naked-faced Barbets, Speckled, Red-rumped and Yellow-throated Tinkerbirds, Willcock’s Honeyguide, Sabine’s Puffback (uncommon), Lowland Sooty Boubou, the marvellous Blue Cuckooshrike, Black-winged Oriole, Little Grey, Golden, Honeyguide, Spotted and Simple Greenbuls, Swamp Palm Bulbul, Square-tailed Saw-wing, Yellow Longbill, Green Crombec, Yellow-browed and Olive-green Camaropteras, Purple-headed Starling, Fraser’s Forest Flycatcher, Little Green, Blue-throated Brown and Superb Sunbirds, Red-eyed (or Black-shouldered ) Puffback and Chestnut-breasted Nigrita.
More widespread species in the Lékoni region are likely to include Cassin’s Hawk-Eagle, Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle (uncommon), Crowned Eagle, Red-eyed, Ring-necked and Tambourine Doves, African Green Pigeon, Senegal Coucal, African, Black and African Emerald Cuckoos, Speckled Mousebird, Striped, African Pygmy and Brown-hooded Kingfishers, beautiful White-fronted, Blue-breasted and Little Bee-eaters, Black Scimitarbill, African Pied Hornbill, Yellow-spotted, Hairy-breasted, Yellow-billed and Double-toothed Barbets, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Red-throated Wryneck, and Cardinal and Green-backed Woodpeckers.
Passerines include African Broadbill, Lesser Striped Swallow, Wood (or Woodland) Pipit, Purple-throated Cuckooshrike, Dark-capped Bulbul, Slender-billed and Little Greenbuls, Yellow-throated Leaflove, African Thrush, Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat, White-browed Scrub Robin, African Stonechat, White-chinned Prinia, Buff-throated Apalis, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Green-capped Eremomela, Green Hylia, Violet-backed and Yellow-bellied Hyliotas, Pale Flycatcher, Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher, Chinspot and Western Black-headed Batises, Brown-throated Wattle-eye, African Paradise Flycatcher, White-winged Black Tit, Olive, Amethyst, Western Violet-backed, Green-throated and Copper Sunbirds, Common Fiscal, Northern Puffback, Black-crowned and Brown-crowned Tchagras, Bocage’s and Lühder’s Bushshrikes, Velvet-mantled, Square-tailed and Fork-tailed Drongos, Pied Crow, Splendid and Violet-backed Starlings, Northern Grey-headed Sparrow, Yellow-throated Petronia, Vieillot’s Black, Village and Black-necked Weavers, Grey-headed and White-breasted Nigritas, Black-and-white and Magpie Mannikins, Black-throated and Yellow-fronted Canaries, Cabanis’s Bunting and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting (uncommon).
Around the large lake, at the foot of the picturesque Lékoni Canyon, we may well find Little Grebe, African Darter, African Jacana, Black Crake, Winding Cisticola, 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 6 Today we will drive back to Franceville for an overnight stay, making some long stops for birding along the way.
Gabon: Day 7 We have a long drive northwards 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 guesthouse. Along the way, we pass through some remote and virtually uninhabited forest areas. There will be little time for birding today, but we will stop along the mighty Ogooué River for our first chances for the regionally-endemic Grey Pratincole.
Gabon: Days 8-11 The Ipassa Reserve is a 10,000-hectare (almost 25,000 acres) 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 forest. 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 can seem still, dark and gloomy. Then, without warning, the silence will be broken by the tell-tale cries of Shining 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 we may well hear the echoing rhythmic chants of a Bare-cheeked Trogon, giving us another chance to find this colourful, restricted-range speciality.
Hornbills are always a sign of good forest and the variety at Ipassa is extraordinary. We will be looking here in particular for Black Dwarf Hornbill, a Western African regional speciality and the huge, restricted-range White-thighed Hornbill.
Two of the mixed-feeding-flock specialities we shall be looking for are the tiny African Piculet, a species that has a wide distribution in Western Africa, but which is decidedly localized within that range, and the gorgeous, restricted-range Rachel’s Malimbe.
Other mixed flock species include the restricted-range Bates’s Paradise Flycatcher, as well as more widespread Western African forest specialities like Western Oriole, Grey Longbill, Rufous-crowned Eremomela, Chestnut-capped and Blue-headed Crested Flycatchers, Fraser’s Sunbird and Blue-billed Malimbe, and the widespread Buff-spotted Woodpecker. Dusky Tit and Red-headed Malimbe, two widespread species, also occur but are uncommon.,
The diversity of bulbuls found here is extraordinary. Over twenty species occur, including the restricted-range Falkenstein’s (or Yellow-necked), White-throated (uncommon) and Eastern Bearded Greenbuls. More widely distributed species include Ansorge’s, Plain (or Cameroon Sombre), Yellow-whiskered, Icterine, Xavier’s and Red-tailed Greenbuls.
Stealth and patience will be needed to locate the shy and furtive regional specialities of the forest floor, such as Fire-crested and Brown-chested Alethes, Red-tailed Ant Thrush, Brown Illadopsis and Blackcap Illadopsis, and the more uncommon Forest Robin and White-tailed Ant Thrush.
During our stay in the Makokou area, 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 specialities such as the Afep Pigeons that croon from the highest snags. Forest Penduline Tit, Tiny Sunbird and the uncommon Tit Hylia are all Western African regional specialities that annoyingly, (as if they weren’t small enough already) always seem to favour the highest branches! We should also encounter one or two of the rarer forest weavers, such as Maxwell’s Black and Preuss’s Golden-backed Weavers (both regional specialities) or the little-known, restricted-range Yellow-capped Weaver.
Amongst the many other special birds we will be looking for during the Ipassa/Makokou section of our Gabon birding tour are such restricted-range specialities as Black-collared Lovebird, Gabon Coucal (hard to see as opposed to hear), Forest Swallow, Gosling’s Apalis, Yellow-footed Flycatcher, White-spotted Wattle-eye, Black-necked Wattle-eye (uncommon), the poorly-known Gabon Batis, Forest White-eye, the tiny Bates’s Sunbird (uncommon), Woodhouse’s Antpecker and Black-headed Waxbill, as well as more widespread Western African specialities such as Congo Serpent Eagle (uncommon), Elliot’s Woodpecker, Fernando Po Batis, Black-bellied Seedcracker and Western Bluebill.
Plumed Guineafowl is another fairly difficult, restricted-range forest bird that occurs here and we have a fair chance of finding a party sneaking across an open trail. We will also have a second chance for Black Guineafowl.
There are some very special crepuscular and nocturnal specialities at Ipassa. From dusk onwards, we will look for the restricted-range Sjöstedt’s Barred Owlet, as well as more widely-distributed Western African specialities such as Fraser’s Eagle Owl and Brown Nightjar and the uncommon Akun Eagle-Owl and Olive and Spot-breasted Ibises. We may also encounter the widespread African Wood Owl.
Species of wider distribution we may well find in this area include Scaly Francolin, White-spotted Flufftail (hard to see at this particular locality), Rock Pratincole, Common Swift, African Dwarf Kingfisher, Yellow-crested and Brown-eared Woodpeckers, Rufous-sided Broadbill, Mackinnon’s Shrike, Western Nicator, Lemon-bellied Crombec, Black-capped Apalis, Ashy Flycatcher, Grey and Grey-throated Tit-Flycatchers, Yellow-bellied Wattle-eye and Crested Malimbe. Uncommon species include Bat Hawk, Thick-billed Honeyguide and Cassin’s Honeybird.
Larger mammals are hard to come by at Ipassa, but often include Northern Talapoin Monkey.
Gabon: Day 12 Today we will head westwards, but we will break our journey back to Libreville at Lopé National Park, where we will stay for the next two nights. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration this afternoon and evening.
Gabon: Day 13 The huge Lopé National Park was established as recently as 1982 and has an illustrated field guide (in French) devoted entirely to it. Our lodge, situated in beautiful surroundings, overlooks the mighty River Ogooué, which drains a huge swathe of Gabon. This rambling waterway, which forms the northern boundary of the park, tumbles over giant boulders and flows past craggy rocks and open sandbanks.
Lopé is an attractive mosaic of rivers, creeks, open plains, bushy savanna and gallery forest that blend into dense rainforest filled with massive trees dripping in lianas and tangled vegetation.
During our stay, we will only be able to cover a fraction of this huge reserve, but we will be focussing on just a small number of regional specialities that are only possible at Lopé or which are more reliable here.
These include the rare and localized Dja River Scrub Warbler, a skulking Bradypterus, and Bates’s Swift, both of which we should find. More difficult to observe are Red-bellied Malimbe and the strange Lyre-tailed Honeyguide, which performs its remarkable display flight high above the forest canopy: an easy bird to hear when it displays, but not an easy one to see!
We should also encounter one or more of the more widespread yet difficult Western African forest species, which include Red-thighed Sparrowhawk, Red-chested Owlet and Yellow-mantled Weaver.
More widespread species we may well find for the first time at Lopé include Red-fronted Parrot, Mottled Spinetail, Narina’s Trogon, Chestnut-winged Starling and Orange, Compact and Dark-backed Weavers. More uncommon possibilities include Freckled Nightjar and Red-headed Quelea.
A variety of primates are present at Lopé. Although there is a slim possibility we might encounter the wonderful Mandrill, we stand a much better chance of finding the strange, imp-like Black Colobus and possibly Crowned Guenon. We will also have further opportunities to see African Forest Buffalo and Forest Elephant, and we should also encounter Bushbuck and one or more species of duiker.
Gabon: Day 14 After some final birding at Lopé, we will return to Libreville for an overnight stay.
Gabon: Day 15 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.
Gabon: Days 16-18 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 during August and by late November or early December their colonies are deserted and they return to the Congo. In late August and early September, huge numbers (thousands or tens of thousands) roost at certain islands in the vast Iguela lagoon. This is the most reliable period at Loango at which to see large numbers of martins, year after year. 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. Eventually, the birds descend to one of the islands and you often get close-up views of these strange creatures from a boat positioned beside the island. It is a sight one can never forget. After the roosting period (but not in all years) the birds stay on and nest in some accessible areas in the Loango 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, 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 huge and ‘prehistoric-looking’ Black-casqued Hornbill (common here), Red-billed Dwarf and Piping Hornbills, the superb White-crested Hornbill with its long, flowing tail (which is regularly seen following troops of monkeys), White-bibbed (or White-throated Blue) and Red-breasted Swallows, 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, Carmelite, Reichenbach’s, Mangrove, 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, Water Thick-knee, White-crowned Lapwing, 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, Woodland, Malachite, Giant and Pied Kingfishers, Chestnut Wattle-eye, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Common Bulbul, Grey-rumped Swallow, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, African Pied Wagtail, Green-headed Sunbird and Yellow-mantled Widowbird.
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.
Gabon: Day 19 After a last morning at Loango, we will return to Port Gentil and take an early evening flight to Libreville, where our tour ends.