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 This morning we will take a flight to the town of Franceville in far southeastern Gabon. Upon arrival we will head for the town of Lékoni for a four nights stay. We will have time for some initial birding this afternoon.
Gabon: Days 3-5 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 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, Black-bellied Bustard (uncommon), Senegal Lapwing, Temminck’s Courser, Flappet Lark, Banded Martin, Red-throated Cliff Swallow, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Plain-backed and Short-tailed Pipits, Sooty Chat and Tinkling, Short-winged, Croaking, Piping, Zitting, Dambo and Pectoral-patch Cisticolas, as well as a still-undescribed species known as ‘Teke Cisticola’, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Orange-cheeked Waxbill and Quailfinch.
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, the restricted-range Black-backed Barbet, Angolan Batis, Fiery-breasted Bushshrike, the strange and beautiful Black-collared Bulbul, Petit’s Saw-wing (sometimes split from Black), Red-capped Crombec and Salvadori’s Eremomela. If we are fortunate we will encounter Petit’s Cuckooshrike, Sousa’s Shrike and the skulking Perrins’s Bushshrike (sometimes split from Gorgeous) Along the forest edge, the handsome, sluggish, restricted-range Black-headed Bee-eater can often be found, as can Blue-throated Roller and the repetitively-calling Whistling Cisticola.
Areas of forest hold Grey-throated, Bristle-nosed, Naked-faced, Yellow-spotted, Hairy-breasted and Yellow-billed Barbets, Speckled, Red-rumped, Yellow-throated and Yellow-rumped Tinkerbirds, Willcock’s Honeyguide, Green-backed and Gabon Woodpeckers, Black-and-white Shrike-flycatcher, the striking Rufous-bellied Helmetshrike, Sabine’s Puffback (uncommon), Lowland Sooty Boubou, Purple-throatedCuckooshrike, Black-winged Oriole, Velvet-mantled Drongo, Yellow-throated Nicator, Slender-billed, Little, Little Grey, Golden, Honeyguide, Sjöstedt’s, Spotted, Simple and White-bearded, Swamp Palm Bulbul, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Square-tailed Saw-wing, Lesser Striped Swallow, Yellow Longbill, Green Crombec, Green Hylia, White-chinned Prinia, Buff-throated Apalis, Yellow-browed and Olive-green Camaropteras, Purple-headed and Splendid Starlings, Fraser’s Forest Flycatcher, Little Green, Blue-throated Brown, Olive and Superb Sunbirds, Cassin’s Malimbe, and Grey-headed, Pale-fronted, White-breasted and Chestnut-breasted Nigritas.
Additional species are likely to include Red-eyed and Ring-necked Doves, African Green Pigeon, the fabulous Guinea Turaco, Senegal Coucal, African, Black and African Emerald Cuckoos, Striped, African Pygmy and Brown-hooded Kingfishers, beautiful White-fronted, Bloue-breasted and Little Bee-eaters, Black Scimitarbill, African Pied Hornbill, Double-toothed Barbet, Red-throated Wryneck, Cardinal Woodpecker, African Broadbill, Wood (or Woodland) Pipit, Dark-capped Bulbul, African Thrush, Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat, White-browed Scrub Robin, African Stonechat, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Green-capped Eremomela, Violet-backed and Yellow-bellied Hyliotas, Pale Flycatcher, Chinspot and Western Black-headed Batises, Brown-throated Wattle-eye, African Paradise Flycatcher, White-winged Black Tit, Amethyst and Western Violet-backed Sunbirds, Common Fiscal, Northern and Red-eyed (or Black-shouldered ) Puffbacks, Black-crowned and Brown-crowned Tchagras, Bocage’s and Lühder’s Bushshrikes, Square-tailed and Fork-tailed Drongos, Pied Crow, Violet-backed Starling, Northern Grey-headed Sparrow, Yellow-throated Petronia, Vieillot’s Black, Village and Black-necked Weavers, Bronze, Black-and-white and Magpie Mannikin, 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 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 This morning we will drive back to Franceville and catch an afternoon flight to Libreville for an overnight stay.
Gabon: Day 7 From Libreville we take a short morning flight south to Port Gentil, the gateway to the huge Loango National Park. Getting to the park involves transport both by road and by boat. 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 ‘safari’ this afternoon.
Gabon: Days 8-10 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 dry areas of savanna, 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 birders can safely see this unique type of bird. It is undoubtedly the ultimate speciality of the country!
We should also see good numbers of the restricted-range Rosy Bee-eater 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 restricted-range Loango Weaver can be found breeding in the palms that grow in the coastal scrub, which is also home to the beautiful, restricted-range Violet-tailed Sunbird.
The waterways are prime habitat for Hartlaub’s Duck, African Finfoot and the superb Pel’s and Vermiculated Fishing Owls. 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 Congo Serpent Eagle, Long-tailed Hawk, Senegal and White-crowned Lapwings, African Skimmer, African Royal Tern, Blue-headed Wood Dove (a bird with a bouncing ping-pong-ball-like call), Blue Malkoha, Sabine’s and Cassin’s Spinetails, Bare-cheeked Trogon, the dazzling White-bellied and Shining-blue Kingfishers, the huge and ‘prehistoric-looking’ Black-casqued Hornbill, Piping Hornbill, White-bibbed (or White-throated Blue) and Red-breasted Swallows, Rufous-vented Paradise Flycatcher, the retiring Red-tailed Leaflove, Swamp Boubou, Chattering Cisticola, Banded Prinia, White-browed Forest Flycatcher, Cassin’s Flycatcher and Carmelite, Reichenbach’s, Mangrove (or Brown), Olive-bellied and Johanna’s Sunbirds, and Long-legged Pipit. The restricted-range Bates’s Swift is also possible. We also have another opportunity to find Black-headed Bee-eater.
Black Guineafowl, Latham’s Francolin and Thick-billed Cuckoo also occur, but as always tend to be hard to find. We could also encounter these species elsewhere.
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, Kittlitz’s Plover, Common and Wood Sandpipers, Common Greenshank, Caspian, Common and Little Terns, Laughing Dove, Great Blue Turaco, Red-chested, Diederik and Klaas’s Cuckoos, Square-tailed Nightjar, African Palm and Little Swifts, Blue-breasted, Woodland, Malachite, Giant and Pied Kingfishers, Grey Parrot, Common Bulbul, Grey-rumped Swallow, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Slender-billed Weaver and African Pied Wagtail.
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 White-collared Mangabey, Putty-nosed and Moustached Monkeys, Hippopotamus, Sitatunga and Yellow-backed Duiker. There is also a small but real chance of an encounter with Western Lowland Gorillas or Chimpanzees. [However, the famous beach-walking elephants and buffaloes, and ‘surfing’ hipopos, are generally wet season phenomena, so unlikely at the time of year of our visit!]
Gabon: Day 11 Today we return to Libreville, where the main section of our Gabon birding tour ends early this evening.
NORTHEAST GABON EXTENSION
Gabon (Extension): Day 1: We will overnight at Libreville.
Gabon (Extension): 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 four nights at the Ipassa Reserve research station guesthouse.
Along the way we pass through some remote and virtually uninhabited forest, where we should see Black-bellied Seedcrackers and Western Bluebills flying up from the roadsides. Some opportune rest stops will no doubt produce our first encounters with a number of forest species.
Gabon (Extension): Days 3-5 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 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 hear the echoing rhythmic chants of a Bare-cheeked Trogon, giving us another chance to track this colourful species down. Other distinctive noises are made by secretive Chocolate-backed Kingfishers and by Olive Long-tailed Cuckoos. If we are fortunate we even have a good chance of tracking down the uncommon 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 in particular for the superb White-crested Hornbill with its long, flowing tail (which is often seen following troops of monkeys), as well as Black Dwarf, Red-billed Dwarf and White-thighed Hornbills.
Two of the mixed-feeding-flock specialities we shall be looking for are the tiny and rarely-seen African Piculet and the gorgeous Rachel’s Malimbe, a colourful forest weaver.
Other accompanying species may include the diminutive Buff-spotted Woodpecker, the marvellous Blue Cuckooshrike, Western Oriole, Fraser’s Rufous Thrush, Grey Longbill, Rufous-crowned Eremomela, Chestnut-capped and Blue-headed Crested Flycatchers, Bates’s Paradise Flycatcher, Dusky Tit, Fraser’s Sunbird, Blue-billed, Red-bellied and Red-headed Malimbes, and Rufous-bellied Helmetshrike.
The diversity of bulbuls found here is extraordinary. Over twenty species occur, including Ansorge’s, Plain (or Cameroon Sombre), Yellow-whiskered, Falkenstein’s (or Yellow-necked), Icterine, Xavier’s, White-throated (uncommon), Eastern Bearded and Red-tailed 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 the Afep Pigeons that croon from the highest snags. Forest Penduline Tit, Tit-hylia and Tiny Sunbird 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 Weaver, Preuss’s Golden-backed Weaver or the little-known Yellow-capped Weaver.
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, Grey Pratincole, Black-collared Lovebird, Gabon Coucal (hard to see as opposed to hear), Elliot’s Woodpecker, Gosling’s and Lowland Masked Apalises, Yellow-footed Flycatcher, White-spotted Wattle-eye, Black-necked Wattle-eye (uncommon), West African Batis (sometimes split from Fernando Po), the poorly known Gabon Batis, Woodhouse’s Antpecker (uncommon) and Black-headed Waxbill. 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 both 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, and African Wood Owl.
Species of wide distribution we may well find include 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, Mottled Spinetail, Common Swift, Speckled Mousebird, African Dwarf Kingfisher, Thick-billed Honeyguide, Cassin’s Honeybird, Yellow-crested and Brown-eared Woodpeckers, Rufous-sided Broadbill, Mackinnon’s Shrike, Western Nicator, Lemon-bellied Crombec, Black-capped Apalis, Dusky-blue, Ashy, Sooty and Grey-throated Flycatchers, Grey Tit-flycatcher, Chestnut and Yellow-bellied Wattle-eyes, Chestnut-winged Starling and Crested Malimbe.
Mammals are hard to come by at Ipassa, but may include Northern Talapoin Monkey.
Gabon (Extension): Day 6 After some early morning birding at the superb Ipassa Reserve, we will return westwards, but we will break our journey back to Libreville at Lopé National Park, where we will stay for the next three nights.
Gabon (Extension): Days 7-8 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. Along its scrub-covered banks we should see 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 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. Another speciality that is straightforward at Lopé is Bates’s Swift.
We should find at least one or two of the more difficult specialities, which include Red-thighed Sparrowhawk, the amazing and elusive Long-tailed Hawk, Red-chested Owlet, the strange Lyre-tailed Honeyguide (which performs its remarkable display flight high above the forest canopy: easy to hear, not easy to see!), Forest White-eye and Bates’s Sunbird.
While exploring the rolling grasslands, we may find Compact Weaver and Red-headed Quelea. Where grass gives way to scrub, Yellow-mantled Widowbird can be found. 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 Red-chested Goshawk, Black Sparrowhawk, Western Bronze-naped Pigeon, Red-fronted Parrot, Blue-headed Coucal, Narina’s Trogon, Yellow-throated Leaflove, the restricted-range Forest Swallow, Fan-tailed Grassbird (or Fan-tailed Warbler), Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher and Orange Weaver. More uncommon possibilities include Bat Hawk, Freckled Nightjar and Mountain Wagtail.
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 (Extension): Day 9 After some final birding at Lopé we will return to Libreville, where our tour ends in the early evening.