Trip Report: Angola, February 2003
Cuanza Sul - The heart of Angola
A report by Ian Sinclair and Peter
(featured in Africa Birds
& Birding, June/July 2003 issue)
Photographs by Peter Ryan
Gabela! The name epitomises the excitement
of birding in Angola - and the frustration that 27 years of civil
war has largely prevented access to the region. With its own akalat,
bush-shrike and helmet-shrike, Gabela lies at the centre of the
Angolan scarp forest - a key endemic bird area that has been off
limits for a generation, giving it mythical status. Now, with the
war over, Ian Sinclair and Peter Ryan report on the first ornithological
visits to the region.
Bay: Royal Terns feed along the waterfront,
but Fernando Po Swifts are the star attraction.
We arrived in Luanda, the Angolan capital, on 22 February, the anniversary
of UNITA leader Joseph Savimbi's death. Newspapers carried front-page
pictures of his bloody corpse, as if to reaffirm the end of the
war. Although the country still has numerous problems, not least
assimilating the hundred thousand former fighters, there has been
an almost complete cessation of fighting since Savimbi was killed.
With the country starting to rebuild, we were invited to assess
the birding potential of the region south of Luanda, centred on
Cuanza Sul, one of Angola's 18 provinces. The offer was hard to
refuse, because it offered a chance to visit the scarp forest around
Luanda lies on the coast of Angola, less than 1000 km from the equator.
The city is bursting at the seams with 5 million people, almost
half of the vast nation's total population. Many of the colonial
buildings along the picturesque waterfront are being renovated,
but they are surrounded by sprawling shanty towns. Despite this,
the city offers a few interesting birds. The large brown swifts
breeding in buildings along the waterfront probably are Fernando
Po Swifts, an extremely poorly known species only recorded from
a few localities in Angola, Bioko and the highlands of SW Cameroon.
Royal Terns feed in Luanda Bay, and the vast lagoon formed by Mussulo
peninsula that extends 37 km south-west of the city is worth a look
for its many waders and other waterbirds, including small numbers
of Gull-billed Terns. However, we were primarily interested in the
region's endemic birds, many of which have not been seen since the
start of the civil war in 1974.
dominate the coastline of much of Angola due to
uplifting of the coastal plain. At Porto Amboim an isolated
cliff remnant shelters the port's jetty.
Kissamo National Park, some 75 km
south of Luanda, has been open to tourists for the last few years.
The riparian forest and thicket are home to several Angolan endemics,
including Grey-striped Francolin, Red-backed Mousebird, White-fronted
Wattle-eye and small numbers of Red-crested Turacos, as well as
near-endemics such as Pale Olive Greenbuls and Bubbling Cisticolas.
But we drove 200 km farther south to Porto Amboim and Sumbe in Cunaza
Sul Province. This route took us across the arid coastal plain that
is home to many species often considered southern Africa 'endemics',
such as Rüppell's Parrots, Grey-backed Sparrow-Larks, Bare-cheeked
Babblers and Pale-winged Starlings. However, it also supports several
birds seldom encountered farther south: Rufous-tailed Palm Thrushes
sing from the denser thickets, Grey Kestrels perch on the few surviving
telephone poles, and Angola Swallows are regular in small numbers.
Palm-nut Vultures are common, seemingly having displaced crows as
the chief scavengers.
One of the most abundant species is the Bubbling Cisticola, a near-endemic
to Angola. It sounds very similar to a Rattling Cisticola, but has
a plain back and occurs in a wide range of habitats from arid scrub
to forest clearings and reedbeds. The endemic Red-backed Mousebird,
which clearly shows affinities to the Speckled Mousebird complex,
also occupies a broad range of habitats, and is fairly easily seen.
Good early rains had carpeted the usually dry coastal plain's euphorbia
scrub and baobab savanna with lush grassland, which may account
for the apparently unusual sighting of Black-faced Canaries at the
coast. However, the ranges of many birds in Angola are poorly known,
and we extended the distributions of several species on the coastal
plain, including northward extensions for Augur Buzzard, Rock-runner
and White Helmet-Shrike, and a southward extension for Long-legged
The river systems also provided a few surprises. The Keve (or Cuvo)
River, which has a massive floodplain more than 30 km long, gave
us southward range extensions for Greater Swamp Warbler and the
delicate Slender-billed Weaver. It also had a few Loanda Swifts,
the rare dark-rumped form of Horus Swift, among the Little Swifts
breeding under the grey road bridge. This wetland warrants further
investigation, as it is likely to be of regional importance for
its large populations of waterbirds - not least the huge numbers
of Allen's Gallinule, a species formerly thought to be relatively
uncommon in Angola.
falls on the Keve River, on it's last decent before the
the falls, the Keve River meanders across a broad floodplain,
attracting a wide range of waterbirds.
Star of the show on the coastal
plain, though, was the stunning Golden-backed Bishop. Small flocks
occur in well-grassed savannas and in rank vegetation around the
margins of wetlands. What sets it apart from other bishops is the
almost luminescent quality of the male's golden-orange back, which
contrasts starkly with the otherwise black plumage. It is confined
to Angola, but was taken by the Portuguese to the island of São
Tomé in the Gulf of Guinea. Ironically it is this introduced population
that has been ticked by many more birders than the native population.
One of the interesting things about birding Angola (or any new area
for that matter), is seeing new subspecies of familiar birds. In
Angola, male Village Weavers have chestnut breasts and more extensive
black heads than the supposedly conspecific 'Spotted-backed' Weavers
of southern Africa. Male Thick-billed Weavers have stunning chestnut
heads, and are much more striking than their dowdy southern relatives.
Angola Swallows are darker below than the more familiar populations
in Tanzania and Malawi, although they are not recognised as different
subspecies. Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills have mostly dark tails,
browner upperparts and appear smaller than birds in southern Africa.
Given the recent splitting of hornbills, this apparently undescribed
variant requires further study.
But our grey objective was to bird the forests found on the escarpment
inland from the coastal plain. These forests have affinities to
the Congo basin to the north as well as the montane forests of east
Africa, and are home to several extremely localised endemic birds.
Leaving Sumbe on the coast at 3h30, we headed inland up the road
to Gabela. After 26 km, this road crosses the spectacular Keve River
falls, where the river makes its final descent onto the coastal
plain. Before dawn it was just a throaty roar as we crossed the
narrow bridge. From here, the road deteriorates in proportion with
the increasing rainfall. Our progress slowed as we weaved between
large potholes, and first light found us at the foot of the scarp
forest, slipping and sliding through muddy pools and dodging stranded
road to Gabela from the coast degenerates into a slippery
mud slope as it starts to climb into the scarp forests.
Many species reach their southern
limits in these forests. The dawn chorus offered the promise of
things to come, with the mournful whistles of Brown Illadopsises,
Fraser's Rufous Thrushes and Forest Scrub Robins competing with
the cheerful chuckles of Yellow-necked Greenbuls and the deep grunts
of Gabon Coucals. It didn't take long before we'd seen the first
of many Red-crested Turacos bounding through the tall canopy - as
an Angolan endemic this has been the toughest turaco for birders
to see. Other canopy species include exquisite Yellow-billed Barbets,
Black-throated Apalises and the local race of the decidedly ugly
Naked-faced Barbet. Lower down, the middle storey has Pink-footed
Puffbacks, Green Hylias and Green Crombecs, Olive-bellied Sunbirds
and striking Yellow-throated Nicator, with its fierce yellow supercilium.
The diminutive Angola Batis is also fairly common, and we obtained
some of the first recordings of its high-pitched song.
Ian had been up this road a few weeks before, and found the regreying
forests around Gabela town to be fairly inaccessible. Accordingly
we turned south on the road to Conda, which carries less traffic
and is in better shape than the Gabela road. After a few kilometres,
the road recrosses the Keve River at the six bridges. Our driver,
a former MiG pilot in the Angolan airforce, proudly informed us
that this is where the South African army's advance on Luanda was
stopped. On a peaceful morning, it's hard to imagine a major battle
taking place on this tiny dirt track winding through rolling hills
in the middle of nowhere.
Conda was once a busy centre for coffee farming, but is now a sleepy
hamlet slowly awakening after the war years. Spectacular granite
domes and pale, quartzitic ridges punctuate the hilly terrain around
the town. Most of the area is clothed in grassland and scattered
bush, with larger forest patches primarily on the steeper slopes.
The grassland is home to small flocks of Compact Weavers, Orange-cheeked
Waxbills, and the very green endemic race of Bronze Sunbird. The
forest edge and adjacent scrub supports small numbers of Grey-striped
Francolins along with the more common Red-necked Francolin.
We headed 7 km down the Seles road to Kumbira, a small village next
to a large patch of intact forest. The recent rains, combined with
the passage of occasional banana trucks, had turned this road into
a quagmire, so we walked the last kilometres to the village. But
the road runs through degraded farmbush which is teeming with birds.
The endemic Hartert's Camaroptera is common in dense thickets, where
it is joined by small groups of the skulking and apparently scarce
Pale Olive Greenbul - easily overlooked if you don't know its querulous
song and incessant 'prrt prrt' alarm call. More easily seen are
the many African Firefinches, Grey Waxbills and Black-and-white
Mannikins that forage on grass-seeds along the edge of the road.
They are joined by small numbers of Red-faced Crimsonwings and stunning
Much of the area is old coffee plantations. Fortunately, these were
shade-coffee, so much of the forest canopy was left intact. In some
places, Grevillea trees were planted to provide shade, but even
these Australian trees are good value, because their flowers attract
many sunbirds, including the aptly-named Superb Sunbird as well
as the more subdued Green-headed and Carmelite Sunbirds.
Forest, near Conda, nestled under the impressive quartzitic
cliffs of Njelo Mountain.
spectacular gorge cut through the elevated coastal plain
by the Cubal River, 15 kilometres south of Sumbe. The cliffs
had the local race of Peregrine, and African Hobby quartered
the adjacent saltmarsh.
Two of the area's sought-after species
occur in this degraded forest. Monteiro's Bush-Shrike, known only
from a handful of specimens from the Angolan scarp forest and a
few recent sightings from SW Cameroon, is surprisingly common. Its
call is almost identical to the closely related Grey-headed Bush-Shrike,
and several could be heard calling at once each morning. In the
field, it differs from Grey-headed Bush-Shrike in having a darker
eye, a more extensive pale face and cold yellow underparts, lacking
any orange wash on the breast or flanks.
The other endemic with broad habitat tolerances is the Gabela Bush-Shrike.
Also known as the Amboim Boubou, it is closely related to Lühder's
Bush-Shrike, but has crisp white underparts and a deep chestnut
cap. It is easily overlooked unless it is calling, but is fairly
common in farmbush as well as intact forest. The Gabela scarp forests
support a remarkable diversity of bush-shrikes, because in addition
to these two range-restricted species, there are large numbers of
Perrin's Bush-Shrikes, a few Orange-breasted Bush-Shrikes in the
more open forest, and Many-coloured Bush-Shrike has been collected
in the area.
The Gabela Akalat is perhaps the only endemic that requires intact
forest. It occurs in areas with dense understorey, and is quite
secretive. We found only one bird, whose presence was given away
by its soft, mournful 'tiuu tiuu tiuu tiuu' song, descending in
pitch. It was quite hard to observe, and playback of its song seemed
to stir up Forest Scrub-Robins, which have a similar but more varied
song. One scrub-robin was seen to chase the akalat, and it is possible
that the relative abundance of scrub-robins at Kumbira may account
for the scarcity of akalats.
There are many other good birds in the scarp forests. Bird parties
move through the canopy, centred on small flocks of Dusky Tits.
This highly isolated population of tits is smaller and paler than
other Dusky Tits, and is recognised as a different subspecies. Joining
them in the bird parties are a host of other birds, including Petit's
Cuckoo-Shrikes, Grey Apalises, African Blue Flycatchers, Rufous-vented
Paradise Flycatchers, both Yellow-breasted and Southern Hyliotas,
and Brown-capped Weavers. Strangely, some species are seemingly
absent from Kumbira. There are no large hornbills, and we heard
no trogons or Square-tailed Drongos (although both are known from
Gabela). Barbets and woodpeckers are quite well-represented, however,
and we recorded a range extension for the Hairy-breasted Barbet.
Another first for Cuanza Sul was Slender-billed Greenbul, a distinctive
greenbul that probably escaped the early collectors due to its canopy-dwelling
Of the regreying localised endemics, Gabela Helmet-Shrike probably
occurs in more open woodland. We didn't encounter any at Kumbira,
but Ian had a small flock farther down the road from Kumbira to
Seles. The other endemic, Pulitzer's Longbill, apparently reaches
its northern limit in Cuanza Sul, where it was collected near Seles.
Known from only a handful of specimens, this species has not been
seen since 1974, and virtually nothing is known about its biology.
There was no sign of the longbill at Kumbira, and unfortunately
the road through to Seles was impassable. We returned to the coast
and took the direct road from Sumbe to Seles, which proved to be
in better shape than the Gabela road. Within minutes of stopping
in a rather scrubby, degraded forest west of Seles we had located
the bird by its distinctive song. Contrary to early reports, it
is not particularly secretive, and responds aggressively to play-back.
Now that its song is known, it will be much easier to tell whether
its distribution is really as restricted as the few specimens collected
to date suggest. Unfortunately we didn't have much time to explore
this area, which probably shares many of the species found farther
north at Kumbira. A bonus here was an obliging pair of White-fronted
Wattle-eyes, which allowed us to make the first recordings of their
buzzy song duet.
Because of the lack of knowledge of the restricted-range endemics,
and a perceived loss of habitat, many of the Angolan scarp endemics
currently are listed as Endangered. Our limited observations suggest
that these concerns may be overly pessimistic, at least for some
species such as Gabela Bush-Shrike and Pulitzer's Longbill, which
are tolerant of degraded vegetation. However, a comprehensive survey
of regreying forest habitat and an assessment of the likely future
rate of forest loss is needed to revise the levels of threat facing
different species, and to establish a viable conservation target
for the long-term persistence of these forests and their unique
There regrey many other challenges for birders in Angola. The higher
elevation forests inland from the scarp forests support other endemics
that await rediscovery, including Swierstra's Francolin, Angola
Cave-Chat and Angola Slaty-Flycatcher. Farther north the focus is
on Braun's Bush-Shrike and White-headed Robin-Chat. Hopefully the
country's troubles are now a thing of the past, and it will only
be a matter of time before Angola is firmly on the birding map.
Birding Africa organises birding tours into Angola. Independent
birders can fly into Luanda from Johannesburg and other major centres.
Visitors from most countries need a visa, which requires a letter
of invitation, and you also need a current yellow fever vaccination
certificate. Good news for South Africans is that the Angolan and
South African governments recently agreed to cancel visa requirements.
Luanda and the major coastal towns offer accommodation in hotels
and pensions, but conditions are often rustic, and relatively expensive
(US$40-200 per night). Most food is imported, and also expensive,
although local produce is much cheaper in the countryside. US dollars
are the best currency to take, but old notes (with 'little heads')
generally are not accepted. Officially all dollars should be changed
into Angolan Kwanzas through banks, but at least in Luanda most
shops accept US dollars, giving change in either dollars or Kwanzas.
We also heard some bad reports about changing dollars in banks.
Roads are generally poor, especially in the interior. A vehicle
with good clearance is essential, and four-wheel drive is preferred,
especially during the rainy season (February-April). It is best
to have a driver to help you negotiate the maze of streets in Luanda,
and to translate if you don't speak Portuguese. Fuel is cheap in
Luanda (approximately US$ 20c per litre), but is much more costly
further afield ($1.25 per litre in Sumbe). Petrol is also not always
available, so take every opportunity to fill up, and try to carry
a jerry can or two for insurance.