|BIRDING TOURS FROM CAPE TOWN TO CAMEROON|
GABON, SÃO TOMÉ AND PRÍNCIPE
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Libreville International Airport: Air São Tomé e Príncipe’s 12-seater plane cast an appropriate air of adventure and exploration as we boarded our flight. After an hour of low cruising the big blue broke, as first small offshore islets and then the gently-sloping volcanic dome of São Tomé came into view. Greeted by a tropical sunset we transferred straight to our comfortable hotel in São Tomé town, where we dreamt of what the coming days would have in stall.
First up were the highlands of São Tomé. Only after grabbing a dozen piping-hot pastries and a shot of rich São Toméan coffee at the next-door bakery were we prepared for the narrow, windy road to Bom Successo. Our first stop in some overgrown farmland produced a group of paddle-winged São Tomé Spinetail. Other species seen here included São Tomé Prinia, Príncipe Seed-eater and Newton’s Sunbird. But the best birds lay ahead, where the forest was less disturbed, so we soon continued. Arriving at Bom Successo we immediately met with our guide and headed off on the trail to Lagao (Lake) Amelia, but not before pausing to watch a pair of handsome São Tomé Speirops constructing their delicate nest. Snaking our way through a mixture of cultivated lands and relict forest patchlets produced a string of endemics: São Tomé Weaver, Paradise Flycatcher, Oriole and White-eye and Gulf of Guinea Thrush. By late morning we reached the picturesque crater lake, situated in lichen-festooned highland forests. The small shelter kept us dry despite light drizzle. Over our picnic lunch we watched a São Tomé Olive Pigeon as it sat calmly, its bright yellow bill and deep maroon back showing clearly. Then it was back to Bom Successo and São Tomé town.
Next on the agenda - the forgotten island of Príncipe that lies some 150 km to the north-east. With overnight packs in hand we again boarded the 12-seater plane. On the short drive from the airport to Santa Antonio town, along another avenue that meandered through overgrown farmland, we managed to tick off most of the islands endemics without stopping. But better views were desired, so we wasted no time in heading off into the surrounding forest, this time on foot. Bright Príncipe Golden Weaver was the first endemic the bite the dust, followed shortly by Dohrn’s Thrush Babbler, its clear, musical notes betraying it whereabouts. Large Príncipe Starlings were noisy and conspicuous, less so the vivid Príncipe Kingfisher. A single Príncipe Drongo hunted insects with the usual enthusiasm. Last to be found were the sleek Speirops and Sunbird. Now all that was left was to soak up some of the islands easygoing atmosphere before returning to São Tomé, for a taste of the southern lowlands. After two hours of weaving along the ever-twisting coastal road, past secluded, palm-lined beaches, forest-clad sea-cliffs and crumbling, overgrown coffee estates, we reached the Rio Io Grande. From here we hiked for two hours to reach undisturbed forest. Constant drizzle made the path slippery, but our spirits were kept high by our first Giant Weavers and a fine pair of São Tomé Scops Owl perched at eye level, among some fine forest tangles. By midday we had reached our camp site, home for the next two nights. Over the next day-and-a-half we explored the area around the camp and a steep ridge above the Rio Io Grande. The nearby stream produced a peculiar São Tomé Short-tail, chameleon-walking across a bare branch, and excited pairs of Giant Sunbird chasing each other through mossy branches. Searching a flat swampy area soon rewarded us with two pairs of Dwarf Olive Ibis, which flew up and landed in the mid-storey, where they posed long enough for all to enjoy views through the telescopes.
It was then time to make our way back to São Tomé town and back to Gabon. But not before tracking down São Tomé Kingfisher along one of the fresh forest streams en route, and rounding the trip off with a detour to the northern savannas to find a São Tomé Bronze-naped Pigeon sunning itself atop a tall tree.
GABON: 8 TO 24 SEPTEMBER 2004
Our Gabon tour kicked off at the countries showcase wildlife park, Lope, a vast area savannas, rivers and, most notably, forests. Located some 300km east of Libreville, we covered the drive with numerous stops, not all planned. A flat tyre gave us only just enough time to find our first Swamp Palm Bulbuls and Black-and-white Flycatchers before the ever-ready Jean Pierre had the show on the road again. Whilst awaiting the arrival of fuel in N’djole (it never did arrive) we notched up Rock and Grey Pratincole, African Skimmer, Orange Weaver, Superb Sunbird and Black-headed Waxbill.
Our first morning in the field was spent in and around Lope, which kicked-started our checklist with a bewildering array of species. Some memorable highlights include a pair of alarmed Forbes’ Plover piping at us from some recently burnt grassland, a White-browed Forest Flycatcher hunting above a tranquil forest stream, Pectoral-patch Cisticola performing death-defying acrobatics over the grasslands, a Broad-tailed Warbler clinging to the grass tops, and many shimmering Blue-breasted Bee-eaters to light up the roadside. Lyre-tailed Honeyguide displayed far above the forest canopy, out of sight, as Fiery-breasted Bush-Shrike hooted from the nearby thickets.
From Lope Hotel we headed to Mikongo, a satellite camp set well inside the rainforest. Our first afternoon walk produced three spectacular hornbills - Black-casqued, Red-billed Dwarf and White-crested all posed for prolonged scope views. A Grey-headed Broadbill whirred away in display but escaped our gaze, while a dainty Forest Robin sang its pretty jumble of notes from the forest floor. More subtle (some may say challenging) were a plethora of greenbuls. In time we found Red-tailed, White-bearded, Honeyguide, Golden, Icterine, Sjostedt’s… Eastern Bearded, Slender-billed, Ansorge’s, Little, Yellow-whiskered and Cameroon Sombre (whew..). Perhaps a touch more exciting were a bold pair of Cassin’s Malimbe, Narina Trogon, excited parties of Chestnut-capped Flycatcher, Rufous Flycatcher Thrush, ever-noisy Shining Drongos, a tuneful Western Black-headed Oriole, Yellow-crested, Brown-eared and Buff-spotted Woodpecker and a party of ever-skulking Black-faced Rufous Warbler. None of these, however, could rival the pair of Forest Francolin that scurried back and forth for repeated views or a ridiculously confiding Black Guineafowl, that approached to within 5 m of some of the group. Those who waited for Red-headed Picathartes were almost rewarded, as a single bird visited briefly but was seen only by our guide.
Before returning to Lope Hotel we spent a couple of hours of relaxed birding from inside the well-lit camp clearing. Brilliant Black Bee-eater sallied from the treetops, joined by a shrieking Blue-throated Roller, Chocolate-backed and Blue-breasted Kingfisher, the unusual Forest Flycatcher and shimmering Johannas’ Sunbird. African Grey Parrot shrieked loudly as they passed overhead, while Cassin’s and Sabine’s Spinetail were less boisterous. In the dense tangles, Fiery-breasted Bush-shrike was a welcome sighting.
On return to Lope we were received by a pair of Violet-tailed Sunbird. Nearby, a roadside ramble rewarded with a pair of little-known Verreaux’s Batis, shrieking Bristle-nosed and popping Hairy-breasted Barbets and the diminutive Yellow-browed Camaroptera. Our visit to Lope was suitably concluded with a dazzling Rufous-sided Broadbill, buzzing away like a clock-work toy in the dense undergrowth.
After three profitable days of forest-focussed birding, everyone looked forward to the clear, sunny skies of the Bateke Plateau’s grasslands and woodlands. Select stops broke the long drive. Most memorable were a pair of Senegal Lapwing, hundreds of Red-throated Cliff Swallows milling around a bridge, a pair of glittering White-throated Blue Swallows, bold Great Blue and Green Turacos, a Chestnut-breasted Negrofinch bobbing in display, and a pair of Black-headed Bee-eaters.
Our first morning at Lekoni was dark and grey, as a heavy electrical storm brought driving rain. Fortunately it soon passed and although we lost a little birding time the rest of the day was cool, keeping birds active. We had hardly left town when the first Congo Moor Chats were spotted among the more common Sooty Chats, followed shortly by a rare Black-chinned Weaver and handsome Black-collared Neolestes (or Bulbul) in some low shrub. The rolling green hills were abuzz with Cisticolas, Larks and Pipits, including Malbrant’s Lark (a split from Rufous-naped), the yet to be described ‘Teke’ Cisticola, Dambo Cisticola and the diminutive Short-tailed Pipit. Perhaps more popular were Black-bellied and Barrow’s Bustard, Fawn-breasted Waxbill, Black-throated Seed-eater, Yellow-mantled and Marsh Widows, Temminck’s Courser and Bateleur. Finch’s Francolin and Black-rumped Buttonquail were more skulking.
In the more wooded areas our species list grew rapidly, with noteworthy birds such as Red-throated Wryneck, an impressive Double-toothed Barbet, Cabanis’ Bunting, Perrin’s Bush-shrike, White-winged Black Tit, the very ususual local race of Grey Penduline Tit (surely a potential split), Yellow-bellied Hyliota, Salavdori’s Eremomela, Petit’s Cuckoo-shrike and Dark Chanting Goshawk. After dark we found Long-tailed, Swamp and Fiery-necked Nightjars.
Having been informed of fallen trees blocking the road to Makokou, we decided to make a pre-dawn start to ensure we would arrive at our next destination in good time. The Ivindo River basin holds the most diverse tropical lowland rainforest for birds on the African continent. As we made our way along narrow roads winding through lush, tall forests, we gained our first tastes of what we could expect. A flock of ridiculously coloured Gabon Helmetshrike, Square-tailed Sawwing, a scarce Thick-billed Cuckoo, Cassin’s and Ayres’ Hawk and African Crowned Eagles made the trip memorable. But the best was yet to come.
The Ipassa Research Station lies just a couple of kilometres from Makokou town, overlooking the languid Ivindo River. From within the grounds we found Black-shouldered Puffback, Brown Illadopsis, Sooty Boubou, Tiny Sunbird, Brown-crowned Eremomela, Yellow-billed Barbet and the scarce Preuss’ Golden-backed Weaver. Birding the impenetrable under-storey was hard work, but rewards included striking Yellow-bellied and White-spotted Wattle-eye, a noisy Yellow-billed Turaco and Blue-headed Wood Dove. Also recorded were Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo, Bare-cheeked Trogon and Grey and Yellow Longbills. Overhead, the deep honks of White-thighed Hornbill kept us regularly peering skywards. In contract, roadside birding was highly productive, with spectacular views of Black-bellied Seed-cracker, a single Olive Ibis calling as it passed almost over our heads, Blue Cuckooshrike and all four Chrysococcyx cuckoos (Klaas’, Emerald, Diederik), with a male Yellow-throated bouncing excitedly in display capping it all off. Also recorded were Black-necked Wattle-eye, African Piculet, Gabon Coucal and White-spotted Flufftail. An unforgettable sunset and night trip produced Bates’ Nightjar, Vermiculated Fishing Owl and Spot-breasted Ibis, and numerous booming Nkulengu Rail.
Nearby, we spent a day birding along a quiet forest road. The morning kicked off spectacularly with a flock of Plumed Guineafowl that approached within a couple of metres. This was followed by Rachel’s and Crested Malimbe, Pale-fronted Negrofinch, Bates’ Sunbird, Dusky Tit, Violet-backed Hyliota, Afep Pigeon, Chestnut-flanked Sparrowhawk, Purple-throated Cuckooshrike, Sabine’s Puffback, Chestnut Wattle-eye, Yellow-spotted Barbet and Speckled and Yellow-throated Tinkerbird. As if this weren’t enough, the day was suitably concluded with Africa’s most secretive raptor, a Congo Serpent Eagle sitting quietly below the forest canopy, where it was spotted by Walter.
For the final stint of the trip we returned to Libreville and flew southwards to Gamba, where we spent four days exploring the mosaic of rivers, forests and grasslands of this legendary area. It was difficult just to leave the grounds of our lodge, as Red-headed Bluebill and Black-bellied Seedcracker hopped between the huts, occasionally joined by Loanga Weaver and Rufous-tailed Palm Thrush, and Emerald-spotted and Blue-spotted Wood Doves for comparison. Also of interest was the unusually red rubriventris race of Common Waxbill, endemic to coastal Gabon and Congo. Adjacent thickets held Swamp Boubou, Reichenbach’s and Carmelite Sunbird. Overhead, a Bat Hawk hunted against a sunset sky, but was eclipsed by the continuous buzz of Rosy Bee-eater and African River Martin. A stone’s throw from our lodge, on a patch of bare coastal sand, set back from the beach, bee-eaters and martins came to rest. Large, restless flocks, numbering hundreds, creating vivid splashes of colour. In their bills, many carried twigs and shells, used at items for courtship rituals as they hopped across the baking sands. Unforgettable!
We made several forays by boat, following the network waterways where we spotted Mouse-brown Sunbird, a dashing male Hartlaub’s Duck, aptly-named Shining Blue Kingfishers, several African Finfoot and White-backed Night Heron. Along the shore, flocks of terns came to roost, among a delicate pair of Damaras, presumably on their way southwards to the desert-coasts of Namibia.
In nearby grasslands, small flocks of Black-chinned Quailfinch fed in the track, while flocks of Grey-rumped Swallow fluttered overhead. On the forest margin, we found at least three pairs of large, sluggish, grass-green Black-headed Bee-eater, one pair with a nest hole in the grasslands. The forest edge proved also a good spot for watching raptors, with the spectacular Long-tailed Hawk and African Cuckoo Hawk being spotted. Deeper in the forest, we added Red-tailed Ant Thrush, Green-backed Woodpecker, Least Honeyguide and Red-fronted Parrot.
Mammal highlights here included views of Lowland Gorillas on the road in front of us, and extended views of Forest Elephant, bringing to an end a most memorable trip.
For details of our September 2006 trip to Gabon, please click here.
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