Gabn, Sao Tome an d Principe Tour Report
4th - 26th August 2011
||Our tour to Gabon and the far-flung islands of Sao Tome and Principe, was very enjoyable and we saw almost all of the hoped for specialities at each of the areas we visited. Highlights included Forbes's Plover, Western Bronze-naped Pigeon, Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo, Bare-cheeked Trogon, the rarely observed Willcocks's Honeyguide, the tiny African Piculet, the near-mythical African River Martin, Congo Moor Chat, Giant Sunbird and Red-headed Antpecker. Impressive mammals included both Elegant Needle-clawed and Demidoff's Galagos, African Forest Elephant, Atlantic Humpback Dolphin and the rarely observed Lesser Anomalure.
Following a long and gruelling flight from Australia, we arrived at Libreville airport in Gabon, just as it was getting dark. After completing custom formalities, we drove to our hotel, on the waterfront.
We were up at dawn the following morning to see what birds we could find in the grounds of our hotel. The well watered lawns of the hotel attracted good numbers of Cattle Egrets, African Thrushes, Northern Grey-headed Sparrows, over 60 Bronze Mannikin's and a solitary Blue-spotted Wood-Dove. The trees and shrubs in the garden attracted Woodland Kingfisher, Common Bulbul, Reichenbach's Sunbird and Village Weaver. Flying overhead were both Little and African Palm-Swifts. Along the edge of the bay, we added a couple of Common Sandpipers and a few Royal Terns.
We then got on a small boat for an hours long jaunt across the Gulf of Guinea, where rather disappointingly, there where no birds to be seen. However, as we neared our destination we entered a narrow estuary, with extensive mangroves on either side. Up to three Palm-nut Vultures were observed flying overhead and sitting in the mangroves was a solitary Whimbrel. On arrival at the landing site, we found two magnificent Rosy Bee-eaters perched on top of one of the mangroves. What a stunning bird it is, we all thought the tour was off to a splendid start. During the half hour drive to Nyonie Lodge, at Kobekobe, we added a Hamerkop, a few African Green Pigeons and both Blue-breasted and White-fronted Bee-eaters.
Following lunch we birded along the main track leading to the lodge. It was an interesting mix of rainforest interspersed with large stands of grassland. The birding was very good. In the grounds of the lodge we encountered Black Sawwing, huge flocks of several hundred Grey-rumped Swallows and large communal nesting trees of Vieillot's Black and Village Weavers. In the grassland we were pleased to find a couple of very uncommon Red-necked Buzzards, a single Lesser Black-winged Lapwing, a Banded Martin, the highly localised Long-legged Pipit, African Stonechat and Zitting Cisticola. In the patches of rainforest we coaxed into view Woolly-necked Stork, African Harrier-Hawk, Red-eyed Dove, Grey Parrot, plenty of African Pied and Piping Hornbills, Speckled Tinkerbird, Swamp Palm Bulbul, Little Green, Carmelite, Olive-bellied and Copper Sunbirds, a superb pair of beautiful Black-necked Weavers and best of all, a few uncommon and highly localised Black-headed Bee-eaters. On the mammal front, we saw several Atlantic Humpback Dolphins just offshore and a solitary Moustached Monkey. After dinner we went spotlighting and were rewarded with good looks at the very uncommon Bates's Nightjar, which responded well to tape playback. We also enjoyed good looks at the almost unknown Lesser Anomalure, a species of flying-squirrel.
We spent the following morning mainly birding in nearby rainforest, on the way there; we had to walk past a large area of grassland and we were rewarded with good looks at an uncommon Black Coucal and the rarely observed Broad-tailed Warbler. In the rainforest we saw the very large Black-casqued Hornbill, Yellow-billed Turaco, Red-bellied Paradise-Flycatcher, Green-headed and Western Olive Sunbirds, the stunningly attractive Rufous-bellied Helmetshrike and Cassin's Malimbe, as well as the surprise sighting of the almost unknown Willcocks's Honeyguide. We added one mammal in this area, the range restricted Green Squirrel. A short walk along the edge of a nearby mangrove-lined creek, produced both Malachite and Giant Kingfishers. In the afternoon during the boat trip back to Libreville, new birds included Osprey, Ruff and Common Greenshank.
After breakfast at our hotel in Libreville, a single Grey-backed Camaroptera was added to the trip list, before setting off for Libreville Airport. On the way there, a few Feral Pigeons were spotted in town. Unfortunately, our flight to Sao Tome, in the Gulf of Guinea, was delayed by one and half hours. This meant that on our arrival at Sao Tome, we had to revise our travel plans, and it was decided that we would camp for the night in the recently created Obe National Park. During the drive to the park headquarters we added Yellow-billed Kite and Laughing Dove. We then set off up an extinct volcano, with only an hour of daylight left. Fortunately, it took us exactly one hour to reach our camp-site, where we settled in for the night. On the way, we saw a good variety of the more common Sao Tome endemics, as well as a few other new birds for the tour. Lemon Doves were surprisingly plentiful and ridiculously tame, they are never this tame on the mainland. Good numbers of Sao Tome Spinetails zipped by overhead, Sao Tome Prinias proved to be rather confiding, Sao Tome Speirops were literally everywhere, Principe Seedeaters roamed around in small flocks and one or two Sao Tome Thrushes also popped into view. All black male Sao Tome Paradise-Flycatchers were simply stunning, Sao Tome Sunbirds constantly popped into view, as did a small flock of Sao Tome White-eyes. We watched a Vitelline Masked Weaver at its recently completed nest, before enjoying a wonderful sighting of a Giant Weaver. As nightfall crowded in around us Sao Tome Scops-Owls began calling all around us, and in no time at all, we were enjoying a grey-morph bird in the spotlight, no more than a couple of metres away from us, in the middle of our camp site!
It rained during the night, but we were snug in our tents, on the side of the volcano. In the morning we walked higher up the flanks of the volcano, in search of still more Sao Tome endemics. We watched several Sao Tome Weavers climbing along branches searching for insects and then enjoyed watching a stunning Giant Sunbird, searching for insects in a nearby tree. A pair of Forest Chestnut-winged Starlings flew overhead and a Sao Tome Bronze-naped Pigeon suddenly flew in and perched right in front of us, just a few metres away, unfortunately it flew off just as quickly and only I got to see it. We finally got good looks at the Sao Tome Green-Pigeon and we glimpsed a Sao Tome Oriole. Around mid-day it started to rain heavily, just as we got back to the park headquarters. We then drove back down to Sao Tome township adding White-tailed Tropicbird as we did so. As we were leaving the restaurant where we had eaten lunch, we enjoyed watching a superb adult male Yellow-fronted Canary. In the morning, while birding in the rainforest we also observed a good number of Noack's Roundleaf Bats, flying around in the forest in broad daylight.
Prior to breakfast the following morning, we went birding in a large area of grassland, which also had a large pond in the middle of it, which was adjacent to our hotel. New birds for the tour included a Long-tailed Cormorant, lots of Striated Herons, a good number of both pale and dark morph Western Reef-Herons, a single Common Moorhen, a delightful pair of Sao Tome Kingfishers and a large flock of out of plumage Golden-backed Bishops.
We then flew to the tiny island of Principe but there was little to see of the bizarre volcanic plugs which are so much a feature of the island, as there was low cloud and it was raining heavily. We soon arrived at the luxurious Bom Bom Island Resort just in time for lunch. In the afternoon a walk around the gardens of the resort and along the entrance road, produced almost all of the islands endemic birds. Blue-breasted and Principe Kingfishers were seen well along the beach, large numbers of Principe Glossy Starlings and Principe Golden Weavers were squabbling in the treetops and the strange Dohrn's Thrush-Babbler gave its explosive song from the bushes below, before it too was also observed very well. The Principe Sunbird was observed feeding on the flowers of a banana tree and roving parties of Principe Speirops reminded us of Varied Sittellas. We also enjoyed terrific looks at a troop of very attractive Mona Monkeys, which have been introduced to the island.
We spent the following morning birding in the Santo Trindade National Park, in the centre of the island. It was wonderful forest to go birding in and we were rewarded with close looks at the very uncommon Chestnut-breasted Negrofinch. In the afternoon we once again birded the entrance road to the resort and we were duly rewarded with a couple of perched Splendid Glossy Starlings, in full sunlight, sitting amongst a dozen or more Principe Glossy Starlings, for comparison. While having dinner in the evening we were joined by a Brown Rat, creeping around on the lawn.
The following morning we flew back to Sao Tome, where we did a little birding in savannah country, close to the airport. We were very pleased to find a pair of Harlequin Quail along the roadside, as it is a very difficult bird to find on the mainland. We then flew back to Libreville and drove for four hours to overnight at Ndjole.
At first light, directly opposite our hotel a sandbank in the middle of the Ogooue River hosted both Grey and Rock Pratincoles and African Skimmer. In the grounds of the hotel new birds for the tour included Black Crake, Speckled Mousebird, Square-tailed Sawwing, Lesser Striped Swallow, African Pied Wagtail and a pair of fairly co-operative Yellow-throated Leafloves. We then set off on a long drive to the research station in the superb Ipassa Reserve, where we would stay for the next five nights. We had time to make frequent birding stops along the way. A quick stop close to Laboka, yielded Ayres's Hawk-Eagle, Green Turaco, Ansorge's Greenbul and a Rufous-crowned Eremomela. A short stop at a small pond held Little Grebe and a super White-throated Blue Swallow and a Cassin's Spinetail flew overhead. We stopped for a picnic lunch, close to Ovan, where we prized a few more new birds out of the surrounding forest, these included Blue-headed Wood-Dove, Mottled Spinetail, White-thighed Hornbill, a flock of Black-and-white Mannikins and best of all, the rarely observed Cassin's Honeybird flew right past us. Some late afternoon birding around our quarters in the Impassa Reserve produced Green-backed Woodpecker, very close Little Grey Greenbul, Western Nicator, splendid African Paradise-Flycatchers, Black-and-white Flycatcher, Blue-throated, Brown and Superb Sunbirds and a single Mackinnon's Shrike.
The accommodation in Impassa Reserve is situated on high ground overlooking the Ivindo River, with a beautiful panoramic view overlooking the river and the surrounding forest. Many species of forest-edge birds are attracted to the clearing and at first light new birds here included a gorgeous African Pygmy Kingfisher, Little Greenbul, Simple Leaflove and a brilliant Great Blue Turaco, a very impressive species of bird. A wide track runs through the reserve and we spent a very productive morning wandering slowly along the track. One by one, we picked up new birds before we stumbled across a mixed species feeding party, where new birds came thick and fast. A single Black Guineafowl was much appreciated, a Yellowbill reluctantly showed itself, along with a very attractive White-crested Hornbill, Yellow-whiskered, Icterine and Red-tailed Greenbuls, all showed well, a Yellow-footed Flycatcher sat out in the open, a Sooty Flycatcher showed well in the canopy, along with Bates's Paradise-Flycatcher and a pair of Shrike Flycatchers. We enjoyed both male and female White-spotted Wattle-eye, a rather drab Fraser's Sunbird, in sharp contrast we enjoyed the very beautiful Johanna's Sunbird, a couple of Chestnut-capped Flycatchers, a lone Forest White-eye and our first Velvet Mantled Drongo.
The afternoon birding can often be slow, but today new birds just kept coming; a small flock of Red-billed Dwarf Hornbills responded very well to tape playback, as did Buff-throated Apalis and Black-shouldered Puffback. We also enjoyed super looks at a male Chestnut Wattle-eye and a male Collared Sunbird. New mammals today included a couple of sightings of Lady Burton's Rope Squirrel and we also observed a couple of Blue Duikers, which were feeding along the main track.
Another morning deep in the forest at Ipassa proved rewarding, as we regularly picked up new birds throughout the morning. These included Blue-throated Roller, Hairy-breasted Barbet, Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Golden, Spotted and Eastern Bearded Greenbuls, Lesser Bristlebill, the stunning Eastern Forest Robin, great looks at a Rufous Flycatcher-Thrush, the diminutive and extremely range restricted Verreaux's Batis, the attractive Western Black-headed Oriole and best of all, a tiny Red-headed Antpecker, pecking away at an ants nest.
In the afternoon we birded our way along the entrance road to the reserve, which is a more open area, and once again the birding was exceptionally good. A pair of Red-fronted Parrots flew above us, we watched the absolutely stunning Blue-headed Bee-eater, which was perched close by on telegraph lines, a Red-rumped Tinkerbird popped into view and eventually a Cameroon Sombre Greenbul showed well, giving us an astonishing total of 13 species of bulbuls for the day! We also saw a Banded Prinia very well, along with Dusky-blue Flycatcher, Sooty Boubou, Purple-headed Glossy Starling, Crested Malimbe, Black-bellied Seedcracker, Western Bluebill and best of all, a flock of three very rarely observed Violet-backed Hyliotas, which we saw extremely well.
We spent the following day birding along the road to Belinga, where particularly large trees line the little-used roadway, and we made good use of the scope and very much enjoyed the canopy birds. A good number of rather sedate Afep Pigeons perched in the tops of the trees, a beautiful Yellow-throated Cuckoo posed wonderfully in the scope, a pair of monstrous Gabon Coucals reluctantly showed in the undergrowth and we all enjoyed great looks at a Black Bee-eater which was perched on telegraph lines. A Yellow-throated Tinkerbird showed well, but the Yellow-spotted Barbet was only seen in flight. The diminutive African Piculet, suddenly appeared right in front of us, this was a real bonus, as this species of woodpecker, is only the size of a sparrow! An Elliot's Woodpecker was observed well, along with a couple of Slender-billed Greenbuls and the rarely observed White-bearded Greenbul also showed off in the tree tops. A Chattering Cisticola popped up in the roadside vegetation, the tiny Yellow-browed Cameroptera duly obliged, as did a Little Grey Flycatcher. A pair of Green Sunbirds were scoped well, as was a Black-capped Apalis.
A picnic lunch by the Zadia River was followed by the much anticipated Gosling's Apalis, an extremely range restricted species, which was our main target bird here. Other new birds seen at this lovely spot included Black-collared Lovebird, Grey-throated Barbet, Green Crombec, Black-headed Waxbill and a superb pair of Pin-tailed Whydahs. Following dinner we did a little spotlighting, which produced excellent sightings of both Demidoff's and Elegant Needle-clawed Galagos.
Our last day at Ipassa started with a bang, while having breakfast, our local guide Patrice came rushing in, saying bring your binoculars and come outside. We very much enjoyed watching a small group of four African River Martins flying above us, we were all very pleased to observe this little known and almost mythical species. The rest of the morning birding inside the dense forest of the reserve was almost as impressive, as we continued to observe a number of very uncommon species. A Bare-cheeked Trogon was eventually tracked down, we were thrilled to watch the Rufous-sided Broadbill performing its unique short circular display flight, accompanied by its distinctive trill, which it produces by vibrating its outer primaries. A Lemon-bellied Crombec was seen in flight and the rarely observed Rachel's Malimbe was also seen well. Other new birds during the morning walk included Tambourine Dove, Didric Cuckoo, Green Hylia, West African Batis, Shining Drongo, Red-headed Malimbe and White-breasted Negrofinch.
An afternoon meander along the entrance road to the reserve produced a pair of very skulking Black-faced Rufous Warblers, the tiny Olive-green Camaroptera and a rather furtive Dusky Crested-Flycatcher.
The following day we left Ipassa and started on the long dirt-road drive to Lekoni, on the Babeke Plateau, close to the border with the Congo. Driving along the entrance road to Ipassa we flushed a pair of Scaly Francolins from the roadside. A little roadside birding close to the village of Mohoba produced a very fine Gabon Woodpecker. Under the bridge over the river Sebe, at Okondga, there were lots of nesting Red-throated Cliff Swallows, which performed extremely well for us. Close to Franceville a Senegal Coucal flew across the road, in front of our vehicle. We arrived at the Babeke Plateau mid way through the afternoon. The sharp demarcation between the rainforest and the northern extension of the vast woodlands of southern Africa that penetrates, as a wedge into the equatorial rainforest zone, is startlingly abrupt, almost as though someone had drawn a line on a map. It is a very special area, an unusual mixture of Miombo-like woodland, open grasslands and heath-like scrub, quite unlike anywhere else in Africa. The birds are equally special. We began by finding the most special bird of them all, the extremely range restricted Congo Moor Chat, which proved to be common. There was also a supporting cast of other new birds which included a Swamp Nightjar flushed from the grassland in broad daylight, a Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, wintering South African Cliff Swallows, Sooty Chat, Common Fiscal, Fork-tailed Drongo, Pied Crow and Yellow-mantled Widowbird.
Today we began our search in earnest to find the special birds of the Babeke Plateau. The plateau is named after the tribe of Bantu people that have lived here for countless generations. A red-necked Francolin flushed from our feet, a Klaas's Cuckoo popped up for us and an African Cuckoo flew close by us. A Brown-hooded Kingfisher perched on telegraph wires, a Striped Kingfisher perched in the tops of a nearby tree, Little Bee-eaters sallied for insects and a large flock of White-fronted Bee-eaters flew overhead, at this time of year they should have already have staked out breeding territories in the Sahel zone, just south of the Sahara Desert. The very beautiful Red-throated Wryneck was greatly admired, as was a Black Wood-Hoopoe. We enjoyed good scope views of a Greater Honeyguide and a few Cardinal Woodpeckers. A Flappet Lark performed its floppy wing display for us and a Rufous-chested Swallow flew over our heads. A Plain-backed Pipit was new for our list, as was the small Short-tailed Pipit. A couple of Yellow-throated Longclaws added much colour to the day list and the Black-collared Bulbul which we saw very well, is one of the many specialities of this area. Trilling, Piping and Pectoral-patch Cisticolas were all seen well and another speciality of the area, the Salvadori's Eremomela was much appreciated. One or two Pale Flycatchers showed well, as did the attractive Common Wattle-eye. A pair of Western Violet-backed Sunbirds was a welcome addition, along with a few Amethyst Sunbirds. Both Bocage's and Luhder's Bushshrikes were very welcome additions to the list and the male Violet-backed Starling was a real stunner. Another of the plateau specialities popped into view, in the form of the Black-chinned Weaver and last but not least, was a small flock of Fawn-breasted Waxbills. On arrival back at our hotel at dusk, we found a Bat Hawk flying around the building, which was a very fine ending, to a particularly fine days birding.
The next morning found us tramping the open moorlands, looking for a number of open grassland species. A pair of Coqui Francolins flushed from cover and flew right past us. A Little Buttonquail exploded at my feet and flew away from us and we flushed up to six or more White-bellied Bustards. Other new birds included Rufous-naped Lark and Dambo Cisticola. A large flock of Common Swifts flew overhead which had recently arrived from northern Europe. Joanna pointed out a Broad-billed Roller flying overhead, also a migrant, but this one is a visitor from southern Africa. We watched a pair of Woodland Pipits feeding on the ground ahead of us, a White-browed Scrub-Robin responded well to tape playback and perched on the top of a small bush. A pair of Short-winged Cisticolas flew past us and a Lead-coloured Flycatcher suddenly appeared in front of us, before disappearing just as quickly. We watched a fine pair of Chin-spot Batis and a few diminutive Grey Penduline-Tits. We admired a pair of Yellow-throated Petronias and a very handsome Cabanis' Bunting.
In the afternoon we were driving across the plateau, when an African Hobby took of from a tree by the side of the track and in no time at all disappeared beyond the horizon. A little later we flushed a Finche's Francolin from the side of the track, and he too disappeared beyond the horizon. We then paid a visit to Crocodile Lake at the foot of the attractive `Lekoni Canyon'. Here we found a Croaking Cisticola and a Marsh Widowbird in the vegetation beside the lake.
Back onto the plateau the following morning where we worked a patch of gallery forest. We had good looks at a Lizard Buzzard soaring overhead and a pair of very attractive Black-backed Barbets, a very scarce bird in Gabon. Suddenly, a Golden-tailed Woodpecker flew into a nearby tree, giving excellent views. There are only a handful of records of this bird in Gabon. A delightful pair of Green-capped Eremomelas responded well to tape playback, as did the very uncommon Red-capped Crombec. A little later we enjoyed good looks at Yellow-bellied Hyliota, Western Black-headed Batis and White-winged Black-Tit.
In the afternoon we birded a different patch of gallery forest, where we enjoyed a pair of White-chinned Prinias and a pair of Petit's Cuckoo-shrikes. Following a great deal of persistence we managed to coerce a Western Bronze-naped Pigeon into full view, so buoyed with our success, we decided to try and do the same with an Olive Long-tailed Cuckoo which was calling deep inside the gallery forest. Following even greater persistence, we had brilliant success with the cuckoo, on two separate occasions it flew out of the gallery forest and perched just above the tape recorder. On the way back to town a very impressive male Long-tailed Nightjar flew up from the dirt track in front of us. We had experienced a really great days birding.
On our last day on the Babeke Plateau, we visited Crocodile Lake, in the morning. As we were nearing the lake we flushed a pair of Temminck's Coursers from the side of the track, and try as we may, we were unable to relocate them. Several Ring-necked Doves were observed around the lake, this is the only place in Gabon where this species occurs. A solitary White-rumped Swift, was seen flying along the edge of the lake. We then tried for one of the most difficult birds in Africa, the Locust Finch. As we were walking through very long grass along the edge of the lake three birds flushed from cover, just in front of Patrice. Three Locust Finches circled us once before flying off, this very rare species is almost never seen on the ground, only in flight. In the afternoon a walk through a disturbed area of scrub, produced two new birds for the tour, the uncommon Whistling Cisticola and the incredibly skulking and very aptly named, Gorgeous Bushshrike, which after a great deal of perseverance eventually popped up for all to see. Little wonder that this bird was voted bird of the trip by tour participants. This was a perfect ending, to a wonderful time on the Babeke Plateau.
The following day we drove from the Babeke Plateau to Lope National Park. We stopped for lunch in Lastoursville, where rather surprisingly we added three more species to the ever growing trip list. We admired a Tawny-flanked Prinia, a small flock of very uncommon Bates's Swifts and a beautiful male Black-faced Canary. On our arrival in Lope National Park we paid a visit to a small pond, where there was a stunning Forbes's Plover.
We had a few hours birding in Lope National Park the following morning which produced a flurry of new birds. A very obliging Shining-blue Kingfisher, a couple of Red-chested Swallows, flight views of a Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat, great looks at a pair of Tiny Sunbirds, a flock of Yellow-billed Oxpeckers flew overhead and best of all, we had very close looks at some particularly obliging Black-chinned Quailfinches, which are normally very hard to observe.
We then headed back to Libreville. We stopped for lunch in Ndjole, on the Ogooue River, where our final bird of the tour, was the very attractive White-headed Lapwing. We had enjoyed a very pleasant tour through the rainforests of West Africa, observing literally hundreds of species of birds and none of this would have been possible without the very able assistance of Patrice Christy, our local birding guide in Gabon.