Birding trip report Gabon (Gamba area) 14-29 Sep. 2009

John van der Woude 
text and photos (this page)  -  2. GPS waypoints, maps  -   3. Species list
This was our first trip to west-central Africa, the tropical heart of this continent. Nollie and I stayed all the time in the Gamba area along the coast in south Gabon, as there was plenty to see for us and we had such a comfortable stay with relatives on the Shell compound there. Only a few bird species of this region did we pick up before in The Gambia and in Kakamega forest in west Kenya. Half of the 160 species we saw were lifers. We chose the second half of September as this would be the transition from the dry to the wet season, thus making the birds more active I presume. Moreover, the two most important species in this area if not in the whole of Gabon are African River Martin and Rosy Bee-eater, and both can be seen in especially this area from mid September, for a short period only. We saw hundreds of both species. The photo above shows the bee-eater. 
The most abundant bird families were: hornbills (I think we saw them at least every half hour or so), cuckoos (more heard than seen), bee-eaters, greenbuls and sunbirds.

Gabon as a whole is essentially lowland rainforest, with estuaries, rivers, lakes, lagoons, beaches, and some grasslands between the forests. The Gamba area has all of it, and still has few inhabitants. The Gamba complex (a small town, the Shell plant, an airport and Yenzi, the compound of Shell employees) was founded by Shell in the middle of nowhere. 
We owe a lot to Dave Sargeant's extensive report of the birds of the area in the early nineties (D.E. Sargeant 1993 - Gabon, a birder's guide; with emphasis on the Gamba area). There is also a local Smithsonian institute, and around 2005 a few articles appeared about the broader area. Nevertheless, we had to sort out many things locally ourselves, partly also because two birding contacts we had hoped to meet happened to be out. However, we really liked to explore the area, and this was hugely facilitated by the permanent use of the Toyota Landcruiser of our hosts Nolda and Jonathan. As a matter of fact, their very employment at Shell Gabon (Gamba) gave us the opportunity for coming to this remote destination. Actually, visiting the Gamba area without such contacts will not be easy. That said, it was a pleasant experience to be part of the Shell community in this isolated location.
Obtaining visas for Gabon became a sort of narrow escape as there were post-election troubles before the start of our trip. These troubles were over when we arrived.
We booked our Air France flight to Libreville from Paris instead of from Amsterdam, as the fare was over 400 euro per person cheaper this way.
Forest Elephants roam the Gamba area at night, and they are especially fond of the mango trees in the gardens of Yenzi, the Shell village. As these animals can be grumpy, one has to be very careful. For example, walking at night in Yenzi was not allowed. Of course, while walking forest tracks during the day we were always on our guard and hoping not to meet an elephant. After the tragic loss in April 2009 of a Dutch worldbirder due to a forest elephant in India, we were always very keen on hearing any branches breaking. This also meant that we only rarely left the forest tracks for finding skulking birds along the often indistinct elephant/buffalo trails. Snakes can be more difficult to see on those trails as well (we saw two big ones, although both from the car). We never encountered an elephant in the forests, but on the last night we saw a few closeby in Yenzi, from our (screened) veranda.
We took anti-malaria pills for the whole period, as there have been casualties in the area.
Although we hardly met anyone on our day trips, speaking French in this former French colony made things easier when we asked local people near plantations about the roads etc. Or, for learning from a local driver one morning in the middle of nowhere, that we had just 'missed' a silverback gorilla with two young...
The sites we visited were (see also GPS overview map):
Yenzi - the compound of the Shell employees; see first photo below; lush green open woodland and lawns.
Golf course - between Yenzi, lake Yenzi and woodland.
Open woodland W of Yenzi.
Degraded woodland/forest E of Yenzi lake.
'Mangrove road' opposite airport, leading to the sea; coastal scrub, mangrove, woodland.
'Vera plains' generic term for the rolling grassland hills E of airport area; mainly the forest blocks between them, like Bibonga, Tondou and 'Mark's forest'.
Bibonga forest - primary forest, hardly affected.
'Tondou forest' - Dave Sargeant's favorite and indeed very good although being affected bit by bit now; the forest is hard to find these days (but see GPS section), and the locals we met don't use the name Tondou.
'Mark's forest' - hard to find lush forest track pointed out to us by Mark (see GPS section), good for mixed species flocks.
Colas - coastal scrub and beach.
Nyanga - coastal scrub, small lagoons, estuary, beach.
Matsiegui lagoon - lake and a tidal mudflat/lagoon.
Totou road - tall forest.
Plus several minor sites.

All in all, we had a lovely time on a single and comfortable location in a remote near-wilderness, where we had a good introduction to the birds of tropical west-central Africa, plus several restricted-range specialties like African River-Martin and Rosy Bee-eater.


Our accommodation in Yenzi, the compound for the employees of Shell Gabon-Gamba. Many birds were seen close to the house, like Blue-breasted Bee-eater, Long-legged Pipit, Emerald Cuckoo, Spotted Greenbul.

On the way to the golf course next to Yenzi. Shining-blue Kingfisher was at the back, and we had good telescope views of it.

The golf course is a good birding area for woodland and forest edge species. Here we had our first Yellow-billed Turaco's. The golf course borders Lake Yenzi.

Blue-breasted Bee-eater on a Shell valve at Yenzi. Note the white corner of the cheek.

Juvenile Blue-breasted Bee-eater. The distinctive white corner on the cheek is already visible.

Piping Hornbill was common, even more than African Pied Hornbill.

Chattering Cisticola in the ruderal area west of Lake Yenzi.

Black-headed Bee-eater is a specialty of this tropical region, and we saw it almost daily at forest edges.

Black-casqued Hornbill is a huge bird, and we saw dozens of them together on their roost flight. This is the female.

Butterflies were plentiful and beautiful, especially inside the forest.

On other trips to the tropics, we have never seen a cicada so well.

Blocks of rather undisturbed tropical forest alternate with grasslands. These grasslands are treeless, so I hesitate to call them savannah. The local population uses the term 'plaine' (plain).

Millipedes often crossed the tracks.

We saw a lot of large insects, and hopefully they serve as food for the birds...

This is what we were always looking for, a drivable track entering a good forest. This is the entrance to the Bibonga forest, and we walked the 700 meter track through the forest several times.

Double print of a cat on a sandy track in the grasslands, near a forest border. 
African Golden Cat and Leopard apparently are the only two cat species here, and the size of the footprint (8 cm from front to rear) fits Leopard best I think.

The 'secret valley' a bit north of the track to Bouda. In Dave Sargeant's report this (the lower part in the middle) is called the 'camping site'. This spot gives a good view over the forests, for spotting raptors.

Scrub and woodland along the 'mangrove road' which starts just a bit south of the airport entrance. This is the nearest road to the sea (the next one is Colas).

Colas beach. All beaches here have big driftwood trunks, sometimes with a lone tern resting on it. The sea is very dangerous because of the waves and currents, and nobody risks to swim here.

Along the road to Colas, there is a sort of parking site on the left (a track starts here). When we opened our car door (visible in upper left corner) after parking the car, we were surprised by this Square-tailed Nightjar. For the reason of its behaviour, see the second photo after this one.

The nightjar of the above photos appeared to have two very young chicks. This photo is taken from the car too, and of course we moved the car immediately after this.

The nightjar on its chicks again, after we had moved the car. This photo was taken through our telescope. Note that the eyes are just not closed. A few days later we did not see them back here. Either they had moved further into the grass, or the nest had been lost, as we found a dead nightjar on the asphalt road only 100 m or so further on. But this dead nightjar can easily have been from another territory, as we heard so many of them during one evening drive.

Zitting Cisticola, one of many we encountered in the grasslands between the forest blocks.

After a long walk from the P of the nightjar, we were surprisingly rewarded with the only White-thighed Hornbill of the trip.

Often heard but seldom seen, a Red-chested Cuckoo, singing "it will rain" all day long. Lured into view by playback of this call.

The road to Bouda passes this interesting gap in a forest block (at GPS 436). Mixed species flocks could be studied from the undergrowth to the canopy.

The sandy subsoil of most of the Gamba area makes a 4WD necessary.

School excursion from Yenzi to Nyanga beach, to study the estuary. We joined them on the trip to this site as we could never have made it on our own, because of the very loose sandy spots in the tracks. We got stuck twice (and the group as a whole six times) and then you need the assistance of the other drivers, to push the car. We went there with seven 4WD cars, almost all Toyota Landcruiser. Most birds were seen here at the very mouth of the river.

The impressive Totou forest, not far from the landmark Engen petrol station.

Forbes' Plover was a new plover for us. We saw it a few times on the grasslands, with territorial behaviour.

Matsiegui Lagoon, shallow water and mudflats, with several wader species. This is at GPS 448.

'Tondou' forest. As indicated already by Dave Sargeant in 1993, this is good forest. I think this is due to the more loamy subsoil. Still, finding the birds was hard work here too, and several of the more sandy forests (like Bibonga) were practically as good.

A flower that grows directly out of the soil.

A mantis? 10 cm long.

Forest buffalo family in a rather small grassland area between the forests. Good to see them here at a distance and not somewhere nearby on a trail in the forest! These buffalos are smaller and browner than the buffalos of the savannas in Eastern Africa.

All butterflies on these photos are large, with a wingspan of easily 10 cm.

Birds in the canopy were hard to find, except at forest borders.

Butterfly safely looking like a leave.

Long-legged Pipit, a bird that we saw everywhere on the grasslands, occasionally sat in trees.

Rosy Bee-eater was one of the star birds of this trip and performed accordingly!

Senegal Lapwing with a young bird (the adult is left). At first we were not sure about the status of this lapwing species, but apparently it is a breeding bird in this region.

African River-Martin, a Data Deficient species. They arrived during our stay and the numbers grew quickly in a few days. Often they were high in the air, but on this site also lower and apparently in courtship flights (pairs), with more elaborate calls than when they were higher in the air.

Another huge butterfly.

Sadly, this region also undergoes some slash-and-burn for making room for small plantations. Hopefully the Gamba area government will control this suffciently.

African River-Martin meeting on the road...

... and flying up again. Note the light-coloured bill. A long sound recording of the birds on this photo can be heard here. The recording was taken just from the asphalt road, of about seven pairs that kept flying around whereas most of the others had sat down again.

Coastal scrub at Colas. Here we had our only Loango Weavers, classified as a vulnerable species.

Crabs on the beach of Colas.

Mantis (?) in the car. All these insects here are so big!

Another species of millipede? Seen only once. Like the common millipede, over 10 cm long.

These enormous grasshoppers often flew up in front of the car, and then looked like a bird, and not a very small bird! Luckily, we never had one flying through the open car window...

On our last day, we had a much better view of Congo Serpent-Eagle than earlier on the trip. Note the vertical dark stripe on the throat.

The above Congo Serpent-Eagle's mate. Note the flat head.

Blue-headed Coucal. Here, on our last day, we finally had a satisfying view of this species, which resembles so much the more widespread Senegal Coucal.

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