Didric cuckoos

Didric cuckoos in the nauclea tree, male and female.

Didric cuckoos in a nauclea tree, male and female.

A pair of cuckoos appeared in the garden today. Didric cuckoos. I rarely see these secretive birds. Lately we have been having an explosion of caterpillars in the garden, and this seems to be bringing the cuckoos down into the understory. Last week it was the Emerald cuckoo. This pair of Didrics fed for almost an hour before moving on. The iridescent blue, green and copper of the male shimmers in the sunlight.  Beautiful to watch. I am impressed by their skill and focus on hunting caterpillars.

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Four chicks, three hens, and a snake

African Crake with chicks.

African Crake with chicks.

Four chicks, standing in the middle of the laterite track looking helpless and vulnerable brought our drive across the Vera Plaines savannas to a stop on Sunday afternoon. Lisa, Tina and myself were returning from an early morning walk along the Kachimba trail on the far eastern side of Vera Plaines. The track was rutted with washouts, the ditches eroded deeply and choked with vegetation. African Crakes are drawn to habitat like this, seldom used tracks where rainwater collects in pools and overgrown vegetation provides shade and cover for the birds. Crakes resemble Rails, perhaps the size of a small chicken. The adults are black and brown mottled above, grey face and breast, barred black and white below. The chicks are charcoal black. Unfortunately for the Crakes, predator snakes also find this habitat attractive, the eroded ditches, thick vegetation and water pockets attracting many of the critters snakes find appealing.

Defending her chicks from a snake.

Defending her chicks from a snake.

Two adult Crakes were fussing on the side of the track, one would fluff up and charge off the track into the vegetation, another would try to gather the chicks. Soon the concern became evident as a large snake crawled onto the track.

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The snake was possibly a File snake, approximately 1.5 meters in length. It appeared to be interested in the chicks, but the adult Crakes were effective in driving it away. First crossing the track with a Crake in pursuit, it then reappeared in the bordering vegetation, attempting to strike the nearest Crake before recrossing the track into the ditch. Another Crake appeared farther up the track trying to shepherd the chicks to cover and hopefully out of danger. The chicks were last seen scuttling into the vegetation under the watchful eyes of the three adults.

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inundated forest

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I hear a trickle of water through the forest, a musical reminder that the rainy season has arrived. The flush of new growth gives off a powerful fragrance, crushed leaves, saturated earth, a floral sweetness. Fresh molecules of oxygen tease their way through the green jungle like a fairy mist, an intoxicating elixir of the senses.

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Assala elephants

Arriére-arriére! Vite! Stacey whispered nervously as first one, then another, finally six elephants burst from the forest edge onto savanna 30 meters before us.

We hardly knew they were coming. A wisp of breeze through the leaves at the edge of the forest suggested something was passing through, but I was thinking more of a bird surprised or a monkey leaping through the canopy. We backed cautiously along the trail, hoping our scent wouldn’t suddenly surprise the herd.

A herd of elephants, small in stature, cross a narrow savanna south of Loango National Park. The largest stops to sample the air currents, likely carrying our scent.

A herd of elephants, small in stature, cross a narrow savanna south of Loango National Park. The largest stops to sample the air currents, likely carrying our scent.

The elephants were small, with what appeared to be overly large ears. Tiny tusks barely protruded from the largest of the animals. Stacey referred to them as Assala elephants, the mysterious pygmy elephants thought to inhabit some of the forests in the southeast wilderness of Gabon. It has been said that they are a separate sub-species of elephant. Particularly aggressive, they are unpredictable and prone to attack more readily than other elephants. Others assert that the aggressive individuals are merely sub-adult males of the typical forest species of elephant, more irritable and more agile than the elders. In any case, we were outnumbered two to one, and decided to back off until the herd had moved across the narrow savanna, meandering into nearby forest.

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chameleon surprised

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Flap-necked chameleon in a defensive posture along a trail in Loango National Park.

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gorilla warning

A curious swish in the leaves caught my attention as I returned along a trail deep in Vera Plaines. It was late afternoon, and my walk in the forest had been delayed by rain. At least five centimeters had fallen since I arrived at the trailhead, from midday until nearly 3:00pm, washing all tracks and animal sign from the trail. A constant plop of water dripped through the canopy to the vegetation below, making it difficult to hear any sounds coming through the trees.

Glistening forest at the end of a rainfall.

Glistening forest at the end of a rainfall.

Branches continued to shudder and sway, suggesting something large was moving in the thick tree canopy.

lianas_9854_dkorteI searched back and forth from the trail, straining for a better view, and soon saw a little arm reach to grasp a tree limb. A plump baby gorilla pulled his way out onto a branch. He was mostly hidden by foliage. Tottering for a moment, he nearly fell grabbing a branch to swing into a nearby tree. Thinking it might be a young chimpanzee, I decided to steal into the forest for a closer look. I’m not sure why I thought a chimpanzee might be a safer approach than a gorilla. The little primate was some 30 meters in from the trail, and as I approached the tree, I could hear more rustling, now coming from behind. Another member of this family was likely hiding high in a tree overhanging the trail. As I searched for the new mystery, the baby gorilla moved deeper into the forest, and I chose to ignore the single “pok!” coming from somewhere beyond. Turning my attention to the tree at trailside, I could finally make out a hairy silhouette of gorilla hiding 15 meters up in a tangle of lianas. I began to circle for a better view, and should have taken the second warning “pok!” to be the chest beat of a silverback, sending message that he was ready to intervene.

A blurred picture of a stressed female gorilla screaming for help from her silverback.

A blurred picture of a stressed female gorilla screaming for help from her silverback.

The female in hiding soon realized her cover was blown. She suddenly rose up through the lianas, feces and urine raining down through the canopy. When that was finished, she began screaming to wake the dead. I remember trying to take a picture, but there were branches in the way, and as I maneuvered, I could hear what sounded like a stampede bulldozing through the understory. An alarmed silverback was headed straight for my position. I glanced over my shoulder as this blur of flying hair came hurtling into view.  Not only was the female screaming, the silverback was roaring, howling, and sounding furious. Besides my life flashing before my eyes, I remember thinking: “I am SO F#*%ED!” My other thought was what Lisa and Angelique told me to do when confronted by gorillas: Do NOT Run! I could see that running would be futile. I turned sideways, hoping I might look smaller, not so confrontational, moreover, if there was to be contact, vital organs might have some protection.

The gait of a charging silverback looks like a sideways gallop as rear feet are planted on one side and to the front of forearms; he then lurches forward over his hind feet, the mass of powerful forearms and upper body crashing through the understory. This silverback was bearing down fast. Five meters before feared collision, he rose on his hind legs, arms tearing into the vegetation while he gave out a deafening roar, then veered off in a circle 20 meters to my left. A warning charge. Both animals were now screaming, and, from the sounds of cracking and ripping vegetation, the silverback was preparing for a second charge. Thinking a second charge may be more than a warning, I decided the best course was to move slowly away from the female. With a little coughing and mumbling I began to communicate a deliberate course back to the trail, away from the tree with the female, and definitely away from the silverback. This appeared to alleviate the tense situation. The screaming finally subsided, the roaring stopped. I could hear nothing crashing through the forest in pursuit as I slowly made my way back to the trail. Two kilometers of forest left to traverse, every step a vivid reminder of what it is to be alive.

Butterflies emerge from cover at the end of a rainstorm in the forest.

Butterflies emerge from cover at the end of a rainstorm in the forest.

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In spite of humanity.

A Forest elephant crosses oil pipelines on the Shell Gabon oil concession in Gamba.

A Forest elephant crosses oil pipelines on the Shell Gabon oil concession in Gamba.

In spite of all the obstacles put in their way. In spite of the hunting. In spite of the poaching. The snaring. The harassment. In spite of slash and burn agriculture, the cutting of their habitat.

Elephants continue to call this place home. The Gamba Complex of Protected Areas.

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trans “through” + spirare “to breathe”

Vera Plaines rainforest at dawn. N’Dogo Lagoon rests, a silent mirror beneath a veil of fog, the hills of Moukalaba-Doudou obscured in the distance.

Transpiration in the forest. Dawn comes slowly in the hills of Vera Plaines.

Transpiration in the forest. Dawn comes slowly in the hills of Vera Plaines.

The whistles and warbles of bul-buls, kingfishers, and turacos replace the haunting trill of bushbabies as the last fruit bats tumble out of the tree canopy, dragging the night-shadows back to the depths of forest.

The perpetual drone of the cricket choir steals onto savanna, weaving out of forest on the breath of trees, while in the distant western sky, a rain squall boils from the sea, immersing all in its path in a rain-parade of thundering drums.

The sweet scent of verdant green spiced with a tobacco-like odor of fermenting leaves steams out of forest as we enter. I feel under the gaze of a hundred eyes, and hear a hundred quiet voices giving me up. Caught in this web of life, and no place to hide.

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Saturniid moth

A Saturniid moth mysteriously found its way into our patio on a cool morning and was laying eggs on a paper lantern. These moths are some of the largest moths in Africa. This particular specimen had a wingspan of 16 centimeters. Their wings have variable patterns, shapes and colors. The pink caterpillars found in camp recently turn into these beautiful moths.

8874_SaturniidMoth_DKorteI removed the moth to vegetation outside of the patio, but later found it had returned. So I carried it to a nearby tree, where it shivered up to speed before launching into the canopy.

 

 

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yet another gorilla

White-crested hornbill calls from forest edge.

White-crested hornbill calls from forest edge, sounding like a squeaky cat’s meow.

It was approaching 5:00 PM when Gil and I emerged from the forest onto a mostly overgrown savanna in the Ivinga corridor, south of Gamba. The trail is used mostly by elephants, monkeys, and the few sitatungas we were hoping to see. The crisp late-afternoon sunlight stung momentarily as my eyes adjusted from searching the shadows of forest for hulks of elephants that might begin moving. Forty meters ahead, a dark shape crossed the trail. I could tell immediately by the smooth, powerful stride that this was a gorilla. Unbelievable. As it crossed the trail into vegetation, sunlight shimmered from the lustrous coat of the large silverback, an adult male of perhaps 150 kilos. I motioned for Gil to come forward, but the gorilla was gone as quickly as it appeared. We sidestepped from the trail to nearby cover and watched the bush before us, now infused with the awe and mystery of a gorilla encounter in the wild. We strained to hear any movement, separating the birdsong from breeze rustling through leaves, the crickets in the bush from what we hoped, with a certain amount of trepidation, were more gorillas coming our way.

A silverback, surprised while feeding along a track near Ivinga Station.

A silverback, surprised while feeding along a track near Ivinga Station.

Usually a silverback is accompanied by a troop of various females and juveniles. In years past, as many as fourteen gorillas have passed camera traps placed in this area. Last week during a similar walk, Gil and I watched a female gorilla high in a tree canopy, building a nest or feeding, and could hear another in the understory as we traversed a nearby savanna. Now we waited for the possibility of family following this male, not yet sure if the silverback had spotted us. Recent tracks of a band of gorillas, including three individuals crossing a savanna in the past day or two, suggested there were more animals in the area.

Brilliant butterfly or moth, resting on a leaf.

Brilliant butterfly or moth, resting on a leaf.

Three or four minutes went by with no movement or sound. A few hornbills sailed overhead, butterflies darted low through the vegetation, and a lone Red-chested cuckoo warbled its three-tone melody “all-is-well” from the forest canopy. Suddenly the bushes began moving from where the silverback disappeared and, incredibly, he reappeared back onto trail. The silverback was now facing us, obviously unaware of our presence. Snapping off new leafy shoots, he was eating fresh greens while searching for the next handful. Barely a few seconds later, he glanced up from his dinner to realize we were watching. Without losing a beat, he melted silently back into vegetation, leaving us to wonder if he had actually departed, or had paused to study us from inside the forest edge.

Black-casqued hornbill sails over a savanna near Gamba.

Black-casqued hornbill sails over a savanna near Gamba.

We waited again, both to give him time to move away from the trail and to listen for any nearby family. After 10 minutes, we cautiously proceeded, murmuring and coughing to announce our location should we walk into an alarmed troop of gorillas.

We arrived at a stream cutting across the track, surprising a large heron-like bird from the thick vegetation crowding the bank. Gil was able to identify the bird as a Tiger heron.

Fresh prints of a silverback gorilla, in loose sand. The hind foot, with protruding large toe, between knuckleprints.

Fresh prints of a silverback gorilla in loose sand. The right hind footprint, with protruding large toe, between knuckleprints.

Darkness arrives in this part of the world shortly after 6:00 PM, sooner when in the forest. With a three-kilometer walk before us, we decided to head back. The gorilla zone was now silent, the only evidence being a large set of prints at the edge of the bush. The dark forest before us was a little daunting as we entered, searching again for any beasts we may need to address. Soon we found ourselves following the fresh prints of a large gorilla. Evidently the silverback had circled us and was now somewhere ahead in the forest. Following a gorilla through the forest at dusk is probably not the wisest of plans, but he was between us and the trailhead at this point, so we began murmuring again to give out our location should he be near. Almost on cue, from somewhere to our right, perhaps thirty meters in, the forest erupted with a thrashing of branches and the barking alarm of a gorilla, apparently not happy with us. We froze in our footsteps, hearts racing, to determine if we were going to meet this gorilla face to face, or if he was moving away. Neither happened, so we decided to continue slowly along the trail, talking softly to assure our gorilla that we were moving off.

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