exploring Nyanga River track

A canopy of twisted limbs above a dry lagoon along the road to Nyanga River.

Shivangi studies the landscape of a dry forest lagoon.

A photographic trek to the forests and savannas near Nyanga River with Shweta and Shivangi on Thursday September 25 revealed a landscape of visual opportunities. The sand track leaves the tarmac halfway between Gamba and Mayonami, winding across savannas, through forests and on to the sea. Signs of wildlife were abundant, including a hive of wild bees in the forest, recent prints of a gorilla crossing the track, and prints of elephant, buffalo, sitatunga, red river hog.

Corpse of Yellow-backed duiker, a broken snare on hind leg.

A sad reminder of the thoughtless suffering and waste inflicted by humanity, a yellow-backed duiker corpse trailed a broken length of trap-wire before departing to the spirit world.

The lagoons are mostly dry at this time, creating an open forest floor beneath a cathedral-like arch of forest canopy. An enchanting landscape.

Photographing among a labyrinth of trees, Shweta makes adjustments to her camera.

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African cuckoo

A mutual curiosity allowed me to indirectly approach an African cuckoo.

Another beautiful bird caught my eye while walking through a wooded savanna. In flight it looked like a small falcon with pointed wings and rapid wingbeat, gliding low above the savanna grasses. It returned to its perch and by approaching at an angle, I was able to get fairly close. Its bill wasn’t curved sharply like a falcon and it didn’t have talons like a predator. Later, with Borrow and Demy’s Birds of Western Africa, I was able to identify the African cuckoo, another dove-sized cuckoo, mostly grey and white with a yellow, black-tipped bill and yellow rings around the eyes. Its range excludes Gabon. I guess nobody told this one.

African cuckoo, Cuculus gularis, perched above a wooded savanna near the coastal plain.

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Black-bellied bustard

Exploring Vera Plaines last Sunday, Paul and I came across a Black-bellied bustard sneaking through the savanna. It is a large bird about the size of a turkey. She seemed to prefer running away and hiding, rather than taking flight. Being female, she possibly had a nest nearby.

Black-bellied bustard, Lissotis melanogaster

Difficult to see when she wasn’t moving, her brown and buff camouflage blended in perfectly with the dried savanna grasses.


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barracuda

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mangrove

Scientists and Nationals gather to learn more about the natural environment of a mangrove swamp.

Red mangrove, Rhizophora racemosa

Cool temperatures, low humidity, and light, hazy clouds typical of Gabon’s dry season mark the beginning of a pleasant Saturday morning as we caravan north to a mangrove habitat near Pointe Pedras. The mangroves border lagoons along the coast. Those growing before us are red mangroves with the characteristic stilt roots. They are growing in sandy soil, inundated in the rainy season but now at the end of the dry season, the water depth is not much greater than mid-calf at the study site. Several scientists have arrived from the USA and India, and are interested in the carbon-storing capacity of mangroves in the region. They have hired guides and other Gabonese Nationals to assist with marking transects, measuring soil composition, soil depth, and tree densities.

A student from Oregon State University takes measurements from the canopy of a red mangrove

I had no idea a mangrove swamp could be so beautiful. These are relatively young mangroves, with space to move among them. Schools of small fish dart through the shallows as we measure transects, hiding among the stilt roots. Tracks of sitatunga, hippopotamus and elephant seem to suggest these animals use the mangrove swamp to move between the lagoons, forests and savannas making up this diverse habitat.

Eighteen of us are here today. Quite an impact on the delicate nature of this habitat. I look forward to returning in the future to walk quietly among the mangroves, hoping to catch a glimpse of the wildlife passing through.

 

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breakfast with Paradise flycatcher

African Paradise flycatcher

Lisa and I have been fortunate the past few mornings to share breakfast with a Paradise flycatcher.  He has been collecting little insects from the trees in front of our patio, then fluttering off to presumably feed a nest of little flycatchers, always heading off in the same direction.

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only for a short time…

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changing seasons

We are well into the dry season, and have even had a few light rains to hold the dust down.  Humidity has been very low and temperatures a little chilly for equatorial Africa.

A tree flowers in a patch of coastal forest.

I have noticed on my walks through the forest that leaves have been dropping, making it difficult to walk quietly.  A few trees have been flowering, the smell intoxicating.  Butterflies have been busy collecting nectar when they aren’t basking in the warmth of the sun.

A tiny butterfly with elaborate swallowtails rests on a leaf before dashing off in a flash of brilliant blue.

The dry season is nearing the end of the cycle, and rain will soon return to replenish the parched landscape.

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Levaillant’s cuckoo

Swooping down over the trail before me, an unusual bird silently glides on ahead into the scrub.  As I search for its perch, I see the hopping form through branches.  It pops into the open, sitting for a moment, and a photograph, before launching itself back down the track and into the heavy coastal scrub forest.

Levaillant’s cuckoo, Oxylophus levaillantii

I am able to get a good look at Levaillant’s cuckoo, a dove-sized bird with a long tail, two wing patches that flash white when it flies, and a shaggy crested head.  This one looks like a juvenile molting to adult colors, hence the mottled patchwork of charcoal and gunmetal gray plumage.   I think I saw one when I first arrived in Gabon years ago, in the same patch of forest, and have been watching for one ever since.  They seem to be a secretive, quiet bird.

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just passing through

Branches snapping from deep within a forest full of shadows stop me in my tracks.  I try to pinpoint the source and direction of a likely elephant as a flock of parrots disturbed a hundred meters ahead take to wing, squawking and whistling in a circle above.  The chip-ch-chip of a scuttling band of moustached monkeys rustle through the canopy on my right in a shudder of branches, moving like wind through the trees.  No time like now to assess my surroundings.  Several trails meander through the forest, a sure sign that elephants have been passing through.  Trails that become options if I suddenly need to make a quick departure, the obvious problem being these trails are used by elephants, and I have no idea where they may lead.  Listening to the oncoming crackle in the understory, I slip behind some thick vegetation, eyes straining, heart pounding, searching for the first sign of movement.

Just passing through. An elephant crosses a trail in front of a camera trap, mid-morning.

Suddenly, silence.  A distant sea tumbles into the void.  Two hornbills drum a reverberating course beneath clouds hanging heavy in the dry season.  I try to imagine the elephant, pausing in suspicious interest, testing the air with trunk raised, ears alert, a pair of yellow eyes probing forest left to right.  I fear my breathing will give me away and try holding my breath but the blood coursing through my ears sounds like an oncoming adrenaline train.

A snort, more like air escaping a tire puncture as the elephant clears scent from trunk, followed by the penetrating rumble of low growl that seems to rise omnipresent from the very forest floor.  I feel like I have been busted.  A tentative creaking of bush suddenly erupts in a crash as saplings writhe beneath a forest canopy.  Lianas twist and spiral, wrenching a shower of leaves from high above.  Beneath all this ruckus is an elephant I can be sure.  The limited visibility of thick forest obscures the details.  I read the torment of vegetation lashing wildly under a bulldoze of moving elephant.  The elephant crosses the trail twenty meters before me, a flash of ivory stuttering through occluded light followed by a fragmented wall of gray. My eyes are riveted to the movement, my feet ready to spring into action should elephant veer in my direction.

Numerous elephant trails in this forest suggest a likelihood of close encounter, in this case, recorded by camera trap.

Today the elephant continues bearing west, exploding vegetation marking its progress until some 60 meters off to my left the silence returns.  My piqued imagination sees it turning to circle back my way and I remain frozen in my tracks, listening for a second charge.  A long, anxious minute later, in the midst of an otherworldly silence, I hear the slow, padded footsteps of an elephant moving, receding among the shadows of the forest, swallowed by whispers from the sea.

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