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African emerald cuckoo. In the past four years, I have never seen more than a glimpse of this elusive bird, often hearing its melody in the tree canopies. They blend in perfectly with the greens and yellows of leaves. If by chance I spot one, it is in flight from its perch, the metallic blue-green of wings vibrating in the sunlight, contrasting sharply with a deep citron-yellow breast.
And so, it was a rewarding morning when a pair of brilliant males flew into the garden, announcing their arrival with a piercing yodel-like melody. I have heard this before, so I was out of doors in a flash. They stayed in the garden for several hours, sometimes soaring directly above my head, other times leading me to a mimosa bush, or nauclea tree, as though waiting for me to catch up; hopping into view, giving me a look, then off to the next tree. Our gardener found my obsession to photograph them amusing, and when I lost track of the pair, he took pride in searching them out. Without doubt, one of the most enjoyable (and long awaited) photographic experiences I have had here in Yenzi.
A trip to Vera Plaine to place a camera trap was Paul’s idea. He had happened across an animal den in the forest in the week previous, and, not knowing what creature was occupying, thought a camera monitoring the entrance might settle the mystery.
Paul, with daughters Eline and Amber, and myself got an early start on December 31st, arriving shortly after 9am. The forest was buzzing with insects. An immense Nephila spider hung in a web alongside the trail into the forest.
After setting the camera to monitor the mystery den, we wandered a trail for an hour before returning to savanna to look for butterflies.
Good spotting by Eline and Amber discovered a tiny scorpion in the leaf litter beneath our feet, along with various beetles, crickets and grasshoppers hidden in the vegetation. Six hours after we left the forest, a lone chimpanzee would record as it passed the camera, moving through the forest we explored earlier in the day.
Later that night, and throughout the two weeks of camera activity, a Giant pouched rat with family solved the den mystery. An impressive rat, this one looked to be at least a third of a meter in length with a long tail adding another third-meter. The “pouch” refers to large cheek pouches used to carry food to their dens for storage. It was most active in the dark of night, from 2am to 5am, scuttling about in the surrounding forest understory, reshaping its burrow, cleaning itself. It appeared to have a mate and possibly one or two smaller pups scampering in and out of the burrow.
A brush-tailed porcupine wandered through, 4:40am, early in the morning of January 2nd. Later in the week, the rat darted quickly into its burrow as three elephants wandered through shortly before 11pm. A little Blue duiker passed by on a sunny morning. A solitary chimpanzee or gorilla ambled past, 7:35am on the morning of the 8th, hard to identify through a rain-spattered lens.
Most impressive was a band of 22 gorillas that recorded on the camera in the late afternoon of the 5th of January. It appeared two silverbacks were in the group, and at least 4 babies riding mother’s shoulders.
It was a day for hornbill spotting. A walk in the forest started with a visit from the Red-billed dwarf hornbill. It seemed to show some curiosity as I passed by on the trail beneath, dropping down from the canopy, then fluttering back, then returning for another look. I have read they hang out with primates, waiting in the wings for the insects and lizards disturbed as the monkeys feed through a forest. When it chose a perch in the sun, its bill glowed translucent red as if illuminated from within.
Later that afternoon a pair of Piping hornbills sailed by over the savanna, their scimitar bills bright yellow in the sunlight. Two Pied hornbills followed a few minutes later on wings banded in black and white. As the shadows darkened the forest, a shy White-crested hornbill crossed the trail before me, its brilliant white crest, white-tipped wings and long tail flashing into the muted forest. And I could hear the rusted-hinge cries of a pair of Black-casqued hornbills in the canopy of a distant forest. Not until driving home did I spot a pair of these large hornbills cruising above a forest in the evening sky.
A tiny flash of iridescence disappeared into the leaves across the garden. About the size of a sunbird, a tiny kingfisher perched in the shadows, tipping its head every few seconds as it surveyed the garden for crawling insects. A minute later it darted out to snatch some creature from a tangle of groundcover, finding a new perch on a thorned branch, the diffuse sunlight illuminating the brilliant blue, violet and rust plumage as it sat smart in the green of the lime tree.
Steve and I arrived late morning at Jardin des Elephants, one of the beaches north of Gamba, south of Sette Cama along the Gabonese coast. The beach was particularly wide at low tide, barely a whisper of surf washing ashore. Stepping out of the vegetation, I surprised an adult monitor lizard, nearly 1.5 meters long, sunning on the slope to beach. It sprinted across the 40 meters of sand to the sea, then proceeded to trudge slowly along the water’s edge. I quickly returned to retrieve my camera and gave chase, running up the beach to intercept should it make a dash for the forest. Circling to the front, I was able to approach until it reluctantly headed into the surf, disappearing out to sea. By the time I returned to car, it was on the beach once again. I returned more carefully and was able to approach within several meters. It showed no further interest in the sea and sat patiently, though perhaps a bit annoyed, while I made a few pictures.
The gurgling and splashing was coming from the confluence of the Ngove and Eshira Rivers in front of Akaka Camp. We could see a disturbance in the water across the river, like a barrel bobbing into the current. Soon, a trunk appeared, snaking above the surface, and the amorphous shape began to make sense of an elephant. He was up to his ears, submerged in river. In no great hurry to make his way across, he would occasionally plunge completely underwater, only to resurface several meters closer.
Seeing so little of this elephant made me think it was a juvenile, but as it emerged onto the riverbank, it became clear that it was a very large elephant. Plodding up the embankment, it was completely calm and relaxed. I believe it noticed us on the edge of Camp, but the wind must have been in our favor, for it busied itself snuffling up the ozouga fruits dropped beneath the fruiting trees, slowly working its way along the trail before disappearing into the forest.
Once again, I had fallen behind the safari through the forest, searching out some detail in the canopy above. Ange suddenly appeared at my side, whispering an urgent “Allez! Allez! Elephant venir!”
The silence of an elephant in the forest is astounding. An elephant materialized from behind one of the massive trees not more than 30 meters from where I stood. The detail I had seen in the canopy no longer held any interest as we gauged the intention of the elephant and searched our exit strategy. Not yet aware of our presence, the elephant turned onto the trail before us. Suddenly it froze, as it noticed us moving out of its way. The elephant’s focus honed in on our position and with a snort and flap of ears, feigned a tentative mock charge before crashing off back into the forest.
Moukalaba-Doudou National Park. We had just crossed the Mbane River, keeping to the grassy banks to avoid the crush of vegetation, when guides Pie, Ange, and Jet quietly motioned us forward. A female Nile crocodile was sunning on her nest about 15 meters before us, as yet unaware of our presence.
Nearly 4 meters in length, she was impressive even while partially hidden in the grass. As we carefully approached, she became aware of us and with a sudden explosion of action she lunged for the river in a spray of sand, diving from the meter-high bank with a tremendous splash. We followed the surge of her movement beneath the water as she headed upstream until the river current erased any trace of her presence. The next river crossing was slightly more apprehensive; we were all eyes searching the depths, imagining her barreling through the water in our direction.