butterflies in the forest

It is early in the rainy season and the forests are lush with new growth. Flower petals and fruits are dropping to the forest floor, no doubt luring in the butterflies. They are everywhere on the trail, congregating in  patches of sunlight that pierce the canopy, scattering through branches above. Most are visible as a prism of color fleeing along the trail before me. Some float as if lighter than air, the delicate flutter of their wings like a falling leaf carried on a light breeze. Others dart across the forest floor, racing from one dapple of sunlight to the next.

A blue-striped swallowtail shimmers under the sun at the edge of the forest, hovering for a sip of nectar but rarely stopping for a rest. Blues, greens and browns seem to be the popular forest butterfly colors, though some are creamy-white. Depending on the angle of reflected sun, some have a metallic flash that pulsates blue to green, or violet to blue as they flutter through the sun’s rays.  Some with dazzling white bars and spots, and almost always something new I haven’t seen before.

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traffic alert: Gamba

Traffic (consisting of one oncoming car) came to a standstill on Saturday when Rabi the elephant decided to cross the road. Why did the elephant cross the road? Perhaps you can ask him. After Rabi crossed the road, the car slowly began approaching. This was not to Rabi’s liking, who turned and stood facing the car directly, causing the car to stop abruptly and begin accelerating in reverse. There will be no mistaking the body language of Rabi.

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gorilla family

Mother gorilla with infant pass quickly along a forest trail

9:43 on the morning of September 23, a path comes to life along the edge of a swamp forest near Gamba, Gabon. A haze of morning sun filters softly through the canopy as a mother gorilla appears for a brief instant, cruising along a forest path, her infant perched on her shoulders. Obscured by thick vegetation, another gorilla passes by in the distance, following the course of a stream. The mother is moving quickly and is soon followed by a second mother and infant heading in the same direction through the forest.

Two days later, gorillas moving in the light of early evening.

An encounter between a juvenile and silverback gorilla.

Two days later, 5:28 in the evening, as shadows overtake the forest floor, the gorillas reappear. Likely the same family, they amble along this path near the stream. The mother and infant are first to record on the stealth camera, now operating in the deepening shadows with infra-red illumination. Another possible mother appears, followed closely by a juvenile. A large silverback cuts into the scene from below, and turns to sit facing the camera. In front of the sitting silverback, an infant trips past in a blur of dark hair, perhaps feeling vulnerable without mother nearby. For nearly a minute the silverback sits, appearing to be interested in a piece of vegetation, smelling or tasting a twig as another possible young male follows him into view. The silverback covers his face with an enormous hand, stretches his left leg, then appears to fixate on something in the direction of the camera. Perhaps he has something to say to the young gorilla as it pauses below the camera, appearing to look or listen to some detail in the forest. The young gorilla continues on, cutting wide behind the silverback. Once the gorilla is out of view, the silverback rises, shuffling along the trail, to be followed a few seconds later by a mother with infant riding high on her shoulders, bringing up the rear. The forest path returns to quiet in the fading light, the singsong of nearby stream trickling through the background. And nearby, a family of at least nine gorillas are likely searching out their nests for the night.

sitting silverback gorilla

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caterpillar

A caterpillar roaming through the back garden, in screaming pink. About 10 centimeters in length,  it is sporting a serious set of horns. Formidable!

Some creatures effectively advertise “do not touch”.

 

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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 glimpse of the White-crested hornbill sailing over the track, a black bird with unusually long white-tipped tail, spotted white wings and shaggy white crest. Also seen on this day, 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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