Working for birds in Africa

A Birder's Guide to Gabon, West Africa

Sat, 29/12/2012 - 14:43 -- abc_admin
Dave Sargeant, published privately, 1993. 100 pp, £11.50.
pp 49-50

Very little has been written about ornithology in Gabon in recent years apart from Brosset & Erard's Les Oiseaux des regions forestières du nord-est Gabon and occasional papers in Malimbus and in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists'Club. This is in spite of the fact that Gabon contains some of the most accessible lowland rainforest in the whole of west and central Africa. It also has one of the richest avifaunas in Africa, with over 430 species having been recorded in the Ivindo basin of the north-east alone.

Dave Sargeant has spent several years (1988-1992) living in Gabon and this guide is based on his experiences during that time. Much of his time has been spent in the Gamba area of coastal Gabon, but he has visited several other areas during his time in the country and these areas are fully documented in the guide.

Apart from providing the mandatory site guide and systematic checklist, the guide includes sections on travel to and around the country, visas, money, climate, health, references and suggested itineraries. It also includes identification notes on difficult species/groups as diverse as ibises, accipiters, greenbuls, 'grey' flycatchers and batis. Given the absence of a high quality field guide to the region, this is very welcome. In fact the notes on greenbuls are a small field guide in their own right, running to five and a half pages. During a trip to Gabon in August 1993, these notes were very useful, the only apparent discrepancy being the description of the call of Grey-throated Tit-Flycatcher Myioparus griseigularis as a 'very thin, high pitched wheeze' whereas we regarded it as a strident four note whistle. A full list of all species recorded in Gabon completes the publication.

The main parts of the guide are the 40-page site guide and the 39-page systematic list. The site guide is well written and includes 13 maps. In my experience, the maps were generally accurate although we did experience some problems following the 'New Canyons Track' shown on the Lekoni map. The site accounts give directions to the site, details of the species likely to be seen at various times of the year and a list of species for the site. One notable error in the site guides is the inclusion of Rufous-tailed Palm-Thrush Cichladusa ruficauda on the species list for Makokou, this should refer to Red-tailed Ant-thrush Neocossyphus rufus. At times the descriptions of road conditions appear overly cautious although this is probably the result of our visit being in the dry season and also the result of road improvements over the past year. In addition some of the descriptions of forest types were at variance with what we found, at least one 'swamp forest' being decidedly dry and one area described as 'some of the best I have seen in Gabon' being anything but. The most unfortunate error in the site guide relates to the Makokou area where car hire is available (from M'Passa reserve) considerably cheaper than at Franceville, and where it is possible to stay in the chalets at M'Passa so long as you are prepared to spend several hours tracking down the caretaker. It's well worth the effort! It should perhaps also be noted here that the village of Olindi referred to in the account of the road from Franceville to Makokou is actually the village of Zoolende.

The systematic checklist which follows the site guides provides details of the status of those species recorded by Dave during his time in Gabon and is naturally biased towards the Gamba area where he was based. Birders visiting Gabon on a 'full blown birding trip' can expect to make a significant contribution to our knowledge of the distribution of birds in Gabon especially if they spend a lot of time birding in the east. To quote two examples where our experience in August was at variance with the information provided by Dave, Narrow-tailed Starling Poeoptera lugubris is recorded as 'rare in forested areas', Dave having only seen the species at two sites in five years. We recorded the species at two 'new' sites in the east. Red-throated Swallow Hirundo rufigula is noted as 'Common throughout'. We recorded it at only one site and our experience mirrored that of Tom Gullick et al. on a trip in August 1991, suggesting that the species is not common in Gabon throughout the year.

To sum up, despite its faults, this guide is the essential reference for anyone planning a trip to Gabon, and should also be read by anyone with an interest in the distribution and identification of west African birds. Gabon is an exciting country where some of the most sought after species in Africa e.g. African River Martin Pseudochelidon eurystomina and Black-headed Bee-eater Merops breweri can be found. I hope that this guide will encourage more people to visit the country and, in turn, increase our knowledge of the birds of this region.

Richard Webb

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