Working for birds in Africa

Flora and fauna of the Odzala National Park, Congo

Fri, 12/28/2012 - 14:57 -- abc_admin
R. J. Dowsett and F. Dowsett-Lemaire (eds) 1997. Tauraco Research Report No. 6. 135 pp. Pbk. Available from Aves, Maison de l'Environnement, Rue de la Régence 36, B-4000 Liège, Belgium. UK£12, US$30, FF100 or BEF500 (incl. p&p). Payments by cheque or bank draft to "Tauraco Press".
pages 67 - 68

Until recently, Congo-Brazzaville ranked among the ornithologically least explored countries in Africa: in 1989 a very incomplete list published 40 years previously was still the principal reference. That year, however, the Dowsetts started their studies which were to add greatly to our knowledge of the country's avifauna. Their results were presented in Research Reports Nos. 2 and 4 , published by their own Tauraco Press (reviewed in Bull. ABC 3: 136), and in several ornithological periodicals, including this Bulletin (Bull. ABC 3: 134-135). The present report is thus the third on Congo in the series. This time, the authors have focused their attention on the hitherto ornithologically unexplored north of the country. Odzala National Park, a forest and savannah mosaic 3,000 km2 in extent, was established as long ago as 1935, but its natural history had remained almost completely unknown. It is one of seven parks and reserves, in seven countries of west-central Africa, being aided by the European Union-funded project Ecofac (Programme de Conservation et Utilisation Rationnelle des Ecosystemes Forestiers en Afrique Centrale). The project was started in 1992 and Bob Dowsett took over as its manager in November 1993. His wife, Françoise, and he carried out field surveys from December 1993 to the end of his contract, in April 1995. Birds were not the only object of their studies: the report also contains chapters on vegetation, mammals, butterflies and park management. These are written either in English or French, with a summary in the other language. All chapters on birds are in English. Although the Dowsetts are mentioned as editors of this report, they are actually also its authors: only one chapter, on small mammals, bears the name of a co-author. What makes a report like this so interesting is that, like its forebears, it not only contains annotated species lists, which are interesting enough in themselves, but also numerous notes on little-known vocalisations, behaviour and habitat preferences, Here, there are no arcane statistical analyses which, however useful, can be so off-putting by reducing fascinating complex behaviour to dry formulae. Data on birds were gathered by long-term observations and mist-netting. No shortcuts were taken: although 10-minute point counts were also carried out, the authors experienced that these were rather unproductive, due to the low detectability of most species in the tropics. Several vocalisations were recorded for the first time, details of which are given. If my count is correct, the studies documented in this report have added another 59 species to the continuously expanding Congo list. Among the most interesting finds was the unexpected discovery of three species associated with mid-altitude or even montane forest elsewhere, and which may be relicts of cooler Quarternary periods here: Grey-headed Broadbill Smithornis sharpei, Uganda Woodland Warbler Phylloscopus budongoensis and Black-throated Apalis Apalis jacksoni. The song of the Uganda Woodland Warbler in Odzala proved similar to the recording of an unidentified Phylloscopus made in 1977 by Christian Erard in north-east Gabon, thus solving a long-standing mystery. Black-throated Apalis, which was locally common, appears to be part of a small and isolated population occurring in southern Cameroon and (recently discovered) in north-eastern Gabon (see Bull. ABC 1: 29). Breeding male Black-backed Cisticolas Cisticola eximius appeared to have golden-yellow instead of rufous crowns and rumps and, moreover, songs that differed from those of the nearest known populations in Chad and Nigeria: here was an undescribed, very distinctive race. I was surprised to learn that Odzala still had lions, the only resident population remaining in the savannahs of west-central Africa. Sadly, their numbers are very low and decreasing. To add to their plight, two of these lions had to be shot, after having killed and eaten a man. The account of this incident reads like a thriller! The report contains additional chapters presenting the first annotated birdlists for two other areas of northern and central Congo, the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park and the Lefini Reserve. In the forested Nouabale-Ndoki, FDL discovered Barred Owlet Glaucidium capense, one of the rare populations presently known to occur in forest, and the unobtrusive and little known Sandy Scops Owl Otus icterorrhynchus. Rare species of the Guinea-Congo forest such as Green Ibis Bostrychia olivacea, Forest Wood-hoopoe Phoeniculus castaneiceps and Preuss's Golden-backed Weaver Ploceus preussi, were encountered at several localities. The small Bob-tailed Weaver Brachycope anomala, an aberrant Congo Basin endemic formerly known in Congo from only one locality, was an abundant breeder at Ouesso. In the Lefini Reserve, situated on the Téké (or Batéké) plateau, several species of conservation concern were observed, including Finsch's Francolin Francolinus finschi, Congo Moor Chat Myrmcocichla tholloni and Black-chinned Weaver Ploceus nigrimentum. A sighting of a Congo Black-bellied Sunbird Nectarinia congoensis, a Congo River endemic, suggests that this little-known species may be more widespread than previously known. Also found was the rare and local Brazza 's Martin Phedina brazzae, the authors suggest that it should be looked for near large rivers and lakes between the Congo River and Djambala. This report is a model of its kind: well-researched, highly readable and well-produced (with a simple, though clear and pleasant layout, and adequately illustrated with maps and sonograms). It should, moreover, be appreciated that the authors have made the results of their field studies so readily available. Highly recommended to anyone with a serious interest in African birds.

Ron Demey

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