Rosy Bee-eater Merops malimbicus, Sette Cama, near Gamba, Gabon
Despite being politically stable, sparsely populated and possessing large tracts of undisturbed habitat, Gabon is far from realising its potential and deserved status as a premier birding and wildlife destination. Perhaps its three most prohibitive qualities are (i) the paucity of information on travelling in Gabon, (ii) the cost of travelling there - Gabon targets almost exclusively high-end tourism, with no official campsites in the entire country - and (iii) the fact that it is completely Francophone, a deterrent to many English-only speaking birders. The first of these - and surely the most significant - is slowly being remedied with the publication of a new travel guide dedicated to the country (part of the Bradt guide series), the publication of Nik Borrow and Ron Demey’s excellent guide to the birds of western Africa and an increase in both private and commercial bird-watching tours. The latter two aspects, however, are not set to change, and independent, budget-conscious, Anglophone travellers will continue to find Gabon challenging. However, those who make the effort to travel here will be rewarded richly.
So, what then does Gabon have to offer? Apart from possessing a relatively good transport and accommodation infrastructure, Gabon plays host to the best lowland forest birding in Africa. The Ivindo River Basin in the north-east of the country holds the most species-rich lowland forests in Africa. At the small Ipassa Research Station, an Important Bird Area a couple of kilometres from the large town of Makokou, 190 Guinea-Congo Forest biome-restricted species have been recorded, the highest total for any IBA. Here, and at other spectacular forest sites such as Lopé National Park, particularly around Mikongo Camp, and along the coast, such as in the Gamba-Area complex, one may find enigmatic forest species with greater regularity than in other areas of Africa. More widespread species include Congo Serpent Eagle Dryotriorchis spectabilis, Vermiculated Fishing-owl Scotopelia bouvieri, Olive Bostrychia olivacea and Spot-breasted Ibis B. rara, Hartlaub’s Duck Pteronetta hartlaubii, Latham's Forest Francolin Francolinus lathami, Bates’s Nightjar Caprimulgus batesi, White-crested Hornbill Tockus albocristatus, Fiery-breasted Bush-Shrike Malacanotus cruentus, Lyre-tailed Honeyguide Melichneutes robustus, Blue Cuckoo-Shrike Coracina azurea, Forest Swallow Hirundo fuliginosa, Long-tailed Hawk Urotriorchis macrourus, Rachel’s Malimbe Malimbus racheliae, Rufous-bellied Helmet-Shrike Prionops rufiventris and Black Guineafowl Agelastes niger. Verreaux's Batis Batis minima, Gosling’s Apalis Apalis goslingi, Yellow-throated Cuckoo Chrysococcyx flavigularis, Yellow-capped Weaver Ploceus dorsomaculatus, Grey-necked Picathartes Picathartes oreas and Plumed Guineafowl Guttera plumifera, for example, are more localised, and tend to be more frequent towards the north-east of the country. Dja River Warbler Bradypterus grandis, known from only a handful of sites in southern Cameroon and northern Gabon, is found in some of the marshes in Lopé National Park. Other forest specials that occur, but that are rarely seen, include Sandy Scops Owl Otus icterorhynchus, Maned Owl Jubula lettii and Shelley’s Eagle Owl Bubo shelleyi, White-crested Tiger Heron Tigriornis leucolopha, Grey-throated Rail Canirallus oculeus, Eastern Wattled Cuckoo-Shrike Lobotos oriolinus, Tessmann’s Flycatcher Muscicapa tessmanni, Red-crowned Malimbe Malimbus coronatus and Grey Ground-Thrush Zoothera princei.
Perhaps unexpectedly, grasslands are also a prominent feature of Gabon. Three types of grassland-dominated habitat occur: (i) short-grass plains with very few trees, on sandy soils, along the coast; (ii) tall-grass savannas scattered with stunted trees, around the centre of the country, such as around the northern section of Lopé National Park; and (iii) the Batéké plateau, with habitats ranging from rolling, grassed hills to dense, stunted, broad-leaved woodland. In all areas these habitats are juxtaposed to forests, with a rich diversity of bird species occurring within a small area. The regal Black-headed Bee-eater Merops breweri favours the interface of these habitats, hunting along the forest edge and nesting in adjacent grasslands, where one may find also Forbes’s Plover Charadrius forbesi and Black-chinned Quailfinch Ortygospiza gabonensis. Larks, pipits and cisticolas form a conspicuous component of the grassland avifauna, especially at Gabon’s most important grassland site, the Batéké plateau situated on the country’s south-eastern border with Congo. Here one may find Dambo Cisticola Cisticola dambo as well as Short-tailed Pipit Anthus brachyurus amongst the numerous other more common and widespread species. Other specials of note here include Finsch’s Francolin Francolinus finschi, Congo Moor-Chat Myrmecocichla tholloni, Black-rumped Buttonquail Turnix hottentotus and, in the vicinity of wetlands, Marsh Widowbird Euplectes hartlaubi and Locust-Finch Paludipasser locustella (rare). Patches of stunted broad-leaved woodland blanket some of the rolling hills. Here one may find the rare Black-chinned Weaver Ploceus nigrimentus or unusual Black-collared Bulbul Neolestes torquatus. Small patches of forest play host to Angola Batis Batis minulla and Gorgeous Bush-Shrike Telophorus viridis.
Perhaps the most varied part of Gabon is along its coast, where the above mentioned habitats are supplemented by large coastal lagoons, mangroves, sandy shorelines and thickets with numerous palms. Here, watch for Damara Tern Sterna balaenarum, a non-breeding visitor mainly for May to October, many millions of over-wintering shorebirds (particularly at the IBAs of Akanda and the Ogooué delta and Mandji island) and, in palm thickets, Loanga Weaver Ploceus subpersonatus and Rufous-tailed Palm-Thrush Cichladusa ruficauda. African Finfoot Podica senegalensis may be common in the quiet lagoon backwaters. Most notable, however, is that this area is an important breeding site for African River Martin Pseudochelidon eurystomina and Rosy Bee-eater Merops malimbicus. Tens to hundreds of thousands of both species arrive here in August or September to breed along the sandy coast. When the main rains arrive in February, both species disperse inland, the aforementioned disappearing into the unknown depths of the Congo Basin.
The last feature of Gabon that deserves special mention, are the numerous large rivers that flow across the country, the largest being the Ogooué. Exposed sandbanks are the best places to search for Grey Pratincole Glareola cinerea, African Skimmer Rynchops flavirostris and White-headed Lapwing Vanellus albiceps. These rivers also form an important migratory route for African River Martins Pseudochelidon eurystomina which can be seen here in their millions on passage.
A handful of sites are becoming well known. Those birders wishing to make the greatest contribution would do well to visit new areas which are likely to be just as rewarding. The options are almost endless.
The aim of this document is to provide a summary of Gabon and its birds for birders interested in the country and potentially planning a visit. It is intended to add new information as it becomes available. As such, readers are welcome to submit contributions by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.