The rainforest camp at Mikongo, in Lopé National Park, forms the basis for one of the overseas conservation programmes run by the Zoological Society of London. I spent five nights at the camp in February 2008 as part of a site visit by ZSL directors. This report describes my birding experiences on this trip.
Gabon is one of the easier central African countries to visit. GDP is relatively high, and while little of the oil and mineral wealth filters down to the general population, there is little obvious extreme poverty, and the infrastructure is reasonably good. Moreover, Gabon still has extensive tracts of relatively unspoilt habitat, and a network of national parks. These house a good range of charismatic mammal species, including gorillas, chimpanzees, leopards, and forest elephants, as well as high bird diversity. The potential for ecotourism in Gabon is therefore high, but the commercial outfits currently in place tend to aim at the higher end of the market. It is not a cheap country to visit, although arguably the wildlife viewing possibilities make it worth the money.
One of the easiest of the Gabonese national parks to access is Lopé. There is a direct train to Lopé town from the capital, Libreville, which is scheduled to take 5 hours. The park itself is very diverse, with a bird list that currently stands at just over 400 species. The north of the park is a matrix of savannah and gallery forest, which grades into continuous tropical rainforest in the southern part of the park. This forest continues south largely unbroken to the border with Congo.
There is a variety of opportunities for wildlife viewing in the Lopé area. In the town itself is the Lopé hotel, a series of bungalows in a stunning setting in landscaped grounds on the banks of the river Ogoué. A hotel vehicle meets the train, and a night here would allow you to get to grips with some of the common birds of the savannah area, as well as river specialists like white-headed lapwing and rock pratincole. The hotel also organises late afternoon safaris into the park, which provide probably the best chance to see forest elephant and forest buffalo. You could take the safari the evening of departure if leaving on a night train (which leaves Lopé for Libreville at 0130), and then pass the rest of the evening in the restaurant and bar there. However, the safaris are frustrating trips for birders as, unless you are the only customers, the vehicle is unlikely to stop for birds. Also, the guide was terrible.
A better bet is probably the mandrill safari run by the Wildlife Conservation Society out of Lopé. WCS have radio-collared mandrills here, which allows them to show you the animals without too much difficulty. If the troop is in gallery forest, the views can be excellent. One of our group took this trip, and saw a solitary chimpanzee as well as the mandrills. She isn’t a birder, though, so I don’t know how the trip rates for this activity.
My trip was specifically to visit Mikongo, however, and the logistics of the trip meant that birding opportunities in the northern sector of the park were frustratingly limited. Mikongo is set in the rainforest section, 12 km along an entrance road from the ‘main road’ south from Lopé. Staff from the camp meet you off the train, or alternatively you could arrange to be picked up from the Lopé Hotel. It is a 90-minute drive from Lopé to Mikongo, mainly through the savannah. I’m sure the driver (Jean-Remy) would stop for birds if you asked him.
Mikongo is an active research camp under the auspices of ZSL, but also has capacity for a maximum of 12 tourists, accommodated in six bungalows. None of these bungalows is more than 6 metres from the forest, and all have verandahs that look out onto it. All are also en suite, with netted off sleeping areas, and were very comfortable. There is also a communal hut with seating and eating areas, which looks over the forest. Mikongo serves plentiful good, simple food, and filters water as an alternative to the bottled variety (although you can have this if you prefer – we drank the tap water in Libreville without problems). The camp has electricity, and while there are no power points in the bungalows, one can recharge camera batteries and other electrical devices in the camp office. There is also a fantastic natural swimming pool and Jacuzzi about 400 metres from camp, so bring trunks to cool off after long walks. The camp is busiest during European holidays, but there is currently little problem getting accommodated there. Unabashed plug: profits help support ZSL’s field conservation programmes.
The main draw for tourists to Mikongo is the local gorillas. These are not habituated to people, although a plan for this is under assessment. Gorillas are nevertheless encountered reasonably regularly, making a sighting a real possibility. A variety of other mammal species can be seen with greater or lesser probability (see species list below). The main draw for the birder is the grey-necked picathartes. In February 2008 there were several nests active and we saw this species with ease. At other times of year they are more elusive.
There is an extensive network of trails in the forest. Although it is possible to visit Mikongo as an independent traveller, a guide is mandatory in the forest, and is included in the price (see below). Group size is limited to four tourists plus two guides, although you could ask for a larger group to be taken out if you so desired. However, elephants are common here (indeed, the trail system is largely theirs!), and so smaller groups are preferred for safety reasons. The guides have excellent eyes and ears, and know the mammals very well. They are also superb trackers in the event that you encounter recent sign of gorilla. However, they are currently variable in their knowledge of the birds, and it is safer to identify these yourself – there were several occasions where they were clearly wrong. They do know the sites for picathartes at least, and apparently sometimes also roosting sites for owls (e.g. vermiculated fish owl, Fraser’s eagle owl). The guides are also variable in the extent to which they speak English, and some knowledge of French is helpful (indeed, these is true throughout Gabon). Ghislain speaks the best English, and I would recommend asking for him specifically. Nevertheless, the entire staff was a delight during our stay, and customer feedback on them and the camp is uniformly good.
Birding at Mikongo was generally excellent. There were many fruiting bushes, which attracted greenbuls and other species, we encountered a couple of good mixed flocks, and gaps between birds were relatively low for the rainforest. A fruiting bush just outside the communal hut attracted several greenbul species, allowing one to get to grips with this tricky group under ideal viewing conditions (and with a cold drink in hand). Birding was also excellent from the kitchen in the research camp. I used Borrow & Denney (The Birds of Western Africa) for identification, and found it extremely helpful. The camp also had a copy of Christy & Clarke’s Birds of Lopé National Park, which was also useful (albeit in French). Where there was variance between these two books the latter was usually more accurate, but this acted more to confirm rather than to alter identifications made in the field using the former.
Air France operates direct flights from Paris CDG to Libreville, albeit not every day. The flight times mean that travellers from the UK have to take the first connecting flight (0630) to CDG from Heathrow. Gabon Ailrines also flies this route, and much more cheaply. Other options include Air Maroc via Casablanca. A visa is needed and can be bought from the Gabonese embassy in London. You will need to present a yellow fever vaccination certificate on arrival. Gabon and France are in the same time zone. The local currency is the CFA, with an exchange rate of around 1000 to the pound. It is possible to withdraw CFAs from ATMs in Libreville, and some places allow you to pay in Euros. Few places take credit cards, however.
There is one daytime train a week from Libreville to Lopé, on Tuesday, leaving at 0930. Night trains run on three other days, leaving at 2030. The day train allows one to see the countryside and the amount of forest cover, but it is hard to bird from the train. The day train does, however, tend to run more closely to schedule than the night trains. A one-way ticket costs c. CFA 20,000 for a first class seat (or 15,000 for second class – but it’s well worth paying the extra).
Bookings for Mikongo can be made via Mistral Voyages in Libreville, or contact the camp directly via email: email@example.com. A stay costs around £110 per night, including collection, food, accommodation, and afternoon and morning guided forest walks. The standard rules for walking in the rainforest apply – long sleeves, long trousers, plenty of water and insect repellent. Wellies would be good in the wet season, but in February trail shoes were fine. The forest here holds sandflies, tsetse flies, and filarial flies, but in fact was surprisingly bug-free during our visit, which coincided with the short dry season. The biggest problems were with ticks – mainly the tiny pinhead variety, but also some larger ones – and sweat bees. However, these were minor annoyances, and more than compensated for by the absence of mosquitoes and scarcity of other biting insects.
Sunday 10th: Arrived in Libreville at 1830. Dropped the Directors at the Hotel Tropicana, which is near the airport, on the beach, not expensive, and probably the best bet for the first night. Taxis are plentiful at the airport, and cost CFA2000 for most short journeys in Libreville.
Monday 11th: A day of meetings with local NGOs, with few opportunities to bird.
Tuesday 12th: Taxi at 0800 to the station (CFA4000), which is about 40 minutes drive from the city centre. Arrived in Lopé on time at 1430, and decamped to the Lopé Hotel for a cold drink, and to bird the grounds for an hour or so. Then on to Mikongo.
Wednesday 13th: In the forest from 0700 to 1500, visiting the nesting site of the picathartes. Then a swim at the pool to cool off.
Thursday 14th: In the forest from 0700 until 1230, on the trail to the ‘summit’ where there are great views over the canopy (but huge swarms of sweat bees). Evening in Mikongo village meeting the chiefs and watching a demonstration of traditional Gabonese dance.
Friday 15th: Two hours in the forest from 0730. Then to the Lopé Hotel for a lunch meeting, followed by the savannah safari and dinner at the SECG research station. Train back to Libreville (scheduled departure at 0130, actual departure 0230).
Saturday 16th: A day of logistics, trying to organise trips for the coming week to other ecotourism sites in Loango National Park or Langwe Bai. Unfortunately, visitor numbers meant that only two of our party could go on to Loango. My options were to stay in Libreville or return to Mikongo. The choice was not hard.
Sunday 17th: On the evening train to Lopé, which ran three hours late. Arrived at the Lopé Hotel at 0500 on Monday morning.
Monday 18th: An hour birding at the Lopé Hotel before breakfast, then on to Mikongo again. An afternoon walk in the forest with two visiting French tourists.
Tuesday 19th: Four eventful morning hours in the forest, with our path blocked three times by elephants, necessitating hasty retreats. The second time we were close enough for those at the front to see the elephant, and the third encounter required us to run. About ten minutes after this we found a lone silverback gorilla near the trail. Also saw a group of c.30 red river hogs, plus two grey-headed broadbills.
Wednesday 20th: Spent a couple of hours birding from the research camp kitchen area, which has an excellent elevated position looking over the forest. Evening at the SEGC research camp in Lopé National Park.
Thursday 21st: two hours birding in the morning from the terrace at the SEGC camp – a chance to catch up with a few more of the savannah birds. Train to Libreville late afternoon.
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea: One on the savannah safari in Lopé
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis: Common in Libreville
Little Egret Egretta garzetta: Common in Libreville
Hadada Ibis Bostrychia hagedash: Lopé Hotel and savannah areas, and over the forest at Mikongo
Hamerkop Scopus umbretta: One at the swimming pool in Mikongo
Long-tailed Cormorant Phalacrocorax africanus: Libreville
Gymnogene Polyboroides typus: One in Lopé
Palm-nut Vulture Gypohierax angolensis: Two from the road between Lopé and Mikongo, one on the forest at Mikongo, and two in avannah area of Lopé NP
Common Buzzard Buteo buteo: Circling over the Lopé Hotel
African Goshawk Accipiter tachiro: One flew through Mikongo
Scaly Francolin Francolinus squamatus: Two on the main road between Mikongo and Lopé
White-spotted Flufftail Sarothura pulchra: One right by the communal area in camp, lured in by imitating its call
African Crake Crex egregia: One flushed in the savannah area of Lopé NP
African Finfoot Podica senegalensis: One on the river at Mikongo, only 100 metres from the camp
Water Dikkop Burhinus vermiculatus: Several seen on roads in the savannah area of Lopé NP after dark
Rock Pratincole Glareola nuchalis: On the Ogoué River at the Lopé Hotel
White-headed Lapwing Vanellus albiceps: On the Ogoué River at the Lopé Hotel
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola: Libreville
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos: Libreville and on the Ogoué River at the Lopé Hotel
Afep Pigeon Columba unicincta: Seen from Mikongo and in the savannah area of Lopé NP
Feral Pigeon Columba livia: Libreville – the only exotic species seen in Gabon
Red-eyed Dove Streptopelia semitorquata: Common at all sites
African Green Pigeon Treron calvus: Common at Lopé Hotel, in the savannah area of Lopé NP, and in the forest at Mikongo
Tambourine Dove Turtur typanistra: Several seen along the entrance road to Mikongo
Blue-spotted Wood-dove Turtur afer: Several on the road from Lopé to Mikongo
Grey Parrot Psittacus erithacus: Common in the forest at Mikongo and in the savannah area of Lopé NP
Green Tauraco Tauraco persa: One from the bungalow verandah in Mikongo
Great Blue Tauraco Corythaeola cristata: One over the entrance road and a group of three or more in the forest at Mikongo
Senegal Coucal Centropus senegalensis: One from the road between Lopé and Mikongo
European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus: Several seen on roads in the savannah area of Lopé NP after dark
Freckled Nightjar Caprimulgus tristigma: One nesting on the exposed rock at the summit in Mikongo
Square-tailed Nightjar Caprimulgus fossii: One hunting around lights at the station in Libreville
Sabine’s Spinetail Raphidura sabinii: Over the camp at Mikongo
Cassin’s Spinetail Neafrapus cassini: Over the camp and forest at Mikongo
European Swift Apus apus: Over the road from Lopé to Mikongo
Little Swift Apus affinis: Common in open areas and around habitation
Bates’s Swift Apus batesii: Over Mikongo
African Palm Swift Cypsiurus parvus: Common in Libreville and Lopé
Narina’s Trogon Apaloderma narina: Two in the forest at Mikongo
Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis: On the Ogoué River at the Lopé Hotel
Giant Kingfisher Megaceryle maxima: On the Ogoué River at the Lopé Hotel
Woodland Kingfisher Halcyon senegalensis: Common in open areas
Blue-breasted Kingfisher Halcyon malimbica: One in the forest at Mikongo
Rosy Bee-eater Merops malimbicus: Dozens in the savannah area of Lopé NP
Little Bee-eater Merops pusillus: Common in the savannah areas
White-throated Bee-eater Merops bullockoides: Hundreds over the savannah area of Lopé NP. The huge numbers of bee-eaters of three species over the savannah was one of the spectacles of the trip
Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill Tockus camarus: One in the forest at Mikongo
African Pied Hornbill Tockus fasciatus: Common at Mikongo, seen in the camp
Piping Hornbill Bycanistes fistulator: Mikongo
White-thighed Hornbill Bycanistes albotibialis: Mikongo
Black-casqued Hornbill Ceratogymna atrata: Common at Mikongo, though more often heard than seen
White-crested Hornbill Tropicranus albocristatus: One at Mikongo
Yellow-throated Tinkerbird Pogoniulus subsulphureus: One at the Lopé Hotel
Speckled Tinkerbird Pogoniulus scolopaceus: One in the savannah area of Lopé NP
Brown-eared Woodpecker Campethera caroli: One from the communal area at Mikongo
Cardinal Woodpecker Dendropicos fuscescens: One outside the Tropicana Hotel, Libreville
Yellow-crested Woodpecker Dendropicos xantholophus: Two or three in the forest at Mikongo
Grey-headed Broadbill Smithornis sharpei: Two in the forest at Mikongo, including one seen singing on two separate occasions by the summit trail
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica: Common in the savannah area of Lopé NP
Rufous-chested Swallow Hirundo semirufa: One in the savannah area of Lopé NP
Lesser Striped Swallow Hirundo abyssinica: Common at Lopé Hotel and in the savannah area of Lopé NP
Square-tailed Saw-wing Psalidoprocne nitens: Common over the camp at Mikongo
Black Saw-wing Psalidoprocne pristoptera: Several at the Lopé Hotel
Long-legged Pipit Anthus pallidiventris: Common, at Libreville airport, Lopé Hotel and savannah areas
African Pied Wagtail Motacilla aguimp: Common at the Lopé Hotel
Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava: One seen at Lopé Hotel
Yellow-throated Longclaw Macronyx croceus: Common in the savannah area of Lopé NP
Blue Cuckoo-shrike Coracina azurea: Individuals seen at Mikongo on two separate days
Common Bulbul Pycnonotus barbatus: Common in open areas and around habitation
Swamp Palm Bulbul Thescelocichla leucopleura: Common at the Lopé Hotel
Little Greenbul Andropadus virens: Common at Mikongo
Little Grey Greenbul Andropadus gracilis: Common around Mikongo
Yellow-whiskered Greenbul Andropadus latirostris: Common at Mikongo
Honeyguide Greenbul Baeopogon indicator: One from the communal area at Mikongo
Icterine Greenbul Phyllastrephus icterinus: Mikongo
White-throated Greenbul Phyllastrephus albigularis: Mikongo
Lesser Bristlebill Bleda notatus: Common at Mikongo
Eastern Bearded Greenbul Criniger chloronotus: Common at Mikongo
Spotted Greenbul Ixonotus guttatus: Forest edge in the savannah area of Lopé NP
Western Nicator Nicator chloris: One in the forest at Mikongo
African Thrush Turdus pelios: Common in open areas and around habitation
Forest Robin Stiphrornis erythrocercus: Common at Mikongo
Rufous Flycatcher Thrush Stizorhina frazeri: Common at Mikongo
African Stonechat Saxicola torquatus: Two seen at Lopé Hotel
Green Hylia Hylia prasina: Mikongo
Violet-backed Hyliota Hyliota violacea: Mikongo
Short-winged Cisticola Cisticola brachypterus: Several singing in the savannah area of Lopé NP
Croaking Cisticola Cisticola natalensis: Several singing in the savannah area of Lopé NP
Yellow-footed Flycatcher Muscicapa sethsmithi: Common at Mikongo
Sooty Flycatcher Muscicapa infuscata: One in the camp at Mikongo
Rufous-vented Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone rufocinerea: One at the Lopé Hotel
Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone rufiventer: Common at Mikongo
Chestnut-capped Flycatcher Erythrocercus mccallii: Common in the forest at Mikongo
Black-headed Batis Batis minor: One on the savannah safari
Chestnut Wattle-eye Dyaphorophyia castanea: One in the forest at Mikongo
Black-capped Illadopsis Illadopsis cleaveri: Common in the forest at Mikongo
Grey-necked Picathartes Picathartes oreas: Seen easily around nesting rocks, albeit a couple of hours walk from the camp at Mikongo. Probably three different individuals.
Forest White-eye Zosterops (senegalensis) stenocricotus: Common in the forest at Mikongo. The eye ring is hard to see
Fraser’s Sunbird Deleornis fraseri: One seen at Mikongo. Warbler-like, but the bill is the give-away
Olive Sunbird Cyanomitra olivaceus: At least one in the forest at Mikongo. The obvious orange spot at the base of the gape is helpful in identifying this species
Green Sunbird Anthreptes rectirostris: Forest edge in the savannah area of Lopé NP
Collared Sunbird Hedydipna collaris: Seen in clearings in the forest at Mikongo, including the camp
Reichenbach’s Sunbird Anabathmis reichenbachii: Libreville
Blue-throated Brown Sunbird Cyanomitra cyanolaema: Mikongo
Carmelite Sunbird Chalcomitra fuliginosa: Libreville
Tiny Sunbird Cinnyris minullus: Mikongo
Copper Sunbird Cinnyris cupreus: Lopé Hotel and in the savannah area of Lopé NP
Superb Sunbird Cinnyris superbus: Lopé Hotel
Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio: One seen at Lopé Hotel
Shining Drongo Dicrurus atripennis: Common in the forest at Mikongo
Pied Crow Corvus albus: Common in Libreville
Purple-headed Glossy Starling Lamprotornis purpureiceps: Two in the forest at Mikongo
Yellow-billed Oxpecker Buphagus africanus: On buffalo in the savannah areas
Northern Grey-headed Sparrow Passer griseus: Common around habitation
Compact Weaver Pachyphantes superciliosus: One seen in the savannah area of Lopé NP
Village Weaver Ploceus cucllatus: Common around habitation
Black-necked Weaver Ploceus nigricollis: One male at the Lopé Hotel
Viellot’s Black Weaver Ploceus nigerrimus: Libreville
Blue-billed Malimbe Malimbus nitens: A flock in the forest at Mikongo
Yellow-mantled Widowbird Euplectes macroura: Common in open areas around Lopé
Woodhouse’s Antpecker Parmoptila woodhousei: One in the forest at Mikongo
Chestnut-breasted Negrofinch Nigrita bicolor: One at Mikongo
White-breasted Negrofinch Nigrita fusconotus: One at the summit in Mikongo
Orange-cheeked Waxbill Estrilda melpoda: Open areas at Lopé
Black-chinned Quailfinch Ortygospiza gabonensis: Two by the police checkpoint in Lopé
Bronze Mannikin Spermestes cucllata: Common in Libreville and at the Lopé Hotel
Black and white Mannikin Spermestes bicolor: Two at Mikongo
Pin-tailed Whydah Vidua macroura: Common in open areas
128 species seen in total
The following species were seen on the trip by members of the party; those seen personally are marked with an asterisk. I also saw tracks of African civet, leopard, gorilla and chimpanzee.
Golden Cat Felis aurata: Seen by one of our party along the entrance road early one morning
*Banded Mongoose Mungos mungo: One seen along a road in the savannah area of Lopé NP
*Western Lowland Gorilla Gorilla gorilla gorilla: Seen on two separate occasions at Mikongo – a lone female on 14th by one of the two groups out, and a lone male on 19th by myself and two visiting tourists
Chimpanzee Pan troglodytes: One seen on the WCS mandrill safari
Mandrill Mandrillus sphinx: Lots seen on the WCS mandrill safari!
*Grey-cheeked Mangabey Lophocebus albigena: Common in the forest at Mikongo
*Black Colobus Colobus satanus: Common in the forest at Mikongo
*Putty-nosed Monkey Cercopithecus nictitans: Common in the forest at Mikongo
*Forest Elephant Loxodonta (africana) cyclotis: Common in the forest at Mikongo, and encounters, if not sightings, are frequent. Three seen on the savannah safari, and one from the main road between Mikongo and Lopé
*Forest Buffalo Syncerus caffer nanus: Three herds seen on the savannah safari
*Red River Hog Potamochoerus porcus: Three groups encountered on various days
*Blue Duiker Cephalophus monticola: Seen in the forest at Mikongo
Yellow-backed Duiker Cephalophus silvicultor: Seen in the forest at Mikongo
Flying Squirrel sp.: One seen on 14th near the research camp, by the group that also saw gorilla
*Dwarf-epauletted Fruit Bat Micropterus pusillus: A group roosting under the eaves of Chalet number 1 at the Lopé Hotel
*Straw-coloured Fruit Bat Eidolon helvum: Very common in Libreville