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Congo Report (Mammal Trip -- Some Birding)
by Rod Cassidy
During a recent visit to the Northern Congo to Noubale Ndoki National Park and Odzala National Park for the purposes of gorilla tourism, I managed to list 120 species of birds. Not as comprehensive a list as the Dowsetts' but an interesting one for me.
August 22: Bomassa camp to Mbeli Bai. We got up early did a little bit of birding around the camp, had breakfast and left for the departure point by vehicle at about 8:00 am. About an hour's drive and then on to pirogue paddled up and we paddled for about an hour to Mbeli port. We then walked to Mbeli camp which was about an hour's walk (3-4 km). Had a brief settle in at camp, something to eat and then walked to Mbeli Bai. At Mbeli Bai (3-4 km walk), the researchers were sitting at the top of the steps grinning because 4 gorillas had just come in the Bai. We watched them for an hour or 2 hours the sun was blazing down. It obviously got very hot for the gorillas who left the Bai after about 2 hours. Except for 3 elephant we did not see much more in the Bai. I did some birding on the walkway and saw and videoed White-spotted Flufftail and a few other things. Walt saw a Sitatunga and an otter. Birds that day include, Blue-billed Malimbe, Fraser Ant-thrush, White-throated Blue Swallow.
Aug 23: Mbeli camp to Guga Camp. After breakfast around 7:30 at Mbeli Camp, we departed on foot for the river port and then upriver for about 3 hours to Guga Camp. We found at Guga camp that the camp had not been finished we had to pitch tents there it was very nice spot. We had chimpanzees calling that evening. We went out with the guide who did a wounded Duiker call and an adult male chimp came to investigate of which we had reasonable views. We also had a couple of Blue Duikers respond. Birds include, Brown Illadopsis, Chestnut-breasted Negro-finch, Blue-headed Bee-eater.
Aug 24: Guga Camp to Guga Bai and back to Mbeli camp. After an early breakfast then walk to Guga Bai departing very early (circa 2 hours walk). We saw very little on the way because we were walking at a reasonable pace. But it was a very pleasant walk, not a hard one and all on flat ground. Most of walking is on flat ground. Not very rough terrain. We got to Guga Bai about 10:30. There was not anything in the Bai. We spent about 1 and half hours on a platform looking into the Bai. We did not see anything. En route back to the camp, we walked into 4 gorillas. There was a lot of excitement , a lot of screaming and shouting they tore off. A lot of chest beating contact calls and we saw at least 4 including a very nice mother with a baby on her back, racing across the path.
After lunch we got onto the boat and drove back to Mbeli camp. We got to Mbeli port just as it was starting to get dark and we walked the 3 km to Mbeli camp in the dark. It was a bit nerve racking. The guides carry all the stuff so they came a bit later than we did. Birds included White-browed Forest-flycatcher, Red-bellied Paradise-flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Wattle-eye.
Aug 25: Mbeli to Mboko in Odzala. We left Mbeli camp in pouring rain -- bucketing down. We walked the 3 km to the port. Did not see much -- it chucked down with rain all the way. It stopped raining when we got onto the pirogues and we paddled and motored back to the Bomassa port. Then we drove circa 1 and half hours back to Bomassa. We saw a Yellow-backed Duiker on the road on the way home.
We organised our gear in Bomassa, thanked everybody and jumped on to the vehicles and went to catch the plane to Odzala.
They had organised a pygmy dance for us at the plane -- all the villagers from the Bomassa village came out and did a dance. It was quite touristy but fun to watch. They had put in the effort so we showed our appreciation. We arrived at Odzala about 3:00pm and had a late lunch before spending the rest of the day at leisure. Katrina went to a Bai and saw lots of Buffaloes and different tracks, Bongos included. Walt and I just lazed around. I did a bit of birding but did not see anything interesting. We did manage to get some sleep and dry out -- comfortable. Birds included Long-legged Pipit, Marsh Whydah, Chattering Cisticola.
Aug 26: Mboko camp to Ekania camp. Very early breakfast and we departed for Ekania camp. We left as early as we could so that we could stop at Moba to look for gorillas. We did not realize that the guides had to rendezvous with another boat upriver so they were a little agitated and did not want to spend time at Moba. We saw of gorilla tracks at Moba but no animals there. We had a great ride on the river - long but very comfortable compared to the small pirogues at Ndoki. We sat in armchairs on huge dugout canoes. The rivers are much bigger but still not Congo River size.
You get to see a lot of animals on the side. We saw Congo River Otter very well. Also a number of monkeys but not nearly as much as Ndoki. We arrived at Ekania very late. It is about an 8 or 9 hour pirogue ride from Moba. Birds included Cassin's Malimbe, Shining Blue and Blue-breasted Kingfishers.
Aug 27: Ekania to Maya Nord camp. Next morning got up early. I birded around camp, it was quite interesting. Then 1½ hours up river (fully packed). We got off the pirogues and walked 12 km to Maya Nord Camp. We stopped at about the 5 km mark at Maya Sud, crept into the Bai at Maya Sud. There were 3 gorillas about 50 yds from us. They foraged quietly not noticing us which was great. So we watched them, photographed and videoed them. There were also about 40 buffalo in the Bai, one elephant sucking its nose about the hour we were there. Lots of Sitatunga with a really incredible male which chased a female around the Bai for about half an hour. Another silverback Gorilla appeared on the other side of the Bai walked out in the open and stood there about 200 yds where the other 3 were romping and eating herbaceous vegetation. We left the animals behind and walked on to Maya Centre where it started to rain so we crept into the Bai. There was nothing there except a load of Sitatunga.
We walked in the rain - it was not unpleasant as you didn't heat up in the rain. And you are virtually wet anyway from sweat. We walked with our ponchos on and just got soaked. Because of the noise of the rain we were able to walk rather less conspicuously than normal in the forest and as a result had 2 very close encounters with gorilla groups on the way back getting really good views of Gorillas in the trees. We walked the balance 3 km to Maya Nord. Birds included Rufous-sided Broadbill, Cassin's and Sabine Spinetails.
Aug 28 hike to Maya Nord day at Bai: Next morning up early. We headed off to Maya Nord . We got to the Bai with a small mirador. You climb up a ladder and sit on a sturdy platform with a canvas wall around us with zip-up windows. I was a bit disturbed -- the guides started unzipping, making a noise. In the meantime there were 2 big gorillas in the Bai, a female and a silver back male. The silverback was prancing around her, displaying, throwing his chest out, running around doing displacement behaviour trying to get her attention. We watched them for about 2-3 hours. They were far off but fantastic to watch. Got this on video and photographic footage as well.
Sitatunga, elephant and buffalo - all put in an appearance in this time. The gorillas moved off about 2-3 hours but the rest of the day was filled with other animals. We spent the whole day at this Bai. It was getting late - there was still a couple of km back to camp. The guides were starting to get agitated.
Just as they were about to tell us to pack up and go a leopard walked out on the far side of the clearing and walked around the edge of the clearing to about 150m of us and proceeded to sit and watch a small herd of Sitatunga. While we watched it seemed unaware of us in the mirador. I don't believe it could see us. As soon as we had to leave and started to move and zip up, it fled back into the forest. The walk back to camp was uneventful. We spent the late afternoon bathing in the river and relaxing around camp. Birds seen included Black-casqued Wattled-hornbill, Bates' Swift, Chocolate-backed Kingfisher.
Aug 29 Maya Nord to Lokue Camp: Broke camp early and headed back to the river via Maya centre where we found 4 gorillas in the Bai. They were quite far off. We decided to approach them through the forest. We walked around the Bai, getting fairly close to 2 gorillas but they became aware of us and moved off into the forest. Another had obviously left sometime before leaving only a single silverback in the Bai along with some buffaloes and a Sitatunga. We watched it for a while before leaving it to head on to Maya south. There were no gorillas in Maya south at all and virtually no game there at all. We continued on to the boat point, coming across the saddest picture of our trip, a baby gorilla dead in the path, with no apparent wounds and in perfect condition, we could only guess as to its apparent cause of death. It was the saddest sight I have seen in the forest. We boarded the pirogue and headed down river to the camp at Lokue. The ride took about 5 hours, we stopped at Ekania camp on route for a break from the pirogue ride. Birds included Blue-throated Roller, African Finfoot, Plumed Guineafowl.
Aug 30 Lokue camp to bai for the day: Up very early and set off for the bai at Lokue, a walk of around 5 kms. We arrived and found 2 researchers already in the blind waiting for gorillas. Settled ourselves in for the now familiar routine of waiting for animals to appear in the bai.
We did not have to wait too long before a silverback appeared from the left side of the bai followed shortly by two females. The females appeared very nervous and the group did not stay long before they disappeared, reappearing 10 minutes later on the far side of the bai in the company of 2 more females and a small gorilla baby.
Altogether 5 adults and one female carrying a small baby. We watched these gorillas and the baby did not move from her belly it just clung there the whole time we watched them. They foraged and fed and we had really good views of them doing all sorts of different behaviour. I went birding out the back and found a Rufous- sided Broadbill - (bird of the day). While birding I came across a huge swarm of driver ants. I sat and watched these because the birds seemed to be attracted to them. Bulbuls, Iladopsis, Alethes and maybe the Forest Robin was attracted to them, as I saw one there as well. While there I heard movement in the bush. I waited and eventually a female black gorilla came through. It got the fright of its life on seeing me, screamed and ran off. There was then a lot of chest beating and calling in the distance, obviously from the female's companions (probably 3 to 400 yards from me) as they made contact with each other again. I went back to the hide again. The others had heard a little bit of gorilla calling but oddly enough one cannot hear much from the behind the blinds /hide itself.
We packed up there about 4pm and we headed back to camp. About 10 minutes walk out of camp, near where I had seen the gorillas earlier. We came across fresh gorilla dropping as well as signs of fresh gorilla feeding, fruit as well as maritasy scrub being torn down. Then we walked a little bit further and we could hear movement in the maritacy. We waited and then the guides did a trick by just clapping there hands -- a hollow sounding clap. Then the silverback appeared on the path, really close to us, it screamed and hopped over a log (one that we had to climb over later) and disappeared into the bush on the left. The other gorillas were on the right side and they -- the female shot up a tree and she was barking at us and she crossed over the path in the canopy which was quite amazing as she used really thin branches and I thought what would happen if these branches break. She came towards us in the canopy, right above my head. I moved away in case the branches broke, which did not break, but then she defecated all over. I was glad I had moved as I definitely would have been "shat" on literally . She carried on growling and grunting and barking at us and moved away from us in the canopy vocalising all the time. She then started to chest-beat in the trees. This is actually a reassuring contact call and she is calling the others to come to her, telling them that it is safe where she is.
While we were still on the path a young baby ran out of the bush just ahead of us and disappeared down the trail going under the log that the big silverback had hopped over. The adult silverback, probably about 20-yards from us then suddenly let out a piercing scream which made us freeze and got our adrenalin going. Bushes were crashing and the noises were quite terrifying but nothing came of it and they moved off.
We could hear the female chest beating from the tops of the trees as she moved on moving with amazing agility for such a big animal.
Aug 31 Lokue to Libreville: Next day we packed up early and left by 6:00 am to get back to Mboko. Our plane landed at about 12:00. We were there at 11:45 - 15 minutes to spare. We boarded the plane , bid the Congo farewell and headed back to Libreville. We spent the final night in the Tropicana Hotel in Libreville.
The success of this trip is measured in the number of gorilla contacts we had. In all we saw between 35 and 40 gorillas on 11 different occasions, and in a number of different situations. We watched them interact in bais a total of 6 times for a total of 9½ hours, as well as seeing them on the forest trails a total of 5 times. Next year I will spend more time working on the birds.