Lango Camp, Odzala-Kokoua National Park
Now that it’s the beginning of the long dry season, thrilling sounds have been heard day and night: from the big flocks of African green-pigeons and African grey parrots flying above our heads in the early hours of a misty morning, to the western guereza colobus fighting amongst themselves to reach the best spots in the strangler fig trees that are fruiting around Camp. As the sun sets we have heard the Latham’s forest francolin letting us know that it will soon get dark, the chorus of frogs from the marshy area in front of Lango, and the cicadas starting to sing. Once darkness settles in, the fig trees often have other occupants, such as African palm civets that sound just like cats when fighting. Meanwhile, water splashing at a distance in the bai, followed by random screams, signals that the forest elephants are gathering: trumpeting, rumbling, and blowing minerals to the surface of the water with their trunk. Finally, spotted hyaena were heard late at night on a few occasions. So much for the still of the night!
The most exciting sighting at camp was the water chevrotain that was spotted wandering beneath the walkway leading to the main area – surprisingly enough it has not been too shy! Most of the sightings were short and sweet, but long enough to have a good look at those stunning yet slightly bizarre mammals.
Around Lango Bai, we have been walking some of our “Exploration” trails that lead through the swamp forest, where we have stumbled a few times across some amazing sightings – elusive wild chimpanzees, secretive bongos, and very active red river hogs. Reptile-wise we have been very lucky to see an arboreal crocodile: these slender-snouted crocodiles often climb onto branches overhanging the Lekoli River in order to catch some sun and thermoregulate themselves. A three-metre-long python with a body as thick as a log making his way through the swamps was also an impressive sight!
The birding has been surprising this month, with sightings of a marabou stork and a Namaqua dove – birds that have been seen before but that do not naturally occur in Odzala. We’ve also seen African pygmy goose, yellow-lored bristlebill, red-chested goshawk, yellow-mantled weaver, rufous-beliied helmet shrike, blue-headed bee-eater, red-billed malimbe, and naked-faced barbet – all making birding exciting this month at Lango.
Ngaga Camp, Ndzehi Concession
Gorilla movements are interesting to observe during the dry seasons, as they are based on knowing the different fruiting trees that they favour. Round green fruits the size of a basketball and smelling just like breadfruit can be found on the ground or still attached to the main branches of the tree known locally as opoussa (Treculia africana); these seem to attract the gorillas and chimpanzees. Having some of those trees around camp facilitated our gorilla tracking experience on several occasions.
By the same token, delicious fruits that the local people also enjoy called the gambeya (Gambeya lacourtiana) can be found in the very north of our concession. These guava-scented mango-like fruits are quite a draw for the gorillas, but the distance of these trees from Ngaga has made some of our tracking more challenging as we sometimes had to make our way through two- to three-metre-tall vegetation.
Western lowland gorillas that live in a marantaceae habitat greatly enjoy feeding on tree roots. Favourite digging spots can become open spaces to which the gorillas will return to feed repeatedly. This distinctive behaviour is most common at this time of year and we have been lucky enough to see the primates excavating roots on several occasions.
Chimpanzees have been very difficult to try to observe although they have been heard may times while viewing the gorillas; fresh tracks and signs have however been found on our forest walks.
Night walks at Ngaga have been particularly exciting with sightings of central potto, elegant needle-clawed galago, Demidoff’s galago, African palm civet, and the amazing Lord Darby’s anomalure.
Birding at Ngaga Camp is especially good with almost daily sightings of African pied hornbill, blue-throated roller, speckled tinkerbird, velvet-mantled drongo, shining drongo, red-eyed puffback, spotted greenbul, banded prinia, yellow-crested woodpecker, Cassin’s spinetail, black saw-wing and many more
The small rainy season is upon us, generating small but potent storms. The massive cloud formations belting out lightning and huge swells of rain are best viewed while sitting quite comfortably and dry on the Lango deck. These intermittent storms have been responsible for the very uneven water levels in almost all of the rivers and streams in the area.
Jupiter's group has been spending a lot of time just to the east of Ngaga Camp, sometimes coming within a few hundred metres of the camp... One morning they were so close that we could hear the group from the dining area. This made for some relatively short and easy forest walks to find them, but unfortunately this could not last long and the group moved soon east again into the sea of marantaceae.
Meanwhile, Neptuno and his group have been quite consistent with their location in the south. The exception to this rule was caused by an incident right at the end of May when he had an interaction with another group of lowland gorillas and went walkabout for a day, but the skills and diligence of the tracking team meant that the guests were still able to get a good sighting the following day, not far from their original position. It seems that Neptuno had been leading his group in large circles so as to confuse the rival silverback male... This tactic seemed to have worked and for almost a week now he has been relatively fixed in the same area.
We have also been enjoying regular sightings at Ngaga of African grey parrots. More good news is that at least one group of putty nosed monkeys is gradually accepting us, and becoming more habituated to our presence in the forest. We have also spotted chimpanzees but they are still too skittish for anyone, but the extremely lucky, to get a good look at.
Early May is a great time to be at Lango, with elephant, sitatunga and red river hogs in regular attendance. Many people imagine elephants to be rather silent creatures, but the starlit social gatherings in front of Lango Camp put paid to this idea as the pachyderms turn the night into a wonderful cacophony of elephantine social activities: rumbling, bellowing, trumpeting and screaming, all vying for attention and a chance to enjoy the salt-rich deposits by the Lango stream.
One group of guests were silently drifting along the Lekoli River when they came across two large male sitatunga entangled in a battle for dominance, too distracted by thoughts of power and mating (a heady combination if ever there was one!) to even notice the boat drifting by so that everyone aboard had had a great opportunity to observe these normally shy antelope at close quarters.
Ngulu Forest (meaning Red River Hog Forest) has been true to its name by granting us several chances to see these elusive wild pigs. As we were walking along one of the larger game paths, a group of about seven hogs flashed across in front of us, and not far from where we stood. We have also seen sounders of red river hogs in Ncoi Forest (Putty-nosed Monkey Forest). On one occasion we recovered from our surprise and attempted to follow them but realising immediately just how much faster they were than us, we slowed down to take in the beauty of the forest all around us.
African grey parrots have been gathering nicely in recent weeks but with the water level going up and down with the rains, their favoured mud patches have been inundated every few days. They are of course a very vocal species, and their apparent cries of outrage at the poor ability of the bai's drainage system to cope with a night's rain contrast with their clearly audible excitement when the mud is just the right consistency.
Black-headed bee-eaters have been seen by nearly every group of guests during May – this is the largest of the bee-eaters we see here, and with their wonderful green yellow and black plumage can attract the attention of even professed non-birders!
Two slightly less spectacular species are well worth paying attention to also: the relatively common red-tailed greenbul and red-tailed rufous thrush whose twittering presence close to the ground means that large columns of ants are on the march and you should be wary of where you walk... Frequent recent sightings of these two types of birds have saved us a lot of trouble, so they deserve a mention here, and our heartfelt thanks!
Topping the list of all the bird species seen this past month must be vermiculated fishing owl, seen on the road that traverses the clear water stream at Mboko – a beautiful sighting and an unusually cooperative bird who sat still in plain sight for at least five minutes, affording us an absolutely brilliant sighting.
Magnificent thunder and lightning shows have returned to Odzala with blue skies and misty mornings in tow: the short rainy season is upon us and is making up for lost time with almost 100 mm falling in one day, of which almost half fell one hour. Needless to say we were looking forward to drying out but Mother Nature was having none of it! With a further 60 mm the next day, the rivers are now swollen and Lango Bai resembles a lake; the view from the camp changes dramatically as the stream carries the rainwater into the bai.
The small streams drain quickly, but the Lekoli and Mambili rivers are full to the brim. The rainy season also brings changes to the forest. Whereas trees can survive the dry season by adapting so as not to lose too much moisture, the sudden onset of downpours and strong winds can catch many of them unawares. Leaves, fruit and branches are shaken loose and fall to the forest floor, continuing the circle of life as they add to the leaf litter layer. The force of the wind can also uproot or simply snap entire trees.
The expansive Ndzehi forests are home to a high density of western lowland gorillas, which works in our favour of course – but also sometimes to our detriment. The interaction between the wild groups, solitary males and the habituated groups makes for very interesting behaviour observations but can make gorilla tracking more difficult. It is only with the skills of expert trackers that we are able to locate and view the two habituated groups; gorilla tracking has been both very rewarding and very challenging this month.
Neptuno continues to enjoy utilising the southern tip of his home range, which has meant long walks to enjoy the rewards of seeing this gorilla group. The rainy season is often a time when gorillas dig for roots. Each individual in the group has his or her own personality and it is wonderful to see some of the younger individuals becoming more confident and more curious as they grow older and more used to the presence of our researchers and guests.
Jupiter’s group on the other hand has been monopolising the area behind Ngaga Camp. This is a more open canopy forest meaning that more light reaches the forest floor, allowing an incredibly thick understorey of marantaceae to develop. Time spent with this group in the marantaceae has required patience and trust in the tracker, but in each case we have been rewarded with sightings of many of the gorillas feeding up in the fruiting trees. Jupiter, the silverback, is curiously shy for such a large, powerful creature but we have had better sightings of him recently too.
One very special encounter with Jupiter’s group recently involved a youngster digging for and eating ants. Our tracker, David, managed to get us into just the right position, close enough to observe but not too close that we risked disturbing her; this allowed the young gorilla to continue as if we were not there. Digging for ants is no easy task: this little one would dig for a few minutes, then quickly raise her arm to her mouth and try to lick off all the ants off before they reached more sensitive parts of her body and started to bite. Periodically she would leave her digging site only to return from a different angle so as to catch the ants unawares. Watching this behaviour was very special indeed and a real testament to David’s skill and anticipation.
Besides gorillas, these forests are home to a plethora of other creatures: this month we have been lucky enough to get good sightings of putty-nosed monkeys, a small bush viper and several species of bats, which have been difficult to identify. We have also been finding evidence of the anomalure (“flying squirrel”) in camp, but so far we have not managed to get a good sighting, while night walks in the forest have revealed pottos and two different galagos (bushbabies), namely the Demidorf’s and Thomas’.
Ngaga has also welcomed a new staff member to its kitchen contingent and we all look forward to many more delicious meals from chef Rea.
We have been very impressed with the elephant activity around Lango this month. The rains seem to bring elephants more often and we are now seeing bulls regularly visit areas along the river or out in the savannah. They are also getting more used to encountering us and are becoming more tolerant of our presence, allowing us to get some great sightings. Forest elephant bulls only rarely form “bachelor groups” and a typical forest elephant matriarchal herd size is just three or four individuals, which can surprise people who might be expecting to see much larger herds.
The bai areas – and Lango Bai in particular – play a very important role in elephant social interaction; it has been found that elephants will spend 50% longer in bais if other elephants are present. This results in magical nocturnal congregations which can be best appreciated by the silvery light of a full moon. On one special night this month we saw 22 elephants congregating by moonlight. Two of the bulls were testing each other’s strength, and the sound of clashing tusks rang out across the bai and echoed back from the surrounding trees.
Lango Bai was also visited by two sitatunga bulls, one at the far end of the bai and the other right next to the main deck; both these animals provided excellent sightings, being available for viewing for about 20 minutes.
The primate viewing along the Lekoli River has been good too, with four different monkey species being seen in one afternoon. The riverine forests have consistently proven to be the preferred habitat for most species of monkey, from the quick mangabeys to the less agile colobus. Some monkeys are actually competent swimmers, such as de Brazza’s monkey with his red-crested head and white beard, and so will always choose a habitat near water.
With primates, the balance between fear and curiosity worked in our favour, as each species – grey-cheeked mangabey, agile mangabey, guereza colobus and de Brazza’s monkeys – stuck around to get a better look at what was going on in the boat – while we were all having a better look at what was going on in the trees! Even chimps are known to visit the river, but typically we hear them more often than we see them. The combination of elusive animals, a swift-flowing river and tangled vegetation means that it can be very tough to locate the source of the noise.
The rains also seem to have brought out the amphibians and reptiles, with a sighting of the much-sought-after slender-snouted crocodile on a palm tree overhanging the Lekoli River and a dwarf crocodile spotted crossing the road in the middle of the savannah the day after heavy rains. Spotted bush snakes continue to amaze us with their bright green colours and this month we were lucky enough to come across a small female Blanding’s tree snake curled up in the fronds of a palm tree. The chorus of frogs is facing some competition with the noise from the elephants but they continue to do their vocal best to drown out the much larger animals.
We have three new additions to Lango Camp this month. Firstly, we are very happy to welcome Ashley and Tara to the Lango Camp management team and secondly we have been very excited about the presence of a grey-cheeked mangabey that now seems to be calling Lango home. It is unusual for this species to be alone, but it is possible that this young male has left his natal group and is now waiting to form his own family. We hope he continues to visit us regularly, as the guereza colobus do.
April has been especially productive for birding and there seem to be many fledglings learning the ropes at the moment. The most noticeable of these are the red-necked spurfowl running down the road with three or four little chicks in tow but the tree-nesting birds have also undergone a “baby boom” with eastern-bearded greenbuls and blue-billed malimbes also feeding their young.
Kingfishers are always a colourful highlight and this month we have seen pygmy kingfisher, chocolate-backed kingfisher, woodland kingfisher and shining-blue kingfisher while the blue-breasted kingfisher continues to call from all parts of the forest – but keeps us on our toes when it comes to actually trying to catch a glimpse of him. In the bai this month we managed to see a juvenile African harrier-hawk, which is quite uncommon for the region and a juvenile black-casqued-wattled hornbill, recognisable by his small casque, brown cheeks and lack of colour on his wattle. A collared sunbird was another special sighting on a flowering liana while blue-headed crested flycatcher, blue malkoha and guinea turacos are our (albeit somewhat shy) camp residents.
Odzala sees the transition period from the short dry season to the short rainy season. Most of the wildlife is slowly coming back towards the bais and rivers after having migrated into the heart of the terra-firma forest looking for some of their favoured fruits – for example, the two that are commonly called wild mango – Irvingia gabonensis and Pandaoleosa. The overcast weather accompanied by misty, cool mornings and evenings is slowly fading away and the level of humidity is rising. Heavy showers towards the end of the month settled the obvious presence of dust in the air.
Lango Camp, Odzala-Kokoua National Park
We experienced interesting sightings of spotted hyaena on a buffalo carcass twice this month. Since lions disappeared from Odzala in the early 1990s, spotted hyaena are on top of the food chain. Forest buffalo are the main prey of these opportunistic hunters – hyaena cover long distances throughout the night in search of wounded or unhealthy individuals. Twenty or more hyaena feeding on a forest buffalo can sometimes be seen in swampy marsh habitat, with only their necks and heads sticking out of the mud.
A great surprise was seeing a small herd of bongo during breakfast one morning, just before going out on activity. The herd was spotted north-east of the Lango Bai crossing in between two forest patches. The Lango stream is fairly low at the moment which has allowed us to reach places that are inaccessible during the wet season. During such an expedition, we had an incredible up-close encounter with a solitary bongo walking 30 metres right in front of us without him noticing our presence – unique experience!
Other mammals have been hard to observe, although prominent tracks and signs indicates their return in and around Lango Bai.
Ngaga Camp, Ndzehi Concession
On average, the gorilla sightings have been good although challenging for one who is unfit as lately, the gorillas have been found far from camp. To reach the gorillas involved some long hours of walking this month, as Jupiter and Neptuno are at the moment present in areas where there is a concentration of various fruiting trees – and that’s a fair distance! As we approach the gorillas, a lot of patience is required as we always try to get the most out of every experience and mostly our aim is to observe the gorillas in their natural environment without disturbing them.
Many chimpanzees have been heard fairly close to Ngaga Camp, increasing the opportunity of us getting a glimpse of those great apes while gorilla tracking or on our forest walks.
Sightings of the diurnal primates have been interesting, with moustached and putty-nosed monkey being curious enough to come and investigate human activity near the rooms. The night walks were very productive with sightings of the rare central potto, Lord Derby’s anomalure and many galagos.
February has been good especially for the birds of prey with sightings of black-shouldered kite, yellow-billed kite, long-tailed hawk, African harrier hawk, long-crested eagle, dark-chanting goshawk, red-chested goshawk, Cassin’s hawk-eagle, black sparrowhawk, bat hawk, and the stunning African crowned eagle.
January in Odzala is what is known as “the small dry season” with its vegetation slowly getting drier. Light sprinklings of rain remind us that we are in a rainforest as we move deeper into this season and the frequency of decent downpours is on the decline. Pockets of rain moving through the general area allow us to experience spectacular lightning displays, hear the trees sighing in the wind, feel the rise in temperature and humidity and even smell the fresher air, rather than actually receive the full might of a rainstorm.
Lango Camp, Odzala-Kokoua National Park
January has been a little up and down for mammals. Fewer sightings of elephants were had, but fresh tracks are a constant around Lango, Mboko and the main road out of the Odzala Kokoua National Park.
Chimpanzees have been quite common to hear and we were even fortunate enough to see a group of five individuals composed of a male, two females and two youngsters. This took place on an expedition that we call “the adventure trail,” which is a fabulous walk that makes its way through different habitats including waist-high water near Lango Camp.
Another highlight for this month was a sighting of the shy servaline serval (a serval with a more densely spotted coat) that often wanders along the road after a rain to scent-mark its territory. This typical behaviour of a cat as also been observed with leopards – of which we have come across many a track lately.
Ngaga Camp, Ndzehi Concession
On the gorilla news front, Neptuno has been hanging around the south-west of the trail network, happily making the walk to find his group slightly less challenging than the usual, whereas Jupiter got found relatively close to camp before heading south into more or less the same area where Neptuno is at the moment. (Clearly, the large grape-sized fruit of the Otombo trees that are found in that area are quite tasty.)
We’ve had regular sightings of putty-nosed monkey around Ngaga Camp along with a few good glimpses of moustached monkey and Guerezza colobus. A phenomenal variety of squirrels were seen and heard including red-legged sun squirrel, Thomas's and a few I have yet to identify (but it seems impossible without expert help). An African sheath-tailed bat was given a helping hand (actually scooped up with indemnity forms) to get airborne again.
The highlight was when we were able to get a good look at the elusive Lord Derby’s anomalure! Also known as flying squirrels, these stunning mammals climb up very high trees and then glide from one to another.
Our feathery friends have featured at the forefront of the first four weeks for 2014. Bee-eaters are rocking the month of January, with black, blue-headed, black-headed, blue-breasted and white-throated all on the month's list. There have been a few lesser-crested arguments about what is most probably a European honey buzzard (I conceded that one because of lack of evidence) – and fortunately we had black-collared lovebirds to distract us a bit later... life's tough in the forest, isn't it?