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June 2014

June 16, 2014 East Africa Bush Tails

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.

Ngaga Camp
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.

Lango Camp
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.