This has been a rather confusing month weather-wise; we had committed ourselves to the arrival of the dry season but the last few storms of the rainy season have really been incredible with almost 40 mm falling in an hour on a few occasions. The storms are however becoming less frequent and the hot blue-sky mornings of the rains are slowly being replaced by the misty mornings of the dry season. The mix of cool and warm seems to suit the savannah plants quite well which has resulted in the flowering of the Leptactina leopoldii, which produces white star-shaped flowers on long flute stems and fills the warm evenings with a sweet jasmine-like scent that mixes with the smell of wild citronella to create an aromatic feast. The pink bolo-bolo flowers continue to create a beautiful entrance to Lango and every evening, hundreds of fire flies have been welcoming us home. As if in time for the festive season, some of the forest trees like red ironwood have sprung up with spectacular new red growth, providing us with natural decorations for this time of year.
Lango Camp, Odzala-Kokoua National Park
While the idea of forest diversity is not to be confused with abundance, the last two weeks of December have exceeded even our expectations and have produced some cracking sightings in terms of both abundance and diversity. Elephant activity continues to entertain with nightly visits mostly resulting in lots of noise and sometimes with a few individuals lingering about in the morning.
A walk in Lango Bai is one of the most successful adventures in terms of elephant viewing with small herds and solitary bulls having been seen. The herds tend not to spend much time out in the open when they realise humans are around, but the bulls are becoming more relaxed and we have been able to have some really fantastic sightings.
The dry season is one of the main fruiting times of the year and we are expecting quite a lot of change in the elephant movements in the next month or so as they follow the fruit, but for now we seem to have an abundance around Lango. A lot of elephants in the park are still completely wild and not used to people, which means that sightings can be very brief. From the river however, we have been lucky enough to have some quality sightings of small herds, females with their young and have even managed to spend enough time observing their social interactions and watch the little ones suckle.
But the abundance of elephant this month is matched by the diversity of species we have been privileged enough to see.
The large, reclusive bongo is an antelope that moves silently about the forest mainly at dawn and dusk, so when we recently disturbed one on the road while driving between camps we held little hope that he would show himself again when we reversed and waited silently. Our patience was well rewarded as a young bongo slowly moved out of the thick forest, onto the clear road and stopped to get a better look at us. Then, just as silently as he had arrived, he skilfully jumped up the bank and disappeared into the forest again.
A few days later we were treated to another incredible sighting as 23 red river hogs made their way out of the forest into Lango Bai almost under the cover of darkness. What made this even more unbelievable was that behind the hogs at the very edge of the forest was a gathering of a few small family groups of elephant – 15 in total. This is the kind of sighting we guides dream of and really appreciate – even most of us working here have not had the privilege to experience.
Another special sighting this month was a spot-necked otter on the Lekoli River. We only managed to get a glimpse of the beautiful creature before he realised he had been spotted and subtly slunk off his tree trunk into the water below. We scanned the river bank carefully but he did not emerge again.
Ngaga Camp, Ndzehi Concession
Gorilla tracking experiences this month have been quite varied in terms of distance and difficulty of the walk to reach both the Neptuno and Jupiter families. The high gorilla density of the Ndzehi forests makes for very interesting dynamics between the various groups and between the solitary silverbacks that patrol the area looking for females to steal to begin their own families.
The gorillas are in a kind of limbo at the moment waiting for the promise of fruit and feeding on marantaceae primarily. One of the interesting behaviours seen, specifically with Neptuno’s family this month, has been the digging for and eating of roots. After the rains the soil is a lot softer which allows easier access to this delicious resource; this is incredibly fascinating behaviour to watch and recently Neptuno himself was observed relaxing on his stomach manipulating and chewing on a thick root.
The youngsters in Neptuno’s family are becoming more active climbers and have given us a real show with their attempts at agility. Gorillas are mostly silent animals communicating mainly with gentle grunts, hand clapping or chest tapping. This is always incredible to hear when coming from the silverback but when the youngsters do it, it is definitely more amusing than anything else. On one occasion we got to see Neptuno feeding in the marantaceae but as soon as we found a good gap to get a clear view he promptly lay down to have a nap and all we could then really see was his coat of silver. Luckily for us one of the youngsters came to the rescue and climbed onto a tree branch not far away. This little one was very interested in us and kept staring from face to face, then he reached up, took the branch above his head into his mouth and used it to balance precariously while he used both hands to tap on his chest. This was amusing but what happened next was even funnier. This little one then lost interest and decided it was time to go back to the rest of the family, but misjudged his weight so that when he tried to lower himself, the branch snapped and he crash-landed – luckily onto a marantaceae mattress.
The blue skies lately have been a real treat that have enhanced the experience of seeing gorillas up in the trees. The yellow flowers and new growth of the African coralwood (Pterocarpus soyauxii) trees – reaching heights of 50 metres – are incredibly popular with gorillas, and the noise of Jupiter’s family fighting over access to the best bits is what led us to them on one of our latest tracking excursions. We manoeuvred our way through the thick understorey and arrived in a small clearing that was not directly under the tree but gave us a gap to have an uninterrupted view. In one bright yellow tree with that incredible sky-blue background were 16 gorillas, including silverback Jupiter! This was really an amazing sight and so definitive about what makes western lowland gorillas so different – their ability to climb. We made ourselves as comfortable as we could and watched for 45 minutes as the gorillas went about their business undisturbed but in slight competition with each other for the freshest growth.
The forests around Ngaga are incredibly expansive, which can make finding fast moving primates like many of the smaller monkey species quite difficult, but night walks continue to reveal some of the more secretive creatures of the forests. Demidoff’s galago is the smallest primate in Africa and when we have been lucky enough to get a glimpse of this 60 g primate at night, a few guests have come full circle in terms of having seen an enormous 170 kg western lowland gorilla silverback the very same day. Demidoff’s galagos usually live in rather tangled vegetation and so are more adapted to running along foliage than many of the other galagos which entertain with their acrobatic antics jumping from branch to branch.
Another primate not often encountered but active at night is the strange-looking and slow-moving potto. To see one of these on a night walk is always a treat as their slow movement usually means everyone has at least a little bit of time to try see it. This is not always the case with the much more active palm civet – who is amazingly agile in the tangles of vegetation and equally at home scaling almost vertical tree trunks. The long striped tail and face that slightly resembles a cat are the give-aways for this species.
The number of juvenile birds being spotted in the past month has made the trick of identifying birds slightly more challenging and exciting. Good news is that we seem to have a resident pair of blue-throated rollers in camp at Ngaga using a dead tree as their nesting site and the rufous-bellied helmet-shrikes are still regularly passing through camp. We have also had one sighting of a European roller on the forest/savannah edge at Ngaga. The cuckoos are still calling incessantly and one of their brood parasite offspring was seen flying to and fro across the river. A great welcome for the last group of guests for 2013 was a grey-headed kingfisher on the railing at Lango when they first arrived at camp. The yellow wagtails are also adding a splash of colour to the eternal green of the forest and a chocolate-backed kingfisher was recently seen on one of the gorilla tracking excursions.