The rains of the long rainy season are slowing, allowing the forest a chance to dry out and giving our roads a welcome reprieve from very muddy conditions. November has still delivered the odd thunderstorm, thereby making everyone realise the true power the wet conditions have over these very special forests.
The Lango Stream is still flowing strongly and rain at night has made walking in the bai in the morning even more interesting with higher water levels and stronger currents. With all the forest streams draining into the Lekoli River, the rise in flow of this river from the dry season is truly remarkable. Gone are the muddy banks overhung by exposed roots of trees lining the sides of the river; the white pebble beaches are now only hinted at and the fast flow results in a muddy, churning current. The muddy Lekoli is sharply contrasted with its tributaries; their slow pace doesn’t allow for mud churning but their winding through the forest allows a huge accumulation of leaf litter that slowly decomposes and leaves behind tannins that stain their waters dark.
Lango Camp, Odzala-Kokoua National Park
The rainy season has left its legacy evident in the puddles of water on the roads which have attracted the usual suspects like forest buffalo in search of a cool, muddy bath and then some more unusual creatures like dwarf crocodiles, which are a small nocturnal species, notoriously difficult to see. To be able to see the buffalo at close range is a real privilege, the lighter colour of their eyes and the decoration of hairs inside their ears being the most fascinating details. But the dwarf crocodile was a real surprise for all of us. At one particularly deep puddle we slowed right down to cross and as the wheels entered the puddle, something scrambled out of the water and into the long grass. At first we were all unsure as to what had fled in such a hurry and although the creature had hidden his body in the undergrowth he had left us a clue. There it was, the unmistakeable tail of a crocodile. The fact that this fellow was found quite far from all permanent water sources must mean that a fair number of these crocodiles exist in the Park and that they take advantage of the heavy rains to move through various areas that would otherwise be inaccessible to them or to access new water sources. Unfortunately this was a once-off sighting and we didn’t manage to find him in his puddle again.
The forest is home to vast numbers of creatures great and small, and the real challenge is to be patient and quiet enough to allow the forest to reveal what dwells inside. This month we were lucky enough to have sightings of two different species of duiker – both the blue and the Peter’s duikers. Duikers are forest specialists and with their small size are often overlooked by those moving too quickly. But their response to danger is to freeze and so for those looking carefully, a glimpse of one of these amazing little animals is sometimes possible.
Lango continues to be very productive for nocturnal forest elephants with a bull or two lingering around in the morning allowing for irregular but good sightings, while the boat trip remains the best chance we have for viewing a herd of these shy forest animals. The lingering morning mists around Lango not only make for beautiful yet eerie sunrises but also help to keep the temperature down which means forest wildlife like elephants are more willing to spend more hours outside the forest before the day begins to heat up.
Another nocturnal visitor to Lango this past week has been a spotted hyaena. On most mornings we are able to see the tracks of where she has been conducting her nightly patrol but to our delight a few nights ago, we shone a torch from the main deck only to see said hyaena just below the decking. Still being quite shy, she didn’t stick around for long but it always encouraging seeing animals starting to get used to a peaceful human presence.
Ngaga Camp, Ndzehi Concession
The rainy season can bring positive and negative aspects to gorilla viewing. The positive is that often after the rains gorillas want to spend more time in the trees and off the wet ground below, but the negative is that they can also have a bit of a slow start to the day, spending a bit longer in their nests than normal. The actual tracking can also become more complicated as the rains wash away the few subtle signs these ghosts of the forests leave behind. But the Ngaga master trackers continue to awe us and have managed to always find the gorillas we were looking for, even if after a long hike.
The wet season brings a lot of flowers and thereafter, the dry season yields the fruit. The next two months should see many trees fruiting, which can make for spectacular sights as gorillas climb with amazing agility after the food they love – but can also mean following them intensely as they try to be the first at the fruiting trees. The juveniles in Jupiter’s family have been very interesting to watch lately as they test their levels of bravery both with us and amongst each other, while in Neptuno’s family, watching a youngster learn to climb and manoeuvre around in the trees without the help of his mother has been remarkable. At some points you could almost see the confusion on his face as he tried to climb down and follow mom but just couldn’t seem to find the right way. After trying about three different routes with a lot of stretching and manoeuvring, he eventually found a liana, or climbing plant, which allowed him to get safely back to mom.
The drying puddles of moisture on the roads and paths are a lepidopterist’s heaven with mirages of butterflies taking to wing when disturbed. This is also evident in camp as butterflies have been gathering into huge clouds around certain areas and putting on a real spectacle with their gentle flight, after which they often return to the same spot to keep looking for minerals and salts. The most impressive of these are the large brightly coloured swallowtails but the small blues are not to be outdone just by size and make up for this by gathering in large numbers and flashing their brilliant lilac colour when approached too closely.
Night walks continue to be a different way to explore the forest and species that would be otherwise impossible to see can sometimes be revealed. Sometimes a night walk can just be about the sounds and the feeling of the forest after dark, but this month in particular we have had some excitement on night walks, one incident being a Lord Derby’s anomalure nearly landing on some guests.
Anomalures are more commonly known as “flying squirrels.” They have a rather extensive skin fold between their fore and hind limbs and when they jump from tree to tree they will extend their limbs so as to use this skin fold as a mechanism to fly, or more accurately, to glide. While walking, we all suddenly noticed the torch beam ahead aimed on a grey, kite shape that seemed to be floating in the sky. More specifically, floating towards us. The anomalure kept coming and even forced two guests to crouch down on the path to allow it to pass overhead. Once it landed, it quickly took two jumps and vanished into the night. The incident had happened so quickly, with so much excitement and a little bit of fear, but we could not believe our luck.
The insect life at night can also yield some interesting finds, like bark scorpions, most easily found with a UV light that causes the chitin in their exoskeletons to glow luminously. Another good spot was a whip tail scorpion, part of the arachnid family but not a true spider as they do not produce any silk. This fearsome-looking creature has densely hooked front legs and incredibly long antennae to allow any slight movement by potential prey to be picked up, then grabbed by the hooked front legs and devoured.
From Ngaga, our village visit to Ombo village is an interesting way to gain insight into how people live in the forests. Guests have the opportunity to taste some locally produced alcohol and if we lucky taste some locally produced manioc, the staple diet of Congolese living in this area.
Migratory birds have added a new dimension to the calls in the forest; from the cuckoos and swallows to the kites, we have been welcoming many different birds back from their excursions to northern Africa or even to Europe.
With the salt licks around Lango starting to dry out, the grey parrots and the green pigeons are returning to put on their fine displays in the mornings. Other good sightings this month have included African finfoot, cinnamon-breasted bunting, black-headed waxbill, marsh tchagra, western yellow wagtail, Cassin’s spinetail and Pel’s fishing owl. The Pel’s fishing-owl is one of those legendary birds that birders will travel to great lengths to see. Cruising slowly on the boat one of the guests up front pointed out that he saw a big, light brown bird that looked like an owl flying away from us. We inched silently closer and there it was perched high up in the trees. We all only saw it for the briefest time but there was no doubt about which special bird we had just seen.