Birder's Guide to Gabon: 1988 - 1992
Section 1 - General information





This Birder's Guide is divided into six sections:

Section 1 - Introduction, logistics, itinerary and general information.
Section 2 - Birding sites (part 1).
Section 3 - Birding sites (part 2).
Section 4 - Birding sites (part 3).
Section 5 - Annotated checklist with identification notes (non-passerines).
Section 6 - Annotated checklist with identification notes (passerines).


Gabon, especially the southern and eastern areas, is still relatively poorly known ornithologically. This, combined with the ability to see many rare and local species within a country safe for travel, will be a great lure for many birders. Until now, no birding information has been available for Gabon; only a few scientific books, papers and articles, mostly in French. This report provides a comprehensive guide to birding Gabon, and is compiled from five years of living and birding around the country between 1988 and 1992. Increased observation will add additional species to the list, and recent field work has added significant distributional data to the ranges of breeding species. Although no species of bird is completely endemic to Gabon, it shares restricted range species with Cameroon, Congo and/or Zaire. Currently five, four resident and one migrant, species are treated in the ICBP/IUCN Red Data Book. Common English names have been used throughout the main text. A complete checklist of Gabon birds, with scientific names, is included in the checklist section. Taxonomy and nomenclature follow Clements (1991).

Flights and Getting There

From Europe, direct flights to Libreville, the capital, are available from Paris, Brussels, and Geneva. All three offer similarly discounted tickets through agents, but fares are relatively expensive. A possibly cheaper alternative, for those also interested in birding on São Tomé and Príncipe islands (Sargeant, 1992), would be the weekly flight from Lisbon to São Tomé, connecting with an Equatorial Airlines flight to Libreville.


Officially a visa is required in advance. It helps a lot to have some sort of introductory letter from Gabon.


The official currency is the Central African Franc (written CFA), a common currency shared with other western and central African countries. As the CFA is supported by France, a fixed exchange rate of 50 CFA to 1 French Franc applies. This is extremely handy, as if you run out of CFA you can always use Francs. It is essential to bring French Francs cash and traveller cheques. Exchange rates offered on £ Sterling, US$ etc. are usually very poor. Credit cards are not widely accepted, and are only useful for the major hotels in Libreville and Franceville. Elsewhere they will not be accepted. Prices quoted were correct as at January 1993.


Only French is widely spoken. Even in Libreville's largest hotels, English is unlikely. Since, when birding in Gabon, many things have to be arranged as you go, this is one country where a good knowledge of French will really pay dividends. The only exception is Oyem in the north, where some Cameroon immigrants speak both English and French.

Travel and Getting Around

Gabon is one of the safest African countries in which to travel and bird. The police give few hassles, no bandits or insurgents operate, and there is little violent crime. The only place one might get ripped-off is Libreville, which like most large cities has a lot of petty crime and house burglaries. For the rest, the country is quite safe for travel, though night driving is risky due to road conditions. The only drawbacks to Gabon are the cost, or time, required to travel, plus logistical hassles such as few rental cars, and the poor roads and infrastructure. However, the quality of habitat, and the chance to find many elusive forest birds, more than balance out these inconveniences.

Car hire is very expensive, as are internal flights, hotels and services. Generally one can find at least one 'hotel' in most towns. Official camp sites do not exist, but tents can be put up anywhere. If doing so near a small village, it is recommended, and courteous, to introduce yourself to the village chief, and ask permission. The only railway, the Trans Gabonais, crosses the country between Libreville and Franceville, and offers a convenient, though slow, way of travelling between the two; though the train journey takes 12 hours. Times as follows:
From Libreville: Tuesday and Saturday mornings. Wednesday, Friday and Sunday afternoons.
From Franceville: Tuesday afternoon. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings.

One of the most useful contacts is Mistral Voyages in Libreville. This travel agent will be able to arrange all internal flights, car hire, train and hotel reservations in advance, which can be collected and paid for by credit card on arrival. If you are also intending to travel to São Tomé, they can arrange visas and flights. Most of the staff speak English.

Car rental is only available in Libreville, Port Gentil and Franceville, and four-wheel drive (4x4) only at the later. For Lekoni, it is necessary to have a 4x4 from Franceville. For the rest, the majority of travel around the country is by the infamous taxi brousse - bush taxi. Although effective at covering the country, they are always ridiculously overcrowded, overloaded, and uncomfortable. If you do take one, as a blanc you will usually be able to ride inside, where you will at least be minimally protected in the event of one of the frequent accidents. Outside of major towns, few roads are paved, the driving standards poor, and the drivers frequently drunk. Nearly all roads in Gabon are constructed from laterite, a degraded iron ore, found in large quantities in central Africa. In the dry season it turns to dust, and in the wet to clay. The only stretches of paved road are Libreville to Kango - 80 kilometres - and Franceville to Lekoni - 100 kilometrres. All the rest are laterite or sand and, although readily passable in the dry season, are badly 'wash-boarded', which makes the driving slow. Petrol is usually available in the larger towns, but cannot be counted on. Diesel is 20% cheaper than petrol. Take an international driving licence. The best available map of Gabon is the 1:1,000,000 published by the Institut Géographique National (Paris).

As the small, blue "Camping Gas" cylinders are readily available throughout Gabon, this is the easiest method of cooking. It should also be possible to find paraffin for the "Primus" type of stove.


All the usual inoculations and health precautions associated with a tropical African country apply to Gabon. For completeness, some background information on possible health (not guaranteed 100% medically accurate) and insects problems which can be encountered in Gabon, and how best to avoid them are given. A good insect repellent is essential.

Malaria. Like many other parts of the world, malaria is on the rise in Gabon. At the time of writing the recommended prophylaxis, which contrary to popular belief is nowhere near 100% effective, was 300 mg of Chloroquine weekly, and 200 mg of Paludrine daily. Malaria is the name given to the symptoms, caused by an attack of the parasite Plasmodium. This blood parasite is transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito, which is active at dusk and dawn, and silent on the wing. Two major types of malaria are recognised - a) Malignant malaria (Malaria Tropicana or Falciparum). This is the most dangerous, as without treatment it can develop into cerebral malaria, which is fatal. b) Benign malaria, which includes tertian and quartan malaria, so called as the fever attacks occur in 48 or 72 hour cycles. The symptoms of all types are similar, and only a blood test can tell the difference. A malaria attack mimics the symptoms of flu - cold shivers, high fever, and sweating, with perhaps headache, diarrhoea, and vomiting. If you are planning a long trip, travelling in remote areas consider obtaining one of the recommended first-line cures, from your doctor.

Schistosomiasis. Commonly called bilharzia, this is a worm infestation. The adult worms live in the bladder and bowel of humans, where they produce eggs released via faeces or urine. In fresh, not salt, water the eggs are ingested by its intermediate host - one of a few species of snail - from which they eventually hatch as larvae and disperse into water. The larvae cercariae penetrate the skin in a few minutes, and the cycle starts again. Once settled in humans, they cause haemorrhagic cystitis or diarrhoea, and can eventually damage kidneys, liver, and lungs. Avoid still water near villages.

Filariasis. This is caused by a filaria worm. It is transmitted via the bite of the Aedes or Mansonia mosquito, as well as (most commonly in Gabon) that of the Chrysops fly, from its principle host, the Bush Buck Tragelaphus scriptus. Symptoms are itching and small abscesses on limbs, which are caused by the worm burrowing around. Advanced stages of the disease are elephantiasis. The Chrysops fly, common in some forest areas, especially Makokou, looks like a small, orange, hover-fly, and are locally known as mouche rouge. They appear to be most commonly encountered in humid forest, where wild mammals are prevalent. You notice them hovering around exposed joints such as knuckles, belt lines, and elbows, and although the bites go unnoticed they itch like mad the next day. Insect repellents work well at keeping them off. The prophylaxis against the disease is 300 mg of Notezine weekly, but doctors may not prescribe this drug.

Trypanosomiasis. Infection with this Protozoa parasite, is more commonly referred to as sleeping sickness. It is carried by the bite of the Glossina Tsetse fly, which is common in humid forests and along river courses throughout Gabon. Beside the resulting fever, the bite itself can be very painful. Fortunately, the disease is not a great problem in Gabon, being known only around Libreville and Lambaréné. Tsetse flies are attracted to dark colours, particularly dark blue and black, so avoid clothes of these colours. They are also completely unaffected by insect repellent, so wear a thicker shirt.

Hookworm. This is a worm living in the intestine, where it hooks to the wall. Eggs are picked up walking barefoot, or in flip-flops, over damp ground contaminated with faeces from a sufferer. Symptoms include abdominal pain. In healthy adults the worm eventually disappears if reinfection does not occur.

Ticks. Ticks of various sizes abound in the forests of Gabon, though they are generally a dry season phenomenon. The most prevalent is the pepper or elephant tick which is minute and usually goes unnoticed for a few days. They are picked up when brushing through the forest undergrowth, sometimes by the dozen. The best way to remove them is to simply pull them out, but if they do not come out cleanly they tend to itch for a few weeks. They can be avoided largely by tucking shirts into trousers and wearing boots not trainers.

Jiggers. Jiggers (not to be confused with American chiggers), or sand fleas, are picked up as larvae from dry sand. They penetrate the skin of bare feet, where the females lay eggs, which are eventually released from the foot, to start the cycle again. The growing female develops into a painful cyst, which has to be cut out. Wear boots.

Tumbo Flies. This fly lays eggs on damp laundry drying in sun. The larvae penetrate the skin, and cause a boil. Ironing clothes kills the eggs.

Sand Flies. These appear to be a problem only in Lekoni, where a minute blood sucking fly flourishes in the grasslands. Long trousers and insect repellent are essential.

Fourous Flies. This is a local name given to a tiny, almost invisible, fly which is common in banana plantations. The bite goes largely unnoticed, but in the morning one can be covered with strawberry like blotches which disappear over a day or two.

Ants. Lots of these in the forest. The most aggressive, with a painful bite, is the Army Ant or Formis carnivore, which spreads out on the floor in large packs. It is to these swarms that forest-floor bird parties are attracted. When encountering such a foraging bird-group check your feet. The ants only seem to start biting when several hundred have climbed up your trouser-legs.

Sweat bees. These are minute 'bees' of the genus Trigona which are attracted to sweat, and although completely harmless, constantly try to get up your nose and in your eyes. Insect repellent helps, but they are very persistent and irritating. The area to the east of La Lopé Reserve is so infested with them, that the forest block is known as the Forèt des Abeilles - the Forest of Bees.

Climate and When to Go

Lying directly on the equator, Gabon is hot and tropical. Two seasons coincide with southern hemisphere weather patterns - a long rainy season from October to May, and a dry one between. This is a complete reversal of the seasons experienced in Cameroon, directly to the north. The wettest months are November and March-April, with a short dryer spell in December. However, rainfall in each month varies greatly from year to year.

Undoubtedly the best time to bird Gabon is between mid August and November, with sometime in early September optimal. However, the African River-Martin cannot be guaranteed until later in September, and if the rains are late, singing and breeding activity of other species could be reduced. Later, in October and November, the rains are usually well set-in, with breeding activity strongest. This should be balanced against poorer road conditions making travel more difficult.

Itinerary and Suggestions

One of the big headaches of planning a Gabon itinerary is the poor internal flight connections, all of which operate through Libreville. No matter how it's planned, it will probably be necessary to spend at least two nights in Libreville, possibly more if intending to visit São Tomé as well. For those intending to try for the African River-Martin and Loango Weaver in Gamba, it's strongly recommend going here last, to allow the former to arrive in good numbers.

Any itinerary will strongly depend on the time and finances available. The following is a suggested minimum itinerary with time constraints, concentrating on the harder speciality species. Required birding time at each site is: Gamba three days, Lekoni three days, Makokou eight days (2 M'Passa, 4 Sin River, 2 Bokaboka) plus four days travelling and three for preparation and lost time. This gives a convenient three weeks, something like:

Day 1. Arrive Libreville, Take internal flight to Franceville. Collect car and drive to Lekoni.
Day 2-4. Birding Lekoni.
Day 5. Leave Lekoni, arrive Franceville, Take train to Booué.
Day 6. Bush-taxi to Makokou. Rest of day spare.
Day 7. Arrange boat trip.
Day 8-11. Birding on Sin River.
Day 12. Return to Makokou.
Day 13. Spare day. Arrange entry to M'Passa.
Day 14-15. M'Passa Reserve
Day 16. Morning around Makokou. Afternoon flight to Libreville.
Day 17. Flight to Gamba.
Day 18-20. Birding Gamba
Day 21. Flight to Libreville.

Depending on the day of arrival, and associated problems of connecting internal flights, the spare days will need to be moved around. The above three week itinerary only considers the three, undoubtedly, best areas. For a two week trip Gamba should be left off; with longer there are numerous possibilities (see site accounts below).


Identification and distribution

Alexander-Marrack, P.D. (1990). Bird List for Mandji Island (Port Gentil). Privately published. Complete annotated checklist for all birds recorded from the area.

Brosset A., and Erard, C. (1986). Les Oiseaux des régions forestières du nord-est du Gabon. Volume 1. Ecologie et comportement des espèces. Société Nationale de Protection de la Nature, Paris. Essential if visiting the Makokou region. Unfortunately does not deal with identification, but does provide a good outline of ecology, habitat preferences, status and distribution for all the species known from the north-east of Gabon. Be aware that this book frequently, over exaggerates the abundance of particular species. Many listed as abundant, common or fairly common are actually rare.

Brown, L.H., Urban, E.K., and Newman, K. (1982). The Birds of Africa. Volume I. Academic Press,
London. Comprehensive and authoritative, this, combined with volumes II, III, and IV has become the standard reference for the African birds so far covered.

Chappuis, C. (1974 - 1985). Les Oiseaux de l'Ouest Africain. Disques 1-6, 8-10, 12-13. Supplément sonore à Alauda. Société d'études ornithologiques, Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Laboratoire d'ecologie, 4 av. du Petit Château, 91800 Brunoy, France. Sound recordings of the majority of the West African birds. Essential.

Dowsett-Lemaire, F., and Dowsett, R.J. (1991) The Avifauna of the Kouilou Basin in Congo. Tauraco Research Report 4.

Harrison, P. (1983). Seabirds. Croom Helm, Beckenham.

Hayman, P,. Marchant, J., and Prater, T.P. (1986). Shorebirds. Christopher Helm, London.

Fry, C.H., Keith, S., and Urban, E.K. (1988). The Birds of Africa. Volume III. Academic Press.

Keith, S, Urban, E.K., and Fry, C.H. (1992). The Birds of Africa. Volume IV. Academic Press.

Mackworth-Praed, C.W., and Grant, C.H.S. (1970-1973). African Handbook of Birds. Series III, Birds of West Central and Western Africa. Volume I and II. Longmans, Edinburgh. This has long been the standard guide for West Africa, and is still the only reference available with text and illustrations for almost all of the birds found in Gabon. Unfortunately, it is no longer available.

MacLean, G.L. (1984). Roberts' Birds of Southern Africa. John Voelcker Bird Book Fund, Cape Town. This or Newman (1991) is useful for some of the raptors.

Newman, K. (1991). Birds of Southern Africa. Southern Book Publishers, South Africa.

Sargeant, D.E. (1992). A Birders' Guide to São Tomé and Príncipe. Privately published. A comprehensive guide to finding all the São Tomé and Príncipe endemics.

Serle, W. and Morel, G.J. (1977). A Field Guide to the Birds of West Africa. Collins, London.
[A French version, (1979) Les Oiseaux de l'Ouest Africain, published by Delachaux et Niestlé, Neuchatel, is available.] Not for the dedicated birder. Many Gabon species are missing or inadequately covered. Unfortunately, this is the only reference readily available. Useful as a back-up, and the french version can be flashed at police and officials to explain your activities. Many common and scientific names differ from other, more standard, references.

Urban, E.K., Fry, C.H., and Keith, S. (1986). The Birds of Africa. Volume II. Academic Press.

General information

Alexander-Marrack, P.D. (1992). Nearctic Vagrant Waders in the Cap Lopez area, Gabon. Malimbus. 14: 7-10.

Brosset, A. and Erard, C. (1977). New faunistic records from Gabon. Bull. Brit. Orn. Club 97(4).

Clements, J. (1991). Birds of the World: A Checklist. Ibis, Vista, USA. This reference has been used as the taxonomic base throughout this report.

Collar, N.J., and Andrew, P. (1988). Birds to Watch. ICBP, Cambridge. UK. Useful summary of current status of each threatened species.

Collar, N.J., and Stuart, S.N. (1985). Threatened Birds of Africa and Related Islands, The ICBP/IUCN Red Data Book, Part I. I.C.B.P., Cambridge, UK.

Collar, N.J., and Stuart, S.N. (1988). Key Forests for Threatened Birds in Africa. International Council for Bird Preservation Monograph No. 3. I.C.B.P., Cambridge, UK.

Christy, P. (1982). L'Aigrette ardoisée Egretta ardesiaca au Gabon. L'Oiseau et RFO 52:91-92.

Christy, P. (1982). Notes sur des migrateurs paléarctiques observés sur le littoral gabonais. L'Oiseau et RFO 52: 251-258. (Owendo, Baie de Mondah).

Christy, P. (1992). New records of Palaearctic migrants in Gabon. Malimbus 11: 117-122.

Howard, R., and Moore, A. (1991). A Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. Acad. Press.

Newton, A. (1989). West Africa - A travel survival kit. Lonely Planet Publications. 1988. Useful background reading, but of little practical help.

Historic information

Cassin, J. (1856). Catalogue of Birds collected at Cape Lopez, Western Africa, by Mr.P.B.Du Chaillu. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. 8:316-322.

Lynes, H. (1931). Cisticola ayresii gabun. Subsp. nov. Bull. Brit. Orn. Club. 52: 9

Malbrant A., and Maclatchy, A. (1949): Faune de l'Equateur Africain Français. Tome I. Oiseaux. P. Lechevalier, Paris. All that was known of Gabon and Moyen Congo birds at that date.

Rand, A.L., Friedmann and, H., and Traylor, M.A. (1959). Birds from Gabon and Moyen Congo. Fieldiana Zool. 41. List of the collections of the Chicago and U.S. National Museums.

Rougeot, P.C. (1946). Notes sur les Laridés du Gabon. L'Oiseau et RFO 16:129‑132.

Rougeot, P.C. (1948). Nouvelles notes sur les palmipèdes du Gabon. L'Oiseau et RFO 18.

Rougeot, P.C. (1952). Observations ornithologiques dans l'ocean Atlantique. L'Oiseau et RFO 22.


I would especially like to thank Peter Alexander-Marrack and Patrice Christy for their invaluable help and contributions throughout. Peter provided much of the information for La Lopé and Port Gentil. Patrice helped enormously with difficult identification problems and supplied much information on travel in the interior of Gabon. I would also thank all my friends who provided help and assistance, or who accompanied me on various field trips; Paul Boelens, Frans and Marleen Buiter, Pierre and Françoise Bulens, Claude Chappuis, John Clark, Tom Gullick, Don Haddon, Margreit Kuyper, Duncan Macdonald, Phillip Payne, Martine van der Poll, Joseph van Oudenhoven, Ian Sinclair, Don Turner and Jan Weiringa.

Wildlife Protection in Gabon

Like much of Africa, wildlife protection in Gabon, is haphazard and not properly enforced. Birds are protected, in principle, by the following: Decree no. 189/PR/MEFCR of 4th March 1987 (Article 1) and law no. 25/87 of 29 July 1987 (Article VIII, Class A) prohibits hunting, trapping, trade and trafficking of the following species; all pelicans, storks, hamerkop, ibises, spoonbills, herons, egrets and bitterns. All flamingos, Crowned Hawk-Eagle, African Fish-Eagle, and Grey-necked Rockfowl. However, a special dispensation may be granted at the discretion of the minister of water and forests (Eaux et Forêts) to persons possessing a scientific hunting permit. A second category is defined by article 2 of decree no.189 and article VIII, Class B of law 25/87. The following species are partially protected, though they may be hunted, killed, trapped and collected, given a special authorisation delivered by the minister of water and forests; Palm Nut Vulture, all birds of prey not included in Class A, all owls and owlets, all bustards, African Grey Parrot. Article 3 of decree no. 189: Animals not listed in articles 1 et 2 constitute ordinary game; hunting, trapping, trade and trafficking are permitted but subject to regulations.

Section 2 - Birding sites (part 1).
Section 3 - Birding sites (part 2).
Section 4 - Birding sites (part 3).
Section 5 - Annotated checklist with identification notes (non-passerines).
Section 6 - Annotated checklist with identification notes (passerines).