10 March 2014

Río Muni

The TSA had trained me well. I prepared to take my shoes off, prepared my water bottle for the security checkpoint, and made sure anything suspicious I had was in a non-threatening position. We were at Malabo International Airport, and preparing to fly to Bata, Río Muni. The mainland sector of Equatorial Guinea is sandwiched between Cameroon and Gabon, and access is conducted almost exclusively through Bata, the country's largest city. I prepared my tickets for Ceiba, the national airline of Equatorial Guinea, and negotiated my way through passport control. A paranoid country, I had now become accustomed to random roadblocks and handing over my passport (or copies) at a moment's notice. However, this check went well, and what I saw when I came around the corner shocked me: the security station was empty, and the metal detector was off. I walked over, hesitantly, but managed to walk to the edge of the airport unimpeded.

And so I waited, and talked to my friends, and continued to recover from the illness that had plagued me the previous days. I sat, staring out the window at the Pied Crows and Cattle Egrets flying over the runway, and the frantic foraging patterns of the Little Swifts over the damp grasses. People wandered across the tarmac, and we were soon ushered out to our flight. I thought nothing of it, when suddenly, a security guard saw me drinking from my water bottle. Moments before boarding, I was pulled aside and frantically worked my way through the fast Spanish conversation. Apparently, I had illegally smuggled my water bottle through "security". I was walked out of line across the tarmac, and forced to empty the contents of my water bottle before boarding the flight. After that, it was fairly unevently. The plane climbed high into the West African sky, and I was able to glimpse the foreboding massifs of Pico Basilé and Mount Cameroon. It was not long until the unbroken expanses of the mainland rainforest appeared, and we landed at the small (but very busy) Bata International Airport.

Almost immediately, we encountered our first good bird on the mainland - the country's first record of Lesser Kestrel (Falco naummanni)! However, taking photographs and using binoculars are illegal at airports in Equatorial Guinea, so all we could do is sit and watch the Pied Crows chase it around the parking lot. We soon arrived at the office of the Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo Forestal y de Áreas Protegidas (INDEFOR-AP), the Equatoguinean equivalent of the USA's Department of the Interior. There, we met with Fidel Esono, and prepared for our trip deep into the jungle.

Discussing our plans for Río Muni. From left to right: Luke L. Powell, Obama (our local guide), me, and Jared D. Wolfe. Photo taken by Mo Twine, on behalf of the Equatorial Guinea Bird Initiative.

In Bata, we stayed not far from the beach, and familiarized ourselves with mainland birds. On the first morning of our trip, our ride was late, so we sat out in the cool morning air and birded from our porch. Amazingly, a beautiful mixed flock came through, offering us some nice surprises! West African Batis and Splendid Glossy-Starling entertained us, while Black-and-white Shrike-Flycatcher and Red-chested Goshawk kept us on our toes.

Soon, however, we were off to Parque Nacional de los Altos de Nsork, a remote and near-mythical place that we had read about in the extreme southeast of the country. Along our drive, the influx of money from the oil industry was evident everywhere. Interstates with no cars led through pristine jungle, and the towns all had the feel of boom towns, with tiny tin shacks selling bottles of water for over 5 USD. We found ourselves in an area with few amenities, and those that were present we could not afford.

Eventually, we began to set up shop along the edge of the national park. There, we banded for two days, and conducted audiovisual surveys along the road cuts. I grew stronger and stronger as I recovered from my illness, and found myself invigorated by the thick forest around us.

The rarest bird we found in the park was this Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola). Foraging along a blocked creek at the edge of the road construction, this bird represents the second record ever for Equatorial Guinea, and the first for the mainland.

A fantastically beautiful forest bird associated with water, the White-throated Blue Swallow (Hirundo nigrita) was a fantastic surprise during a brief roadside stop.

Not all birds are instantly identifiable! Much overlap between the appearances of several species exists, and some require much more study than others. One such bird was this Chestnut-flanked Sparrowhawk (Accipiter castanilius). A rare, small understory hawk, it is rarely encountered and few photographs exist.

A close-up of the Chestnut-flanked Sparrowhawk we caught in Altos de Nsork. This is the first Accipiter I ever got to hold!

The crown jewel of our African banding efforts was the White-bellied Kingfisher (Corythornis leucogaster), of which we caught two. This bird was made that much better by being caught near a calling Bare-cheeked Trogon (Apaloderma aequatoriale), my first African trogon encounter.

After several days of surveying and banding, we headed back to Bata, and prepared for our last few days in this fantastic country.

To be continued...

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