Birders Discover African Grail Bird:The Congo Peafowl

Congo-Peafowl-©-Birdquest-700x467

Congo Peafowl © Birdquest

A hundred years ago the Con(though it was known to the Congolese as a source of food and ceremonial headdress). About 80 years ago, the bird was first described in the ornithological record, but that description did not come from an actual sighting, it came from two mislabeled specimens that American ornithologist James Chapin had seen at a museum in Belgium. And while a few lucky primate researchers and one BBC filmmaker had spotted the bird hence, it took another 70 or so years for the world’s first birder/ornithologist to see one in the wild (Callan Cohen). So you can see why, after the last 80 years of this birds shy existence and disinterest in being observed by members of the birding ilk, the Congo Peafowl is considered by many to be the holiest of holy grails in African birding.

On September 18th, 2015, eight adventurous birders managed to not only see but photograph a female Congo Peafowl after nine days of slogging through the Congolese bush, being punctured by every manner of stinging insect, groped by tangles of bush, and surviving on goat meat and rice.

The group had gathered in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at the suggestion of one very passionate and dauntless tour leader, Mark Beaman. Mark is the founder and Managing Director of Birdquest Birding and Wildlife Tours. For reasons that may confound a less spirited individual, Mark felt that the peafowl, with its near mystical existence, was a worthy subject for a pioneering expedition.

“It’s been my lifelong mission to see this bird,” said Mark. But this peafowl is incredibly hard to spot, as 80 years of trying has demonstrated. In areas “where birds are being hunted to extinction, birds tend to be very shy, suspicious of foot fall, voices, and other sounds.” This is true of the Congo Peafowl, and forest exploitation has diminished habitat and constricted its range.

The Congo Peafowl, therefore, is “one of the most elusive animals on earth.” This might very well be the last African bird that anyone in their right mind should count on adding to their life list.

If its elusiveness wouldn’t give one cause to reconsider, then the fact that birding the Congo is not exactly a walk in the park might have stopped the madness sooner.

“Well then, let’s have a go at it, shall we?” said Mark, to which several of his most venturesome friends said, “We shall!”

Getting to the Congo forest is not easy

All the airlines that operate inside the Congo are banned by the European Union for their poor safety ratings so that’s a breath of fresh air. When you roll the heavenly dice and select a charter, though, realize you can’t buy standard travel insurance because it’s a high-risk country with travel warnings a mile long.

“Well, you know, we took our chances,” grinned Mark.

They boarded a charter plane, which “seemed modern enough and mechanically sound,” for the Equateur province. From there, the explorers navigated a dugout canoe down tributaries of the Congo River for one and a half days. When they arrived at the guard post at the Lomako-Yokokala Faunal Preserve in DRC’s Equateur Province, they commandeered another boat upriver, disembarked, and carried their food and gear a further 12 kilometers through the forest to Camp.

 Being in the Congo forest is not easy

Camp was nothing more than a small muddy clearing in a “gloomy forest interior” where trees as older than dirt tower 100 meters above your head and the branches, limbs, and tangles of the dense understory make every step off trail a binding, significant challenge. Their only window to the world for two weeks was a tiny patch of blue they could spot through the canopy. I presume this crystalline patch gave hope that they’d get back to their families someday…

Camp was a restful place, but only in between the incessant stings of African safari ants. Stinging bees. Ticks. Fleas. Sandflies. Mosquitoes. Sweat bees. Horse flies. You name it. A good day, Mark said, was marked by receiving “less than 50 ant bites” for the day’s tally.

One night, long into the evening, Mark had a terrible dream that his whole body was being shattered by stinging bullets. He woke to realize this was no dream, it was a living nightmare. In the night, Mark’s tent had been invaded by an army of 5,000 ants, each curious about the flavor of his warm flesh. Needless to say, he ran out of the tent naked, swatting the little f*ckers off like a maniac.

Birding the Congo forest is not easy!

The understory is so thick, a ground-dwelling bird could be standing ten feet from you in broad daylight but you can still miss it. The bonobo researchers had cleared trails in this Fangorn-like forest, and going off-trail in search of a singing bird was not comfortable or advised. How does one see a fat bird that walks on the ground?

So the team trekked through the forest, listening to every sound, peering into every tree, in hopes of a sighting. After many long days, a Dutchman (Koos Van Sittert) came back to camp describing how he and his tracker flushed a peafowl off the side of the trail in a split-second viewing. This lent hope to the group that the grail bird would avail itself of a viewing before the god-forsaken tour would come to an end.

But indeed, after nine grueling days and nights of “living off rice and goat” and methodically combing the forest around camp, there was still no group sighting of the bird. As chief catalyst of this very expensive tour, this was making Mark a wee bit nervous. But in guiding, one must soldier on and not let down your guard down or you risk the collective hope of your paying guests.

The strategy had been to split into two smaller groups in order to reduce disturbance. Mark Van Beirs – the joint expedition leader – took three birders in his group and they covered the usual territory. As nightfall set, thought, they heard a curious sound…the sound of a Congo Peafowl calling from deep in the forest, maybe 150 meters away. Mark got his torch and started making his way through the brush as quietly and calmly as possible. His party followed. They cut their way through the thick tangle and heard the Congo Peafowl calling again. The sound appeared to be coming from high, and indeed, their flashlights soon illuminated a female Congo Peafowl sitting on its nighttime roost.

Success!

The four thanked their lucky stars to be in the company of this, the Grail bird of Africa, but this was no time to revel in a sighting. They had to hustle back to camp and bring the others, just hoping it would still be there for everyone, especially Mark Beaman, for whom this would fulfill a lifelong dream.

But would the bird still be there after eight sweaty, panting bodies pushed their way through the brush to the foot of its roost site? There was no guarantee, and indeed probably not! They needed a photo before they left the peafowl. But who had the camera? No one!

So back to the Camp it was. The group of four had to stick together, because leaving one or two behind to stand guard in the Congolese jungle may have broken every rule ever made about birding in Africa. Mark Van Beirs had the presence of mind to tie a handkerchief to a sapling closest to the trail, high tail the group back to Camp, and breathlessly tell the rest of the expedition party.

The handkerchief did its duty and within thirty minutes they had arrived back at the spot AND the female Congo Peafowl was sitting in the same branch. Now the group could truly revel in the sighting. They enjoyed  long looks, snapped photographs, and made their way back to camp where they toasted with a round of whiskey.

Finally! A proper group of birders – not just villagers, nor armed rebel militias, nor bonobo researchers, nor a filmographer—had set their eyes on this bird, and in so doing, became what they believe are the 2nd – 9th non–Congolese birders in the world to have ever seen the shy and enigmatic Congo Peafowl.

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What now for the Congo Peafowl? Now that it has a chance to become better known to the outside world, it’d be a shame for it to slide out of existence. But the only thing that can help this bird is the “declaration of more forest reserves in the Congo combined with effective policing and protection,” says Mark Beaman. Africa Wildlife Federation works to help fund forest protection and pay rangers to protect wildlife.

Donate here.

Birdquest thanks Africa Wildlife Foundation (AWF), especially Jef Dupain, for their dedication to wildlife conservation and their instrumental assistance in making this challenging expedition come to fruition.

Expedition members: Mark Van Beirs (joint expedition leader), Mark Beaman (joint expedition leader), Koos Van Sittert, Suzanne Bonmarchand, Jim Martin, Elena Babij, William Rodger, Kevin Bryan.

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Thanks to Mark Beaman for sharing this story with Nature Travel Network. Birdquest has been in business since 1981 and is the only tour company to have recorded a combined total of 10,000+ bird species on its trips. While Birdquest is famous for challenging expeditions, they have a rich, worldwide itinerary with plenty of relaxed and easy trips for birdwatchers.

Laura Kammermeier

Laura Kammermeier is the creator and managing editor of Nature Travel Network. She is a writer, website producer, traveler, birder and a birding/nature travel consultant. Laura has traveled Uganda, Europe, Ecuador, Belize, Honduras, Israel, and throughout the United States Read More

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