Holiday Spotlight - THE GAMBIA
THURSDAY 14 - THURSDAY 21 JANUARY 2010
Thursday 14 January: Everyone arrived at Gatwick on time despite epic journeys from across the UK in the face of the worst snow in at least 15 years.
Although there was a slight delay, our flight was uneventful and we arrived at Banjul airport in the late afternoon. Once we had clearedimmigration and collected our bags we got the connecting bus and headed towards our hotel. Those of us from up north who had been experiencing minus 200 temperatures the previous week had to quickly get acclimatised to the 400 heat. We arrived at the Bakotu Hotel as dusk fell, met our friendly local guide Wally and settled into our rooms.
We went down to the beach through the bustling local craft market and were immediately inundated by groups of colourful locals keen to sell us their wares. Peter very soon became friends with a lovely fruit seller called Adama, who along with her colleagues at the women’s co-operative promised to provide us with fresh fruit whenever we wanted. Anticipation was thick in the air at dinner, with everyone eager to get out birding and blow away the cold winter blues.
Friday 15 January: In what was to become a regular morning feature we all met for breakfast at 6.55, with the sound of dawn chorus bird song coming from the lovely hotel grounds. We boarded our minibus and 15 minutes later arrived at the famous Abuko Nature Reserve. Within minutes, we began to connect with a series of very special birds in this small remnant of coastal forest that once cloaked much of Gambia. This was the beginning of what was to become an established pattern. Almost immediately Tony saw his bogey bird, Giant Kingfisher, from the main hide overlooking Crocodile Pool. Stunning views of this huge kingfisher sitting in a tree posing nicely for scopes were had by all – a great start to what was to be a very memorable and exciting day. Next up was at least one gorgeous Violet Turaco sitting and moving around a tree above the hide. This is one of the Abuko specialists we had hoped to see and everyone had cracking views within half an hour of arriving.
In a vain attempt to calm down we all settled in the spacious hide and began to scan for birds across the water and trees. Purple Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Great White Egret, Pied Kingfisher, African Darter, African Jacana quickly gave themselves up. Careful scanning soon picked up Malachite Kingfisher, Grey Plantain-eater, the vegetarian Palm-nut Vulture and the first of many stonking Bearded Barbets. We left the hide and headed along the main trail connecting with Black-necked Weaver, various doves, hornbills and sunbirds. A movement in a tree alerted us to the presence of a spectacular Green Turaco. Once again our luck held and the audible gasps of delight followed as each of us had great views of this beautiful bird and its white tipped green Mohican crest. These two Turacos were high on everyone’s ‘most wanted list’ and no one was left disappointed.
By setting the bar high so early on Peter and Ian began to wonder how they were going to meet expectations. They need not have worried as the day simply got better and better. Within minutes Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters were sitting and flying around us. These were followed by their larger cousins, Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters flying overhead. A cry of ‘Fanti Saw-wing’ caused some incredulity as at least one individual (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) thought we had just made up the name. Later in the trip, the scepticism towards daft or inexplicable Africa bird names (Green Wood Hoopoe anyone?) was christened ‘Fanti Saw-wing-ism’!
Sun Squirrel, Green Vervet Monkey, Patas Monkey and Red Colobus Monkey ensured that Abuko distractions were not all avian. We had a lengthy break at the ‘animal sanctuary’ where cold drinks were gratefully quaffed, as a pair of impressive Lanners flew overhead. Here the ‘nice’ monkeys showed their true colours by trying to steal food from the unwary. Several of us spent time in a small rusty shack (euphemistically called a bird hide) overlooking a tiny pool of water, where many birds, such as Bronze Manikin, Village Weaver, Red Bishop and Blue-spotted Wood Dove came to drink. Close examination by Ian of a group of vultures revealed a Great White Pelican flying over. Peter became all excited and hot and bothered when not one but two Western Bluebills started showing in low vegetation adjacent to the path. This difficult to see localised West Africa species is something of an Abuko forest specialist. Incredibly, the bird showed long enough for everyone on the narrow trail to see this cracking bird, which became bird of the trip for Mike and Liz. In the same area, a hybrid Paradise Flycatcher (with its diagnostic white wing edges) put on a fine fly-catching display. The desperate amongst us wanted to count this hybrid as a half tick, but they need not have worried because both its parent species were later to be seen well. This was followed by a lovely Common Wattle-eye found by Ian and Wally.
By the time we reached the main bird hide again, everyone was hungry and so we sat and watched the pool while eating our sandwiches. A couple of Nile Crocodiles were well hidden in the weed, but still menacing, and a series of colourful butterflies and dragonflies danced past. Last, but certainly not least, patience paid off with fleeting and frustrating views of a Robin-chat in the undergrowth. After what seemed like an age, the bird finally came out to feed on breadcrumbs put down specially, revealing itself as a Snowy-crowned Robin-chat. This was a very popular bird and a superb end to our Abuko trip. For several people, the lack of biting insects was also a pleasant surprise.
In the evening we were still all fired up and headed out to the Faraja Golf Course and Kotu Creek, which backed on to the hotel grounds. Almost immediately we were looking at gorgeous Blue-bellied Rollers, Red-billed Hornbills and ungainly
Grey Plantain-eaters. Northern Black Flycatcher, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Beautiful Sunbird and our first Yellow-crowned Gonolek drew appreciative noises, interrupted only by the constant sound of cameras clicking away. Jim and Sally could not get enough of the rollers and hornbills and gradually got closer and better photos of these species than those who carried on. A noisy Double-spurred Francolin helpfully sat on top of a termite mound, allowing everyone to see it. Back on the golf course, a trio of smart-looking waders distracted us for quite some time. Deciding whether to watch Spur-winged Plover, Wattled Plover or Black-crowned Plover was one of those Gambian conundrums that elicited different answers from whoever you spoke to. The first of our African Harrier Hawks and Lizard Buzzards captured the raptor enthusiast’s attention for a while. Last, but not least, two diminutive Little Bee-eaters vied for attention on some low scrub.
Saturday 16 January: Lines of colourfully dressed women and waving children greeted us along the 20 minute minibus route to nearby Brufut village and its great woods. This was our first chance to see the very basic living conditions endured by most Gambians and it was in complete contrast to our hotel. The day started off well with Lavender Waxbill and Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu at the bus stop. At this protected community woodland we were met by a local guide who soon had us peering into the top of a leafy tree. Slowly a beautiful White-faced Scops Owl appeared through a gap in the leaves and mild panic ensued as each of us tried to get a perfect angle from which to see all the bird. Eventually, telescopes were set up, but not without David and Jean having to view the bird from a praying position on their knees! This diminutive owl with its large ear tufts was a real favourite and we spent nearly half an hour watching and photographing it as it roosted.
It was time to move on and we left the vehicle track, entered the thicket woods and used a series of narrow trails. A handful of us saw brief views of a family of Stone Partridges disappear into the scrubby understorey. After a short while our local guide spotted a rare Yellowbill and we spent a while getting glimpses of parts of this hard to see bird (living up to its reputation). This might have been one of the best birds of the trip in terms of its rarity, but it did not give itself up easily and most of us had to settle for brief glimpses. A short distance on and we took an even narrower path and stopped in the middle of a patch of scrub. For the only time on the trip space was at a premium and we waited patiently as the guides studiously studied the leafy scrub woodland floor.
One by one each of us moved into position and, with the aid of Peter’s laser pen, was soon looking at a stunning Long-tailed Nightjar. Although most birders like nightjars, this must surely be one of the most spectacular and beautiful in the world. We spent a suitably long time getting incredibly close views of at least two
birds on the ground a few feet away. Photographers had difficulty getting all of the nightjar and its long tail into a single frame. At the end of the trip, several people, including Jim, Graham and John, felt this experience was one of if not the best birds of the trip. It is difficult to disagree with them.
The heat of the day was beginning to build up and our local guides had one more treat in store for us. A large tree in the distance was attracting the attention of several noisy Pied Crows. Once we set up our scopes, it became clear why. An enormous Verreaux’s Eagle Owl was roosting in the tree. This huge owl with its diagnostic pink eyelids was another trip favourite, particularly with Trevor and Ann. Three night birds was a privilege, which was enhanced by the knowledge that our entry fee went directly to the local community who protect this fantastic, but threatened, habitat. Standing here, a couple of us quickly learned to always check for ant trails before standing still. Once back at the main track, we rested under a nice shady tree and an enterprising local appeared on his bike with cold bottles of Sprite, Coke and Fanta, which were rapidly drunk by our thirsty, but happy group. He did good business, but was left with much recycling to do
Our next stop from the bus was for a smart Lizard Buzzard and a lovely Broad-billed Roller in an area of recently burned coastal savannah scrub. Shortly after this we arrived at Tanji fishing village on the coast. The noise and smell hit us first and we parked near the edge of the village to avoid the attention of the local children and the visceral sights, sounds and smells from the fish market in the heat of the day. The sea was a blur of activity with fishing boats and birds everywhere. At least one Pink-backed Pelican was sitting close in shore and was surrounded by dozens of Grey-headed Gulls. As we walked down the beach, noting a few waders, we could see hundreds of birds roosting on the foreshore near the mouth of a river. As we got closer, we identified Lesser-crested Terns, Royal Terns, and Caspian Terns. After much practice, everyone managed to separate the species and find their own yellow, orange and red billed large terns. By this time a handful of local children were in pursuit. In amongst the terns on the beach were Lesser Black-backed Gulls and giant green-legged Great Black-backed look-a-like Gulls. These were in fact Kelp Gulls and everyone got great views of this target species. A flock of 23 Great White Pelicans flew overhead in the bright sunshine and allowed everyone to see the diagnostic black and white under-wing contrast.
It was now very hot and as we walked back to the minibus we flushed several Crested Larks and saw 2 White Wagtails hiding underneath a sunshade umbrella. We had a fine lunch nearby and headed back to our hotel for a refreshing swim in the pool and rest in our room. In the evening several of us went to walk over the Kotu Creek and along the Cycle track. At a nearby small lake we saw Black Egret, Sacred Ibis, Hamerkop, Long-tailed Cormorant, beautiful White-faced Whistling Ducks and a surprising and familiar Little Grebe. On the walk back to our hotel an African Paradise Flycatcher caught the evening light nicely and ended another cracking day.
Sunday 17 January: We arrived at the scrubby open woods and fields of Tujering and began our birding in earnest once again. The open nature of this dry farmland site meant that many of the birds and butterflies were easy to see well and this proved to be a favourite spot with the photographers. Aquatic species in the form of flyby
Osprey and African Spoonbill found by John (to be our only one of the trip) gave birding in this dry habitat a slightly surreal feel. Normal terrestrial service was quickly resumed in the form of beautiful butterflies including African Monarchs and Swallowtails and a lovely Vieillot’s Barbet. Peter’s English phonetic pronouncement of its name gave the French speakers of the group much amusement. In next to no time another good bird, a Black-crowned Tchagra, appeared which performed well in the early morning light. This really was a smart bird and would have demanded our attention for longer had the Mediterranean duo of Woodchat Shrike and Melodious Warbler not appeared. Ann and Peter spotted more Melodious Warblers and things began to hot up. A Black-shouldered Kite floated by, hovered and then landed in a tree, allowing good scope views.
We stopped at a busy flowering Silk Cotton or Kapok tree and were soon looking at multiple Variable, Beautiful and Splendid Sunbirds, a pair of very smart White-winged Black Tits (one of Ann’s favourites) and for a lucky few a pair of Yellow Penduline Tits and a flyby European Golden Oriole were added to our tally. Whilst the open habitats at Turjering were great for birds, they gave mad dogs and Englishmen little cover in the searing heat of the mid-day sun. We stopped the bus for a well earned drink and some shade by an abandoned looking building and sat on its roof scanning for raptors. Soon we saw several Ospreys and Trevor suggested they might well be ‘our’ Scottish Ospreys which are known to winter in the Gambia. Peter got all excited again as he spotted one and then two Long-crested Eagles. These birds (high on several most wanted trip lists), put on an impressive flyby display, allowing all of us to appreciate the beautiful black and white barred plumage. Ian spotted a Palm Nut Vulture, which was the reverse of the Long-crested Eagle, being largely white with black wing markings.
As we headed towards our lunch stop on the minibus, Peter suggested that everyone should pay particular attention towards finding two exciting ‘missing species’ namely Grey Kestrel and Abyssinian Roller. Within 2 minutes John, the hero of the hour, shouted from the back of the bus ‘Abyssinian Roller’ and the bus ground to a halt. Wonderfully John had spotted this long-tailed beauty sitting on a bush in perfect light and we all enjoyed excellent views. In the afternoon we drove to the Faraba-Banta Bush Track, better known as the Raptor track, where a perched Dark Chanting Goshawk awaited. A very nice Rufous Crowned Roller and Scarlet-chested Sunbird kept the colourful bird count high. The temperature by mid afternoon was very hot and walking became sweaty work. A brief walk along a scrubby field edge gave us Tawny-flanked Prinia and Rufous Cisticola. As we left, our first Yellow-billed Shrikes put in an appearance at a cemetery. On the journey back to the hotel, one final roadside stop at a nesting tree gave us several White-billed Buffalo Weavers. Our trip back coincided with rush hour and so we had a chance to see busy and hectic Gambian street life in action, which meant it really was difficult to know where to look.
Monday 18 January: During our longest journey of the trip (one hour) to Marakissa River Camp, we stopped to admire an African Harrier Hawk, Blue-bellied Roller and our first proper view of a super Greater Blue-eared Starling. Once at Marakissa we were inundated with good birds, first of which was Red-necked Falcon which flew in and landed on a tree in front of us. This was followed by Grey Woodpecker, Fine-spotted Woodpecker, and a lovely Broad-billed Roller, found by Liz, who noticed its bright yellow bill from a distance. As we reached the bridge over the river, a Hamerkop flew past, particularly pleasing Trevor. Ever vigilant, Ann managed to find (Greater) Painted Snipe on the edge of a marsh. Once the telescopes were set up, we were rewarded with views of several Painted Snipe of both sexes (up to 7) coming in and out of reeds. For many, even the most well travelled, this was a bogey bird, which was greatly appreciated by all of us.
Back at the lodge, the group divided into two, with one group ensconced under a hut, beer/cuppa in hand, watching the water and feeders and the others braving the river in canoes. Those on dry land were treated to excellent views of Greater Blue-eared Starling, Purple Starling, various doves, Grey-headed Sparrow and an occasional Violet Turaco. Some of those on canoes managed to see Giant Kingfisher and a pair of Bateleurs. On seeing Black Crake in the mangroves on the first return trip, Peter managed to get into a flap and jettison his paddle overboard. Luckily it was retrieved and we later found out that Gambia has no canoe paddles and replacements need to be imported from Europe.
Arriving back from the first of the canoe trips, Peter quickly spotted a flock of White-crested Helmet Shrikes. As these moved rapidly through the camp, we followed and by the time they reached the road everyone had fantastic views of this shrike punk rocker. Many people, including John, felt that this bird was the highlight of the trip and several chose to stay with the mobile flock as long as possible. All agreed that the plates in the field guide did not do justice to this super bird.
The owner/manager, Adama, was the perfect host and an excellent lunch and a lazy afternoon siesta followed, which allowed many to alternate between snoozing and watching shimmering and gleaming Greater Blue-eared Starlings and Long-tailed Starlings a few feet away from our chairs. Over the course of the afternoon, Greater and Lesser Honeyguide were also added to the trip list, along with a Gambian Sun Squirrel which came to the feeders to drink. On the return journey to the hotel several false alarm calls for Grey Kestrel resulted in 2 close-up Black-shouldered Kites on an overhead wire. Back at the hotel, Peter watched a very large Nile Monitor lizard climb up the wall outside their room and curl up to sleep on their ceiling. Did he tell Ann?
Tuesday 19 January: Our sixth day began with birding around fields at Mandina Ba. This site provided many of us with very close views of some attractive species such as Bearded Barbet, Fine-spotted Woodpecker, Yellow-crowned Gonolek, Yellow-billed Shrike, Shikra and Senegal Parrot. Careful scanning by Ian revealed two large raptors on a tree in the distance, when the scopes were set up these revealed themselves to be a pair of Wahlberg’s Eagles. A Greater Honeyguide and a super African Golden Oriole were seen by many. Due to the short length of time, we were given a choice of birding locations, one by the sea and another inland at some pools. In true democratic style, we voted for the sea, with the caveat that if we were quick we might be able to stop by the inland pools.
We drove a short distance down a bumpy track, pruning the low hanging braches with our roof rack, and arrived at a mangrove section of coast. There were several waders in front of us, including a flock of 40 Avocets. Careful scrutiny revealed Kentish Plover, Grey Plover, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Redshank, Turnstone and three dapper Slender-billed Gulls. A couple of fly-by Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters was a nice bonus, along with a large flock of Little Swifts at the road end. Unfortunately there was no sign of Goliath Heron and so it was agreed we would head inland to a watering hole known as Silletti Pools. Within 10 minutes of leaving the mangrove we approached the Senegal border crossing.
We parked the minibus in the sight of the border crossing and walked to the pool,200m inside Senegal. The pool and nearby trees were full of hirundines including large numbers of Mosque Swallows, Wire-tailed Swallows, a handful of House Martins, Pied-winged Swallows and a single Brown-throated Martin. Swifts, in the form of African Palm, Little and Mottled Spinetail, shot through and drank ‘on the wing’. All the Swallows and Martins noisily took off from the trees in panic and a shout of ‘look for a raptor’ was rewarded with a fast-flying falcon shooting in from the Gambian side and landing just where all the scopes were pointing. Almost immediately Peter called out ‘Grey Kestrel – at last’. An amusing discussion took place, as this beautiful bird was added to our Senegal, but not Gambia list! A smart Yellow-fronted Canary and Northern Crombec (a sort of nuthatch of the Savannah) were well appreciated and a Booted Eagle put in an appearance and caused some initial identification confusion.
We returned through the border crossing and headed back to the hotel for a well earned swim/beer/snooze. Talk on the bus centred on a new tick, Senegal! This was another truly great day, full of surprises and memories.
An evening walk onto the golf course revealed a Tawny Eagle, Red-chested Swallow, and Malachite Kingfisher as well as more typical species. Graham counted 15 Sacred Ibis coming in to roost, their white wings with delicate black fringes highlighted in the evening sun. It was remarkable to see how quickly the sun dropped from the sky, in a matter of moments.
Wednesday 20 January: For our final full day, we returned to the excellent Marakissa River Camp for more birding and culinary delights. We were joined by a friendly, young and upcoming Gambian bird guide called Hassan. Once again, the group divided into those who wanted to canoe on the river and those who wanted to head to the bridge and bird on terra firma. On the walk to the bridge a flock of 5 large and ungainly Spur-winged Geese flew over. Once at the bridge, we got straight back on to a Blue-breasted Kingfisher and the Painted Snipe and Hassan then said ‘Black Crake’. Rather than a distant black dot on the edge of a marsh, 2 birds were out in the open on the river and were mating perhaps 20-30 feet away. A flurry of activity ensued as everyone got brilliant views and some got great photographs. Unbeknown to the bridge group, the canoeists found their own Black Crakes and had similar excellent views.
New birds came thick and fast for the land-based birders, with Sedge Warbler, a brief Oriole Warbler, Northern Puffback and a super White-crowned Robin-chat joined together to scold a tree snake. Another Long-crested Hawk Eagle and Grey Kestrel appeared and things began to calm down, but not for long. A diminutive and lovely Pygmy Kingfisher played a game of cat and mouse with us for a while before landing on a close fence and sitting there for all to see. This bird was liked by everyone, but Liz was particularly delighted and vocal about it! We all returned to the lodge for a cold drink and another great lunch. Ian’s group in the canoes had excellent close-up views of Wire-tailed Swallows sitting on posts, superb views again of a Giant Kingfisher catching a large fish and eating it beside them and of course very good views of three Black Crakes at close range. The only problem was getting the canoes to stop where we wanted without splashing too much, but what a wonderful way to travel.
On our return trip we stopped off at the luxurious Senegambia Hotel for a spot of easy and genteel birding. We saw several species well, including White Crowned Robin-chat, which had been missed by those on canoes at Marakissa. It briefly showed well and was a welcome addition to the bird list, which was suddenly nearing the magical 200. A showy and gaudy Yellow-crowned Gonolek was quickly followed by a cracking Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird. Judging by the appreciative noises, this species was properly seen for the first time by many and it provided a fitting end to our last full day. A bathing Shikra was a great photographic opportunity, which Ian took full advantage of. Finally, Peter and Ann had the only Nightingale of the trip.
Thursday 21 January: On our final morning, we went for a last walk around the Kotu Creek and cycle track area again. Many familiar birds were seen, but one or two surprises were still left, including an Oriole Warbler for a lucky few, and a Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher. David and Jean, who had missed an evening walk, managed to catch up with good views of White-faced Whistling Ducks on the creek, where Caspian Terns were busy diving and catching fish. Tony, Janet and others had good close-up views of a Blue-breasted Kingfisher in the mangroves by the dilapidated bird hide. Sally and Peter went to the craft market together and then Peter went for a walk to the beach. Lo and behold a small passage of Sandwich Terns were fishing offshore and a few others managed to get these, to bring us to a final total of 201 species (or 202 if you follow the recent split of Black and Yellow-billed Kite). We had made it and in doing so saw all of our target species well. It is not often that we can say everyone saw 95% of the species well, but that is what happened and this will probably be our abiding memory of a great trip and introduction to African Birding.
For the record, the following species were voted for (at our last dinner) as the favourite birds of the trip:
- Common Wattle-eye
- Western Bluebill
- Painted Snipe (and Black Crake)
- Pygmy Kingfisher
- Verreaux’s Eagle Owl
- Pied Kingfisher
- White-winged Black Tit
- Bearded Barbet
- Both Violet and Green Turaco
- Long-tailed Nightjar
- White-crested Helmet Shrike
Trip report by Pete Cosgrove
Photographs by Ian Ford and Robin Cosgrove