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Day 1: Tues 3 January 2023 - Transfer London - The Gambia
After relaxing in our complimentary VIP Airport Lounge, we fly from Gatwick to Gambia, and transfer to our first Hotel. Close to the beach, with a lively craft market and several restaurants nearby, this is a popular starting point for our tour! Currency exchange is available very close to the hotel. Depending on arrival time we may have a leisurely walk around the adjacent area before dark. This will be our first chance to see a variety of raptors, doves, rollers, kingfishers, herons and passerines, species that will become familiar during our trip. Five nights in Kotu, where your hotel will be selected from our approved shortlist (hotels are very close to each other and their standard is broadly similar).
Day 2: Wed 4 January - Kotu Creek, Tanji and Brufut
On the first morning we take a leisurely walk around the adjacent Kotu Creek and surrounding rice fields and acacia woodland, getting to grips with some commoner West African species. The tidal creek and immediate surroundings are excellent for waders, herons, egrets, kingfishers, raptors and doves as well as Double-spurred Francolin, White-faced Whistling Duck, Yellow-billed Shrike, Long-tailed Glossy Starling and cumbersome Western Grey Plantain-eater. Today we may see three Roller species and probably four Kingfishers, Green Wood-hoopoe sitting in a palm tree or Black Heron demonstrating its famous umbrella fishing technique! Noisy Senegal Thick-knee, Spur-winged and Wattled Lapwing are in the creek, and we may also see Grey Kestrel and Greater Painted Snipe this morning, reaching c.70 species by lunchtime.
We take lunch at Tanji Eco-Lodge with water pots and pools attracting a good range of woodland birds including rare Western Bluebill as well as finches, mannikins and wood-doves. We usually see mammals including Green Vervet Monkey, Banded Mongoose and Gambian Sun Squirrel, and the flower-rich gardens attract such colourful butterflies as Citrus Swallowtail. We take a brief look at bustling Tanji village, where there are racks of fish being smoked. Pink-backed Pelican wait for returning fishing pirogues, Osprey are offshore and Giant and Pied Kingfisher are usually present. Tanji is superb for terns and gulls with Royal, Caspian, Sandwich, Little and we hope Lesser Crested Tern. The most abundant gull is Grey-headed, plus all three subspecies of Lesser Black-backed, Yellow-legged and Slender-billed Gull. This is the northern limit of Kelp Gull so we look out for this speciality and among familiar Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Turnstone and Ringed Plover we look for scarce White-fronted Plover.
In the afternoon we go to nearby Brufut Woods, a bird sanctuary since colonial days. This protected woodland and scrub has fruiting fig trees and is home to African Paradise Flycatcher, African Green Pigeon, Senegal Parrot, Violet Turaco, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Klaas’ Cuckoo, various sunbirds and finches, roosting Northern White-faced Owl and Long-tailed Nightjar. A variety of raptors pass overhead.
Day 3: Thurs 5 January - Abuko and Tambi
This morning we visit some wonderful rice fields for an assortment of wetland birds and raptors. We should see Striated, Squacco and Black Heron, Black Crake, African Jacana, Common Greenshank and Green Sandpiper and perhaps Little Bittern. African Harrier-hawk, Lizard Buzzard, Grey Kestrel and Red-necked Falcon favour this habitat and passerines such as Bearded Barbet, Piapiac, Grey Woodpecker and Blue-bellied Roller find plenty of food.
Mid-morning we enter Abuko, the oldest reserve in The Gambia, one of the few remaining areas of primary gallery forest now surrounded by urban sprawl. Forest birds here include stunning Green and Violet Turaco, Ahanta Francolin, Pied Hornbill and Western Bluebill as well as Red-bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-headed Bristlebill, Buff-breasted Woodpecker, Little Greenbul and Common Wattle-eye. Mammals include Red Colobus and Green Vervet Monkey as well as shy Maxwell’s Duiker and Bushbuck. A hide overlooks a pool in the forest and there are West African Crocodiles lurking. Blue-breasted, Malachite, Pygmy and Giant Kingfisher live here as do Hamerkop, Black-headed Heron, Palm-nut Vulture and Snowy-crowned Robin-chat. Swallows to look out for include Fanti Saw-wing and Pied-winged.
After lunch we explore Tambi wetlands and the Bund Road by the Gambia River. The rich mud attracts flocks of Eurasian waders such as Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper, Sanderling and Grey Plover. Yellow-billed Stork and Pink-backed Pelican can make everything else look very small! Thorough searching may produce scarcer waders such as White-fronted Plover or Marsh Sandpiper, Gull-billed Tern mix with other species and Greater Flamingo will stand out. Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and Red-chested Swallow use the trees and overhead wires while Crested Lark and White Wagtail are on the sandy ground.
Day 4: Fri 6 January - Marakissa Rivercamp
After a warm welcome from owner Adama, we chill out overlooking the river before enjoying a walk in the surrounding woodland and wetland, and a memorable canoe paddle. There is time both to walk and canoe before lunch. Black Crake, Striated Heron, Giant and Malachite Kingfisher, Hamerkop, numerous Senegal Thick-knee and West African Crocodile and Monitor Lizard are regularly seen before we even move away from the camp. Raptors rise on the warm thermals and we have seen three species of Snake Eagle, Booted Eagle and African Harrier Hawk here. The walk allows us to find Senegal Parrot, Pearl-spotted Owlet, White Helmet-Shrike, Senegal Eremomela, Cardinal and Grey Woodpecker, and tussocks in the wetlands hide Greater Painted and Common Snipe. Ponds with giant Waterlilies may hold Woodland and Pygmy Kingfisher as well as African Jacana and Black Crake.
In the canoes we can get very close to herons, egrets and waders such as Senegal Thick-knee, Wattled and Spur-winged Lapwing and Black-winged Stilt as well as Black Crake and fishing Pied and Giant Kingfisher. Yellow-crowned Gonolek and Sedge Warbler live in the mangroves and a specialist, Brown Sunbird, occasionally sits up for us.
Before and after our tasty lunch we can sit and watch at close range the many water pots, waiting for new birds like Greater, Lesser or Spotted Honeyguide, a variety of starlings including Greater and Lesser Blue-eared and now familiar birds such as Piapiac, Red-billed Firefinch, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu, Bronze Mannikin and Beautiful Sunbird. Very relaxing!
In mid-afternoon we head back to our hotel via wetland and grassland. This habitat should give us Gull-billed Tern, Marsh Sandpiper, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Abyssinian and Rufous-crowned Roller, Double-spurred Francolin, perched raptors and maybe Red Patas Monkey.
Day 5: Sat 7 January - Kartong Bird Observatory and Allahin River
For our final full day at Kotu we head south down the coast to Kartong Bird Observatory, rightly regarded as the richest bird area in The Gambia. Varied habitats include wetlands, sandy grassland with light woodland and seashore with lagoons. If possible we join the Kartong Ringing Group during one of their field sessions, and the opportunity to see kingfishers, bee-eaters and other birds being ringed is unforgettable. In 2019 we found Wahlberg's Honeyguide, one of the country's rarest birds, being weighed and ringed here.
Wetlands may contain Spur-winged Goose, White-faced Whistling Duck, Comb-billed Duck or Eurasian ducks in wet years and there are Purple Swamphen, Black Crake, Greater Painted and Common Snipe and Marsh Sandpiper. Migrating hirundine flocks may have Mosque and Red-rumped Swallow, and Blue-cheeked Bee-eater groups occasionally have stunning Northern Carmine amongst them.
Raptors are a feature here with chances of Black-shouldered Kite, Long-crested, Wahlberg’s and Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle while Osprey can be common. The grassland and woodland contain Tawny-flanked Prinia, Plain-backed Pipit, Four-banded Sandgrouse, Grey-headed Kingfisher and European migrants such as Hoopoe, Western Subalpine Warbler and Woodchat Shrike. If time and tide allow us to check out waders on the beach we may see Sanderling, Kentish and White-fronted Plover.
We drive to a local eco-lodge for lunch before spending a couple of hours on a covered pirogue exploring the river and mangroves of the Allahin River, the border with southern Senegal. There is a spectacular roost with many hundreds of Slender-billed and Grey-headed Gull and equal numbers of Caspian, Royal, Sandwich and a few Lesser-crested and Gull-billed Tern. Pink-backed Pelican are sometimes joined by Great White Pelican. Oystercatcher and Turnstone provide a familiar touch and small waders like Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint feed on the mud. This boat trip gets us close to Pied, Malachite and Giant Kingfisher and is proving reliable for scarce and shy Goliath Heron. Another massive bird to look out for is African Fish Eagle and we have seen adults and immatures here so look carefully among the numerous Osprey.
Days 6 & 7: Sun 8 January & Mon 9 January - Morgan Kunda Lodge
We drive north east and cross the new bridge at Farafenni (3.5 hours from Kotu ) to reach our second centre on the north bank of the Gambia River. Until now the North Bank has been difficult for birders to access, so we will be pioneers in this area of wetlands, forest and grassland savannah habitats with a range of birds scarce in the highly developed areas nearer to the coast. Our transfer is on a slow paced birding day with lots of ‘big raptor’ potential and new woodland species such as Brown-hooded Parrot and Green-headed Sunbird for our list. We plan a leisurely lunch with birding en-route, and will have time to stop when we see birds of interest.
Morgan Kunda is a new lodge set up by charitable trust to support Gambians and designed with birds and birdwatching in mind. It has only been open a couple of years but their guides have explored the abundant birdlife in the different habitats in the surrounding area. The shaded tower viewpoint allows birding beyond the lodge.
Key new species in the wetlands may include Egyptian Plover, Finfoot, Woolly-necked Stork and secretive White-Crested Tiger Bittern and in open areas Martial Eagle are the top raptor in an area with over a dozen other raptor species. Around the lodge and in the savannah grasslands we target a number of new species including Pygmy Long-tailed Sunbird, Ground Hornbill, Savile’s Bustard, Black-bellied Bustard and Black-crowned Crane.
Day 8-10: Tues 10 January - Thur 12 January - Mandina River Lodge
Returning in a leisurely manner we end our tour with three nights at a world-class eco-resort close to the Gambia River. Within a large protected forest area of 1000 acres the resort offers guided dug-out canoe trips in the morning and afternoon along the mangrove-lined creeks full of a variety of small birds as well as heron, egret and kingfisher species and a further chance of African Finfoot. We will keep checking the raptors floating overhead. Within the large grounds and in the easily accessible surrounding areas there is easily visible and abundant wildlife. As well as seeing Agama and Monitor Lizards, baboons and monkeys, a leisurely walk will produce many birds which you may have already seen, though with ideal opportunities for more prolonged views and photography. There are several species of bee-eater, roller and hornbill here for example.
Our daily plan will include an early morning canoe trip followed by a meal before we relax in the heat of the day. There is a large swimming pool and many opportunities to wander further afield quite safely as well as a cultural visit to a village with murals painted by renowned street artists. We meet up later for another canoe trip and take a sunset cruise one evening to watch egrets, herons, cormorants and darters come to roost before our dinner.
We may visit Mandina Ba, a mix of woodland, wet grassland and productive gardens, for an opportunity to see African Green Pigeon, Red-bellied Flycatcher, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Variable, Splendid, Copper and Green-headed Sunbird. Tawny Eagle breeds here and Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle hover looking for prey. At Farasutu Community Forest we look for woodland birds coming to water. All three Honeyguides visit, Pygmy Kingfisher and Black-rumped Waxbill may be new for us, and we walk the forest looking for Oriole Warbler and Green Crombec as well as camouflaged African Wood Owl and White-backed Night Heron. We enter light woodland to seek out Greyish Eagle Owl and Long-tailed and Standard-winged Nightjar. If time allows we visit Pirang, an area with dense forest which still has declining Verreaux’s Eagle Owl and and open country birds such as Blue-cheeked and White-throated Bee-eater, Black-faced Quailfinch and Long-crested Eagle.
This luxurious eco-resort well deserves its place in ‘1001 Escapes To Make Before You Die’ and is ideal both for relaxation and as much more birding as you like!
Day 11: Fri 13 January - Transfer and return to UK
On our final day, depending on our flight home (currently late afternoon) we will have plenty of time to relax before transferring to the airport.