The Gambia had been on my birding ‘wish list’ for as long as I can remember having a ‘wish list’. The thought of seeing colourful exotic birds such as Bee-eaters, Kingfishers, Barbets and Firefinches always gave me a warm tingly feeling. Add to that the sound of African drums, a river trip in a canoe, and the reputation that Gambia has as ‘the smiling coast’ on behalf of the friendliness of its people, why wouldn’t any birder want to visit? Indeed many have! This visit was part personal pilgrimage to the birding equivalent of Mecca and part reconnaissance trip in the hope of running a ‘Bargain Birding Club’ here myself in the not too distant future.
To maximise my time in The Gambia I’d spent countless hours on the internet researching places to go and birds to see. I’d poured over dozens of trip reports, bought and read all the books, and researched official guides affiliated to The Gambia Birding Association. I settled on Ebou Barry and agreed the itinerary and price via an exchange of emails before I left the UK. I have to say Ebou is an amazing guide. He describes himself on his website as “probably the best bird guide in The Gambia”. Whilst that’s a bold statement for anyone to make, my experience of 10 days with Ebou would certainly second that! Our action-packed schedule afforded me the best opportunity to see as much as possible. Ebou, The Gambia and her birds didn’t disappoint – they were all amazing!
My alarm went off at 4am and I leapt out of bed like a coiled spring. I didn’t get or need much sleep last night as I felt like a small child on the night before Christmas, excitedly anticipating all the avian delights that awaited me in just a few hours time!
My 8.10am flight with Thomas Cook left Gatwick on time and I used most of the 6 hour flight for some last-minute cramming of my bird book. Luggage collection and customs clearance at Banjul airport was surprisingly efficient, and the 30 minute coach transfer to the Senegambia Hotel meant I was in my room by 4pm. I’d pre-arranged to meet Ebou in reception at 5pm so I just had time for a quick shower and get changed into more appropriate attire for the 30oC and almost 100% humidity.
Ebou arrived at 5pm on the dot. I paid the balance of his guiding fee and presented him with a gift of some new binoculars, a hat and some RSPB pin badges as a gesture of good will. We then spent a very pleasant hour strolling around the gardens of the hotel to help get me acquainted with some of the commoner but still colourful birds of The Gambia.
In just one hour our sortie clocked up 25 bird species plus a family group of Red Colobus Monkey and a Monitor Lizard. Avian highlights included Woodland Kingfisher, Splendid Sunbird, Red-billed Hornbill, Lesser Blue-eared Glossy Starling, Western Plantain-eater, White-crowned Robin Chat, Red-billed Firefinch, Broad-billed Roller, Hooded Vulture, Black Kite, Yellow-billed Kite, African Harrier Hawk and Pearl-spotted Owlet! Ebou also gave me a lesson in dove ID so that I could distinguish between Red-eyed Dove, Laughing Dove, Vinacious Dove and Speckled Pigeon.
Ebou arrived at 7.15am sharp in his green 4x4 which I have to say was cleaner inside than my car back home!
We drove the short distance to Kotu Creek and were birding the second we got out of the car. Birds were everywhere! Amongst the familiar Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Redshank, Greenshank, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Whimbrel and Grey Heron, were African species such as Spur-winged Plover, Senegal Thicknee, Western Reef Heron and Grey-headed Gull. Wire-tailed Swallows were hunting low over the water, while African Palm Swift were soaring high above on long-slender wings. A Malachite Kingfisher plunged into the water from its mangrove perch. Pied Kingfisher hovered and dive-bombed their prey.
As the sun rose above the mangroves, Long-tailed Cormorant and a Great White Egret flew in. Fleeting glimpses of Grey Kestrel and Shikra were balanced with better views of Grey Hornbill and Western Plantain-eater.
Kotu Creek bridge is a meeting point for Gambian bird guides, all keen to provide a service to the tourist birders. They all knew and respected Ebou so I got no hassle at all. Just off the bridge a baobab and an acacia tree were growing side-by-side, so much so that they looked like one tree. In this tree we picked out Willow Warbler, Subalpine Warbler, Beautiful Sunbird and Northern Crombec.
As we continued down the track we picked up Blue-breasted Kingfisher, Village Weaver, Little Bee-eater, Rose-ringed Parakeet and Senegal Parrot. The track opened out into a small field of rice and as we walked the narrow paths between the flooded paddies we added Fine-spotted Woodpecker, Bronze Mannikin and Fork-tailed Drongo to my trip list. Ebou stopped underneath a large mango tree and looked up. Instantly he located a White-faced Scops Owl peering back at us. Amazing!
Butterflies were everywhere, I snapped a few record shots to ID later and only then discovered we’d seen African Tiger, Common Grass Yellow, Large Orange-tip and African Swallowtail. We could hear Double-spurred Francolin calling but they remained hidden in the dense undergrowth.
We continued on our walk to the sewage ponds – a bird watchers favourite habitat as they always attract birds. Here was no different. Black-winged Stilt, African Jacana, White-faced Whistling Duck, Squacco Heron and Little Grebe all gave good views. Less favourable views of Little Swift and Violet Turaco added to my trip list.
We stopped at Kotu market to change some money, grab a coke and do a bit of souvenir shopping. I’m a sucker for wooden arts and crafts and was soon haggling the best possible price.
We were soon back out birding and had great views of African Silverbill. At the top of a tree a Village Weaver was busily feeding an oversized Didric Cuckoo chick. Our walk finished back at Kotu Creek and from the bridge we observed Red-chested Swallow, Wire-tailed Swallow and a fine Blue-breasted kingfisher.
Behind the Bird Guide shelter on the bridge, Ebou took me to a small hide which produced a tatty-looking Oriole Warbler and a Black-capped Babbler. The time was now 10.30am and the humidity was starting to increase. Ebou suggested he drop me back at the hotel. I have to say I was reluctant to return so early as I was thoroughly enjoying the birds.
However, I went with the flow and used the ‘free time’ to observe the spectacle of over 100 Hooded Vultures being fed chicken pieces by the hotel staff. The vultures squabbled over the scraps and had to compete with Black Kite and Yellow-billed Kite that pounced on any missed morsels. I spent 2 hours walking around the hotel gardens picking up Piapiac and Yellow-Crowned Gonolek for the first time, as well as better sightings of Red-billed Hornbill, Long-tailed Glossy Starling, Brown Babbler and Broad-billed Roller. The Woodland Kingfisher and White-Crowned Robin Chats were in the same trees as yesterday and I was beginning to get my eye in as far as Dove ID was concerned. A beer at the bar was followed by downloading and sorting the 700 photos I’d taken this morning!
I met Ebou again at 4pm and we drove the short distance to Bijilo Forest Park. This is a small, privately owned reserve and Ebou wasn’t hopeful we’d see very much. He was right. After paying our entrance fee and seeing no birds at all on the walk to the hide overlooking a stagnant concrete drinking pool, we cut our losses, got in the car and drove back to Kotu Creek.
At Kotu a small flock of Wattled Plover were intermingled with Spur-winged Plover. We dropped down to the waters edge next to the elevated hide and walked left along the outskirts of the creek to the entrance of Fajara golf course. Small fiddler crabs were everywhere in the mangroves and the reason why the plovers and Senegal Thicknee were common here. On the golf course itself we had our first views of Green Wood-hoopoe, Purple Glossy Starling and Zitting Cisticola.
We retraced our steps back to the car and drove on to Kotu sand quarry, close to Ebou’s rented home. Here we saw White-billed Buffalo Weaver and Northern Red Bishop amongst the Village Weavers and Bronze Mannikins. In a small pool with lily pads we saw both Common Moorhen and Purple Swamphen. An African Mourning Dove perched on a wire and a Yellow-billed Shrike perched in a tree. Our first Senegal Coucal flew from tree to tree in the distance. The sun was fading fast so Ebou dropped me back at the hotel – a brilliant first full day in The Gambia!
Ebou picked me up from my hotel at 7.10am and then we collected two other UK birders from a nearby hotel. Carol and Jack were joining us for two days … and today was Carol’s birthday! We drove the short distance to Abuko Forest and arrived before the gates were open. Luckily Ebou had a key and we were in.
Our first stop was an elevated hide at the Darwin Field Centre which overlooks a large Nile crocodile infested woodland pool. A Black Crake disappeared on hearing our approach but we had better views of Black-crowned Night Heron, Hammerkop, African Jacana and Blue-breasted Kingfisher. Fanti Saw-wing swallows skimmed the water and a pair of Fork-tailed Drongos hunted insects dashing out from a branch.
In the trees around the pool we saw Palm-nut Vulture, Western Plantain-eater, Violet Turaco and Green Turaco. Oriole Warbler, Little Green Bulbul and Ahanta Francolin were all heard calling but remained hidden.
Overhead we saw Red-billed Hornbill, African Pied Hornbill, African Palm Swift, Hooded Vulture, Yellow-billed Kite, Blue-bellied Roller and Bearded Barbet. Then one of Abuko’s star birds put in an appearance … a magnificent Giant Kingfisher! It perched at eye-level on a branch some 50 yards in front of us. Awesome!
Eventually we tore ourselves away from the hide and walked through the dense gallery forest. With almost every step we were adding new birds to my trip list. Blue-spotted Wood Dove, African Thrush, Common Wattle-eye, Black-necked Weaver, African Paradise Flycatcher, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Grey Woodpecker, Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Grey-backed Camaroptera and Copper Sunbird. We also had great views of a male Beautiful Sunbird, complete with its long tail feathers.
We accidentally disturbed an ants nest. Within seconds they were crawling up our legs and biting hard. The only thing to do was to drop our trousers and pick them off by hand. Luckily noone was going commando!
Eventually we reached the animal orphanage complete with its caged baboons and hyenas. We had a welcome soft drink at the bar and I bartered hard for some bird-themed carved wooden fridge-magnets. We spent about 30 minutes in the hide overlooking a small freshwater pool and had close up views of Red-eyed Dove, Laughing Dove, Red-billed Firefinch and a superb Pygmy Kingfisher.
Carol hinted that she didn’t want to spend the whole of her birthday bird watching, so we hot-footed it back to the car. No new birds were added but we did stop to admire a beautiful Common Dotted Border butterfly. Ebou dropped us off at our respective hotels by 1.00pm and my trip list stood at 116 birds!
After a brief siesta (and a haircut at the hotel barber) I was ready again at 15.45pm for a trip to Tanji beach to see gulls and terns. But first Ebou suggested a quick detour to Brufut Woods. On arrival at this small reserve we were met by the warden keen to show us around.
First stop was the two small plastic drinking pools placed one at ground level and one up a tree. In this simple ‘hot spot’ we saw Greater Honeyguide, Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu, Red-billed Firefinch, Lavender Waxbill, Yellow-throated Leaflove, Vitelline Masked Weaver, African Paradise Flycatcher and Pygmy Kingfisher.
The warden lead us into the reserve and almost immediately put me onto a Long-tailed Nightjar resting on the ground. An amazing bird that let me approach to within a few feet. As we retraced our steps back to the entrance we also picked up Willow Warbler, Singing Cisticola and Variable Sunbird.
At Tanji fishing village the boats were being landed and a crowd of potential human and avian ‘customers’ were gathered. We observed Grey-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Slender-billed Gull, Yellow-billed Gull, Caspian Tern, Lesser-crested Tern and Royal Tern. Unfortunately the tide was against us and we couldn’t reach a distant flock of gulls which Ebou said normally included Kelp Gull. We did however manage to add Turnstone, Sanderling and Bar-tailed Godwit to my wader list, and two Osprey flew over, one of which had a fish in its talons.
With the sun setting over Tanji beach, Ebou dropped me back at my hotel, with only one stop on the way to observe a Lizard Buzzard on a wire. After a quick shower we met up for dinner – my treat to celebrate the 132 birds seen in the first two days!
A 6.30am start saw us driving to Marakissa Lodge. As the sun rose and village life stirred, market traders were busying themselves for the start of a new day. The smell of wild mint and wood smoke filled the air, chickens and goats ran loose by the road.
We arrived at 7am but the Dutch owner was not pleased to see us so early. Undaunted, Ebou led me on a short riverside walk to the nearby Kingfisher Lodge where the Gambian welcome was considerably more friendly. We sat drinking fresh coffee underneath a large Cotton Tree in which was roosting an African Scops Owl!
After coffee we chartered a canoe trip on the Allaheim River. This was a fantastic experience and provided me with some great new birds for my trip list including Black Egret, Little Egret, Purple Heron, African Darter, Yellow-crowned Bishop, Orange-cheeked Waxbill and Gull-billed Tern.
We also had great views of Palm-nut Vulture, African Harrier Hawk, Black Crake, Western Reef Heron, Grey Heron, Giant Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Common Sandpiper, Greenshank, Spur-winged Plover, Senegal Thicknee, Senegal Coucal and Little Bee-eater. Back on dry land a Levaillant’s Cuckoo flew into a nearby tree, a Fine-spotted Woodpecker clung to the side of a palm tree, and Village Weavers tended nests precariously dangling over the river.
At 10am we drove through Mandina Ba and Kuloro (Ebou’s birthplace) and on to Farasuto . We were met at the entrance gate by a trainee warden (one of Ebou’s many contacts) who was keen to show us his local patch. A juvenile brown-headed Ayres’s Hawk Eagle was being mobbed by Pied Crows, while Long-crested Eagle and Pied Swallow perched on distant fence posts.
As we walked through the forest we flushed White-backed Night Heron and Black-crowned Night Heron. A Black-headed Heron perched at the top of a tree and Little Bee-eaters hunted insects from an elevated perch. We spotted a 2-storey nest with Red-cheeked Cordon Blue occupying ‘downstairs’ and Bronze Mannikin occupying ‘upstairs’. In the mangrove bushes we saw a small flock of Black-rumped Waxbill. We walked back to the car and Double-spurred Francolin called as they took to the air and a Gambian Sun Squirrel ran along the top of the entrance gate. A magnificent male Northern Red Bishop perched on top of a millet stem.
Ebou made a call to another ‘spotter’ and after a short drive along tracks through fields of water melon and millet we got out of the car on the promise of a rare owl. We followed the guide into the forest and after a few minutes he located not one but two Greyish Eagle Owl roosting in a tree. According to Ebou, this owl was first recorded in The Gambia about 8 years ago.
At midday, we headed back to the hotel stopping off at Ebou’s grandmothers home to meet some of his family. They made me feel really welcome. I gave them a small cash donation and I also gave Ebou two small rucksacks full of pens, pencils and writing books that I’d brought from the UK. His smiling young cousins were curious at seeing the ‘tou-bab’ (white-man) in their home.
At 3.45pm Ebou was back at my hotel ever-keen to show me some more of Gambia’s birds. We made a quick stop at Kotu Creek where Ebou had been given the tip off by another ‘owl man’ that a White-faced Scops Owl was showing well. Although we had already seen this bird in the hotel gardens it was worth a try … as the saying goes ‘the more you look the luckier you get!’ However, on this occasion, while the bird was indeed present it was so well hidden by leaves and branches that I didn’t bother taking a picture. As an aside, we did see a faded Painted Lady butterfly.
We moved on in the direction of Cape Point and first stop was Tambi Wetlands. Unfortunately the tide was out so this area of mangroves only produced distant views of Osprey, African Darter, Grey Heron, Greenshank, Spur-winged Plover and Senegal Thicknee. Overhead at Kamaloo Coner we saw numerous Yellow-billed Kite, Pink-backed Pelican and a single Black-shouldered Kite. On the roadside wires we had over 50 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and 4 Blue-bellied Rollers.
As we drove over Denton Bridge onto Banjul island we caught the briefest of glimpses of a Striated Heron. Next stop was Banjul prison where we parked and took a sandy track to some tidal lagoons set back from the beach. Western Reef Heron, Whimbrel and Pied Crow were all that we saw here, plus the remains of a Fruit Bat that had fried itself on the wires!
Back in the car and a few hundred yards up from the prison we took a dirt road off to the right. This is the ‘Bund Road’ which has a reputation for producing some good birds. During our visit though the road was being re-surfaced and the mangroves on the left had all been cut down. Despite this, we did add Namaqua Dove and Curlew to my trip list. From the bridge we observed Great White Egret, Grey Heron and Western Reef Heron feeding in the shallows while 12 Pied Kingfishers hunted from the wires above. One of which was busy stunning a fish by banging its head on the wire before juggling it and swallowing it whole.
We called it a day and drove through Banjul (the less said about Banjul the better) back to my hotel arriving just after 6pm. As I opened the door to my room I noticed a pair of Yellow-billed Shrike perched in a nearby tree … ‘the more you look the luckier you get!’ Three days with Ebou had produced 153 species of bird … and we still had 7 days to go!
At breakfast I got chatting to a birder travelling with Limosa. We compared species lists around the coastal area and on the whole we had seen most of the same birds. Ebou collected me from my hotel at 7.20am with Jack and Carol already in the car who planned to join us again for the day.
First stop was Mandina Ba. We walked around the open farmland and were soon adding new birds for my trip list in the form of African Green Pigeon, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Northern Black Flycatcher, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Village Indigo Bird and Bedouin’s Snake Eagle. We also had good views of African Harrier Hawk, Fork-tailed Drongo, Senegal Parrot and Rose-ringed Parakeet.
Next stop was Farasuto to show Jack and Carol the Greyish Eagle Owl. The guide flushed a roosting White-backed Night Heron which gave an obliging fly-past for my camera, and a Nile Crocodile loitered in the shallows.We also got leaf-obscured views of African Wood Owl, but better sightings of Abyssinian Roller and Mottled Spinetail.
A little further along the South Bank Road is Bonto Forest where drinking pools at the entrance attracted Lavender Waxbill, Black-rumped Waxbill, Red-billed Firefinch, Red-cheeked Cordon-Blue, Northern Red Bishop, Bronze Mannikin, Pygmy Kingfisher and Hybrid Paradise Flycatcher (a cross between Red-bellied and African Paradise Flycatcher with distinctive white wing markings).
In the forest itself we had partial views of White-crested Helmet Shrike and Verreaux’s Eagle Owl. Overhead we saw Great White Pelican, Yellow-billed Stork and Western Banded Snake Eagle. We embarked on a long walk through thick gallery forest until we came to a random wooden bench. The forest warden started to mimic the call of White-spotted Flufftail and after 10 minutes of staring into the dark, thick forest undergrowth the small rail appeared for a brief second and then vanished! Ebou reassured us that this was a very rare bird and most birders fail to see it – well done again Ebou! In the photo you can just make out its red head and breast and spotted back.
Ebou had arranged for us to have dinner at his grandmothers house, cooked by his sister. The fish curry was delicious but I had been getting the first signs of ‘Banjul Belly’ in the morning so I only had a small portion, not wanting to tempt fate later. After dinner we had a brief siesta sitting under the shade of a large grapefruit tree. Most birds were avoiding the hottest part of the day but we did see a Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird at the top of a nearby mango tree.
At 3.30pm we set off for the Faraba Banta bush track which has a reputation for producing raptors. On the way a mother and baby Patas Monkey sprinted across the road. We got off to a great start with a pair of Lanner Falcon flying overhead at the entrance, but after 15 minutes and no other birds seen we cut our losses and headed to Pirang Shrimp Pools instead. Here our luck ran out as the entrance to the shrimp farm was blocked by a gate with a sign warning “strictly no entry” and a Pied Kingfisher was playing the role of gate warden! Thoughts of missing out on Greater Flamingo, African Spoonbill, Knob-billed Duck and Quailfinch were offset by views of Red-billed Quelea and Pin-tailed Whydah in the garden of the real wardens home and Crested Lark by the track.
At 5pm it was time to head back to the hotel and Ebou took a route past Yumdum Woods near the airport. Here from the car we picked up two new birds in the form of Rufous-Crowned Roller and Red-necked Falcon, and we also had good views of Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Black-shouldered Kite and Grey Kestrel. After 4 days with Ebou my trip total was now sitting at 174 birds.
Jack and Carol were keen to see the Long-tailed Nightjar that I’d seen earlier at Brufut Woods, so I opted for a morning off to relax by the pool. I was also suffering from full-blown ‘Banjul Belly’ so I went to see the hotel nurse who prescribed Zindolin 250 which did the trick.
At 3.30pm Ebou collected me from the hotel and we set off to Tujereng Woods. I was still feeling delicate and a little lethargic as I hadn’t eaten any solids for 24 hours, so we took it steady and slowly walked the bush tracks in search of new birds. It was still hot and humid and most birds were skulking in the shade. We could hear them but seeing them was a different matter. We did manage fleeting glimpses of Yellow-fronted Canary, Black-billed Wood Dove, Little Weaver, Red-winged Warbler and Black-crowned Tchagra. A Striped kingfisher was more obliging sitting in a bush long enough for me to take a photo, and four Osprey flew over head. We called it a day about 5.30pm and headed back to the hotel. This was the first time that I felt I’d pushed it too hard and I was looking forward to a rest day ... and some solid food … tomorrow! Just outside my room was a Hammerkop and Long-tailed Glossy Starling. Cattle Egret were feeding on Caper White butterflies.
Today was a rest day before my 4-day trip up river to Tendaba and the timing couldn’t have been better. The soothing effect of the first dose of Zindolin 250 was wearing off and ‘Banjul Belly’ was back. I decided to throw a full English breakfast and two large mugs of strong coffee at it! Combined with another dose of pills it seemed to do the trick. I spent the day between sleeping, walking the hotel gardens, sorting through photos and getting my trip report fully up to date. Although I didn’t see any new birds today I did get some better pictures in the hotel gardens.
Feeling better after my rest day Ebou picked me up at 7am, punctual as ever. We were joined by Matt and Anne, two bird watching police officers from the Met in the UK that I’d met in the hotel and got chatting to the night before. My trip list was now at 181 and thoughts of hitting 200 went through my mind for the first time. It was raining when we left the coast and it remained grey and overcast all day. Whilst this meant it was cooler, the light levels didn’t make for great photographs. First stop was Sotokoi. Here we saw Brown-necked Parrot, Four-banded Sandgrouse, Tawny Eagle, African Golden Oriole, Black-winged Bishop and Dark Chanting Goshawk.
On next to Soma Wetlands where we had our first Egyptian Plover along with Marsh Harrier, Pied Wagtail and Brown Snake Eagle. The queue for the river ferry from Soma to Farrafenni stretched as far as the eye could see but Ebou had a simple but effective plan. He drove past all the parked lorries right to the front of the queue, gesticulated with an angry security guard until the police were called. We then had to do a u-turn all the way to the back of the queue and Ebou disappeared inside the police tent with his drivers licence. Fearing the worst we sat patiently in the car, (as us Brits do in a crisis), weighing up the situation should Ebou get himself arrested. Our fears were soon alleviated though when he returned, said nothing and drove back to the front of the queue with a police escort! It seems a little cash ‘sweetener’ goes a long way in The Gambia! As we waited for the ferry we saw distant Woolly-necked Stork and White-backed Vulture.
When the ferry arrived Matt and myself walked on as foot passengers but it wasn’t until we’d left the South Bank that we realised Ebou and Anne hadn’t made it on as we could see them still sat in the car in the queue. All we could do was wait for them on the other side, picking up Western Bonnelli’s Warbler and White-throated Bee-eater in the process. Reunited and all back on terrafirma after our 2 hour river crossing ordeal, we were soon back on tarmac and heading for Kaur Wetlands, En-route we saw Red-rumped Swallow, Grasshopper Buzzard, European Bee-eater, Black-headed Plover and Exclamatory Paradise Whydah.
At Kaur Wetlands itself we saw a small flock of Egyptian Plover (‘The Crocodile Bird’). For most visiting bird-watchers this is the ‘must-see’ bird and we had spectacular views. Yellow Wagtail, White Wagtail, Blue-headed Wagtail and Ruff almost went unnoticed.
Suddenly a flock of Collared Pratincole took off in the distance and a loud ‘honking’ noise alerted us to an equally distant Black-crowned Crane.
Whilst scanning the far mangroves for more crane we spotted an African Fish Eagle resting on an old nest and a lone Montagu’s Harrier hawking low over the vegetation.After enjoying a good 30 minutes just standing and watching the Egyptian Plover we decided to move on.
Next stop was a large freshwater pool at Njau. Here we caught up with a larger flock of Egyptian Plover. Other notable birds in this little oasis were Little Grebe, Green Sandpiper, Malachite Kingfisher and a colony of delightful Red-throated Bee-eater.
The last leg of our 12 hour journey took us to the ferry crossing for Janjanbureh (Georgetown) on MacCarthy Island. On the way we added Bruce’s Green Pigeon and no fewer than 11 Standard-winged Nightjar, most of which were just siting in the dark on the tarmac road and only picked out by our car headlights at the last minute.
We arrived in Baobolong Camp just after 7pm and had time for a much appreciated shower and change of clothes before our evening meal of rice, beans, potato salad and beef stew. After dinner Matt, Anne and myself had a brief night-time patrol of the camp gardens and located Praying Mantis, Small Verdant Hawk Moth and Common African Toad – but no snakes!
Breakfast was served at 7am and soon after that we were back on the ferry to the North Bank and travelling to Wassu. This morning the sun was shining and the light levels were once again perfect for photography. At Wassu opposite the Niani Senior Secondary School we had a splendid Grey Kestrel perched in a tree and a small flock of Northern Carmine Bee-eater. These delightful birds were hunting flying insects, returning to a nearby tree to consume their prey.
Other noteworthy birds at Wassu included Village Indigobird, Namaqua Dove and a Bedouin’s Snake Eagle. A Guineafowl added to our butterfly list.
At a bridge overlooking a delightful freshwater lily pool we saw African Jacana, Squacco Heron, Grey Heron, Cattle Egret, Great White Egret, Pied Kingfisher and Spur-winged Plover.
High overhead a lone Black Stork flew past and disappeared over the horizon.
We retraced our steps back to the ferry to MacCarthy Island and continued over the new bridge to the South Bank.
Our ferry crossing was shared by a working party of local villagers off to work the rice fields for the President. They were singing and playing drums and ‘armed’ with their harvest knife or sickle. The women carried huge baskets balanced perfectly on their heads.
We continued on to Bansang Sand Quarry to observe a colony of Red-throated Bee-eater. Quarry workers were busy excavating the sand and transporting it away on donkey-pulled carts.
Despite this disturbance we also managed to see Cut-throat Finch and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. Other birds of note included Namaqua Dove and the sparrowhawk-like bird the Shikra.
We were back in the grounds of Baobolong Camp just before 12.30pm. In a tree outside my hut was a juvenile Scarlet-chested Sunbird. The Gambia just kept giving me new birds.
After a light lunch and brief siesta we walked out of the back of the camp, down a concrete path to our waiting boat at 3pm. We had high expectations of seeing African Finfoot, African Fish Eagle and possibly hippo … we were not disappointed!
The first birds we encountered included Grey and Striated Heron (aka Green-backed Heron), Senegal Thicknee, Common and Green Sandpiper, Violet Turaco and Pied and Woodland Kingfisher.
We glided past a Black-crowned Night Heron roost and a small Green Vervet Monkey played in the tree tops. Anne caught the briefest of glimpses of African Finfoot but Matt and myself both missed it. Todays first new birds for the list were Swamp Flycatcher and Grey-headed Kingfisher. We exited the main river channel down a smaller creek. The riverine scenery was simply breath-taking.
Then, just before we reached the end of the navigable part of the creek, a male African Finfoot swam in to the open giving everyone terrific views.
The bird caught sight of our boat and immediately took flight, running across the surface of the water to gather momentum before finally taking off and disappearing into the undergrowth.
Amazing views of this very rare cormorant-like bird!
Returning to the main channel we came across a fully submerged adult hippo swimming up-river, breaking the surface with its eyes, ears and nostrils every now and then to draw breath and check its course. Further along the river we came across a family group of 5 hippos with at least one youngster. These gave us all better views but we didn’t want to get too close so we pushed on. A troop of Western Baboons gave aggressive and noisy warning calls as we passed under their tree.
As the light-faded fast and we were nearing camp, we hit a sweet spot. In quick succession we had a pair of African Fish Eagle perched on a dead tree stump; Bruce’s Pigeon, European Turtle Dove and Spur-winged Goose all carefully selecting their treetop roost for the night; and a fly-by of over 100 Cattle Egret and 30 more Spur-winged Goose. The sky turned a brilliant red and then faded into black. We docked at 7pm and made it back to camp safe and happy after another great day! With 2 days still to go my trip list now grew to 222 birds!
7am breakfast for a 7.45am departure from Baobolong Camp. Bruce’s Pigeon was roosting in the camp trees and Long-tailed Glossy Starling were calling noisily to mark the start of another day.
We crossed back over the road bridge to the South Bank and headed in the direction of Tendaba. Our first new bird of the day was Marabou Stork sitting on a nest at the top of a mango tree. A roadkill Civet added to our ‘mammal’ list.
At Brikama Ba we pushed our way through the busy Saturday morning donkey and cart market traffic to see a magnificent Verreaux’s Eagle roosting in a tree.
Next stop was Jahaly rice fields were we saw lots of African Jacana, Abyssinian Roller, Spur-winged Plover and Hammerkop. A Marsh Harrier hawked above the paddies in the distance. As we walked along the paths we flushed Ruff, Quailfinch and Common Snipe.
We continued on to a wetland just before Buiba Mandinka where we got the opportunity to separate Intermediate Egret from Great White Egret, Little Egret and Cattle Egret. Wattled Plover and Western Reef Heron were also present. Matt picked out a Marsh Sandpiper but all I saw was Common. We continued our journey towards Tendaba, only stopping for a quick scan of Soma Wetlands from the road. At the 151 km waymarker point we saw a pair of Bateleur Eagle soaring high above the road.
We arrived at Tendaba just before 1pm to be told that our booking had been cancelled in favour of a larger (more profitable) group. We were transferred to Kalagi Riverside Camp next to Brumen Bridge. We had lunch at Tendaba before making our way to our alternative accommodation. En-route we stopped to walk through recently harvested fields of peanut and millet in the hope of flushing some Spotted Thicknee. We had no joy with the Thicknee but we did get good views of Yellow-billed Ox-pecker tending to the wounds of a flock of sheep, and a pair of Four-banded Sandgrouse skulking by the track.
On top of termite mounds we had an immature Dark Chanting Goshawk and African Cuckoo. We arrived at Kalagi Camp about 5pm. The lodges were the same standard as Baobolong but without a ceiling fan. Dinner of cremated chicken and chips was served at 7pm and then we all had an early night as out boat trip from Tendaba was booked for 7.30am. 229 birds with 1 day to go.
Breakfast before sunrise at 6.30am as we had to be at Tendaba at 7.30am for our chartered ‘creek crawl’ in a piroque. We climbed down the metal ladder at the end of the jetty into our engine-powered boat and set off up the River Gambia. A small flock of African Spoonbill flew overhead to join a lone Great White Pelican in the distance. Caspian Tern, Western Reef Heron, Grey Heron and Great White Egret were all seen in the main river channel.
After 20 minutes we headed to the opposite side of the river and to the entrance of a narrow creek in the mangroves. Now we hoped the birds would be more abundant and close enough to get good views. Our guides quickly picked out African Darter, Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling and Mouse-brown Sunbird. We cruised up and down the creek for a total of 4 hours and whilst the quantity and variety of birds wasn’t as good as that seen on the Allaheim Rover earlier in the week, we did get great views of a Goliath Heron and a large colony of nesting Great Cormorant.
Woolly-necked Stork, Yellow-billed Stork, Montagu’s Harrier and Black Kite all flew overhead. A distant Sacred Ibis and the briefest of glimpses of an African Blue Flycatcher added to the trip list. However, despite the best attempts of our guides to see African Fishing Owl we drew a blank.
Other birds seen included Malachite, Blue-breasted and Pied Kingfisher, Common Sandpiper, Whimbrel and Greenshank. The highlight of the boat trip for me was seeing an African Darter belly-flop from a branch into the creek to spear and then fly off with a fish. We arrived back at Tendaba about 1pm to find that the restaurant had run out of food! We had a quick beer and decided to head back to our hotel on the coast.
This marked the end of this trip for me which had exceeded all my expectations.
With a final trip total of 235 birds I was very, very happy indeed.
I said thank you and goodbye to Ebou who had been tremendous throughout.
In summary, my trip to The Gambia was …
Ornithologically Magical Gambia!
One day (soon I hope) … I will be back!
Ebou Barry was my guide throughout this whole trip.
He has an extensive network of ‘spotters’ and trainee guides stationed at most bird watching sites we visited. This was a massive help as it meant we didn’t spend long hours in the hot sun seeking out some of the more difficult to see birds such as the owls, raptors and the flufftail.
Ebou is a great birder and really knows his stuff. He prefers leading guests intending to see as many birds as possible or target specific species. He was always punctual, polite and patient and is well-respected by the other guides in The Gambia. This meant we were never hassled, intimidated or threatened, no matter how remote we were.
I hope to add The Gambia to my ‘Bargain Birding Club’ portfolio in the near future and would have no hesitation employing his services again or recommending him to others. Alternatively Ebou can be contacted directly to arrange your tailor-made itinerary.