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The Gambia - December 2006

Published by Martyn Hall and Steve Preddy (martyn.hall AT blueyonder.co.uk)


Given that The Gambia is such a well-written-about birding destination, rather than producing a full trip report, we’ve produced a shorter summary of the birding highlights with some snippets of information which we feel might be of use to others travelling there birding.

We went for three weeks, from 5th to 26th December, flying from Bristol (before the recent runway drainage comedy), staying in the Senegambia hotel in Kololi, booked through The Gambia Experience. As a base this was ideal – great for getting to know and photograph the common birds, and a fairly central location for the birding sites of the western peninsula. The worst thing we can say about the Senegambia was that the staff at the newly-opened beachside entertainment area hadn’t yet worked out how to operate the volume switch on their sound system, which wouldn’t have been so bad except it only seemed to be used for games of Bingo. Oh, and the Christmas Gala Dinner … avoid. But other than that.

We went upriver for five days (two nights at Georgetown, with one night at Tendaba Camp on the way there, and one night on the way back). If you go to The Gambia and have doubts about this, don’t. It’s a must do. One particularly pleasant surprise was the virtual lack of mosquitoes (even the famous Million Mosquitoes of Tendaba were nowhere to be seen).

Rod Ward’s 1994 site guide in the Prion series is still adequate. For identification, we used Barlow, Wacher & Disley’s field guide (with Sinclair & Ryan as hotel room backup). Various trip reports, found using Eurobirding.com, Surfbirds, Fatbirder etc were helpful in pre-tour planning. Barlow, Hammick & Sellar’s CD also proved useful, to sort out mystery sounds, and for gently coaxing the occasional skulky bird to show itself.

A word or two about guides and hassle. First the bad news. Yes, what you’ve read in a number of recent trip reports is, to some extent, correct. It is impossible to go anywhere in certain popular birding areas without being approached by multiple guides (both birding guides and general tourist guides) offering their services. If, like us, you are happy birding without a guide for at least a proportion of your trip, this can be annoying. Anywhere within a 1km radius of Kotu Bridge is particularly bad – don’t think you can escape by trying some obscure track or other, they’ll still find you! Explaining that you are happy birding alone doesn’t have much impact, demonstrating your competence by finding and identifying a few non-beginners’ birds and pointing them out to your would-be guide is a little more effective in getting the message across, but by the time you get rid of one, there’s another one waiting to try their luck. In fact in the Kotu/Kololi area, we wasted far more time trying to fend off guiding offers than trying to deal with the infamous “bumsters” (for dealing with the latter you really just have to be as firm as you can, even rude, and don’t feel guilty about it!). We have no real answers to offer for the bird guide problem though, although there are some destinations where (once you are inside) you should have a relatively hassle-free time - Tanji reserve and Bijilo Forest Park, for example.

Upcountry things are not so bad … but be aware that there appears to be a national football shortage in The Gambia currently. At every ferry crossing / roadside stop we were approached by teenage boys keen to tell us about the plight of their football-less football team, and to ask if we had any footballs with us which we could spare (??!!). On a more serious note, one item that is genuinely appreciated inland is empty water bottles; “Give me bottle” seems to have taken over from “Give me pen” as the greeting of choice. It was , not surprisingly, much easier to help with these requests.

On the plus side, if you find a good guide, they really do add value to a birding trip. The three guides we hired all possessed invaluable knowledge of bird calls, knew their sites, had good up-to-date gen, and best of all, had the ability to draw birds in by imitating the calls of Pearl-spotted Owlet. For our upriver trip, we wanted a reliable and experienced guide, and so did some research on the web. On the basis of a couple of recommendations, we chose Modou Colley (w: http://www.gambianbirds.com/, m: 9908916) who we contacted by email about a month before the start of our trip. We met with Modou at the Senegambia early in our stay to arrange the upriver trip. Modou is a first-rate guide – he is a skilled and knowledgeable birder (we were particularly impressed by his incredible eyesight) and an experienced and professional guide. After our upriver trip, we also used him for some coastal guiding in our final week. All round we were very impressed with his abilities and would warmly recommend him.

On the basis that, if everyone only hired guides with international reputations, no new guides could get a foot on the ladder, we felt we should also try a couple of other guides out, and we can recommend two other up-and-coming guides who we used for trips in the coastal region: Hassan (m: 7040618), who we met outside the Senegambia one morning, and Kebba Sosseh (w: http://kebbasosseh.blogspot.com, m: 7778859). We took two trips to Abuko with Hassan – he has spent a number of years working there and knows its birds inside out; we also took trips with him to Lamin fields and Tujering and he delivered good birds on both these trips too. He’s a competent birder, and very friendly and laid-back. Steve took a trip with Kebba towards the end of the holiday, and we recommend him too – he knows the country’s birds well, has good knowledge of local sites, and is very enthusiastic.

The birds, then. Egyptian Plover, needless to say, was the trip highlight. Modou’s knowledge came in very useful here, as he convinced us we didn’t need to go all the way to Basse for them (in fact, one couple we met who did go didn’t see any there anyway). In December at least, wetland sites on the north bank, between Farafenni and Georgetown, still hold this species, and we had them at point-blank range at three sites without having to leave the car. East of here, near Wassu, Modou also found us four Northern Carmine Bee-eaters in roadside trees. Unlike the famous road along the south bank (Mark Dennis’s 2001 trip report comment about it being like a 200-mile-long version of the entrance track to Holme NOA reserve is no joke!) the road along the north bank is smooth & pothole-free.

Close-behind though was African Finfoot. Based on the lack of mentions in most of the trip reports we’d read, this was a bird that we’d more or less written off. However, at the Senegambia we’d heard from several separate groups of birders who had seen the species at the Bao Bolon reserve (on the north bank, opposite Tendaba, accessible by pirogue trip from the camp), so on our return from Georgetown, we decided that we would make a serious effort for this species after all. We saw (and Martyn photographed) a male, present for a prolonged period at the edge of the mangroves, and then swimming across a channel. Tips to maximise your chances are (i) make sure you have a boat to yourselves, so you can dictate the pace (even if this means having to wait for an hour or two to allow a Danish tour group to get their high-speed zoom-around-the-mangroves-seeing-no-birds-and-then-on-to-the-next-site trip out of the way first) and (ii) insist that you are taken out by Wandy (Tendaba’s “Mr Finfoot”). This short trip also gave us lots of African Darters, an African Blue Flycatcher, 3 Goliath Herons, several Woolly-necked Storks and a roosting White-backed Night-heron. At Tendaba camp itself (on the hillside behind) we had our only Pygmy Sunbird, some very photogenic White Helmet-shrikes, and several roosting Bronze-winged Coursers.

Bansang Quarry (the furthest upcountry that we travelled) is a superb site. The breeding colony of Red-throated Bee-eater would have been reward enough on its own but a large mixed passerine flock drinking at one of the two pools included Chestnut-backed Sparrow-larks, Cut-throat, several male Exclamatory Paradise-whydahs, and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. The quarry is a severe suntrap though – be careful!

Other birds we encountered upriver, but not at the coast, included Marabou Stork, White-backed Vulture, Black-rumped Waxbill, Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Mottled Spinetail, African Pygmy-goose, Yellow-billed Oxpecker and African Hawk-eagle. If you have enough time, a good spot to stop on the south bank is the Kampanti raptor watchpoint.

In the coastal region, Abuko is a must. We visited three times. Both Violet and Guinea Turacos are easy here. Western Bluebill is not too difficult either, and other specialities include African Pygmy, Malachite and Giant Kingfishers, Black Crake, Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Palm-nut Vulture, a variety of woodland passerines including Grey-headed Bristlebill, Little Greenbul, Yellow-breasted Apalis and a variety of paradise-flycatcher phenotypes (variants of Red-bellied, hybrids with African or both). The photo hide here (near the “Animal Orphanage” - guides can pre-book it for you) is an incredible experience for close-up views of many of the reserve’s birds, and not to be missed in our opinion. We combined one trip to Abuko with a visit to Lamin Rice Fields, where highlights included four Greater Painted-snipe feeding in the open, and a fine umbrella-feeding performance from a Black Egret.

Pirang Shrimp Farm is also a must although visitors are now restricted to birding around the edge, an overspill from recent friction between the Scandinavian tenant shrimp-farmer and the local owners (too complicated to go into here). Great birding all the same - think of a supersized, Minsmere scrape, multiplied twenty times, with Black Crowned Cranes, more Pied Kingfishers by far than you’ve ever seen anywhere,Pink-backed Pelicans, Sacred Ibis, Yellow-billed Storks etc etc. and you have a rough idea. We visited twice and would have liked to have found time to go again.

Among other sites, the Finto Mantereg forest (adjacent to the Faraba Banta bushtrack) is excellent for a variety of sunbirds and much more – our short visit didn’t really do it justice. Brufut Woods gave us our only Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, two African Yellow White-eyes, three Klaas’s Cuckoos, (be careful with ID of females, this one had a buff throat, but all of the other features pointed to Klaas’s rather than Didric) and some incredibly obliging Four-banded Sandgrouse unconcernedly feeding on one of the paths in the middle to the day (Stone Partridge, watch & learn!). The wetlands around Banjul and Barau (e.g. Bund Road, Camaloo Corner) are worth visiting if you have time. Tanji lagoon was the only site where we saw Kelp Gull (a flock of 120 Caspian Terns was impressive too). Bijilo Forest Park gave us Cardinal Woodpecker, and the trees near the beach just along from the entrance are a reliable site for White-throated Bee-eater (we saw four here, and none elsewhere).

Owls are one group of species where the guides really come into their own, and courtesy of Modou and Hassan we saw Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, Northern White-faced Scops, Pearl-spotted Owlet, and Greyish (a.k.a Vermiculated) Eagle Owl (previously treated as a northern race of Spotted Eagle Owl, but with less prominent breast-spotting and dark eyes).

On the kite front, all the Milvus kites we checked closely were Yellow-billed Kites, and this ties up with our guides’ opinions that this is the common taxon here. One thing that did become apparent was that no two trip reports seem to agree on the identities of the short-tailed glossy starlings. Purple Glossy Starling is straightforward, with its bulging forehead, disproportionately large eye, wholly purple-washed underparts and short tail (especially obvious in flight). We had a decent-sized glossy starling flock around the Senegambia hotel which we believe consisted of a mix of Greater and Lesser Blue-eared; many had orange-red eyes that wouldn’t disgrace a Bronze-tailed if the field guides pictures are accurate, but a number of features of that species didn’t fit and its not supposed to occur at the coast. The various field guides seem to contradict each other on the relative importance of the various ID features of this trio; there is clearly room for someone to write the definitive word on this subject. Other highlights from the Senegambia grounds were twoLesser Honeyguides, and a Grey-headed Kingfisher, which we found, causing some excitement among the hotel’s in-house bird guides as it was the first for the site.

All in all we had an excellent introduction to African birding, with eight new families (more if you go by Sinclair and Ryan’s family list). The only major dip was Abyssinian Ground-hornbill, despite a couple of tries at it (others saw it at Faraba Banta on the same day we visited, we were just that bit too late). If you can deal with the unwanted hassle, the Gambia is a stunning birding location. Don’t forget though, take those spare footballs with you!

Steve Preddy and Martyn Hall