Our third visit to the Gambia followed a tried and trusted pattern. We had a week at Farakunku Lodges, Tujereng, in January 2011 and February 2012, and resolved to sample a different month, so selected mid-December for our latest visit. The logistics are familiar to many birders. There are charter flights from Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester to a small, mainly English-speaking country, more or less guaranteed sunshine in our winter, an interesting and varied bird list, no jet-lag, and a birding infrastructure. There are plenty of local guides, many of whom are excellent, while some others know much less than U. K. Visitors. In general the best guides belong to WABSA, the West African Bird Study Association. A busy guide with a good reputation can become considerably more prosperous than the average Gambian; even a modest guiding fee is likely to be vastly more rewarding than the 100 dhalasi (£2) paid to Gambian labourers. Therefore the best guides work really hard, know the best sites, can find a range of difficult species, know their calls and are punctual and obliging. Our regular guide, Lamin Njie, (email@example.com) fits into this category. He is also endlessly patient with me, as I often fail to spot skulking and even obvious species.
The two seasons in the Gambia, wet and dry, are vastly different but maximum daily temperatures remain broadly the same throughout the year. High humidity and flooded roads make birding difficult in the wet season and there are few flights. The dry season starts at the beginning of November and by mid-December nights are comfortably cool, though afternoon temperatures usually top 30C. Our days normally consist of a pre-dawn breakfast followed by birding until around midday, at which time bird activity is much-reduced and the sun is fierce. A short walk in the late afternoon rounds off the birding day.
The accommodation we have discovered is second to none and is also ideally situated. Run by an Anglo-Gambian couple, Heather and Moses, (firstname.lastname@example.org) Farakunku consists of four well-designed and equipped lodges set in attractive grounds surrounded by a small hamlet. We as repeat visitors have begun to feel a link with this small community and we have got to know the staff, of whom the night-watchman, head chef and cleaner all live within 200 yards. Elsewhere in the Gambia, European visitors can be followed by groups of children, these groups at times growing to an uncomfortably large size. This doesn’t happen at Farakunku. The children here regularly greet you with ‘Hello! How are you?’ but are content with a similar reply unless you choose to chat to them. They then welcome the chance to practise their English, which is the universal language in Gambian schools. It follows that every Gambian with even the most basic education is to some extent bilingual, unlike most citizens of the UK.
For Heather and Moses nothing is too much trouble. They will collect you from the airport, take you on very reasonably-priced birding trips in one of their 4WD vehicles, arrange guides and cater for a variety of interests. During our latest visit a lepidopterist turned up to stay. Could he set up his moth trap (complete with ultra-violet lamp) in the grounds? No problem, was the reply and the moth trap was duly set up on our hosts’ verandah.
The lodges are surrounded by cultivated vegetable ‘gardens’, some woodland and, further afield, savanna, and are situated about three-quarters of a mile east of the coast road. Between this road and the coast is an area of farmland and scrub with scattered trees which has been given the name Tujereng Woods. This apparently unpromising area produced some of the best birds of our trip including White-fronted Black Chat and White-shouldered Black Tit in the same tree, and within about two minutes, on our first morning. Both were found by our excellent guide, Lamin Njie. Another guest had Brubru there, while Brown-backed Woodpecker is regular. Some pools along another track towards the coast probably merit further investigation; I missed Levaillant’s Cuckoo there.
Heather has devised a series of circular walks radiating from Farakunku Lodges, which can be followed with her detailed written instructions and colour-coded marks on walls and trees, and a recently-developed route extends much further than before. At supper in the restaurant a photographer couple mentioned that they had walked this route in the morning, and seen (and photographed) a pair of Abyssinian Ground Hornbills. This species is largely unknown close to the coast, and far from common elsewhere. Being very shy it is hard to see despite its huge size, but I was aware that it is regarded as very site-loyal. Clearly this was worth following up!
Next morning we visited Abuko, one of the most famous reserves in West Africa. A forest enclave surrounded by habitation and a short distance from teeming Serrekunda, easily the most populous town in the Gambia, Abuko has a range of forest species that are hard to find elsewhere. Lamin focused on Western Bluebill, which we had missed on our previous two visits, and we looked like drawing a blank again though a glimpsed African Goshawk, Little Greenbul, African Pygmy Kingfisher and other species provide plenty of compensation. We heard Western Bluebill several times but it continued to hide until at least two individuals showed really well close to the reserve centre.
Later that afternoon Stuart (another birding resident), Stephanie and I set out to try to find the Abyssinian Ground Hornbill. Initially the route skirted gardens and other cultivations but soon became more savanna-like and considerably more remote. We looked hard for the hornbills but without success; however a local confirmed that the birds were regularly seen at the furthest extent of Heather’s new route. We rushed to get back to Farakunku before nightfall, none of us having brought a torch. En route a pair of Levaillant’s Cuckoos was a pleasant surprise.
We visited Brufut Woods next morning. Normally the local trainee bird guides have located the resident pair of Verreaux’s Eagle Owls before the first birders arrive and, for a small fee, direct visitors to see them, but on this occasion the owls proved unco-operative. A pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers, a superb Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird and three Long-tailed Nightjars were highlights, as was Yellow White-eye at the Forest Bar, where hot and tired birders can watch a series of water containers while enjoying a soft drink.
By the time we got back to Farakunku, Stuart had departed for the U. K. He left a note saying that he had completed the walk again without a sighting of the hornbills, but was sure he had heard the birds calling, and he had spoken to local people again, confirming the birds’ presence.
We enjoyed a short local walk in the late afternoon, then arranged for Lamin, our guide, to be at Farakunku next morning in time for an early breakfast. We duly set off on the walk for a second time, hoping for a sighting before the morning grew really hot. As it was a Saturday the schools were closed and there were plenty of schoolchildren on the various paths and tracks. We met a group close to the supposed hornbill site and Lamin spoke to them in Mandinka, his first language and the language spoken most commonly in coastal Gambia. To his surprise uncomprehending looks were the only response. In the Gambia it is not uncommon for neighbouring villages, separated by a couple of miles of savanna, to have different languages. Lamin tried again in English and received useful information, in particular being directed to a large tree about 400 yards away, so we headed for it through the scrub. As we approached the tree a huge bird with black and white wings flew a short distance away from us! More scrambling over fences and through wild mint brought us closer to the bird again and we were treated to a spectacular flypast. Additional searching led us to a more open area where a female Abyssinian Ground Hornbill was feeding quietly some distance away. The bird confirmed the species’ reputation for shyness by flying away from us onto a tree stump, but not before I had managed a few photographs. A Red-necked Falcon flew over us and perched, to round off a memorable morning in fine style, but Lamin was far more excited by the hornbill, a species he had never before seen so close to the coast.
We then returned to Farakunku, hot, and tired but elated. The actual discovery of the birds owed much to Lamin’s sharp eyes, and his knowledge of the species and its favoured habitat. It also makes me wonder how many Abyssinian Ground Hornbills, and other ‘difficult’ species, could be found in hitherto unbirded areas. There is plenty of savanna around Tujereng and further south, with well-spaced villages and little disturbance, and it seems inconceivable that other Abyssinian Ground Hornbills aren’t still to be found in the more remote parts of the locality.
Next morning we visited Farasutu Forest east of Brikama, another area and village that are being developed along ecological lines. Two polite and enthusiastic young guides directed us through the forest to flooded clay pits near the river (African Spoonbill and a huge Nile Crocodile), and back towards the reserve centre where Grey-headed Bristlebill stayed hidden, but Greater and Lesser Honeyguides and a pair of hard-to-find Green-headed Sunbirds came to water containers. Both guides were doing their best to develop their identification skills but neither had binoculars. I wonder how many U. K. Birders visit the Gambia (and other developing world destinations) and leave their old and unused binoculars at home.
Around mid-morning we moved a little further inland to the famed Faraba Banta bush track. From other trip reports it is possible to imagine a sky black with soaring raptors here, but on our two visits this has been far from the reality. We saw Beaudoin’s Snake Eagle (for the second visit running) and some commoner species, but the passerines proved more interesting. A flowering tree held several sunbirds including Western Violet-backed, and a handsome Senegal Batis. The return journey through busy Brikama produced a pair of Dark Chanting Goshawks right next to the road and in a flock of swifts Lamin saw Mottled Spinetail, which I missed.
We made an early start next morning for the far south of the Gambia’s Atlantic Coast and Kartong Bird Observatory. Kartong, rated by Dave Gosney as the best birding site in the Gambia, consists of a series of seasonally flooded hollows in an area that used to be a sand quarry. Some of the hollows contain sizeable reedbeds and Allen’s Gallinule is regular here. The observatory is run by Colin Cross, an expat from Norwich, who in addition to guiding and bird ringing, runs a medical clinic for the villagers, relying on donations of cash and medical supplies from visitors and others. Our first task on arrival was to hand over the ointments, bandages and painkillers which we had squeezed into the corners of our suitcases before leaving the U. K.
The ringing nets were out when we arrived and Jez Blackburn of the B.T.O. and his wife Laura were busy emptying them. We were able to examine some of the commoner species and also Yellow-backed Weaver, a reedbed specialist. We also met an Italian naturalist, Stefano Converti, (email@example.com) who is very knowledgeable concerning many aspects of Gambian wildlife, and is learning about the birds at Kartong. He offers night-time trips into the savanna to find owls, bushbabies and other wildlife. Our tour of the site immediately yielded Purple Gallinule, which is scarce in the Gambia, Four-banded Sandgrouse, and Mosque Swallows, which came close enough overhead to permit detailed observation. However the strong winds, while making the birding pleasantly cool, kept many passerines well out of sight. Our boat trip on the River Hallehein followed lunch and we were able to view gulls, terns, and large numbers of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters at close range.
Next day an early morning bike ride was followed by leisurely packing, lunch and a return to the airport where an afternoon flight got us back to Birmingham on time, and home to Derby by midnight.
The Gambia stands out as the U. K.’s most accessible tropical birding destination, with, in addition, no jet-lag, few insects, friendly locals and a birding infrastructure of reserves and guides. Farakunku Lodges offers excellent accommodation and food, all at very modest prices in a location full of interest and potential. I didn’t accumulate (or target) a huge trip list but saw nineteen new species and was able to develop my very basic photographic skills. On our next visit a trip upriver as far as Tendaba Camp, and a night excursion might be part of our itinerary. We shall return.
New Species Seen
Black Scimitarbill Tujereng Woods 12.12.2012
Viellot’s Barbet Tujereng Woods 12.12.2012
White-fronted Black Chat Tujereng Woods 12.12.2012
White-shouldered Black Tit Tujereng Woods 12.12.2012
Singing Cistacola Tujereng Woods 12.12.2012
Western Bluebill Abuko 13.12.2012
Levaillant’s Cuckoo Farakunku Lodges 13.12.2012
Cardinal Woodpecker Brufut Woods 14.12.2012
Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird Brufut Woods 14.12.2012
Oriole Warbler Brufut Woods 14.12.2012
Red-necked Falcon Nr Farakunku Lodges 15.12.2012
Abyssinian Ground Hornbill Nr Farakunku Lodges 15.12.2012
African Spoonbill Farasutu Forest 15.12.2012
Lesser Honeyguide Farasutu Forest 16.12.2012
Green-headed Sunbird Farasutu Forest 16.12.2012
Violet-backed Sunbird Faraba Banta Bush Track 16.12.2012
Senegal Batis Faraba Banta Busk Track 16.12.2012
Yellow-backed Weaver Kartong 17.12.2012
Mosque Swallow Kartong