If, like me, you're feeling a bit fed up with this relentlessly bleak March I hope you enjoy this two-part account of a recent trip to sunnier climes. I visited The Gambia for a week of birding and warmth back in early February with two friends; Jon and Dan. Since Jon is getting married this May it was actually a ‘stag’ trip of sorts – but not in the conventional sense, with the emphasis on seeing as much of the country as we could fit in and taking in as much wildlife as possible, albeit with the odd beer or few. Our itinerary involved 2 nights on the coast, followed by 3 nights upriver and a final 2 nights back on the coast. In just a week we encountered 244 species of birds, as well as some ace non-birds including Hippos, Nile Crocodiles, Western Baboons and Chimps.
We arranged our flights through Thomas Cook and flew from Birmingham as this suited the other guys better, although Manchester flights are also an option. A word of warning if using Thomas Cook; on both flights we encountered problems with the planes being ‘overweight’. On the way out we were forced to land and refuel at Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which delayed our arrival in Banjul by around an hour. On the return flight, they actually removed some bags off the plane before we left; including my 12kg rucksack, which I was only reunited with a couple of days later after it arrived at Gatwick. Of all the different airlines I’ve used before I’ve never encountered one as frustratingly inept as Thomas Cook.
Our transport, guide and accommodation were all arranged through Hidden Gambia, who proved to be an excellent choice and especially helpful when travelling up river. February is towards the end of The Gambia’s dry season and we found the mornings pleasantly cool until the temperatures soared at lunchtime, approaching 40 deg C by mid afternoon upriver then cooling off overnight. As it was so dry, energy-sapping humidity was never a problem and we encountered virtually no mossies either - though we took our Malarone just in case! The Gambia has a closed currency and we couldn’t change any money until we arrived, which we did through our driver, Mohammed; the exchange rate was around 52 Delasi for £1.
Eating out was very cheap and we spent most of our spare cash on tips and local donation funds. One thing that stood out in particular for me was the sincere friendliness of the locals. Despite clearly being poor the people were fantastic and certainly rich in soul - we never felt threatened when carrying our optics around with us.
Day 1: Arrival in Banjul and transfer to accommodation
After Thomas Cook’s refuelling debacle, we finally arrived in Banjul an hour later than planned at around 3pm. We met Mohammed our driver and headed to the Sunset Beach B n’ B near the renowned Kotu Creek. Our plan was to spend the last couple of hours of daylight getting our collective eye in with the local birdlife. This idea was soon shattered when the Sunset Beach B n’ B staff denied all knowledge of our booking and tried to send us to another hotel instead; this happened to another couple and a minibus full of birders too – do not book here with any confidence. Thankfully, we were able to phone Mohammed to come back and help us out of this sketch and he arranged for us to stay at Nemasu Ecolodge instead; about a 45 minute drive down the coast. This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Nemasu is in a fantastic location and I highly recommend it – with an Aussie running it, you can’t go wrong!
As we didn’t arrive at Nemasu until dusk our plans for birding in the afternoon went out of the window, but we still managed to see several species that would become familiar throughout the week including Hooded Vulture, Yellow-billed (Black) Kite, Grey-headed Gull, Laughing Dove, Speckled Pigeon, Western Grey Plantain-eater (Phoenix lives!), African Palm Swift, Pied Kingfisher, Common Bulbul and Pied Crow. A reminder of home was provided by a lone Whimbrel at Tanji.
After a hectic day in transit we were glad to relax with a cold Jul Brew (the staple beer of The Gambia) and sample the traditional cooking on offer from the friendly staff. A walk to the beach after dark rewarded us with a memorable display of bioluminescence making the crashing Atlantic waves appear fluorescent green, while legions of fiddler crabs fled from our torch lights.
Hooded Vulture: very common in The Gambia but very threatened elsewhere
On the road
Day 2: Abuko, Lamin ricefields and Kotu Creek
After being lulled into a good nights’ sleep by the breaking waves I woke early and ventured out from my hut at dawn in time to see fruit bats squeaking overhead as they returned to their roost. Two Ospreys fished offshore as we ate breakfast, while Brown and Blackcap Babblers, Western Red-billed Hornbills and a male Variable Sunbird reminded us we were in Africa. Our guide, Ebrima Njie (email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: +220 9841959 / 6316640 / 7221074), and driver, Sijo, arrived at 7:45 and we set off to the legendary nature reserve at Abuko. We hadn’t gone far when Ebrima’s sharp eyes had us screeching to a halt to enjoy a Lavender Waxbill feeding with Red-cheeked Cordon-bleus and soon found ourselves with that great problem often encountered when birding abroad of not knowing where to look next – a roosting Pearl-spotted Owlet in a nearby palm, a Blue-bellied Roller scanning for prey next to an African Green Pigeon, a family party of Green Wood-hoopoes working a dead palm stump, a White-crowned Robin-chat foraging on the ground in front of a flock of Purple Glossy Starlings and an African Thrush plus a Red-winged Warbler (Prinia) in the vegetation next to us. A little further on and we came across some Red-chested Swallows (like miniature, cleaner Barn Swallows) and a Wire-tailed Swallow on roadside wires.
On entering Abuko, the first highlights were provided by the confiding Callithrix (Green Vervet) and Red Colobus Monkeys that were keeping an eye on us from the side of the path. A Black Crake was striking in its simplicity while African Jacanas and our first Snowy-crowned Robin-chat added a touch of the exotic. As we entered the closed canopy woodland we encountered the first Green (Guinea) Turaco, blending well into the leaves despite its bright colours. Violet Turacos were slightly more showy, especially their day-glo beaks, and we ended up with the two species together at one point. A group of Western Bluebills (red and black finches with massive metallic bills) drank from a small pool and a Grey-headed Bristlebill foraged nearby. In the woods we also had Little Greenbul and a hybrid African x Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher; we saw kosher specimens of both species later. We also had good views of a Yellow-breasted Apalis foraging in the canopy, a Common Wattle-eye and family group of Bronze Mannikins. A stop by a small wetland area revealed Black-headed Heron, a pair of nest-building Palm-nut Vultures, Malachite and Grey-headed Kingfishers, Grey Woodpecker and Fork-tailed Drongo.
Callithrix (Green Vervet) Monkeys
As the vegetation opened out we were soon enjoying our first Red-billed Firefinches, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater and a small group of Little Bee-eaters, while Pied-winged Swallows and Fanti Sawwings flew overhead. A smart Lanner gave good views as it cruised over closely followed by an immature male Marsh Harrier. After a refreshing cold drink we retraced our steps through the woodland, scoring great views of a female Giant Kingfisher; a trip highlight for me due to the large size yet secretive nature.
Female Giant Kingfisher; one of my birds of the trip
Lamin ricefields was the next stop, with Greater Painted-snipe one of the main targets. We didn’t see any here but still enjoyed some great birds including Long-tailed Cormorant, Black Heron, a couple of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters hawking the skies, Little Bee-eaters giving close views, our first Senegal Parrot and two Little Swifts.
Senegal Parrot: we spent ages trying to find this in the foliage - we needn't have worried too much!
Spur-winged Lapwings were common
After a late lunch we spent a few hours around Kotu Creek. This is a great birding spot just outside a popular tourist area and easily accessible from many hotels. From the road bridge, the creek held a Western Reef Heron along with 2+ Common and 2 Green Sandpipers, 2 Greenshank, a 1w Little Ringed Plover and single Grey Plover and Whimbrel. While scanning the creek a local guide started chatting to us and mentioned a roosting Northern White-faced Owl not far away. Inevitably, a short walk later and we were enjoying good views of this smart owl as it roosted above a customs checkpoint. En route we had our first views of Hamerkops alongside a Wood Sandpiper and a fly-by Grey Kestrel. A wander round the sewage works was well worth it for the spectacle of Yellow-billed (Black) Kites feeding over a swarm of egrets including Little, Cattle, Intermediate and Great White as well as Sacred Ibis and many Black-winged Stilts. We also had flight views of a Yellow Wagtail (most we had decent views of seemed to be flava) and at least 3 African Harrier-hawks. Walking back around the other side of the creek produced Senegal Coucal and small flocks of Senegal Thick-knees alongside Spur-winged and African Wattled Lapwings.
Western Reef Heron
Common Sands were much more approachable here
Northern White-faced Owl
No prizes for guessing this one!
Senegal Coucals were regularly seen
We arrived back at Nemasu just in time to scan the sea and have a dusk walk through the dune slacks. On the way to the beach we came across our first Yellow-crowned Gonolek (these are a stunning mix of yellow, scarlet and black but always seemed elusive for such a colourful bird) and a family party of Piapiacs (reminiscent of small, long-tailed Choughs). Plenty of terns were passing north offshore, with Caspian easily the commonest but also a single Lesser Crested and a Sandwich. Waders included Sanderling and Grey Plover. The walk back through the dunes in the fading light was excellent as we accidentally flushed a small party of Four-banded Sandgrouse, which flew straight past us. These were closely followed by a Long-tailed Nightjar while Double-spurred Francolins called from the darkening woods. With 113 species under the belt it was time to relax with a Jul Brew and take in what we had seen.
Today was very much a transit day, but as we spent much of it on the river we were able to relax and take in some great birds and scenery along the way. We left Nemasu at 08:00 and drove to Bintang where our boat, the Lady Hippo, awaited. We sailed up to Farafenni and then had another road stint to Kuntaur, from where we sailed on a pirogue to Georgetown, arriving at dusk.
The Gambia river was very wide for the first leg of the boat trip but highlights on this stretch included a Great White Pelican, which winter here, looking massive compared to the many Pink-backeds. We also saw the first Goliath Heron standing next to a Grey, though I was surprised to see the Grey almost equalling the Goliath’s height. Herons and egrets were everywhere and included the first Striated and Black-crowned Night Herons of the trip as well as the first of many Squaccos and Purples. Four Avocets were feeding on the muddy bank and we added Royal and Gull-billed Terns to the tally.
Ebrima, ace guide
Pink-backed Pelican take off
Raptors were very prominent today and included 2 Western Banded Snake-eagles, African Fish Eagle, 5+ Lizard Buzzards, 2 Dark Chanting Goshawks, African White-backed Vulture, a melanistic Montagu’s Harrier (these proved fairly numerous), 2 Shikra and a Peregrine that appeared to be of the minor race.
African Fish Eagle
The road stint through savannah from Farafenni to Kuntaur was fairly quiet but still yielded Grasshopper Buzzard and a couple of Collared Pratincoles. Unfortunately we were just too late for the infamous Crocodilebirds (Egyptian Plovers); one had been seen the previous week at Kaur wetlands, which we passed and checked, but not this week. The birds move deeper up the river systems as the breeding season approaches.
Back on the river, which by now was much narrower, we enjoyed our first Abyssinian Rollers, with their striking long tails. Broad-billed Rollers also started to appear in good numbers – these are quite different to most rollers, with slender bodies and wings but large head and bill and favouring a hawking method of catching prey in flight. A European Turtle Dove was perched on some bankside vegetation and, reminding us of home even more, an affinis Barn Owl was roosting in full view as we sailed past.
floating Palm-nut Vulture
Around the National Park area the welcome shout went up for the first Hippos, with two lurking just off an island – though they were very wary and didn’t hang about for closer views. Also on the islands were Chimpanzees (part of a rehabilitation project but now living in self-sustaining colonies) – it was quite an experience to stare into the eyes of one as it watched us sail past. The Chimps were mixing it with Guinea Baboons, which also put on quite a show of arse-scratching, bobbing around and general tomfoolery.
Here's looking at you!
Guinea Baboon having a good scratch
As the dusk gathered around us the wine came out as we watched Four-banded Sandgrouse flying over the river to feed, our first Blue-breasted Kingfisher (emblem of the Jul Brew!) and egrets of all species heading off to roost, with the most memorable being a skein of Great Whites. Darkness fell as we arrived at MacCarthy Island and Georgetown, our base for the next two nights.
Day 4: Bansang Quarry and around Georgetown
We started the day well with a shocking yellow African Golden Oriole over breakfast but the target of the morning was Bansang Quarry, a short drive down the road. After stopping en route for Tawny and Wahlberg’s Eagles along with a Pygmy Sunbird, we arrived at Bansang and were soon on to our quarry - the Red-throated Bee-eaters which breed here. We spent a good couple of hours at this site soaking in the colours of the Bee-eaters along with an ace supporting cast of Double-spurred Francolin, Shikra, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Yellow-fronted Canary, Cinnamon-breasted Rock Bunting, Bush Petronia and Cut-throat Finch.
As the morning heated up we set off for another stakeout – a Marabou Stork colony in a small roadside village. These didn’t disappoint and I was struck by how such hulking, menacing birds could be so gentle on the nest with each other and their young. Showing the locals the birds through my optics was also great fun even if we couldn’t speak each others’ languages and is a great birding memory from the trip. Before returning for lunch we tried a site for Verreaux’s Eagle Owl without success, although we did see a male Greater Honeyguide instead (the only one of the trip) and Brown Snake-eagle overhead.
Pair on the nest
This male Beautiful Sunbird was obsessed with his reflection
After lunch the temperature was hitting 40 degrees C, but while the others in the group sought shade and rest before going to the evening BBQ we managed to cajole Ebrima into taking us for a walk from Bird Safari Camp (not currently in operation – it’s a long story!) and across to the BBQ site later. More new birds were forthcoming on this walk including our first Bearded Barbet, Red-shouldered Cuckoo-shrike, Fine-spotted Woodpecker, Scarlet-chested Sunbird and Rufous-crowned Roller. In Georgetown itself we had more prolonged scope views of the male African Golden Oriole and a small group of Yellow-throated Leafloves. As the temperatures cooled a little we headed down the long track to the BBQ site by the river. A party of birds mobbing something in a tree included 2 Tree Pipits, while the subject of their concern turned out to be another Barn Owl, staring straight back at us from the depths of the foliage. A Black-headed Lapwing showed well as did 2 Four-banded Sandgrouse feeding quietly on the ground. As dusk drew in a group of 10 Hadada Ibis announced themselves flying to roost with their weird ‘Ha!’ call, sounding a bit like something from a Jackie Chan film and an African Scops Owl sang from across the river. Cue a top BBQ followed by a spot of dancing!
aptly-named Long-tailed Glossy Starling
A welcome sight after a long walk!
JC cutting some shapes
(Days 5 to 8 coming soon!)