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Gambia - 2015

On the 20th December 2015 I travelled to Gambia on a weeks family break and birding reconnaissance with my wife and youngest son, staying at the Kombo Beach Hotel close to Serekunda. During our stay I managed to see an incredible 247 species, 195 of them new birds for me. Add to that  Monitor Lizards, 3 species of monkey, Bushpigs, Nile Crocodiles, an incredible range of habitats, culture, music and wonderful friendly people.

The Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa and is located on the west coast, south of the Sahara and surrounded on three sides by its neighbour Senegal. On its western border the Gambia River meets the Atlantic Ocean. With a species list of over 540, regular flights, a well established infrastructure for tourists and safe environment, it's easy to see why Gambia is a good first choice for experiencing the wonder of African birds.

There are two main field guides - Birds of the Gambia and Senegal by Clive Barlow and Tim Wacher (1997) and the newer Birds of Senegal and The Gambia by Nik Borrow and Ron Demey (2011),  published by Christopher Helm. Both books are equally as important in not only preparing for the trip, but their use in the field. The first edition gives an indepth account of all species, highlighting identification, habitats, status and distribution and breeding with very accurate plates. The newer guide has range maps and a shorter accounts brief conveniently  positioned opposite each species plate. It also has a great quick index at the back so you can immediately find birds by group.

During my visit, Ebrima W. Barry, an experienced and long established bird guide escorted me on four full days of birding and Junkung Jadama for one day. Both guides are very knowledgeable about birding within Gambia, familiar with vocalisations, habitat and local ‘hotspots’.  Both are also registered with the Gambian Birdwatching Association and members of WABSA (West African Bird Study Association).

We arrived at Banjul Airport at 19:27 on the 20th December 2015. Our accommodation and flights were booked through Thomas Cook and we were greeted at Banjul Airport by a representative who had arranged a taxi for us. A twenty minute drive put at us at the Kombo Beach Hotel; our home for the next week and conveniently located next to Kotu Creek and Fajara Golf Course.

21st  December 2015
Abuko National Nature Reserve / Kotu Bridge / Fajara Golf Course / Kotu Sewage Ponds

After breakfast I had time for a short walk on the beach before meeting my guide Ebrima. Yellow-billed Kite was my first new bird of the trip with many individuals coasting over my head in the post dawn light. Next a Pied Crow, Speckled Pigeon, Laughing Dove and Common Bulbul.

Ebrima greeted me at the hotel gate at 07:30 am where we jumped into his vehicle and headed for the famous Abuko Nature Reserve. Abuko is Gambia’s first nature reserve, receiving its official status in 1968. First, however, we made a stop at the Lamin (Abuko) rice fields from 08:00 - 09:10 am. Within an hour we had tallied up a species list of over 45 birds, all but 2 being lifers for me. Stand out birds were African Harrier Hawk, Senegal Coucal, Western Grey Plantain-eater, Violet Turaco, Yellow-billed Shrike and Palm-nut Vulture!

A short drive put at us at Abuko around 09:20 am where we spent the next few hours. The woodland birding here was as expected; a little slower paced than what I had just experienced, but held gems around every corner. We first stopped at the main freshwater pool near the Darwin Field School where we got Giant Kingfisher, Hamerkop (building nest), Black-headed Heron, Green Turaco, Piapiac, Squacco Heron and African Grey Hornbill.

Continuing on we headed through gallery forest where we began connecting with some real specialties - both African Paradise Flycatcher and Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher were seen well. Beautiful Sunbird, Copper Sunbird, Splendid Sunbird, African Thrush, Little Greenbul also made the list before stopping at the drinks bar at the opposite end of the reserve. Here we relaxed and had a bite to eat and drink whilst enjoying the comings and goings of both Green Vervet and Red Colobus Monkeys. Above us Hooded Vulture enjoyed the thermals and joining them were African Palm Swifts, Fanti-sawing, Mottled Spinetail and Red-chested Swallow.

En-route back to the vehicle we located one of the reserve specialties, and high on most birders wish list - Western Bluebill. Shortly after this we got Black Crake, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater and Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu; a common but most beautiful bird and flagged as one of my own targets to see.

We stopped for some lunch back at Kotu before continuing on. After checking the feeding station next to the bird guides HQ we scanned the exposed mud from the Kotu bridge. Common birds of this area such as Spur-winged Lapwing, African Wattled Lapwing, Whimbrel, Hamerkop, Redshank and Pied Kingfisher were all present and in the bushes, Little Bee-eater, Northern Crombec and Fork-tailed Drongo made an appearance. A walk around the nearby sewage ponds produced yet more new birds such as White-faced Whistling Duck, Fine-spotted Woodpecker, Intermediate Egret, Long-tailed Glossy Starling and both Blackcap and Brown Babbler. Our final area to check on day one was the Fajara Golf Course and it was as good as I had read about. Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Broad-billed Roller, Blue-breasted Kingfisher, Black-crowned Tchagra, Grey-backed Camaroptera, Bearded Barbet, Woodland Kingfisher and Levaillant’s Cuckoo all showing well.  Our day finished around 18:30 back at the hotel with a daily total of 105 species.

22nd December 2015
Farasuto Forest, Bamakuno Forest, Kampanti rice fields (Raptor Bridge View Point), Kalaji Bridge (Military Check Point), Tendaba, Tendaba Airfield, Kiang West National Park.  

Another 07:30 am pick-up and before we had even got to the vehicle Ebrima pointed out a Northern Puffback that was calling from the bushes. Shortly after this we were passing through the Bijilo area where we added Lanner Falcon which flew across the road in front of us. This was followed by a Red-necked Falcon that was sat on street light, a Blue-bellied Roller perched on a wire and tree full of nesting White-billed Buffalo Weavers.

We arrived at Farasuto Forest at 08:30 am, greeted by a cracking view of Abyssinian Roller. We then met with Ebrima’s friend and local bird guide, Ebrima Ceesay. Standing in a clearing surrounded by giant Baobab Trees and smaller bushes we noticed birds everywhere. With two ‘Ebrima’s’ calling out birds and seeing birds myself I didn’t know which way to look. Blackcap Babbler, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Variable Sunbird, Little Weaver and while trying to get a photo of a Beautiful Sunbird Ebrima Barry frantically gestured to me. By the sound of his voice and gestures I knew it must me something good. It was --Sulphur-breasted Bush-shrike!

Next I was escorted to a roosting site of Greyish Eagle Owl. This owl was located by Ebrima Ceesay prior to us arriving and if that wasn’t enough, I was shown a Northern White-faced Owl on a nest! It can’t get any better than this I thought but it did. Minutes later I was staring up one of the most difficult owls to see in this area - African Wood Owl. It was at that point I knew that this day was going to be epic and it was. There was a calling Ahanta Francolin and then a good look at Snowy-crowned Robin-chat. Exiting the forest we then came into an opening with some big ponds where we got Nile Crocodile, White-backed Night Heron, Bar-breasted Firefinch and a fly-over African Fish Eagle - the only one of the trip.

En-route to Bamakuno Forest we stopped for Little Swift and Great White Pelican. On the dirt track at Bamakuno Bateleur, Long-crested Eagle and Wahlberg’s Eagle were also added. This great raptor list continued as we drove further east adding Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle, Eurasian Griffon Vulture, African Harrier Hawk, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Shikra and Grasshopper Buzzard.

Our next stop was the Kampanti rice fields also known as the Raptor Bridge View Point. Here we spent about 1 ½ hours raptor watching and had some lunch and a cold fanta. We got second views of some of the birds we had already seen, which I was very happy about, but also added Palm-nut Vulture, Malachite Kingfisher and 2 male Exclamatory Paradise Whydah. On the road again we continued with our luck this time seeing Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture, African White-backed Vulture, Brown Snake Eagle and African Hawk Eagle.

At 15:30 we pulled into Tendaba camp, sorted out our room, had a quick drink then headed back out of camp for some more birding. First stop was at Tendaba Airfield where we got Gull-billed Tern and Slender-billed Gull.The next 2 hours we birded within the Kiang West National Park. I would compare my time in this area to how I felt at the Boy Scout Woods in Texas many years ago - incredible! ‘We hit a hot spot’ and the birds were coming in thick and fast. At one point Ebrima literally grabbed me while I was looking at a Striped Kingfisher - at the same time he had Senegal Batis, Brubru and Swallow-tailed Bee-eater in the same bushes and didn’t want me to miss them. It was chaotic and frantic but we got some good birds - Cut-throat Finch, Pygmy Sunbird, White-rumped Seedeater, Greater Honeyguide, Black Wood Hoopoe, Red-billed Quelea, White Helmetshrike and Diederik Cuckoo to name a few.

By dusk we were positioned up the road from Tendaba camp. Here we waited quietly in hope of seeing Standard-winged Nightjar. Unfortunately this bird was a no show but it didn't matter, we had had an outstanding day. Our dusk vigil didn’t go un-rewarded. First up was a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl which flew over the road, it's pink eyelids clearly seen. Next an African Scops Owl began calling  from some nearby trees followed shortly by a brief look at Pearl-spotted owlet. The finale was a Broad-billed Roller hawking insects overhead and two Four-banded Sandgrouse that came whizzing past us. 137 species seen including 6 owls.

23rd December 2015
Tendaba Canoe Trip,  Baterling Track, Kiang West National Park

After a good night’s sleep and a nice breakfast we climbed into the boat that would take us across the Gambia River and into the mangroves. Onboard was the captain and his helper, two other Brits and their guide, Ebrima and myself. The trip across the river was smooth sailing with no problems followed by 3 wonderful hours puttering along Kissi Creek and Tunku Creek. It was an extremely enjoyable time just sitting back and seeing not only new birds but good numbers of certain species such as African Darter, Great Cormorant, Western Reef Heron and Blue-breasted Kingfisher. African Spoonbill and Sacred Ibis were added to our list followed by Brown Sunbird. Continuing on we started to see Wooly-necked Stork, a Montagu’s Harrier then a fortunate encounter  3 Black Crowned Crane!

Nile Crocodiles casually slipped into the water in front of us as we made our way along, reminding us that we were not always at the top of the food chain. Yellow-crowned Gonoleks called from the bushes, kingfishers sat proudly on their perches while African Darters sunned their wet wings in the morning sun. Already we had listed about 40 species but had a few more to go. Yellow-billed Storks came next and affording us close up looks then a perched Grey-headed Kingfisher, Mosque Swallow then White-throated Bee-eater. We ended up with over 50 species from the boat including another good look at White-backed Night Heron on a nest.

We arrived back at camp just after 11:00am and after sorting out our gear we hit the road back to the west coast. Just outside of the camp a Gabar Goshawk circled above us, its trademark white rump showing well and a reminder that anything could show up at anytime. The route back was taken via the Baterling track leading to Kiang West National Park. Today we were on the lookout for Spotted Thick-knee but to no avail, though we did get cracking views of Black-rumped Waxbill and Bush Petronia whilst searching. With time working against us we continued our journey west stopping again at the Kampanti rice field  adding African Green Pigeon.  

A little further up the road Ebrima quickly pulled over and we both jumped out - our prize... a fly-over light-phased Booted Eagle! The euphoria of this great raptor didn’t last long as we realized that the clutch had gone on the vehicle. The next ½ hour was a little tense as Ebrima fought through the gears to get us to a mechanic. Our main obstacle was getting through Police checkpoints of which there are many. Usually you come to a complete stop before you are waved on. As changing gears was a real problem Ebrima had to try coast through the checkpoints shouting out the window he had clutch problems. With sweat pouring down his face, swerving around dogs, goats people and overtaking traffic he still managed to shout out birds - “African Golden Oriole”! Luck, however, was on our side and we pulled into a backstreet mechanic that Ebrima new. Within 20 minutes the clutch was repaired to allow us to get on our way. Try to get that kind of speed and service in the UK!

24th December 2015
Tujereng Woods, Tanji Bird Reserve and beach, Brufut Woods

Today I met with Junkung Jadama and one of his trainee guides Baba Drammeh. Junkung, also known as JJ, previously worked for Parks and Wildlife, is a professional Bird Guide and coordinator for The Rutland Water Osprey Project in West Africa. Baba has completed 2 of his 3 year apprenticeship to become a bird guide but has been interested in wildlife and birds since he was very young.

Our first stop today was at Tujereng Woods which is located inland on the west coast. Woods isn’t the best descriptive word for this area as it is more a mix of cultivated and overgrown fields with large bushes, some smaller trees and large Silk Cotton Trees. The birding here was again exceptional with an impressive 60 species seen in just over an hour. Birds of note included Senegal Batis, Greater Honeyguide, Yellow Penduline Tit, Vieillot’s Barbet, Pied-winged Swallow, Northern Grey-headed Sparrow. Chestnut-crowned Sparrow Weaver and Black Flycatcher.

A short drive north put us at the Tanji Bird Reserve around 13:30 and just in time for lunch. Drinking and bathing areas for birds have been positioned opposite the dining area so even while you are eating you can do some bird watching. Red-billed Firefinch, Lavender Waxbill, Brown Manikin, Black-necked Weaver and Red-cheeked Cordon-bleu were all present.

At About 15:00 we headed down to the beach close to the Tanji Fishing Village and walked the shoreline. Here there were a few Osprey to keep JJ busy checking for leg bands. The majority of the gulls were Grey-headed Gull but Yellow-legged, Kelp, Slender-billed and Lesser Black-backed Gull were also present. There were also a good number of terns, Royal, Caspian and Sandwich all seen but no Lesser Crested Tern. Waders included Bar-tailed Godwit, Sanderling, Ruddy Turnstone, Common Sandpiper, Grey Plover and Whimbrel.

Our final stop for the day was the famous Brufut Woods. This is one of the places I was really looking forward to seeing and it didn’t disappoint. We didn’t have much time here but we got what we came for. On arrival, and before we even had a chance to get out of the car, we got 2 Pin-tailed Whydah. This absolutely wonderful bird was not yet in breeding plumage but still looked amazing to me.

Aba Jarju, a very important man to know in Brufut Woods joined us for our walk. Aba is a guide here and not only is he skilled at recognising calls but pariculalrly gifted at locating ‘tough to see’ birds. He lead us along a maze of narrow paths finally stopping at a dead end. Here he knelt down and pointed under some bushes. Sitting about four feet in front of us was one of the main target birds - Long-tailed Nightjar! Infact there were 2 Long-tailed Nightjar, male and female. With light fading we continued on to another roost site, this time for a much bigger bird - Verreaux’s Eagle Owl. Though I got this bird outside Tendaba on the second night, this time I really got to have a good look. My luck was still holding as we made our way back to the vehicle, finally getting a decent look at Oriole Warbler then both Levaillant’s Cuckoo and Diederik Cuckoo.

25th December 2015
Kartong Sand Mines and Tujereng Woods

My Christmas present today was a free pass to go birding - not a problem and much appreciated. Day 5 and I was back in the company of Ebrima W Barry. Our destination - The Kartong Sand Mines. Kartong sits at the southernmost point of Gambia, close to the Senegal border. Fresh water pools now fill these old mines making it an exceptional wetland area with reedbeds. Initially we stopped just outside of town and scanned some trees getting better looks at African Green Pigeon.

We arrived about 08:30 am, scanning a smaller pond first and observed usual suspects such as Cattle Egret, Spur-winged Lapwing, Malachite Kingfisher, White-faced Whistling Ducks, Black Crake, Squacco Heron, African Jacana and Marsh Harrier.

As we continued on to my surprise the reserve was much bigger than I expected. It had good access around it and once we had scanned an area we simply moved up to the next in the vehicle. New species here included Purple Swamphen, Greater Painted Snipe and Plain-backed Pipit. Our main targets in this area were Spur-winged Goose and African Pygmy Goose. Ebrima got a quick glimpse of the Spur-winged but they  were gone before I got a chance to see them. We carried on both on foot and vehicle, scanning from different angles. We added Purple Heron then 2 juvenile Spur-winged Geese mixed in with some whistling ducks. We continued past the wetlands and onto the beach in search of another specialty. Our first reward came in the form of two wonderful Crested Larks. After a while we began to see waders close to the water - Whimbrel, Common Greenshank, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Eurasian Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover, basically everything other than what we were looking for.

It is at this point I should pause and explain something. This was day 4 with Ebrima and I had already learned lots about him. He knows the birds the land the people and hotspots and seamlessly ran each day with precision timing. He took care of details and made sure I was always fed, watered and comfortable - the icebox full of cold drinks in the back of his vehicle was very welcome.  But what impressed me more than that was his hunger, instinct and focus. He has been in the field for a long time and has led many groups and individuals but led each day with me like it was his first. Enthusiastic and dedicated.

We reached as far as we could go, the tide cutting us off and so began the walk back - that’s when I heard Ebrima say “there you are”. Following his pointed finger I connected with our quarry  - 40 feet in front of us was a White-fronted Plover! This cracking little peep took off at speed like a clockwork toy across the sand. We doubled back on ourselves which allowed us another look and to our amazement we found about 15. We must have simply just walked passed them on the way up, though not surprising considering their camouflage. That didn’t matter now - Ebrima was grinning like a Cheshire Cat and so was I.

Our appetites were getting the best of us and we pushed on north up the Kombo Coastal Road turning west from the town of Sanyang until we hit the coast and Paradise Beach Bar. Not many birds here but a cold drink and the best Omelette and chips I've ever had made up for it.

By 16:20 we were at Tujereng Woods for a second viewing. A missed cuckoo sp, a skulking Red-winged Warbler then a stringy look at the rear of a Brown-backed Woodpecker greeted us on arrival and we sensed our luck might be running out. We needn't of worried,  there were still a few surprises to come. Another good look at Yellow Penduline Tit was followed by my first Black-winged Bishop. The cuckoo sp that had slipped away previously  put in a second appearance, this time giving us chance to scrutinize its features - a mostly yellow bill and darker grey wings, back and nape confirmed African Cuckoo. Within minutes of this sighting a second cuckoo appeared, this time a beautiful adult male Klaas’s Cuckoo. Another scan of the fields before we left paid off in the form of a male White-fronted Black Chat!

26th December 2015
Fatala Game Reserve - Senegal, Casino Cycle Track at Kotu

Today’s itinerary was a little different as I joined my family on an excursion to the 6000 hectare Fathala Wildlife Reserve in Senegal. This trip was  organised through Gambia Tours who picked us up at our hotel at about 07:30 am. We joined other participants on a tour bus which took us to the ferry at Banjul. The logistics of getting to Fathala were well organised and our guide was very informative, explaining much about the history of Gambia and Senegal.. Whilst waiting for the ferry next to the harbour I noted a few birds such as Gull-billed Tern, Grey-headed Gull, Kelp Gull, Sandwich Tern, Royal Tern and Caspian Tern. We all boarded the ferry as foot passengers as a second vehicle would pick us up in Barra. En-route I kept my eyes peeled for Lesser-crested Tern but didn’t see any. I did, however, get up to 9 Pomarine Skua which was new for the trip.

Arriving in Barra at 09: 30 we proceeded to our second tour bus then onto the border checkpoint located north of Fass and south of Karang in Senegal. Passports and medical cards showing yellow fever status had to be stamped. Once through customs we continued on arriving around 11:00 am. After some organizing we boarded a giant open sided truck and entered the game park. The next 1 ½ hours was spent bumping our way around the many small tracks centered around a watering hole.

Our first encounter was with 3 Zebra and some Warthogs. Amazing to see these wonderful animals at close range. Unlike a Zoo, here at the wildlife reserve there is no guarantee to see the animals but luckily we found a few. Next was a fantastic sighting of Giraffe; a male, female and young, Roan Antelope and lastly one of the reserve's main stars -  Giant eland or Lord Derby eland Antelope.

Prior to embarking on our mini safari we had ordered our lunch for the day, so on return to the camp we all sat down and enjoyed a pizza and cold drink, all included on the tour. Once fed and watered we climbed back onto the tour bus and headed for Barra. Our timing was very tight and at the harbour we literally had to run for the ferry. It was quite a surreal moment to be honest, especially as I hoisted a goat onto my shoulders to help a local man - only in Gambia!

We arrived back at our hotel around 17:15 where I met up with Ebrima at Kotu Bridge. We took a walk along a path  commonly known as the ‘casino cycle track’ and it is here where I finally got excellent views of Pearl Spotted Owlet! I have sneaky suspicion that Ebrima had located this bird prior to me getting back as he knew I really wanted to get a better look. Just past Badala Park Hotel, which is next to the trail, is a small path leading to Badala Park Pool. This little wetland is definitely worth checking - African Darter, Cattle Egret, Black-tailed Godwit, Common Sandpiper, Long-tailed Cormorant, Black-winged Stilt and White-faced Whistling Duck Greater Painted Snipe all present.

27th December 2015
Local area - Kotu Bridge, Fajara Golf Course, Kotu Sewage Ponds and Casino Cycle Track, Katchikally Crocodile Pool, flight back to England

My morning started with one more walk around the local area with Ebrima. While waiting for him near Kotu Bridge I got my final lifer of the trip - White-crowned Robin Chat. There were 3 individuals feeding along a path next to the birders hut. We totaled 56 species on our walk including 2 new trip birds - Subalpine Warbler and Green Sandpiper. After saying my farewells to Ebrima and some of the other guides my family and I had one final excursion to Katchikally Crocodile Pool. This sacred site is visited not only by tourists but by local people as it is known for its healing powers and also a place of prayer and blessings. There are approximately 80 crocodiles here and some close enough to touch.

The Gambia was everything I hoped it would be and more. Having never been to Africa it definitely was an eye opener and very different than anything I have ever known. The comfort of the resorts and hussle and bussle of high pressure sales in the touristy areas seemed in complete contrast to the Gambia I experienced. Having spent most of my time in the field and getting to meet local people away from the coast gave me the opportunity to have a very different view. I have yet to meet a more friendly people than those I met on my travels. When we had vehicle trouble people helped without thought of reward and at both mechanics the problem was dealt immediately with no fuss. The Police and Military were always polite and respectful, as were we, and on more than one occasion made eye contact with me and inquired if I was ok.

Both my guides and their associates were exceptional and I would happily recommend their services and those of a couple more I met. My intention for this trip was to finally see some African birds but also for research, the aim being to  bring a group here myself. What you have read above is a taste of what would be in store. The return trip will include 4 nights and 5 days up country where we will encounter Hippopotamus, Baboons. Chimpanzees and a host of birds that will include such specialties as African Finfoot, Egyptian Plover, Brown-necked Parrot, Pel’s Fishing Owl, Shining-blue Kingfisher, African Blue Flycatcher, Northern Carmine Bee-eater, White-headed Vulture and Marabou Stork - and that’s just for starters!  

Click here to see total species list for the trip


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