Tuesday, 6 November 2001

GAMBIA 2001: 26 October-6 November

Introduction. I was very keep to see Egyptian Plover and the Gambia seemed the easiest place to do so, at least during what seemed to be a narrow window towards the end of the year when they appeared on the Gambia River in the far east of the country. I wasn’t able to find others interested, my usual travel companion Nick not being able to have days off in term time, so I ended up going on a Naturetrek Bargain Birding trip. It was affordable, although not quite my idea of a bargain, but joining instructions indicated I’d be in a group of 16 plus guides. This blog is my take on the trip dredging up unreliable memories and illustrated with most of a film of digitised instamatic photos.

Friday 26 October. A morning departure from Gatwick saw us arriving at Banjul Airport early afternoon. Once through and were taken to the Senegambia Beach Hotel. I dumped my bag and spent the remaining daylight hours birding in the fairly extensive hotel grounds seeing seven new birds, the best being Bearded Barbet, White-crowned Robin Chat, Yellow-crowned Gonolek and Lavender Waxbills. Also excellent views of a Blue-spotted Wood Dove and Red-billed Hornbill. A decent start made even better by my ‘room share’ Paul being the best I could ask for, although our UK leader Ted wasn’t. He appeared in the hotel grounds after an hour and immediately called me over for a robinchat that was actually a gonolek feeding on the ground. Oh dear. It transpired that he’d only been to coastal Gambia before, hadn’t a telescope, torch or, perhaps harshly, much of a clue. Hopefully our local guides would be better.

Saturday 27 October. I birded in the grounds for an hour before breakfast which didn’t start until 07:00. We left the hotel at 08:00, by which time it was already quite hot, and with a keen young Gambian guide Sering visited Kotu Creek, Bund Road and Old Cape Road stopping somewhere unmemorable for lunch. We saw lots of birds, I recorded 120 species in total, including 14 that were new for me, the best being Senegal Thick-knee, Senegal Parrot, Blue-breasted Kingfisher, the much anticipated Blue-bellied Roller, Moho, Yellow-billed Shrike and Piapiac.

Sunday 28 October. Today we were going to Abuko Forest Reserved, the jewel in the coastal Gambian birding crown, but were again leaving at 08:00, sadly no early or packed breakfasts on this trip. We picked up seasoned guide Soloman for the day and arrived at Abuko soon after 09:00, an hour after the reserve had opened. The entrance sign said serious birdwatching groups could enter at 06:00 by prior arrangement but sadly this wasn’t close to being a serious birdwatching trip as given the heat we’d missed the best three hours of the day. We set off along the main trail, leaders at the front and a crocodile of 12 following. This might be OK in open country but was far from ideal in thick forest. News of what the leaders were seeing was very slow to filter back by which time the bird had usually long gone and the leaders moved on. When I did work my way to the front and stopped to look for something (usually unsuccessfully) I was soon at the back again while everyone else piled past. Very frustrating. Late morning we came out of the forest at the other end of the reserve. Our bus was there and were told we were going to lunch. I’d seen a juvenile White-backed Night Heron and 6 Violet and a Green Turaco but not Yellow-bellied Hyliota or Western Bluebill which was one of my top target birds and only possible at Abuko. Solomon had glimpsed one on our march through Abuko but I’m not sure anyone else had. I enquired of him what the plan was for the rest of the day. After lunch we were going to look for coursers in dried up rice fields at Lamin and would not be returning to Abuko (our itinerary mentioned having a full day there. As lunch was to be a prolonged affair, no point rushing in the heat of the day, and we were returning past Abuko I asked to be picked up back by the entrance to at least give me a couple more hours there. Three others decided to do likewise and we slowly walked back having excellent views of 4 male Western Bluebills on the way, a much more enjoyable experience. Lamin rice fields were flooded, something Solomon should have been aware of, and so completely unsuitable for anything other than egrets although maybe seeing coursers would have been rather hopeful anyway? We saw a Black Heron but little else of real interest there and would have done better returning to Abuko fo rthe afternoon, although perhaps not as a group of 16. We were back at the Senegambia before dark where another circuit of the grounds, enjoyable as it was, produced much the same as before. I’d seen some nice birds including Pygmy Kingfisher, Red-necked Falcon, Levaillant’s Cuckoo and Snowy and White-crowned Robin Chats but we could have done so much better with a more motivated local guide. The next day I was to learn that we’d twice driven past a pair of roosting Northern White-faced Scops Owls in Lamin without bothering to stop to look for them. Shocking. Fortunately we would not see Solomon again.

Monday 29 October. I had my bag packed before dawn, spent 90 minutes in the hotel grounds and immediate vicinity seeing the usual birds and grabbed a few rolls for breakfast before leaving. I was stopped for taking food out of the breakfast area and embarrassed the guy on the door by handing him my half eaten roll. We were leaving the coast for six days with Sering as our guide, today driving inland to Tendaba. Our first stop was Pirang where we found 2 Black Crowned Cranes, a main target, they and an African Pied Hornbill were new. Continuing to Tendaba Camp a superb pair of Abyssinian Ground Hornbills by the road was another important target which showed well. Birding the acacia scrub at Tendaba in the afternoon produced Grey-headed Bush Shrike, White-shouldered Black Tit and Bush Petronia, the last two being new. Other smart birds seen during the day included 3 Bataleurs, 4 Swallow-tailed and 3 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, 3 Rufous-crowned, 4 Blue-bellied, 12 Abyssinian and 2 Broad-billed Rollers and 3 Mohos.
driving inland

Tuesday 30 October. We spent all day at Tendaba with a morning boat ride along the river’s creeks and an afternoon jeep safari in the nearby acacia scrub and woodland of Kiang West National Park. In addition I birded around the camp in my free time and skipped lunch. The creeks produced 3 Goliath and 2 White-backed Night Herons, African Hawk Eagle, 2 White-throated Bee-eaters and far less impressive, but new, 8 Mouse-brown Sunbirds. The acacia was more productive and I ended the day with 13 new birds, the best being Grasshopper Buzzard, Stone Partridge, 5 Double-spurred Francolins, 2 Black-billed Wood Doves, 3 White-fronted Black Chats, male Exclamatory Paradise Whydah and 2 Brown-rumped Buntings. We saw a small barbet I couldn’t readily place which Sering identified it as Gambia’s first Hairy-crested Barbet. It made sense. I’d seen them in Kenya some years previously. Oher nice birds seen included Grey Kestrel, flight views of 2 Abyssinian Ground Hornbills and male Painted Snipe and African Golden Oriole. We were out until the light started to fade. I was in the first of two 4WDs and we drove back slightly ahead of the other but didn’t realize it had stopped until we were back at camp. They returned 10 minutes later, by which time it was completely dark, having seen Four-banded Sandgrouse by the track, probably the bird I most wanted to see in Gambia after Egyptian Plover. Paul had been in the second vehicle and told me the area was about a mile or two from the lodge but we were leaving promptly at 09:00 the following morning. I packed my bag ready for departure and told Paul I’d skip breakfast and be at the bus just before it left.
Tendaba boat trip
Wednesday 31 October. I was up and heading for the sandgrouse area just before dawn. It seemed like a long shot and so it proved. It took about 45 minutes of fairly brisk walking to get there and I wandered around for half an hour before heading back, arriving at 08:55 just in time to collect my bag. I wasn’t even last onto the bus. No sandgrouse but 5 Double-spurred Francolin, 5 Black Crowned Cranes and a Fine-spotted Woodpecker were some compensation. We stopped on the banks of the River Gambia at Soma where we saw our first Egyptian Plover. It was superb, even better than I was expecting, and I could have watched it for hours but was called back onto the bus after little more than 10 minutes. We had a way to go and would certainly see more although I suspected not being late for lunch was the main consideration. We continued on to Bird Safari Camp, by the river at Janjangbureh. We birded around the camp seeing 3 Stone Partridges, 2 Violet Turacos, 8 Bruce’s Green Pigeons, Moho, Grey-headed Bush Shrike and 2 Pied-winged Swallows. Just before dusk I had brilliant views of a male and two female Four-banded Sandgrouse near the camp. Superb and most welcome after the morning’s failure. They even knocked Egyptian Plover off top spot, if only temporarily. An intermittently calling African Scops Owl refused to show after dark.

Thursday 01 November. The African Scops Owl was calling before dawn but had stopped before I was ready to go out and look for it. Around Bird Safari Camp I saw 2 pairs of Four-banded Sandgrouse and Yellow-throated Leaflove. After breakfast we continued on towards Basse stopping at Bansang Quarry and its breeding Red-throated Bee-eaters. We saw over 100! Also there were 2 Mottled Spinetails, Red-winged Ptylia, 6 Yellow-fronted Canaries and 3 Cinnamon-breasted Buntings. We arrived at Basse in heavy rain and was disappointed to find just one Egyptian Plover although it did give superb views on the town jetty. Other enjoyable sightings during the day were 3 Violet Turacos, 2 Levaillant’s Cuckoos, 12 Abyssinian Rollers and 2 male Exclamatory Paradise Whydahs.
Bee-eater nest holes at Bansang Quarry
instamatic-scoping at Red-throated Bee-eaters at Bansang Quarry
a much smarter bird than these images suggest

our accommodation at Basse, torrential rain turning the entrance path into a river
people and livestock ferry across the Gambia River at Basse
the main jetty Basse
good for washing and Egyptian Plover

Friday 02 November. We birded around Basse in the morning before driving back to Janjanbureh Bird Safari Camp. Seven brilliant Egyptian Plovers were seen on the riverbank in and around Basse. In the paddyfields nearby we saw 2 Four-banded Sandgrouse, 2 Giant Kingfishers and 15 Red-throated, 20 European and 12 Northern Carmine Bee-eaters and 15 Quailfinch. Two Black Coucals near the Janjanbureh ferry were new for me as were 2 Western Banded Snake Eagles at Bird Camp. Other good birds seen were 3 Stone Partridges, 3 Painted Snipe, 6 Senegal Thick-knees, 7 Black-headed Plovers, another 9 Four-banded Sandgrouse (groups of 2, 2 & 5) and 20 Abyssinian Rollers. After our evening meal and armed with torch and tapes I tracked down and had good views of 2 African Scops Owls, a couple of the others tagging along.
Egyptian Plover at Basse

while the above images taken through the telescope came out quite well, this and the next were at a strange angle, hence not being rectangular

Saturday 03 November. An African Scops Owl was calling before dawn but having had good views the previous evening I was happy to ignore it. A quick look around Bird Camp before breakfast produced 4 Stone Partridges, excellent views of a pair Four-banded Sandgrouse and a Moho. The sandgrouse were in the area I had first seen them on our earlier visit, my concern over missing them at Tendaba was becoming a distant memory as I had now seen them four days running. After breakfast we saw the 2 Western Banded Snake Eagles before boarding a smallish boat and travelling about 15km to Sapo by river. It was disappointing with nothing of particular interest seen. Our bus was waiting for us and we drove a short distance to Jahally marsh and rice fields where 2 White-headed Vultures and a very impressive juvenile Martial Eagle were the highlights. It as then a long drive back to Banjul and the Senegambia Beach Hotel where we arrived after dark. The door of Paul and my room wouldn’t lock and with all our gear there we didn’t want to leave it unlocked. I stayed in while Paul went to dinner and by the someone came and fixed it I was too tired to bother about food. My first, and as it turned out only, day without a new bird but at least we’d seen a few nice things on what was basically a travel day. I’d happily have skipped the boat trip though.
sandgrouse spot at Bird Safari Camp

weaver nests from the Gambia River trip were about as good as it got
Jahally Marsh or somewhere similar
returning to Banjul

local bus, I'm glad it wasn't ours
Sunday 04 November. My usual pre-breakfast wander wasn’t very productive despite wandering a bit further afield than just the Senegambia grounds. With Sering still guiding us we drove into Banjul where we took a ferry across the mouth of the Gambia River to Barra on the northern side. Seawatching from the ferry produced 2 Grey Phalaropes and a juvenile Pomarine and 3 Arctic Skuas. On the other side we travelled a short distance inland to Berending where we saw 2 Black Wood Hoopoes, a new bird for me that I’d previously missed up river. Two Four-banded Sandgrouse flew over while we also saw Sacred Ibis, 2 Tawny Eagles, Great Spotted and 5 Diederic Cuckoos, Striped Kingfisher, Plain-backed Pipit, 6 Northern Anteater Chats and 4 Pin-tailed Whydahs, all of which were new for the trip. Since we headed up river I’d been asking Sering about Northern White-faced Owl and had been shocked to learn that when with Solomon we had twice driven past a roosting pair in Lamin without stopping to look. Sering offered to take us to look for them if an opportunity arose when we were back on the coast and returning from Barra with an hour of daylight provided it. Sering arranged for three of us to hire a taxi and jumped in with us. It was 12km to Lamin which took about half an hour. We stopped on the main street and immediately two small boys came up and asked if we’d come to look at the owls! The 2 Northern White-faced Owls were roosting in a tree on the main street and couldn’t have been easier to see. A brilliant end to the day thanks to Sering.
on the quay at Banjul
boarding the ferry to Barra
speedboat heading for Banjul

the open sea and a smaller, crowded ferry
although our ferry was a bit of a squash too
Monday 05 November. Our final full day. After a look around the hotel (grounds, offshore and nearby rice fields) and breakfast we headed for Tanji and Brufut Woods. I was hoping to see Senegal Batis and we, or rather Sering, heard one but it was distant and we couldn’t track it down. Definitely something we should have seen if we’d been on site before it became too hot. The savanna woodland was nice but birding was slow despite clocking up 100 species by the end of the day. I saw 2 new birds when we returned to Tanji after dinner, 4 Long-tailed and a female Standard-winged Nightjars. Other highlights during the day were 2 Stone Partridges, 4 Painted Snipe, 7 Senegal Thick-knees, another Pomarine Skua, 2 Yellow-legged Gulls, Mottled Spinetail, 4 Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, African Pied Hornbill, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, 4 Black-crowned Tchagras and 6 Yellow-crowned Gonoleks.

Tuesday 06 November. After a look around the hotel and breakfast we birded near Yundum before catching our afternoon flight home. Two new birds on our last day took my total for the trip to 65 (and 275 species seen) although both were Cisticolas, Siffling and 3 Rufous. Other nice birds were Black-shouldered Kite, 3 Black-headed Plovers, Pygmy Kingfisher, 4 Bearded Barbets, a male Fine-spotted and 2 Brown-backed Woodpeckers and a Moho. To get me in the mood to return home we also saw single Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and House Sparrow. I’d seen most of the birds I’d hoped to, in no small part due to the expert guiding of Sering, but was disappointed by how the tour fitted around meal times rather than the reverse. It certainly cost us some birds although most of the participants probably weren’t overly concerned by this. It was my first experience of a bird tour and had been moderately successful, although it was to be 15 years before I’d go on another one.

[blogged December 2019]