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The Gambia

A birding trip with Ian Misselbrook, 8th to 15th December 2008, by Hugh Dorrington

(Click on the images for a larger picture)

Monday 8th December

Monday started at 2am. Ian drove us to Manchester airport for the Thomas Cook flight to Banjul. We arrived at Yumdum airport at about 3pm (no time difference). Ian got off the plane a little ahead of me and was last onto the first bus and therefore first off it. I was a bit behind and first on the second bus, therefore last off it. The result was that Ian sailed through passport control and was discussing Premier League football with a very knowledgeable Chelsea supporting porter when I got through half an hour later.

Footsteps Eco-lodge

The baggage arrived soon after and we went out of the airport to meet the first of many bumsters who guided us to the taxi arranged for us by Hidden Gambia. Driving through the town of Brikama flocks of sheep were everywhere; next day was apparently the Muslim festival of Tabaski and everyone needed to buy a sheep to celebrate. One was tied to the top of a minibus with cargo netting. Further on the way to Footsteps Eco-lodge near Gunjur I glimpsed an African Pied Hornbill flying up into a tree.

Red Cheeked Cordonbleau

Footsteps had been built on eco principles with "double composting Vietnamese toilets" and a swimming pool with its own reed bed and clinker based filtration. This was the focus of our first proper birding with a flock of Village Weavers and a clutch of Estrildids to work through - mainly Red-cheeked Cordonbleu and Orange-cheeked Waxbills with smaller numbers of Lavender Waxbills, Red-billed Firefinch, Bronze Mannikins and Village Indigobirds. Ian pointed out the first male Beautiful Sunbird. Maria offered to change our money for us and disappeared off to the Senegambia Hotel with 200.

Orange Cheeked Waxbills

David and Mark, the owners, were taking the Landrover to the beach to try some beach fishing and offered us a lift which we gladly took. I managed to leave behind the bird book (Birds of the Gambia and Senegal) which was a bit frustrating but we were able to identify most things. Crested Lark and Woodchat Shrike were on the beach. Just inland an excellent area of wet dune slacks held Little, Intermediate and Cattle Egrets, African Jacanas, Spur-winged and Wattled Plovers and a single Grey Plover. In the surrounding bushes were several Yellow-billed Shrikes, Piapiacs (including yellow-billed juveniles), White-billed Buffalo Weavers and a Black-crowned Tchagra. Further on we found Rufous-crowned Roller and a spectacular display from an Abyssinian Roller. Walking back up the track we had good views of Green Wood Hoopoes and a perched Dark Chanting Goshawk. We flushed the first of many Double-spurred Francolins before David and Mark picked us up. Just before Footsteps a covey of bantam-like Stone Partridge crossed the road in front of us. No fresh fish for supper but we had some delicious fish balls in a vegetable sauce. A sheep had been tied up just outside my open window and was giving the occasional "baa" but it didn't stop me from going straight to sleep.


Tuesday 9th December

Gambian Mother
We had pre-booked a guide through Hidden Gambia for our first 2 days at Footsteps so we were up at 7am for breakfast just as it was getting light. Around the grounds we picked up some good birds including Copper and Splendid Sunbirds, Fork-tailed Drongo, Snowy-capped Robin Chat, and Senegal Parrot. By the entrance were Black-headed Plover and Senegal Eremomela. By 9am it was obvious that the guide wasn't going to show up. A phone call to Mark Thompson of Hidden Gambia confirmed this. Rather a disappointing start but we cheered up when Maria appeared with a thick wad of 100 Dalasi notes for each of us.

Western Grey Plantaineater

We turned left out of Footsteps and followed a bush track that looked promising, the two Footsteps dogs came with us for the walk. This time I had remembered to bring the field guide and we were soon making good use of it. We found both Fine-spotted and Grey Woodpeckers, Blue-spotted Dove was carefully ticked off so that we wouldn't have to bother with it again. A Lizard Buzzard and a Grey Kestrel perched nicely for us to study but the soaring Tawny Eagle and Lanner Falcon were more challenging for us beginners. A flock of 20 or so White Pelicans was a surprise as they flew past. We had a good look at a male Northern Puffback and several Fanti Saw-wings. Re-tracing our steps, birds became scarcer as it got hotter but we got good views of Broad-billed Roller and Yellow-fronted Canary. Back at Footsteps we had lunch and a rest, noting some Northern Red Bishops with traces of breeding plumage among the weavers and a Rufous-chested Swallow swooping over the pool.

David had arranged for a local guide to take us birding at 3pm. We turned left again out of Footsteps and followed the same track as in the morning. It was soon obvious that our guide was no birder and it was disappointing to realise that we were missing many good birds because we didn't have the necessary skills, particularly with bird calls.

Blue-bellied Roller
Tawny-flanked Prinia caused a fair bit of angst. We realised that we would have to make the best of it and as our guide led us through a maze of tracks in the woods, we soon started to pick up more birds including Northern Crombec, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, African Harrier Hawk, Wahlberg's Eagle and a fine pair of African Green Pigeons which were actually spotted by our guide. One particular palm tree was buzzing with birds making alarm calls, there was probably an owl in the tree but we couldn't see it. Instead we found 2 Yellow-throated Leaflove, 2 Heuglin's Masked Weavers, 2 Black Flycatchers, single Gonoleks and Snowy-crowned Robin-chats and 3 Common Bulbuls. Later we saw several Blue-bellied Rollers, thus completing our list of rollers before we had seen a single bee-eater or kingfisher. It was dusk by the time we got back to Footsteps.


Wednesday 10th December

After a good breakfast of scrambled eggs and tomatoes on toast our bird guide, Bax, arrive promptly at 8am. We drove in a minibus straight to Abuko Reserve. Bax was a very competent birder and was soon identifying the bird calls. Getting a decent view of them was another matter.

Giant Kingfisher
A Violet Turaco was an excellent start. We entered the hide overlooking the pond just as a Giant Kingfisher flew in and settled on a nearby branch. Hamerkops were busy building a nest nearby while Black-headed Herons sat in the trees behind.

Leaving the hide we soon found a Green Turaco in the canopy which Ian even managed to photograph. A Lesser Honeyguide flitted through the branches showing its white tail sides while 2 Fanti Saw-wings perched on a close branch to give good views. Little Grrenbuls were calling but only showed poorly, however a Buff-spotted Woodpecker posed nicely on a rotten stump.

Green Turaco
Common Wattle-eyes gave their characteristic song and eventually we obtained reasonable views of them and also of Yellow-breasted Apalis and Black-necked Weaver. On the way back to the entrance I got brief but clear views of what I realised only later was a Grey-headed Bristlebill.

We crossed the road to have a look at the Lamin Rice Fields. On the way we stopped by some palm wine tappers who invited us for a drink. The 2 day old fermented juice wasn't to my taste but a boy was sent up a tree to bring me a jam jar of fresh palm juice which was quite good.

Moving on into the rice fields we had our first bee-eaters of the trip. Several Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters flew overhead while some Little Bee-eaters were perched on a low bush. Flocks of Northern Red Bishops flew around the fields and one male still in full breeding plumage jumped up and down as he displayed

Hugh and Bax at Lamin Lodge

We suggested lunch at Lamin Lodge which was a short drive away on the edge of a large bolon. As we arrived we got ripped off again by bumsters but that was the last time it happened. Lunch was enlivened by the arrival of a Callithrix monkey that pinched a plastic bottle of ketchup and sat on the roof biting at the top. It was eventually persuaded to give up the ketchup in exchange for a bottle of Fanta.

Bax had been fading fast since leaving Abuko and at Lamin Lodge he fell asleep at the table. May be he had been celebrating Tabaski too much the day before, in any case it was time to drive back to Footsteps. We arrived back at about 2pm, said goodbye to Bax and the driver and had a short rest.

At 4pm we set off for the beach again, this time on foot. Passing through some fallow ground with scattered trees we picked up the fluty song of Black-crowned Tchagra and got good views. Further on we found a selection of migrant warblers all busy foliage gleaning. They were all a bit distant but with the scope we managed to pick out Western Olivaceous, Melodious and Western Bonelli's Warbler as well as Chiffchaff. We had seen Willow Warbler earlier at Abuko. Next a small bird with a black and white striped head and rusty back flew out. Unfortunately, at the same time, we were passing a couple from Footsteps who stopped for a chat and we were unable to relocate the bird but from what we had seen it must have been a Brown-breasted Bunting. Moving down towards the beach a herd of Ndama cattle passed in front of us, Ian gave a shout and there were about 10 Yellow-billed Oxpeckers flying from one animal to another and clinging to them woodpecker-like. A very lucky find as they was the only oxpeckers on the trip.

We walked back in the dusk hoping for nightjars and looking forward to our trip upriver the following day.


Thursday 11th December

Red Billed Hornbill
An early start and breakfast at 7.30 so we were ready for our transport which arrived promptly at 8.30. Our travelling companions were already in the minibus when it arrived, Paulus and Maerig(?) from Holland and Robert from Ireland. None of them were birders but good company nevertheless. We also met our guide for the rest of the trip, the inestimable Ebrima.

Halfway to Bintang the tarmac road suddenly changed to a red dirt road. We still travelled quite fast but left a billowing cloud of red dust which coated all the vegetation and the villages which we passed through. On the way we crossed a few small wetlands where we saw Marsh Harrier.

Laughing Dove

At Bintang we found our boat the Safari Queen waiting on a very broad arm of the River Gambia called the Bintang Bolon. The Safari Queen which was well-stocked with cold drinks took us on a one and a half hour journey to Kerewan on the North bank on the river. During the journey Ebrima showed his skills by pointing out flying Yellow-billed and Woolly-necked Storks as well as Sacred Ibis. The crew spotted something in the water. It was a dead Barracuda, four feet long, They hauled it on board where it stank badly but apparently they would smoke it before eating it! We also picked up Caspian, Royal and Black Terns as we sped across the river.

Another minibus was waiting for us at Kerewan and we settled in for a long drive over a very good road on the North bank. Our first stop was at the Bao Bolong wetlands, a brackish marsh with saltpans, where we picked up Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns (distinctive electric call) and Slender-billed Gulls. A flock of the distinctive race of Great Cormorant rested on a mudflat with Black Herons showing their cloak and dagger fishing technique. Marsh and Montagu's Harriers floated around over flocks of Wattled Plovers. This was all in the space of ten minutes before we had to get back on the minibus and on with the journey.

Our next stop was at Solomon's Waterhole, a small drying pond on the right side of the road with bushes behind. A large flock of Northern Red Bishops in their non-breeding plumage was drinking at the pond and flying up into the bushes. A Paradise Exclamatory Wydah with its extraordinary long tail joined them and Ian pointed out a single Sudan Golden Sparrow sitting in the bushes with the bishops. Suddenly a Dark Chanting Goshawk swept in and picked up a bishop from the water's edge. It landed in the bushes opposite us and proceeded to pluck and then eat the hapless victim.

Egyptian Plovers
The Ka-ur Wetlands were less saline than the Bao Bolong. Large flocks of Collared Pratincoles were in the air and on the mud. We picked out Ruff and Wood Sandpiper and were struggling to identify two Charadrius plovers when Ebrima told us that they were Kittlitz's, an adult and a juvenile. Once again we were pushed back on the minibus and on to our final birding stop, the Panchang Wetlands. This was a freshwater marsh and yet again a whole new set of birds, White-faced Whistling Ducks, African Jacanas and, best of all, two immaculate Egyptian Plovers that lived up to all the hype as they posed for Ian to photograph them.

We passed through rice fields to reach the river again at Kuntaur where our next boat the wonderful Lady Hippo was waiting for us. The River Gambia was now fresh water although the level still went up and down a little with the tides. We were able to chug steadily up river watching the riverbank from the upper deck. Definitely the way to travel through Africa.

We were soon passing the Baboon Islands which was confusing because this is where Chimpanzees were being rehabilitated . A guide came on board and explained the work that was being done. Apparently two generations of chimpanzees have bred on the islands since the 1990s and have adapted back to the wild so successfully that no more would be brought in. Passing by we could hear several chimpanzees crashing about, then we could see them as they came to watch us. On the North bank of the river we saw troupes of Red Colobus Monkeys and Dog-faced Baboons.

Pel's Fishing Owl

Pel's Fishing Owl was my highest target on the trip and I casually asked Ebrima how many he had seen in his lifetime. The answer was three; two at Tendaba where he had grown up and another in Senegal. Our chances seemed slim. Five minutes later I saw a ginger, earless cat sitting 20 feet up in the riverside palms. It's a Pel's! Ian just got onto it before it was obscured by the passing foliage. There followed panic as we tried to persuade Ebrima that we meant it. He got the skipper to turn the boat around and we drifted downstream before attempting a second pass. This was the worst time. If we couldn't see it again we could hardly claim it on such a quick sighting. Maybe it was just a ginger cat. As we came alongside where we thought it had been all the palm trees looked the same. Then there it was! Ebrima confirmed the id. , Ian snapped away like crazy and ten seconds later it was gone as another palm passed in front of it. Wow! Time for a Julbrew to let it all sink in.

For the rest of the afternoon it felt like we were travelling through paradise as a succession of good birds showed themselves. Purple Herons were common on the marshy banks. Hadada Ibis, Marabou Storks and an African Fish Eagle showed themselves briefly. I got good views of a Brown Snake Eagle perched in a tree and a Grey-headed Kingfisher which flew along the river bank. A grey Swamp Flycatcher flew up from a bush overhanging the water. We passed a hidden singing Oriole Warbler. Ebrima tried to coax it into the open with his imitation of the Pearl-spotted Owlet which was calling from the other bank.

Sunset on the River Gambia
As the sun set behind us a big full moon rose in front of us Broad-billed Rollers hawked insects over the river. It was after seven by the time we reached MacCarthy Island and we were guided into the landing stage at Bird Safari Camp by oil lamps.

Ian's Tent
We were met by Binta, the formidable lady who ran the camp. She led us to the main building where Ian and I chose tents rather than huts. We were given solar powered torches to find our way to the fully-equipped tents at the water's edge where we unpacked, then back to the lodge for supper before turning in. It had been a full day in terms of distance travelled and birds seen.


Friday 12th December

We had arranged for a pre-breakfast walk with Ebrima and we were joined by Paul and Mary at 7am. While we were having a cup of tea, Ebrima pointed out a Blue-breasted Kingfisher on the edge of the swimming pool. By the look of the murky water it could have been a good fishing spot. We tried to catch up with a group of Stone Partridges but only caught glimpses as they scurried away.

We soon picked up some new birds that would be familiar around the camp, Blackcap Babblers and our first White-crowned Robin Chat. Walking away from the camp we had Yellow-backed Weaver, Black-rumped Waxbill and a very showy African Golden Oriole. There were several Red-chested Bee-eaters giving us a taster of what was to come while overhead Mottled Spinetails and a Pallid Swift flew with the Palm Swifts. A single Turtle Dove showed that it was still worthwhile checking the doves, although here they were mostly African Mourning Doves with their laughing calls.

Back at the camp to a delicious breakfast of fresh baked bread with honey and marmalade. A male Scarlet-chested Sunbird flitted around the swimming pool while a Little Grebe floating down the river looked a little out of place.

Chestnut Backed Sparrowlark

In the afternoon we took the ferry to the South bank and drove the short distance to Bansang. The Red-chested Bee-eater colony at the quarry was stunning with birds flying everywhere. The wet pools at the base of the quarry were also very productive. Another male Exclamatory Paradise Whydah joined the flock of Northern Red Bishops. We also found a pair of Cinnamon-breasted Buntings and a few Chestnut-backed Sparrow-larks coming to the water. On the larger pool was a Little Ringed Plover with the Black-winged Stilts. Just as we were leaving several Mosque Swallows flew overhead.

Instead of going back to Georgetown we continued eastwards along the South bank on a road that was diabolical. The light was fading when we pulled off into a village and stopped in the fields beyond. It was a stakeout for Verreaux's Eagle Owl. A brief walk and we found a pair of the owls in a line of bare bushes. I nipped back to the minibus for my 'scope. When I returned they had flown into some trees. We got clear views of these magnificent birds in the smoky light of an African dusk. The uncomfortable journey back to the ferry was enlivened by two female Standard-winged Nightjars flying in the headlights. Back on MacCarthy Island a Long-tailed Nightjar sat on the track just a few feet in front of the minibus. After supper Ebrima led us on an unsuccessful hunt for the African Scops Owls which were calling all around.


Saturday 13th December

Woken up by an Oriole Warbler singing just outside my tent but no sign of the skulker when I got up. Pre-breakfast walk with Ebrima on the road towards Georgetown. Ebrima got us onto our first Singing Cisticola, then followed a frustrating time as we tried to see an Oriole Warbler in the dense riverside vegetation. A bit of a wing and a tail was all I could manage. Walking back to the camp, Ebrima imitated the call of Pearl-spotted Owlet and after a while it flew towards us landing in a bush where we got excellent telescope views.

African Darter

After another excellent breakfast we had a while to wait until our boat was ready for the return journey. Sitting at the breakfast table a Grey-backed Camaroptera showed off to perfection in a bare bush beside us. Also around the camp we had our only definite Bronze-tailed Starling.

For some reason we were to make the return journey in the pirogue, a long narrow boat with an outboard motor, rather than the Hippo Queen. It was not so comfortable with no room to walk around but we were soon engrossed in the birding. A Green Sandpiper on a mudflat was number 200 for the trip.

African Fish Eagles and White-backed Vultures were joined over the river by a Ruppell's Griffon Vulture and further downstream a European Griffon Vulture rose above an escarpment on the North bank. A Violet Turaco flew over the boat showing off its scarlet wing patches. We had good views of Hadada Ibis in the riverside trees. A very black hawk in a more distant tree turned out to be Long-crested Eagle, its characteristic crest clearly visible through binoculars.

Hippo coming for us
Passing close to Baboon Islands we saw a large Nile Crocodile on a mudflat and then just beyond a family group of Hippopotamus, including a baby protected by an enormous mother. The pirogue turned around for more camera opportunities but just as we got a bit nearer the mother hippo surged forward and under the water. The skipper turned the boat away fast and we carried on down river.

We landed at Kuntaur where we boarded our minibus and took the short journey to the stone circle at Wassu. This cultural diversion also picked up Northern Wheatear. Driving along the North bank we had even less time to stop at the fabulous wetlands than on the outbound journey but we did insist on a very short stop at the Kau-ur Wetlands where we saw 2 Knob-billed Ducks as well as Yellow Wagtail and another Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. Driving through the savannah landscape we saw several Grasshopper Buzzards as well as perched Western Banded and Brown Snake Eagles.

We turned off the main road at Farafenni and went down a pot-holed road to the ferry terminal where our boat, the Safari Queen, was waiting for us. There was an anxious time while we ensured that all of our luggage was transferred to the boat, then it was a fairly short boat trip across the river to Tendaba. A large colony of Little Swifts were in their mud nests under the quay as we arrived in the early evening. There were also plenty of children from the village of Tendaba who offered to carry our luggage to the camp a short distance away. Tendaba camp was by far the largest of all the camps where we stayed. As always we had our own brick huts with en-suite toilet facilities. During the buffet style dinner our rooms were sprayed with insecticide as well as having good mosquito nets.


Sunday 14th Decembeer

Our last full day in the Gambia was due to start with a creek crawl around the Bao Bolon Wetland Reserve. We set off across the river with several other tourists and their guides. Tendaba was Ebrima's home village and it was clear that he had an extra authority on his home patch as he ensured that Ian and I sat near the front of the pirogue.

Pied Kingfisher

As we approached the mangroves we could see some African Spoonbills on a distant mudflat while two Greater Flamingos flew past the boat. Pied Kingfishers were everywhere. We entered a narrow creek and motored gently upstream against the current. Ebrima called White-throated Bee-eaters in some overhead mangroves but unfortunately they were mixed in with a larger number of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. By the time I found the smaller White-throateds they were barely identifiable. Malachite and Blue-breasted Kingfishers posed on branches just a few feet from the boat in contrast to the drab Mouse-brown Sunbird which flitted through the mangrove branches.

Malachite Kingfisher
Whimbrel and Greenshank flew up from the muddy banks every time we rounded a corner. Egrets, herons and Woolly-necked Storks fished along the edge of the creek or stood in the mangroves. The water level was too low to risk making a return trip down another creek so we eventually turned around and retraced our steps. On the return journey we heard a familiar song coming from a patch of reeds. Our guide confirmed that it was African Reed Warbler. We also saw our first Goliath Heron with its thick beak and S-shaped neck standing in the mangroves. Finally, coming out of the Bolon into the main river a Eurasian Hoopoe flew across the river heading for the mangroves behind us.

Back at Tendaba camp we had the rest of the day at leisure until the Safari Queen was picking us up in the afternoon. Ebrima took Ian and myself for a walk up the back of Tendaba village for a walk through some fallow, burnt over farmland with scattered trees. The target was Bronze-winged Courser but they were going to be very difficult to see as they crouched amongst the dead vegetation. We saw several Black-headed Lapwings before Ebrima pointed out a pair of the Coursers just a few metres away. Ian was able to get several shots before they melted away into the grasses.

It was hot but we managed some more good birds in this area including some stunning Pygmy Sunbirds, a male Cut-throat Finch and a pair of very close Chestnut-backed Sparrow-larks. We had lunch at Tendaba camp and explored the immediate area seeing some White Wagtails and several Western Olivaceous Warblers which were calling in the bushes.

When the Safari Queen finally arrived we had some extra passengers for our final boat trip, Ebrima's sister, Binta, and two English gap-year students Francesca and Kerry. As the boat sped along we could see dolphins ahead of us. Soon we were surrounded by Bottle-nosed Dolphins as they road our bow wave and leapt clear out of the water behind the boat.

We left the two girls at Bintang and loaded up the waiting minibus for the long, dusty drive to our final night's lodging at Paradise Inn, Tanji. We arrived in the dark at 8.30pm, had a quick wash and fish and chip supper then went to bed.


Monday 15th December

Black Billed Wood Dove
We had arranged for Ebrima to meet us at Paradise Inn for a final morning's birding at Tanji before our flight which was at 3pm. He arrived with driver and car at 7.30. Rather than pick up some easy trip ticks on the coast at Tanji, we decided to head a short distance inland and bird along a bush track to pick up some more Gambian specialities. Having said that our first new bird was House Sparrow in Tanji village.

Western Reef Heron

The bush track was surrounded by overgrown fields with scattered trees. We found a nice singing Black-crowned Tchagra, then Ebrima used his pishing skills to entice a Red-winged Warbler and a Whistling Cisticola into the open. Amazingly, Ian managed to photograph both these birds, studying them later, the Warbler appeared to be moulting out of its breeding plumage and the cisticola had transformed into a Singing Cisticola! There were several Palaearctic migrants in the trees behind a wall including Common Redstart, Whinchat, Common Whitethroat and Chiffchaff together with a Northern Crombec. We spent a lot of time trying unsuccessfully to see a Brubru, but had to satisfy ourselves with Scarlet-chested and our first Variable Sunbirds. We came across a Striped Kingfisher sitting motionless in a bush which allowed a very close approach. Our final birds along this track were a pair of Vieillot's Barbets which flew into a nearby tree.

Back at Paradise Inn we settled up and said goodbye to Ebrima. After packing we had time to identify a final bird, African Silverbill in the grounds before our taxi came to take us to the airport.

A very successful birding holiday with 237 species in the bag. Not bad for a semi-independent trip costing comfortably under 1000 each. Thanks must go to Mark Thompson of Hidden Gambia for arranging the accommodation, travel (especially the journeys by boat) and the services of Ebrima. Greatest thanks go to Ian for inviting me to The Gambia, doing the airport drives and being such excellent company on a fairly intensive birding holiday.


© Hugh Dorrington
Photos by Ian Misselbrook
Published April 2010.


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