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An abridged version of this article was published in 'Birdwatch Magazine' - January 2014.

Gambian Firebirds

During the dry season from November to April bush fires are not unusual in the West African state of The Gambia. Indeed farmers often use fire as a means of burning off old vegetation prior to planting a new crop. But a bush fire, whether controlled or "wild" does not always pose the threat to wildlife that one might expect, as this account illustrates.



In January 2013 my experienced Gambian guide; Dembo Sonko and I had been searching without success for the iconic Northern Carmine Bee-eater in the country's remote Central and Upper River Division. Dembo was clearly becoming frustrated that the birds were not favouring their usual haunts and assumed rightly that they were away feeding somewhere..

We had almost given up the search when our eyes were drawn to plumes of smoke and flames coming from some grassland, which looked to be dangerously close to a village. As we approached the crackle of fire burning fast through dry grass became audible but judging by the way the villagers carried on about their normal tasks we realised this was probably a deliberate and controlled burn.

Having satisfied ourselves that the blaze was not threatening the village we concentrated on the flocks of birds swooping and flying over the blaze. We were delighted to see that the flock of about forty birds consisted of a dozen of our quarry species; Northern Carmine Bee-eaters with the remaining birds being Abyssinian Rollers and one Rufous Crowned Roller.

As the blaze progressed across the grassland, insects; mainly grasshoppers, crickets and locusts rose in panic only to be caught by the circling rollers and bee-eaters. We noticed that the bee-eaters were less brave than the rollers and rarely dropped below about 30 feet from above the fire, whereas at times the rollers seemed to fly right through the flames in pursuit of their quarry.

I was totally transfixed by the spectacle which would still have held my attention if the birds involved were common species, but the fact that the starring role was played by two of the most beautiful birds in West Africa, one of which is also rare in The Gambia made this day very special.


Ian Misselbrook
February 2014


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