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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Gambia

2014 Tour Narrative

What a great way to spend a week in the winter months, the clocks had just changed, the nights were drawing in, and yet in Gambia it was hot and the days were sunny. Sure it was dark around 7pm but by then we had had some incredible days in the field and were relaxing by our hotel with a cold beer and some tasty food!

The Gambia shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it still does! It surprises me how many birds there are, how showy they are, that they seemingly aren’t afraid of people, and that even the smallest areas of vegetation can host all manner of species. On our longest driving day we saw an incredible 140+ species, topped with 3 Egyptian Plovers and yet the day was memorable for so many other reasons: the morning and afternoon ferry crossings with Arctic Skuas; flooded areas full of herons and egrets; Pink-backed Pelicans; the White-bellied Bustard we disturbed after lunch. Add Chestnut-backed Sparrow-larks, Cut-throat Finch, Sahel Paradise Whydahs, Namaqua Doves, hundreds of Collared Pratincoles, and Purple Swamphen. Familiar Yellow Wagtails and Common Sandpipers, alongside exotic Pied and Grey-headed Kingfishers; Rupell’s Vultures, Long-crested and African Hawk Eagles; Grasshopper and Lizard Buzzards; Dark Chanting Goshawks … and not another tourist in sight!

Our days at the coast were spent birding close to our hotel, with visits to Abuko, Brufut and Tanji providing us with our first taste of Gambian birding. We saw Violet Turacos, numerous sunbirds, kingfishers, bee-eaters and rollers, Grey-headed Bristlebill, Western Bluebill, a brief African Goshawk, Fanti Sawwings, and Yellow-crowned Gonolek. Western Grey Plantain-eaters were seemingly constantly in the presence of up to 7 pigeon or dove species. Senegal Parrots added a more exotic touch to the Rose-ringed Parakeets (now so familiar to many in Western Europe), but Yellow-fronted Tinkerbirds, robin-chats, Giant Kingfisher, Yellow-breasted Apalis and Common Wattle-eye kept reminding us that we were birding in Africa. Our first full day produced two notable highlights in the form of a pair of day-roosting Long-tailed Nightjars and a pair of Verreaux’s Eagle Owls. Seeing any owl or nightjar is always a treat, often involving some hard work or luck. Today we relied on local knowledge and seeing these birds in the daytime can only be described as an absolute privilege with the chance to savour those cryptic plumages by daylight.

After a couple of days on the coast, we headed inland spending two nights at Tendaba. The accommodation here is basic; the temperature rarely dropped below 33 degrees but the birding makes it all worthwhile. On one evening we saw more Long-tailed and a Standard-winged Nightjar (with standards although not fully grown), plus Four-banded Sandgrouse. The highlight at Tendaba is often the boat trip, even if the boat might not be (although the Tendaba boat was quite special in comparison with the bottomless coffin that took us to an island lunch one day!) On our ‘creek crawl’ we not only saw Goliath Heron and had amazing views of White-backed Night Heron, we were also treated to views of nesting Mouse Brown Sunbirds. We observed perched and flying Beaudouin’s Snake-eagles, an adult Martial Eagle with a Lanner Falcon, Woolly-necked Storks, Hamerkops, Striated and Squacco Herons, and African Darters. A ‘White-breasted’ Cormorant colony seemed to appear from nowhere as well as White-throated and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Blue-breasted and Woodland Kingfishers and just a leisurely potter through the mangroves. The afternoon at Tendaba was quieter than normal, although we still saw Brown-rumped Buntings, a Black-bellied Bustard, Yellow White-eyes and both Scarlet-chested and Pygmy Sunbirds.

The following morning we added Bateleur, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow-weaver, Rufous Cisticola and a group of wintering European Bee-eaters before heading back towards the coast. We enjoyed a pair of day-roosting Greyish Eagle Owls after a lunch stop with White-headed and African White-backed Vultures.

That left us just 1½ days back on the coast and time to see Green Turacos, Green Crombec for some, another African Goshawk, and an African Wood Owl. A crazy few minutes at Tujering when both Fine-spotted and Brown-backed Woodpeckers appeared, with a Brubru, and the ever-present raptors overhead. The final morning saw us visit the Senegambia hotel — sadly not the hotel it used to be — but still great for robin-chats, Pearl-spotted Owlet and Broad-billed Rollers, followed by a brief Greater Painted-snipe and Blackcap Babblers. A trip to the sewage works, and a last-minute Levaillant’s Cuckoo made it onto the list.

As with so many tours, they would never run so smoothly if it wasn’t for our local guide’s keen eyesight and behind-the-scenes knowledge. Many West African countries have been suffering of late due to the Ebola crisis, even when there are no cases in the country. It would appear that Gambian tourism is also suffering, sad indeed for a country so dependent on tourists. The locals remain as friendly and welcoming as ever, the birding is as spectacular as ever and the roads are now better than could have been imagined just 10 years ago! Roll on the next tour!

Updated: November 2014