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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Gambia

2018 Narrative

With both Europe and North America deep in the grip of winter, we set off for The Gambia with high hopes of some excellent and relaxed birding in this tiny, smiling speck of land in the far west of Africa. Due to our charter flight not arriving until late afternoon, our first day was restricted to a brief stop at the Kotu bridge, overlooking a tidal creek just outside our hotel. Most things here would prove regular features of most days, with great views of Western Reef Herons, Pink-backed Pelicans, and Senegal Thick-knees among others, but the Giant Kingfishers that show well here are surely the best viewable ones in the world! Throw in a fishing Black Heron and some Splendid Sunbirds, and the introduction to African birding was well under way.

The following two days were spent around the western reaches of the country, and first on the itinerary was the dry scrub and forest at Brufut. Here we were treated to a nice selection of residents and migrants, with Western Olivaceous and Melodious Warblers competing for attention with Singing Cisticolas and raucous Brown Babblers. A sunbird-fest involved six species, including great looks at male Western Violet-backed and Copper, while a young male Green-headed Sunbird came to drink at the purpose-made “Woodland Bar”. The hoped-for Violet Turaco only showed up in the branches, but with Blue-spotted and Black-billed Wood Doves, aptly named Beautiful Sunbirds, and Red-billed Firefinches all coming in to drink, we were well occupied until dragged away by the mention of “nightjars”. The local guides there spend time every day locating the nightjars at day-roost, and we saw Long-tailed and Standard-winged Nightjars, both down to a few feet in broad daylight. Lunch set the tone for the rest of the week, being a lovely local meal served in very birdy surroundings. Tanji bird reserve has, like many places in The Gambia, a drinking pool viewable from the dining table. As we waited for lunch and supped a cold drink or two, a constant procession of waxbills and doves came to drink, including an obliging pair of Western Bluebills and then a striking Levaillant’s Cuckoo. The coastal scrub at Tanji is renowned as a great birding spot, and so it proved. Among the many Grey-headed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls on the beach, a couple of hulking Kelp Gulls drew the eye, as Osprey after Osprey carried hapless fish inland and numerous African Royal and Caspian Terns quartered over the sea. The scrub held small groups of Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters and our first Yellow-crowned Gonelek and Vieillot’s Barbets, while Pied-winged Swallows hawked overhead with the more numerous Red-chested Swallows. Back at the hotel, as well as the usual delights on Kotu creek, an Oriole Warbler sang from the palms adjacent to our hotel.

Our third day was split between Pirang forest and then the area around Sita Joyeh. Pirang was our only real forest experience, and Brown-necked Parrot eating fruits high in the canopy was certainly a highlight. We were also lucky enough to get great views of one of the more secretive forest denizens, the White-spotted Flufftail. A male responded well to the local guide’s whistles, walking around us in a large arc through the dense undergrowth, giving good views occasionally. A Common Wattle-eye tried to distract us, but to no avail! Other highlights here included two young Lesser Honeyguides, Green Crombec, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher and both Northern White-faced and Verreaux’s Eagle Owl at day-roost. Lunch at Sita Joyeh was, as expected, excellent.

When you throw in Greater Honeyguide outside the restaurant and then a Spotted Honeyguide at a nearby watering hole, it was turning into a memorable afternoon. Two Greyish Eagle Owls at day-roost sealed the deal, then another Standard-winged Nightjar and an African Wood Owl were topped off by good views of an adult male Green-headed Sunbird coming down to drink, not the easiest of sunbirds to find.

An early start saw us catching the ferry to the north bank of the The Gambia river, sweetened somewhat by hot coffee and omelettes at the port. Arctic Skuas accompanied the ferry for a little way but these were definitely overshadowed by the delightful White-rumped Seedeaters we found by our waiting bus. The drive eastwards along the north shores of The Gambia was among the most bird-filled of the tour, with Northern Anteater Chats common on the wires and walls, and a tree filled with Eurasian and Rüppell’s Griffons provided some identification debate. A brief Beaudoin’s Snake Eagle soared off all too quickly, but our first Mottled Spinetails put on a good show, as did a roadside Four-banded Sandgrouse. Lunch at a completely random but perfectly rustic restaurant on a hill overlooking The Gambia river featured West African Swallows flying around, plus good views of Pygmy Sunbird and the newly split Gosling’s Bunting (from Cinnamon-breasted). After lunch, a visit to a nearby wetland produced the much hoped for Egyptian Plover, one of Africa’s most iconic birds. In a family of its own, this is not a plover and no longer occurs in Egypt, and might better be called River-courser, or something similarly evocative. Whatever, the six birds that fed within a few metres of us were an absolute delight. In the bushes around the pools were a couple of Sahel Paradise Whydahs and a big surprise in the shape of a Swamp Flycatcher. Mindful of the impending ferry crossing and the potential time that might take, we dragged ourselves away and started the drive towards Tendaba, stopping for great views of Temminck’s Coursers on the way. The ferry proved to be easily negotiated, although the long line of waiting lorries must get sick of small vehicles jumping the queue, and we arrived at Tendaba in time for dinner. 

The savannah woodland in the Tendaba area proved productive, with Yellow Penduline Tits and Brown-rumped Buntings among the highlights, although for sheer “Africa”, the Red-billed Oxpeckers on some cattle close to the bus were hard to beat. An afternoon stroll to a hide overlooking another drinking pool provided excellent photographic opportunities for Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling and waxbills among others, but the following morning’s boat ride among the mangrove creeks and channels opposite Tendaba was a real treat. A Goliath Heron towered over the grasses, Mouse-brown Sunbirds zipped around, with one even in its delightful but very exposed eye-level nest. Blue-breasted Kingfishers abounded, as did African Darters and White-breasted Cormorants. Eventually we found a small party of African Blue Flycatchers, flicking around the tall mangroves, but it was the numbers of herons, egrets, and darters that will live longest in the memory. The drive back to the coast and our hotel was enlivened by three Bateleurs, a watchful Long-crested Eagle, and a big kettle of three vulture species.

Our last full day was spent down along the coast, first visiting the dune slacks at Kartong. Here, with a couple of statuesque West African Crocodiles, flocks of White-faced Whistling Ducks competed for food with a couple of Spur-winged Geese and a Knob-billed Duck, along with many African Swamphens. Out on the beach, a small flock of plovers contained both Kentish and the hoped-for White-fronted. Our lunch and siesta stop were well situated, overlooking a small river and mangroves that form the boundary with Senegal, with a young Klaas’s Cuckoo seemingly watching us from above. Huge numbers of terns offshore comprised African Royal and Caspian. A final visit to the dry bush coastal strip produced a young Diederik Cuckoo and a pair of White-fronted Black Chats as well as delightful party of six Yellow Penduline Tits, while the ever-present Red-chested Swallows were joined by four Pied-winged Swallows. A quick stroll around the Old Cape Road and Fajara golf course area on our last morning completed the tour, ending with a healthy 270 species and some great experiences. Great birds, great food, and great weather, all in one tiny and welcoming package. The Gambia really is the smiling country of West Africa.

Created: 20 December 2018