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A Report from

New Year in The Gambia 2001/2002 ,

Alison & Christopher Hall

Leaving Britain in darkest December on a flight to The Gambia, we arrived less than six hours later and almost 30 degrees warmer, under a clear blue sky. En route we crossed an inhospitable sea of dry Sahara sand, just as our summer visitors as small as Willow Warblers must do twice a year. In the nicely laid out gardens of our Bakotu Hotel, the trees rang to the tropical calls of Common Bulbul and a huge twittering roost of Village Weavers as dusk approached.

Holidays to The Gambia

Next day we met up with Solomon Jallow, one of The Gambia's top bird guides and Chairman of WABSA, the West African Bird Study Association. First stop, the famous Abuko nature reserve, where the first hide revealed palm trees festooned with African Darters, Black-crowned Night Herons and Black-headed Herons. Several Hamerkops flew back and forth, while a little Striated Heron fished quietly on its own. Passing Green Vervet and Red Colobus Monkeys on the trails deeper into this jungle oasis, new ticks came in quick succession including Laughing, Blue-spotted Wood, Red-eyed and Vinaceous Doves, Senegal Coucal, Green Wood Hoopoe, the stunning Violet Turaco, Western Grey Plantain-eater, Red-billed and African Grey Hornbills, Grey Woodpecker, Oriole Warbler, African Thrush, Common Wattle-eye, both African and Red-bellied Paradise Flycatchers, Black-necked Weaver and even furtive forest skulkers like Little Greenbul, Grey-headed Bristlebill and Snowy-crowned Robin-chat. Our last bird here was a real megatick as a huge Verreaux's Eagle Owl filled the scope with a sleepy glance below heavy pink eyelids.

After a brief stop by a large blossoming tree buzzing with the aptly named Beautiful and Splendid Sunbirds, we took refuge from the rising heat, for lunch at Lamin Lodge, a thatched structure on stilts beside a mangrove creek where Osprey, Sandwich Tern and Pied Kingfisher (a popular favourite) fished on the cool breeze. After lunch, fields nearby yielded a pair of Black-shouldered Kites flying playfully together, Zitting Cisticola, wintering Whinchat, Northern Wheatear and Woodchat Shrike, and after some searching we managed to pin down a jumpy Quail-finch.

That afternoon we had a very productive visit to Lamin rice fields, packed with waterbirds such as Cattle and Black Egrets, Squacco and Western Reef Herons, African Jacana, Spur-winged and Wattled Plovers, Whimbrel, Common, Green and Wood Sandpipers and even Black Crake and Greater Painted-snipe, plus Marsh Harrier and Pied-winged Swallows overhead, Yellow-billed Shrikes perched up and noisy Long-tailed Glossy Starlings flying between the many palm trees.

A late afternoon stop at Camaloo Corner produced our first Black-winged Stilts, Grey-headed Gulls, Caspian Terns and Little Bee-eaters and a fly past by the only Purple Heron of the trip. On the mud flats we had Grey and Ringed Plovers and a Marsh Sandpiper among a group of larger Greenshanks, while the overhead wires allowed a nice comparison of Wire-tailed and Red-chested Swallows. Almost 100 ticks by the end of our first full day in the field.

A thick mist shrouded the trees of Pirang forest first thing this morning, confining a Wahlberg's Eagle to its roosting branch. It showed so well in the scope we could clearly see the deadly grip of its long talons. As the mist slowly lifted more birds began to show, starting with two Melodious Warblers, followed by close views of a pair of the unbelievable Yellow-crowned Gonoleks and then Blue-bellied Roller, Variable Sunbird, Grey-headed Bush Shrike and a quartet of Brown Babblers huddled together on a branch, with a fly over by a Tawny Eagle, a Gabar Goshawk and seven White-billed Buffalo-weavers.

The nearby shrimp farm was buzzing with Hirundines. We managed to distinguish Rufous-chested from the larger, paler Mosque Swallows along with House Martins and also Little Swifts. Walking between lagoons we had three Spur-winged Geese, three Little Ringed Plovers, Temminck's and Little Stints and a nice opportunity to compare the relative sizes of Little, Intermediate and Great White Egrets, fishing side by side with an African Spoonbill. Crested Larks were all over, along with the odd Plain-backed Pipit and Yellow Wagtail. Long- tailed Cormorants, Great White and Pink-backed Pelicans floated by on the wing, but where were all the Gull-billed Terns this year?

Driving from Pirang to Faraba Banta across a small wet area we stopped for a Senegal Thick-knee and before we knew it we were surrounded by almost twenty of them, standing quietly among the mangroves. Passing through Faraba village, the cheering, waving crowds made us feel like royal celebrities as we returned waves from our minicoach.

In the spiralling heat we took the Faraba Banta bush track in search of raptors. We soon had a Grasshopper Buzzard and then a DCG (Dark Chanting Goshawk) both perched. While most dozed after lunch, the insomniacs in the group had Green-backed Eremomela, a party of White-crested Helmet Shrikes with a Martial Eagle flying so low overhead we could almost count its spots! Once regrouped we tucked into a Rufous-crowned Roller while both Pygmy and Scarlet-chested Sunbirds were whistled up by imitating the call of Pearl-spotted Owlet.

The border signs of The Gambia and Senegal at Seleti offered a photo-opportunity for a group shot, where the waterhole attracted Black-billed Wood Doves, Grey-headed Sparrows, Bush Petronias, a Red-billed Quelea, a trio of  incredible Excamatory Paradise Whydahs and a fast flying Mottled Spinetail.

Returning to the coast, a brief stop for Hadada Ibis, dipped on this one, though we were rewarded with a pair of Pearl-spotted Owlets and a passing horde of Piapiacs. It seemed that every child in the village had come to join us, as by now, quite a curious crowd had gathered around our vantage point on an old termite mound.

What better way to spend New Year's Eve than in the sunshine on a tropical beach listening to the songs of Nightingales!? Eventually we coaxed one of these shy birds into view with the aid of a tape recording. Other bush dwellers hereabouts included Blackcap Babbler, Olivaceous Warbler, a silent Singing Cisticola, and a wonderful view of three Bearded Barbets in one tree. A calling Sulphur-breasted Bush Shrike refused to show after quite a chase, but we were compensated by stunning views of Double-spurred Francolin and Yellow Penduline Tit, a right couple of posers. Out on a sandbar, a huge resting flock of seabirds included at least 2000 Caspian Terns with smaller numbers of Royal, Lesser Crested, Sandwich and Commons alongside Bar-tailed Godwit, three Oystercatchers, Sanderlings and at least ten each of Audouin's and Slender-billed Gulls.

Our lazy lunch at the Paradise Inn, below a large tree with a pair of Yellow-throated Leafloves, was gate crashed by a dashing Shikra, but gone again in a flash. A stroll in the grounds brought good views of two African Pied Hornbills, an African Golden Oriole and a Northern Puffback.

We began the afternoon's birding at Madiana Pools, a very tranquil spot until a Giant Kingfisher blasted through. We also had our first Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird here as well as one of many African Harrier-hawks. This particular immature bird displayed its habit of hanging upside down from weaver nests and probing inside them with its long legs, in the hope of snatching a chick.

Nearby Brufut Woods was relatively quiet though we had good views of a Striped Kingfisher, with bushy eyebrows, Fanti Saw-wing, a woodland swallow, and Yellow-fronted Canaries. We returned to the hotel in good time for a relaxing swim before dinner.

New Year's day was billed as a rest day but everyone chose to join the optional morning visit to Bijilo Forest Park, dominated by tall Rhun Palms. Notable sightings included confiding views of Palm-nut Vultures, a Lizzard Buzzard, a superb Grey Kestrel and tiny Bronze Mannikins. A pair of Senegal Parrots were more distant and a lucky few managed to spot a Fine-spotted Woodpecker.

We called at the Senegambia Hotel in time for the daily vulture feed at 11.30am. Dozens of Hooded Vultures came down to the ground for scraps just a few feet away from us along with numerous Cattle Egrets and Pied Crows, but the soaring Black Kites remained aloof. Exploring the grounds, we had good views of Speckled Pigeons as well as delightful little Lavender Waxbills, Red-cheeked Cordon-bleus and Red-billed Firefinches. It was here we also added White-crowned Robin-chat to the trip list. Returning to our own hotel by taxi in time for lunch on the beach, we had to make an emergency stop for a Giant Kingfisher perched on a wire over the Kotu Creek, a great view in the scope.

After time for more swimming we made an afternoon sortie across the golf course where we were torn between another Pearl-spotted Owlet and a pair of Black-headed Plovers, which showed well though much scarcer than last year. Crossing the creek with the usual herons, Ospreys, waders, and kingfishers, we made for the sewage works, plastered with Spur-winged Plovers and Black-winged Stilts amongst other things. We also counted up to twenty bobbing Little Grebes and thirty White-faced Whistling Ducks, with a couple of pairs of lovely Rose-ringed Parakeets showing nicely in the trees nearby.

Today we packed our bags and set off for a trip up river. We made a second brief visit to the old shrimp farm at Pirang but sadly still no cranes. Back on the road we stopped for a large group of dazzling Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starlings. A close scan revealed an equally stunning Bronze-tailed Glossy with an orange rather than yellow eye. Further down the road in a village, a cheer went up from the vehicle when David spotted a couple of House Sparrows, missed yesterday by most of the group, but now firmly on the list.

A walk in Bama Kuno forest started quietly but the pace picked up with a Brown-backed Woodpecker and then a restless pair of Yellow-bellied Hyliotas. A fruiting tree acted as a magnet for several showy species including African Green Pigeon, Bearded Barbet, African Golden Oriole and Greater Blue-eared and Bronze-tailed Glossy Starlings, while the surrounding brush produced Siffling Cisticolas, Black-winged Red Bishop and Little Weaver plus Red-winged Warblers and a Black-crowned Tchagra for some.

Driving east we pulled over for the tilting flight pattern of an adult Bataleur, and then for a Long-crested Eagle, having a bad hair day in the breeze, and then came our first Brown Snake Eagle and White-backed Vultures. In Kiang West National Park we added Hoopoe and a red faced Vieillot's Barbet, seen by the right side of the minicoach, but the real prize here was a family of awesome Abyssinian Ground Hornbills, stalking the long grass with a purpose, dad with a pink throat, mom with blue and junior with black. Not the sort of birds one would want to meet down a dark alley.

At Tendaba, we set off by boat across the Gambia river, spotting two African Fish Eagles in distant trees. Once the boat slipped quietly into the tranquil mangrove creeks, we enjoyed close views of several new species including a skulking White-backed Night Heron, Woolly-necked Storks, a Sacred Ibis, many Blue-breasted and one Malachite Kingfisher, a Broad-billed Roller, European Bee-eaters and Mouse-brown Sunbirds.

Our final day in the field began with a stroll around Tendaba airstrip. By 7.30 am we were admiring four handsome Bruce's Green Pigeons, hanging upside down to feed on small tree fruits. Nice one Vera. Next came Yellow-crowned Bishops and Black-rumped Waxbills in long grass, then a Brubru and finally Greater Honeyguide and Tawny-flanked Prinia for some.

By 11 am we were at the riverside again, queuing for a ramshackle ferry to take us across this mighty river to the north shore in search of the charismatic Egyptian Plover. En route we had both Marabou Storks and Short-toed Eagle overhead. Once at  the Kaur wetland, where the Tamarisk bushes were alive with European Turtle and Namaqua Doves, we scanned for plovers, finding Kittlitz's as well as several Collared Pratincoles and a Ruff, but no Egyptians. Solomon suggested we push on to another site. It was a gamble but worth a try. This last call was a lovely pool of white water lilies, where Cut-throat Finches came to drink. Sadly the Egyptian Plovers were not here either, but ten smart African Pygmy Geese floating unobtrusively among the lily blooms were an unexpected bonus and for me bird of the trip.

From here it was a long gruelling journey back to the coast, but it gave us a chance to reflect on all the wonderful things we had encountered. Not only marvellous views of an impressive 214 bird species but also the sunshine, the scenery, the fireworks on the beach on New Year's Eve, the school in the bush and the friendly local people with their vibrant culture and tough lifestyle, worlds away from our own. In fact it was the complete Gambian Experience.

A Field Guide to the Birds of the Gambia and Senegal
Clive Barlow, Tony Disley: Buy from or

  • This field guide covers the area of the Gambia, a country which is very popular with a large number of birders. The Gambia shelters many migrants from the Western Palaearctic, from September to April, as well as having a significant list of resident West African birds. The guide also covers Senegal, which almost entirely surrounds The Gambia...Buy.

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