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Monday, January 16, 2017

The Gambia Adventure 2017


The Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa and is located on the west coast, south of the Sahara and surrounded on three sides by its neighbour Senegal. On its western border the Gambia River meets the Atlantic Ocean. With a species list of over 540, regular flights, a well-established infrastructure for tourists and safe environment, it's easy to see why Gambia is a good first choice for experiencing the wonder of African birds.

There are two main field guides - Birds of the Gambia and Senegal by Clive Barlow and Tim Wacher (1997) and the newer Birds of Senegal and The Gambia by Nik Borrow and Ron Demey (2011),  published by Christopher Helm. Both books are equally as important in not only preparing for the trip, but their use in the field. The first edition gives an in-depth account of all species, highlighting identification, habitats, status and distribution and breeding with very accurate plates. The new guide has range maps and condensed identification details  conveniently positioned opposite each species plate. It also has a great quick index at the back so you can immediately find birds by group.

In December 2015 I combined my family holiday with part one of a reconnaissance to The Gambia. On that trip over 240 species were tallied, 197 being new species for me. Many of the hotspots in the coastal region were visited and an overnight stay in Tendaba Camp, 144 km up river from the coast was also included. The main purpose of the first visit was to become familiar with the region, learn about the logistics of travel, find and work with an established and reliable guide. All of these goals were achieved, so, in January 2017, I returned and continued with my reconnaissance, visiting new areas and traveling further up country.

This recce went from the 03rd January - 15th January 2017. Participants were Ebrima W Barry, a highly respected and extremely talented bird guide, Richard Mooney, owner and Lead Guide with Summit to Seashore Birding Adventures and the indispensable help from local guides.

There were 302 species recorded, with 50 being new species for me - that’s 247 lifers in two visits. The first 5 nights were spent at a very well established eco lodge on the west coast. This acted as basecamp as we made daily excursions to different parts of the region. We then followed the southbank road to Janjanbureh (Georgetown) where we stayed for 2 nights. Next we headed west down the North Bank, crossed the river and stayed 2 nights at Tendaba Camp after which we returned to the eco lodge on the west coast. What follows is a brief daily account highlighting birds of note and locations visited.

03rd January 2017 Gatwick - Banjul

Arrived on an evening flight then transferred to accommodation.

04th January 2917 - Abuko Nature reserve

Day one proper we headed to the famous Abuko, Gambia’s first nature reserve. Before entering the reserve we stopped at the Abuko Rice Fields where there was a fine selection of afrotropical species to get familiar with - 46 species recorded. In Abuko itself we took a leisurely walk through the gallery forest and though the birding is a little slower here, it holds many gems if you take your time and keep vigilant. Another 47 species recorded here in about 2 hours including Collared Sunbird, Buff-spotted Woodpecker, Giant Kingfisher, Western Bluebill, Oriole Warbler, Bearded Barbet and Swallow-tailed Bee-eater. A total 95 species were recorded on day one. The afternoon was spent relaxing at the lodge whilst watching some local birds coming to the freshwater pool - Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Yellow-crowned Gonolek, African Thrush, Snowy-crowned Robin Chat and Orange-cheeked Waxbill.


05th January 2017 - Tujereng

Tujereng woods are located 25 minutes north of the eco lodge and inland from the coast. These overgrown fields don’t look like much on arrival, I myself, did a little head scratching on my first visit. However, there are some very special birds to be found here and that's exactly what we did. A morning’s birding produced Red-winged Warbler, White-fronted Black Chat, Senegal Batis, Yellow Penduline Tit, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Yellow White-eye, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow Weaver, Vieillot’s Barbet, Striped Kingfisher and Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird - these are a few examples from the 60 species seen that morning.

The afternoon was again spent relaxing away from the heat of the day until about 1430 when I joined Lamin Bojang, a local guide from the lodge on a walk around his local patch. An amazing 81 species were recorded on this walk to the local wetlands and beach area. Highlights include Pearl-spotted Owlet, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Red-necked Falcon, Sacred Ibis, Hoopoe, Palmnut Vulture, Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle and African Harrier Hawk.


06th January 2017 - Farasuto and Bonto Forests

Our first stop today was at Farasuto Forest, a favourite place for Ebrima having grown up there. Here we met, as we did last year, with Ebrima Ceesay. Three target owl species were on the agenda here and three were located: Greyish Eagle Owl (2), African Wood Owl and Northern White-faced Owl. Over 50 species recorded here in just over an hour including Northern Puffback, Cardinal Woodpecker, Lesser Honeyguide, White-backed Night Heron, Pin-tailed Whydah, Giant Kingfisher and Bar-breasted Firefinch.

A quick pit-stop in the Bonto River area produced some gulls, terns and waders: Gull-billed Tern, Caspian Tern, Grey-headed Gull, Whimbrel, Grey Plover and Ringed Plover.

We arrived at Bonto Forest about 11:30 am and were escorted through the forest to a viewing area for a very special bird: White-spotted Flufftail. Our vigil lasted about an hour but unfortunately the main attraction was a no-show. However, in way of compensation for the effort we got a flyby African Goshawk, a nice look at Verreaux’s Eagle Owl and Ahanta Francolin. Back to our accomodation by 1500.

07th January 2017 - Local birding

Today was a relaxing day around the lodge. Time to catch up on notes and enjoy the local birds that frequent the area! There were over 40 species recorded in and around the lodge by 1200. A short walk just before sunset was a worthwhile effort with 2 Long-tailed Nightjar recorded.

08th January 2017 - Penyem, Darsilami and Marakissa

The convenient roadside woodland at Penyem produced some incredible species that would definitely be on our wishlist - Yellow-bellied Hyliota were first to be seen followed by a wonderful look at White-breasted Cuckooshrike! Brown-backed Woodpecker came next with another 30 species recorded on this short stop. A short visit to Darsilami Wetlands next produced crippling views of Long-Crested Eagle (2), Wahlberg’s Eagle, White-rumped Swift, waders and egrets.


Our final stop before lunch at Marakissa River camp afforded us good looks at Yellow-throated Leaflove, Woodland Kingfisher, Broad-billed Roller and Black-headed Heron. The food at the river camp was excellent - West African ladyfish, rice and vegetables. The birding doesn’t end here it just gets more comfortable. Next to the restaurant is a wonderful water station for birds and it attracts some real beauties. It is possible to see all 3 honeyguides here, we got Greater Honeyguide. Long-tailed Glossy Starling, Pia Piac, Black-necked Weaver, Purple Glossy Starling, Beautiful Sunbird, Blue-spotted Wood Dove, White-crowned Robin Chat, Yellow-crowned Gonolek, Brown Babbler all made an appearance giving wonderful opportunities for photography. Returned to camp at 1500.

09th January 2017 - Up Country - Southbank road to Janjanbureh

Our first stop after the 07:00 am departure was at Bamakuno Forest at 08:20. Here we checked the scrub and trails recording about 30 species with notable birds such as Siffling Cisticola, Red-winged Warbler, Senegal Batis, Tawny-flanked Prinia and Yellow-fronted Canary. A very short stop at the Kampanti rice fields produced usual suspects but just beyond this stop we got Martial Eagle (juvenile) sat on a post! This individual was too weary to allow approach but wonderful to see. Making good headway we arrived at Kalaji wetland where Yellow-billed Stork, White-backed Vulture, Marsh Harrier and Booted Eagle were noted.

Not long after the stop at Kalaji Ebrima slammed on his breaks and used a few very descriptive words to express his feelings - in other words, we struck gold! When Ebrima W Barry jumps out the car you know it's a good bird! Looking across some flats to the edge of the water stood FOUR Black-crowned Cranes! These birds have been the nemesis of many a keen birder and getting good looks at these secretive birds is a special moment. This was a family group - 2 adults and 2 juveniles. After getting a few scope/iphone combo record shots we moved on. Not long after this incredible sighting I got my first look at a personal top bird and unmistakable iconic African species - Marabou Stork! This giant and often referred to as grotesque bird was thermalling above us making, making the Hooded Vultures close-by, look like crows. This gives you some indication of scale. Grotesque to some, this bird to me was beautiful and a childhood dream come true. This experience was made even better by locating a nest with one adult and two young. Another known roost site for Verreaux’s Eagle Owl was visited prior to our arrival at Baobolong Guest House - located next to the Gambia River, Janjanbureh.


10th January 2017 - Gambia River Boat Trip, Bangsang Quarry, Kunkiling Forest Park

Sunrise on the Gambia River at this location is very special. Standing on the jetty looking east in the pre-dawn light really connects you to this amazing country. Sipping coffee with the golden light of sunrise reflecting off the still water and silhouetted ducks, herons and egrets overhead is a magical experience and how our day began. After breakfast we hopped onto our boat for the first of two river excursions. We headed west down the river, skirting the north shore. Here the river is freshwater, so, different habitat to that of Tendaba where mangroves are dominant in the salt water. We took one of the inlets in search of one of our target birds - African Finfoot, unfortunately, on this trip, we were unable to locate this species. However, placing ourselves in this environment we were privy to plenty of other outstanding encounters.  Over 60 species were recorded on this trip with highlights including African Fish Eagle, Yellow-backed Weaver, Swamp Flycatcher, Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Spur-winged Goose, Malachite Kingfisher, Black Stork, Palmnut Vulture, Blue-breasted Kingfisher and Yellow-winged Bat.

We arrived back at Baobolong by 1230, had lunch and relaxed until at 1500 when we headed south off MacCarthy Island to Bangsang quarry. Bangasang has a breeding colony Red-throated Bee-eater and you are pretty much guaranteed closeup views of this species. Here, however, is another much sort after bird and one we located - Cinnamon-breasted Bunting! Our short visit also produced wonderful views of Bush Petronia and the beautifully exotic Exclamatory Paradise Whydah - 2 males in full breeding plumage!

Continuing on with our afternoon excursion we headed to Kunkling Forest Park with one species on our mind - Adamwa Turtle Dove. A very tough bird to see anywhere else in the region, Kunkling is well known as the place to go. Our efforts paid off with good views of an individual bird seen for a few minutes. Bonus birds on this target trip included African Hawk Eagle and Little Green Bee-eater.

A pre-dusk vigil on some agricultural land behind George Town in the evening produced Quail Finch, Goliath Heron, Purple Heron, Black-crowned Night Heron, Long-tailed Nightjar and Standard-winged Nightjar. An incredible finish to an amazing day.

11th January 2017 - George Town to Tendaba along the North Bank

Today we said goodbye to George Town, taking the ferry to the North Bank; conveniently located next to our accommodation. Our first stop was Wassu, the famous Unesco site of the Wassu Stone Circles. Here we searched for our target bird - Northern Carmine Bee-eater but alas, we were unable to locate any. Some 24 species were recorded from this spot with Tawny Eagle, Northern Anteater Chat, Common Redstart, White-rumped Seedeater being the highlights. With a ferry to catch further up river we were restricted with time and had to continue. Our luck, however, continued with 2 Northern Carmine Bee-eaters located a few kilometres further on! This was a relief for us both, and a good omen of luck coming our way. Our next stop was at some wetlands where we spent 30 minutes scanning flocks of finches in the scrub which included Cut-throat Finch, Yellow-crowned Bishop, African Silverbill, Red-billed Quelea and Sudan Golden Sparrow. The lovely little Namaqua Dove were abundant here and in the wetlands proper there were hundreds of White-faced Whistling Duck plus African Darter, Black Crake and Senegal Thick-knee. Continuing on we made an unexpected stop mainly due to locating a group of 8 Abyssinian Ground Hornbill! These extraordinary species are very special and not easily seen and were very well received by us both.


By 1345 we arrived at N’jay Wetlands. This site is well known as a good location for Egyptian Plover - The Crocodile bird. The general consensus from some of Ebrima’s contacts was that most birds had gone from this site - possibly one bird still around. We were in luck - again. Here we got wonderful looks at this much sort after species. Further along the North Bank we stopped at Kaur Wetlands with Collared Pratincole seen in good numbers. Our final stop before getting the last ferry was at N’gain Sanjal. After having a lunch break we spent about an hour scouring the scrub for bustards. There are a possible 3 species at this location but we would be happy locating just one. And we did. Not only did we add Singing Bush Lark and Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark to our overall trip list we got a Black-bellied Bustard for our efforts.

We took the Bamba Tenda / Yelli Tenda ferry crossing from north to south at 1700 and by 1750 were scanning the Soma Wetlands where we added Marsh Sandpiper and White Wagtail. Arriving just outside Tendaba Camp by 1900 we waited in a good spot for some nocturnal species before checking in for the night. Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, Four-banded Sandgrouse, Long-tailed Nightjar and Standard-winged Nightjar were all recorded. By 20:00 we were showered and sat down for a wonderful and much appreciated Tendaba meal after yet another amazing day of birding in The Gambia.

12th January 2015 - Kissi Creek and Tunku Creek Boat trip and Kiang West National Park

Our second boat trip departed Tendaba at about 08:45. Here we joined Ebrima Camara and Wandy Touray. Wandy has been guiding here for many years and was an instrumental resource of knowledge for the authors of both books referred to at the beginning of this trip report. The narrow creeks, open spongy grassland and mangroves make this a real highlight of any tour. Birdlife is abundant and close views of many specialist birds regular. Mouse-brown Sunbird make regular appearances as do Blue-breasted Kingfisher. This area is an extremely good site for African Blue Flycatcher of which we spotted three. Egrets, storks and herons are all represented here - Wooly-necked Stork, Yellow-billed Stork, Sacred Ibis, Intermediate Egret, Great White Egret, Hamerkop, African Darter, Great Cormorant, Black-headed Heron, Goliath Heron, White-backed Night Heron, Pink-backed Pelican all pretty much guaranteed. Other birds of note include White-throated Bee-eater, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, Montagu’s Harrier and possible African Finfoot and Pel’s Fishing Owl. En-route back to camp we also spotted a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins.
After a short break we headed out to Kiang West National Park and were joined by Ebrima’s friend and student, upcoming bird guide OJ. The afternoon was extremely hot and initially the birding a little slow but the being on site and some effort paid off with some very good birds. Most noteable being White-shouldered Black Tit, Black Scimitarbill, Spotted Thick-knee, Helmeted Guinea-fowl and Temminck's Courser! Another dusk vigil outside of camp produced the same species seen the previous night.


13th January 2017 - Tendaba Camp - West Coast.

Our final morning in Tendaba was spent behind the camp birding some woodland and scrub. Here we birded until 11:00am adding some new species for the trip including our target bird - Brown-rumped Bunting. Other species of note - Brubru, Senegal Eremomela,White-fronted Black Chat, Black-headed Plover, White Helmetshrike, Black-rumped Waxbill,European Bee-eater, Vieillot’s Barbet and Four-banded Sandgrouse. This is area often has a controlled burn which offers a great opportunity to find Bronzed-winged Courser.

On our journey back to the West Coast we were joined by OJ. Retracing our steps along the South Bank we stopped and the Kampanti rice fields connecting with a new species for the trip - Western banded Snake Eagle. Another stop at 14:20 at Pirang Shrimp Farm produced a few more new species though we were unable to locate Greater Flamingo - much better to look for in the morning apparently.

We arrived at Bonto forest at 15:30 and headed back out to the stake out area. Another hours vigil paid off this time with a good view of White-spotted Flufftail! Here we also added two new species: Green Crombec and Leaflove. Drive back to eco lodge.

14th January 2017 - Local birding

Today was spent relaxing and birding alone around the lodge and down to the ocean. At the beach there were at least 5 Osprey and the 300th bird of the tour - African Hobby. In the evening I spent about 1 ½ hours with Malang; the local woodcarver who kindly invited me to see his village. It took about 20 minutes to get there on the back of his motorbike. He also took me to a small allotment run by a local man who attracts birds with water feeders. He wanted me to identify the birds. About 30 species were identified with Lesser Honeyguide being the stand out bird.  

15th January 2017 - Kartong Sandmines - Banjul - Gatwick

My last day in Gambia was as fun and memorable as the first. Ebrima picked me up at 07:30 then headed south to Kartong. These old sand mines have now become reedbeds in which a wonderful array of birds can be found. Here and including the beach area over 60 species were noted. Of particular interest were Purple Swamphen, Purple Heron, Garganey, Greater Painted-snipe, Common Snipe, Squacco Heron, Spur-winged Goose, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Subalpine Warbler, Black Crake, Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Royal Tern, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Crested Lark, Hoopoe, Kentish Plover and White-fronted Plover. We were back at the lodge by midday and after lunch took a few hours to relax prior to heading to Banjul Airport.

The species list for my last two trips speak for themselves. My second visit to The Gambia was every bit as enjoyable as the first. The local people of Gambia never cease to amaze me with their kind, friendly and welcoming attitudes. Not only did I manage to see a vast amount of birds and wildlife, I also formed friendships with people that made this trip one of the best experiences of my life. Though my visit was at a time of extreme political unrest for the Gambian people, with a ‘State of Emergency’ being implemented, I never once felt unsafe. That anxious time has now passed and hopefully a new beginning for the people of Gambia. I personally cannot wait to return to this amazing country. Below is a link to my Flickr photo site which has albums for both Gambia excursions. Please contact me if you have any questions about arranging a trip.

Ebrima W Barry

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