Birdingpals Trip Report
Trip Report Gambia – January 2010
by Birdingpal Robin Springett
THE GAMBIA RE-ASSESSED
The Gambia is easy Africa; they use GMT, and it’s only a 6 hour flight from Europe; they speak English, there is no crime, the food is recognisable, and prices are
low. Around the turn of the century I visited 3 times in 2 years, but hadn’t been back since 2001. My bible then was Rod Ward’s “A Birdwatcher’s Guide to The Gambia” published in 1994 and I had been to every site mentioned in the book along the coast and up river. My list stood at 296, and hard work would be necessary to significantly improve that; probably something I shall not attempt. However, I had a week and decided to see if The Gambia was still a good destination for birders. On my 3 previous visits I had birded with the young bird guide named in the book, Lamin Sidebeh. Lamin was a great guide, indeed he still is, and he is now the
chairman of the co-operative called The Association of Bird Guides of The Gambia. All these things went through my mind when in mid-January I made a late booking with The Gambia Experience for a week B&B at the African Village Hotel. Actually, my first priority was a break from the awful cold winter we were having in UK this year (2010), but I go nowhere without doing some birding. I had heard The Gambia had changed, now I was about to see how much. I sent Lamin an email and got a response to meet up.
I flew Monarch from London Gatwick; the flight was on time, the food was good, the transfer from the airport to the hotel painless, and my room was simple but
adequate. Lamin came to see me that evening and I outlined my plan for local birding mornings only, so I could relax by the pool in the afternoon. Lamin agreed a programme for the mornings, some sharing with another birder, some on my own. On the days when Lamin wasn’t available, he would send a qualified lady guide called
Fatou Colley, a licensed guide and member of the Association. We agreed a dawn start for next day. (Note: The guides are still to be found by the bridge at Kotu,
where they have a hut with many pictures and contact numbers. This is the best starting point for many birders who haven’t made a booking in advance).
Wednesday 27th January 2010 - Kotu Area
We left my hotel at 07.30 and caught a local taxi to Kotu rice fields, where we started our walk and I was introduced to Fatou, as Lamin had business at Kotu Bridge. We looked over Kotu creek towards Fajara golf course, and slowly made our way through the rice fields and palms, while I got used to Africa’s birds once again. After an hour or so, Lamin came back and we had a break at Lamin’s small holding, where he has a hide and sells soft drinks. From there we moved into Kotu Pools, a sewage farm where the charge is a reasonable D10 (about 40 US cents) for all day. After scanning every pool, we moved across the road to the lily pond alongside the Badala Park Hotel. The time was moving towards midday and getting hot, so I opted to return to the hotel area for lunch, and the afternoon by the pool, rather than a walk along the Casino cycle track. My total was a modest 41 species, but really good views of everything and a great start.
Thursday 28th January – Brufut Woods
Once again left the hotel at 07.30 for the relatively short run to Brufut Woods by taxi, where we parked up the taxi and walked into the woods. Brufut Woods itself, although much reduced in size is now a protected area with 2 permanent wardens who have done much to preserve and improve the woodland, but on all sides it is being squeezed by development and farming; notwithstanding that, it is still brilliant. There is a very reasonable entry charge of D100 (about $4 USD), payable to the wardens, and they also have cold drinks for sale. Sunbirds were everywhere, and we very quickly saw Beautiful Long-tailed, Copper and Splendid, with Variable appearing later. We heard an oriole, and soon found 2 male and one female African Golden Oriole. Pearl-spotted Owlet and a pair of Verreaux’s Eagle Owl were also seen quite
close by. We then spent a long time in search of Long-tailed Nightjar, which we failed to find, but not to worry; one of the wardens helped us find a cryptic female sitting tight on the ground. It was here that my camera battery ran out of juice! Good birds continued, including Diedrich Cuckoo and Grey-headed Bristle Bill. In the surrounding farmland, we saw Walberg’s Eagle and White-fronted Black Chat, plus a Common Whitethroat. By the time we got back to the taxi we had seen 63 species. That evening, I did a sea watch from the hotel beach bar and added a modest 7 species.
Friday 29th January – Fajara Golf Course
Another 07.30 start and this time Fatou collected me from my hotel with a local taxi for the short journey to the Fajara Golf Club. On my previous visits, the Golf
Club has been very run down and access was easy at any point along the broken fence; if the golf was poor, the birding was excellent. Now, the fence is mended and much of the wild areas tidied, there are more golfers, and less birds, but it is still good and worth the modest D10 charge. Lamin accompanied by another bird watcher
called Richard appeared just as we started to get into the birds; Subalpine Warbler was a good spot, and an Osprey flew over clutching a large fish. We spent a couple of hours birding and avoiding golf balls, whilst getting really good views of a family of Green Wood Hoopoe and a single Blue Bellied Roller and many others. Three Sacred Ibis flew over and we got close views of a Grey Kestrel sitting in a palm. We wandered slowly to Lamin’s hide for a cold drink, then onto the lily pond and back via the Kotu pools to a large disused clay quarry with water in the bottom and houses all around. The sign to follow says “Joint Officers Mess”. Walk past the said building, through someone’s back yard to scan over the water. Lamin had been tipped off that Shinning Blue Kingfisher was to be seen; patience paid off, as after a false alarm, which turned out to be Malachite Kingfisher, we did see two of the target birds. Richard got some photos; good enough for identification purposes, but not really worth printing. On the walk back, we discovered that the Joint Officers Mess is open to the public, and is a great and inexpensive place for a cool drink, lunch or dinner. A very successful morning birding with 79 species recorded.
Saturday 30th January – Old Cape Road, Camaloo Corner & Crocodile Pool
These sites were so close to my hotel, Lamin collected me at 08.00 and we took a 3 wheel scooter taxi to Old Cape Rd. As this was the last Saturday in the month, and
it was “Clean up Gambia Day”, traffic was banned from 09.00 to 13.00, so we would have to walk wherever we went. It was hot, but delightful without traffic. We started from the football pitch, where nearby a circumcision celebration was under way, and quickly found many finches, bishops and waxbills, plus Red-billed Quelea. A gentle walk towards the pools produced Black-shouldered Kite, Little Ringed Plover, Redshank, Greenshank, Whimbrel, Caspian and Sandwich Terns. We crossed the road to
mudflats and water, where we met a couple of friendly Danish birders, who kindly let us look at the Lesser Crested Terns through their telescope. We chatted and exchanged notes, before walking round the water to the women’s gardens and rice fields at the back of Bakau, where we were offered palm wine, and saw Abyssinian Roller and Yellow Wagtail, then made our way to Camaloo Corner. There we saw Senegal Thick-knee, African Spoonbill and Black Crake amongst others. We walked back via the gardens to the Crocodile Pool. This is a sacred pool, where couples come to improve their fertility and, I was assured, they then have children. I doubted it was worth the D50 entrance fee, as I didn’t want children, but excellent views of crocs, both in the water and hauled out, a pair of Hammerkop and their enormous nest in a large tree, together with the hard to see Splendid Glossy Starling and Oriole Warbler, plus close up views of Blue-breasted Kingfisher changed my mind. (We walked back through the shacks of Bakau, little more than slums, with festering open sewers along the dirt streets. People should not have to live like this, and to my eye, it is worse now than 10 years ago). We got back to the hotel just as the 13.00 traffic curfew ended. It had been another good morning with 75 species seen.
Sunday 31st January – Turejreng & Tanji Bird Reserve
Lamin had booked a 4x4 vehicle for the day, and I joined him and Richard for this trip, leaving the hotel at 07.45. Being Sunday, there was little traffic, and we arrived at Turejreng, which is an area of scrub with some large trees. It is mainly farmland, but some new houses are being built. The strategy is to walk along the main track and branch out at various points into the scrub, especially where there are flowering trees which are magnets for sunbirds and many other species. Woodchat Shrike was a good early spot and soon we were seeing sunbirds; the best for me being my first Pygmy Long-tailed Sunbird of this trip. Grey and Cardinal Woodpeckers
were no surprise, but African Darter was! The birds kept coming, Palm Nut Vulture, Chestnut Crowned Sparrow Weaver, Lesser White Spotted Woodpecker, Vieillot’s Barbet, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Brown Snake Eagle, Eurasian Hoopoe, Striped Kingfisher, etc, etc. A total of 56 species by the time we stopped for lunch.
After lunch of fish in a local village, we started to head back and stopped at the south end of Tanji reserve, where we picked up another 16 species, including Lesser Crested, Royal, Caspian and Sandwich Tern, Kelp Gull, Osprey again, Blue-cheeked Bee Eater and Lizard Buzzard. We were back at the hotels around 15.30, with a very respectable 72 species seen.
Monday 1st February – Abuko Nature Reserve
It has been a reserve since 1967, but the last time I had visited Abuko this remnant of mature riverine forest was getting very run down and its edges were under
attack by wood collectors and poachers. I was delighted to find that it has finally had money spent on it. The perimeter fence has been renewed, entrance and exit is through the same gate, and a large buffer area of scrub and savannah now surrounds it on 3 sides. Casual visitors can also hire binoculars and a guide at the entrance for a small fee and the rangers have a smart uniform. New hides are under construction; fortunately the very noisy workers are late starters! Today I was with Fatou
and we arrived shortly after the 08.00 opening, but were not the first in. Common Wattle Eye was calling everywhere it seemed, and we got very good views. Soon Fatou’s sharp eyes had found Western Bluebill an Abuko specialist, and helped others see it. At the crocodile pool Fatou spotted White Backed Night Heron, and this bird obligingly came into the open to be photographed by us and two more parties of birders. One of them kindly let me use his scope to take some photos. We spent a very pleasant morning slowly going round this reserve; not really seeing anything else outstanding, but getting good views of birds like Violet Turaco and Fine-spotted Woodpecker. The “Animal Orphanage” does have cold drinks, but is a very sad place to my eyes. It is hard to see why many of the animals are kept in cages; I am cynical enough to think that it is only to extract money from tourists, but I may be wrong. Our 4 hours produced just 41 species, but you always live in hope in Abuko and it
is well worth a visit!
I had hoped to go to the Medical Research Council (MRC) garden in the afternoon. This is a private area along the Atlantic Road, opposite the British High Commission, which sponsors it. I had never had a problem getting in before, and had just pitched up with my binoculars round my neck and passport and got access. Silly me! I
forgot 9/11 and all the other events this century which had angered many in the developing world, so security in this European enclave is tight. I got no further than the gate; to get in I would have to apply in writing, or try my luck next morning at 09.00. Despite speaking to lots of people, all of whom seemed to have no
authority, I failed, and gave up.
Tuesday 2nd February - Botanic Garden
My last morning, with a 13.30 departure saw me decide to walk along the Atlantic Road north from my hotel towards the junction with the Old Cape Road. Right there on the edge of Bakua is the Botanic Garden and Medicinal Garden. They are separated by the entrance to a residence and entry to both is D50. Probably not worth it if one is just birding, but they are well kept and pleasant, and there is a small restaurant for lunch or cold drinks almost opposite. I spent a couple of quiet and pleasant hours here with a pair of Vieillot’s Barbet courting and mating being the highlight. Good views too of Klass’ Cuckoo, Northern Puffback (first for the trip), Shikra, Senegal Parrot and Long-tailed Glossy Starling and other common birds gave me a total of 26 species and left time for lunch and an ice cream before the transport arrived.
Conclusion & Re-assment
This was an almost spur of the moment decision to go back to The Gambia. I was not disappointed, despite hotel development and new housing estates for ex-patriots; it is still a brilliant destination for bird watchers. It has it all, great birds, friendly and expert guides, it is very safe, with hotels to suit every pocket, good food, nice weather during the northern winter and it is not expensive. I saw 164 species and added 10 to my Gambia list. I still recommend Rod Ward’s “A Birdwatchers’ Guide to The Gambia”, (ISBN 1 871104 04 1), despite its obvious shortcomings and need for an update. I chose to use guides arranged locally from the bridge at Kotu and highly recommend the two I used:
Lamin Sidebeh +220 9909 365 or +220 7411 019 (try both), email: firstname.lastname@example.org and
Fatou Colley +220 7790 535, email: email@example.com
There are others on www.Birdingpal.org; it is worth remembering that local guides arranged direct are cheaper than guides booked via hotels or tour companies, and all the money paid to them goes straight into the local economy. If you haven’t been, try The Gambia, if you have been before, now may be the time to go again; it is easy Africa and fun! I got flights and hotel for £320 and I spent about the same again on birding and food, say £700 or $1,000 USD with tips.