Friday 9 December 2011

The Gambia Birds A - E

The Gambia – 11-25 November 2011

Note: This is a long blog in 4 parts. Navigate with links below:

Other parts:

PART 2 Birds F - O for falcons, gulls, herons, kingfishers, etc.

PART 3 Birds P - S for rollers, snake-eagles, starlings, sunbirds, etc.

PART 4 Birds T - Z for terns, warblers, vultures, etc.

The Gambia has been a destination I’ve wanted to visit for some time and I wasn’t disappointed.

I left Gatwick on a not so cold November day and, after a 6-hour flight, arrived to temperatures of 38°C. The plane was a little late so we did no afternoon birdwatching and went straight to our rooms to freshen up before dinner. There's no time difference, which was handy. No jet lag.

The Kombo Beach hotel was nice. We were led to believe that air-conditioning wasn’t included but I was pleased to find that it was. The food was good, always a buffet, and the atmosphere welcoming. It was to be our base for 8 days.

The Gambia is the smallest African country, completely surrounded by Senegal. It’s long and narrow, being merely the banks of the river Gambia, a major river in West Africa. The Gambia is over 300km long but only about 40km wide on average. There is a good main road on the North bank and a not-so-good main road on the South bank. Off the main roads, the going is slow, on soft sandy tracks. Nevertheless, in the main, getting around was OK.

I won’t bore you with a blow by blow account of all the places we visited at or near the coast. We visited a range of habitats and saw a vast range of birds. The trip total for 2 weeks was 324 birds but I saw 311. Either figure is more than my current British life list!! Over 200 birds were ones I hadn’t seen before. Imagine seeing your British list in 2 weeks!

The first day was phenomenal. Over 50 lifers in one day! I was mainly interested in the photography, so I tried to photograph everything. I got reasonable shots of about 200 birds and poor or record shots of another 30 or so. We saw all 9 species of kingfisher and I photographed 8 of them. Only the shining blue kingfisher eluded me. There were 4 species of roller, 16 species of heron/egret, 7 of woodpecker, 11 cisticolas, 11 hirundines as well as large groups of sunbirds, shrikes, weavers and warblers. Raptors were common and I saw 29 species.

At breakfast in the hotel I could admire a constant stream of kites and vultures overhead. Breakfast was early; around 6.30 so we could leave at 7.15. By 13.00 it was too hot to be out. We generally lunched and rested till about 15.30, although some mad dogs or Englishmen went out in the heat!

The bus was ancient with no air-conditioning. The driver, Aladdin, was good. Organisation was well thought out. After we had been dropped off we would walk through a forest, say, and the bus would be waiting for us on the other side.

The Gambian people are very friendly and the place feels safe. Around the hotels there are the usual touristy people offering you taxis, money-changing and more, but they generally left you alone when they saw you weren’t interested.

Our two local guides were Solomon and Abdulai. They knew the areas and where the birds were. They were both excellent at locating birds by call alone so they could then be found and seen.

Vaughan Ashby, the English guide (and owner of Birdfinders) was also excellent at picking up birds from call or sight, giving an almost instant identification. It is testament to his knowledge and experience that he had no lifers at all on the trip.

After 8 nights at the coast we set off for Georgetown about 150km up river. This was much more basic accommodation but the birds were good. No air conditioning here!

After 2 nights we left on a river boat trip where we slowly drifted near to the river banks. Birds were much less afraid of us in a boat. After lunch we set off in the bus for Tendaba camp. This was quite a large camp. The highlight was the boat trip up one of the meandering mangrove creeks where we saw African blue-flycatcher, golden-tailed woodpecker and several species of bee-eater.

Whilst up river we paid a visit to a local school to deliver pens, pencils and other stationery items which we had brought from England. The principal of the school greeted us and we met one of the classes. Both Vaughan and Solomon spoke about the importance of preserving Gambia’s bird and wildlife.

It was not possible for everyone to see everything. With 16 in the group plus 3 permanent guides and one trainee it was difficult sometimes on the narrower forest tracks to assemble everyone in one place to see a shy bird in the thickest parts of the forest or a bird that was small and lived in the high forest canopy. Notwithstanding this, the team did their very best to ensure that everyone saw the birds. Personally, I’m very happy with what I saw and photographed. Photographers are not always welcomed by other birdwatchers. I apologise now to my fellow team members if I inadvertently got in their way sometimes.

The photos following are in alphabetical order. Click on a photo to see a larger version. I have left out typical UK migrants as these will be familiar to most readers. I’m working on a full list of species seen and I will post it here as soon as I’ve worked out how to do it. As there are a lot of photos I will have to split them up and post them over four or five pages. Here are A-E.

Anteater chat - Northern

Apalis - yellow breasted. A forest dweller. Hard to see.
Babbler - blackcap
Babbler - brown
Barbet - bearded. What a strange bird.
Barbet - Viellots
Bateleur - adult. Not common.
Bateleur - juvenile came to check us out.
Batis - Senegal
Bee-eater - blue-cheeked
Bee-eater - European. Never seen one in UK.

Bee-eater - little

Bee-eater - Northern Carmine
Bee-eater - red-throated. Saw a colony of perhaps 500 pairs in disused quarry.
Bee-eater - swallow-tailed. A very elegant bird, as are all the bee-eaters.
Bee-eater - white-throated
Bishop - black-winged
Bishop - orange (Northern red)
Bulbul - common
Bunting - brown-rumped. Should be called 'stripey-faced yellow bunting'!
Bunting - cinnamon-breasted (aka African rock bunting)
Bunting - house.
Buzzard - lizard. Quite common all over.
Cameroptera - grey-backed. More often heard than seen.
Chat - white-fronted black. No white front 'cos this is a female.
Cisticola - rufous. All the cisticolas are quite plain.
Cisticola - singing.
Cisticola - zitting. This is the one we sometimes see.
Cordonbleu - red-cheeked.
Cormorant - long-tailed. Often very pale fronted.
Coucal - Senegal. Many birds are called 'Senegal'. Gambia is surrounded by Senegal.
Crow - pied. Crows sound and fly the same the world over.
Cuckoo - Klaas's. Seen once only.
Cuckoo - Levaillant's. reasonably common.
Cuckoo - Levaillant's.
Cuckoo-shrike - red-shouldered. Had some strange red patches like small wings
that could be raised and lowered. See next photo.
Cuckoo-shrike - red-shouldered, with shoulder patches raised.
Cut-throat. No idea why this bird is so called, ha, ha.
Darter - African. Common in the mangroves.
Dove - namaqua. Male, right, and female
Dove - red-eyed. Ubiquitous.
Dove - vinaceous. Also very common.
Drongo - fork-tailed
Duck - white-faced whistling. Yes, you've seen these at WWT.
Eagle - Whalbergs. Note the narrow straight tail.
Eagle-owl - Verreauxs. A huge bird. Usually, locals were
paid if they knew which trees owls were roosting in.
Egret - cattle. All over the place. Nice though.
Egret - great white. We got quite close to these on the river trips.
Egret - intermediate.  A new one for me. What is the sure-fire
way to distinguish it from the great white?
Eremomula - Senegal.
The next part:

PART 2   Birds F - O   for falcons, gulls, herons, kingfishers, etc.