Day 1: An hour of bridge before the journey upriver

Fortified by the traditional birders’ breakfast at Manchester Airport (why not? you’re not breathalyzed before you get on planes….yet), we soared into the heavens only to bumpity bump down at Banjul International Airport late in the afternoon on January 14th.

A full-on week of sub-Saharan birding planned by Neill Hunt was too much for myself, Paul and John Thomason, Barry McCarthy and Tony Owen to resist, and the six of us were soon calling Hooded Vultures, Pied Crows and Speckled Pigeons like they were going out of fashion as the airport transfer bus negotiated the dusty, chaotic and infinitely colourful streets of Banjul before dropping us at the Badala Park Hotel.

Paul and Barry are old Gambia hands, but the world of the Abyssinian Roller was a new experience for Neill, John, Tony and myself.

There was one more member of the gang who had business back in town as the song goes, but Chris Kehoe (rocking up for his nth tour of Gambia) joined us later that evening, by which time we’d learned about the life-sustaining properties of Julbrew, domadas and yassas all by ourselves, and had enjoyed a quick tour down to Kotu Creek with our guide for much of the week, Ebrima Barry.

Smashing fellow, he’d planned a seven day itinerary for us taking in north and south banks of the River Gambia, coastal hotspots, boat trips and stake-outs.

A gentle stroll down from the hotel to Kotu Bridge, just a few hundred yards away brought us White Crowned Robin Chats, Yellow Billed Kites, fly-past Hadada Ibis, Yellow Billed Shrikes, Swallow Tailed Bee-Eaters and Broad-Billed Roller.

Luckily I had brought my big notebook as many of the bird names in Gambia are very long.

The creek itself was a kingfisher fest – gorgeous Blue Breasteds (top pic), tiny Malachites, ubiquitous Pieds and a mahoosive Giant Kingfisher trying to ram Gambia’s biggest fish down his gob as the light failed.


Wintering European waders like Greenshanks and Wood Sands shared the mud with 20+ Senegal Thick-knees, and the bushes held Subalpine Warblers and Chiffchaffs, calling Gonoleks and overly confident Black Capped Babblers.

Red Billed Hornbills, Double Spurred Francolins and Western Grey Plaintain Eaters justified the big notebook strategy, while herons included Black Heron (doing its umbrella fishing thing) and Hamerkop.

As a precursor to the trip proper it wasn’t a bad hour in the field – 35 lifers meant lots of Julbrew, before a very early start on the morning of Jan 15th, when driver Yahoo picked us all up in a people carrier that would become home for the next four days and we barrelled through the dusty streets, over the Denton Bridge and past the National Assembly Building to join the queue of lorries, workers, donkeys, carts, travellers, cars, birders etc etc for the first boat across the river to Barra on the north bank.

It was too dark to see any of the Pom Skuas that infest the river crossing in winter, and the Plough was upside down above us but all thoughts were on the week – and birds – ahead.

Lead on Ebrima and Yahoo.

PS Just a quick note about the Badala Park Hotel – it may have received a few dodgy Trip Advisor reviews, but it is absolutely fine as a birding base, and right next door to top notch habitat and species.
If you ever stay in room B20 though, watch out for the plumbing – don’t know which cowboy they had in to try to stop the dripping cistern…but I don’t think it was his day job.

14.1.18 – Kotu Creek/Banjul area:

Red Billed Firefinch, Pied Crow, Hooded Vulture, Feral Pigeon, Common Bulbul, Laughing Dove, African Mourning Dove, White Crowned Robin Chat, Village Weaver, Cattle Egret, Vinaceous Dove, Fork Tailed Drongo, Red Billed Hornbill, Double Spurred Francolin, Long Tailed Cormorant, Bronze Mannikin, Broad Billed Roller, Yellow Billed Shrike, Spur Winged Plover, Western Reef Heron, Blue Breasted Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Senegal Thick-knee, Redshank, Grey Plover, Common Sandpiper, Grey Heron, Great White Egret, Black Winged Stilt, Striated Heron, Chiffchaff, Subalpine Warbler, Black Capped Babbler, Giant Kingfisher, Western Grey Plaintain Eater, Long Tailed Starling, Whimbrel, Senegal Coucal, Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover, Beautiful Sunbird, African Grey Hornbill, Swallow Tailed Bee-Eater, Black Heron, Hamerkop, Rose Ringed Parakeet, Speckled Pigeon, African Palm Swift, Hadada Ibis, Grey Headed Gull.


Day 2: Stopping, Starting, Birding

The night sky was still cool and velvetty black as we docked on the north bank of the Gambia river at Barra and edged off the ferry amongst the throng of commuters and travellers navigating the river – mind that goat!
A dark and mysterious pre-dawn.
Dusty streets were bustling as we gulped down hot, sweet coffee from a street seller and as the sky turned slowly from black to blue, the first Pied Crows and Hooded Vultures appeared.
All very different from the last time Neill and I visited Barra – boy, the place has really changed!
At sun-up we all bundled into the people carrier and Yahoo headed east into a day of stop-start birdin’ all along the north bank.
Within minutes we were watching our first Northern Anteater Chats and in a roadside Kapok tree (m’learned friend informs me the grown-up name of this bird perch is Bombax costatum – ta Tony) Ebrima pointed out African Green and Bruce’s Green (pic at top) Pigeons amongst a host of Starlings.
The latter proved bewildering to me for the whole week – changing colours and stances, real chameleon birds, but all gorgeous.

These are Purple Glossys, at least the back one is – I think?
At a stop to sift through one congregation of Starlings (Gtr and Lsr Blue Eared,Purple Glossy, Long Tailed, Bronze Tailed), Chris managed to hoik out an African Collared Dove which fed amongst African Mourning, Red Eyed and Vinaceous Doves – another confusing group.
Somewhat easier on the eye was a roadside Wahlberg’s Eagle (surprisingly small), Senegal Parrot and Red Necked Falcon.

Dark Chanting Goshawks were very common – perched up everywhere like Roadside Hawks across the pond, and still retained the novelty value of gorgeous and abundant Abyssinian Rollers – when you get tired of them, it’s time to give up birdin’.

We stopped frequently to bird the grassland and scattered trees as the sun and the temperature started to climb, but that was okay, virtually every bird was a lifer, whether it was an annoying Northern Red Bishop or skulky Tawny Flanked Prinia.

Yellow-billed Kites patrolled for roadkill above the rapidly heating tarmac and a Black Headed Heron strode through the parched landscape.
The scent of dried sage filled the air as soon as you stepped off the road and into the dessicated grassland.

Stopping in the arid wastes around Kerewan Bridge it became obvious we may struggle for a few wetland species, as most of the wetland had evaporated, but we encountered our first African Fish Eagle, Woodchat Shrikes, Lanners, Northern Wheatear (incongruous, but it saves checking the sandplant at the start of March), Chestnut Backed Sparrow Larks, Southern Grey Shrike and very distant Spur Winged Goose.

Yahoo pushed on east and the dust migration from the barren wastes outside into the van began – this strange movement continued until by the end of the week we were all waist deep in the stuff, dyed red and almost ready to enter the murky world of termite mound real estate.
The back seats became a choking dustbowl to rival anything John Steinbeck came up with, while the dark art of back seat avoidance evolved into a crucial survival tactic.
We still managed to stop for Rufous Crowned Roller, kettling Hooded Vultures and Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle and Grasshopper Buzzard.
DCGs (get me, but I much prefer Dark Chanting Goshawk) were abundant.

Like a dream oasis in the baked oven (and we’d only been going for five hours), we stopped to scan Baobolong Wetland in the screaming noon-day heat – hordes of herons and egrets (including Intermediate), fly-over Pink Backed Pelicans, and fishing White Winged Black, Gull-billed and Whiskered Terns.
Exquisite Pygmy Sunbirds squeaked from a bush beside us, and out in the shimmering heat haze, two Black Crowned Cranes tried to look regal, but failed as the haze was too wibbly wobbly.

Wintering Euro-waders and an Iberian Yellow Wag contrasted with the stone African stuff.
A rather peeky looking Slender-billed Gull drifted by and African Tiger Butterflies were a diversion from the feathers, but it was time to enter the oven again and Ebrima dragged us away from the water and back onto the road.

We were through Farafenni by 12.30pm and pulled off the road into the savannah near N’gain Sanjal as temperatures began to peak – it was at least one million degrees out there.
I knew it was gonna be warm at this site when Ebrima suggested we all drink lots of pop and water before setting off on foot and Yahoo steered the van under the shade of a tree.
Even the Green Wood Hoopoes and Grey Kestrels looked hot and bothered.
We walked into the bush, spreading out into a long line, with locusts, Singing Bush Lark and Tree Pipits rising in front of us.

I was delighted when a Flappet Lark came up, close enough to hear the “flappy” noise of its wings – mega, a species I did not expect to encounter.
But we were not there for larks, and shortly after a female Black Bellied Bustard exploded out of the grasses and away over the horizon. We came across a male a short while later, by which time we were all overheating, covered in sticky seeds and probably prepared to swap a bagful of Abyssinian Rollers for another cold drink.
Zitting Cisticolas, in weirdly long-tailed moulty plumage looked like they were ready to spontaneously combust, and a miniscule Striped Kingfisher shimmered in the heat.

Stumbling through the burning grasses I saw a blob sheltering in the shade of a tiny bush up ahead. In my heat-addled state I thought it may have been a smaller bustard, but as we got closer the mirage morphed into a superb Temminck’s Courser – brilliant, and completely unwilling to leave the cooling shade as we approached.

A search at Kaur Wetlands (just about bone dry) failed to provide the bird that dare not speak its name and we drove onto higher ground for a lunchbreak on a bluff overlooking the Gambia river snaking away to the horizon below.
Tasty as the domadas were, Yellow Fronted Canary, Cinnamon Breasted Bunting and Cut-Throat Finch were a bit too much of a distraction, all picked off by Chris before we hit the dusty trail east again.

As we moved east, Ebrima checked every shrinking wetland in the hope of connecting with the crocodile bird, but without success – Wood and Green Sandpipers, panting Red Throated Bee-Eaters, Black Crakes, Gonoleks, African Jacanas, Village Indigobirds, Bush Petronias yes, Egyptian Plover no.
No need to panic, just keep singing “Honolulu Baby” and carry on.

Panchang was the last suitable wetland before Georgetown/Janjanbureh, where there were stacks of Turtle Doves, a Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Hamerkop, African Purple Swamphen, and flotillas of White Faced Whistling Ducks, but no crocodile bird.
An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler pinned down by Chris and the guys showed a tiny bill, and dipping tail – a species that isn’t really meant to be here, and a close Senegal Coucal in the shadows failed to take my mind off the rock-star wader that seemed to be slipping out of our grasp, but we knew we were late in the season before we set off.
It would be churlish after all to begrudge missing one species in an ocean of spectacular birding.
Tiny Namaquas were everywhere.

As we headed towards the river crossing and Georgetown, Ebrima scored a Northern Carmine Bee-Eater feeding around a bush fire and perching on wires south of Wassu.
A stunner, impossibly thin and colourful even in the billowing smoke of the blaze – what a bird.
A Little Green Bee-Eater nearby looked dowdy by comparison.

The road on the approach to the Georgetown/Janjanbureh crossing was full of people, carts, donkeys, children, goats etc etc – hardly surprising when we learnt the ferry had broken down, and the only way across the river to Baoboleng Camp where we were due to stay for the next two nights was by unloading the van into a beautiful pea-green boat (plenty of money – check; honey – d’oh!!!) and put-put-putting across the river.

Dusk was creeping as we drifted across the river, swathed in diesel fumes, and bizarrely a choir started serenading us from the camp jetty – either they feared we were about to disappear beneath the crocodile-infested waves, or word of our infamy had arrived ahead of us.
Whatever the reason, it was a heck of a welcome.

Equally confusing as we docked and leapt onto the slipway was this gentleman, the whirlingest dervish of them all – no one told me we had to dress for dinner.

Recognising a kindred spirit, Trops inevitably disappeared up the road with him, returning just in time for an evening of Julbrews on the banks of the River Gambia while we reflected on an absolutely mega first full day…and night dropped back in.

Barra – Baobolong Wetland – N’gain Sangal – Kaur Wetlands – Njau – Panchang – Lamin Koto – Janjanbureh/Georgetown:

Speckled Pigeon, Yellow Billed Kite, Pied Crow, Hooded Vulture, Grey Headed Gull, Western Grey Plantain Eater, Northern Anteater Chat, African Mourning Dove, African Green Pigeon, Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Senegal Parrot, Gtr Blue Eared Starling, Lsr Blue Eared Starling, Long Tailed Starling, Red Eyed Dove, Vinaceous Dove, Cattle Egret, Wattled Plover, Abyssinian Roller, Village Weaver, African Grey Hornbill, Dark Chanting Goshawk, African Harrier Hawk, Red Necked Falcon, Grey Kestrel, Tawny Flanked Prinia, Purple Glossy Starling, Northern Red Bishop, Northern Buffalo Weaver, Oxpecker, African Collared Dove, Pin-tailed Whydah, Hoopoe, Viellot’s Barbet, Marsh Harrier, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Red Rumped Swallow, Namaqua Dove, Beautiful Sunbird, Palm Nut Vulture, Pallid Swift, Black Headed Heron, Woodchat Shrike, Spur Winged Plover, Senegal Thick-knee, Great White Egret, Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle, Northern Wheatear, Southern Grey Shrike, Chestnut Backed Sparrowlark, African Fish Eagle, Lanner Falcon, Spur Winged Goose, Crested Lark, Caspian Tern, Common Bulbul, Montagu’s Harrier, Pygmy Sunbird, Rufous Crowned Roller, Black Headed Plover, European Bee-Eater, Common Whitethroat, Grasshopper Buzzard, Red Chested Swallow, Pink Backed Pelican, Whiskered Tern, Great Cormorant, Little Egret, Intermediate Egret, Black Crowned Crane, White Winged Black Tern, Gull Billed Tern, Yellow Wagtail, Slender Billed Gull, Grey Heron, Black Winged Stilt, Little Stint, Greenshank, Little Ringed Plover, Singing Bush Lark, Flappet Lark, Black Bellied Bustard, Green Wood Hoopoe, Temminck’s Courser, Striped Kingfisher, Zitting Cisticola, Ruff, Kentish Plover, Western Reef Plover, African Jacana, Squacco Heron, Barn Swallow, Brown Throated Martin, Sand Martin, Yellow Fronted Canary, Cinnamon Breasted Bunting, Cut-throat Finch, Brown Snake Eagle, Bush Petronia, Red Billed Firefinch, Red Throated Bee-Eater, Green Sandpiper, Black Rumped Waxbill, Black Crake, Wood Sandpiper, Yellow Crowned Gonolek, Tree Pipit, Grey Headed Sparrow, Village Indigobird, White Faced Whistling Duck, Turtle Dove, Red Billed Quelea, Common Moorhen, Western Bonelli’s Warbler, Common Whitethroat, Hamerkop, Purple Heron, African Purple Swamphen, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Beautiful Sunbird, Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, Little Green Bee-Eater.

Day 3: Rise of the Hip Hop-opotamus

Cooing Speckled Pigeons canoodling competed with the sounds of the 6am meuzzin drifting across the River Gambia and collided with the first braying Ass of the day – it was morning at Baobolong Camp and time to get moving.
Two Janjanbureh coffees down, we had the opportunity to scan the trees around the jetty before we headed back across the river in the pea green boat – African Golden Oriole, Western Olivaceous Warbler and Yellow Throated Leaflove were hard to get good views of in the canopy, Black Crowned Night Heron and African Fish Eagle flapping over the river were a bit easier to pick up.
Does Bazzo know this is called MacCarthy Island I wonder??
Anyway, all aboard, across the water, meet up with Yahoo and the van, and off we go.

Was that a Bronze Tailed Starling amongst the other inky blue critters at the landing?
More starling pain awaited just down the road at Juremah Koto, but then so did Bearded Barbet, Tawny Flanked Prinia, Little Weaver, White Rumped Seedeater, Piapacs and Oxpeckers.

Lesser Blue Eared Starling? The eye is orangey, but the bill is quite stout… When starlings get taxing, run away.
We moved on to spend the morning around Wassu, heading off road to the Red Throated Bee-Eater breeding colony just outta town.
Birding was excellent here, Western Grey Planet Eater, Bearded Barbet and Grey Kestrel watched us from high bare branches as we walked along the dusty track towards the old sand quarry.

A fine Gabar Goshawk cruised around the trees at a respectful distance.
The lovely Red Throated Bee-Eaters were swooping about everywhere already, gorgeous things, with Little Greens about too.
Despite our shambling approach, and the arrival of the local raggedy-assed kids, the bee-eaters continued to perch around us as the temperatures soared.

I’m not sure exactly what Ebrima said to the local kids, although I think it was something along the lines of “FFS guys, I’m trying to show these rubes as many birds as possible, gimme a break and take the Huck Finn stuff elsewhere”…
Huck, Tom and the guys fell back and contented themselves with a sand throwing contest as we enjoyed Queleas, Bishops and Waxbills in the scrub.
Huck, Tom and the guys looked to be having more fun.
Mercifully with the rising temperatures came the raptors and an adult and juve Ruppell’s Griffon were soon circling above us as a Northern Anteater Chat sang from the edge of the quarry.

White Backed and Hooded Vultures wheeled around in the dusty blue too and were joined by a memorable Tawny Eagle.
We retraced our steps and a bit of imitation on Ebrima and Chris’s parts quickly brought in an angry looking Pearl Spotted Owlet which glowered down at us from the shady branches, and Huck, Tom and the guys joined us again.
They obviously thought we were crackers, the owlet just thought we were rude.

Green Wood Hoopoes flapped in as we headed back to the van, and for once we saw a Village Indigobird with a modicum of breeding plumage left. Alongside a de rigeur Abyssinian Roller.

From the sand quarry we said our goodbyes to Huck and the gang and drove the short distance down to the Wassu Stone Circles.
It’s a bit like Stonehenge, except without the huge stones, Hawkwind groupies and bank managers from Salisbury wrapped in white bedsheets pretending to be druid grand-wizards.
The atmosphere was not particularly mesolithic.
But it was pleasingly Tolkien-free and the birding was great.

A stunning Mottled Spinetail, picked up by Trops, ripped through the sky above us – too fast for me, but Neill got a cracking shot, Yellow Fronted Tinkerbird, Pygmy and Beautiful Sunbirds were in the trees and as we walked into the scorching scrub, Red Rumped Swallows whizzed around us.
A pair of Spotted Thick-knees burst from the cover in front of us, but refused to show on the deck, unlike a Whistling Cisticola, which sat still long enough to confuse us.

All this before luncheon.
We couldn’t have our snap though before a breathtaking visit to the rice paddies just outside Wassu – who needs food when the birding is this good?

Brown Snake Eagle, Black Headed Heron scrutinising the local rush hour traffic, our first huge Marabous of the trip, Palm Nut Vulture, African Darter, Long Crested Eagle, Swamp Flycatcher, Northern Carmine Bee Eater, Yellow Billed Shrikes, Subalps, Yellow Wags, Wood Sands – just wow!!
Rice paddies may be one of the best birding habitats in the world – everything is nice and flat and open, and at the right time of year they draw in hordes of birds….

The diversity was stunning – birds everywhere, migrants and residents vyed for the attention of sun-seared northern eyes.
“The grey clouds of Lancashire weigh heavy on our shoulders”, as the splendid Mr John Thomason would say.
Ain’t anti-malarials grand???
Yahoo and Ebrima took us back to the river where we hopped aboard the boat again to go to the MacCarthy Island Baobolong Camp buffet luncheon experience.
Very swish (in a hot, dusty outdoors sort of way), if a bit stressful trying to acquire the last Julbrews in the Upper River Division ahead of thirsty Dutch and American birders.
They never stood a chance.

A chicken domada and too many Julbrews down, we had a quick look around the village before setting sail again.
Beautiful Sunbird, Bruce’s Green Pigeon, African Golden Oriole and a superb Shikra were just fab.

Trying to ask the local youngsters for directions back to the jetty it became apparent that word we’d scoffed all the sweets we’d brought as treats for them, had spread fast.
The price of selfish and excessive Moam consumption I suppose, but with directions like that, the lack of roundabouts here began to make sense.

Luckily the River Gambia was big and obvious and we fell back on board, full of Julbrew and domadas and up for more birding.

White Backed Vulture thermalled above the river, a particularly well-marked male Marsh Harrier (well done sir) showed off over the waterside trees and a burly Western Banded Snake Eagle took the rays.

As we put-putted east Helmeted Guineafowl, Robin-chats and Gonoleks scattered from the waterside overhang, and when we traversed the river and rounded a bend, the whole hip hop-opotamus thing began to make sense.
A certain member of the crew had been carefully honing his rapping skills for precisely this moment.
Four Hippos surfaced to glower at us in the dazzling afternoon sun and the Hip-Hop-potamus was born…

You will all be devastated to learn that the powerful effects of Malarone mean I am sadly unable to remember the exact words of the rap, but the Hippos, Ebrima, boatmen, egrets, dead pythons, Red Colobus Monkeys, Baboons et al looked equally startled.
“Top to bottomamus, hypoteneuse” and…ooh look there’s a monkey!
Perhaps Neill, some career paths, like channels guarded by four intimidating Hippos, are best left unexplored.

We docked at Kunkilling Forest Park and clambered ashore, before marching into a dry forest, strangely autumnal with all the crunchy leaf litter.
Birding troosers were back on and we were twitching in the late afternoon sun.
After a bit of trekking past slow-coach tortoises (get a move on), Warthogs, and African Paradise Flycatchers (sit still why don’t you?) we heard Adamawa Turtle Dove, but it was another hour or so before we clapped eyes on it.

Neill, having mercifully given up the Hip Hop career picked up one of these big, dusky turtle doves speeding into cover, but it took some time before we pinned it down with the help of a local guide, who’d been showing tourists baboons.
As you do.
A cracking dove – and a hard species to get to grips with.

The dry forest of Kunkilling was not without other charms, as African Grey Woodpecker, Blue Bellied Roller and Black Billed Wood Dove filled our bins. Senegal Eremomelas were far more yellow than the field guides prepared me for, and Grey Backed Cameroptera was worth stumbling and crashing onto the iron-hard dirt to get a look at.
Northern Black Flycatcher flitted amongst the branches, but apart from the turtle dove a bruiser of a Grey-Headed Bush-shrike was something to remember as the bird and its massive bill clambered about the canopy.

Returning to the boat, we headed back to MacCarthy Island, checking the bankside overhang for Finfoot without success, but as it got darker, Standard Winged Nightjar hawked around us and amazing Yellow Winged Bats skittered out over the water.
Seeing the bats swinging around the boat was like watching giant flying goldfish in the early evening mosquito-loving gloom, or maybe the Malarone was kicking in again.
Occasionally they hung from branches by the river like drying Sycamore leaves.
Incredible beasts.

Back on dry land, the wonderful Yahoo had driven the wheels round to meet us for the next day and we tried for nightjars by crawling along the riverside tracks with the lights on full beam and all the windows open.
After four hundred yards no-one could breathe with all the dust, let alone see, and we returned nightjar-less to Baobolong Camp for a superb dinner of goat masquerading as beef and mucho Julbrew.
Why hide your true identity, when you taste so good??
Think I lurvve this country.
Another astonishing day – perhaps we could live without Egyptian Plover after all….

Janjanbureh/Georgetown – Wassu- boat trip – Kunkilling Forest – Janjanbureh/Georgetown:

African Fish Eagle, Yellow Billed Kite, African Golden Oriole, Vinaceous Dove, Speckled Pigeon, Western Olivaceous Warbler, Yellow Throated Leaflove, Black Crowned Night Heron, Hooded Vulture, African Mourning Dove, Gtr Blue Eared Starling, Long Tailed Starling, Bronze Tailed Starling, Cattle Egret, Pied Kingfisher, Great White Kingfisher, Oxpecker, Abyssinian Roller, Senegal Parrot, Piapiac, Bearded Barbet, Tawny Flanked Prinia, Village Weaver, Little Weaver, White Rumped Seedeater, Rose Ringed Parakeet, Gabar Goshawk, Namaqua Dove, Grey Kestrel, Western Grey Plantain Eater, Northern Red Bishop, Red Billed Hornbill, Red Billed Quelea, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Long Tailed Starling, Red Throated Bee-Eater, Scarlet Chested Sunbird, African Harrier Hawk, Black Rumped Waxbill, Northern Anteater Chat, Grey Heron, Black Headed Lapwing, Laughing Dove, Cut-throat Finch, Yellow Fronted Canary, Tawny Eagle, Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture, White Backed Vulture, Pearl Spotted Owlet, Green Wood Hoopoe, Mottled Spinetail, Chestnut Backed Sparrowlark, Spotted Thick-knee, Yellow Fronted Tinkerbird, Shikra, Whistling Cisticola, Little Green Bee-Eater, Marsh Harrier, Yellow Billed Shrike, Broad Billed Roller, Brown Snake Eagle, Ruff, Black Winged Stilt, African Jacana, Yellow Wagtail, Zitting Cisticola, African Darter, Palm Nut Vulture, Long Crested Eagle, Swamp Flycatcher, Subalpine Warbler, Black Stork, Marabou Stork, Wood Sandpiper, Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, Redstart, Common Bulbul, Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Spur Winged Plover, Western Banded Snake Eagle, Brown Babbler, White Crowned Robin Chat, Helmeted Guineafowl, Black Crake, Striated Heron, African Grey Woodpecker, African Paradise Flycatcher, Blue Bellied Roller, Black Billed Wood Dove, Adamawa Turtle Dove, Senegal Eremomela, Grey Backed Cameroptera, Northern Black Flycatcher, Grey Headed Bush-shrike, Red Necked Falcon, Standard Winged Nightjar, Four Banded Sandgrouse.

Mammals: Hippo x4, Red Colobus Monkey, Green Vervet Monkey, Baboon sp, Warthog x16, Yellow Winged Bat, Gambian Sun Squirrel.


Day 4: When time stands still #1

We were out of Baobolong Camp by 6.30am on January 17th, heading east under a dark moonless sky full of stars.
Everything was still dusty as hell after the fruitless nightjar hunt the previous evening, but now the van had that tense, nervous silence typical of a twitch just before you reach the destination – ‘cos that’s exactly what this was.
Slowing at every village check-point, most police officers or soldiers were still dozing, and women began cooking breakfast on small roadside fires in the pre-dawn gloom – life doesn’t get any easier as you head into the interior of the Upper River Division along the Gambia River.
A dull orange sun rose into the dusty sky at 7am, and we neared our target – everyone knew this was our last crack at Egyptian Plover, but no one was saying it as we arrived at the broken down, chaotic river crossing at Basse for 7.30am.
Ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Yahoo edged the wheels through growing numbers of people, while the residents of this town at the end of the world began to stir.
We tumbled out of the van by the jetty for the river crossing and began to scan the litter-strewn beach and bank.
Folk were already queueing to get across the river as the world woke up.
We looked west, we looked east, we did it again, we looked across the river, we did it again – no sign of the plovers.
Missing these birds would be a bitter pill to swallow, but we knew it was always a possibility as they start heading back into the interior as the dry season kicks in by the middle of January.
Ebrima had booked a boat in case we needed to go further upriver and scour any remaining sandbanks, but that was feeling like clutching at straws.
I lifted my bins and looked at the shore beneath us again and did a Wily P. Coyote double-take…two Egyptian Plovers were striding towards us through the litter, ignoring commuters, dogs and Muscovy Ducks to pick at prey items.
I couldn’t believe it – one of the best birding moments of my life.
We watched these stunningly attractive birds for 30 minutes as they ran about, oblivious to the increasing human activity around them.
In the top ten most beautiful birds in the world?
Without doubt, hell, I’d put them in the top three…

They were gorgeous.
We watched and papped them until they flew around a tiny headline of rubbish on heart-stopping powder blue wings and out of sight.
Time to breathe, sigh, cry and do a bit of air punching – very, very, very happy.

The plovers are just behind my right shoulder in this pic, but you’d be hard pressed to see them, while the big boy ferry to God knows where is docking behind us all in the shot by Ebrima below.

Above: From left, Paul Thomason, John Thomason, Barry McCarthy, Neill Hunt, Chris Kehoe, me, Tony Owen – all blissed out and ready for the rest of the day…

With typical organisational skills, Ebrima pointed out we still had a small boat booked and suggested another Finfoot hunt – after the Egyptian Plovers anything was good and we clambered aboard one of the redoubtable river craft all beaming ear to ear.
Luckily our boat was a little less busy than the 8.15am rush hour special…but still comprised of a few hundred small steel plates, welded and rewelded together like the terrifying bilstons of Frankenstein’s monster.

We chugged along west, away from the Egyptian Plovers, and almost immediately came across two cracking Violet Turacos perched up in the morning sun – they looked peaceful sorts.

Senegal Thick-knees, Cattle Egrets, Striated Herons, Giant, Blue Breasted and Pied Kingfishers and Spur Winged Plovers were on the bank as we turned and crossed the slow moving muddy water to check the other side.
The bankside scrub was busy with birds – Northern Puffback, Bearded Barbets and Village Weavers showed well and we came across a fine family group of Little Bee-Eaters, still in their jim-jams and getting ready for the day.

African Yellow White-eyes (many), both babbler sp and Western Olivaceous Warbler were waking up too, and for once a superb Yellow Crowned Gonolek sat out long enough to get the camera on it.

The little boat swang round towards Basse at the ferry crossing and we scanned the shore from a different vantage point – I could see the two Egyptian Plovers were still on the bank and was more than ready for seconds.

The birds were still foraging in the piles of rubbish above the narrow beach as we jumped onto the jetty and Trops and I walked down to them…I held my breath, but they were unconcerned and we spent ten minutes (or was it forever?) with these glorious creatures as the sun got brighter and the beach busier.
It was a privilege to feel time slow and stop and enter the world of something so beautiful – even if the prime real estate in that world seemed to comprise of a festering rubbish tip, which was starting to hum as the mercury climbed.

An incredible end to an incredible morning.
I clambered back aboard the van almost humbled by the birds – and the squalor of Basse.
But we had a long way to go and many more birds to find – would any be better than the Egyptian Plovers?


Hooded Vulture, Cattle Egret, Long Tailed Starling, Hamerkop, (Muscovy Duck), 2 Egyptian Plover, Shikra, Pied Kingfisher, Blue Breasted Kingfisher, Giant Kingfisher, 2 Violet Turaco, Striated Heron, Western Plantain Eater, Northern Puffback, Little Bee-Eater, Village Indigobird, African Yellow White-Eye, Bearded Barbet, Senegal Parrot, Black Capped Babbler, Brown Babbler, Great White Egret, Western Olivaceous Warbler, Yellow Crowned Gonolek, Pied Crow.


Day 4: Zen Express

With the Egyptian Plovers safely in the bag, and a warm feeling of mission accomplished spreading throughout the van, we pulled out of Basse and began the long journey back west along tarmac where once clouds of dusty dirt track pain awaited birders.
Ebrima was anxious to get us back on course with his itinerary, as Basse didn’t feature in his original plan – but the birds had other ideas.
That’s always the zen trade-off – birds v miles.
With the dust of Basse still clinging to our boots we slowed for two Bateleurs tilting and rocking low over the sparse savannah like weird Turkey Vultures.
It would have been nice to have better views of them, but they soon slipped out of sight beneath the low horizon just east of Sare Pate.
A distinctive trilling like the ringtone of a ’70s phone alerted us to a Brubru calling from a roadside tree and we had great views of the little beauty – there’s always something on the roadside in the Gambia.

We pushed west through dry dusty villages until we got to Bansang Quarry and bounced off the road.

A pale rock fringed quarry was as hot as you’d expect in Gambia, but once we’d circumnavigated burning rubbish and some guys at work, the birding was excellent.
Cinnamon Breasted/Gosling’s Bunting and House Buntings came down to drink with Bush Petronias, Red Billed Queleas and Grey Headed Sparrows.

Thirsty Chestnut Backed Sparrowlarks arrived, Brown Snake Eagle soared overhead and Little and Little Green Bee Eaters were hawking for elevenses.
Bansang Quarry was one of those deceptive sites that was full of birds – our only Exclamatory Paradise Whydah of the trip was here – imagine getting that in Scrabble.

We walked away from the quarry into an area of recently burnt bushland, the ground crunched beneath our feet as a Greater Honeyguide flew away from us from one of the few remaining trees in leaf, and Abyssinian Roller and Northern Wheatear popped up too.
Termite mounds were claiming the trees that the fire had spared.

Apparently Bronze Winged Coursers love this scorched habitat, but we were out of luck and soon back gulping water from the cool box on the roof of the van like our lives depended on it, which in 40 odd degree heat, I suppose they did.
Back on the road, the tree-top Marabou Stork colony in the village of Fula Bantang earned a cursory glance, but we had places to be.

You can just about see them at the top of the tree there.
Arriving at the vast rice fields at Jahally, Yahoo parked up and we started walking through the paddies – some still flooded and stuffed with waterbirds, others being burnt and prepared, presumably for re-sowing as part of a huge rice-flavoured community project.
The birding was jaw-dropping – Montagu’s Harrier sailed over the burning fields, while clouds of Collared Pratincoles swarmed around us.

The ditches beside the track were stuffed with African Jacanas, Malachite Kingfishers and Hamerkops ramming fish down – especially where water levels were low as paddies were flooded nearby.

All that scoffing made us hungry and while we birded, Yahoo had prepared sardines, eggs and onions which we packed into fresh baguettes and gorged, washing it down with water and pop from the cool-box.
Doesn’t sound like much, but with egrets all around us and Tawny Eagle soaring overhead next to Marabou Storks, while Black Faced Quailfinches played hide and seek in the paddies, it was one of the best lunches I have ever had.
Type of place you could spend days at, just watching the birds fly by and savouring each passing minute.

Wintering European migrants (Yellow Wags, hirundines, Wood Sands, Whinchat) next to top drawer West African birds (Marabous, Beaudouins Snake Eagle, Pink Backed Pelican, Namaquas) and great fresh food – could this be zen birding?
We didn’t really have time to ponder this, as Tendaba, our target for the night was still some two hours away, so once we’d scraped the sardine, egg, onion and bread debris out of our optics we piled back in the van and rode off into the dust again.
Lunch had the inevitable effect in the hot van though…

For all that the clock was ticking, we had to stop at Dalaba Lily Ponds for ten minutes at 2.40pm… Blue Cheeked Bee Eaters, Osprey, Long Tailed Cormorant and Black Heron woke us up and demanded it.
As did the Long Crested Eagle just down the road.

As did Wattled Lapwing, Great White Pelican, Marsh Sandpiper, Mottled Spinetail and Yellow Billed Stork at Jarajapinneh Wetlands.

And it would have been rude not to check the vast and drying wetlands near Soma, where Caspian and Gull Billed Terns fished above Ringed Plovers and LRPs, Pied Kingfishers and Yellow Billed Kites etc.

From there Yahoo drove on to the dusty savannah then crispy crunchy recently burnt habitat of Kiang West National Park – it was 5pm, the temperature was dropping and the birds were active.
We saw White Shouldered Black Tit almost immediately, but it didn’t hang around, Scarlet Chested, Variable and Pygmy Sunbird were in the branches above the track and as we walked along, an African Golden Oriole lurked in the canopy.

We left the van and walked into the crunchy scrub – it looked strangely wintry (only 80 odd degrees by this stage of the day), perhaps because the sun was so low, but the place was full of interesting birds.
I couldn’t quite work out the management technique, although I think Ebrima was saying that by burning the understorey it leaves the taller more mature trees and results in a more open woodland.

The ironically named Singing Cisticola showed well, but sang very, very badly, however Scimitarbill and Grasshopper Buzzard rebalanced the cool scale.

Trops scored with a cracking communal working party of at least 11 daft White-Crested Helmet Shrikes, while Neill found a singing White Fronted Black Chat, but by then the light was starting to fade and we were heading into silhouette territory.

All that remained was for Ebrima to find a superb Four Banded Sandgrouse on the deck (hard to see in the gloom) and for Chris to score with a gorgeous Brown Rumped Bunting – quality birding at the end of the day.

We moved out and drove the short distance to Tendaba, pulling over at a clearing on the approach road for a spot of nightjarring as darkness plummetted and fatigue took over – Bazzo may have misconstrued the cross Irishman sign (but what the hell is an Irish crossing anyway?) and after the first Standard Winged Nightjar had floated by in the gloom, Neill decided to try the old two white hanky technique.
Either that, or having ditched his hip hop alter-ego he was embracing his inner West African Morris Dancer.

Sometimes there are no words.

We pulled into Tendaba Camp and tested their Julbrew stocks to oblivion – the end of another long day in the field and on the road.
The Egyptian Plovers of dawn felt like a long long time ago.

Sare Pate – Bansang Quarry – Jahally Rice Fields – Dalaba Lily Ponds – Jarajapinneh Wetlands – Soma Wetlands – Kiang West National Park – Tendaba:

Bateleur x2, Brubru, Abyssinian Roller, Red Billed Hornbill, Red Eyed Dove, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Fork Tailed Drongo, Green Wood Hoopoe, Exclamatory Paradise Whydah, Cinnamon Breasted Bunting, Cut-throat Finch, Red Billed Quelea, Bush Petronia, Grey Headed Sparrow, Chestnut Backed Sparrowlark, Northern Red Bishop, Greater Honeyguide, Little Bee Eater, Brown Snake Eagle, Wheatear, House Bunting, Marabou Stork, Common Snipe, Black Winged Stilt,Wood Sandpiper, Ruff, Yellow Wagtail, Black Faced Quailfinch, Collared Pratincole, Tawny Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Spur Winged Plover, Cattle Egret, Little Egret, Great White Egret, House Martin, Sand Martin, Pink Backed Pelican, Malachite Kingfisher, Hamerkop, Marsh Harrier, Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle, Grey Heron, African Jacana, Squacco Heron, Yellow Billed Kite, Black Headed Heron, Whinchat, Namaqua Dove, Black Heron, Western Reef Heron, Blue Cheeked Bee-Eater, Osprey, Long Tailed Cormorant, Long Tailed Starling, Laughing Dove, Wattled Plover, Great White Pelican,Yellow Billed Stork, Marsh Sandpiper, Senegal Thick-knee, Long Crested Eagle, Mottled Spinetail, Black Tailed Godwit, Caspian Tern, Gull Billed Tern, Pied Kingfisher, Little Ringed Plover, Ringed Plover, White Shouldered Black Tit, Singing Cisticola, Variable Sunbird, Pygmy Sunbird, Scarlet Chested Sunbird, Beautiful Sunbird, Senegal Eremomela, Yellow Fronted Tinkerbird, Rose Ringed Parakeet, African Golden Oriole, European Bee Eater, Scimitarbill, Grasshopper Buzzard, White Helmet Shrike, Wheatear, White Fronted Black Chat, Brown Rumped Bunting, Four Banded Sandgrouse, Standard Winged Nightjar.


Day 5: Into the mangroves

All aboard and across the river from Tendaba and into the mangroves to be greeted with the sulphurous muddy smell and herons galore after a surprisingly cool night of power outtage and Julbrew on January 18th.
It felt good chugging across the river as the sun rose and the first terns and waders stirred.
“Bonga” Fish (at least that’s what Cap’n Birdseye, the pilot called ’em) leapt into the boat as we bounced over the waves.

We were heading up the Kisi Bolon Creek and things were looking promising with hordes of African Darters, Chiffchaffs flitting about the mangrove roots like mosquitos (there were no mosquitos worth mentioning) and best of all a gorgeous African Blue Flycatcher, swishing its long blue tail like an Asian Fantail or Yankee Redstart – superb little bird, shame it didn’t sit still for long, preferring to zip about as flycatchers do and it soon disappeared back into the branches and we drifted on into the swamps, past dozing Nile Crocodile and umpteen egrets.

Mouse Brown Sunbird popped up too, showed briefly for a minute or so, then melted back into the mangrove branches.
We were after Finfoot of course, and despite several other boats patrolling the creeks at the same time, our eyes were glued to the banks and tangle of roots on either side of the channel.

No joy with the Finfoot (you can’t win ’em all, however with the low tide, I felt the odds were against us anyway) but there were plenty of other birds as we headed further up the narrowing creeks without a paddle – just the one African Spoonbill, Spur Winged Plovers, Pink Backed Pelicans, Squaccos galore, two hunting Montagu’s Harrier and a Black Shouldered Kite that got away from me were all fine diversions.

Swinging round on the channel to check a White Backed Night Heron roost site in the mangroves we got embroiled in an aquatic twitch scrum as another boat full of bins and cameras jostled to get a view too – the bird was only visible at a certain angle, otherwise it was invisible, so ticking this scarce wee heron comprised of boats bumping, drifting, a brief glimpse of its big round eye staring back out of the gloom of the mangrove, then riding back into the current to drift past the right gap in the branches again – great fun.
Repel all boarders!!!!

After the big eyed heron we pushed on up ever-narrowing creeks, but there was no sign of the Finfoot, and it failed to show as we came back down the creek with the rising tide – but there are worse ways to go birding than chilling on a canoe with the outboard gently pushing us back towards the River Gambia.

It’s a hard life.

Yellow Billed Stork flapped overhead as we motored across the waters towards Tendaba as did a large raptor, which at the time we passed off as an African Fish Eagle – but it doesn’t look right now, and despite the hefty bill doesn’t seem to fit a vulture either, given the big pale panels in the wings – any thoughts anyone?
Looks more like a White backed Vulture, but…???
(looking through online galleries later Neill found an image of a young African Fish Eagle that fits the head shape, bill and wing pattern of this critter perfectly)

That, kamikaze Bonga fish, and the constant baling of the boatman more than kept me preoccupied until we docked at Tendaba again, scored with a Little Swift speeding into it’s nest site under the jetty and then went for an obligatory lunchtime livener.

Mangroves opposite Tendaba:

Sandwich Tern, Gull Billed Tern, Caspian Tern, Ringed Plover, Redshank, Greenshank, Great White Egret, Grey Heron, Pink Backed Pelican, Yellow Billed Kite, Hamerkop, Mouse Brown Sunbird, Blue Breasted Kingfisher, Chiffchaff, Western Reef Heron, African Darter, Montagu’s Harrier, Common Sandpiper, Senegal Parrot, African Blue Flycatcher, African Spoonbill, White Backed Night Heron, Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle, Great Cormorant, Long Tailed Cormorant, Yellow Billed Stork, Sand Martin, Long Tailed Starling, Little Swift.


Day 5: When time stands still#2

Looking somewhat relieved that we’d only paused for a single round of cold beers at Tendaba after the Finfoot-less cruise, Ebrima set off at pace out of camp and up a narrow trail to reach high ground behind the shacks and slowly expiring goats.
Perhaps he felt we needed the exercise. We probably did.

Out past the shacks we came to another “scorched earth” area on the hill-top and spread out.
Seconds later Ebrima was waving and when I got to him he pointed out a stunning Bronze Winged Courser dozing in a small glade just ahead – what a bird!!!
Mr Kehoe caught up with me and his reaction was succinct, accurate and altogether unprintable as the bird blinked in the heat.

We had great views of it, but through vegetation, as more birders arrived to connect with this gorgeous wader.
Then it stretched long, shapely legs that any supermodel and/or giraffe would die for, and began to walk through the scrub in our general direction.
I could see if the beauty kept on along the same line it would have to emerge into a flat sunny area carpetted with dry leaves.

I moved quietly away from the guys, crept into the area, crouched down and switched on my P900, jamming my eye to the viewfinder as the bird walked closer and closer to me.
I hardly dared breathe, everything else fell away and I focussed on the courser.
It kept on coming. I didn’t move. It was still coming.
How close was it?
Thanks to Neill Hunt’s great pic below you can see – there’s me and there’s the bird (bottom left).
What an experience.
Mega, mega, mega.

It was so close I could hear the crack of the parched leaves as it placed it’s dainty feet delicately onto the carpet.
So could the bird, and it hesitated everytime it made a noise, I didn’t move.

Relieved I had disabled the “toy-town paparazzi” shutter clatter sound on my camera years ago, I nearly filled a memory card with image after image.
When I stopped the bird was just six or so feet from me and I gawked open-mouthed as it sashayed off into cover again.
Like the man said – “I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978!
Up there with the Egyptian Plovers baby!!!
I must thank my friends, who seeing that the bird’s trajectory was going to pass so close to me, held back and stayed silent so things could unfold the way they did.
Ta fellas.
Encounter over, but the courser wasn’t the only bird on the hill and still grinning widely I followed the guys to a hide overlooking a waterhole that was attracting Red Cheeked Cordon Bleus, Red Billed Queleas, Black Rumped Waxbills, Wood Doves, Village Weavers, Northern Red Bishops and even a House Bunting.

That concluded our business at Tendaba and we loaded up the van and pulled out, stopping a mile or so down the road for another Yahoo sardine and pop picnic at 2.15pm.
An African Hawk Eagle soared over and Blue Cheeked and European Bee Eaters swooped around trees where a Shikra lurked – it was a fine spot, but we were up against the clock again, and were soon back in the baking van and racing west.
Gambian Police believe that dash-cam evidence acquired at this point finally helped them identify the two culprits who ate all the sweets meant as distraction fodder for curious Gambian children.
Bang to rights, your honour, but it was for their own good – too much sugar and all that.

In my defence I’d just like to say Trops made me do it.
I don’t even like sweets. Much.
We were speeding along until Ebrima ordered Yahoo to hit the brakes near Brumang Bridge/Kalaji, where out in the heat shimmer a gigantic Abyssinian Ground Hornbill was striding through the grassland.
It was either that or a small horse, or possibly a dinosaur.

As we ‘scoped the missing link it suddenly lunged and flushed a large owl out of the grass and we watched as a Short Eared Owl flapped away and dropped down into cover, just like they do on a rising tide on the Ribble.
Not a common sight in Gambia though.
We got to Farasuto Forest by 4.30pm – this was Ebrima’s local patch and we were greeted by Splendid and Beautiful Sunbird, Double Spurred Francolin, Redstart and African Grey Hornbills.

But there were other targets here too, and Ebrima and Bax, one of his network of patch overseers, quickly took us on a tour of Greyish Eagle Owl, Standard Winged Nightjar (male and female – but look at the mad streamers on the snoozing males wings) and Long Tailed Nightjar.
It’s fair to say you may struggle to find them without a helpful guide – can you spot the female Standard Winged in this shot?

No, me neither – and I know where it is!
The owl blinked, but the comfy looking nightjars didn’t stir from the bed of leaves as we swept through on a stake-out ticking spree.
No need for torches or West African Morris Dancing today.

Great stuff, but we didn’t have much time to savour it as Ebrima moved us on to a feeding station in the shade of the trees.
A Grey Woodpecker perched above us, and a variety of birds came in to drink.
Black Necked Weavers, Lavender Waxbills, Red Billed Firefinches and Green Headed Sunbird to name but a few.

In the gloom of the clearing my lack of camera skills was made glaringly obvious, but I did manage blurs of African Thrush and Grey Headed Bristlebill.

The feeding station was quite productive, but a fruitless attempt to see roosting African Wood Owl nearby meant we missed Spotted Honeyguide, which nipped in and out.
Some compensation came in the form of the dark blurry bustling shapes of a small group of downright sneaky Ahanta Francolins in the densest woodland, but they were little more than shadows.
With dusk approaching Yahoo drove us back to the Badala Park Hotel, where we discovered our room had been rented out to someone else – to be fair we’d only stayed there one night when we first arrived and hadn’t been back since.
On the upside, Neill, Bazzo and I were upgraded to a “deluxe” room on the second floor – this one had a toilet roll holder.
Once we’d moved our kit upstairs to palatial new environs, we enjoyed our first hot showers in Gambia and hit the bar.

Tendaba – Brumang Bridge/Kalaji – Farasuto Forest:

Bronze Winged Courser, Village Indigobird, Beautiful Sunbird, Northern Red Bishop, Black Rumped Waxbill, Red Cheeked Cordon Bleu, Shikra, Red Billed Quelea, Blue Spotted Wood Dove, House Bunting, Abyssinian Ground Hornbill, Short Eared Owl, Dark Chanting Goshawk, Splendid Sunbird, Western grey Plantain Eater, Redstart, Double Spurred Francolin, Variable Sunbird, Lanner Falcon, Brown Babbler, Red Billed Hornbill, Yellow Crowned Gonolek, Greyish Eagle Owl, Snowy Crowned Robin Chat, Standard Winged Nightjar, Long Tailed Nightjar, Grey Woodpecker, African Grey Hornbill, Red Necked Falcon, Western Olivaceous Warbler, Black Necked Weaver, Yellow Breasted Apalis, Lavender Waxbill, African Thrush, Grey Headed Bristlebill, Green Headed Sunbird, Little Greenbul, Ahanta Francolin.


Day 6: Fluffing it, downs and ups

Friday, January 19th, and we enjoyed our first brekkie at the Badala Park – not bad at all given the flyover Sacred Ibis, Yellow Billed Kites and Pied Crows – before heading off to Pirang Forest, arriving there at 8.30am.
Ebrima had disappeared to lead a tour in Senegal, which wasn’t ideal, but he’d lined up his mate Forday as a replacement guide, and Yahoo was still at the wheel.
Forday knew his birds, but its fair to say he approached the whole guiding business with a slightly more relaxed technique.
Once into the shade of Pirang’s trees we wandered past Red Bellied and African Paradise Flycatchers and Common Wattle Eyes, until we arrived at a small areas of reeds, which is probably familiar to just about any birder who visits the Gambia.
Settling down on the bench there we waited in the morning sun. And waited.
And scanned the gaps in the vegetation, and waited.
Nothing – no sign of the White Spotted Flufftail, the diminutive but striking crakey thing that hangs out there.
Annoyingly we did hear it call briefly, but that’s as far as it went.
Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you.
We headed back into the trees, but it was hard to move quietly because of the amount of dry leaves on the deck, and the underfoot crackling was deafening as we padded along the narrow trails.

Pleasant woodland though, with African Goshawk, a showy Lizard Buzzard up in the canopy, Fork Tailed Drongo, Senegal Parrots and African Pied Hornbills.

Forday and one of the site’s rangers took us to an area where an African Wood Owl was roosting and as we got closer, it flew out of the branches a short distance before disappearing up into the canopy again.
Now I know I’m a sensitive soul, but I felt Forday and co pushed the bird a bit hard then – it flew several times until they had it pinned down.
We’d all seen it, so perched up views, when the bird was largely obscured by leaves, while lovely, were superfluous.
I wonder how many times it gets thrashed about for the tourists?
Maybe it’s just me.
The owl stared down at us with huge yellow-rimmed deep black eyes, while it was mobbed by Bulbuls just like Blackbirds hassling a Tawny back home.

Not before time we left the owl in peace and moved on through the forest, hitting a spectacular feeding wave shortly afterwards – Sulphur Breasted Bushshrike (female), Collared Sunbird, Green Crombec, Yellow Breasted Apalis, Lesser Honeyguide, and best of all an incredible Yellowbill flitted and clambered through the canopy above us as our necks cracked.
Wonderful birding – but it was hard enough keeping the birds in my bins, without worrying about taking pictures.
The Yellowbill was superb, clambering about above our heads and looking as confused as only a cuckoo can.
Strolling into slightly more open terrain we stopped to admire a ridiculously pink eye-lidded Verreaux’s Eagle Owl.
Huge, but hardly menacing, and far enough away up in the canopy not to be disturbed by our presence.

Nearby Chris could hear a Green Hylia singing, and we tracked it down to a branch in a shady grove, where it shook like a Wood Warbler and fanned its tail as it whistled away.
Nice supercilium – but get out into the light!

We whizzed back to the water/feeding area at Farasuto for 45 minutes at 12.30pm, but the Spotted Honeyguide failed to make an appearance while we were there.
The Snowy Crowned Robin Chats, Little Greenbuls, finches, Black Faced Weavers, sub adult Green Headed Sunbird and Blue Spotted Wood Dove helped pass the time.

Yahoo then drove us back to the tourist strip, where we “paused” for a boozy lunch on the street outside the Senegambia Hotel – great food and beer, but perhaps we should have been birding, despite it being the hottest part of the day….
Fed and watered we went back to the Kotu Bridge area, where some members of the crew, who have visited Gambia many times, went for a chill at the hotel.
Meanwhile Neill, Tony and I joined Forday for a walk down to a shattered hide/ibis latrine overlooking the mangroves beside the Kunta Kinteh Beach Hotel.
Before we forged into the mangroves we watched a young Woodchat, Black Kite and crazy Oriole Warblers.

Mud-filled tyres made negotiating the edge of the mangroves easy peasy, and around a shady channel there were birds galore.

Best of all were five Painted Snipe, lurking in the vegetation, but flushed out onto the channel when a Hadada Ibis crash-landed nearby.

Really pleased to watch these things – wonderful birds.
A swarm of Blue Cheeked Bee Eaters settled amongst bare branches above us, alongside Hadada Ibis, while Spur Winged Plovers were on the stinky mud.

We traced our way back along the creek to Kotu Bridge past Variable Sunbirds, Hooded Vultures at a feeding area just behind the Gambia Birdwatching Association sign, Red Billed Hornbills, and shiny Bronze Mannikins.

Wire Tailed Swallows and a stubby-assed Northern Crombec were around the bridge, alongside the usual array of stunning kingfishers, wintering Euro-waders and herons.
The sun sank over the grasslands as we headed back to the hotel bar, birding over for the day.

Badala Park Hotel – Pirang Forest – Farasuto Forest – Kotu Creek:

Pied Crow, Little Egret, Black Kite, Yellow Billed Kite, Sacred Ibis, African Thrush, Red Bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Common Wattle Eye, African Paradise Flycatcher, Palm Nut Vulture, African Goshawk, Splendid Sunbird, Senegal Parrot, African Mourning Dove, Red Eyed Dove, Beautiful Sunbird, Common Bulbul, African Green Pigeon, Violet Turaco, African Wood Owl, Little Greenbul, Lizard Buzzard, Copper Sunbird, Blue Cheeked Bee Eater, European Bee Eater, Chiffchaff, Western Grey Plantain Eater, Ring Necked Parakeet, Sulphur Breasted Bushshrike, Collared Sunbird, Green Crombec, Yellow Breasted Apalis, Yellowbill, Lesser Honeyguide, Black Necked Weaver, Yellow Crowned Gonolek, Black Headed Babbler, Grey Headed Bristlebill, Lavender Waxbill, African Pied Hornbill, Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, Green Hylia, Snowy Crowned Robin Chat, Black Rumped Waxbill, Red Billed Firefinch, Blue Spotted Wood Dove, Green Headed Sunbird, Red Chested Swallow, Variable Sunbird, Hoopoe, Green Wood Hoopoe, Painted Snipe (5), Little Ringed Plover, Blue Cheeked Bee Eater, Spur Winged Plover, Oriole Warbler, Hadada Ibis, Speckled Pigeon, Woodchat Shrike, Tawny Flanked Prinia, Striated Heron, Cattle Egret, Grey Headed Gull, Black Winged Stilt, Whimbrel, Greenshank, Wire Tailed Swallow, Red Billed Hornbill, Northern Crombec, Giant Kingfisher, Senegal Thick-Knee, Common Sandpiper, Ringed Plover, Blue Breasted Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher, Long Tailed Cormorant, Bronze Mannikin, Pink Backed Pelican.
Heard: White Spotted Flufftail


Day 7: Kartong – a site made in birding heaven

Some places are just bird magnets – Spurn on a good autumn day; Higbee Beach when passage is in full flow at Cape May, New Jersey; Wild Sumaco in Ecuador; the Isles of Scilly.
Kartong has the same feel, about an hour’s drive south of the Kotu area, reedbeds, pools, grassland and scrub – there were birds everywhere when we arrived at about 8.30am on Saturday, January 20th.
Raptors were in the air almost as soon as we de-vanned – an almost continual flow of Ospreys flapping through clutching fish breakfasts, Marsh Harrier, Palm Nut Vultures, African Harrier Hawks, Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle, kites – marvellous.

We walked along the side of the first reed-fringed lagoon, where herons galore were fishing with waders and Reed and Sedge Warblers flitted about the reedbed edge.
Chris picked up a Lesser Moorhen, which although distant and skulky finally gave us all good views, if not good pictures!

In the early morning sun a young Allen’s Gallinule emerged from cover to blink in the light – earlier it had been called by guides as an African Crake, but Neill worked out the true id, reminding us all that we shouldn’t get too complacent with id calls.

Walking down the dusty track we were confronted with more and more birds while clouds of White Faced Whistling Ducks filled the skies above us.
African Purple Swamphen, Zitting Cisticolas, Wood Sands dropping in, Yellow Wags, Black Heron, White Rumped Seedeater, Hamerkops, even Sacred Ibis watching it all from the top of huge guano spattered baobabs.
A remarkable place.

No morning is complete without an Abyssinian Roller, but a Black Shouldered Kite floated through into the sun too and the number of hirundines began to increase appreciably as we crested a low rise to bird a long lagoon area, where Colin Cross’s ringing teams were trapping many birds with a series of 60 footers, hugely effective despite the strengthening hot winds.

From the bank we saw Black Tailed Godwit, Long Crested Eagle, Orange Cheeked Waxbills, Teal, Spur Winged Goose and Knob Billed Duck amongst the White Faced Whistlers, Black Faced Quailfinches (flighty as ever), Gull Billed and Caspian Terns, Blue Cheeked Bee Eaters, Tree Pipits, Subalpine Warbler, Northern Crombec, Whinchat, Tawny Flanked Prinias and hirundines – oh, the hirundines!!
Rufous Chested Swallow, big Mosque Swallows, Red Rumped Swallows, Sand Martins all zooming about all over the place!
Neill hauled a Spotted Crake out of the reedbed edge – I wasn’t expecting that one, and a Marsh Sandpiper dropped in for good measure.

Neill, John and I wandered ahead, as African Harrier Hawk dropped in to drink, watched by Nile Crocodiles and Woodchat Shrikes.

As we stumbled along even before Neill had finished shouting “snake!!!” a few yards behind me, I was miraculously levitating and the green critter sped beneath my feet into cover – later id attempts dispelled the deeply bitey bitey possibility of Green Mamba to correctly name the critter as a harmless Olive Green Snake.
We think.
I was glad of the bicycle clips all the same.
Forday and the guys joined us to admire a female Pygmy Goose doing very well at hiding among lily pads and flowers, before we pushed on to the beach.

The light on the bleached sand was dazzling as the Atlantic rolled in on a hot wind and Senegal shimmered to the south of us.
A convenient beach shelter sold cold pop and water and had an excellent beach-combed collection from turtle carpaces and skulls to the most outlandish fish.
A dusky rocket zoomed past as we connected with our first Fanti Saw-wing of the trip and we quickly spotted a White Fronted Plover, behaving like Kentish-types do the world over at the water’s edge.
I was hoping to get close, but unfortunately two local guys wandered through, flushing the bird off to the south.
Never mind, good but brief views are better than no views at all.

I couldn’t resist a spot of beach-combing as there were no shortage of shells, although I suspect the best may be collected for sale at the shack each morning.
I discovered the dessicated remains of a Pufferfish type thing, which while clearly fascinating, could spell disaster in the trouser department (imagine having to explain those injuries at Banjul A&E… “So why exactly did you put a highly toxic Pufferfish in your kecks?”).
I donated it to the shack collection, where I have no doubt it will be sold for a king’s ransom in delasis.

Kartong was a fabulous place – the type of site you could happily spend a week at, especially in passage periods, and still find new birds everyday.
But we had to move on, and Yahoo drove us back up the coast to a pre-booked buffet at the Paradise Beach Hotel by Sanyang, organised earlier in the week by Ebrima.
After a gut-busting lunch of fresh fish, rice, chicken and Julbrew, I went to walk it off along the beach, heading north to an area where many fishing boats were coming ashore amongst sand-grazing cows (how does that work?).
Is this where Anchor Butter comes from?
Neill had checked it out before lunch, finding a good variety of gulls and terns, so I was feeling confident.

Mainly Grey Headed Gulls, but there were a few LBBs and a single Yellow Legged Gull as I walked along, while offshore terns proved more difficult, roosting on fishing boats in the shimmer.

I managed to pick out Royal Tern, Lesser Crested and Sandwich Terns, while earlier Neill had also found BHG and Common Tern.
A single Knot joined the scrum for scraps around the fishing boats that were unloading their catch, amid Pied Crows and fellow tourists.
Fed and watered, we moved on to Tujering Woods, which were a bit strange in that there were no woods, just agriculture and a few straggly Kapok trees.
There were a few birds though – a good scattering of sunbirds, Lanners, Wheatears, Black Headed Plovers, Striped Kingfisher, Blue Bellied Rollers, Fine Spotted Woodpecker and finally good views of the truly weird Red Winged Warbler.

White Fronted Black Chat, Senegal Parrot, Black Crowned Tchagra and Green Wood Hoopoe popped up, but time was against us and the shadows were lengthening.
There are a lot of birds around Tujering, but we had to go…tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock.
On the road we could smell Tanji about two miles before we arrived in this bustling little fishing port.
The tide was low and there were far fewer terns and gulls around compared to the place when we tazzed through on the way to Kartong that morning.
Grey Plover, Sanderling and Barwits joined Grey Headed Gull, Royal Tern, Lesser Crested Tern and Slender Billed Gull on the water’s edge, but we were looking into the low early evening light.
The local kids homed in on us quickly, hoping for good Saturday night score, so it was obviously time to deploy the diversionary sweeties.
Hang on where have they all gone???

Badala Park – Kartong – Sanyang – Tujereng – Tanji:

African Spoonbill, Giant Kingfisher, Senegal Parrot, African Mourning Dove, Hooded Vulture, Yellow Billed Kite, Western Grey Plantain Eater, Red Eyed Dove, Grey Headed Gull, Caspian Tern, Gull Billed Tern, Long Tailed Starling, Cattle Egret, Pied Crow, Black Heron, African Jacana, Black Tailed Godwit, Yellow Wagtail, Village Weaver, Spur Winged Plover, Allen’s Gallinule, Sedge Warbler, Wood Sandpiper, Black Headed Heron, Redshank, White Faced Whistling Duck, Black Winged Stilt, African Purple Swamphen, Western Reef Heron, Black Heron, Zitting Cisticola, Little Grebe, Lesser Moorhen, Speckled Pigeon, Squacco Heron, Common Moorhen, Osprey, Malachite Kingfisher, Palm Nut Vulture, White Rumped Seedeater, Hamerkop, Sacred Ibis, Great White Egret, Long Crested Eagle, Orange Cheeked Waxbill, Teal, Spur Winged Goose, African Fish Eagle, Marsh Harrier, Knob Billed Duck, Little Ringed Plover, Ringed Plover, Blue Cheeked Bee Eater, Namaqua Dove, Black Shouldered Kite, Tree Pipit, Subalpine Warbler, LBB, Rufous Chested Swallow, Pink Backed Pelican, Whinchat, Beaudouin’s Snake Eagle, Tawny Flanked Prinia, Black faced Quailfinch, Common Snipe, African Harrier Hawk, Mosque Swallow, Marsh Sandpiper, Grey Heron, Woodchat Shrike, Spotted Crake, Pygmy Goose (fem), Red Rumped Swallow, White Fronted Plover, Fanti Saw-wing, Grey Kestrel, Blue Bellied Roller, White Wagtail, Western Olivaceous Warbler, Yellow Billed Shrike, House Sparrow, Yellow Legged Gull, Black Headed Gull, Lesser Crested Tern, Royal Tern, Sandwich Tern, Knot, Common Tern, Wheatear, Black Headed Lapwing, Splendid Sunbird, Beautiful Sunbird, Scarlet Chested Sunbird, Lanner, African Palm Swift, Village Weaver, Common Bulbul, Little Bee Eater, Striped Kingfisher, Common Whitethroat, Red Winged Warbler, Little Weaver, White Fronted Black Chat, Fine Spotted Woodpecker, Black Crowned Tchagra, Green Wood Hoopoe, Slender Billed Gull, Sanderling, Bar Tailed Godwit, Turnstone, Grey Plover, Common Sandpiper.


Day 8: Last day, last birds, last Julbrews…

It was refreshingly cool as we walked through the entrance into Abuko Nature Reserve early on January 21st – I wasn’t expecting to hear the drone of Banjul traffic as we started birding, but the Red Colobus Monkeys seemed suitably chilled, so there was no problem really…

A typical bit of Trops trip reappraisal the previous evening had highlighted the pointlessness of returning to the Badala Park Hotel on our last day for airport transfers to Banjul International – why waste time sweating on a bus when we could be birding?
So after a quick conflab with Yahoo and Forday they agreed to take us to Abuko, then straight onto the airport – more birding time, and we’d still be there before everyone else… perfect.
The road to Abuko took us through some really battered parts of town, but we were in the field by 8am, startling monkeys and ogling stacks of Fanti Saw-wings.
Walking to the reserve’s closest lagoon from the entrance, Giant Kingfishers stared down at us from the branches above and a Senegal Coucal was getting its head together after what looked like a heavy night on the other side of the water.

It was a good spot, with Palm Nut Vultures in oil palms as is only proper, and after a morning dip, Nile Crocodiles smiling at us from the warming grassy banks while Purple Herons looked uneasy….snap snap!

We headed off onto the reserve circuit, arriving at a shady corner, where Chris had seen Western Bluebill just a few moments before.
Black Necked Weaver, Little Greenbul and Lavender Waxbill flitted about in the shadows but it was a good 30 minutes or so before we all got good views of the secretive Bluebill, a stunning black and red finch with a huge conk.
At that point, they never showed too well in the tangle of branches and shade.

The females with their polka-dot belly were slightly more attractive than the black and red males in my book, but heathen that I am, a finch is still a finch in a world of Bee Eaters and Rollers.
Sorry guys.
Chris stuck around in the thickly wooded area of the reserve, where some of the best birding can be had in Abuko, while we continued the circuit in the rising heat with Forday.
The soundtrack for a Sunday morning’s birding began to take a turn for the weird as the sound of a million choirs tuning up in the city beyond started to drift through the trees.
By 10.30am a nearby but invisible pastor was really evangelising the hell out of Sunday morning, preaching away in the distance like he was fit to burst – hallelujah brothers!!!
As the temperature and the Reverend’s blood pressure soared the birding slowed a bit, but there were still birds to be had and I’m well past saving anyway.
Beautiful Sunbirds (pictured at the top of the entry), always reliable Pied Crows, African Palm Swifts, Bearded Barbet, Red Billed Firefinches and fine Swallow Tailed Bee Eaters put in appearances.

We heard, but did not see, Green Turaco, so I guess we’ll have to come back again…
Luckily you can always rely on a good monkey, especially laid back Vervets enjoying the morning rays.

Rounding a corner in the heat and vegetation a Red Bellied Paradise Flycatcher was feeding by the path and further down the trail a pair of Buff Spotted Woodpeckers played hard to get high in the shady canopy.

Circuit completed, we passed “Bluebill Corner” again, and Neill and Tony decided to hang back in case the elusive finches showed better with fewer folk around, as the rest of us pushed on to spend the last half hour or so checking the pools and lagoon again.
Neill and Tony made the right call, with Neill getting superb pictures of both male and female Western Bluebill as they emerged from cover to feed just a few feet away – well done buddy, thanks for sharing the images…

Meanwhile Paul, John, Bazzo and I watched a shady pool, where a young White Crowned Robin Chat emerged and immature Black Crakes edged across open areas, but by now the day had that “last few minutes of the trip” feel to it, and unspoken thoughts were turning to Banjul International Airport.
Longest runway in the universe don’tcha know?
In case the earthbound Space Shuttle was ever caught short or overshot apparently.
This would have been a brilliant photo-opp for the Gambia, but sadly NASA never needed to make the call…

So that was it, back on board the van for one last time, and dropped off at the airport by Yahoo (many thanks for all the driving my friend).
House Sparrow and White Wags were in the car park.
We had more than enough time to convert all our remaining dalasis into Julbrew and get ready for the flight back before the lobsters arrived on the transfer buses an hour or so later.
As the crowded jet taxied along the tarmac at 5pm, we passed Blue Bellied Rollers, Yellow Billed Kites and Hooded Vultures one last time before roaring off into the blue.
Thanks to all my friends for the companionship, laughs and birding – and cheers to Ebrima, Yahoo and Forday too – a great week in the field, just shy of 300 sp (including two heards) and some top drawer plumbing – we should have visited Gambia years ago.
Finally thanks to everyone for reading the blog – hope it is helpful.
Back to the grey and cold now.

While I sort out the WordPress plug-in to add his marvellous videos to this blog (thanks Paul), here’s a still to be going on with from one of Tropical Thomason’s short classics entitled “Hamerkop on a bicycle”.
It’s about a Hamerkop. On a bicycle.

A Bunuel-esque triumph of surrealism, coming soon, once I get the plug-in sorted.
Hang on, what’s that cloud doing going across the moon???? Euwwwwwwwrgh!


Black Kite, Cattle Egret, Green Wood Hoopoe, Senegal Parrot, Red Eyed Dove, Pied Crow, Hooded Vulture, Long Tailed Cormorant, Vinaceous Dove, White Crowned Robin Chat, Red Bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Red Chested Swallow, African Jacana, Fanti Saw-wing, Village Weaver, Common Bulbul, Squacco Heron, Speckled Pigeon, Lizard Buzzard, Giant Kingfisher, Grey Kestrel, Yellow Billed Kite, Palm Nut Vulture, Red Billed Hornbill, Purple Heron, Senegal Coucal, Grey Heron, Grey Woodpecker, Western Grey Plantain Eater, Black Necked Weaver, Common Wattle Eye, Swallow Tailed Bee Eater, Little Greenbul, Lavender Waxbill, African Thrush, Western Bluebill (male and fem), Bearded Barbet, Beautiful Sunbird, African Palm Swift, Red Billed Firefinch, Buff Spotted Woodpeckerx2, Lesser Honeyguide, African Paradise Flycatcher, Black Crake, White Wagtail, House Sparrow.