Just back from a cracking week in The Gambia. Most of our friends and relatives declared us mad for taking our two-year-old son Alex to the tropics, but it went really well. The hotel staff loved him and were particularly amused when he escaped our attention and ran into the conference room where some government ministers were having a meeting! Fortunately it was during the coffee-break.
We took a standard flight/hotel tourist package from Holland and arranged a few day-trips when we got there.
We didn't however need to go further than our hotel balcony for an introduction to the tropical species: hornbills, weavers, mannikins, cordon-bleus, glossy starlings, plantain-eaters etc. Alex was particularly intrigued by the four cattle-egrets that regularly walked around the lawn.
Further afield, there were quite a few Palearctic waders still around: Turnstone, Whimbrel, Redshank, Greenshank, Bar-tailed Godwit, Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper etc., though none in huge numbers.
The Palearctic land-birds seemed however to have mostly departed. The commonest was Woodchat Shrike (!) - about half a dozen - and there were one or two each of Pied Wagtail, Yellow Wagtail, Redstart, Whinchat and Wheatear.
The tropical birds however tend to put the European birds in the shade: the Beautiful and Splendid Sunbirds thoroughly deserve their names, and we saw other gems like Malachite Kingfisher, Violet Turaco, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater and three species of roller. (There are always bulbuls and babblers for the LBJ fans.)
We had a particularly good last day, going down the coast southwards. Among other things we had good views of a pair of Red-necked Falcons, stunning views, perched and flying, of a pair of African Hawk-Eagles (split from Bonelli's Eagle) and best of all an adult Martial Eagle.
Best tick of all though was Clive Barlow, main author of the excellent new field guide (A field guide to Birds of The Gambia and Senegal, Clive Barlow, Tim Wacher and Tony Disley, Pica, 1997). (I presume an autograph in a book counts as a Positive Identification?)
It's worth keeping your binoculars around your neck at all times by the way. Not just because the birds are everywhere (they are) but my bins twice attracted knowledgeable local birders who showed me some good new species. Up until recently the Gambians themselves have not taken up birdwatching (let's face it, most of them have to spend all their time and energy making ends meet) but it now seems to be getting off the ground.
Considering that it's now getting into the low season for birds (Palearctic migrants leaving, inter-African migrants don't arrive until the rainy season starts in June, many birds in non-breeding plumage), and we didn't by any means spend all the time on birds (three afternoons by the pool, visited two museums and a few other things) I thought 150 species in a week was a pretty amazing total. If you're thinking of a foreign trip, Gambia is very well worth considering. Feel free to e-mail me if you want more info - or alternatively mail A.J. Todd who posted here a little while ago and knows the Gambia much better than I do. He was kind enough to offer me a few tips.
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