The trip was planned as a short winter break and an introduction to tropical African birds. My only previous trips to Africa were to Ethiopia in February 1998 and Morocco in September/October 1994. I am hoping to make more African trips in the future and saw The Gambia as a perfect introduction, not only to the birds but also to the complications and difficulties of African birding, in a relatively easy environment. In this respect, the trip worked out perfectly.
The first decision I had to make was whether or not to visit some up-country sites, or stick to the coastal areas. I was particularly tempted by a trip to Basse for Egyptian Plover. In the end, though, I decided to restrict this trip to the coastal areas, and the furthest site to which I ventured was Pirang (about 1 hour inland). This decision was made for 4 reasons:
In retrospect, I believe that I made the right decision. Due to the weather conditions (see below), I generally restricted my birding to between dawn at 7 a.m. and c. 12 p.m., rested in the afternoon, and went out again from c. 4 p.m. until dusk at 7 p.m. There are so many good sites in the immediate vicinity of the tourist areas that I was only able to visit most sites once. I would have liked to do several more trips to Abuko, but time just didn't allow it. I didn't manage to visit some sites such as Tanji, Bijilo, Bund Road etc at all.
I am sure that if I had gone up-country, it would have turned into a very frustrating an uncomfortable trip, with a high percentage of time wasted in travelling. Besides, The Gambia was such a wonderful birding destination that I am certain to visit again, and will try to cover the up-country areas on subsequent trips!
Despite restricting my itinerary so much, and the relaxed pace of the birding, I still managed to see 180 species in a week, including 92 lifers. As an indication to the first-time African visitor, if I had not previously visited Ethiopia, my total number of lifers would have been 129.
Please also note that, largely due to the extreme heat, I didn't make any effort to see a few special birds which I had seen previously, for example Black-crowned Crane and Verreaux's Eagle Owl. Sites for both seemed to be readily available, but I just didn't have the energy. I am sure that a really keen birder prepared to bird throughout the day, or one with more aptitude for birding than me could easily produce a list well in excess of 200 birds even in the limited geographical area that I covered.
The timing of the trip was largely governed by work. Work commitments ruled out a trip between mid November and mid February, so early November was just about the only option. This again seemed to work out very well, however. November is the breeding season for many African species, so there was plenty of birdsong and other activity. More importantly, many of the more difficult birds, such as sunbirds, weavers, bishops, whydahs, widowbirds etc were in full glorious breeding plumage, which makes life a lot easier and more pleasant!
I believe that The Gambia is a particularly suitable destination for someone like myself with a non-birding partner. Sara was able to spend her time around the pool, or on excursions organised by the tour company, and the local nature of the birding meant that we were still able to meet up several times during the day.
It is important to emphasise at this point that The Gambia is not a typical tourist destination. Anyone expecting resort areas such as might be found in Greece or Spain is in for a shock! I believe that there are only some 15 hotels in the main tourist area, and outside the immediate vicinity of these, you are plunged into what is a typical third world African country, with all the attendant poverty and hand to mouth living. The culture shock may be significant. However, this allows you to sample a fascinatingly different way of life, while at the same time enabling an occasional retreat into the relative luxury of your hotel. As seems to be almost universally the case, the poorer the people you meet, the more friendly and hospitable they are, and The Gambia was certainly no exception.
We booked our holiday through The Gambia Experience (Tel. 01703 730888), who I believe are the first company to offer weekend departures to that country. We stayed for one week on a Bed & Breakfast basis at the Bakotu Hotel in Kotu Beach. The holiday cost £369 per head, plus a £15 Sunday supplement.
The flight was with Sabre Airlines from London Gatwick to Banjul, although we actually returned on an Air 2000 flight. Both flights were 6 hours in duration, and very comfortable with in-flight entertainment throughout. On the way out, we did have a little hassle with the weight of our hand baggage -- this was apparently restricted to 5 kg. I customarily pack my hand baggage with all the (heavy) birding essentials -- scope, binoculars, books etc, and have never had any problems with this before. The problem seemed to be more about the individual weight of bags, (in case one fell on someone's head) -- if we had carried some items on our persons, we would have had no trouble at all. However, after a little arguing, we were allowed to take them on board!
The outward flight was originally scheduled for 9 a.m. Sunday 1.11.98. We were notified shortly before hand that it had been moved to 10.30 a.m., but when we arrived at Gatwick we learned that the flight had been delayed due to a technical fault, eventually departing at 1.00 p.m., arriving in Banjul at 7.00 p.m.. This unfortunately meant that it was dark when we arrived, losing us a few hours birding on the first evening -- pretty frustrating!
The return flight left Banjul at 4.15 p.m. on Sunday 8.11.98, arriving back in Gatwick at 10.15 p.m. As well as the Sunday Gatwick flight, The Gambia Experience also offer Friday departures from Gatwick and Manchester.
Incidentally, please note that during the winter The Gambia uses Greenwich Mean Time, so there is no time difference between there and the U.K. -- I don't know about the summer.
We parked our car at Park'n'Save (01293 772244) at Salbrook Road, Redhill near Crawley at a very reasonable £3 per day, including efficient courtesy coach transfer to Gatwick Airport.
Insurance was organised through General Accident (now CGU -- Tel 0800 121007) at a cost of £29.38 per person. I have consistently found them to offer very reasonable travel insurance.
One of the first decisions you will need to make is whether or not to hire a bird guide. I decided to do so for 3 reasons:
I also believe that it is important, wherever possible, to ensure that local people make money out of birding, as this is more likely to translate into concern abut the local environment. Visiting an area is not always enough -- most tourists will tend to spend the vast majority of their spending money in and around resort areas, and the people living in or adjacent to the better birding spots often derive no benefit whatsoever from this. However, by employing a guide, you are putting money directly into the pockets of real people.
But it does not necessarily stop there. My guide told me that in The Gambia the guides contribute every year to a fund used to pay villagers at two sites (Brufut and Faraba Banta) to keep clear paths running through the woods, in order that the guides and visiting birders can gain access to some of the more interesting areas. Thus, two sets of villagers, living on a very meagre income, benefit directly each year as a result of bird tourism. No prizes for guessing what this is likely to do to their attitudes towards birds and wildlife in general!
From the great deal of help and advice offered by various EBNetters, I was concerned about the apparent wide variation in quality and cost between guides, and also a little unsure about how to go about hiring one. I was reluctant to contact one of the many recommended guides in advance, as I was fairly sure that this would make me appear too eager, with a resulting dramatic increase in the prices charged.
Many correspondents suggested that the best way to find a guide was to wait in the vicinity of the lower Kotu Bridge, and wait until I was approached. I therefore decided to wait until I got there and, armed with a list of recommended guides, went out in search of one on my first morning.
The guide I was primarily seeking was one called Seedy Saidy, who had been warmly recommended to me by several correspondents as being reasonably priced, very knowledgeable and a very nice bloke as well.
In the event, practically the first person I met on leaving the hotel was Seedy's brother Gib Saidy. After a quick chat I decided to hire him for the morning, and quickly decided to appoint him for the whole week. I would like to recommend Gib most warmly to anyone considering hiring a guide. Not only was he very reasonably priced, and found me a lot of good birds, but he was also one of the nicest blokes you could ever hope to meet. Also he insisted on carrying my scope and tripod throughout which, given the extreme heat, quickly became a necessity rather than a luxury!
Gib has been a bird guide for some 3 years, and has a pretty good knowledge of the local area and birds. He found me the majority of the specials that I was after, including some real skulkers.
His brother Siaka (also a really nice guy) is a taxi driver, and the combined rates for guiding and transport was extremely reasonable. As an example of this, the standard rate for a return taxi trip (without a guide) to Abuko, including some 2 hours waiting is around £20. With Gib, a 4 hours guided visit, with taxi, cost me just £25.
In truth, he made a few ID errors, but as I insist on confirming all ID's myself in any case, this never mattered. It was actually much more enjoyable discussing the finer ID points with someone than just being lectured. I am sure that there are more experienced and knowledgeable guides operating in the area (I met a few), but I tended to find them a little arrogant and at times almost seemed to find the job a chore. In contrast, Gib was an absolute pleasure to be with, and clearly just loves birding. He invited myself and my wife back to his home for dinner one night, and introduced us to the whole family. It is no exaggeration to say that in a very short space of time he turned from being a guide to being a friend, and birding with him was just great fun throughout.
Gib can be contacted at P.O. Box 2239, Serekunda, The Gambia (Tel +220 370031). Say hello from me!
Once you are with a guide, you certainly tend to get left alone by the more annoying elements of Gambian society. I must emphasise that the large majority of Gambians I met were genuinely friendly and hospitable, and were very keen to welcome you to their country, wanting nothing in return. However, inevitably, you will encounter many hustlers, especially immediately outside the hotels. Most of these are taxi drivers looking for business, as well as beggars, bird guides and people trying to sell you things including, on one occasion, hashish (speaking in a very loud voice soon got rid of him!). Just be firm and state that you have already organised transport, guiding etc, and they will soon leave you alone. If possible, keep walking purposefully, and try not to stop. At a push, one tactic I found very effective was to suggest a possible future interest, and ask for a business card -- this seems to keep them happy. I have to confess that I rather enjoyed the daily banter on leaving the hotel -- it was almost all in very good humour!
The quality of bird guides varies very considerably. It appears that new guides are appearing very regularly, and many know very little about the birds. Try and pick one with a name tag, and test him on some of the commoner but difficult birds, such as waders, weavers etc.
I did meet one pair of birders who had a great deal of difficulty with one particularly persistent bird guide. Despite repeated requests for him to go away, he insisted on following them around for a whole morning, and then demanded payment at the end. He didn't get any! It is a particular shame because the guide in question was a quite superb birder, but unfortunately has a bad reputation for hassling and ripping off visiting birders, so he is generally shunned by the rest of the guides.
We stayed at the Bakotu Hotel in Kotu Beach. Most hotels in The Gambia occur in two clusters, around Kololi (Holiday Beach Club, Kairaba and Senegambia), which is handy for Bijilo, and within walking distance of the Kotu area, and around Kotu itself (Palma Rima, Badala Park, Kombo Beach, Bakotu, Bungalow Beach, and Fajara). Further up the coast towards Bakau are the African Village and Sunwing hotels, while on the outskirts of the capital Banjul are the Palm Grove and the Atlantic.
We chose the Bakotu for a combination of price and location -- it backs onto Kotu Creek and the Fajara Golf Course, and is very near the Casino Cycle Track area.
The room at the Bakotu was very pleasant, as were the grounds of the hotel. The only drawback to the hotel was the lack of air conditioning which, in the weather conditions we experienced, would have been a real blessing. We hired a fan from hotel reception at a cost of £10 per week, and this just about kept us sane, but if I went back I would definitely pay the extra for air conditioning.
The staff at the hotel were wonderful, and always asked me what birds I had seen! Also the exchange rate offered by the hotel's reception was among the best I saw (see Money).
One thing to bear in mind is that The Gambia experiences frequent power cuts, usually of a very short duration. Most nights the power in the hotel would suddenly cut out, and then start up again after a few minutes. This was not a major inconvenience, except that the fan would stop!
Food in the Gambia was a real eye opener. We ate every night at Sir William's Restaurant which was part of the Bakotu Hotel. The food there was exceptionally good, and very reasonably priced -- a normal meal for two with drinks averaged between £14 and £18. Gib invited us to his house one night and cooked us Beef Domada (a peanut-butter based sauce) which was fantastic.
We also ate occasional snacks from street vendors, and these were again very tasty, as well as extremely cheap -- breakfast for 3 for about £1.
You will need a full passport to visit The Gambia, but UK passport holders do not need a visa. You will be required to complete a form on entering and leaving the country.
Formalities at the airport were pretty relaxed, although the Customs staff at Banjul on departing did try to extract some cash out of us "to buy some cold drinks". There was a veiled threat that my bag might be searched rather thoroughly if I didn't oblige, but I pleaded poverty and they didn't pursue the matter. I have also heard of bags being broken into and robbed on the way home, but no personal experience of this.
While driving around The Gambia we regularly encountered police checkpoints, but we were invariably waved through them. I left my passport in the hotel throughout, but I did hear of someone who was asked to produce it at a routine stop near Basse in the extreme east of the country, so it might not be a bad idea to keep it on your person.
The easiest way to make calls seems to be using the Gamtel offices you will see in most towns. You can buy a card, or just call, and settle with the cashier at the end. There is a Gamtel office directly opposite the Bakotu Hotel in Kotu Beach. The Gambia has direct international dialling, and making calls home was very straightforward.
If you call the UK, you need to dial 00 44, followed by the UK STD code and number, leaving off the first 0 in the STD code. If you call from a Gamtel office, you should dial 0 00 44.
Self-drive car hire seems to be very scarce in The Gambia, with none of the large international companies (Hertz, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Europcar etc) represented to the best of my knowledge. I believe that there are some local hire companies, but the cars they rent apparently tend towards the ancient.
In truth, the standard of the roads was quite acceptable, certainly no worse than some I have seen in Turkey, Morocco, Israel etc. I would have no hesitation in driving myself from this point of view. I have heard many adverse comments about the quality of local driving, but again I didn't see anything worse than Turkey or Morocco, and any regular London driver would find it a doddle!
However, there are two very significant drawbacks to self-drive. The most noticeable was the almost complete absence of road signs in most of the areas I visited. Most routes from the Kotu Beach area will take you through Serekunda, which as the largest settlement in The Gambia is a real maze, with no signing at all. Of course, with a guide this would be less of a problem, but they seem to be able to secure such attractive prices for taxis that self-drive ceases to be attractive.
The other main problem is the condition of the cars. Most are very old and battered and breakdowns, punctures etc must be regular occurrences. I suspect that under such circumstances, the level of backup support is likely to be very poor or even non-existent. Insurance may also be a problem. Finally, I have also heard that the penalty for driving offences can be harsh, often including imprisonment!
Being cynical, I suspect that the lack of self-drive car hire is the result of official discouragement, as this might damage the very lucrative local taxi trade. Given the above, however, I cannot recommend it.
The most often recommended mode of transport is by bush taxi, or "tankatank". These highly variable vehicles are yellow, with two green stripes, and are absolutely everywhere. They operate fixed routes, and are supposedly very cheap. However, they do not always like to stop for tourists, and while it may not be too hard to get to some of the better sites, such as Abuko, Brufut, Pirang etc, their remoteness means that getting home may be much trickier.
I didn't actually use bush taxis myself, as Gib's brother was a tourist taxi driver, and Gib got me some exceptional rates. Tourist taxis usually tend towards the expensive (£20 for a half-hour drive to Abuko), but they may be acceptable if part of a group. Their advantage is that for a price they will take you anywhere you want to go, and wait for you until you are ready to return.
The Gambian currency is the Dalasi (D), divided into 100 Bututs. The exchange rate during the time of my visit was quite variable. The Hotel Bakotu was offering £1 to D17.80, compared to just D16.50 next door in the Bungalow Beach Hotel. The foreign currency office across the road was offering D17.85. I changed most of my money at the Bakotu, and consequently I have used the rate of D17.80 throughout this report.
Visa, Mastercard etc seems to becoming quite widely accepted in the tourist resorts themselves, e.g. at Sir William's Restaurant, but there was little evidence of acceptability outside these areas. Travellers' cheques do not appear to be widely used.
It really isn't worth changing money into Dalasis before you arrive in The Gambia -- even if you can find any, the rate will be far inferior to anything you can get out there. I decided to take my currency as sterling cash, which I left in a safe deposit box at the hotel, and changed into Dalasis as the need arose. However sterling, even pound coins, were very widely accepted, including taxis, shops etc, and some people actually preferred them. Interestingly, the rate offered by e.g. the local supermarket at Kotu Beach and the tourist shop at Banjul airport were very similar to those offered by the foreign exchange bureaux -- I normally expect to get ripped off in such places.
One slight drawback to my trip was the weather, which was extremely hot (apparently 45°C (113°F) on our first day!). Even the local Gambians were complaining, claiming that it is not usually that hot at that time of year. Just my luck to arrive in Africa during a heatwave! Typically it is a relatively cool 35°C (95°F) in November! What made it worse was that it was also quite humid, which made any extended exercise quite unpleasant.
Practically, what this meant was that I found I had no appetite for birding during the period from about 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., most of which time I spent under a cold shower! It also meant that bird activity died down dramatically after around 11 a.m., and birds were really quite hard to find after that time, until later in the afternoon when it cooled down somewhat.
The good news is that it very rarely rains at that time of year. The Gambia has a relatively short rainy season, usually around July-August. On our last two days it was a little overcast, but never looked like rain.
No vaccinations are compulsory, but as it is a tropical third world country, we decided not to take chances. We were inoculated for tetanus, typhoid, polio, hepatitis 'A' and yellow fever before going. I had also previously been inoculated for meningitis and diphtheria, but would otherwise have got these too, just in case.
Malaria also occurs, so take tablets -- our doctor prescribed a mixture of mefloquine and chloroquine, although I have heard of others recommending larium -- check with your doctor before you travel. One of our party who had not taken tablets was taken ill with suspected malaria during our trip!
Having said that, I was very pleasantly surprised by the lack of mosquitoes. I was very lax in my precautions against being bitten, and still only got bitten 4 or 5 times. Even the wetland areas such as Kotu Creek and Pirang were no problem at all.
I did manage to pick up a few ticks, mainly in the scrub around the casino Cycle Track. They took a bit of getting rid of (even applying a lighted match had little effect!) so check yourself regularly. I also came home sporting various other assorted insect bites, including ants etc.
Inevitably, I suffered a slight attack of stomach upset towards the end of the trip, though it was very mild, and caused no problems at all. As usual, take sensible precautions -- avoid ice in drinks and ice cream, don't eat salads or any fruits with edible skins, make sure that any beef, pork etc is well cooked, and so forth.
Sites visited were as follows:
|2.11.98||7.00 a.m. -- 12.30 p.m. -- Kotu Creek & ponds,
Casino Cycle Track, Fajara Golf Course
5.00 p.m. -- 7.00 p.m. -- Kotu Creek, Casino Cycle Track
|3.11.98||7.30 a.m. -- 12.30 p.m. -- Abuko
5.00 p.m. -- 7.00 p.m. -- Fajara Golf Course
|4.11.98||7.00 a.m. -- 1.00 p.m. -- Brufut Woods and Bridge
4.00 p.m. -- 5.00 p.m. -- Fajara Golf Course
5.00 p.m. -- 7.00 p.m. -- Yundum
|5.11.98||7.30 a.m. -- 1.00 p.m. -- Pirang
1.00 p.m. -- 2.00 p.m. -- Faraba Banta
4.00 p.m. -- 7.00 p.m. -- Bakau, Cape Creek
|6.11.98||7.00 a.m. -- 4.15 p.m. -- Barra & Essau|
|7.11.98||7.00 a.m. -- 1.00 p.m. -- Brufut Woods & Bridge
4.30 p.m. -- 7.00 p.m. -- Kotu Creek & ponds, Casino Cycle Track
|8.11.98||7.00 a.m. -- 12.00 p.m. -- Kotu Creek & ponds, Casino Cycle Track, Fajara Golf Course|
Apparently a really good map of The Gambia and Southern Senegal can be purchased locally, but I didn't bother because I was being guided throughout.
I haven't drawn any maps in this report. The ones in the Ward book, and those in Steve Whitehouse's report are excellent, and better than anything I could produce.
Special thanks firstly to Gib and Siaka Saidy for their invaluable contribution to a great holiday. Also to fellow EBN subscriber and correspondent Ken Hermann whose Gambian holiday overlapped mine by a day and a half, and who is still enjoying the birds there while I write this at home. Good to bird with you Ken!
As usual, members of both EBN and Birdchat proved an absolute goldmine of information, and provided assistance with the usual level of generosity -- what an outstanding resource you really are. Many thanks to Nicola Duckworth and Liz Watson for providing me with copies of their trip reports, and to Bevan Craddock, Chris Carpenter, Christine Tarski, Jan-Joost Bouwman, Ed Blaas, John Norton, Kay Bullen, Ken Tucker, Lawrie Phipps, Matt Toronto, Mikko Seppanen, Sue Bryan, Phil Bryant, Richard Ranft, Risto Juvaste, Roy Hargreaves, Sean Scanlon, Tina Macdonald, Tom Clarke, Tony Todd, Urs Geiser and Wilken Agster for all their tips and advice -- quite invaluable. I really hope that I haven't left anyone out, but if I have, sorry and thank you.
Finally, thanks to my wife Sara for putting up with yet another totally bird orientated holiday -- sooner or later, Sara, you'll eventually start birding yourself!
Left Gatwick at 100 p.m. (2.5 hours late). Arrived in Banjul airport (actually at Yundum) at 7.00 p.m. just as it was going dark. It was already incredibly hot even at that time! We met our courier and were transported by coach back to our hotel (half an hour in transit). We ate dinner at Sir William's -- D400 (£22.47). Having been up since 6 a.m., we had an early night, ready for an early start the next day.
Up at 6.15 a.m. and out at dawn at 7.00 a.m. Immediately bumped into Gib Saidy and hired him.
We headed down to lower Kotu Bridge, and took a track northward through some rice fields along the south side of the creek. This whole area provided an excellent introduction to the commoner birds, such as doves, weavers, waders, Pied Kingfisher, egrets etc. The better birds included 3 Bearded Barbets, the only 2 Northern Crombecs of the trip, great views of a Gymnogene foraging in a colony of White-billed Buffalo Weavers, 2 Shikras, Beautiful Sunbird, very close views of 3 Little Bee-eaters, and 2 Palm-nut Vultures close overhead.
We then took a short cut to the adjacent Kotu Sewage Ponds. Highlights here included a Black-billed Wood Dove on the path, a flock of White-faced Whistling Duck, Marsh Sandpiper, Lesser Blue-eared Glossy Starling and Fork-tailed Drongo.
We came out on the Kotu-Serekunda road, turned right back to the Lower Bridge, and took a path downstream on the south side of the creek. This quickly produced several Green Woodhoopoes, a Senegal Coucal, 2 more Bearded Barbets, and a Wire-tailed Swallow. The patch continued until it met a laterite path leading down to a beach bar. We turned left along this path, until it reached the cycle track that leads from the Palma Rima Hotel in the southwest to the Bakotu Hotel in the northeast, and on to the Fajara Hotel where it meets the road to Bakau.
We followed the cycle track westwards towards the Palma Rima, birding the scrub along the way. This produced a Lizard Buzzard, 2 African Grey Hornbills, 2 Piapiacs, a Senegal Parrot, 2 Black Flycatchers, a Red-billed Hornbill and 2 Mosque Swallows perched on top of a nearby tree.
By this time it was around 12.30 p.m. and extremely hot, around 45°C, but I decided to press on for a little while. We walked back along the cycle track and road to the Bakotu Hotel, and on to the Fajara Golf Course behind. A quick walk here produced excellent views of a Wattled Plover, 2 Black-headed Plovers and a Yellow-billed Shrike. By this time, however, it was becoming apparent that I had badly overdone my first day in the sun, and I was feeling pretty ill with a dose of heat-stroke. By the time I got back to my room I was shivering so badly that I couldn't get my shoes off! Half an hour sitting under a cold shower was followed by a few hours fitful sleep in the sweltering heat.
By 5.00 p.m., however, the thought of all those birds out there had overcome any remaining feeling of illness, and I headed out again to meet Gib, armed with less baggage and a lot more water than in the morning! We again headed firstly among the rice fields between the creek and the sewage ponds. New birds included Broad-billed Roller, 2 Fine-spotted Woodpeckers and Hamerkop, as well as another Bearded Barbet.
We then headed again along the cycle track aiming for the scrub behind the Palma Rima, which is a famous site for Long-tailed Nightjar. New birds on this afternoon walk included Splendid Sunbird, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Snowy-crowned Robin-chat, Brown and Blackcap Babblers. We also re-found the Senegal Parrots, which seemed to be nesting just at the start of the Palma Rima hotel gardens.
We were in position as dusk fell, and Gib soon picked out a Long-tailed Nightjar perched on the branch of a nearby tree, which then started flying around. Standard-winged Nightjars are also found in this area, but Gib suggested that they are more reliable from January onwards. However, they also seem to be more susceptible to disturbance than the Long-tailed. The first day had already produced nearly 80 species despite not birding for 4 hours in the early afternoon -- not a bad start!
The day's guiding by Gib cost just D200 (£11.24) -- he actually asked for £10 but asking for change seemed far too petty! Again ate at Sir William's -- cost D350 (19.66).
Met Gib at 7.30 a.m. for a morning's trip to Abuko Reserve. Gib had arranged a taxi driven by his brother Siaka for the trip. Unfortunately, Abuko doesn't open until 8 a.m., losing you the best hour of the day, which is pretty frustrating when it is so hot. Some excellent birds were seen, including Blue-breasted, Malachite and Giant Kingfishers, African Jacana, Red-billed Wood Dives, Splendid Sunbird, Vitelline Masked Weaver, Broad-billed Roller, Fanti Saw-wing, Lesser Honeyguide, Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, Common Wattle-eye and Little Greenbul (eventually -- lots heard, but getting a look at them is a completely different matter!).
Although obviously a great place for birds, I actually found Abuko quite frustrating. The forest is really dense, and seeing singing birds isn't easy. The thick trees don't allow any breezes to pass through, so it gets extremely hot and humid, and we saw hardly any birds at all after about 10.30 a.m., when it went really quiet. The only notable birds on the return leg of the walk were a Dark Chanting Goshawk, and 2 overflying Pink-backed Pelicans. On the whole, I found Brufut Woods an infinitely more pleasant place to go birding (see later).
I think that to get the most of Abuko, you need to make several visits. Regrettably, due to the shortness of my stay, and the number of other sites I wanted to visit, we never did get round to making a return visit.
The combined price for the guiding and taxi (returning back to the hotel at 1.00 p.m.) was D450 (£25.28), compared with £20 being asked by some taxi drivers just to drive you there and back with a 2 hour wait.
After resting up in the afternoon I went for an evening stroll along the golf course at about 5 p.m. This produced the usual golf course birds, including great views of Double-spurred Francolin, Red-billed Hornbill, Broad-billed Roller, Green Woodhoopoe, Black-headed Plover, Piapiac, Long-tailed Glossy Starling, Palm Swifts, and Spur-winged Plovers.
I then bumped into a couple of kids (Lamin and Abbas) who offered to show me an owl for D20 (£1.12). I decided that such an enormous investment might be justified, so off we went! Sure enough, within half an hour they had found a Pearl-spotted Owlet. The boys called it up by imitating its song, and then quickly located it in the tree without the benefit of any binoculars, which made my efforts at seeing where they were looking pretty embarrassing at first. This quickly wore off, however, after getting really superb views in perfect light, and I duly paid up.
Ate again at Sir William's, by which time I had realised that they took credit cards. I confidently handed over my credit card, only to be greatly embarrassed when the waiter returned a few minutes later saying that it had been rejected. A quick check showed that I had brought the wrong card, and that it was past its expiry date! Luckily, I had brought a spare. Total cost was about £14.
Up early for a 7.00 a.m. start on my trip to Brufut Woods with Gib and Siaka. Definitely my favourite site of all those visited. Brufut consists of quite open woodland, with large bare acacias (perfect for picking out perching birds) mixed in with smaller tress, and lots of low scrub. The area is criss-crossed by a network of easy tracks, making covering the area quite straightforward. We actually saw a quite different set of birds here to those we saw on Abuko, and the birds I saw on my second visit were quite similar to the first. I would therefore definitely recommend at least one visit to both sites, as we saw a number of species at each that were not seen elsewhere.
The big difference between Brufut and Abuko is the much greater ease of birding at the former. The birds are very much easier to see, and we failed to see hardly any birds first located by song. The large acacias made birding particularly easy -- perching birds could be seen and scoped from a long way away. Good birds seen included African Golden Oriole, Pin-tailed Whydah, Splendid, Collared, Beautiful and Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, 2 Violet Turacos (very elusive yesterday at Abuko), 2 Collared Sunbirds, several Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters, Wryneck, Yellow-crowned Gonolek, Bronze-tailed Glossy Starling, Black-crowned Tchagras, Orange-cheeked Waxbill and Whistling Cisticola.
However, the best bird was probably nice close up views of a Stone Partridge which I found perched on a branch of a tree, looking like a displaced village Chicken -- a very peculiar bird, and not usually easy to see.
We then moved on to an area which Gib called Brufut Bridge. I haven't been able to find this on any maps, but it was not far from the first area of woodland covered, and is probably part of the same area. We firstly worked our way along a slow moving stream, picking up Lizard Buzzard, Black-headed Weaver, Black Crake and Malachite Kingfisher. By this time, it was 12.00 p.m. so we headed away from the stream to an open cultivated area hoping for some raptors. We managed a few, in the form of Gymnogenes, Lizard Buzzards, Marsh Harrier and an Osprey, but not as many as we had hoped for. We also found Blue-bellied and Rufous-crowned Rollers and a Beautiful Sunbird, and a Purple Heron on the stream on the way back. At 1.00 p.m. we called it a day and headed back to Kotu.
A quick stroll on the golf course at 4.00 p.m. produced the usual Wattled and Black-headed Plovers, Long-tailed Glossy Starlings and Piapiacs, as well as Beautiful Sunbird ad Rose-ringed Parakeets. I then bumped into another bird guide, Lamin, and we got chatting. I mentioned that I hadn't yet seen Abyssinian Roller, so he took me to a nest site near the Bakotu Hotel, and one duly performed. As I had nothing planned for the following evening, we agreed that he would guide me for 3 hours for £10, and that he would show me some of the birds that I had not seen at that time. I agreed (foolishly) to give him a D100 (£5.62) deposit towards the following night's work.
At 5.00 p.m., Gib and Siaka collected me again, and we set off for Yundum, to try and see some Four-banded Sandgrouse at a drinking pool near the airport. We got there by 5.30 p.m., giving us just over an hour to work the scrub before getting into place for the sandgrouse. This was another great site, and one at which I wish I had spent more time. In the short space of time we had, we managed Heuglin's Masked Weaver, Siffling Cisticola, Red-necked Falcon (perched), Levaillant's Cuckoo, Purple Glossy Starling, Blue-bellied and Rufous-crowned Rollers and, best bird of the whole trip, the rare and difficult to see Green Hylia. In fact it was a life bird for Gib (so was the Heuglin's Masked Weaver, also very localised), and most of the other guides have never seen one! When I found it first, it performed so well for a bird with a reputation as an notorious skulker that I thought my ID must be wrong, but the combination of greenish upperparts, greyish underparts, and an enormous cream supercilium right round to its nape was pretty unmistakable. The jizz was also quite distinctive and totally unlike say Phylloscopus or Hippolais warblers.
Elated, we headed off to the sandgrouse pools, and got into position by about 5.45 p.m. They flew in very late, and it was almost dark when at least 4 were picked out landing on the far side of the small pool. This seemed an incredible place to see sandgrouse. I have been lucky enough to have previously seen sandgrouse of 5 different species (Black-bellied, Pin-tailed, Lichtenstein's, Spotted and Crowned) in 3 countries (Fuerteventura, Israel and Turkey). Without exception, they were all very nervous birds, who would fly off very quickly given the slightest noise or disturbance. Anyone familiar with the Lichtenstein's stakeout at the pumping station at Eilat, Israel will know how well birders need to behave to avoid disturbing them.
And yet, here at Yundum, we had them drinking quite unconcerned at a small pool right alongside the main road, and about thirty yards from the airport perimeter fence. Cars and lorries were hurtling along with horns blaring the whole time, an aircraft took off, and people were constantly walking along the road a few yards away talking and shouting. It didn't feel right somehow!
The whole day with Gib and Siaka, for 8 hours guiding and taxis throughout (total 2 hours driving) cost D850 (£47.75). Dinner at Sir William's was about £18.
Up early for a 7.30 a.m. start for the hour long drive to Pirang, the furthest site visited during my trip. This was another nice areas, mixing woodlands, scrub, rice fields, marsh and river birding. We birded the area from 8.30 a.m. until 11.30 a.m. producing a good list of species, including several not seen elsewhere, including Black-shouldered Kite, Gabar Goshawk, Oriole Warbler, Yellow-crowned Bishop, Intermediate Egret, Lavender Waxbill, Northern Puffback, Plain-backed Pipit, Pied-winged Swallow and Yellow-shouldered Widowbird.
I finally got really good views of Yellow-crowned Gonolek (what a skulker!), and the Northern Puffback was, if anything, even harder work. Other highlights included Wattled Plover (very close), Shikra, Broad-billed Roller, Senegal Parrot, Black-billed Wood Dove, lots of Green Herons, Fine-spotted Woodpecker, Palm-nut Vulture, Bearded Barbet (never got bored of those), Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Beautiful Sunbird and Senegal Coucal. A Vieillot's Barbet called frustratingly too far away for us to be able to find it (at not for the last time, either!).
We then headed for a nearby abandoned shrimp farm, previously owned by Scangambia, a Scandinavian/Gambian consortium. This previously employed 1,500 people, but someone got too greedy, and it was closed down. This was typically easy modern fishpond birding -- lots of square pools with varying water levels, and easy walking around them. Highlights included Black Egret, Spur-winged Goose, African Darter, Crested Lark and African Silverbills. We also saw a bird that may have been a Flappet Lark, but the heat haze was too strong to allow a definite ID.
At 12.30 p.m. we headed to an area of bush track on the outskirts of Faraba Banta, heading towards Jiboroh Ki, which is an excellent raptor site. Regrettably, it was just too hot to be in such an open arid area, so we quickly gave up and headed back to Kotu, but not before having Rufous-crowned, Blue-bellied and Abyssinian Rollers all in view at the same time! The guiding and taxi fare for today cost D600 (£33.71).
In the evening I was supposed to meet Lamin, the guide I had met last night. However, I had heard a lot of worrying things about him, so I decided to give him a miss. I therefore hooked up with another guide called Baba and set off for some birding with him. Unfortunately, Lamin then showed up, and got a bit unpleasant. He eventually started demanding "compensation" for his loss of business. I pointed out that he had already been paid over half the agreed fee, at which point he claimed that had been for the previous night's guiding (about twenty minutes!). This was exactly the sort of thing I had heard about him, so I felt a lot better about letting him down.
Incidentally, there are a lot of guides called Lamin -- I believe that it's the commonest Gambian first name. I don't remember this one's surname, but please note that he was not Lamin Siddibeh who is one of the best and most highly recommended bird guides in The Gambia.
In retrospect, I have very mixed feelings about this incident. I have heard a lot of bad things about this Lamin, including efforts to rip off customers after guiding them. I have previously mentioned that a couple I met had also bumped into him, and he followed them around, unwanted, for a whole morning, and then tried asking for money. He is shunned by the other bird guides and will not approach any of the hotels, insisting on meeting you in places like the golf course.
Having said that, he appears to be a real quality birder and could almost certainly have shown me a lot of birds that I missed. For example, he found me Abyssinian Roller quickly enough, and claimed to know of a roosting site for White-backed Night Heron. Maybe I should have stuck with him, agreed a firm fee at the start (payable at the end) and subsequently dismissed any further claims, and tried to explain to him that while his birding might be top class, his methods were letting him down.
I am afraid that the sad fact is that I wasn't willing to trust him on my own. If I had been one of a group, I would probably have given him a go -- at £10 for 3 hours, it might be worth the risk.
And what about Baba? He took me firstly to the Crocodile Pool at Bakau, where he found for me White-crowned Robin-chat, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Woodland Kingfisher, Levaillant's Cuckoo and Red-bellied Paradise Flycatcher, but failed to find Black-necked Weaver or Oriole Warbler. We then headed for Cape Road where, despite much searching, he failed to find Yellow-throated Longclaw.
Baba is certainly a first-class birder and has birded extensively in the UK. His observational skills are exceptional -- how on earth he found the tiny Pygmy Kingfisher, deep in thick vegetation, I will never know. However, I found him very expensive. He charged me £25 for not much over 2 hours guiding, and only found 2 species which Gib had failed on (out of 4 promised), and one of these (the Robin-chat) we found later in the week.
I also found him somewhat remote, especially after Gib. With Baba, it felt very much like teacher and pupil -- he found the birds, told you what they were, and you looked at them, before trotting after him waiting for him to find the next one. Discussions about ID were certainly not encouraged, and to be honest there was nothing much I could add to his knowledge. It was all a little too regimented for my liking. You also felt that his heart wasn't in it somehow. Gib would get very excited each time we found a new bird, and always had a look through my scope after I had. Baba showed no obvious reaction at all, and would just start looking for the next bird.
I suppose it all depends on what you want. If your priority is for a long list, and you can afford him, then Baba, or one of the other top guides, is probably your man. I wanted a bit more fun out of my birding, and also a chance of checking out the ID for myself, and found Gib the perfect choice for this. OK, so I probably missed out on some species -- all the more reason to go back some day!
That evening Gib and Siaka had invited Sara and myself out for the evening. An open-air disco was being held in the grounds of the school at their home village of Kuloro, near Pirang. They collected us at 9.00 a.m., and off we went. Having firstly gone to their family home to meet their family, we headed off to the disco, where we stayed until about midnight, before they took us back to our hotel. We had a really enjoyable evening. Not surprisingly, we were the only Europeans there, and everyone gave us a terrific welcome. Of course, it wasn't a proper disco -- nobody got drunk or threw up, there was no fighting, you could hear yourself think, and the drinks weren't four times the normal price! Wouldn't work at home at all!
This was a purely social occasion, so there was no charge for anything, despite Gib and Siaka travelling an hour each way to fetch us and take us home -- what wonderful hospitality!
Today was, in truth, a bit of a disaster, and I have to take most of the blame. We had decided to make a trip to the north bank of the river, around Essau, by taking the ferry from Banjul to Barra. I had learned that the first ferry sailed at 7.30 a.m., so we arrived nice and early at 7.15 a.m., only to discover that the ferry had in fact sailed at 7.00 a.m.! Of course, I should have checked the sailing times, and also arranged for us to get there a lot earlier than we did. We therefore had to wait until the next ferry departure at 9.00 a.m. - good views of Little Swifts from Banjul harbour, plus White Wagtail and the only House Sparrows of the trip! Needless to say, that was late leaving, so we didn't get to the Essau area until 10 a.m. which, on the hottest day of my trip, was far too late.
We managed some decent birds, including White-rumped Seedeater, Copper Sunbird, Singing Cisticola, Melodious and Olivaceous Warblers, Bearded Barbet, Grey Woodpecker, Abyssinian and Rufous-crowned Roller, and Yellow-billed Oxpecker. A taste of home was provided by Marsh Harrier, Northern Wheatear and Whinchat. However, in the burning heat, bird activity was very low and we completely failed to see any of the north bank specials, such as Anteater Chat, Sudan Golden Sparrow, Speckle-fronted Weaver, Chestnut-bellied Starling, Chestnut-crowned Sparrow Weaver etc. We also heard another calling Vieillot's Barbet which we were unable to locate.
We decided to take the 2.00 p.m. return sailing (which duly left at 3.00 p.m.!), so we returned to Barra to finish off around Fort Bullen, just north of the town. The birding along the beach north of the fort was somewhat better, with great views of Caspian, Royal and Sandwich Terns, but no obvious Lesser Cresteds. An immature Greater Flamingo was a bit of a surprise, and there were plenty of waders to sort through, including Sanderling, Whimbrel, Oystercatchers, Common Sandpipers etc. Seawatching from the front of the return ferry produced good views of more Caspian and Royal Terns, and Grey-headed and Yellow-legged Gull at Banjul harbour.
We finally got back to Kotu at 4.15 p.m., feeling very hot and extremely tired, so packed it in for the day.
The Barra and Essau area appears a great one to visit, but the north bank is drier and hotter than the south, so an early start is even more essential. With hindsight, once I realised that we'd missed the 7.00 a.m. ferry, I should have postponed the visit until the following day, and gone somewhere else -- at 7.15 a.m., that would not have been a problem. I still had a full day the next day, so I could have, and should have, rescheduled it for then. Oh well, you live and learn! If we'd caught the 7.00 a.m. ferry we would have been in the prime sites by 7.45 a.m., probably in plenty of time.
Despite my protests, Gib held himself to blame for the lack of birds today, and would only take D400 (£22.47) for the day's guiding and taxi -- 9 hours work! It cost me a further D100 (£5.62) each way for the car and driver on the ferry, and D3 (£0.17) each way for each of Gib and myself. That's a total of D212 (£11.91) for a return ferry trip lasting over an hour in total - not bad at all.
At 5.30 p.m. I was due to meet up with Ken Hermann, a fellow EBNetter and e-mail correspondent, whose holiday was overlapping slightly with mine. His flight was a little late so we eventually met up at about 6.30 p.m., just in time for a quick visit onto the golf course. We arranged for Ken to accompany Gib and myself on a return visit to Brufut the next day. I must thank Ken for his great company during the rest of the trip -- I hope he enjoyed his holiday as much as I did.
That evening, Gib invited Sara and myself back to the house he shares with his brothers Siaka and Seedy in Serekunda for a traditional Gambian meal of Beef Domada -- quite delicious. He also told us that if we ever visit The Gambia again, we are welcome to stay at their home with them! I must admit that we didn't quite know what to expect, as most of the homes we had seen were very rustic and dilapidated. In truth, their house was a bit of a palace -- big and airy, with all the modern conveniences, and a lovely cool patio area and lush garden. Bird guiding and taxi driving obviously pays OK! We had a great evening with the Saidy brothers, with Siaka again ferrying us back and forth from our hotel.
Up very early today, to meet Ken and Gib for a 6.30 a.m. start to Brufut again. Another wonderful morning's birding, with temperatures cooler than they had been earlier in the week. Most of the birds seen were as on the earlier trip, although Green-backed Eremomela and Yellow-fronted Canary were new. Specials such as Violet Turaco, African Golden Oriole and Swallow-tailed Bee-eaters again performed. We also finally managed to get good views of the elusive Vieillot's Barbet, as well as fleeting views of a Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, another bird which had been taunting us with its calls all week, but which we had been unable to pin down.
However the day's highlight, undoubtedly, was a glorious African Hobby found perched in a tree early on. It gave wonderful views in perfect soft sunlight, and allowed quite close approach without taking flight.
Other highlights included White-crowned Robin-chat, Lesser Blue-eared and Purple Glossy Starlings, Mosque Swallow, 2 more Red-necked Falcons and Striped Kingfisher.
We returned to Kotu at 12.00 p.m., and met up again at 4.00 p.m. for a walk around the Kotu area. Species seen were much as before, although we got our best views of the trip of Senegal Parrot at the nest site at the Casino Cycle Track, and Black and White-winged Black Terns at Kotu Ponds were both new for the trip. We ended up again at the nightjar site near the Palma Rima, where two Long-tailed Nightjars performed wonderfully again. Actually, it was a lot more overcast than on my earlier visit, so they appeared a little earlier, giving better and more prolonged views.
Gib charged Ken and myself D400 (£22.47) each for the day's guiding and taxi to Brufut. Ate again at Sir William's - £18.
I thought hard about how to spend my last morning in The Gambia, considering such sites as Abuko and Yundum. In the end, however, I decided on a nice relaxing walk around the Kotu area, with Ken and Gib. This proved a good decision, as I managed to pick up another 3 life birds that morning, namely Village Indigobird, Pygmy Sunbird and Mottled Spinetail, the last of these just 15 minutes before having to go back to the hotel to pack! The moral: never stop birding until you have to! We also had nice views of a Subalpine Warbler, Fine-spotted Woodpecker, Yellow-billed Kite, Gull-billed Tern, Malachite Kingfisher, Senegal Thick-knee and Lizard Buzzard, and heard another Pearl-spotted Owlet.
At 12.00 p.m. we returned to the hotel for a quick last beer with Gib and Ken, before saying our sad farewells. Left the hotel at 2.00 p.m. to the airport, and flew home at 4.15 p.m.
Sites mentioned are as follows:
Fajara Golf Course, between Bakotu and Fajara Hotels.
Kotu Creek & Ponds -- the area of mud, scrub & rice paddies south of Kotu Creek, and east of the Kotu -- Serekunda road.
Casino Cycle Track -- the area of scrub between Kotu lower bridge and the Palma Rime hotel, bordered by the cycle track and the sea.
Brufut Woods & Bridge
Abuko -- we only covered the part between the entrance and the zoo, not the extension to the north.
Brufut Woods & Bridge.
Pirang Marsh -- the area of woods and marsh between the village and the creek.
Pirang Shrimp Farm -- the abandoned shrimp farm north east of Pirang village.
Yundum -- area of scrub and sandgrouse drinking pools along a track immediately west of the airport.
Barra & Essau -- scrub and grassland area around Essau, beach area north of Fort Bullen, in Barra.
Please note -- where I have not accurately counted the number of a particular species seen, I have preceded the location with 'n'. Numbers of each species seen are understated in many cases, especially regarding the commoner species -- I'm not always as diligent as I should be in keeping numbers of species seen.
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