24 January – 7 February 2006
Tolka Branch , Birdwatch Ireland
Leader: Dermot Mc Cabe
To beat the winter blues, 8 members of Tolka Branch took off to the Gambia in West Africa in January this year. This is their report.
The sheer delight of seeing 21 new birds in the garden, an hour after checking in to the hotel Senegambia, gave us first time trippers to the Gambia an inkling of what was in store for our two week stay. But even the serial Gambian visitor, our wise and learned leader, Dermot Mc Cabe could not have anticipated a trip total of 267 species in this tiny country of 11.000 km sq. and a population of 1.5 m people.
A five minute taxi ride from the hotel to the cycle track ( further up the beach from our hotel) provided a winding and very easy walk through a mixture of swamp pond, damp rice growing areas, tall palm trees and dry scrub. This fine mosaic of diverse habitat yielded Painted Snipe, familiar palearctic sandpipers, Blue-bellied and Abyssinian Rollers, African Jacana, Black- winged Stilt, Grey Kestrel, Red- necked Falcon, Sacred Ibis, Squacco, Western Reef and Striated Heron, three species of Egret, Hammerkop, Senegal Parrot, Bearded and Vieillots Barbet, Red-billed Firefinch and African Silverbill. Indeed this cycle walk was so rich in avifauna that we returned to it on our last day to feast our eyes at leisure on these wonderful birds. As a bonus we were rewarded by a very obliging and colourful Pippet, the Yellow- throated Longclaw - a bird which had eluded us up to then. At the end of the cycle track, Kotu bridge gave a variety of waders. Spur- winged Plover, Black- headed Plover and Senegal Thick-knee were easily observed. Green Wood Hoopoe at the golf course ( yes there is one although the greens are brown) provided entertainment as they bounced around playfully climbing trees. Both Grey- headed and Fine-spotted Woodpecker also favoured the quiet of the deserted golf course. Our first views of the sleek Lanner Falcon, Lizard Buzzard and Shikra delighted the raptor fans in the group. The raptor tally for the trip was 30 species!
Still within walking distance of the hotel, the Bijilo forest ( ostensibly promoted as a monkey reserve) provided further opportunity to familiarise ourselves with Sunbirds and Bee- eaters including a White- throated Bee- eater. Double- spurred Francolin and Stone Partridge were also to be found here.
Elegant Black-winged Stilts
Time for Adventure
At the end of the first week we had not moved more than 10 square miles from our hotel but we had as one put it " burned " the area with a total of 200 birds: it was time to be adventurous and move up country away from the daily comforts of our 4* hotel. We gave our guides, the friendly and enthusiastic Foday and Ebrima, what we considered a stretching target of finding us 50 new birds. We planned our trip up river towards our main target species, the iconic Egyptian Plover. Before crossing the Gambia river at Banjul at first light, our guides disappeared to do some "transactions" to ensure that we had a place in the queue.
The easy passage brought us to the north shore where we gathered breakfast for the route ( bananas and baguettes for the delicately constituted and oyster stew, like New Orleans Oyster Po’boy, for the more robust stomachs). Our wise and learned leader braved the suspicious looking bivalves without suffering any ill effects.
We passed many punctured and broken down vehicles but thanks to Omar arrived without incident at NYANEGA BANTANG in 42 degrees of heat to see the gloriously plumaged Egyptian Plover. Worth every single hot dusty moment of the 10 hour trip. This was a watery place and small farmers were growing tomatoes and peppers along the banks of the pools. Bemused small children followed us silently around the mucky edge as we searched for our bird. On our way back to the ferry port of Fara Fenye, we stopped to briefly observe Collared Pratincole again from the roadside. The ferry brought us back to the south bank and we continued a further 2 hours drive to Tendaba Camp where a feast of bush pig, grilled chicken and cold beer awaited us.
Eagles in Action
From our base at the camp during the following two days we visited the Bateling Track, Kiang West National Park, the Airport field and took a boat trip around the mangroves. The highlights among a list of spectacular new birds , were a perched Short- toed Eagle eating a wrigling short brown snake, a Martial Eagle in magestic flight, the curiously shaped Bateleur Eagle, White-crested Helmet Shrike, White-shouldered Black Tit and a surprise appearance of a eurasian type Hoopoe in front of our jeep ( it flew before we had time for detailed notetaking or drawing). An evening walk in the airport field across burned scrubland flushed Four- banded Sandgrouse and the terribly beautiful Bronz- winged Coursers which reappeared for us to secretly observe under a Baobob tree. Before dark we were treated to Standard winged Nightjar complete with standards and Long- tailed Nightjar. The boat trip in the mangroves completed our list of herons with Goliath Heron and White- backed Night Heron. A pre- breakfast display from an African Fish Eagle over the wide Gambia river closed this part of the trip and left us feeling…. if only we had another day or two.
Birding can be done at a comfortable pace and the food and facilities in the resort of Kololi are excellent. Best prawns we have ever tasted and the Julbrew lager is very acceptable! Internet shops provide access to the outside world. For the keen lister the guides ( in green polo shirts) are more than willing to take a challenge, arrange accommodation and transport.
Photos Bill Quinn
Our Guides, both
members of the West African Bird Study Association, for most of our trip
© Copyright, Tolka Branch, Birdwatch Ireland 2006