Trip Report
 Gambia, January 2006

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.

Hotel gardens

Our cocktail-hour garden bird walk provided colourful introductions to the noisy Yellow Crowned Gonolek, White Crowned Robin chat, Oriole Warbler, Broad-billed Roller, while Palm Swifts soared overhead in the fading light of our first African night. Blue-eared Glossy Starlings and Piacpiacs provided interest on the ground only to be outnumbered by the arrival of a flock of Wattled Plover stepping carefully around in the dampness of the freshly watered gardens. The richly planted beach front gardens provided cover for other species such as Blue- breasted Kingfisher, which we named the Julbrew bird – this exotic creature adorns the label of the excellent local beer – the tiny Cordon Bleu, Lavender Waxbill ( as beautiful as its name suggests), Black Flycatcher, Lesser Honeyguide, Sunbirds, African Paradise Flycatcher and a nesting diminutive Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird with its continuous 100 notes per minute tink-tinking repertoire.  
    Blue-bellied Roller, simply gorgeous

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!

Woodland walks

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.

The road to Banjul along the seafront leading to the port (called the Bund Road), again minutes from our hotel, gave excellent opportunities to compare gulls and terns. Hirundines on telegraph wires, Namaqua Dove, Spoonbill, Pink-backed Pelican and Avocet also showed easily. Nearby Tanji beach and an afternoon trip to the Bijol Islands completed the sea bird tally with new species for many of us including Caspian and Royal Terns, Kelp and Audouins Gull and the ginger toned White- fronted Plover. Skuas (Pomerine and Artic) and Storm Petrels were also sighted from the shore. A spectacularly beautiful Swallow-tailed Bee-eater in the shrubbery behind Tanji beach brought us back from the black and white tones of the seabirds to the rich colours of the landbirds once again. Once inland again other delights awaited us at Yundum Woods. Black- shouldered Kite, Yellow- fronted Canary, a nesting Pearl- spotted Owlet, Yellow White- eye. Red- shouldered Cuckoo Shrike, African Hobby, Dark Chanting Goshawk and magnificent views of a perched Long- crested Eagle in the silent heat of midday ended another breathless morning’s birding.  
Gregarious and noisy Black-capped Babler
Brufut Wood, a more thickly wooded area, gave some unexpected thrills including Grey-headed Bushshrike, Black Wood Hoopoe, Striped Kingfisher and the flashy lime green Diederik Cuckoo. Abuko, another reserve with hides (an entrance fee of 1 euro and 30 cents) revealed Giant Kingfisher, Black-crowned Night Heron, Black Crake and Ahanta Francolin, Green and Violet Turaco, Palm- nut Vulture ( magnificent creature) and Verreaux’s Eagle Owl complete with pink eyelids. Abuko was also home to Marsh Mongoose and Bush Buck which came to drink at the water hole during our visit.  
    Sleek and distinctive black-shouldered kite



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.

Five minutes out the road (being built by the Taiwan Government) we were already seeing new birds in the North Bank Division. Northern Anteater Chat and Chestnut- backed Sparrow Lark were first to show. African Hawk Eagle, Brown Snake Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Pallid Swift, Black Terns and White- winged Black Terns and African Darter were seen along the roadway wetlands without deviating from the route north. We should add a word of advice to anyone undertaking this trip. Be sure to take a dust mask or at least a kerchief to cover your nose and mouth from the unpleasant laterite dust. The road is incomplete and our skillful and patient driver Omar negotiated the dusty 10 hour journey to "target bird" driving through potholes of sand and hard earth much of the time at 45 degrees.

    Tawny Eagle

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.

  As an introduction to the bird of sub- saharan West Africa the Gambia has a rich variety of avian wonders and delights. An inter-tropical convergence zone at the ecological crossroads between the Atlantic on the west and the African continent means that migrating birds of the western palearctic will find bountiful habitats to share with indigenious species and other inter -African migrants. We observed our birds during the dry season. No doubt we should return for a rainy season trip.
Cattle Egret eying our cocktails at the beach bar!    

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

See List of birds observed

Tolk Branch
Birdwatch Ireland
February. 2006

Our Guides, both members of the West African Bird Study Association, for most of our trip were:
Ebrima W Barry
Foday Bojang



© Copyright, Tolka Branch, Birdwatch Ireland 2006