Trip Report: Gambia, January 2003

Dermot McCabe, Bill and Heather Quinn, Tolka Branch of BirdWatch Ireland, and Bob Strickland, Liffey Valley Branch of BirdWatch Ireland

Trip 1 - to Basse Santa Su

Monday 27th January

Up at 6:15 for breakfast at 7:00. We left the Senegambia Hotel, Kololi, at 7:40 with Abdou Rahman Bah in his 7 seater Peugeot Estate Taxi. We drove to Serrekunda to fill the car with diesel and get bottles of cold water for the freezer box. We left Serrekunda at 8:30. We were at the shrimp farm at Pirang by 9:10, where we were told by two boys, who were setting up a "bar" in a car parking area, that the Black Crowned Cranes were on the far side of the mangroves just to the east of the shrimp ponds. We drove around and were rewarded with magnificent close up views of a Crane, which obligingly flew out of a field and landed in front of us on the saltpan before flying away. Just up the road Abdou spotted two Pearl-spotted Owlets in a tree. These provided great viewing and photographs.  
    Pearl-spotted Owlet

They were so well camouflaged that it was difficult to see how they could possibly have been spotted, especially while driving a car! It was a slightly overcast day, which was a bit unusual, which meant that it was an excellent day for driving long distances, as the car, which hadn’t got air conditioning did not get too hot, even when the windows had to be shut to keep out the laterite dust thrown up by passing vehicles. The macadam road surfacing was very good until just before we reached Kafuta. From here on up to Georgetown the surfacing varied between a badly deteriorating macadam surfacing with a multitude of potholes or a laterite road surfacing. In places this latter surfacing was relatively new and intact, elsewhere it had developed into a series of ruts, which sometimes forced us to drive on the "wrong" side of the road, which Abdou did at all times with great care for oncoming traffic including pedestrians and cyclists, while still managing to sight interesting birds on a regular basis. The macadam road surfacing from Georgetown to Basse Santa Su was, to our pleasant surprise, in excellent condition, with just the odd pothole present. This was due to the fact that this road is probably not heavily trafficked. To the east of Sibanor we stopped at the "Jacana Pond" on the south side of the road. However unlike the previous two years it was virtually dry and neither Jacanas nor Black Crakes were to be seen. However we did see a flock of White-crested Helmet Shrikes, Long Tailed Glossy Starlings, Gymnogenes, Squacco Herons, Wattled Plover, Blue Bellied Rollers and Namaqua Doves without much effort. We passed through Kalagi at 12:52, Nema at 13:52 and reached Soma at 14:55.

  On our way we had seen Brown Snake Eagles, Grasshopper Buzzards, a Kentish Plover, a Gull Billed Tern and Spotted Redshank. We had our lunch while in transit and stopped in Soma to have some cokes and fruit cocktails while Abdou had a domado, which looked very appetizing. We left Soma at about 15:30. About 1 mile before Dongoro Ba we saw a European Bee-eater and shortly afterwards we saw several types of vultures circling overhead – Hooded, Ruppell’s Griffon, immature White Backed and a European Griffon Vulture. We saw Oxpeckers near the bridge over the river at Pakali Ba at 17:00. Between Sotokoi and Kudang in fields to the north of the road we saw three Abyssinian Ground Hornbills at 17:30.
Abyssinian Ground Hornbill    

Just beyond Brikama Ba at 18:12 we saw a Brown Snake Eagle in a tree. At Fula Bantang at 18:31 we saw several Marabou Storks in high trees at the northeastern end of the village. We took the ferry onto MacCarthy Island and arrived at the Baobolong Camp in Georgetown (now called Janjangburreh) at 18:57. We slept in circular "huts" with shower and WC. Dinner from 20:30 to 21:15 consisted of a very good buffet meal accompanied by a reasonable French wine at a cost of 160 Dalasi.

Tuesday 28th January

We got up at 7:00 and walked to the river before breakfast at 7:30. We had scrambled eggs, omelet, bread and jam, coffee or tea. We packed up and drove out of compound at 8:05. We had a quick look at Janjangburreh. It was much smaller than we had thought it would be. Old colonial buildings were present including a slave-holding center. At the ferry back to the south side we saw a Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Gabar Goshawk, Bearded Barbet, Abyssinian Roller, Common Kestral. An African Fish Eagle flew over while we waited. By 8:48 we had crossed over and were on the road heading east. The road surface was extremely good and we made great time. We were in Bakadagy by 9:38 and arrived in Basse Santa Su at 9:58. As Abdou was originally from this town he met several relatives and friends as we traveled around.

Basse is a bit like a smaller version of Serrekunda. It was full of bustle and life with a very impressive range of ferries crossing the river. In a small inlet just to the south of the ferry point, on the south side of the river, we quickly came upon three Egyptian Plovers – it was nearly too easy – in fact it was too easy thanks to Abdou! They were beautiful to see and made the trip to Basse very much worthwhile.  
    Egyptian Plovers


  After spending some time on the outskirts of the town looking, unsuccessfully, for a Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, passing through an open air brick-making quarry and seeing Black Headed Plovers and large numbers of Abyssinian Rollers, we left the town at 11:42. We arrived at Bansang Quarry at 13:18 having seen a Brown Snake Eagle, White Backed Vulture, Yellow Fronted Canary and Namaqua Doves at each side of the road on the way. Bansang Quarry is an excellent site. Even with a fair amount of quarrying work going on there were lots of birds to see especially Red-throated Bee-eaters, more Namaqua Doves, a Shrika devouring a small unidentified bird in a tree nearby, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks, Cut-throat Finches and a male and female Exclamatory Paradise Whydah.
Red-throated Bee-Eater    

We left the site at 14:05. On the way we had a brief glimpse of a Rufous Scrub Robin as it popped up and flew across the road. Just to the east of Jalangbera we saw three Abyssinian Ground Hornbills in fields to the south of the road at 16:50. We arrived in Tendaba Camp at 18:32 looking forward to a shower to remove the accumulated dust. A short visit to "Tendaba Airport" was rewarded with views of Four-banded Sandgrouse landing at dusk. We returned to Tendaba Camp, where we had a fairly basic meal with wine before retiring for the night.

 Wednesday 29th January

After breakfast we had a boat trip, lasting from 7:30 until 11:30, across the River Gambia and into the mangrove-lined waterways, which meander through the North Bank of the river. We had all done this trip before. It is always much colder than you would expect crossing the river at first light, and watching the sun appearing well above the horizon. Unlike in previous years we saw neither a Finfoot nor a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, but we saw Blue-Breasted and Malachite Kingfishers, several types of heron including a Goliath Heron, African Darters, Hamerkops, and African Spoonbills on the mudbanks at the entrance to the Bao Bolong creek. We left Tendaba Camp after a light lunch. As in previous years we visited the Kindergarten School but it was closed as the teacher was away for the day. We left school material with the Koran Teacher for distribution.  
    Goliath Heron


After another short visit to the "Airport" area, where we had very good views of a Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark, we were off again heading west at 13:07. We stopped for ½ hour for cold drinks at a new establishment located on the south bank of the river at Kalagi. Just east of Bwiam we saw a Striped Kingfisher, African Palm Swifts and Mottled Spinetails. We passed through Sibanor at 15:35, Bulok at 16:07, Kafuta at 16:14 and Mandinaba at 16:30. About 5 minutes out of Kafuta we were once more on a well surfaced road for which we were all grateful! We stopped in Brikama at 16:39, where we were entertained by the Woodcarvers and made some purchases. We left Brikama at 17:15 and were back in our rooms in the very comfortable Senegambia Hotel at 17:45, after a dusty, tiring but extremely interesting and rewarding trip.


Trip 2 - to Bijol Islands

Thursday 30th January

On 24th January we had visited the Tanji Bird Reserve and had discovered that it was possible to arrange a trip out to the Bijol Islands, which are located about 2 kilometers offshore and form part of the Reserve. Only a limited number of visitors are allowed to land in order to protect the flora and fauna. We arranged the visit in advance by phoning Dembo Kassama of the Tanji Bird Reserve, and we duly arrived at Tanji beach at 9:00. The cost was 200 Dalasi each.

  In order to get the best value from the trip one should try to arrange to leave Tanji beach about 3 hours before low tide as this will enable one to walk from the main island to the smaller island with the disused beacon and back, which we were able to do. Our boatmen were Jerry Fofana and Bakery Drammeh. The vessel was a solid well-constructed open boat with an outboard motor. We were all fitted with fairly new looking buoyancy jackets. By the time we were ready to start, and the boat had been pushed into the sea with some assistance from our driver Abdou, it was 9:45. The weather was beautiful and sunny with an unexpected sea breeze. We arrived on the island at 10:30 having skirted some foam-covered outcrops of rock. The islands are very low lying with vegetation and a lone tree present along the center of the main island.
Bill, Bob, Heather & Dermot    


Otherwise the islands consist of rock outcrops and sand. We walked along the eastern side of the main island, across the intertidal area down to the smaller island to the south with the disused beacon. Amidst all the Grey-headed and Slender Billed Gulls we saw several Audouin's Gulls, one with pale rings on the lower left leg, and a Kelp Gull. We also saw a White-fronted Plover, several Ospreys, Caspian, Lesser Crested, Sandwich and Little Terns, and over 70 Great White Pelicans. We also observed a Great Skua on the eastern side of the islands between the island with the disused beacon and the main island with the green vegetation and the single tree.  
    Great White Pelicans

 The bird was seen about 11:30, which was about ¾ hour before low tide according to the boatmen. The bird was on the inter-tidal beach for about 1 to 2 minutes before flying off. It did not occur to us at the time to consider that it might have been a South Polar Skua (C. Maccormicki), but on checking Harrison’s Guide "Seabirds" subsequently we were confident that no lighter head or underparts were to be seen. On the way back to the mainland we saw two Skuas in the air, one a Great (probably the same bird) and the other a Pomarine harrying a Grey-headed Gull. We were pleasantly surprised to read in "The Field Guide to Birds of the Gambia and Senegal" (Barlow, Wacher and Disley) under status and distribution, that the Great Skua was "not proven in Gambian waters". We left the islands at about 12:30 after a bit of a struggle in getting the boat re-launched, and arrived back at Tanji beach at 13:00. Due to the lower state of the tide more rocks and shallows were observed on the return journey than on the way out. This was a very interesting trip, quite apart from the excellent birds which were observed, and the boatmen appeared to be quite expert, confidant and well trained. However people who do not particularly like sea trips might hesitate about making the trip except on very calm days. When in doubt don’t go, as there is always another day.




The unit of Gambian currency is the Dalasi. The rate of exchange was 24 Dalasi for €1 in travelers’ cheques (approximately 38 Dalasi for £1 sterling).

  Our driver, guide and friend was Abdou Rahman Bah, c/o Ansu Ndong, PO Box 4211, Bakau, Cape St. Mary Division, The Gambia, West Africa - Phones: +220 7794697(mobile). He lives in Serrekunda. We could not recommend Abdou more highly. He is an excellent driver, and he organized and made all the bookings for our trip to Basse Santa Su. He has been Bob Strickland’s driver for several years, and is an accomplished birder in his own right. Normally in the Gambia when you hire a bird guide he in turn has to hire a car and a driver.
Bob & Abdou    

Abdou has an excellent eye and knows where to find birds. The cost of the trip to Basse Santa Su was most reasonable. If you are thinking of doing this trip, or just hiring a driver with an excellent knowledge of birds for a day you will not go astray with Abdou Rahman Bah.

We used the 1:400,000 Freytag and Berndt Road Map of the Gambia. The spellings of towns and villages were extracted from that publication.

See List of birds observed



© Copyright, Tolka Branch, Birdwatch Ireland 2006