Trip to The Gambia – Part 2
Going back to Bird Safari Camp felt like going home – it’s a great place to chill out and has the best dawn view I know. Since I was last here, three years ago, Mark has been developing the site and reducing its carbon footprint – additional solar panels and batteries had come up-river with us on the boats. Whereas before, the accommodation was either round houses or tents, there are now also tent-houses and house-tents. The tent-houses have a living area as a tent – well designed with roof vents to keep them cool throughout the day, but the bathroom area is brick built with composting toilets and solar showers. The house-tents are a new concept and have an octagonal base wall structure, which is topped off with a canvas roof. Both designs are very comfortable, but I chose a tent-house as these are nearer the river as I love to stagger out of my tent in the morning and onto the jetty to watch the sunrise over the River Gambia.
Some people took a while to master the shower system. Imagine three pipes joined in a “Y” configuration, each with a stop cock. Cock one leads to your personal header tank which is warmed by the sun. Cock two leads to the shower head and releases water for a shower. Cock three leads to the main camp header tank. To have a warm shower open cocks one and two, close three. To have a cold shower open cocks two and three, close one. To refill your personal header tank open one and three, close two and wait until you hear the tank overflow – it’s then full for tomorrow – “Simples!” Don’t go away from your tent with taps one and three open or you will deplete the camps water supply: why could I never get that last bit right?
Birding at Bird Safari Camp comprised trips out in the van to local(ish) birding sites, trips on the river and up the creeks in one of the smaller boats and strolls round the Camp area, which has some great bird-life. A walk round the camp area before breakfast started well with a blue-breasted kingfisher by the swimming pool and stone partridge at the start of the tracks. Palm swifts flew overhead, several noisy parties of Senegal parrot and rose-ringed parakeet and an occasional deep groan of a Verraux’s eagle owl. We didn’t see one on that walk, but I did see him several times during my stay there. A large fig tree produced violet turaco, red-shouldered cuckoo-shrike, and northern puffback and later some persistence in following the call to some dense vines on the river edge revealed a pair of oriole warblers. Returning for breakfast, there were black-rumped waxbills in the grasses and an African hobby flew over the path.
A trip to Bird Safari Camp isn’t complete without a trip to Bansang quarry to see the red-throated bee-eaters at their nests. On previous trips this entailed taking a rickety old ferry, but now McCarthy Island has been connected to the south bank by a bridge. This certainly speeds things up, but may have negative implications for the Camp in the long-term. Currently, although there are red colobus and green vervet on the island there are no baboons. It is probably only a matter of time before baboons find their way across the bridge to disturb the tranquility of the island. Bansang yielded not only bee-eaters, but a variety of seed-eaters, lots of Abyssinian rollers, white-backed vultures, dark-chanting goshawk, grasshopper buzzard and a variety of swifts and swallows. I was glad I had the few days at the coast to get used to the heat, because the midday temperature here probably exceeded 40C.
It was back to BSC for a leisurely lunch and a flick through the bird books, then into a small boat from a chance to explore the river and creeks. Hadada ibis called to us as we set off in the boat and it wasn’t long before we had close view of a couple of the river specialties the swamp flycatcher – a small drab bird, the classic “LBJ”, but one with lots of character – and pairs of green-backed weaver . Everyone’s target bird on this stretch of the river is the elusive African finfoot, which is a bit like a cross between a grebe and a sun bittern. I’d dipped out on it on my last trip to the Gambia; although a friend who’d stayed a day longer at BSC gloatingly sent me an email to say they found one the day I left. This time my luck was in, as it wasn’t long before we found not one, but two finfoot under the heavy over-hanging growth along the north bank of the river. We were able to spend some 15 minutes watching them swim, clamber, run through the water, tangled undergrowth and along the bank. This was the first sighting of the season, but they looked like a mated pair on their territory so hopefully many birders would see them before the rains set in. I actually saw finfoot on four separate occasions on this trip. Shortly after, we had a great view of a male wattle-eye: we’d heard the distinctive song several time previously, but not had a good view. There were several kingfishers along the banks, woodland, pied, grey-headed and malachite, but we also got a glimpse of a shining blue kingfisher as it darted downstream. Unfortunately, we were unable to relocate it to get better views. We saw several black-crowned night-herons along the creeks, some out in the open, but most well tucked into the vegetation. One curious site was a monitor lizard in a hole in a palm tree sleeping with its head and tail sticking out of the hole.
The following day the bird guide had gone back down river with another party, so it was a lazy day around the camp. A wander around the forest and fields around the camp morning and evening and chilling out on the Lady Hippo for the hotter hours. The boat is usually the coolest place as there is a bit of breeze down the river. Mourning doves were busy with nesting material as they were building their home in the toilet! In the morning, I had some nice views of Verreaux’s eagle owl in flight and the afternoon brought a pair of lesser honeyguides.
Still no bird guides, but a couple of us went out with the driver. The first stop was the prison rice farm. Here you need to be careful where you point your cameras until access has been cleared with the guards, who are usually very amiable – and dozing under a tree with the prisoners! The farm is mainly good for water birds – various herons and egrets, green and marsh sandpipers, snipe, greenshank, black-winged stilts, etc. The trees around the edges are also good for warblers such as willow and olivaceous and there are always rollers to be seen, usually Abyssinian. The place was also buzzing with dragonflies and butterflies.
Then it was across the new bridge and west along the south bank to a village with a marabou stork colony. While it is possible to see the odd one flying past high in the sky, you don’t see them that often on McCarthy Island, so this was a welcome opportunity to get some closer views of this ugly but impressive bird. The final stop was at a huge rice farm again with abundant bird and insect life. Of particular interest were the large numbers of jacanas and pygmy geese. That evening the stroll around the camp environs brought a fine-spotted woodpecker at its nest-hole.
Still no bird guide at Bird Safari Camp, but one was coming up river with a couple of new arrivals. Rather than another day on the island, I joined the captain and mate for the river trip down to Kuntur to meet the new arrivals. As usual there was lots to see – broad-billed roller hawking over the river, little bee-eaters, hornbills, palm-nut vultures in the trees along the banks, the song of oriole warblers and common wattle-eyes but rarely a glimpse, flashes of kingfishers of various sorts, black-crowned night-herons roosting, monitor lizard basking, baboons, vervets and red colobus at the tops of the trees, and a couple of sightings of hippos. Parts of the river are good for raptors and the trip brought fish eagle, black kite, hooded, white-backed and griffin vultures and Wahlberg’s eagle.
Now with a bird guide to assist, the following day incorporated a trip west along the north bank of the river, the target bird being the northern carmine bee-eater, a bird which had eluded me on my previous three trips. We took the small boat down to the ferry terminal to save the wait in the van, and were treated to another view of a finfoot. At the first stop at some wetlands, there were black-winged stilts herons, malachite and woodland kingfisher, Senegal thick-knee, black-winger stilts, greenshank, sandpipers and jacana. Red-rumped and red-chested swallow flew overhead and we were treated with a circling adult red-necked buzzard. I’d previous only seen one juvenile, which was hard to identify, but the adult was spectacular. A bit further along the road we found carmine bee-eaters on the power lines and other bee-eaters in flight, including European. The next stop was just through the village of Kuntur and required a trek across some very hot and dusty fields in search of smaller birds. At a small water-hole we found chestnut-backed sparrow-lark, another first for me and while we were watching a pair of African hawk eagles put on a display for us. The area was teaming with namaqua doves and before long we found more carmine bee-eaters and another relative, the little green bee-eater – a really smart looking bird with very long tail streamers. As we got back closer to the village we came on trees full of exclamatory paradise whydahs, mostly now in eclipse plumage, but some still with remnants of their impressive tails. The transition to eclipse plumage of the bishops and whydahs was much more advanced inland than at the coast where most were still in full breeding plumage, so the breeding season here must either be earlier, or shorter, possibly both.
In the evening we took another river trip, it’s hard to keep me out of boats, to watch the egrets going to roost, with very large parties of cattle, intermediate and great white
egret flying down river.
While out we had to perform a rescue mission for a broken down ferry. One of the ferries moves between crossing points on the river, depending to peaks of demand, in this case it had moved up to Janjanburah to service the president’s re-election campaign entourage and broken down on the way back. We took a crew member ashore to collect additional fuel and batteries and returned these to the ferry. As we left the ferry was finally getting underway, it had been stuck there most of the day.
When we boarded the Lady Hippo once more for the return trip to the coast, there was a long-crested eagle in the trees on the opposite bank. We had some great views of Wahlberg eagle and African fish eagle from the boat. A pair of Ruppell’s griffin vulture added another new bird for the trip. On the road trip we stopped at some of the same places and saw incredible numbers of collared pratincole and a Forbes plover, but no Egyptian plover this time. In the morning, we had another trip round the Tendaba mangroves, which brought some different birds. In particular, we had great views of white-backed night-heron, both adult and juvenile, black egret, yellow-billed and woolly necked storks, hairy barbet and another Goliath heron. A walk round the paths at the back of the camp brought a flock of white-crested helmet shrike.
Children at Tendaba
Then it was the usual farewell to Tendaba, with the jetty lined with children, and the last leg of the trip back to the coast. Almost immediately the bottled-nosed dolphins gave us an exuberant display with, at one time, three leaping together and fanning outward in a synchronised cascade.
It was dark before I arrived at my coastal accommodation at Boboi Lodge where I was taken to a large apartment that open directly onto the beach with the sound of the ocean to sing me to sleep. I was up at first light as usual for a stroll along the beach. Boboi lodge is near Kartong close to the Senegal border. Kartong is well known in birding circles for its sand mines. These are areas that were formerly used to extract sand, largely used in road construction. Like the gravel pits of Southern England, these have filled with water and are now provide an excellent wetland habitat for birds. I knew that I should be able to reach them by walking south along the beach, but wasn’t sure how far I needed to go. I had anticipated finding a path through the dunes to the sand-mines that first morning, but gave up just a couple of hundred meters short of the route through. Not all was lost, however as, apart from grey-headed gulls at sea and a distant osprey, the first bird I saw was a small falcon. It was flying out to sea and returning to a dead tree on the shore. I was able to get quite close to its perch and watch what was happening. The bird was a red-necked falcon and it was flying out to catch large beetles that were headed shore-wards, snipping off the wings in flight and then returning to its perch to feed. Shortly after, I came to a pair of grey kestrels that were hunting along the line of the sand dunes. I tried several paths through the dunes with varying degrees of success. At one time I came to an area where there were a large number of cattle grazing or tethered to posts. This is used as a way of fertilising ground that will be used to grow crops later in the season. There were splendid sunbirds and warblers in the trees. There were a couple of small pools that provided habitat for little, intermediate and great white egrets, thick-knees, and a group of African spoonbills.
As I returned to the gap through the dunes the spoonbills were perched on a dead tree along the skyline and a fine-spotted woodpecker was sitting at the top of a bare branch and not at all disturbed by my presence. By then my shoes were full of tiny burrs than are produced by a local grass and my feet were getting uncomfortable. So it was a relief to be able to walk barefoot along the tide-line back to the lodge for breakfast.
After a day on the beach, I set out along the road to find the sand mines the easy way. Taking a slight detour at the junction of the track and the main coast road, there was a deep pool with little grebe fishing and green sandpipers around the margins. Returning to the main road, I soon picked up a companion with a bicycle who stuck with me during the rest of the afternoon. He turned out to be the brother of the cook at the lodge and ran a small organic farm. There was a pool where cattle were watered across the road, just before the village of Kartong. Along with wood sandpiper and cattle egrets, there was a painted snipe that dodged under the vegetation on the far side of the water. Then it was back across the road and down a dusty track lead to the start of the sand-mine pools. The first may have been more recent as it was fairly clear of vegetation. A hooded vulture sat at the edge, while black-tailed godwits, greenshank and black-winged stilts waded in the shallows. A pair of sacred ibis stalked amongst them.
Following the bank round I disturbed a small plover, possibly ringed, but I could not get a good view. Following the tracks, we came to a number of very large pools were full of floating vegetation. These pools were home to hundreds of white-faced whistling duck, long-tailed cormorants, various herons and egrets including black-headed and purple heron. Some juvenile malachite kingfishers were an identification challenge as they had black bills rather than the stunning red ones of the adults. Around the banks were numerous smaller birds including black-rumped waxbills,red-billed firefinch, grey-headed sparrows, piapiac, Senegal coucal, African thrush, African pied wagtail and beautiful sunbird.
Towards evening, the cattle herdsmen were bringing the cattle back to their save over-night grazing and yellow-billed oxpeckers were hitching a ride. A male Eurasian marsh harrier slowing cruised around the margins of the pools. I stopped to chat to a couple taking an evening stroll. The charming women, Halima Fati, spoke with a Scottish accent and told me how she had come to African as a missionary and nun, but had converted to Islam and was now happily married to a Gambian gentleman, Mr Fati, who was a local carpenter. On leaving them I found the path to the beach and returned barefoot along the shoreline to the lodge.
The next couple of days at Boboi were made up of morning and evening walks along the beach, including a further visit to the sand-mines. The falcons were regulars in the morning and ospreys could be seen heading out to fish and returning with large fishing throughout the day. On my last morning at Boboi, I set out before dawn with the son of the lodge owner to head down to the Hallahin Bolong (river) to take a trip up river in an electric boat. On the way to the river we came across a number of nightjar in the road. They were probably standard-winged, but none had the spectacular extended wing-feathers that are used by the males in their display flights, nor did they have the elongated tail feathers of the long-tailed nightjar, the other common species locally. Sunrise over the river was beautiful, but although we heard them, we failed to see the black-necked crowned cranes that often roost in trees along the river bank. Pied kingfishers hovered around the boat and Senegal thick-knees rested on the bank, keeping so still it was hard to pick them out against the background. We got back to the lodge just in time for a quick breakfast of bread and delicious homemade peanut butter (groundnut paste mixed with the local honey) before the car arrived for the final stop of my holiday at Marakissa.
From Kartong we took good roads to Brikama, but from there I discovered why Mohammed had brought the four-wheel drive as the last few miles were down undulating tracks at times with loose sand in the hollows. We arrived at Marakissa in time for lunch and sitting in the tree by the dining area, silhouetted against the sun was a giant kingfisher. The lodge was on a river bank and much loved by monitor lizards which trundled past on a regular basis. The lodge gardens had water filled clay posts scattered amongst the flower and foliage that attracted birds to drink throughout the day, but mostly ib the early evening. These included piapiac, grey-headed sparrow, red-cheeked cordon bleu, red-billed firefinch and green wood-hoopoe. A bird that appears on occasions is the very rare spotted honeyguide, but it didn’t appear for me.
Walking along the road to a bridge over a stream brought a number of sunbird including collared, beautiful and violet-backed, malachite kingfisher, waxbills, African golden oriole, long-tailed glossy starling, yellow-billed shrike, blue-breasted roller, spur-winged plover and lizard buzzard, not to mention the huge village weaver colony that filled the trees around the lodge entrance. What was particularly spectacular was the number and variety of dragonflies dressed in metallic blues, reds and greens.
Plunging through the trees and bushes that border the road opposite the lodge the following morning, I came to farm land, largely rice fields. In this area, I was told by a local farmer, they can only get one crop off a plot (in other areas with a more reliable water supply they get two), but they sow plots in succession partly to make it possible to harvest all the rice before the heads begin to sprout. The last to be sown often do not ripen. Here they were only growing for the family and not commercially. Amongst the fields there were some remaining trees, mango, mahogany, fig, etc which were a haven for birds. Along with the usual shrikes, roller, hornbills, and babblers, I found northern black flycatcher, fine-spotted and grey woodpeckers, giant kingfisher and white-breasted cuckoo-shrike.
All too soon it was time to retrace our steps along the dusty tracks and head for the airport and return to Gatwick, hoping that I remembered where I’d left the car and still had the right ticket! For a relaxed holiday where most of the birding was on my own or with people I met along the way rather than professional bird guides, I had clocked up 241 species. Of these 23 were new entries to my “Gambia list”, bring the total to 327 birds.
For further images of birds and The Gambia visit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chalto/collections/72157626062264704/